The life and crimes of Thomas Atcherley

Updated 30 June 2015.

“Thomas, b. 27 Feb. 1766, d. s. p. July 1801” is all that the Burkes had to say about Thomas Atcherley in their publications on the genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry in the 1800s. He was born, and 35 years later he descessit sine prole (died without issue). Nowadays, family historians like myself are far more interested in what went on between the dates of birth and death of the people in our trees. My research into the Atcherleys has led to some unexpected discoveries about the life – and crimes – of Thomas, who turns out to have been the ‘black sheep’ of his family.

Thomas Atcherley [] was (as his inclusion in a book on the landed gentry suggests) born into a well-heeled family: The Atcherleys of Marton in Shropshire. Baptised at the parish church of Middle St Peter on 28 February 1766, the day after his birth, he was the family’s second son. He was also their last. Within two months of his birth his father Richard Atcherley was dead, at the age of 34. Further tragedy was to follow. Seven years after the loss of their father, Thomas Atcherley and his four siblings were orphaned by the sudden death of their mother, Jane Atcherley, in 1773. The Shrewsbury Chronicle described Jane as “A gentlewoman whose amiable deportment through life bespoke the pious Christian, the tender parent, and the agreeable acquaintance, which renders her death deservedly lamented.”

Atcherley children Dorothy (aged 11), Jane (10), Richard (9), Elizabeth (8) and Thomas (7) were now without their mother’s tender parental care. Who took responsibility for them from this point is unclear. Their paternal grandfather Thomas Atcherley and  most of their aunts and uncles had died long since. Their maiden aunt Dorothy Atcherley, then aged 45, may have played a part, but I suspect that it was another Dorothy Atcherley, the children’s 69-year-old grandmother, who became their guardian. By the time she passed away in 1792 at the age of 88, all three of her granddaughters were married and their future prospects secured.

The future prospects of Dorothy’s grandson (Thomas’s older brother) Richard Atcherley [] were also assured. As the eldest son of the late Richard Atcherley senior he would inherit the bulk of the family’s estates. He was nonetheless given the means to pursue a respectable business through his apprenticeship to Messrs Widdens, Potts & Leake, a firm of attorneys in Chester. This began in 1781 when Richard was 17, and it cost the family £150. Surviving legal documents bear Richard Atcherley’s signature as a clerk in November 1781 and as a witness, alongside Charles Potts, in 1783. Whether Richard pursued his legal career much beyond this time is open to conjecture. I have found no other references to him being an attorney. He would most likely have come into his inheritance on reaching the age of 21 on 13 October 1784 and may then have abandoned his apprenticeship. Deeds dating from March the following year, in which he was described as “Richd. Atcherley of Marton, Middle, gent.” show him selling off property in Shrewsbury’s Knocking Street, to Philip Heath of that town. He went on to marry, and he died “without issue” in 1834 (having taken steps before his death to ensure the continuance of the Atcherley name at Marton despite the end of the male line of the family – see Richard Atcherley and his hopes for posterity).

I have found no evidence to show that an apprenticeship was arranged for Thomas Atcherley. Like his older brother, he too most likely came into his inheritance on his 21st birthday, which was 27 February 1787. Just what that inheritance was I do not know with any certainty, but it may have been the “fortune of some thousand pounds” which he was later reported to have squandered (see below). Whatever he may have received, by 1794 he had not only lost it but had also got into debt. Being unable to repay those to whom he owed money, he was imprisoned at the Northgate Gaol in Chester. Evidence for this appears in notices published in the Chester Chronicle, and also in The London Gazette, including the following in the Gazette’s issue of 29 July 1794:

THE following Persons being Prisoners for Debt in the respective Gaols or Prisons hereafter mentioned, and not being charged in Custody, on the Twelfth Day of February, One thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, with any Debt or Debts, Sum or Sums of Money, not exceeding in the Whole the Sum of One Thousand Pounds, do hereby give this Publick Notice, That they intend to take the Benefit of an Act, passed in the Thirty fourth Year of His present Majesty’s Reign, intituled An Act for the Discharge of certain Insolvent Debtors, at the next General Quarter Session, or General Session of the Peace, to be held in and for the County, Riding, Division, City, town, Liberty, or Place, or any Adjournment thereof, which shall happen next after TWENTY-ONE Days from the Publication of their FIRST NOTICES in the London Gazette. And they do hereby give Notice, that true and perfect Schedules, containing Discoveries of all their Real and Personal Estates, hereafter to be sworn to, are now ready to be delivered to any Creditors applying for the same, in Manner as by the said Act is directed, to the Goalers or Keepers, or their Deputies, of the said Prisons.

Not far beneath this notice appeared the following:

Chester’s Northgate (illustrated below) was one of four gates giving access to the city, and doubled as the City Gaol for Felons and Debtors until 1807 when a new prison was erected near Watergate. It was visited in March 1774 and again in 1787 by John Howard, the noted campaigner for penal reform, during his extensive investigations into prison conditions in Britain and Europe. Howard noted that felons had a spacious day room, but that their night-room or dungeon measured 14 feet by 8 and had “No light, nor any communication with the external air, but by two leaden pipes of about an inch diameter laid in from the gate-way.” The ‘women-felons’ were confined upstairs in a room called the upper dungeon. Fortunately for Thomas Atcherley, the gaol had “many convenient apartments for debtors” – though I doubt they were as pleasant as Howard almost makes them sound! Furthermore, in addition to having access to a courtyard used by the felons, debtors had “the privilege of walking in the keeper’s garden.”

Debtors were released if their debts were paid (either by others, or by themselves with money earned while in gaol). However at the time when Thomas was imprisoned, debtors were expected to pay for their keep while incarcerated and so it was possible for their debts to increase rather than decrease. Evidently the debts owed by Thomas Atcherley were paid and he was released – but within two years he was back behind bars.

On 14 May 1796, “Thomas Atcherly” was convicted “for a fraud” and was ordered to be imprisoned for seven days – in Newgate Prison, London rather than the Northgate Gaol in Chester. Thomas was undeterred by this punishment however. By 1799 he was using a new middle name, Hill, which he appears to have acquired for the purpose of carrying out a series of deceptions. The story of his crimes and of how he was brought to justice was reported in the Reading Mercury of 7 October 1799:

Thomas Hill Atcherly, the person advertised in the Sun and other London newspapers of March last, for defrauding Innkeepers in various parts of the kingdom, is now in confinement at Newbury, having been apprehended by Mr. Batten, of the Tuns in that town on Saturday last. Both Mr. Batten, and Mr. Haskins, of the Sun had been imposed on by this man about 18 months since, and he has since been practising similar cheats at Guildford and several other places. What adds to his disgrace, is that he squandered a fortune of some thousand pounds, and has made even his own brother, a man of family and fortune, in Shropshire, a dupe to his artifices, and deceived many of the clergy and gentry by introducing himself as a relation to Sir Richard Hill.

Two weeks later the same paper relayed the news of Thomas’s conviction and punishment: “Thomas Hill Atcherley, the famous impostor, was convicted at the sessions holden for the borough of Newbury on Tuesday the 15th instant, of petty larceny, and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and 40 lashes at the public whipping post.”

I suspect that even this was not Thomas Atcherley’s final brush with the law. In the Newgate Prison Calendars which have now been digitised and indexed by Findmypast, there is an entry from 1800 for a man who had been “charged with felony in the county of Hertford” and who was therefore “ordered to be sent to the common gaol of the said county.” The man’s name was recorded as Thomas Corbett Acherley, but this was almost certainly another of Thomas Atcherley’s aliases, inspired by the name of his brother-in-law Robert Corbett.

Inside the church of St Peter at Middle in Shropshire, members of the Atcherley family of Marton are remembered on wall-mounted monuments. Richard Atcherley, brother of Thomas, is commemorated as “a man of integrity and sincerity”. The deaths of the brothers’ parents, Richard and Jane, are also recorded, and there are memorials to some of the later heirs to the Atcherley name, arms and Marton estate. (See MIs at Myddle St Peter.) But there is no mention of Thomas ‘Hill’ Atcherley, who must have brought shame upon a devout, Christian family which, for the most part, obeyed (and in some cases enforced) the law.

As we have seen, Thomas died in July 1801. At 35 years of age, he had lived a year longer than the father he never knew. Now, more than two centuries later, his life – and his crimes – are remembered not through a tablet in a church but by way of this electronic memorial. Family historians tend to be rather forgiving of their families’ black sheep. Whether Thomas’s own family ever forgave him for his crimes I know not, but I hope that, as good Christians, they did.

Picture credits. Extract from London Gazette, issue 13689, 29 Jul 1794, page 780 used under the Open Government Licence v2.0. The Old North Gate from page 253 of Chester in the Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns. Image adapted from a scan downloaded from the British Library Flickr Photostream; no known copyright restrictions.


[1] John Burke and John Bernard Burke (1847), A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain and Ireland. Volume I, page 32. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[2] Middle, Shropshire parish register covering 1766, entry for baptism of Thomas Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Baptisms. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch P01576-1, Film 908237.
[3] Memorial inscriptions at St Peter’s church, Myddle, Shropshire. See MIs at Myddle St Peter (2) for photographs and transcriptions.
[4] Shrewsbury Chronicle, 5 Jun 1773, page 3.
[5] More, Shropshire, parish register covering 1792. Entry for burial (at Middle) of Dorothy Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials. Abstract in Parish Register Society and Shropshire Parish Register Society (1900), The Registers of More, Shropshire, page 82 viewed at Mocavo, the Internet Archive website and at the melockie website.
[6] Wem, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1782. Entry for marriage of Robert Taylor and Dorothy Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages. Abstract in Shropshire Parish Register Society (1908), Diocese of Lichfield Volume X, The Registers of Wem, Part II, page 742 viewed at Mocavo, the Internet Archive website and at the melockie website. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I02493-9, Film 1657606, Ref ID item 5 p 163.
[7] Loppington, Shropshire, marriage register covering 1782. Entry for marriage of David Francis Jones and Jane Atcherley. Copies viewed at Shropshire Archives and at Findmypast – Shropshire Marriages. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch I03467-9, Film 1701251.
[8] Chester Holy Trinity, Cheshire, marriage register covering 1785. Entry for marriage of Robert Corbett and Elizabeth Atcherley. Copy viewed at Findmypast. Indexed at FamilySearch, Batch M00967-1, GS Film 0924608 IT 1.
[9] The National Archives. Board of Stamps: Apprenticeship Books, Series IR 1. Warrant No 24, Inds 38, Brought 23d October 1781. Entry 14. Copy viewed at Ancestry – Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices’ Indentures, 1710-1811.
[10] James Coleman Collection, Document D. D. 1,351. In index (MS Word format) downloaded from National Library of Wales website.
[11] Hawarden Deeds, Documents 1605, 1606, 1607: Nov. 5. [1783]. In index (MS Word format) downloaded from National Library of Wales website.
[12] Shropshire Archives item 3668/44 dated 25 March 1785. Abstract at Access To Archives.
[13] Chester Chronicle, 18 Jul 1794, page 3. Copy viewed at Findmypast – British Newspapers 1710-1953.
[14] London Gazette, issue 13689, 29 Jul 1794, page 780.
[15] P Broster (1781), The Chester Guide. Page 35. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[16] John Howard (1777), The State Of The Prisons In England And Wales. Volume I. Page 442. Copy viewed at Google Books. (See also the John Howard League website.)
[17] Joseph Hemingway (1836), Panorama of the City of Chester. Page 117. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[18] Debtors, at Victorian Crime and Punishment (website, accessed 14 Jul 2014).
[19] Reading Mercury, 7 Oct 1799, page 3. Copy viewed at Findmypast – British Newspapers 1710-1953.
[20] The National Archives, Kew, reference HO 77, piece 3; Home Office: Newgate Prison Calendar. Copy viewed at Findmypast – England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.
[21] Reading Mercury, 28 Oct 1799, page 3. Copy viewed at Findmypast – British Newspapers 1710-1953.
[22] The National Archives, Kew, reference HO 77, piece 5; Home Office: Newgate Prison Calendar. Copy viewed at Findmypast – England & Wales, Crime, Prisons & Punishment, 1770-1935.