A Merry Christmas Day in the Watch House. Published by Thomas McLean c. 1830. A young man is confined in the watch house for fighting with police.

A Merry Christmas Day in the Watch House. Published by Thomas McLean c. 1830. A young man is confined in the watch house for fighting with the police.

Thomas McLean was one of early nineteenth-century London’s leading satirical printsellers. He probably began publishing prints in the early 1820s and by the end of the decade had already eclipsed many of the older printselling firms that had been so closely associated with the ‘golden age’ of caricature in the previous century. His business thrived during the 1830s, monopolising the talents of leading satirical artists such as George Cruikshank, John Doyle and Robert Seymour. It would eventually evolve into an art gallery after McLean’s death in 1875 and was still trading when Dorothy George sat down to write the tenth volume of the catalogue of the British Museum’s satirical print collection in 1952.

Thomas McLean’s customers probably regarded him as the very model of bourgeois respectability, but behind closed doors his family was troubled. Thomas’s younger brothers Edward and Charles had initially worked alongside him in the shop, Edward acting as assistant manager and Charles making picture frames for the display of prints, but Charles’s wayward behaviour was becoming a cause for concern. Matters came to a head sometime in the summer of 1830 when a row, sparked off by “bad conduct” on Charles’s part, resulted in his expulsion from the family business and the house he’d shared with Edward.

Charles McLean was to spend the next 12 months living on the breadline in what probably amounted to a world of disreputable drinking dens and filthy doss-houses. By the autumn of the following year his situation had grown so desperate that he turned up on the doorstep of a family acquaintance named James Stanley to beg for help. Stanley was a paintbrush-maker who knew the McLean’s through his business connections with Thomas and Edward. He took one look at Charles’s pitiable state and immediately invited him in, offering him board and lodgings until he was able to get back on his feet. The arrangement evidently suited both men, as Charles McLean was to remain in James Stanley’s house on Dean Street in Soho for a number of months and may even had begun working for him.

However by Christmas 1831 it was becoming clear that all was not well in the Stanley household. Things had begun to go missing from around the house, including pieces of furniture and even items of clothing. The contents of James Stanley’s stockroom were also becoming oddly depleted. Initially at a loss to explain the disappearances, Stanley would later claim that he received a tip-off which led him to suspect that Charles McLean and another lodger named Robert Hearn were stealing from him, and then handing the goods over to Edward McLean for safekeeping. He reported the matter to the local magistrate immediately and all three of the suspects were arrested. Searches of Edward McLean’s house and Robert Hearn’s bedroom apparently confirming the allegations by uncovering numerous pieces of James Stanley’s property, as well as pawn tickets for many other items that had already been exchanged for ready cash.

An initial hearing took place on 14th January 1832 at the Malborough Street magistrate’s court. Charles McLean was charged with the theft of a bed, a pier glass, a quantity of paint brushes, items of clothing and other property belonging to James Stanley, while his brother and friend were accused of receiving stolen goods. Charles responded to the accusations by going on the attack, denying any wrongdoing and claiming that Stanley had given him the items in question and asked him to pawn them in order to raise some money. He even managed to manoeuvre his landlord into admitting that he had asked him to pawn similar items on a number of occasions in the past. Hearn pleaded ignorance, stating that he had no knowledge of the crime and that he had been unaware that some of the missing items had been hidden in his bedroom. Edward McLean took a similar line, claiming that he had always assumed that the stolen goods were Charles’s own property and appealing to the court to consider “that it was extremely painful for a person of his respectability to be placed in so disgraceful a situation… and he earnestly hoped that the magistrates would not make him responsible for the misconduct of his unfortunate brother”.

The presiding magistrate was unsure. Charles’s story and the confessions of the hapless Stanley had introduced enough uncertainty into the proceedings to prevent the case being immediately passed to the crown courts for trial. Charles McLean and Robert Hearn would remain in custody until another hearing could be arranged the following week, while Edward McLean would be allowed to return home on bail. For a moment it may have seemed as though the case was going Charles’s way, but as the trio were about to be led from the courtroom, the arresting officers stepped forward to state that they had carried out a search of Charles McLean’s personal belongings and believed they had evidence that another more serious crime had been committed. The prisoner’s pocket-book had been found to contain bills of exchange and bankers cheques worth many hundreds of pounds that were made out in the names of Charles McLean and Robert Hearn. This included a number of bills of exchange which had been paid out to the defendants by James Stanley himself.

Stanley immediately confessed that this was the case but claimed that he had been duped into making the payments by Robert Hearn. Hearn had come to Stanely, knowing he was short of money, and offered to sign over a note of exchange worth 50 shillings if he would consent to put his signature to several other blank promissory notes in return. Stanley, who had never encountered bills of exchange, nor entered into any kind of credit agreement, immediately consented and took the fifty shilling note. He later found that Hearn had added amounts far in excess of fifty shillings to the other bills of exchange and used them to run up debts in his name or simply demand payments of cash whenever he liked. The magistrates in the room now subjected the contents of the pocketbook to a thorough examination, noting that many of the bills had been left blank and that the authorising stamps on some of them appeared to be forgeries. After declaring that they “…had never seen a more regular system of scheming and swindling brought to light” they ordered that the prisoners be returned to the cells pending further investigation.

The second hearing, which took place four days later, was not recorded in as much detail as the first. We know that Stanley, Hearn and the two McLeans were all present, that they repeated their original testimony and at the end of the proceedings Charles and Hearn were committed for trial. The charges against Edward McLean were dismissed, but he was bound over to keep the peace for two months, after it emerged that he had threatened to kill Stanley for attempting to ruin him by implicating him in his brother’s crime.

McLean and Hearn were duly scheduled to stand trial at the Old Bailey on 16th February 1832 on a charge of larceny. The charge was a serious one and a successful conviction would in all probability result in a lengthy prison sentence, transportation to a penal colony, or even death. The records of the Old Bailey indicate that six other individuals who were convicted of larceny during the same session were sentenced to hang, one of whom was a 17 year old boy accused of stealing a handful of guineas from a fellow servant. The amount in question was paltry when compared with the money that McLean and Hearn were accused of swindling out of their landlord. 

However the case took another odd twist at this point. The law of the time required that the evidence of a particular case had to be submitted to a Grand Jury for examination before trial. If the jury felt that the evidence against the accused was insufficient then they could refuse to issue the True Bill which was required in order for the trial to proceed. This was not the same as an acquittal, it simply meant that the trial could not take place due to a lack of credible evidence. The charges remained open and local magistrates were at liberty to bring the accused before another jury if further evidence came to light. This is exactly what was to happen in the case of Charles McLean and both he and Hearn subsequently escaped prosecution as a result of the jury’s decision.

We can only speculate as to the reasons for this sudden reversal of Charles McLean’s fortunes. James Stanley’s testimony at the first magistrates hearing had revealed that the paintbrush-maker was in financial difficulty and that his dealings with McLean and Hearn were perhaps not as straight forward as he had made out. It is perhaps telling that he did not think fit to mention the payments claimed had been extracted from him until after the magistrates had mentioned the dodgy bills of exchange. Similarly, when one looks at the items that Charles McLean was accused of stealing it becomes difficult to imagine that he could really have taken them without their owner’s consent. The idea that he and Hearn could have surreptitiously maneuvered a bed out of their landlord’s house without arousing suspicion being almost too fantastical to believe. 

What the affair does reveal is something of the nature of the young Charles McLean and the dubious company he kept. We do not know what happened to Charles in the years immediately after he escaped trial, but it is highly unlikely that either of his brothers would have been willing to welcome him back with open arms. An entry in the 1851 Census possibly holds out some hope of redemption, as it records that a 49 year old man named Charles McLean was then living at a house on Oxford Street with his family. McLean was once again employed as a carver and gilder and had apparently settled into a respectable middle age alongside a wife and their three adolescent children. His trade and address in London’s West End even holds out the possibility of a reconciliation with his eldest brother and a return to the family business. We do not know for sure, but this would have been an ending to Charles’s story that was worthy of its authentically Dickensian setting. 


Times 16th & 19th January 1832

HO 26; Piece: 38; Page: 146

1851 Census, Middlesex, St Marylebone, Rectory, 14