Alias Johnson and Williams

A little quiet on the blog in recent weeks.  Not laziness, at least I hope not, but I’m rather immersed in a substantial piece of research.  When the late Ralph Hyde died last year, he left unfinished his catalogue of London parish maps – well over 500 maps identified, many of them already catalogued and extensively annotated, but the work as a whole incomplete.  As a tribute to his memory, the London Topographical Society has now enlisted the aid of a substantial group of volunteers from all over London to revisit the maps, confirm their present locations, find those listed but not fully catalogued, and to bring the work to completion.

My task, a fulfilment of a promise made to Ralph long ago, is to identify – at least as far as possible – all those responsible for making all these maps and the history of London they encapsulate: the surveyors, the draughtsmen, the engravers, the publishers, the printers and so on.  Hundreds of names.  The work progresses well.  A context and a background for the maps is being established.  Most interesting are probably the architects, civil engineers, district surveyors, builders and speculators who not only mapped these areas of London, but also built up large areas of them.  And, as you might expect, there are dozens of individual stories – all very human.  There are those who went on to wealth and honours and those (rather more of these) who did not: those who ended up bankrupt, in prison for debt, or compelled to emigrate to find a better life in far off climes.

There is sadness and frailty: the engraver and local historian Thomas Allen, who died of cholera; Alexander Bland, who produced a map of Clapham with his brother in 1849, but ended his days in the workhouse; the surveyor Michael Charles Meaby who was arrested and extradited from Lisbon in the early years of the last century to stand trial for conspiracy, fraud and perjury; William Fountain Meakin, whose row with a London cab-driver ended up in the courts and all over the newspapers; Charles Robert Badger whose “overbearing, litigious and exhorbitant [sic] line of conduct” caused the people of Lewisham to petition for his dismissal as District Surveyor – the “very respectably-dressed” Mrs Caroline Harris later threw a bowl of dirty water over him in the street; and Alderman James Ebenezer Saunders, caught up in a corruption scandal at the Metropolitan Board of Works.


© The British Library Board. Maps 188.v.25.

But of all the stories, I think the most sad is the one represented by this map.  It is a story I have touched on before, buried deep in the pages of “British Map Engravers”, but I didn’t at that time have all the details.  This is not in fact a map in the Ralph Hyde catalogue, as that concentrates on maps of complete parishes, but a map which captures a partnership between two engravers: Benjamin Smith – who does appear in the Hyde catalogue – and Joseph Bye.  They were together at this address in St. John’s Square, Clerkenwell, in 1805 and this is their trade-card, depicting their neighbourhood and advertising their services as “map, historical, and writing engravers”.


The elder Benjamin Smith after George Romney, Milton Dictating “Paradise Lost” to his Daughters. Engraver’s proof, 1795. BM 1853,1210.617. © Trustees of the British Museum.

Benjamin Smith was born in London in 1774, the son of Benjamin Smith, the tolerably well-known stipple-engraver of portraits and historical scenes.  The younger Smith was apprenticed to the map-engraver Joseph Ellis in 1789 and subsequently worked in a partnership with Edward Jones as well as Joseph Bye.  Individually he is known for his maps produced for “Laurie and Whittle’s New Traveller’s Companion” (1806), for Robert Wilkinson’s “General Atlas” (1807), for Charles Smith’s “New General Atlas” (1808), etc.

The slightly younger Joseph Bye was born in December 1779 and baptised the following January at St. John Clerkenwell, the son of the printer, Deodatus Bye, and his wife, Elizabeth.  He was apprenticed in 1793 to Benjamin Baker of Islington, the man who was later to become chief engraver to the Ordnance Survey.  Bye subsequently worked for William Faden, as well as the chartmakers David Steel and John Purdy.  He also produced  a map of Spain and Portugal for Robert Southey’s “Chronicle of the Cid” in 1808 – a map which may just have some bearing on what happened next.

After 1809, both Smith and Bye completely disappeared from view for a long period of time.  Eight years later, two men named James Johnson and George Williams were tried at Dover for fraudulently uttering forged promissory notes.  The “Kentish Weekly Post” carried the story on 7th November 1817:

“Dover Sessions. — At a General Sessions of the Peace and gaol delivery, holden on the 4th inst. and following day, in the Guildhall, for this Town and its liberties, before the Worshipful William Knocker, esq. Mayor, Wm. Kenrick, esq. Recorder, and a Bench of Magistrates, the following prisoners were put to the bar, viz. James Johnson and George Williams, for uttering and putting away on the 15th September last, to Emanuel Levey, of Dover, silversmith, and dealer in foreign coins, two promissory notes, purporting to be of the Margate Bank, and of the value of 5£ each, with intent to defraud Francis Cobb and Francis William Cobb, well knowing the same to be false, forged and counterfeited …  After a patient investigation of several hours, both the prisoners were found guilty. The Recorder then made a very impressive appeal to the prisoners, recommending them to use the short time they had to live in making every atonement in their power, assuring them they had no hope of mercy; after which the Mayor, in the usual form, pronounced the awful sentence of the law upon them, leaving them for execution the 27th inst. There were four other indictments against the prisoners … it is said they are very respectably connected, but refuse all communication with regard to their family”.

The “Post” continued the story on the 25th November:

“The two unfortunate men, James Johnson and George Williams … will undergo the awful sentence of the law on Thursday morning next; all hope of mercy being now banished, although every exertion has been made in their favour.

These men attempted to break out of the gaol a few nights since. They had sawed off their irons and had filed the window bars asunder, and cut their blankets and formed them into the shape of a rope, and would have certainly effected their escape had they not been fortunately overheard by Mr. Mate, the keeper”.

And finally on the 28th November:

“Yesterday morning between ten and eleven o’clock the two unfortunate men, James Johnson and George Williams … underwent the awful sentence of the law at the usual place of execution near the turnpike-gate on the London Road.  At the earnest solicitation of the culprits they were conveyed from the prison to the place of execution in a post-coach, and upon their arrival there, being placed on a waggon, after a short time spent in prayer, the carriage was drawn off and the unfortunate men were launched into eternity.  An immense concourse of spectators were assembled from all parts the surrounding neighbourhood”.

A brief account in the “London Courier” the following day confirmed the details, but added a  telling note that “The unfortunate men were very accomplished, and spoke and wrote several foreign languages”.  It was only a week later that both the “Stamford Mercury” and the “Oxford Journal” added a further note: that the men “appeared quite resigned to their fate, and confessed their real names to be Joseph Bye and Benjamin Smith”.

Although only now made public, the authorities had apparently known this for some time. “Every exertion” had indeed been made to save the two engravers, as a bundle of papers relating to the case in the National Archives attests. There were petitions to the Prince Regent for clemency and commutation of the sentence to one of transportation on the grounds of the men’s deep penitence and previous good character – the signatures headed by the two Francis Cobbs whom they had attempted to defraud, as well as local magistrates and members of the jury. Williams (i.e. Smith)  had a wife and four young children. Johnson (i.e. Bye) had a sick and elderly father. Their parents did not yet know of their fate.

There was a letter from William Home Lizars and Daniel Lizars of the well-known Edinburgh engraving firm confirming that Smith and Bye had been employed as journeymen engravers by the Lizars from May 1815 until August 1817. During that time they had “conducted themselves in the most industrious, sober and respectable manner – they behaved themselves like Gentlemen and were a most striking example to all the other people we employ”.  Although only employed as journeymen, Smith and Bye were invited to dine with the Lizars and to accompany them on social excursions – “their conversation instructive and always virtuous”. The Lizars were willing to come south and plead for the men in person, “if it can be of the smallest avail”. There were letters from two of their landlords in Edinburgh. There were further letters from the Lizars and others, reiterating faith in Smith and Bye.  There were letters from Scottish ministers attesting to the probity of the Lizars.


© National Archives. HO 47/56/24.

Above all, there was a moving petition from Smith’s wife, Mary, recently delivered of their fourth child.  For the first time we get the full story.  In 1810, Smith and Bye had been offered lucrative work in Lisbon. The ship on which they were travelling to Portugal was seized by a French privateer and for the next four years they were held prisoner in France until the peace of 1814 – an interment which had completely broken their spirit. They had willingly gone to work for the Lizars as journeymen on their release, but could not forget that they were master engravers, with “educations superior to the station, to which they were reduced, and bred up to much greater comforts and comparative indulgence than their daily earnings could afford”. This “galling state” caused a momentary madness.  The “pitch of despair at their fallen condition” had caused them to plunge into criminality and had sealed their fate.

About Laurence Worms - Ash Rare Books

Laurence Worms has owned and run Ash Rare Books since 1971. He represented the antiquarian book trade on the (British) National Book Committee from 1993 to 2002 and has been six times an elected member of the Council of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association. He was largely responsible for drafting the Association’s Code of Good Practice introduced in 1997, served as Honorary Secretary of the Association from 1998 to 2001 and as President from 2011 to 2013. He is a former member of the Council of the Bibliographical Society and continues to serve on the Council of the London Topographical Society. He writes and lectures on various aspects of the history of the book and map trades, and has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, London, Reading and Sheffield, as well as at the Bibliographical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Warburg Institute and at Gresham College. He teaches annually at the London Rare Books School and also organises the monthly Book Collecting Seminars at Senate House, University of London. Published work includes the compilation of fourteen ‘lives’ for the “Oxford Dictionary of National Biography”, a number of articles for “The Oxford Companion to the Book” and the chapter on early English maps and atlases for the fourth volume of “The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain”. A major essay on the same subject also appeared in “The History of Cartography” published by the University of Chicago Press. His long-awaited “British Map Engravers, co-written with Ashley Baynton-Williams, was published to critical acclaim in 2011”. More recently, he contributed the numerous biographical notes to Peter Barber’s hugely successful “London : A History in Maps”, co-published by the British Library and the London Topographical Society in 2012.
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2 Responses to Alias Johnson and Williams

  1. James says:

    Since nobody else has commented, I’ll just say thanks very much for this interesting post.

  2. Thank you – that is much appreciated.

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