Flight of the Wicked Flea

Day 4,352, 23:58 Published in Switzerland Republic of China (Taiwan) by Hahroj
“The Bible perfects divine laws unfettered by the profane state. Unfortunately, the Liberties of London exemplify profane states unfettered by any law whatsoever.”

Honorable Henry Wallbrighte, Member for Hallistone
House of Commons debates, December 1829

As 1829 drew to a close, a century of conflict was also coming to an end. This was not a matter of Napoleonic slaughter of Russian soldiers in the tens of thousands, nor some ecclesiastic prince lashing another with hellfire. Much more modestly, it involved the gain of a dozen square yards here or the loss of one side of a laneway there. Happily, the casualties were of a lesser scale as well – exemplified by the eight casualties in the ferocious battle of Broughton Yard. Such were the wars of the Liberties of London.

Archaic enclaves free of civil interference, the Liberties were a legacy of Crown grants to various pre-Tudor religious establishments – meaning Holy Catholique bishops, abbots and so on. As long as the Church held sway, the Liberties were subject to a canon law as exacting as its civil counterpart. The churchmen were eventually brought to heel by (more accurately, ground under the heel of) Cromwell on behalf of The Great Harry.

For reasons never understood, the exemption from Crown jurisdiction continued long after the Church was expelled. The Liberties became islets of refuge from the good laws of the Kingdom. Following the 1819 Peterloo Rebellion, Parliament rushed through the Six Acts to suppress the radical press, outlaw demonstrations and crush conspiracies, real or imagined. Now, the Liberties could be said to be a refuge from the bad laws of the Kingdom.

What sort of refugees? They were debtors, petty thieves, bigamists, runaway apprentices, public drunkards, footpads, and one energetic fellow who sired no less than thirty one bastards in the villages between Newdigate and (the aptly named) Beddington Place – who was promised a particularly painful, if unimaginative, punishment should any of the angry fathers lay hands on him. Certainly, not the worst sorts if immigrants.

Of course, there were those even the lawless rejecte😛 Quakers and other New Christians; judges; revealed police informers; penniless lunatics (monied ones were quite welcome, thank you); amateur killers (murder for hire was an honorable enough trade); and democrats.

The Liberties treated the democrats more harshly than any other criminal type. Said democrats were bent of changing the laws and making all men equal – or at least more men more equal. Many a Liberty resident had experience with government, church and charitable good works whose intent was to improve their lot in life. They weren’t sure how much more improving they could survive. Tinkering with the laws would strip the few advantages they had. Frankly, libertymen were more interested in the profitable breaking of the laws than in reforming them.

By 1722, the brighter felons realized their islets, free of fussy legal interference, could be more than hidey holes from the bailiffs. While no respectable citizen would live there, they had no objection to their goods passing through. The former Liberty of the Clink – this was before the David-swallows-Goliath takeover by the Montague – became famous as a major depot of untaxed whiskey. Saffron Hill carried a lively trade in contraband silk, and so on. Like nations, each specialized in one thing or another.

Like nations, this patchwork of pocket independencies fell to jostling for position. At first, it was much like rival village idiots tussling over kingship of the dung heap. As outside investments in the liberties grew, motivation to plunder weaker neighbors grew to be more compelling. The conflicts took an altogether nasty turn. War, arguably the most inventive of humanity’s pastimes, played out in a number of ways, on both sides of the Thames.

On the north bank, numerous strong contenders meant the strife would continue for at least another couple of years. While the sentimental favored Norton Folgate, smart money settled on Saffron Hill to become the paramount City-side liberty.

On the Southwark shore, it came down to a pair of adjacent Liberties: the Mint and Montague Close. More strategic necessity than collegial arrangement, the two minded the other’s back for over a decades while the other went about swallowing up their neighbours. After absorbing all the others, they finally turned on each other. The winner would either face off against, or work in conjunction with, the consolidated liberties of the City-side of the Thames. Considerable rewards awaited the survivors.

In truth, both Mint and Montague were working up to the same final consolidation, which, regardless of who won, would likely be called the United Borough Liberties. For some of the lesser lights, it seemed a shame to spend so many more lives (theirs, for the most part) when an accommodation – a merger perhaps – could achieve the joint end.

“Treason, treachery and cowardice” cried the leadership in both camps. The dissidents were promptly expelled in the time honored manner. A hand bell was rung as an offender was swung hands-and-feet briskly before being thrown across the enclave’s boundary line. The ringing drew the ever-lurking bountytakers, who would bundle him off to the magistrate’s bench. For sport, the dissidents were tossed at intervals. This allowed spectators to wager on how fast the expelled man was picked up and by which bountytaker. Betting was quite brisk.

The Montague were preparing to move on the first day of the new year. 1830, they made no secret, was to be the year of the Montague mastery. When informed by their spies, the Council of the Mint just smiled. They were well along with their own plans, which were better concealed and timed to preempt their rivals.

They also followed a more able leader, in the person of His Honor, Joshua Conny Poole. Nearing forty, Poole had been a liberty resident for eleven years, and its president for five. His Jamaican great grandfather came as a child slave to London, returned to the Caribbean as a bodyguard. His son, Lewis the boy, went to London, and served well enough to earn his freedom. Lewis the man rose to manage his former master’s affairs, and to produce a covey of Caribe-Catalonian boys with the head cook.
One of many, Joshua, became a fixture in the Borough, as Southwark was known.

The story goes that Joshua was too restless to adapt and prosper as his forefathers had in legitimate pursuits, and became a man of many murky adventures. Finally, one close call too many drove him across the Thames into the tiny Southwark liberty. His unsuccessful attempt to spirit Henry Hunt, hero of Peterloo, away from the gallows, earned him an unspecified date with the hangman. He fled to an obscure Liberty on the South shore. Once proclaimed president, his followers, known as the Blue Connys, prospered ahead of most, therefore were superior.

By custom, Poole met daily with his captains and weekly with the Council of the Mint. After significant Council meetings, Poole spent an evening in solitary reflection. After a particularly disturbing September Council meeting, he and a bottle of port sat down for some serious reflecting.

No one else seemed to have put the facts together as he had. Everything pointed to defeat within a year. Poole filled a glass and thought. In less than an hour, he had drilled down to the essential barrier to victory: getting enough of his fighting men to opposition territory. Determining the problem was the first step. He recalled the succession of ploys to get men to the fight.

As legal papers could not be served on the day of rest, the earliest days of conflict were called the Sunday Wars. Come Sunday dawn, gangs raided one another, brawled in public spaces and generally make a nuisance of themselves. This came to an end when outraged citizens began blocking up the entrances to the sanctuaries while the gangs were out at mischief. If the blockages could not be cleared by sunset, the villains were liable to arrest. Sunday quickly became a day of rest once more.

Then came the subterranean campaigns. Knocking out walls between cellars, and tunneling under streets, gangs engaged in savage underground melees. At times, sections of streets collapsed, killing combatants and passing innocents alike. Soon bountytakers learned to detect the tunneling, and to drive iron pipes from street to tunnel, through which they pumped noxious gases and liquids. The agents received the same bounty, dead or alive.

The next phase, wagishly called the Age of Novelty saw: catapults delivered rocks, men and garbage from one islet to the next; men ran the rooflines, inching over laneways on creaking planks; poisoned beer barrels decimated opposition drinking dens; fighters kitted out as chimney sweeps, cesspit cleaners or beggars raided with varied successes; and a duo of female assassins, dressed as grog-sodden whores, left no fewer than two score corpses in their wake. Novelty eventually exhausted itself.

Holy days, tunnels, rooftops. Ah, rooftops. One might be forgiven for thinking rooftop travel meant the libertymen were not on English soil, and therefore could not be arrested. The problem with rooftops was their attachment to houses, which were affixed to the ground, and jurisdiction flowed through that permanent connection. He had a glimmer of thought about non-permanent attachment, and how that might work. He pondered through another bottle. The next morning, Poole awoke with a table plank-embossed cheek, a punishing headache, and a solution. That solution was lodged in Marshalsea Prison, just across Borough High Street.

Wisely, Poole regularly sent men out to scout obstacles and opportunities. One of their first stops was among the debtors newly arrived at Marshalsea Prison. Most were dregs - too indolent, duplicitous or stupid to be useful. Occasionally a gem turned up. In August, the scouts reported on one Jonathan Arturo Brookleigh, inventor, incarcerated for debts in excess of two thousand guineas. Having squandered a sizeable legacy and then borrowed against friends until they fled at sight, Brookleigh was unlikely to ever breathe free air again.

Poole set to work exercising his talent for extracting the most from his legendary cheerfully offered, self-serving favors. Once clear on how the various pieces fit together, he set into motion a trio of interlocking favors to three men who lacked control. One couldn’t manage his sister, the second couldn’t discipline his willie, and the third couldn’t reign in his spending.

It played out thus: An outraged brother was obliged for information on the whereabouts of his sister’s seducer, from whom Poole wheedled eighteen shillings “for expenses”. The sire of those dozens of bastards blanched on learning said outraged brother was skulking about the Mint, and gratefully accepted a swap of identities and places with the Marshalsea prisoner – an arrangement thoughtfully brokered by Poole. Brookleigh happily became a working guest of the Liberty, applying his particular expertise.

That expertise arose from the years Brookleigh spent building and flying balloons in Rouen. In exchange for building and launching a balloon for the Conny Blues, Brookleigh would be given passage in one of the multitude of luggers plying the Manche Waters between Dover and Calais. Poole told him his best bet was to either set up in France again or take ship to America. In either case, he advised the aeronaut to change his name and occupation.

During that November and December, the Blues cobbled together an aeroship of sound design, employing less sound skills and materials. Brookleigh, given carte blanc, ordered up a vast array of goods: silk by the bolt; light line by the spool; vitriol by the carboy; iron by the hundredweight. All these, and more, the Blues begged, borrowed or, preferably, stole.

Resident tailors and seamstresses joined up great swaths of silk, once, then twice as the fabric was doubled up. A fugitive apprentice from a furniture shop applied layer after layer of lacquer to make the whole thing gas tight. Cordage was woven and lashed to enclose the gas bag, then, to prevent punctures or abrasions, wrapped in purloined velvet.

Throughout, the president badgered the aeronaut about all manner of details, until in exasperation, the man pulled on a threadbare cloak as he headed for the door. Amid the shouted warnings he would be pinched before he got ten feet out of the liberty, Brookleigh shrugged. It would be more peaceful to be back in Marshalsea than to put up with a barrage of uninformed questions from the blowhard in charge. Apologies and promises of better behavior were offered and accepted. The work continued.

Brookleigh was clear from the beginning that there was no way it could carry the load Poole wanted AND be self-propelled. Poole grudgingly accepted that limitation. Then, as his plan evolved, he determined it was of great benefit to not have a heavy, noisy, fuel-hungry steam engine aboard.

More germane, but thoroughly avoided by Brookleigh was the question of it actually staying aloft. There was neither time nor place to test it out. He had made the most accurate calculations he could, and managed the workers to the best of his ability. But too many questions were outstanding: payload, integrity of the silk bag, purity of the hydrogen lifting gas, tensile strength of the lines. Too many uncertainties, but for one.

Unknown,even within the Council, this was a time of truly dire circumstances for the Mint. On Christmas Eve, after his regular report to the Council, Brookleigh was surprised to be locked in with the rest of them rather than be shooed out. Poole assured Brookleigh that his personal health and safety was involved.

Feeling like crawling back into the inspirational bottle, His Honor asked after the state of Mint finances. When the treasurer reported that by launch day, they would have fewer than ten guineas left, the room fell into an aghast silence. Poole summed it up “We are bled white, gents. If we do not recoup expenses from the Montague, the Liberty of the Mint falls. And every man jack in this room is gallows-bait.”

Among the rank and file, discussion centered more on what to name it than whether it would fly or not. Poole initially referred to it as Montague’s Lament, but his men shied away from putting a sworn enemy’s name on their secret weapon. At that point, they didn’t know exactly how it was to be used, but they knew bad luck when they heard it.

The Mint’s senior captain, a defrocked minister, caught the fancy of the rankers with a Biblical reference. He suggested calling it The Wicked Flee, from Proverbs 28, offering by way of example “the wicked flee before we righteous Blues”. The Conny Blue’s interest was bolstered after a ranker claimed the name was from a poem where a flea bite helped a gent top a reluctant lass. No one but the former minister had actually read Donne’s poem, and knew the suitor was unsuccessful. But he was wise enough to let a good thing run when it had legs. As the men shouted their approval, he offered a wry shrug to Poole, who nodded. “Wicked Flea” it was.

As the work progressed on the Wicked Flea, Poole and his captains made and remade the list of their best fighters, carefully caculated the best routes to Rochester Yard, and generously plied with ale any beggar whose circuit included a bit of Montague turf.

A party of “clean men” (those not yet wanted for their misdeeds) walked the most likely routes, noting buildings and obstacles, doing so again in the dead of night. A Mintman, art-faker and forger, muralled streetscapes on the walls of the common room. The advance men penciled in the time between given points, noted poor footing, identified public houses active in the small hours, even marking a den of troublesome dogs. This alerted the towboys to changes of direction and tight passages.

Brookleigh declared the Wicked Flea ready two days before the planned action – a surprise raid to very heart of the Montague headquarters. The Mintmen were well-schooled in keeping secrets. The balloon was concealed and inflated in a hidden courtyard. His Honor, the President of the Liberty of the Mint, addressed the assembled Blues. Rather than making a call for adventure or sentimental recollections of honor and glory, Poole got to the main topic.

“Right then. Some of you ken that we’re taking the fight to Montague Close - the Wicked Flea carrying raiders numbering thirty one.”

Poole held a hand palm down to quiet the cheers. “The party and their weapons average out to 124 pounds each. That be thirty eight hundred pounds, thereabouts – the Flea’s maximum lift, according to Mr. Brookleigh. I would rather take more smaller men than fewer and bigger. But that is not to be.”

Most of the listeners cared little for such detail. They waited on important matters. “Those selected earn a triple share of booty. Any tow-boy who throws in with us for the fight gets a double share. If every man is sober, able and unafraid, we have victory. Any lacking those qualities has no place in this crew.”

Poole wagged his finger at the laughing crowd. “Mind you, word is out that something is afoot. Both Commons and Lords are still in session, despite the season. As well, army patrols across London and the Borough are thick as lice. I expect the lobsterbacks to be huddled around a comfy hearth by three in the a.m. And I know for sure all the bountytakers will be farting in their beds at that hour. So that is when we launch. As long as we don’t make too much noise, our clean men will get us to Montague Close, unmolested.” He paused to drink deeply from a mug, hoping no one would ask after all their hard-earned loot.

The bulk of the Liberty’s treasure had bought a mountain of iron scrap and a dozen carboys of oil of vitriol. The acid was particularly dear, pilfered from naval stores. When time came to inflate the balloon, they placed the iron in several lead-lined hogsheads, then poured the acid over it all. The resulting hydrogen gas was piped to the Wicked Flea. In the evening of the 30th they began to inflate the balloon. As it started to rise, weights were added to keep it close to the ground.

On the afternoon of the 31st, the selected raiding crew gradually congregated. Poole proved his earnestness about the conditions previously laid down. Two men were replaced for being drunk. Another asked too many nervous questions. They were locked in a cellar for the next twelve hours, just to prevent any from turning coats. The assembled Mintmen cheered their president’s closing comments. “Neither wino or whinger in the lot. Winners only, me lads.”

He called on the former minister to bless the raiders. Which he did at length and in detail. Finally, the gaunt man concluded “Let us go take possession of the land, for we can certainly do so.” There was sporadic ‘Amens’, as most of the Mintmen were religious by habit rather than devotion. Many responded to the tone rather than the specific words. A few even crossed themselves Catholique-fashion.

Three young men, all shy of eighteen, were among those selected. Finding the lines and netting too crowded, they made an adventure of it by shinnying up the ropes to settle atop of the balloon itself. Reminding the raiders of children perched atop Bessie the Elephant at Lambeth Fair, the sight leavened their collective nervous energy. They were also pleased to have the boyish trio along - their well-honed skills at the ruthless application of knucklers, shin-hacks and head butts was legendary.

Balloon inflated, fighters mounted, tow-gang at ready. The coming fight was on every mind, but in excitement rather than anxiety. Long the underdogs, there was a sense that the Mint now had the upper hand, and that their novel transportation was about to tip the scale.

At quarter to three on the morning, half the dragging crew laid lines over the roof and onto the street side of the compound. Others released the weighted sacks holding the balloon down. The Flea rose over the roofline before being pulled out to float above the narrow cobbled square. The balance of the towboys waited in the square to grab dangling lines.

Once all hands were in place, the clean men set a quick pace along the length of Red Cross Street, a fairly straight go. At first, there was some whispered jocularity about the new Liberty of the Air, until the men were shushed. Nearing the far end of the street, they slowed to a steady walk.

With all eyes glued to their leader, the towboys negotiated the twists and turns between Red Cross and Rochester Yard. That last stretch was straight and level. The gang began to speed up so that they might be near a run when they burst out onto the expanse of the Yard. They sprinted over the white stones outlining the long demolished St. Saviour church, moving as fast as their burden allowed. When they released the lines at the barred gates of Montague Close, there was enough momentum to carry the Flea past the street-side buildings and over the enemy’s courtyard.

**

As the Mintmen uttering their pre-launch amens, Poole sent Brookleigh on his way. As the Flea entered Rochester Yard, Brookleigh was descending Lambeth Stairs to board a launch to run down to the estuary. Crossing under Westminster Bridge, he heard the boatmen comment on the sound of cheering. One grumbled about toffs and their parties. The other told him to put more into rowing than complaining.

**

As the first towboys reach the gate, they dropped the lines and ran off to the sides. The Flea glided silently over the building, coming to a stop above the courtyard. Mintmen slid down the drag lines. A startled shout from the dozing watchman brought sleepy Marauders out to join this final winner-take-all battle.

Initially, there were unpleasant surprises for the raiders. No one had taken into account that the doors would be padlocked as well as barred – the towboys milled about uselessly outside. Most of the raiders got down safely in the first wave. But as its burden lightened, the Flea strained upward. The men on the ground were torn between joining the fray and securing the balloon.

One of them hurriedly tied it to a coal cart, then turned to slash at a Montague. Others followed his example. The Flea held steady until the next five men came down. The jostling spilled some of the coal out, allowing the balloon to bounce upward. Which released more coal. The balloon surged higher against the lesser weight, and tipped the cart empty. Soon the Flea floated free, the empty cart swinging wildly below.

The trio atop the balloon discovered how much more difficult it was to climb down than up. They found themselves clinging to the dangling lines as the Flea rose, then floated away towards Kent. One attempted to drop into the Thames, only to crash through the roof of a covered dock. The other two clutched at rigging as the whole affair drifted towards the foul fens and miasmatic mudflats of the Thames estuary.

Below, the courtyard was crowded shoulder to shoulder. Afirst, the fighting was impeded by the sheer numbers. Men were confined to swinging clubs in a narrow vertical arc in front of them. Soon enough, ranks thinned and the flailing fragmented into a number of smaller fights. Even though they had the incentive of fighting for home turf, the thinning affected the Montague more than the invaders. The slashing, shouting, stabbing and club-swinging continued on to nearly dawn.

At quarter of six, a handful of desperate Montagues bolted for the side gate, deciding the chance of arrest outside was a better bet than the certain death within. As the thick oak door creaked open a couple of feet, one darted through, happy to abandon friends as much as the fight. He scrambled back in as quickly as he left. “Sojers, Lor’ Jaysus. A hunner' an more.”

The men were knocked over as the door banged open and scores of red-coated soldiers, bayonets waving, poured into the courtyard. The shocked combatants stopped, staring at the new entrants. The only sounds were the groans of the wounded.

An officer - pistol in one hand, parchment in the other - declared the conflict to be in contravention of “one, some or all of the Six Acts. That, and you all fight like little French girls.” All persons present were immediately to surrender themselves to His Majesty’s pleasure.

The chief of the Montagues staggered forward, a bloody rag pressed to a scalp wound. “The Acts were dead as of midnight. I have that on best authority. Regardless, you have trespassed upon a Liberty of Southwark. This sacred ground is beyond the pale of your interference. Depart at once.”

For months, the talk of little else than the deadlocked Commons, as the Six Laws crept towards expiration. The radicals, muzzled for nearly a decade, had assembled paper and presses in order to begin publishing as soon as the public safety acts lapsed. In some cases the newspapers had been printed, only awaiting distribution at noon of the last day of the year.

The officer laughed loud, then barked out for all to hear. “Debate ran on and on, so the Speaker ordered the clock spiked. The County Party finally came around. As at three and thirty this morning, officially five minutes to midnight, the United Kingdom was graced with another five year extension of peace, order and good government. And the lot of you are graced with an appearance at the magistrate’s bench. You will na be pulling these shenanigans five years hence, either. The Commons has established prisons enough on the Manx island to hold the lot of you to your grey and toothless years. There is more, laddie boys.”

His tone and grin cowed the fighters even more than his abrupt appearance. A trooper held a lantern above the officer’s shoulder. That officer grinned, quite savegely, the read … “Hear Ye, Hear Ye...”

All Liberties were hereby abolished, their inhabitants subject to all and every statute governing other Britons. The former lawless territories were forthwith incorporated into the counties within which they would naturally fall. The former liberties of Southwark were now part of the County of Surrey. Laughing, he concluded with “protests heard at the Crown’s displeasure. God Save the King.”

Rolling the parchment, he called over his shoulder “Sargent. Form up the prisoners, chained in pairs. March them back down Borough High to Trinity Road Gaol for now. Make enough noise to rouse those still asleep. His Majesty’s subjects must needs see what happens to miscreants of this sort.”

And that is how supremacy, so nearly achieved, was snatched from the Conny Blues. They did enjoy a victory of an inferior sort though, as two of their number were the only residents of the various liberties in greater London to escape apprehension and transport to the Isle of Man. That hapless duo, still clinging to the rag-shabby Wicked Flea, were last seen over the Isle of Thanet, drifting south-southeast.

One wonders. Did they fall into the sea to feed the fish? Did they find a safe landing, sustenance and adventure on the foreign shore? If the later, a good story might be had. After all, young men handy with knucklers and head-butts are always in demand someplace in this world.

The End of V 2.0

Copyright 2019 by Haro James