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The Tale Of James Hadfield’s Pistol

April 29, 2023
by the gentle author




Click to enlarge this print, reproduced courtesy of V&A Museum


Biographer Julian Woodford, author of ‘The Boss of Bethnal Green’, will be telling the breathtakingly appalling story of Joseph Merceron on Tuesday 2nd May 6pm at the Hanbury Hall in Hanbury St where Merceron was baptised in 1764.


Merceron was the East End’s first corrupt politician and also the East End’s first gangster, ruling Spitalfields and Bethnal Green for fifty years through the end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century.

Today Julian Woodford outlines the tale of James Hadfield, mysterious would-be assassin of George III, revealing how his pistol found its way into the hands of Merceron and where it is today.


When I talk about how Joseph Merceron ruled the East End for half a century, I am often asked ‘How did he get away with it?’ It is a question I could not answer until I discovered that he owned a gun which almost changed English history.

In 1795, Merceron used his position of influence in Bethnal Green to become a magistrate. Just weeks afterwards, King George III’s carriage windows were shattered by an angry mob as he travelled to open Parliament and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger launched a ‘reign of terror’ with laws forbidding public assembly or publication of ‘seditious writings.’ Secretly, the Home Office also set up an extensive spy network in the East End administered by the local magistrates and their clerks.

During the early seventeen-nineties, in the wake of the French Revolution, radical societies sprang up across London – especially in the East End. Their members agitated for universal suffrage or, in more extreme, cases a revolution of their own. Over the next few years, Pitt’s ‘Gagging Acts’ were applied with increasing severity and the Home Office spies busied themselves in infiltrating radical societies. Democratic activists and mutineering sailors were rounded up and incarcerated without trial at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell.

The ritual abuse they suffered at the hands of the Prison Governor, Thomas Aris, was ignored or even encouraged by Merceron and his fellow magistrates. But when the prisoners’ plight was raised in Parliament by the radical MP Sir Francis Burdett, it became the subject of a national scandal that rocked the Pitt government and damaged the credibility of the Middlesex magistrates.

Then, in the spring of 1800, came an act of terror that appeared to justify Pitt’s harsh conservatism. James Hadfield was a British soldier who had suffered horrendous head wounds in the Napoleonic Wars, and been captured and tortured by the French. Released in a prisoner exchange but traumatised to the point of insanity and unfit for further service, Hadfield was simply turned onto the London streets. Here he encountered an itinerant preacher named Bannister Truelock, who persuaded Hadfield he could trigger the Second Coming of Christ – he just needed to shoot the King and die in the attempt.

On 15th May 1800, Hadfield bought an old flintlock pistol from a pawnbroker and made his way to Drury Lane Theatre, where George III was due to attend a Royal Command Performance. As the King took a bow from the Royal Box, Hadfield pulled out his pistol and fired, narrowly missing his Majesty. Despite a lengthy investigation and an apparemt attempt by the government to rig the jury, Hadfield was acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity, setting an important legal precedent. Instead of being executed, he was committed to the Bethlehem hospital in Moorfields where he spent the next forty-one years writing poems to his pet squirrels.

You might wonder what the connection is to The Boss of Bethnal Green? In 2006, when I started researching my book, I traced Joseph Merceron’s descendants and met his great-great-great grandson Daniel, who showed me an ancient tin box full of Merceron’s papers. This was enough to make my journey worthwhile, but I was dumbstruck when Daniel walked back into the room brandishing an old flintlock pistol and casually announced that – according to family lore – it had once belonged to The Boss and was used in an assassination attempt on George III at Drury Lane in 1800.

That was all Daniel knew and, although I remembered James Hadfield’s story, I could not think how Joseph Merceron could possibly have been involved. Just an hour’s research on the internet uncovered the answer. The transcript of Hadfield’s trial revealed the key prosecution witness was Major Wright, a solicitor of Wellclose Sq and clerk to the Tower Hamlets magistrates. He was a significant figure in Merceron’s circle and closely linked to the Home Office spy network. At Drury Lane, the Major had been sitting within arm’s reach of Hadfield and collared him with his weapon after the event. Among the trial papers are letters from Home Office spies claiming that Hadfield and Truelock were members of the London Corresponding Society which had infiltrated army regiments, including Hadfield’s 15th Light Dragoons.

Remarkably, Major Wright was allowed to keep the pistol as a souvenir. Yet his will lists a print of the assassination attempt among his effects not the gun, which had given to his master – Joseph Merceron. Based on the evidence, I believe Major Wright was secretly tailing James Hadfield on behalf of the Home Office, but it did not suit the government to blow his cover at Hadfield’s trial.

This anecdote offers the explanation for the astonishing longevity of Joseph Merceron’s career as the Godfather of Regency London. Despite being responsible for appalling corruption on a vast scale, he was the devil-the-government-knew, manning the front line in the East End for William Pitt’s ‘war on sedition.’ Merceron owned and licensed many of the pubs where the radical societies met. Merceron’s clerks were actively involved in running spies and, despite repeated attempts to prosecute him during his first three decades in power, the government repeatedly refused to do so and it was only in 1818 – well after the end of the Napoleonic Wars – that he was finally brought to trial and jailed briefly.

James Hadfield’s pistol – the gun that nearly changed history

You may also like to read about

The Boss of Bethnal Green

In Search of The Boss of Bethnal Green

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Loften permalink
    April 29, 2023

    Our history teacher at Parmiters School in Bethnal Green would walk in to the lesson The door would open with a mighty bang and shout “Right , You load of fuckers ! (indeed that is what we were) .Get out my book , Vernon Simms MA name was printed on the cover, Today it will be about George The Turd “ He always told it as it was.
    Mr Simms was a legend amongst the boys . Some days the lesson would include discussions about the horse races , a few very good betting tips for the 2.30 , and the wonder of Lester Piggot as a jockey. He was the very best of history teachers . He did love the gee gees and it was truly an ironic stroke of fate that he met his end by being kicked by one .

  2. Milo permalink
    April 29, 2023

    This story gets more and more intriguing as it unfolds. May i suggest that you now use your undoubted gifts as a detective/historian to attempt to unearth the poetry Mr Hadfield wrote to his squirrels?

  3. April 29, 2023

    Part of me is pleased that Hadfield found some peace in writing poetry for an audience of squirrels which must be the subject for another time surely. It is amazing how one tiny thread of research reveals a massive tapestry of facts and events. This is excellent Julian and you should be congratulated for bringing us another historical tale from the East End.
    My own sympathies of course, rest with the democratic and humanitarian campaigners, the so-called radicals and non-conformists. I will check out the pubs owned by Merceron although my own research has focused a little later in the 1820s when my radical silk weaving ancestor was protesting but his father was also a union member but I haven’t researched him extensively yet. Maybe he fell foul of the Boss of Bethnal Green? Who knows! Having visited some of the pubs where they still exist, I can imagine how information could easily be gathered by free, unguarded speech in an informal setting. At the meetings, food seemed to be provided by the pub. I’m not sure who paid but this would have provided a perfect setting for capturing discussions that were not minuted or reported by the press. Sneaky!
    I’m currently researching TB which seems pertinent as I’m currently languishing with Covid but I could be distracted back to radical silk weavers easily enough. Sadly, I will miss Julian’s talk but I am sure it will be a huge success.

  4. Keith permalink
    April 30, 2023

    My 2 x Great Grandfather was born and brought up in Whitechapel and was a gun maker and brass polisher by trade and worked in Government owned gun factories in Whitechapel etc. He also made guns and at the Colt Factory, Thames Bank, Bessborough Place, near Vauxhall Bridge, Pimlico (nearby the site where Tate Britain stands today).

  5. ANTHONY Mills permalink
    August 20, 2023

    I was at Parmiters 1948
    to 1952 and Vernon was my History Teacher.
    I tried to be amateur booker to classmates and lost a packet on 1952 Derby.
    Walking to school next day in approach road I was overtaken by Vernon who just said stick to history boy.

    As has been noted a great character

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