February 08, 2009

William Crompton, William Crunkton

On 9th April 1766, William Crompton was condemned to die at the Old Bailey. The record of his trial is here. Crompton did not die for the kind of crime which one normally expects a death penalty to be given, but rather for an attempt at fraud. The ship 'Liverpool' had been involved in the reduction of Ponchiderry in 1761, when the British had captured the city from the French as part of the seven years' war in India. After the war, in 1766, a reward was granted to those who had been on board the 'Liverpool'- William Crompton came forward, according to the trial statement, to claim his part in the award. He initially claimed to have been on board the ship, when the agent present pointed out that no William Crompton was there, Crompton claimed to be the Quartermaster William Crunkton. After failing to produce adequate proof he was arrested. Various people came forward at the trial to state that Crunkton had died in 1762 in Plymouth and that Crompton bore no ressemblance to Crunkton. Crompton denied that he had even attempted the fraud- and said he had been there on behalf of a friend, a sailor called Brown, but the court found his story unconvincing given the testimony against him, and he was hung.

Crompton's story appears a shabby effort from an opportunistic fraudster to make some easy money- who knows what his motivation was or who Brown, the sailor, was- but if we accept the account at the trial, we still have something which tells us a lot about the eighteenth century. Crompton's forgery is a failed attempt to join a group of people who had done well out of the colonial and military successes that 18th Century Britain involved. Crompton was attempting to get his hands on some of that colonial wealth. Going to the sea in the 18th Century was a way for someone to do that: going to the colonies- especially to India- was an even better way for an aspiring young man to make his way in the world. The 18th Century was filled with such fortunes. That Crompton attempted to make a fortune without doing so attests to his ingeniousness- the agent did not immediatly suspect him and the problems we have seen afflict identifying someone in the Middle Ages still were issues in the 18th Century. Crompton was eventually identified by the court through using people who had known Crunkton- he was unlucky as well to have impersonated someone who had died on shore, where a quick inspection of parish records could provide automatic evidence of the fact that Crompton was not Crunkton.

The ultimate issue here though is that it reminds us of the spoils of war. When invading and occupying a rich area like India, great fortunes were made in London. The same is true of most other wars too and in other ways. For example the English poet John Milton only discovered his vocation during the English Civil War- before that he tutored his family's children, after it he rose to become Secretary to the Council of State, a famous pamphleteer and no less famous poet. Crompton's attempt to fraudulently obtain the profits of war is a signal of how directly important war could be- I have no doubt that you could find cases of people attempting to defraud the US Government and the GI Bill in the 1940s in a similar way- taking advantage of the generosity of the state to those that had served it. But it reminds us of the sociological change that war and empire brings even to the victor after it has happened, it destroys a great deal of manpower in tragic ways through death and illness (both mental and physical), but it also importantly pushes some up through the social scale and gives meaning and purpose to the lives of others like Milton or Oliver Cromwell. William Crompton was attempting to benefit from that movement of soldiers upwards through society- he was attempting to ride on the coat tails of the Nabobs- that he failed is less important than the fact that the attempt was made. The society that emerged from eighteenth Century Britain was in many ways a society fashioned by war, amongst other factors, and the fortunes that war made possible.


James Hamilton said...

No comment, other than, glorious post.