William Mellish & the Would-Be-Killer Whaler

Not everyone’s lives are a rollercoaster of excitement or celebrity.

Such was that of William Mellish Esq., a respected ship and commercial property owner who made his fortune providing the British navy and other vessels with fresh meat, suet and other supplies.  

The newly constructed docks at Rotherhithe, 1813. © The British Library 2017

On a freezing February afternoon in 1833, Mellish stopped in at Spread Eagle Court to do a spot of banking. Unbeknownst to him, a shadowy figure lurked in the entrance of the court directly opposite. As Mellish exited the bank and entered Spread Eagle Alley, the man walked up behind him and shot him twice in back of the neck, in full view of witnesses. The assailant then calmly cast the weapon aside as Mellish, bleeding profusely, cried out,

What does this mean?  I don’t understand it – what does this mean?!

The man coolly replied,

Mr Mellish, you tried to kill me and I tried to kill you if I could”.

What had Mellish done to deserve this? Was the motive robbery? Or a business deal gone sour?

Witnesses commented on the gunman’s lucidity immediately after the shooting.  Making no attempt to escape, he sat on the pavement and waited for the police to turn up, confessing, “I have done it – I have followed him for a month, and I know I shall be hanged for it; I won’t hurt any of you – take me where you like, I won’t offer to go“. Mellish was rushed to Mr Miles, a surgeon on nearby Throgmorton Street. The first musket ball exited an inch in front of Mellish’s ear and was discovered on the floor of a nearby tailor’s shop. A week later, the second was extracted from Mellish’s neck.


A rich heritage and ‘madness’

Two years earlier Captain Noah Pease Folger was the master and commander of Mellish’s whaling ship, Partridge, but had been dismissed on charges of misconduct.  A dispute erupted: Folger claimed he was owed between £1200 – £1300 but was only awarded £848, which Mellish paid immediately. Crucially, Capt. Folger was denied an all-important character testimonial by Mellish and it was this straw that broke the camel’s back.

Folger descended from a proud and distinguished line of whalers said to be related to Benjamin Franklin who were also name-checked in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Soon Folger was convinced Mellish had intentionally besmirched his reputation and ruined future opportunities, depriving him of a living, and from that day forward Folger became a man obsessed.  A witness later recalled, “I have heard him speak very violently of Mr Mellish indeed!  As soon as Mr Mellish’s name was mentioned, he was like a madman”.

Dangers of the Whale Fishery <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=History_of_whaling&oldid=816250322>

What are fascinating are the varying degrees of Captain Folger’s alleged insanity: he erupted with fury at the mere mention of Mellish’s name before the attempted murder, yet his behaviour after the shooting was calm and resigned. Folger followed Mellish for weeks leading up to the shooting and had purchased a horse whip specially to beat him with, indicating premeditation, however testimony from Folger’s fellow mariners aboard the Partridge in 1826 painted him as a dangerously unstable man capable of harming himself and others without a thought.

While sailing the South Seas route, Folger reportedly hurled iron bars at passing whales and then attempted to jump from the ship onto their backs. Half-naked, he waltzed with chairs in the cabin and smashed panes of glass with his bare fists, dancing on the broken shards. As soon as he’d been patched up, he repeated the bloody ritual all over again.  He was known to scramble out of bed in the dead of night, convinced that Satan himself had entered the cabin, and steadfastly refused to sleep below deck for fear of ghost of the ship’s cook who’d been dead for two months.  Convinced the crew planned to rob him, he locked up his possessions and slept with loaded horse pistols next to his head nightly.

The Verdict

Unsurprisingly, 37-year old Captain Folger entered a plea of insanity and the jury took just 20 minutes to acquit him of murder, although he was found guilty of breaking the peace and wounding with intent to kill.  He was sentenced to imprisonment by Sir Peter Laurie, the then Lord Mayor who, like Mellish, is buried in Highgate Cemetery West. Interestingly, despite the successful insanity plea, Folger was moved from Newgate to the County Lunatic Asylum but was then moved back to Newgate after the Superintendent of the Asylum noted the “establishment was not intended for the care of sane persons”.

Redressing the balance

William Mellish passed away the following year, his demise no doubt sped up by his brush with death.  It was then that Folger’s lawyers, the Sheriff and even the Governor of Newgate campaigned for his release on the basis that Folger posed no threat to the public as Mellish was now dead. The appeal was successful and a full pardon was granted to Captain Folger but on one condition: he was to leave Britain permanently within 30 days, in addition to “entering into his own recognizances to keep the peace during the remainder of his life”. After three years and nine months as a prisoner, Noah Pease Folger was a free man and returned to Nantucket where he died three years later on 7th December 1837.

Mellish West Highgate
The Mellish family plot

William Mellish was survived by two daughters, both of whom married into minor aristocracy, to whom he left properties estimated at the eye-watering sum of over £1 million (the inheritance later resulted in a particularly ugly court battle between the sisters and their husbands, but that’s a different story!). Mellish and seven other family members were then moved from the original family plot in St John’s, Wapping, to the plot in Highgate Cemetery West by his daughter in 1859, some 25 years after his original interment.

A massive thanks to the doyenne of all Highgate Cemetery-related knowledge, Sue Berdy


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s