The Man who nearly Suffocated in Tea

View of East India HouseIn the evening of Saturday 26 March 1765, filled with all the Dutch courage that three pints of beer in a nearby pub could confer, John Pickett stepped through a courtyard behind a vast building on the corner of Leadenhall Street and Vine Street in the heart of London’s bustling financial centre. In the twilight of the spring evening, a steady stream of visitors was passing through: merchants, clerks, warehousemen, financiers, and sailors. For this building was the headquarters of one of the corporate giants of eighteenth-century London: the East India Company. Pickett had sailed on East India Company trading voyages in the 1750s, and knew that, even at this hour, the ‘sailor’s lobby’ on the building’s ground floor would be busy with returning sailors receiving remuneration at the adjacent pay-office, and others hoping to find work on outgoing vessels. As such, his presence was perhaps to be considered unremarkable. He had recently served on an English naval vessel participating in the Seven Years War; but the Treaty of Paris (1763) had brought not only peace in Europe, but also unemployment for the many thousands who had swelled the ranks of the Royal Navy.

But Pickett’s business at the East India House was not focussed on gainful employment. He had been here just a few days earlier, with various tools hidden under a bulky sailor’s coat: an iron crowbar, a kind of basic hand-drill called a ‘gimblet’, and a sailor’s tool known as a marlin spike (a sharp pointed metal rod perhaps a foot long). These he had concealed in the sailor’s lobby for retrieval this night, a date he had carefully chosen ahead of the closure of business which would follow not only on the next day – Sunday – but also on the day which followed: Lady Day, or the religious festival of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. Until just a decade earlier, Lady Day had been regarded as the first day of the calendar year, and it was often still regarded as a day of closure in the business world. With luck, it would be a full two days before his work would be detected.

Pickett had planned his moves to perfection. He concealed himself in a dark corner of the lobby, waiting until the pay-office closed and the sailors and company employees departed. Then, finding himself alone in the lobby at about one o’clock in the morning, he retrieved his tools and crossed the room to an unused fireplace lying in an incomplete chimney. This chimney – he was confident – represented his access route to the East India Company’s bullion room and the untold riches that it contained: the place where the Company amassed not only its own ‘treasure’, but that of its wealthy investors. No electronic transfers or BACS payments here: this vast hoard would be transported in chests to the Chinese port of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou), where it would be exchanged for the tea which – twelve months later – would be steeped in English tea pots.

Tools in hand, Pickett climbed up the chimney with considerable difficulty, and he had to dismantle some of the brickwork to get his considerable bulk through. As he expected, it reached only as far as the floor of the room above: above his head were the floor boards which – he was confident – supported bags of silver dollars. With his gimblet, he bored several holes in the wood. With his marlin spike, he broke the holes into one another, until he had created a large hole. But although he was able to crawl a few inches into the dark space above, he was surprised to find what appeared to be another wooden barrier blocking his way into the room. Perplexed by this unexpected obstacle, but observing the material to feel quite thin, he rammed a large hole through the wood. What happened next must have seemed unfathomable. Pickett found himself engulfed in a cascade of a dry, musty, gritty, fibrous material that overwhelmed him with such force that he was sure he would be suffocated. Nearly a hundred-weight of tea fell in a torrent over him, filling up the space into which he had crawled and threatening to choke him. Kicking and twisting, he was able to force the tea past his body, down the chimney, and into the lobby below. Crawling up into the now-empty chest, Pickett discovered to his dismay another chest stacked above.

Once bitten, twice shy, Pickett bored smaller holes into the bottom of the chest, and let the tea drain out. Above this was a third chest, and above that a fourth, until Pickett crawled – exhausted – onto the top of a vast pile of tea chests just eighteen inches from the ceiling not of the bullion room as he had hoped, but the tea warehouse. Realising the trail that he was leaving for anyone who should come into the room below, Pickett climbed back down to sweep the vast piles of tea back into the chimney. But the noise he made hadn’t gone un-noted: Edward Stillard – the Company’s doorman who lived in a house next door to the warehouse – later reported hearing banging noises over a ten-hour period from one o’clock until eleven o’clock on the Sunday morning, a noise he had attributed to the wind blowing shutters in the warehouse.

Shortly after nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, William Harris – a clerk with responsibility for the Company treasury – entered the bullion room and noticed immediately that some bags of silver dollars, which he had received into storage for an investor on Saturday, were missing. He quickly summoned the Company’s deputy-director, and together they examined with incredulity the condition of a nearby interior wall. The wooden panelling (or ‘wainscot’) was hanging in splinters, and – behind – a hole had been cut through a thickness of two-and-a-half bricks. They sent a junior clerk through the hole. Once through the brickwork, he had to crawl through the remains of two chests that had been stacked against the wall before emerging into a scene of utter devastation in the tea warehouse, where loose tea and broken chests were lying in a disordered tumble. He crawled along Pickett’s route through the chests to the chimney, and down to the sailor’s lobby. As the route of the break-in became clear, the Company’s bricklayer, William Stockley, was summoned; it was he who discovered that the chimney was full of loose tea. The intruder, it was soon recognised, must have remained in hiding in the lobby below, slipping out only when an unsuspecting pay-clerk had opened the sailor’s lobby as the week’s business began that morning. Scraps of the food that he had eaten, and the tools that he had used, were discovered over the course of the next few hours.

Tea’s impact on the commercial and mercantile life of the city of London is attested in the tables of figures relating to importation, consumption, and taxation. But tea’s life on the streets of the eighteenth-century metropolis is recognised most immediately in the ephemeral materials that it produced: the grocers who used tea-related iconography in their shop-signs, the trade-cards by which tea-sellers advertised their wares, the raids during which excise officers intercepted black-market tea, and the hundreds of Old Bailey trial records – such as that from which this post is drawn – that tell us about the way that tea moved through the city, the spaces which it occupied, the wealth which it generated, and the temptations which it presented.

Though John Pickett made a clean getaway on that Tuesday morning in late March 1765, some ten days later some of the distinctive silver dollars were discovered during an unconnected search of a house in Southwark. Pickett himself was apprehended with a female companion at Dover, where he had apparently hoped to find a passage to France. The Old Bailey trial notes record his words at his trial, where he attempted to portray his role merely as being an accomplice to the crime’s mastermind: ‘it was M’Cartey that brought me into this trouble’ he stated, ‘he bid me come with him when he had found the scheme out; he was ringleader of the fact; I did not know what he was going about till we got there’. The defence did him no good. The man who nearly suffocated in tea swung at the Tyburn Gallows on 15 May. Joseph Moore, the chaplain of Newgate Prison, noted that the spectators were ‘much affected with the earnestness of his prayers; he desired them to pray for him, and I believe many of them did’, before he was ‘turned off, crying, Lord Jesus receive my soul’.

Further reading at Old Bailey Online:

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