It was a most public kidnapping. The ragged, dirty lad was caught between burly manservants, hauled forcibly down the quays and over the Essex Bridge. Urchins and message boys, sailors and soldiers, maidservants and street sellers joined the cat calling crowd which followed until the bawling youngster was bundled into a hackney at the bridge end and quickly lost to sight in a cloud of dust. The crowd dispersed, little knowing that they had witnessed the abduction of James, the rightful Earl of Anglesea.

James was born in Wexford in 1715, the only child of Arthur, Lord Altham and Mary, Lady Altham. His should have been a life of refinement and education but Lord Altham was a most intemperate man in looks and character. He had lost the use of an eye having been shot through a window by one of his many enemies and cared not at all for the niceties of society, nor for the feelings of his wife, for being sober or for looking after his son. Drunken arguments drove Mary from the family home leaving her young son to the mercy of his father. James became used to the company of scoundrels and learned to roam the streets of Dublin and eke out an existence from an early age. 

He ran errands for the scholars of Trinity, was taken in by a butcher and incurred the wrath of his father’s mistress if he dared to show up on their doorstep. However death comes to all men and when Arthur died in November 1727, twelve year old James arrived barefoot and half naked at the graveside. There too was his uncle Richard, a brutal man who plotted to become Arthur’s heir and rid himself of James for ever. Thus, that Spring day, April 30th 1728, James was bundled on board a ship, anchored at George’s Quay, bound for America and the slave market. He suffered cruel treatment, starvation and beatings. He escaped and was recaptured. He was mothered by a kind woman for a short while before she died. He fell in love with an Indian slave and she drowned in a lake. His master’s daughter loved him and he was punished for that. Kind fate eventually smiled down on him and he escaped to Jamaica, was taken under the wing of a gentleman and returned to Ireland in 1743 to stake his claim against his uncle Richard.

Dubliners took James and his tales of adventure to heart and avidly followed the court case. On the twelfth day of the trial the jury retired, returning many hours later, to deliver their verdict by torchlight. As news of James’ victory spilled from the court bonfires were lit and crowds gathered to once more follow James across his native city.

James Anglesea story was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’. You can view the Project Gothenburg copy here.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 23rd August 2013