Swift was the son of poor people living near St. Luke's Church, Old Street, who gave him some share of education, and bound him apprentice to a turner. During the term of his servitude he associated with a number of abandoned people, who supported themselves by thieving; and, when the period specified in his indenture was expired, he wasted the greatest part of his time in the company of those profligate wretches at an infamous house in Golden Lane.
Swift by some means ingratiated himself into the favour of a brewer, and had the address to interest him so warmly in his behalf, that he put him into a public house in Old Street, which was known by the sign of the Barley Mow, and had been long a receptacle for thieves of every denomination. When Swift commenced landlord he afforded all possible encouragement to his iniquitous customers, who, after spending the day at his house in blasphemy, drunkenness, and riot, constantly departed on the approach of night, in order to commit depredations on the public.
The persons inhabiting the neighbourhood where Swift lived were so dissatisfied with his conduct, and made such frequent complaints of the irregularities committed by his customers, that he was under the necessity of changing his place of abode; and, taking an alehouse near Shoreditch Church, he persisted in his usual course of wickedness, instructing thieves in what manner to obtain booties, frequently assisting in the actual commission of robberies, and constantly receiving the goods stolen by his associates. It is supposed that, before Swift was brought to justice, upwards of twenty men were hanged, and a much greater number transported, whom he had instructed and encouraged in the various arts of thieving; and, though it is known that he was many times committed to Newgate, and the New Gaol, Southwark, for offences of various kinds, he escaped the sentence of the law till he was upwards of fifty years of age.
Swift and some of his associates followed a waggon one evening from Snow Hill to The Cock Inn, Aldersgate Street; where Swift, being known to some of the ostlers, left his accomplices (Fossett, and a Jew named Solomons), giving them directions to steal as many goods from the waggon as they should be able, and bring them to him. Fosset and Solomons concealed themselves in the yard; and, after waiting some time, observed the ostler and waggoner go into the taproom together. They seized this opportunity of robbing the waggon, whence they stole a box containing seventy-two pounds of candles. They carried the box to Bishopsgate Street, where they opened it, but were greatly disappointed upon finding what it contained; for they imagined that they had acquired a valuable booty of plate. They carried the candles to Swift's house; and he gave them a small sum for the stolen goods, in order to encourage them to commit robberies of more consequence.
Fosset being apprehended on suspicion of the above robbery, he was examined by Sir John Fielding, to whom he confessed the particulars of the fact; and Swift having been long known as a daring violator of the laws, it was judged expedient to admit Fosset an evidence for the crown. In consequence of Fosset's information Swift was apprehended, and indicted for purchasing goods knowing them to be stolen. The evidence against him being indisputable, he was convicted, and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. He had not been in America a month when he embarked as a passenger on board a vessel bound to Liverpool; and, at the expiration of the year 1764, he landed at that town. On his way to London he stopped at Coventry, where he was apprehended, and secured in prison. At the ensuing assizes he was brought to trial before Sir Henry Gould. The record of his former conviction being produced, it appeared that the person who wrote it, in specifying the weight of the candles, had inserted seventy instead of seventy-two. The prisoner, having heard the copy of his conviction read, pointed out the error, and requested the judge to allow him counsel, which was readily granted. After the case had been argued in a very learned manner, the judge declared that the error was fatal to the indictment, and that the prisoner must therefore be acquitted. When Swift was on the point of being discharged, one of Sir John Fielding's men made oath that an accusation was lodged against him for stealing a quantity of cotton in the county of Middlesex. Here upon he was ordered to be conveyed to London. No indictment was found against him for stealing the cotton; but, being put to the bar of the sessions-house in the Old Bailey, the Court ordered him to be transported for the remaining part of his former sentence.
Richard Swift was a second time put on board of one of the transport vessels on the 24th of April, 1766. Since the time of Jonathan Wild the above malefactor was one of the most notorious receivers of stolen goods by which this country has been infested. If such delinquents were to be punished by death, it is beyond a question that great advantages would accrue to the public; for, if thieves were to find a difficulty in disposing of their booties, they would be effectually discouraged from pursuing illegal courses; and those who should be hardy enough to continue them would seldom escape the justice due to their iniquity. Receivers of stolen goods are to be classed among the most infamous species of felons. They encourage robbers, and are therefore accessory to the crimes they commit; they are guilty even of a species of deliberate murder, since the practices they countenance seldom fail to bring the more immediate perpetrators thereof to violent and premature death.