Tins malefactor was born in Eastcheap, where his father carried on the business of a cork-cutter. While very young he gave pregnant proofs of his attachment to what is called pleasure: a life of gaiety and dissipation had too many charms for him; and he was hailed among the young rakes, and even the ladies of the town, as a youth of very superior qualifications. His attachment to women was remarkable; and this leading him into great expense, he had recourse to the highway to support his extravagance; the consequence of which was that he was apprehended, and, being tried at Chelmsford, was capitally convicted, and received sentence of death; but, being then very young, the judge respited him till the following assizes, when he obtained a pardon, on the condition of transportation for fourteen years. Previous, however, to his being transported, the prisoners had formed a design of murdering the keeper, turnkey, &c. in order to effect their escape; and Darking having obtained some knowledge of the secret, he made a discovery of it; the consequence of which was that his sentence of transportation was remitted, on the terms of his serving as a soldier in the plantations. Hereupon he was conducted to the Savoy prison in London, whence he made several efforts to escape; but, not succeeding, he at length sailed with many others, and was put on shore at Antigua; but the life of a soldier being highly disagreeable to him, he determined to quit the service without permission us soon as possible. He had not been long on the island before he ingratiated himself with the captain of a ship, to whom he promised a large reward if he would land him in England. Hereupon the captain took him on board, and concealed him in the hold of the ship; so that, though diligent search was made after him, he escaped undiscovered.
On his arrival in his native country he renewed his depredations on the highway, and committed a variety of robberies in the western counties, and in the middle of the kingdom; but, apprehensive of the consequences that might ensue, he entered on board the Royal George man of war, in which he was rated as a midshipman. In the summer of the year 1760 the ship lay at Portsmouth; and Darking, getting leave of absence for some weeks, employed this interval in committing a variety of robberies, of which the most remarkable was the following:—
Lord Percival being travelling the Bath road on the 22nd of June, Darking met him near the Devizes, and presented a pistol, demanding his money on pain of instant death. The highwayman had a crape over his face. Lord Percival gave him thirteen guineas; but, dissatisfied with that sum, he insisted on having more; on which his lordship was so provoked that he forced the pistol from his hand, and, pulling him to the ground, leapt from the chaise to take him into custody. Darking now ran away, and Lord Percival pursued him. The highwayman turned about, presented a pistol, and demanded his purse: but his lordship declaring he had no more money, Darking mounted his horse, and rode off, having first desired that Lord Percival would not appear against him if he should be tried.
Being apprehended on the following day, he was committed to prison, and brought to trial at the next assizes held at Salisbury, when he was acquitted, because Lord Percival would not swear positively to his person: yet the circumstances against him were remarkably strong; for the money found on him agreed with what Lord Percival had been robbed of, a pistol was in his possession which appeared to match with that his lordship had lost, and a piece of crape was found in his pocket. In consequence of questions asked on this trial, Darking said that he was born in the West Indies, and was quite a stranger to this country; that, on his way from Bath to Portsmouth, he had lost his road; that, on the approach of night, he went to a village to refresh himself; and that, when he was apprehended, it could be no wonder that a benighted traveller should appear confused. He owned that he had friends in England; but they did not live near enough to do him any service on that occasion. He declared that he had purchased a pair of pistols, one of which he had lost on the road, and was probably picked up by the person who committed the robbery with which he was charged. He said that the confusion he appeared in when taken arose from his being accused of a crime of which he was innocent; and accounted for the crape found in his possession by saying it was what he had worn as a neckcloth, having been in the king's service at the taking of Guadaloupe. Darking was no sooner acquitted than he asked for some money which had been taken from him on his apprehension, which the Court directed to be delivered to him; and then the judge dismissed him, having remarked on the generosity of his prosecutor, and advised him to leave off such dangerous practices as those in which he had been concerned. Being told he was now at his own disposal, he seemed full of anxiety till his fetters were knocked off, and then he immediately set out for London in a post-chaise.
During his confinement at Salisbury his genteel accomplishments were much the subject of tea-table conversation; and he was visited by the ladies, who seemed delighted with his discourse. These circumstances gave rise to the following lines, which were published in the newspapers on his acquittal—
'Joy to thee, lovely thief! that thou
Hast 'scaped the fatal string;
Let gallows groan with ugly rogues
Dumas must never swing.
Dost thou seek money? to thy wants
Our purses we'll resign;
Could we our hearts to guineas coin,
Those guineas all were thine.
To Bath in safety let my lord
His loaded pockets carry
Thou ne'er again shall tempt the road,
Sweet youth! if thou wilt marry.
No more shall niggard travellers
Avoid thee;—we'll insure 'em:
To us thou shalt consign thy balls
And pistols;—we'll secure 'em.
Yet think not when the chains are off,
Which now thy legs bedeck,
To fly; in fetters softer far
We'll chain thee by the neck.'
Darking was so distinguished by the gracefulness of his person that he was the favourite of unthinking women wherever he came; and it is probable that, after this escape at Salisbury, he might have married some woman of fortune if he could have divested himself of his unhappy turn to extravagance, which led him to the highway whenever he wanted a supply. Soon after his return to London he commenced his former practices, infesting the roads round the metropolis for more than six months, spending at bagnios, gaming-houses, and taverns, what he acquired by his lawless practices. His robberies near town had been so numerous that he became apprehensive of detection, and therefore retired farther into the country, where he continued to rob some time; but at length returned to London. Having hired a horse in Piccadilly, he travelled to Oxford, where he slept; and the next day, returning towards London, he stopped a gentleman, named Gammon, near Nettlebed, and robbed him of his watch and money. Darking now turned back; but the gentleman proceeded towards town, having first stopped at an inn, and left a description of the highwayman. Mr. Gammon had not been gone more than two hours when Darking called at the same inn, and gave the landlord two letters directed to women in London; saying that he should not go to town for two or three days, and begging that the letters might be forwarded. From the description that Mr. Gammon had given, the landlord concluded that Darking was the robber: yet, as he carried pistols, he did not choose to secure him; but no sooner was he departed than the landlord enclosed the letters in a cover, and sent them to London by the post, directed to Mr. Gammon. These letters giving a knowledge of Darking's lodgings, Mr. Gammon applied to Sir John Fielding; in consequence of which proper measures were taken for the apprehension of Darking, who was found in bed, some days afterwards, with a woman of the town. He made an attempt to escape out of the window, but was soon secured and lodged in Newgate.
On the approach of the assizes he was removed to Oxford by a writ of habeas corpus; and, being tried before Baron Adams, was convicted on the clearest evidence. When he was brought to the bar to receive sentence of death he besought the clemency of the judge, petitioning to be transported for life: in answer to this petition his lordship addressed him as follows:
'Young man, you have been arraigned upon an indictment for a robbery on the king's highway, and have been found guilty after a fair and candid trial. From your youth, you might have expected to have lived many years; and, from your education, might have been a comfort to your friends and relations, as well as a service to your country; but your engaging in vicious and immoral courses hath at last brought you to this untimely end. A day of this sort you could not but have expected, and it hath now overtaken you. Happy would it have been for you that your former deliverance, in a situation such as this, had been a memento to you to have altered your conduct. I hope your present circumstances will have a better effect upon you, and induce you to repentance. Make proper use of the time you have to live, in endeavouring to make your peace with God, for you will soon be in another world: your application to me for mercy is quite in vain; it is not in my power to grant it; from the king alone it is to be expected, of which, however, I can give you but little, very little, hope.'
During the time this malefactor was in prison he frequently diverted himself with reading The Beggars' Opera. He likewise drank freely; nor did he seem to entertain a proper sense of the horrid situation to which his vices had reduced him. On the day of execution his behaviour was remarkably intrepid; and, at the place of his death, he fitted the halter to his neck, and threw himself off with great appearance of determined resolution. This criminal was hanged at Oxford on the 16th of April, 1761. After the pathetic address delivered by the judge to this convict it will be the less necessary to make any particular remarks on his case. Those whose vices may have tempted them to the commission of crimes within the cognizance of the law, and who have not enough of virtue remaining to take proper warning, and reform after conviction and conditional pardon, deserve the fate they meet; and ought to die unpitied, as they have lived enemies to the repose of their fellow-creatures!