Barrington, George (1755–1804), celebrated pickpocket, was born George Waldron in October 1755 at Maynooth, Co. Kildare, son of Henry Waldron, silversmith, and his wife, a mantua-maker and midwife whose maiden name was Naish. Educated locally, he benefited from the patronage of a Church of Ireland clergyman and was sent to a grammar school in Dublin. In 1771 he was beaten badly in a quarrel with a fellow pupil, and retaliated by stabbing his opponent with a knife. Flogged and disgraced, he began his life of crime when he stole ten guineas (£10.50) from the headmaster, and a watch from his own sister, before fleeing the school. Arriving in Drogheda in May, he took the surname Barrington, and joined a travelling company of actors. To alleviate hardship, he was encouraged by the head of the troupe to steal, and discovered a talent for picking pockets. Soon becoming a proficient ‘gentleman pickpocket’, in 1773 he went to England, where he gained a reputation for colourful escapades. It seems he delighted in disguises, and would pick pockets while dressed as a clergyman. In 1775 his luck ran out when he was caught stealing a jewelled snuffbox from a visiting Russian count; he avoided prosecution by giving an extravagant explanation. Arrested in 1777, he was this time convicted and sentenced to three years' hard labour; freed after a year, he was rearrested shortly afterwards and sent back to the hulks. Attempting suicide, he was pardoned after receiving sympathy from a distinguished, but unknown, visitor.
Deciding to return to Dublin, he continued his life of crime, but by now his reputation preceded him and he was soon arrested. He moved to Edinburgh, and then London, but he had lost his edge and was once again convicted of pickpocketing. Tried at the Old Bailey (September 1790), he was found guilty despite his brilliant speech from the dock where he made the ‘ingenious defence’ that ‘many of the crimes of my life . . . happened absolutely in spite of myself’ (Pelham, 368). Sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, he discovered a mutiny on board but sided with the authorities. As a reward he received a pardon in 1792. Reinventing himself as a respectable figure, he became superintendent of convicts at Parramatta in 1796, and later became high constable. He retired in 1800 citing ill-health, but rumours of alcoholism abounded, and he was declared insane by a commission. He died 27 December 1804.
The romance of Barrington's life and career saw numerous histories written in his name, including A voyage to Botany Bay (1801), and A sequel to Barrington's voyage to New South Wales (1801). A famous prologue, which included the lines ‘We left our country for our country's good’, was also attributed to him, but authorship of all of these works has been convincingly disputed. It seems disreputable authors cashed in on his fame; an irony that would probably not have been lost on the celebrated ‘prince of pickpockets’.