Image above: St. Marylebone, source unknown.

Ten years before my great, great, great grandmother Henrietta married Henry West the heir of The Swan Tavern ’empire’, her sister Sarah Stevens married into the very prosperous Mercer family. The Mercers were probably descended from Scottish nobility, many family members married Westminster based Scots: the Mackenzies, the Hays and the Rutherfords. The Stevens family appear to have been the exception.

Sarah married William Mercer in 1777 [1] and she was probably unaware that the family had been embroiled in at least two major court cases, though it seems unreasonable that she would not have noticed the 1772 trial, which was so notorious nationally, that the scandal reverberated across the whole of the kingdom. William’s nephew, Francis Henry Hay was the 13 year old plaintiff at the centre of the trial and I have tried to tell his story here.

The earlier trial involving the family is a curious one due to the offender changing her story twice; the last occasion was before her execution when she had nothing to gain, though she may have been hoping for a last minute pardon.

On 2nd May 1750 four-year-old Frances Mercer left the family home in St Martin’s Court, Westminster to play by herself in Leicester Fields; she was well dressed in a gown and shift, a stay, a quilted petticoat, some stockings, a bib, an apron and buckled shoes. She had not wandered far, as the Fields were situated across the lane from her father’s china shop, when she was abducted by a woman called Elizabeth Banks.

Banks must have moved fast as she took the child up to the open fields of Marylebone, set her near the pond and stripped her of most of her clothes. The whole scene was witnessed by Susannah Bates who was working at her door, and who saw Banks partly redress Frances Mercer in her petticoat and gown, before calling on her neighbour the milk-woman Elizabeth Bugdon, for assistance.

Bugdon ran to confront Banks as the offender led the child away whilst carrying a bundle of clothes. Frances Mercer cried bitterly, “Let me go to my mamma, she lives in St Martin’s Court at a china-shop,” she told the two witnesses, adding the woman threatened to fling her into a pond if she cried. Bugdon, Bates and two men took Elizabeth Banks and Frances Mercer back to St Martin’s Court where they were greeted by the child’s father Francis, who noted she had been gone one and a half hours.

George Morland – Woman and Child

The father, accompanied by the witnesses, brought Banks before Justice Fraizer where she signed a confession and admitted remorse for her crime. She was sent for trial at the Old Bailey on 30 May 1750, by which time she had altered her story saying she had been hired to look after the child.

The jury decided her defence was a fabrication and she was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on 6th July 1750. The crime of course was not abduction, but highway robbery and the eyewitness accounts of the removal of the clothes and the ‘bundle’ were used by the prosecution to highlight her guilt. But what do we know about Elizabeth Banks?

Her story, if true, shows the hardship of the poor in mid eighteenth century England. These were people so desperate that they would risk the death penalty by stealing what was then highly valued property. It may seem madness to us that theft was a crime punishable by capital punishment, yet if Banks had just taken the child, she would have received a lesser penalty.

Banks was born about 1695 in Weymouth, Dorset, a poor uneducated child of industrious parents who had left her orphaned and at the mercy of the Parish. As soon as she could be apprenticed, she was left in charge of a hard and unkind Dame, who treated her so harshly she vowed to leave at the earliest opportunity; slipping away from her Mistress’s house, she travelled to Dorchester and took the waggon to London. She was ten years old.

Black Bull Inn, Piccadilly c1820

The waggon arrived at the Black Bull Inn, Piccadilly where she was immediately offered a service job by the mistress of the house and stayed there for seven years. She left this service, ‘willing to see more of the World’ and took a new position in St Mary le Strand. Here she met and married her first husband and had four children whilst residing at Russell Court, Drury Lane, but misfortune struck and all of her family died.

“After this, she went out to Day-work, and was admitted into many Houses for that Purpose, in the Neighbourhood of the Strand, but particularly mentioned the One Bell Inn, and the Five Bells Tavern, and says she never wronged any Body. In this Way she went on for many Years, and about nine or ten Years ago was married to a second Husband, who was also a poor labouring Man, and carried Carcases of Sheep, Lambs, &c. for the Butchers in Clare-Market, to Marybone, Tottenham Court, and other Villages adjacent to the Town; and when she wanted Work in her own Way, she was used to assist him, being old and infirm, and as a good Wife should do, to bear a Part of his Burthens. She lamented greatly her unhappy Condition, and always repeated her Innocence, and that she never wronged Man, Woman, nor Child in her Life, but worked hard for her Living.”

She persisted to swear her innocence and told her story thus:

“She had an odd Jobb or two somewhere near Clare Market, which having done, she was at Leisure; and having nothing to do, she followed her Husband towards Marybone, that if he had any Thing to bring Home, she might assist him, as he was old, and weak. In her Way, she says, she met with a tall Woman [Frances Mercer’s mother Jane], dress’d well, in a brown Camblet Gown, who had this Child in her Hand, and the Bundle, as it was taken upon her Banks says, that when this Woman overtook her, she told her, if she would hold the Child and the Bundle, while she went to a House which she pointed to, just by Marybone Road, she would give her Twopence. She was willing to get the Money, as she says, so easily, not thinking she should pay so dear for it; and she saw the Woman go to the House she mentioned. What became of her afterwards she does not know. She waited, she says, a long Time, and the Woman not returning, she went up to the House, and enquiring of the Maid-servant, what was become of the Woman? was told, that she came in, and was about to go up Stairs; but some how or other turned back, saying, I ask Pardon, I have mistaken the House; and so went out again.”

Banks was warned about persistent lying and that the bundle was sufficient evidence to prove her guilt, however in response she was supposed to have maintained that, “the Woman who gave her the Child and Bundle to hold, had concerted the Matter with others, on Purpose to take away her Life, with a View of a Reward.” [2]

This was an extraordinary accusation aimed at Jane Mercer. The wife of merchant and shop owner Francis Mercer had no reason to have calculated such a nefarious scam and Banks was obviously desperate for some reprieve. Unfortunately, that never came.

Frances Mercer remained in St Martin in the Fields with her family all her life and married John Mackenzie in the parish church on 25th March 1784. [3] She died in 1814 and was buried in Bunhill Fields. [4]

(C) 2011 and 2022 Mish J Holman, Do not reproduce without permission.


[1] Marriages (PR) England. St James Westminster. 29 May 1777. MERCER, William and STEVENS, Sarah.

[2] Ordinary Accounts. 6 July 1750. BANKS, Elizabeth. London, England, Proceedings of the Old Bailey and Ordinary’s Accounts Index, 1674-1913.

[3] Marriages (PR) England. St Martin in the Fields. 25 March 1784. MACKENZIE, John and MERCER, Frances.

[4] Burials (PR) England. Bunhill Fields. 19 February 1814. MCKENZIE, Frances. RG 4/3993.

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