The disappearance for almost a month, in January 1753, of a London scullery maid called Elizabeth Canning acquired the status of a national drama at the time, and has fascinated researchers and writers ever since. Before he died last September, John Treherne sifted and sorted the evidence and came up with his own cleverly devised reconstruction, together with what seems a pretty plausible explanation. But for those who like to read the last page of a whodunnit last, I won’t let on.
This is far more that a simple mystery story; the events surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance and reappearance, and the reactions of lawyers and the London mob, are the stuff of social history. People’s lives depended on the outcome of investigations, for the list of capital crimes was longer than the hangman’s rope. Never mind that Elizabeth alleged she had been held prisoner. Far worse, someone had snipped off and stolen her stays, said to be worth ten bob. The Tyburn gallows shed their shadow over the proceedings from the start.
Some of the characters had wonderful names, like Mr Merry Tyshmaker, and jobs described as journeymen hartshorn-scraper (shades of Round the Horn?) The Lord Mayor of London – the first, incidentally, to inhabit the present Mansion House, who comes out of the saga rather well – was called Sir Crisp