The rapid increase in Dulwich's population in the mid 18th century, the result of an improvement in roads as a consequence of the activities of the turnpike companies, as well as the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges to complement London Bridge, until then London's only bridge across the Thames, made the area vulnerable to crime.
Nine years after the small lock-up was built in Dulwich in 1760, with its inscribed stone plaque: It is the sport of a fool to do mischief: to thine own wickedness shall correct thee, which can still be seen in the small ornamental garden at the bottom of Calton Avenue, a case involving theft reached the Old Bailey. Never was this inscription more apt than in the case of a thief named James Simpson.
The victim was Thomas Wright, a wealthy stationer and bookseller, who had in 1767 completed the building of his large and splendid mansion, Bell House, which still stands in College Road. He would be elected Lord Mayor of London in 1785. He was driven, probably daily, to his firm in the City in his own coach. This regular journey to the City by Wright's coachman would lead to the uncovering of the crime.
The accused was one James Simpson who was not a resident of Dulwich and was accused of theft: simple grand larceny at the Old Bailey on 6th December 1769.
James Simpson was indicted for stealing a woollen cloth coat, value 20 shillings the property of Thomas Wright Esq. on December 2nd of that year. The following is a transcript of the proceedings of the trial.
Rubon Cannicot: I am coachman to Thomas Wright; he lives at Dulwich; our coach was locked up, and the great coat on the coach box. The key was left in the door, on the out side; the yard gate was all fast, and the yard is walled all round; whoever got the coat must get over the wall. I know nothing of the prisoner, I never saw him to my knowledge before I saw him here at the bar, it, ( the coat) was missing last Saturday morning.
Hugh Riley I am a watchman; and buy old clothes, and old rags, and such things. I met the prisoner with this coat, in Cheapside, last Saturday morning about nine o'clock. He asked me if I would buy it. I went with him down Pater-noster-row, and in a little court that goes from thence to St Paul's-church-yard, there I bought it, and paid him the monet, (sic) fourteen shillings; but told him I would not part with him till he sent for a surety. We were in a public house; he wanted to break thro' the window; I held him, and the man of the house assisted me. I brought him before my lord-mayor; my lord ordered the coat to be advertised, and Mr. Cannicot came and described it before he saw it; and I went with him to Mr Wrights (Produced and deposed to by Cannicot.)
My brother was a coachman; I had this coat of him; he was coachman to Mr Hutchinson in Southampton. I offered it to this man; (I) am bricklayer; my brother has been dead some time; I am a Guernsey man.
Verdict - Guilty. Sentence - Transportation (at that time transportation was carried out to the American Colonies)
'It is the sport of a fool to do mischief and to thine own wickedness shall correct thee' - never has a quotation been more true. Simpson must forever have reflected on his bad luck on that day in 1769 when he stole a coat from a village five or so miles distant from London and then tried to sell it in the one place if would be readily recognised - Paternoster Row, the very place where London's booksellers and stationers had their shops and warehouses, and just a stones throw from Stationers' Hall in Ave Maria Lane and to where Thomas Wright, one of its the most prominent members made almost daily journeys. And Simpson's further misfortune was to try to sell the coat to someone who turned out to be an off-duty member of the City's law enforcement body - The Watch.