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Bagpipers in the Dock*

Easy access to a variety of large online historical databases allied to simple keyword search facilities is beginning to revolutionise our understanding of the musical past. A particularly splendid example of the results that can be achieved using these resources is David Lasocki’s exhaustive work on early flute makers identified mainly through eighteenth century classified newspaper advertisements (Lasocki, 2010). Similarly, a recent article in The Strad records the previously unknown criminal history of Lockey Hill, a member of the famous English violin making family, gleaned from the online proceedings of the Old Bailey (Nex, 2010). This paper similarly uses this latter resource to place on record four nineteenth century criminal cases involving bagpipers. Part of the interest in these cases lies not only in the identification of named historical pipers (and, in certain cases, details of their pipes) in a rather interesting context but in the fact that they provide clear evidence of quotidian piping activity in the capital at a time when the bagpipe is supposed to have gone out of fashion save in the northern counties (Cannon, 1971).

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, published between 1674 and 1913, contain accounts of 197,745 trials held at London’s central criminal court; they were made available online in 20031. The Proceedings do not provide a complete transcript of the court proceedings but they are detailed enough to represent a “true, fair and perfect narrative” of the trials. The website claims that they may constitute “the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published” and consequently are historically invaluable. The cases recorded here show how bagpipes occasionally touched these everyday lives in nineteenth century London.

The earliest case involves one Elizabeth Sheen who on 10th September, 1823 was tried for stealing a set of bagpipes from Martin Flannagan on 28th July. His story was that he had been playing his pipes at Kennedy’s public-house in St James Street. After finishing he had tied them up in a green bag and left them on a table whilst he went outside to the courtyard for a couple of minutes. On his return the bag had gone. A witness, Ann Crawley, later claimed that she had seen Sheen take the bag from the table and possibly – the report is a bit unclear here – leave with it. It was a few days later that Crawley claimed that she

heard about the loss of Flannagan’s pipes, put two and two together, and immediately went and reported her suspicions to the landlady. The beadle, John Green, duly arrested Elizabeth Sheen. At first Crawley said that Sheen was unknown to her, but under examination it turned out that the two women lived in the same lodgings; Sheen further claimed that Crawley was known to be a habitual liar. Although the Proceedings do not provide explicit evidence, it may be guessed that, perhaps, the two women had been involved in some kind of dispute and Crawley’s accusation of Sheen was some way of settling the account. Whatever the cause, the court did not believe Crawley’s evidence. Since this was the only evidence linking Sheen to the theft,

she was accordingly found not guilty. It remains unrecorded whether Flannagan ever recovered his pipes.

One interesting detail of the case is that the pipes were reported as valued at £2 10s. In terms of the nature of the offence this was important since it meant the crime was classified as grand larceny (i.e. theft of any goods valued at more than one shilling). A range of penalties were available to the court for those found guilty of such a charge: the lower end included a simple fine but the consequences could be considerably more severe. Interestingly, on the same day as Sheen’s trial Alexander Ward and John Bowden were also accused of stealing a musical instrument – in this case a guitar valued at £1; both were found guilty and transported for seven years; in another court on the same day the unfortunate 18 year old William Scaife was transported for life for stealing a handkerchief valued at a mere 3s.

Nothing is recorded in the Proceedings about the type of pipes Flannagan played. This is not true of the next two cases which both involve players of “union” pipes. The first of these involves the alleged theft of a set of union pipes valued by the court at £5

from Owen Cunningham by Charles Starling. The robbery took place on 10th March, 1831 with the subsequent trial held on 7th April; Starling was charged with “pocketpicking” (a somewhat imprecise term at that period). The evidence given by Cunningham and his brother Martin (also a union piper) is a little confusing, although, as we shall see, for understandable reasons.

The brothers’ original story

seems to have been that both had

spent the evening playing together

– “we each of us had a set of pipes” – at the Crown and Thistle public house in the Haymarket. They claimed to have left a little before eleven or midnight depending on which brother you believe. Although apparently leaving together, Martin arrived at their home at 3 Charles Street, Drury Lane before Owen. The latter was found soon after, however, laying in the street outside the house “his face bleeding and his clothes disfigured”. Owen claimed that Starling had come up to him, knocked him down and taken his pipes (along with a sovereign and a half in coins). This is a little surprising given that Starling only lived “three doors” from Cunningham, so that it is very likely that they were known to one another. A few days later Martin claimed he was discussing the loss with a fellow (unnamed) piper in the Sugar Loaf public house. Upon saying that he would be willing to pay £1 for their recovery, a man called James Burke approached him and said he knew where the pipes were. Soon after Burke came to Cunningham’s house followed soon after by Starling who actually had the pipes. Martin paid Burke 19s 6d for the recovery of the pipes. If Starling had stolen the pipes for gain, this seems a strange outcome.

The evidence from Starling and the other witnesses paints a more mundane story than that given by the Cunninghams. The area around the Haymarket was the focus of a large entertainment industry which included the Theatre Royal (opened in 1821), numerous inns and other places of more dubious diversion. It appears that Owen and Martin had spent the evening drinking heavily in a variety of these places before finally ending up at the Crown and Thistle.

Various witnesses reported that by this point they were very much the worse for wear. Indeed, so intoxicated were they that it was suggested that they ought to leave the pipes with the landlady since “they were not capable of taking care of themselves”. This they appear to have done3. The accused, Starling, meanwhile had been drinking in another public house, The Bank, the whole evening. Whilst returning home, he appears to have met someone called Barry who asked him if he could look after a bundle which turned out to contain the pipes. It is unclear how they came to be in Barry’s possession but Starling agreed to take them. A couple of days later, Burke came to Starling saying that he had discovered who the pipes belonged to

whereupon the two went to Cunningham to return them.

In the days before their recovery, it appears that a somewhat befuddled Martin had been going around the neighbourhood asking if anyone knew what they had done with the pipes4. His landlord, John Elliot, reported him as saying that he had been “so tipsy he scarcely knew how he had lost them”; Elliot further noted that he was “in the habit of coming home drunk”. Surprisingly, given subsequent events, no robbery was mentioned to anyone by Cunningham during these inquiries; it seems to have been a story concocted for whatever reason after the pipes had been returned by Burke and Starling. Predictably on this evidence, Starling was found not guilty and the case dismissed.

There are a couple of interesting sidelines to this story. First, Martin says that the pipes had cost £20, although he valued them at about £7 (and the court at £5). If they had indeed cost £20, this was a considerable sum, amounting to a very good annual salary for most workers at this time. Quite how the brothers managed to acquire them is, therefore, an interesting question since they do not give the impression of being well-off. Secondly, Owen’s statement to the court that “I play the union-pipes” is given in such a way as to imply that this is how he earned his living. Perhaps all that he meant was that he used his pipes to earn a few shillings here and there providing entertainment in the many public houses of the capital. On the other hand, he may have been part of that group of Irish pipers who had found their way to the capital in a more professional capacity6. As Francis O’Neill writes “Irish pipers were no rarity on the London stage since the last decade of the eighteenth century, and it is a matter of history that some of them, brilliant performers, were commanded to present themselves for the entertainment of royalty” (O’Neill, 1913: 196). The most renowned of these Irish pipers were Denis Courtney (Highfill et al 1975; Carolan, 2004) and Patrick O’Farrell (0’Neill, 1913: 196-198) both of whom famously performed on the union pipes in the 1790s in the popular ballet-pantomime Oscar and Malvina which included music specially composed for the pipes and harp by William Reeve

(Cheape, 2008: 113-116). It is said to have “played before royalty and to have filled engagements at one of the most fashionable of London hotels” (O’Neill, 1913: 227). Although this particular identification remains doubtful, the Cunninghams’ court case provides further evidence for O’Neil’s general claim about the large number of Irish pipers found in the capital at this time7.

In the year previous to the Starling case, on 16th September, 1830, another Irish born union piper, Anthony Nayland, was in court although in this instance he was standing in the dock as the accused. Nayland was charged with attacking James Brown, a naval Captain, with a knife and “malcioulsy (sic) cutting him in and upon his face and left cheek, with intent to kill and murder him”. Three witnesses clearly recounted what had happened. On 12th September Nayland had been walking down the High Street in Shadwell with his bagpipes under his arm when he came up behind James Brown walking arm-in-arm with John Smith, another naval Captain. With no provocation Nayland slashed at Brown’s cheek with a double bladed knife. The cut, which was half an inch deep, extended from “the corner of the mouth to the back of the ear”. Nayland immediately ran off whilst Brown was taken to Mr Arthur, a London Hospital surgeon living in the High Street. Soon after the attack, a policeman, George Cocking, had become suspicious of Nayland who “with bagpipes under his arm” had abruptly turned away and quickened his pace on spotting him. On detaining Nayland and hearing of the attack on Brown, Cocking asked whether he had been responsible to which he immediately replied that he was. When asked why, he replied that he had “no particular reason for doing it”.

The accused’s testimony and other witnesses give some insight into Nayland’s psychological state at this time. He had emigrated from Ireland sometime in the previous year. Presumably he landed at Liverpool since he confessed to having spent about four weeks in St John’s College “lunatic asylum”8 in the city; it seems that he was “subject to fits of madness” at fairly regular intervals. Around Christmas 1829 he turned up in London. Using his pipes, “which are the cause of my getting my bread”, he managed to earn a precarious living – “very good success sometimes, poor at others”. During one of these leaner periods he was forced to pawn his pipes for 12s from which he paid off debts of some 4 to 5s. The loss of his pipes, however, seems to have plunged him into deep depression and on 6th August, 1830 he attempted to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge. He was pulled from the river by a couple of water men with some difficulty since “he was so violent”; indeed, it took some seven or eight men to finally restrain him. He later claimed that his “distress at the loss of his pipes caused him to do it” [i.e. act violently]9. By the next day he had calmed down somewhat but Henry Martin the bridge keeper still felt it necessary to take him to Giltspur Street Compter, a prison mainly for debtors. Whilst in the Compter he was placed in the infirmary although neither the surgeon nor nurse who looked after him thought he showed any signs of insanity; he was released three or four days later. Given his history of mental instability, the court found Nayland not guilty of the charge “believing him to be insane at the time”.

Nayland is not the only knife wielding bagpiper mentioned in the Proceedings. On 23rd October, 1837 William Hogan was similarly charged with assaulting a police constable, Charles Randyll, by “cutting and wounding him upon his face, with intent feloniously, wilfully, and of malice aforethought, to kill and murder him”. Hogan had been playing his pipes (although in this case it is not stated what type) outside the London Docks in Upper East Smithfield, Wapping around about midnight. He seems to have gathered a large crowd, mainly, so the police claimed, of “prostitutes and thieves”. Randyll went up to Hogan and asked him to move on since it was late. Hogan swore that he would be “d—- and b—-” if he would. Some kind of struggle ensued during which Hogan pulled a razor from his coat and slashed Randyll’s face. Hogan was detained by two other police officers who had turned up by this time whilst Randyll was taken to hospital to have his wounds sewn up. As with the previous case, there was no issue over whether Hogan had attacked Randyll and even though the former argued that he was drunk at the time and presented good character references, he was found guilty and imprisoned for three years.

There are occasional glimpses of bagpipers playing less central roles in the Proceedings. For example, as part of the trial of Thomas Hopkins for the murder of his wife Sarah held on 11th June, 1866 one of the witnesses, Rosetta Giles, describes how she saw the couple at The Bell public house in Edmonton. She recalls that “a soldier was playing the bagpipes in the tap-

room, and the prisoner was jumping

with the rest of us, they call it

dancing”. Given that he was a

soldier and the evening appears to

have been rather raucous, might we

conclude that in this instance the

piper was playing on the Great

Highland Pipes? It is impossible to

tell but there are a sufficient

number of pictures from the period

which include such pipers – see for

example page 6 of Chanter Autumn

2010 as well as those illustrated

here – to suggest that they were a

fairly common feature of the streets

of London at this time. Whatever

pipes Hopkins had danced to, he

was found guilty of manslaughter

and sentenced to 15 years penal


More dancing is reported in the trial for murder of Jeremiah Carthy on 18th September, 1820. One witness, Mary M’Kennedy (sic), recalled during questioning having danced with the victim at a gathering in the public house in George Yard, New Court,

unlikely, however, that either

Owen or Martin were part of this

exalted group unless the former is

the same Owen Cunningham

mentioned by O’Neil and who is

Whitechapel to the music of a “piper”. Whether this was a bagpiper or not is not stated but given that about 50 dancers were involved, the pipes, whatever they were, must have been loud. The dancing must also have been vigorous since eventually the floor collapsed and a number of people, including Carthy, fell into the cellar10. A little later he found himself in an argument which resulted in him being beaten to death by a number of assailants. As a side note, George Yard was to receive greater notoriety some years later when Martha Tabram was found murdered there on 7th August, 1888; Tabram is thought by some to be the first victim of Jack the Ripper before he went on his more spectacular killing spree later in that Autumn (Begg, 2006).

Finally in this brief trawl through the Proceedings, we note a letter written by John Fennell, a 28-year-old printer from Kilkenny sentenced to death on 28th April, 1802 for forging banknotes. He defiantly wrote to a friend:

If I die, I intend to have a merry death, for I will petition the Bank to allow me an Irish piper, from the time I receive sentence, to play in my cell, and promise to give them the plan before I am turned off, but disappoint them after in giving it.

Whether this ever happened is unrecorded but, as the previous cases show, there were certainly enough Irish pipers within the capital to easily satisfy this final request if it were granted.

This article is the briefest of demonstrations of the wealth of material which is now becoming available at the press of a few computer keystrokes. The data is not only of intrinsic interest but also provides clear leads for avenues of future research. The next few years are likely to be exciting ones for those interested in the history of our instrument.


  1. Available from The site includes detailed discussion of the Proceedings along with valuable historical background on the criminal law of this period. Placing “bagpipes” into the search engine will identify the various cases reported on here.

  2. The two men are tossing a coin for the price of a drink – hence the title describing the two sides of the (Irish) coin. A recent catalogue description ( works_for_sale/nicol_e__head_or_harp.phtml) correctly identifies the figure on the right as a union piper by the pipes draped over his chair but assumes that the bellows are a “squeezebox”!

  3. Both brothers are stated as having pipes with them but only one set was left behind. It is unclear why this was so.

  4. Since, as previously noted, Starling lived so close to the Cunninghams, it is surprising that he had not previously heard of their pipe loss and realised whose pipes he was looking after. Note that although the pipes were said to be Owen’s, Martin claimed that they were actually his which probably explains why he was the one who seems to have spent the most time trying to recover them.

  5. This is a preliminary sketch for a somewhat lifeless engraved version of the same name produced by Nicol in 1862. A small detail of this appeared in Chanter Summer 2006, page 20.

  6. The Cunningham brothers were almost certainly Irish since Martin recalls during the trial of meeting someone named Barry whilst he was in Sligo.

  7. Given his surname we might also conjecture that Martin Flannagan in the previous case was also Irish.

  8. There is no mention of such an institution on the University of Liverpool’s “History of Liverpool psychiatry” webpage ( nor the Index of English and Welsh Lunatic Asylums and Mental Hospitals (

  9. Although he had pawned his pipes at the beginning of August, he was carrying them under his arm during the attack on Brown four or five weeks later. It is interesting to speculate how he had managed to raise enough money to reclaim them from the pawn shop.

  10. This is likely to say as much about the state of the building as the dancing. Housing in this part of the East End was frequently constructed with no foundations using a particularly poor form of lime-based mortar known as “Billysweet” (which never fully dried out) and with the cheapest of bricks and timber; the damp frequently led to rotten floorboards (Wise, 2008; see especially picture on page 19 of a foot falling through the floor).


Begg, P. (2006). Jack the Ripper: The Facts. Portico: London

Cannon, R. (1971). The bagpipe in northern England. Folk Music Journal, 2, 127-147. Carolan, N. (2004). Courtney’s union pipes, 1788. An Píobaire, 4 (issue 25), 12-14. Carolan, N. (2005). Uillean pipers at the Old Bailey, 1802-1831. An Píobaire, 4 (issue 25), 24-29.

Cheape, H. (2008). Bagpipes: A National Collection of a National Instrument. National Museums Scotland: Edinburgh.

Highfill, P., Burnim, K., & Langhans, E. (1975). A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musician, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660- 1800: Vol. 4: Corye to Dynion. [Entry for Courtney, Denis, pp. 8-9.] Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale, IL.

Lasocki, D. (2010). New light on eighteenth-century English woodwind makers from newspaper advertisements. The Galpin Society Journal, LXIII, 73-142.

Nex, J. (2010). Luthier and thief. The Strad, 121 (August), 48-52

O’Neil, F. (1913). Irish Minstrels and Musicians. Regan Printing House: Chicago, IL. Wise, S. (2008). The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum. Vintage: London.

  • I originally thought that I was the discoverer of the material presented here. However, shortly before the completion of the writing process I accidentally came across an article by Nicholas Carolan in An Píobaire (Carolan, 2005) which provides a transcript of the very court cases discussed here. Since the current paper presents the cases with a commentary, I have decided to still offer my own account. It is interesting to note that although a couple of the court cases explicitly refer to “union” pipes, Carolan’s title dubs these pipers as “uillean” players. He further assumes that all the pipers referred to are Irish, although in at least a couple of cases it is far from clear whether this appropriation is justified or not.