This unhappy victim to the violated laws of his country was a native of Merioneth, in North Wales. His parents were poor people, but were distinguished by the honesty and regularity of their conduct. They educated him as well as their circumstances would permit them; and then sent him to London, in the hope that he might be able to advance himself in life. Powel had not been long in town before he obtained the place of a shopman, in the service of a tradesman of reputation. In this station his behaviour was so unexceptionable, and there was so much of gracefulness in his person and manner, that his master soon raised his wages, and sought every opportunity of promoting his interest: indeed every person in the family was pleased with the decorum that appeared in all his behaviour; which was laid down as a rule of conduct that ought to be observed and copied by the other servants. By an even and steady course of frugality Powel saved money enough to embark in business for himself; and, on the death of his master, he courted the sister of Mr. Taylor Barrow, who held a place of some importance in the Custom-house. Mr. Barrow, exclusive of his place, carried on a considerable business; and Mr. Powel, having engaged in trade, was as successful as the most sanguine of his friends could have wished him to be; and, in general, was looked upon to be a young man in a thriving way of business. In fact, he was soon in very flourishing circumstances, and his success induced him, contrary to the advice of his friends, to take a large farm a few miles from the metropolis; which took up more of his time and attention than it can be presumed a tradesman could spare from his business; so that the wonder will be less that ruin should ensue.
Having involved himself by undertaking too many concerns, he was reduced in circumstances, and determined on the commission of that forgery which cost him his life. His brother-in-law, Mr. Taylor Barrow, was possessed of very considerable property in the East-India stock. Powel being apprized of this, and knowing that stock bore a very high price at that time, forged his name to an order for the selling out four hundred pounds. This being done, he went to a coffee-house, and inquired for a broker. The master of the house recommended him to a Mr. Portis, who was largely concerned in the brokery business. Mr. Portis, being sent for, attended Powel to the East-India House in Leadenhall Street, where the latter declared that he was Taylor Barrow, the proprietor of the stock, which he transferred by imitating the hand of his brother-in-law with so much art, that no suspicion arose of the forgery. On the day the stock was transferred Portis sold it to a third person, and, gave the produce to Powel, who immediately quitted his family, and went into Wales, on a visit to his relations. It was not long before a discovery was made of the forgery, and a large reward was offered for the apprehension of Powel; but Portis being totally unacquainted with his name, and none of his friends or relations conceiving that he could have been concerned in such a transaction, no suspicion of his guilt arose for a considerable time.
In the meantime Portis exerted his utmost diligence to discover the offender: but all his endeavours proved fruitless, till a circumstance, merely accidental, occasioned his apprehension. Powel continued in Wales till he presumed the affair was forgotten in London, where he was received in the most affectionate manner by his relations, who had no idea of what had passed; for, if they had, they would undoubtedly have advised him to consult his safety in flight. Powel now lived on Dowgate Hill; and, about a month after his return to London, he went to Cheapside on business, and after that to Lombard Street, when Mr. Portis met him near the Post-office. Powel happened at this time to be dressed in the same clothes that he wore when the forgery was committed; and Mr. Portis immediately recollected his person, but was unwilling to take him into custody till he was fully convinced that he was not mistaken in the man. Powel, observing that Portis regarded him with some attention, turned his face aside, from a consciousness of guilt, and to prevent the other from having a full knowledge of him. Mr. Portis passed him, but immediately turned back, and took a second, and afterwards a third view of him; when, no doubt remaining in his mind that he was the real offender, he took him by the arm, and begged him to accompany him to the coffee-house where they had first met. Powel pretended not to have any knowledge of the other party; but Portis resolutely insisting that he should go with him, the latter complied with as much grace as he could, to prevent any disturbance happening in the street. They no sooner got to the coffee house than the master and one of the waiters, at the desire of Portis, paid an attentive regard to Powel, and averred that he was the man who had asked for the broker to sell the stock. On this the prisoner was taken before the sitting alderman at Guild hall, and, his person being positively sworn to, the magistrate committed him to Newgate, in order to his being tried at the next sessions at the Old Bailey.
When the trial came on the culprit produced a number of people to prove that he was in the country at the time the forgery was committed; but the jury, not being satisfied with their testimony, brought in their verdict that he was guilty. When he was taken to the bar to receive sentence of death, his counsel moved that the judgment might be postponed, 'on account of some informalities in the record;' and the Court, ever attentive to the laws of humanity, acceded to the motion. The consequence was, that in Michaelmas term, 1771, the case was learnedly argued before the judges, who were unanimously of opinion that Powel had been guilty of the forgery; whereupon sentence was passed that he should undergo the judgment awarded by law.
After condemnation his behaviour was highly proper for a man in his unhappy situation. He was earnest and regular in his devotions, made every proper preparation for death, and resigned himself to his fate with the composure that became a Christian, who placed his hopes on a better world than that, to a longer residence in which he had forfeited his title. He was indulged with a mourning-coach to the place of execution, where his conduct was such as proved him properly affected by his situation. He appeared sincere and ardent in his devotions; and after he was turned off, and his body had hung the usual time, it was delivered to his friends for interment. Robert Powel suffered at Tyburn on the 2nd of January, 1772.
In the case of this offender we see the almost absolute impossibility of concealing a guilty transaction. His name was unknown to Portis; his crime was a secret even from his relations; and he remained in Wales till he thought the affair was forgotten: yet he had been but a short time in London before he found himself in Newgate for the commission of that very crime which he flattered himself had been effectually concealed; and an ignominious death followed. Mysterious are the ways of Providence, and past finding out. Who that reads this story will scruple to admire that divine wisdom and jus tice which cannot be comprehended? If Powel could have been contented with his situation he might have lived in credit and reputation. The keeping of farms near London has been the ruin of many a tradesman. A regular attention to one branch of business is generally productive of more profit than the embarking in a variety of schemes; and as such we would recommend it to all our readers who are engaged in the mercantile line.