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Joseph Merceron v Ross Poldark

July 28, 2019
by the gentle author

In advance of tonight’s episode of POLDARK, featuring the real life character of Joseph Merceron, Julian Woodford author of THE BOSS OF BETHNAL GREEN, explains how he uncovered the breathtakingly appalling life of this notorious Huguenot, gangster and corrupt East End magistrate.

Joseph Merceron by Joe McLaren

The Cinnamon restaurant is at 134 Brick Lane today but, in 1764, this was a Huguenot pawnbroker’s shop and, on 29th January of that year, a baby boy was born there. His name was Joseph Merceron and he would grow up to be The Boss of Bethnal Green – the Godfather of Regency London.

My biography was a decade in its gestation. I first came across Joseph Merceron’s name in 2005, when I happened upon a reference to him in Roy Porter’s London: A Social History. Porter described Merceron as an early corrupt political ‘Boss’ who had dominated the East End some one hundred and fifty years before it became the home of the Kray twins. By coincidence, I had seen Merceron’s name the day before, listed as a defendant in a series of legal cases at the National Archives. I was intrigued: Merceron is not a common name in England. Was this the same man? The internet confirmed that it was, and revealed that he had been a larger-than-life character. His story seemed to anticipate the plot of the Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront, where a corrupt gangster is taken on – and eventually toppled – by a brave and determined local priest.

Over the next few days, I found that Merceron was name-checked by virtually every book about the history of London’s darker side, from academic classics like Dorothy George’s London Life in the Eighteenth Century to true-crime exposés like Fergus Linnane’s London’s Underworld. The facts given were always similar, and I soon learned that all these accounts had their origins in The Rule of the Boss, a chapter in Sidney & Beatrice Webb’s seminal 1906 work on English local government, The Parish and the County. The Webbs, a husband-and-wife team of early socialists, were embarking on a nine-volume treatise regarded as a classic by historians. They intended that the centuries of inefficiency and corruption they described would be swept away by the statistical analysis and central planning espoused by the early Labour movement.

The Webbs’ research had unearthed parts of Merceron’s story, seeing him as the perfect illustration of corruption within English parochial self-government. The Marxist academic Harold Laski wrote that ‘they have added new figures to our history, the school books of the next generation will make Merceron [and his like] illuminating examples of what a democracy must avoid.’ As it turned out, Professor Laski was wrong: the Second World War intervened and the prominence given to 20th century history in school curricula meant that Merceron’s story has been largely forgotten.

The Rule of the Boss is an intriguing read, but the Webbs were not biographers, and had no interest in dissecting the personal life behind Merceron’s rule. Their account leaves fundamental questions unanswered. Who exactly was Joseph Merceron? Where did he come from? What drove him? How did he become so wealthy? How did he gain power while so young and retain it for so long? Frustratingly, all subsequent accounts I could find regurgitated parts of the Webbs’ story but failed to provide the answers. Even a brief reference to Merceron in the Dictionary of National Biography could shed no further light. In his excellent book of tales about Brick Lane, An Acre of Barren Ground (2005), Jeremy Gavron had drawn some interesting conclusions about Merceron’s links to the brewer Sampson Hanbury, but when we met Jeremy explained that, apart from this, he too had struggled to make headway with Merceron’s wider story.

Convinced that Merceron’s story was worth telling, I delved deeper. Searching through the births, marriages and deaths columns of The Times, with the help of the electoral register I traced Merceron’s family tree forwards and learned there were just a handful of people with that family name living in the United Kingdom. I wrote to the most promising candidates and a couple of days later was rewarded with a call from an elderly lady who introduced herself as Susan Kendall, Merceron’s great-great-granddaughter. Mrs Kendall added that she would be delighted to invite me to her home in Wiltshire but, she added, ‘You had better come quick, because I’m ninety-three!’

I rushed off to the pretty village of Ramsbury to meet Mrs Kendall and over a cup of coffee explained my plans. But when I mentioned Beatrice Webb, Mrs Kendall almost exploded. ‘That beastly woman,’ she exclaimed, had published Merceron’s story just before her own birth. The Mercerons were a wealthy and respected county family in Edwardian times, and Susan and her sisters were presented at Court to Queen Mary as teenagers. The Webbs’ story had not been helpful, to say the least, and Mrs Kendall expressed satisfaction that finally I was going to disprove it. This was not promising.

When I nervously explained that, based on my research to date, if anything Merceron had been even more of a tyrant than the Webbs had described, I wondered if I was about to be asked to leave. But Mrs Kendall reflected. ‘If that is the true story,’ she said, ‘then of course you must tell it.’ From that moment on, she gave me every support and we corresponded regularly until her death a few years later. She generously lent me the few family papers she had, but said I would need to meet with her nephew Daniel to see the rest.

Daniel Merceron was serving overseas with the army. It was a frustrating several months before he returned and I was able to visit him, but it was worth the wait. Daniel left me with a cup of tea while he disappeared into his attic, returning with Merceron’s two-hundred-year-old tin chest: full of deeds, letters and other papers which shed new light on Merceron’s misdeeds, added colour to his personal life and provided crucial clues to the existence and location of other original records of the Court of Chancery at the National Archives – heavy parchment rolls, encrusted with dust and unopened for two centuries. They told a fascinating story – the depths of an obsession with money which led Merceron to lock away his half-sister in a lunatic asylum and steal the inheritances of his nephews, as well as that of a mentally ill orphaned girl, all before he was twenty-three years old.

But even this was outshone by the other surprise Daniel had in store for me. He disappeared again, returning brandishing an old flintlock pistol that he announced was the weapon with which the madman James Hadfield tried to assassinate King George III at the Drury Lane theatre in 1800. Daniel was unclear how the gun had fallen into Merceron’s hands, but within an hour on the internet we had found the  transcript of Hadfield’s trial and discovered that the key prosecution witness, who had picked up the pistol after Hadfield fired it at the King, was none other than Merceron’s clerk.

Pulling this thread further, I uncovered Merceron’s links to a network of government spies, set up to monitor the activities of underground revolutionary societies during the Napoleonic wars. This was the story the Webbs had missed. By keeping Merceron and his associates in power in the East End, successive British governments, desperate to stamp out radical republicanism after the French Revolution, repeatedly turned a blind eye to his criminal operations.  In doing so, they abetted a social catastrophe. Joseph Merceron’s story turns out to be more than a tale about a man and his money. It is also about the origins of London’s East End, a world of riots, lynching, public executions and extreme poverty where whole families could easily starve or freeze to death.

As Merceron became extraordinarily wealthy, Bethnal Green became the epitome of the East End Victorian slum. By 1838, when young Charles Dickens chose it as the home of the murderer Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Bethnal Green was beset by wretched poverty, the bankrupt home of cholera and typhus, its rotting workhouse crammed with more than a thousand starving paupers.

Joseph Merceron’s name is commemorated today in Merceron St, Bethnal Green, and in Merceron Houses which were erected as ‘model dwellings’ for the poor on the site of Merceron’s garden off Victoria Park Sq, in 1901 just before the Webbs reminded the world of his darker deeds.

Birthplace of Joseph Merceron “On Sunday 29th January 1764, Joseph Merceron was born on Brick Lane, which formed the boundary between the parishes of Spitalfields and its eastward neighbour Bethnal Green. His parents were James Merceron, a Huguenot pawnbroker and former silk weaver, and his second wife Ann. The Mercerons had three other children: Annie, Joseph’s two-year-old sister, John, almost thirteen, and Catherine, eight, the latter two being the surviving offspring from James’s first marriage.”

“Joseph was christened at the local Huguenot church known as La Patente, in Brown’s Lane (the building and lane are now known as Hanbury Hall and Hanbury Street) just a short walk from his parents’ house. The Mercerons, like other Huguenot families in the area, clung tightly to their nationality. Joseph’s details in the register of baptisms – the first recorded at La Patente for 1764 – were entered in French, which many families still insisted on speaking out of respect for their ancestors.”

“On the corner of Fournier Street stands the Jamme Masjid, since 1976 one of London’s largest mosques. For much of the twentieth century it was a synagogue, and before that it spent a decade as a Methodist chapel. Originally, before a brief occupation by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, it was a Huguenot church. High on a wall is the date of its completion, 1743, and a sundial with its motto: Umbra Sumus (‘we are shadows’).”

“The Merceron pawnshop at 77 Brick Lane was at the epicentre of this district, among a row of ramshackle buildings directly opposite Sir Benjamin Truman’s imposing and famous Black Eagle brewery. The Black Eagle was one of the largest breweries in the world. To those living opposite, the mingled odours of yeast, malt and spilt beer – not to mention the steaming output of the many dray horses – must have been overpowering, even by the pungent standards of the times. The noise, too, was tremendous, as the shouts of draymen punctuated the rumble of horse-drawn carriages and carts up and down the lane.”

“David, or ‘Davy’, Wilmot, was an ambitious builder who started out as a bricklayer but soon set up in business with his brother John, an architect and surveyor, as successful developers of cheap tenement housing. The Wilmots were quick to realize the area’s potential for development. From 1761 they began to lease large plots of land along the Bethnal Green Road and over the next few years erected dozens of houses. In a relentless but unimaginative drive for self-publicity, the brothers soon created Wilmot Grove and Wilmot Square (both owned by John) and Wilmot Street (owned by David).”

“The judge had ordered the execution to take place several miles away at Tyburn, the usual site of such events in London, but the master weavers – keen to dispose of Valline and Doyle in front of their own community to discourage further loom cutting – lobbied successfully to change the location to ‘the most convenient place near Bethnal Green church’. Several thousand people assembled outside The Salmon & Ball to see Valline and Doyle hang. Bricks and stones were thrown during the assembly of the gallows. They protested their innocence to the end, but to no effect. Doyle’s last words were enough to ignite an already explosive situation. As soon as the hanging was over, the crowd tore down the gallows and surged back to Spitalfields…”

“On 26th October 1795, Joseph Merceron donned his magistrate’s wig and robes and climbed the steps of the imposing Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green for his first Middlesex Sessions meeting. This was a world away from Brick Lane. The Sessions House, built in the aftermath of the Gordon Riots, was awe-inspiring and was said to rival any courthouse in England.”

“St John on Bethnal Green was built by the eminent architect Sir John Soane but budgetary constraints led to his grand design for a steeple being aborted, replaced with a stunted tower of particularly phallic design that rapidly became a source of bawdy amusement throughout the neighbourhood. Merceron was outraged. Announcing that the design had ‘mortified and disappointed the expectations of almost every individual’, he ordered Brutton to write to complain. The task put Brutton in an acutely awkward position: how to explain the exact nature of the problem? The vestry clerk’s literary skills were tested to the limit as he described the tower’s ‘abrupt termination in point of altitude’ that made it ‘an object of low wit and vulgar abuse’.”

“All the great and good of London’s East End were there. Twenty thousand people, packed six deep in places along the Bethnal Green Road, had turned out to see the cortège on its way to St Matthew’s church. Just before one o’clock the procession arrived, at a sedate walking pace. The jet-black horses, with their sable plumes, were blinkered to prevent anything from distracting the stately progress of the hearse. Merceron was the original ‘Boss’ of Bethnal Green, the Godfather of Regency London, controlling its East End underworld long before celebrity mobsters such as the infamous Kray twins made it their territory. His funeral at the church of St Matthew, Bethnal Green – the very same church where the Krays’ funerals would be held more than 150 years later – reflected his importance: it was by far the biggest event to take place at the church since it was established in the 1740s.”

Tomb of Peter Renvoize “His closest ally and childhood friend, Peter Renvoize, was repeatedly elected as churchwarden for much of this period, from which position he helped Merceron pull off his most audacious financial coup yet. Bethnal Green’s share of the government relief grant was £12,200, equivalent to almost three times the annual poor’s rates raised by the parish. Having obtained the money, Merceron appointed himself chairman of a committee, with four of his closest associates, including Renvoize, to manage its distribution. What happened next is difficult to determine. But it is clear that, five months after the government had advanced the funds, there were several thousand pounds sitting in Merceron’s own account.”

“As for Joseph Merceron, lying buried in the shadow of the vestry room he dominated for half a century, there is one last strange episode to recount. In the afternoon sunshine of Saturday 7th September, 1940, as millions of Londoners sat down to their tea, the ‘Blitz’ began. Bethnal Green suffered terribly, and in the carnage St Matthew’s church took a direct hit from an incendiary bomb. Next morning it was a roofless, burnt out shell, but two gravestones survived the bombing intact. The first, outside the main entrance to the church, is that of Merceron’s old friend Peter Renvoize. About twenty paces away, a large pink granite slab, surrounded by a low iron rail in the shelter of the south wall of the church, is the grave of Joseph Merceron and his family. He spent a lifetime cheating the law, somehow it is fitting that he should have cheated the Luftwaffe too.”

“Merceron Houses, erected in 1901 by the East End Dwellings Company on land formerly part of Joseph Merceron’s garden in Bethnal Green.”

Joseph Merceron’s signature

The pistol used in the assassination attempt upon George III at Drury Lane in 1800

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 28, 2019

    Ah yes, corrupt local politicians taking backhanders …
    Still going on, of course … the recent cases in Tower Hamlets over vote rigging & elsewhere, where/when rebulding & “improvement” contracts & designs go to those erm .. “most favoured” by certain councillors ….
    Oh dear.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 28, 2019

    Great to read the story behind writing the story… the moment of discovering the family chest with all the papers in it must have been amazing!

    I thoroughly recommend the book which is a fascinating if horrifying read.

    However much we despise our politicians today I don’t think any of them are quite as bad as Joseph Merceron… (I hope!)

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    July 28, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for sharing Joe McLaren’s account of his research into the life of Joseph Merceron. What persistence will do! Particularly fascinating is the treasure trove and leads he received from the long lost nephew Daniel.

    Well done!

  4. July 28, 2019

    Great write, enjoyable, photos and history of this egotistical man, did he bring any value for others to live life better from his antics? He stole from the community?

    USA New Orleans, LA, Hewey Long, The Fish. A monster in the midst, I call him.

  5. Paul Loften permalink
    July 28, 2019

    I honoured Peter Renvoize’s name as a footballer, cricketer and runner at Parmiters school in Bethnal Green and wore a blue stripe in my school tie for six years to show that I belonged to his house without knowing he was such a villain. Alas! They forget to tell you tell you these little details . Although he must have done the school some good for them to name a house after him

  6. July 28, 2019

    Thank you so much for this. I truly value it as I’m studying Graham’s oeuvre, both the books he wrote and the films which sprung from them. Ellen

  7. Julian Woodford permalink
    July 28, 2019

    To Paul Loften: it was the small matter of £500 left by Renvoize to Parmiters in his will. As so often the case, nobody seemed to ask where he got the money from!

  8. Julian Woodford permalink
    July 28, 2019

    To Annette Shoff-Keith: in short, not a lot! This is the age-old story of bribery and corruption in local politics, diverting public money into private pockets. Like many similar figures today, Merceron often gave money to charity – making sure that his ‘generosity’ waa given maximum publicity.

  9. July 28, 2019

    I also thoroughly recommend the book and Julian’s amazing research.
    Corruption and greed …..all in plain sight. Nothing much has changed since Regency times!

  10. Marcia Howard permalink
    July 28, 2019

    I loved the fact that you got access to papers that had been locked away in a tin chest for two hundred years. What an exciting find! Merceron sounded a nasty piece of work, and even the profile on his silhouette portrait looks sinister.

  11. July 29, 2019

    Thank you very much for this blog and the link to the book. I find Debbie Horsfield’s incorporation of a figure like Merceron — Merceron himself — in accordance with all Graham’s fiction.

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