Dec 062020

Detail from Newton’s Samples of Sweethearts and Wives, via Lewis Walpole Library

We all know about the eighteenth century gin craze: how men and women of ‘the lower orders’  got completely rat-arsed. As Hogarth put in his print of Gin Lane, you could get drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence. The low cost of distilled spirits meant that  the starving poor could escape from their miserable, grinding, poverty into a world of oblivion. Gin was the equivalent of the zombie-drugs taken by addicts, leaving them completely insensate. No-one pretended that it gave anyone a high – it simply numbed the brain. Small wonder, when the distilleries churning out the gin by the barrow-ful were not averse to cutting the spirits with  ingredients ‘to make it taste better’. Well, that is, if you like your gin with turpentine. Or even worse, flavoured with urine. Or perhaps a snifter diluted with sulphuric acid? You name it, the gin-shops mixed it. The resulting alcoholism was most evident in the London metropolis and extended  to men and women of all ages – but women in particular. Many of them had come to the capital as economic migrants, to seek their fortune, only to find that the living conditions were appalling, the job prospects distinctly limited, and the wages insufficient to cover basic living costs. Newspapers  were full of cautionary tales, but generally confused cause and effect. The poor were poor because they spent their money on gin, not the other way round. The poor were idle, the poor were being seduced by luxuries into thinking that they could have things without having to do an honest day’s work.

The Gin Shop, shown courtesy of the Wellcome Institute

One case more than any other shocked the nation: the trial and execution of Judith Defour. The trial took place in March 1734. Defour was a single mother, aged about thirty, and was charged with strangling her own child, a two year-old toddler. Judith’s background was that she was born into a sober, hard-working family who worked in the weaving trade and as a young girl she had started to work as a silk winder. In the words of the Newgate Ordinary, in her mid-twenties “she fell into bad Company, and had a Bastard-Child, which died; and then she had another, the unfortunate Child lately murder’d by her.”

She lost her job (quite possibly because she had a child out of wedlock) and drifted in and out of the gin shops. On several occasions she dropped off her child, called Mary, at the local work-house. She did this in January 1734 but at the end of that month she returned to collect Mary, who by then had been clothed by the Parish. She was accompanied by her friend Sukey, who was described as ‘one of the most vilest of Creatures in or about the Town’. In order to get Mary released from the control of the parish she first had to forge a letter of release from the Church. Judith and Sukey then hit upon the idea that they could make a few bob if they sold the baby’s clothing. The Old Bailey Proceedings recounted that the court heard how Defour ‘took the Child into the Fields, and stripp’d it, and ty’d a Linen Handkerchief hard about its Neck to keep it from crying, and then laid it in a Ditch.’ They then presumably went off to flog the clothes so that they could go off boozing for the rest of the week.

Later, in court, Judith admitted that she throttled the child in order to sell ‘the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat.’ Worse, she was motivated to do this so that she could afford to go out and purchase  ‘a Quartern of Gin’ with her mate Sukey, who was with her at the time and was egging her on.

She was caught and sent for trial within a matter of days. The jury found her guilty of murder; her punishment was death. Sentence was carried out immediately despite the fact that she ‘pleaded her belly’ i.e. claimed that she was pregnant at the time. The execution was duly carried out at Tyburn on 8th March 1734, after which her body was anatomised – in other words, handed over to the medical profession for dissection.

At her trial Judith Defour confessed her crimes and according to the records contained in the Ordinary of Newgate she said that ‘she was very sorry for what was done, that she never was at Peace since it happened, that she scarce desired to live; and therefore she made a voluntary Confession she had been always of a very surly Disposition, and untractable Creature, a Despiser of Religion, negligent in her Duty to God and Man, and would take no good Advice of her Friends, nor of any good or sober People. She drank and swore much, and was averse to Virtue and Sobriety, delighting in the vilest Companies, and ready to Practice the worst of Actions. She acknowledged the Justice of her Sentence, and died in Peace with all Mankind’.

The Gibbet by Thomas Rowlandson, courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art

Hers was a truly shocking case and one which helped ensure that Parliament had no choice but to intervene  to try and curb the worst excesses of the gin trade. The Gin Act of 1736 was a failure. The Gin Act of 1743 was even more of a failure. It wasn’t until parliament passed a workable law that things got under control, with the 1751 Gin Act. By then you have to wonder how many other women committed  ‘the foul crime of murther’ in order to fund an uncontrollable drink habit…

Jan 082018

Today I am delighted to offer Naomi Clifford, one of my favourite  authors who writes about life (and particularly crime) in Georgian Britain, a guest post. Her chosen subject: Five  husband murderers. Over to you Naomi !


At just after eight in the morning on Monday 17 September 1827, 40-year-old Mary Wittenback was taken from the condemned cell at Newgate in London where she had passed a restless night. Horace Cotton, the prison’s Anglican chaplain and Mr Baker, a Dissenting minister, had persuaded her to confess to her crime, poisoning her abusive and unfaithful husband, she had attended the condemned sermon and she had said her final goodbyes to her three daughters, but now as her death came near she became highly distressed, calling out to God, moaning and groaning.

She was half-carried by the Sheriff’s men to a chamber and here she was tied into a small black chair-like “machine” to which two long ropes were attached. This was part of her special pre-mortem punishment, being dragged to the place of execution, was additional to her hanging, and was given only to those guilty of the most heinous of crimes, treason.

She had not challenged the authority of the king, but of her husband. By murdering him she was up-ended the natural order of society. Women owed obedience to their husbands – their lords and masters – in the same way that subjects owed it to the monarch. And whereas a threat to the king was high treason, Mary’s crime was petty treason. Almost needless to say, a man could not be charged with treason against his wife; although servants of either gender could be charged for murdering an employer and clerics, always men, for murdering an ecclesiastical superior. In practice, women were the usual recipients of this special charge and its punishment and until 1790 they were also burnt at the stake, mercifully usually after they had been discreetly strangled.

Gallows, once sited outside towns as a warning to thieves and murderers, were increasingly, through the late 18th century and until public hanging was ended in 1868, moved near to the place of incarceration. Some gallows, as at Newgate, were temporary structures built right up against its walls, erected when required and taken down and stored until needed again. This close proximity of prison and gallows meant that there was no distance over which to drag the condemned prisoner. The more usual practice was to tie the prisoner to a hurdle or wicker fence and pull this behind a horse. The prisoner’s final journey, low to the ground and facing backwards, was not just ignominious, a word used often to describe the shame of execution, but abject. Those guilty of petty treason were the lowest of the low.

As Mary was placed upright in the black chair for this approximation of the act of dragging, Mr. Baker, the Dissenting minister, offered her religious consolation. She couldn’t answer, shouting only “Oh, my God! oh, my God! oh, oh!” while her arms were pinioned – bound to her body – at the elbow, a configuration that was designed to allow her to raise her hands in prayer but not to struggle. After this the hangman and his assistant each took a rope and pulled her, on the machine, out of the room into the lobby leading the scaffold and from there lifted her up the stairs to the platform.

Hangings outside Newgate
                              An execution scene outside Newgate, after Thomas Rowlandson.                                                               Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

A massive crowd assembled in Old Bailey, the lane by Newgate, watched as a white cap was drawn over Mary’s head. Then the rope was adjusted, the signal given, the lever pulled, and she dropped. Her violently convulsions lasted for a full two minutes, after which her body was left for the usual hour to ensure life was extinguished and cut down, stripped and delivered to the Royal College of Surgeons. This final post-mortem punishment, abolished in 1832, was also special, applied only to murderers.

Petty treason, denounced as a double standard by William Wilberforce among others, was abolished in 1828. From then on the courts, ostensibly at least, treated murder as murder.

My new book Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches includes chapters on some of the capital crimes women committed, and it also gives all the stories of women who were hanged. Here, I have chosen the cases of five husband murderers, four of whom were charged with petty treason.


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Norwich Castle on 31 July 1807, for the murder of her husband Samuel (petty treason).

Samuel Alden’s body was found by his neighbours in a pond on the common at Attleborough in Norfolk. One of them saw ‘the two hands of a man appear, with the arms of a shirt stained with blood… His face was dreadfully chopped and his head cut nearly off.’ Martha had taken up a billhook and attacked her husband, who was comatose after an evening in the pub, because he had threatened to beat her during an argument earlier that evening. She offered no defence at her trial. Her house was destroyed by villagers after her death.

Condemned sermon
Prisoners under sentence of death were obliged to attend a Condemned Sermon, for which tickets were sold to the public. They sat around a black empty coffin. Thomas Rowlandson’s print shows the Rev Horace Cotton giving the sermon. Image © Naomi Clifford


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged in Winchester, Hampshire on 8 March 1819, for the murder of her husband Thomas (petty treason).

On the night of 23 October 1818 71-year-old Thomas Huntingford, a man of ‘remarkably quiet and inoffensive disposition’ who had worked for 60 years in the Royal dockyard at Portsmouth, and his 62-year-old wife Sarah, who ran a grocers shop, went to bed in their garret in Orange Street, Portsea as normal. In the middle of the night another resident, Samuel Bately, saw Sarah Huntingford, visibly shaking, going up to her room with a lighted candle. ‘I am murdered and robbed,’ she told him. With the landlady, Bately and Sarah opened the door to the Huntingfords’ room. Thomas Huntingford was on the bed ‘covered in clotted blood’. Blood spatters were all over the floor and the wall above his head. His skull had been caved in. Sarah claimed that two men, their faces blackened with soot, had been there and demanded money but no residents had heard them and the doors had not been forced. It was obvious that Sarah was lying. A bloody billhook was found at the foot of the stairs, her pockets and petticoats were bloodstained, and Thomas’s body showed signs of rigor mortis – he had died some hours before Bately heard the noise on the stairs. There was evidence that Sarah was an alcoholic and had pawned Thomas’s best coats. Before her hanging she refused to speak of the crime, and although she was ‘fully alive to the consolations of religion’ she declined to confess, saying that ‘she would confess to God alone – and the act of dying was only momentary’. She was reported to have displayed ‘firmness’ at her execution. A crowd of over 10,000 watched her die at Gallows Hill, where the old-fashioned horse and cart method was used, during which the victim is slowly strangled after the horse pulls the cart from under her. The unruliness of the spectators led to a decision to draw up plans for a New Drop, a stable structure that can be dismantled and stored. The couple had been married for 40 years, and Sarah had borne sixteen children, only two of whom survived.


Hanged in Berwick upon Tweed, Northumberland on 26 July 1823, for murdering her husband John.

Grace and John Griffin kept an unlicensed house in Berwick selling small beer and spirits. Their marriage was known to be unhappy and Grace had previously threatened to kill her husband. John died after a drunken night during which Grace had described him to her neighbours as a ‘beast’. The next morning he was found groaning and retching, but managed to say that his wife had murdered him before dying. An autopsy found no visible external injuries but his bladder was ruptured and there was a black mark near the sacrum. Grace was accused of assaulting him with a fire poker. After a trial lasting into the early hours, Grace was cleared of petty treason but found guilty of murder. She greeted the death sentence with no display of emotion.


Drawn on a hurdle and hanged at Newgate, London on 17 September 1827, for the poisoning murder of her husband Frederick (petty treason).

On 21 July 1827 at Brill Place, Somers Town in north London, Frederick Wittenback, a builder’s labourer, ate most of the suet pudding Mary, his wife of 20 years, had prepared for lunch and soon became very ill. Mary showed the remainder of the pudding to a neighbour and asked if she thought it had been poisoned. Despite this, shortly afterwards, she ate some of it herself and also became ill. A doctor pumped Frederick and Mary’s stomachs but Frederick was in a severe condition and died a short time later. His symptoms – sickness, pain in his legs and blindness – were consistent with arsenic but a postmortem examination did not conclusively identify this as the cause. Nevertheless, after the inquest, Mary was taken to Newgate to await trial. The Wittenbacks’ marriage had been unhappy and erratic. Frederick had often ‘misconducted’ himself and the couple had split several times, with Frederick going off to live with other women. After a period of relative stability, they had been once more on the verge of parting. When sentenced, Mary fainted and her ‘violent, hysterical screams’ could be heard throughout the sessions building after she was removed from court. The couple had had seven children, three surviving, all girls in their teens and twenties. They visited her the day before her hanging: ‘the scene of parting was affecting in the extreme.’ On 17 September she was tied into a ‘machine’ (the equivalent of a hurdle) in a passage leading to the vestibule outside which the scaffold had been erected. This was then dragged outside, where she was transferred to the gallows. A huge crowd, mainly of women, had gathered. At that moment, a temporary stand collapsed and eleven spectators fell on to the people below, although no one was seriously injured. After she dropped, Mary’s ‘convulsive struggles’ lasted for two minutes.

Gallows at Newgate.     Mary Wittenback exited Newgate through Debtor’s Door (behind the screen on the right) and was carried up to the platform on a chair. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.


Hanged in Lancaster on 19 March 1834, for the poisoning murder of her husband Rodger.

Trapped in an unhappy marriage to Rodger Holden, a weaver, and possibly involved in an affair, 27-year-old Mary Holden took a reckless course. She ordered sixpence worth of ‘flea powder’ from a local shopkeeper and put it in the teapot. When Rodger came home from work and said he was thirsty, she pointed at the teapot. She may have thought that the fact that she had not given him tea or told him to drink it was a defence. At least one witness gave evidence that Rodger had treated Mary badly but the judge did not accept that as an excuse and admonished her for sending her husband ‘out of the world unprepared to meet his maker, with all his sins upon him’. After sentencing, Mary said, ‘My Lord, have mercy on me’ but walked out of court ‘with a firm step’; she later broke down and was ‘overcome with grief’. Mary, a Roman Catholic, was attended by a priest and while awaiting her hanging ‘behaved herself in a very becoming manner’. On the morning of the execution she was taken in a sedan chair to chapel to ‘prevent the rude gaze of the debtors, as she had to pass through their yard’ and then became ‘suffocated with grief, and was dreadfully agitated’. On the scaffold she was ‘calm and collected’. After the rope had been fastened to the chain around the beam, she said, ‘Lord relieve me out of my misery!’ She was praying aloud with the priest when the drop fell and thereafter ‘struggled violently for some minutes’. The Liverpool Mercury described her as a ‘decent-looking person of middle stature, rather of muscular frame, and though not of prepossessing appearance, yet there was nothing in her countenance indicating a ferocious disposition’. Mary’s body was removed for interment within the precincts of the prison. The hanging did not attract a large crowd but it was observed that many spectators were women and that there were a ‘great number of children’.


Naomi Clifford is blissfully happy rooting around in libraries and archives for human stories from the late Georgian era.

Women and the Gallows 1797-1837: Unfortunate Wretches is her second book for Pen & Sword. The first, The Disappearance of Maria Glenn, a true crime story from the Regency era, was published in 2016. The Murder of Mary Ashford will be released in May 2018.

She blogs at and tweets as @naomiclifford.

© Naomi Clifford

Sep 142015
(c) Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant 1709 – 1750. Attributed to Isaac Seeman, and shown courtesy of the National Trust, it shows him wearing his badge  of office as Lord Mayor.

Spare a thought for the Old Bailey court officials in the  Eighteenth Century, for theirs was not always an easy or pleasant task. Look no further than the fate which befell the Lord Mayor of London, one Sir Samuel Pennant, in 1750. Along with Sir Thomas Abney, judge of the Common-Pleas, the under-sheriff, some of the counsel, several of the jury, and another fifty or so other court officials, dignitaries and dogsbodies – all met their death. Why? Because they caught typhus, which had spread from the adjoining prison, the notorious Newgate Gaol.

Typhus, generally known as gaol fever, killed far more prisoners in the Eighteenth century than were ever sentenced to death by the honourable judges. One report at the time suggested that a quarter of the prison population died of typhus, which was a bacteria spread through the bites of the lice and fleas which flourished in the unsanitary conditions of the prisons. Oh, and by the way, although ‘typhoid’ means ‘of or pertaining to typhus’ the disease of ‘typhoid’ has no connection with typhus. Different bacteria altogether….

Court of Sessions building, Old Bailey.

The Sessions House, Old Bailey.

It is not as if people were unaware of the link between the fetid unhygienic conditions in which prisoners were kept, and the fatal illness which thrived. Indeed when the Old Bailey buildings had been rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, a large part of the proceedings took place in the yard, open to all weathers. This was so that officials were not confined to stuffy rooms, and it helped lessen the chance of disease spreading. But in the 1730’s the decision was made to re-face the building with large masonry blocks and to reduce the width of the access in order to prevent the mob storming the building. In turn it meant that the yard was closed off, along with the fresh air that it brought to the court.


(c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Samuel Pennant. (c) National Trust, Penrhyn Castle; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Poor Sir Samuel: he had only been made Lord Mayor the year before. The National Trust have two splendid portraits of him in all his finery. Clock the gold embroidery – that is some waistcoat!  But it was no protection against the spread of the typhus bacteria. With sixty officials perishing in the one outbreak it is surprising that it took another twenty five years to rebuild the Sessions House. Meanwhile, people obviously assumed that there was a link between the actual stench and the disease. To this day judges on formal parades carry nosegays, as a reminder of the long-held belief that aromatic herbs would lessen the risk of fever. So important was it to mask the foul odours that on 9 Oct 1772 the Annual Register remarked: “ Several workmen were this day employed at the Old Bailey in making a new ventilator, and other necessary precautions, to prevent the effects of any malignant distemper in the ensuing sessions, several persons having died, who attended the last session. Among other precautions, a contrivance is made, by a pipe, to carry the fumes of vinegar into the Sessions House, while the court is sitting.”

In practice a new court of sessions building was constructed, opening in 1774. I have no idea when they stopped pumping in vinegar fumes, but it is interesting to see these early experiments in trying to impose standards of hygiene which would combat disease.

Mar 172014

Spare a thought today for a young woman called Elizabeth Butchill who, on 6th January 1780, gave birth to an illegitimate child. Elizabeth Butchill had been born in Saffron Walden in Essex in 1758, making her twenty two years old. She had moved to Cambridge when she was eighteen or nineteen, living with her uncle William Hall.

The statue of Henry VIII above the Great Gate at Trinity College

The statue of Henry VIII above the Great Gate at Trinity College

William’s wife Esther had a job making beds for the students at Trinity College and she used her connections to secure the same employment for her niece. Whether some randy undergraduate “bedded the young bedder” history does not relate, but suffice to say she became pregnant and carried her secret for nine months, unable to confide her shame in anyone.

It must have been terrifying for her as the moment of birth drew near – the certainty that further concealment would be impossible. She dared not tell her aunt and uncle. Whether she had a plan or simply acted on the spur of the moment is not known. What is clear is that she went into labour on her own – her aunt heard her groaning in the early hours of the morning and on being informed that “it was colic” took her niece some peppermint tea and hot flannels to soothe her. Not perhaps the most observant of people, the aunt….

The aunt went off to work at six in the morning and at around half past six Elizabeth delivered herself of a baby girl. She would have known that her aunt would return from bed making duties at around ten. On her own admission she held the baby for some twenty minutes, no doubt pondering the awful fate which life would have in store for them both if the child lived. In her desperate state she committed a terrible sacrifice – she hurled the baby down the necessary – the latrine – from where it floated down into the river where it was discovered the following day, its skull fractured.

The Newgate Calendar takes up the story:

“William Hall, hearing a child had been found, suspected the said Elizabeth Butchill, and sent for a surgeon to examine her. In her voluntary confession, taken before the mayor and Dr. Ewin, and read to the jury, she confessed that she was delivered of a female child on Thursday morning, about half past six o’clock, by herself; that the child cried some little time after its birth; and that, in about twenty minutes after, she herself threw the said infant down one of the holes of the necessary into the river, and buried the placenta, &c. in the dunghill near the house. The Coroners Inquest returned a verdict of wilful murder.”

The wheels of justice moved fast:

b1“On Wednesday morning she was tried before Judge Buller, when her voluntary confession being produced, and many corroborating circumstances appearing in evidence, the jury found her guilty, and the judge passed sentence on her in a very pathetic and affecting manner. When the unhappy culprit, in extreme agony, solicited mercy, his lordship told her that, as she had been deaf to the cries of the innocent, and, stifling the strong ties of maternal affection, had been the murderer of her child, it was impossible for mercy to be extended to her in this world; he therefore exhorted her to seek for a sincere repentance, and sentenced her to be executed the succeeding Friday, and her body to be anatomized.”

The Newgate Calendar ends this sad tale by describing her execution with the following words:

b3“Desiring her example might be a warning to all thoughtless young women, and calling on Jesus Christ for mercy, she was launched into eternity amidst thousands of commiserating spectators, who, though they abhorred the crime, shed tears of pity for the unhappy criminal.

She was a decent plain young woman, about twenty-two years of age; and, before this unfortunate affair, bore a good character for her modest behaviour.”

Her execution took place on 17 March 1780 at Cambridge. Spare a thought for the poor tormented “thoughtless” young Essex girl, who 234 years ago paid a heavy price for the prejudices of 18th Century society, and for the blindness of Justice.

Post script: as far as I know William and Esther Hall were no relations of my ancestor Richard Hall.

Sixteen String Jack – the making of a hero (John Rann).

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Oct 172013
Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the british Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 17 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

Sixteen String Jack, courtesy of the British Museum, referring to the fact that he had been acquitted 16 times prior to receiving his death sentence.

I am not quite clear why some villains manage to capture the public’s imagination as heroes, while others are treated as a thieving menace. Take highway robbery – there is nothing very subtle, clever or brave about brandishing a gun and threatening to blast somebody’s head off if they don’t hand you their watch (or whatever) and yet Georgian society seemed willing to treat some of these robbers as having a heroic quality, simply because they swaggered and boasted and liked to be seen around town with a pretty girl on each arm, while dressed in fine clothes which they had either stolen or bought using the proceeds of crime. No more so than one John Rann, whose distinguishing “trademark” was that he liked to stand out from the crowd by wearing eight brightly coloured ribbons tied around each knee – hence his moniker of “Sixteen String Jack”. Why sixteen? One story was that each ribbon represented a time when he had been acquitted of highway robbery…. On one occasion he was charged with breaking and entering – but it turned out that he had an assignation with the girl who lived there; she had fallen asleep and rather than give up and go home, he decided to clamber up to her window on the first floor and “help himself”. He was apprehended by the watchman and dragged before Sir John Fielding. On hearing the evidence from the girl that she would have freely admitted the young man had she not been asleep, the judge had no choice but to dismiss the case.

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Road to Ruin, © The Trustees of the British Museum, showing John Rann            at Bagnigge Wells.

You might think that John Rann would count his blessings and keep a low profile; but no, far from it. He headed out to the fashionable spa at Bagnigge Wells, disporting himself in what the Newgate Calendar described as “a scarlet coat, tambour waistcoat, white silk stockings, laced hat, &c”, and publicly declared himself to be a highwayman. He became quarrelsome, and somewhat drunk, and started to chat up one of the young ladies in the ballroom. This led to a spate of minor scuffles – someone prised a gold ring from his finger, at which he remarked that he cared not, for it cost but a hundred guineas, and why, he could make that amount in one evening’s work! Not surprisingly, some of the assembled company at the Wells grew weary of his tiresome behaviour and gave him a right going over, and for good measure chucked him out the first floor window when he declined to make himself scarce. The River Fleet presumably provided him with a soft landing, and the Newgate Calendar remarks that “Rann was not much injured by this severe treatment; but he complained bitterly against those who could so affront a gentleman of his character.”

Richard Hall's cut-out of a highway robber at work.

Richard Hall’s cut-out of a highway robber at work.

It had all started very differently. He was born in a village outside Bath into a very poor family. He had no formal education and for a while eked a living selling goods from the back of a donkey as he toured the streets. When he was 12 he came to the attention of “lady of distinction” who no doubt was impressed by his barrow-boy chutzpah and way with words. She took him on as a servant in her household and all seemed well for a couple of years. He came to London, got a job at a stables at Brooke’s Mews and in due course became a driver of a post chaise. But the ambitious young man wanted to impress – and to do that he needed more money than the could get from his wages as a driver. highwayman7It appears that he extended his repertoire as a pick-pocket by chancing his arm at robbery on the King’s Highway – a capital offence if caught. He was dragged before the magistrates on a number of occasions but each time managed to talk his way out of the charge. He liked to adopt the persona of a modern day Robin Hood – well, he robbed the rich, even though he never seemed to follow it up by helping the poor. He enjoyed being in the public eye – he turned up at Barnet Races sporting an elegant blue satin waistcoat trimmed with silver, to make sure that he stood out. He was followed by hundreds of people, who were eager to gratify their curiosity by the sight of a man who had been so much the subject of gossip. On at least one occasion he turned up to watch the fun at Tyburn, thoroughly upstaging the poor man who was about to be sent to the gallows. One story has it that he even bragged that one day he would be the main attraction, and not just a bystander. He appeared at the Old Bailey in April, 1775, charged with others of robbing Mr. William Somers on the highway, and was acquitted for lack of evidence. Shortly afterwards he was again tried, for robbing a Mr. Langford, but again was acquitted for the same reason. The lad appeared to be above the law, and how he loved it! 16 string jackA month later a Miss Roache (his girlfriend – one of many), was caught trying to pawn a watch which Rann had stolen during a robbery “near the nine-mile stone on the Hounslow road.” Again he was hauled before the Bench and when Sir John Fielding asked him if he would offer anything in his defence, Rann replied “I know no more of the matter than you do, nor half so much neither.” His appearance in court was suitably flamboyant – the Newgate Calendar comments that he “had a bundle of flowers in the breast of his coat almost as large as a broom; and his irons were tied up with a number of blue ribands.” Once more, he got off… On another occasion he was sent to Marshalsea Debtors Prison for failure to pay a debt of fifty pounds – he sent word to his mates and in no time a steady stream of ne’er-do-wells, male and female, turned up at the prison gates and paid off the debt. Various other acquittals followed until one September afternoon in September 1784 he stole items from Dr. William Bell, physician to the Princess Amelia. Bell gave evidence that he was riding near Ealing when he observed two men of “rather mean appearance” ride past him. The Newgate Calendar takes up the story: “A short while afterwards one of them, which he believed was Rann, crossed the head of his horse, and, demanding his money, said “Give it to me, and take no notice, or I’ll blow your brains out.” On this the doctor gave him one shilling and sixpence, which was all the silver he had, and likewise a common watch in a tortoise-shell case.”

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

An 18th Century tortoiseshell and silver watch, courtesy of Bonhmas.

Later that evening Miss Roache tried to offer the watch to a pawnbroker in Oxford Road. He had his suspicions about the watch, and turned it over to observe that it had been made by a well-known watchmaker called Mr. Gregnion, of Russell Street, Covent Garden. The pawnbroker contacted Mr Gregnion, who confirmed that he had made the watch for Dr. Bell.The net was closing tight: John Rann and his associate William Collier were arrested and committed to Newgate, charged with highway robbery; Miss Roche was charged, along with her servant, with being an accessory after the fact. In the event Miss Roche was found guilty and sentenced to be transported for fourteen years; her servant was acquitted. When Rann appeared for his trial the Calendar reports that he was “dressed in a new suit of pea-green clothes; his hat was bound round with silver strings; he wore a ruffled shirt; and his behaviour evinced the utmost unconcern”. He was so confident that he would get off scot-free that he ordered a fine supper to be provided for the entertainment of his special friends and associates. But the atmosphere became more sombre when all present realized that this time there would be no acquittal. A short time afterwards he was found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. Still the merriment continued – on October 23rd he held another dinner, this time for seven girlfriends. It was by all accounts a mirth-filled evening.

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxfiord Street, Marble Arch, and

The Tyburn stone at the junction of Edgeware Road, and Oxford Street, Marble Arch.

The hangman’s noose was finally put round his neck on 30th November 1774. James Boswell was one of the people in the large crowd which turned up to watch. According to the Newgate Calendar “when he came near the gallows he turned round, and looked at it as an object which he had long expected to see, but not as one that he dreaded, as might reasonably have been expected.”       highwayman6According to contemporary reports Sixteen-String Jack went to the gallows wearing his pea-green suit and all his finery complete with a huge nosegay in his buttonhole. He decorated his foot shackles with bright blue ribbons. Some accounts suggested he enjoyed some lively banter with the crowd, danced a jig, and generally showed no sign of fear or apprehension. According to Boswell he was cheered by ‘the whole vagabond population of London’. He was twenty four years old when he died.

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Another paper cut, more gallows humour!

Another paper cut, more gallows humour!


Highwayman Sixteen string Jack PH THeydon Bois nr Epping forest

In the Victorian era there was an insatiable appetite for stories about Rann’s exploits, and even today there is a public House named after him at Theydon Bois, near Epping Forest. And in case anyone is interested in the paper cut-outs I have published a book of them (see here) and it is also available on Kindle  – see here.

May 152013

“Rose, dressed and took breakfast and then ordered the carriage to take one to Drury Lane Theatre Royal. Arrived at three o’clock for the Royal Command Performance of ‘She would and She wouldn’t’; got shot (twice) by some madman, watched most of the play but fell asleep towards the end; went home.”

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So, to paraphrase the diaries of our dear King George III, might the monarch have written up the story of his day 213 years ago.

He had arrived at the theatre to a packed audience, who all stood for the playing of “God Save the King”. In the audience was a deranged former soldier who believed that, by dying, he would herald Christ’s Second Coming. His cunning plan to bring about his own death: shoot the king and be sent to the gallows for treason.

The man’s name was James Hadfield. The story goes that he had suffered a number of severe sabre wounds to the head while serving in the British army. Whatever the cause, he was clearly a total nutter, and not a very good shot. One of the slugs missed its target by 14 inches, the other brought down flakes of plaster from the ceiling of the Royal Box. Luckily one member of the audience – a David Moses Dyte – had the presence of mind to disarm the assailant before he could do any more damage to the building – or the King. Dyte’s reward? He was eventually made up to the exalted position of  ‘Purveyor of Pens and Quills to the Royal Household’. Now that’s what I call gratitude!

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An etching entitled Strong Symptoms of Loyalty courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library appeared shortly after the incident. It shows an imaginary scene before Hadfield was bundled over the rails and into the orchestra pit and dragged away to the music room. Charles James Fox grapples with Hadfield and shouts: “Shoot him, Kill him, Hang him, D—n him, Assassin – oh words where are you fled!!”

Theatre manager Sheridan exclaims “You D-d Jacobin scoundrel – Democratic Villain – You Republican Rascal, you Regicide you Traitor, you – you – Oh Heaven I fail for lack of words to Express my rage – to attempt – oh Devil – Fiend – A Monarch whom we love, A King whom we adore”

On the right, the snuff-taking George Tierney looks on unconcernedly. He casually remarks “Why, D-n me, you are as bad a Shot as I am.”

What actually happened was that  Sheridan came into the music room with the Duke of York and the prisoner apparently told the Duke “God bless your Royal Highness, I like you very well; you are a good fellow. This is not the worst that is brewing.”

It turns out that Hadfield had been an orderly working for the Duke, and he admired the Duke greatly. Hadfield was taken away and later charged with High Treason. To the great admiration of all present,the King insisted that ‘the show must go on.’ He apparently enjoyed the play so much he fell asleep in the second half…

Thomas Rowlandson: An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre, 1785

Thomas Rowlandson: An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre, 1785

The case against Hadfield came to trial in the Court of King’s Bench in June 1800. Various members of the public were called to give evidence as to what happened – the pistol was produced by a Mr Wright, who had picked it up off the floor. The Duke of York was called, which must have been a little embarrassing for him, with questions along the lines of “Do you normally employ complete madmen as your orderly?”

Erskine by Thomas Lawrence

Erskine by Thomas Lawrence

The questioner was the great barrister Thomas Erskine. He had a field day defending his client, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The problem was that in all other respects the prisoner appeared perfectly normal. According to the Newgate Calendar, seeing the Duke in court upset the prisoner greatly, causing him to exclaim in great agitation “God bless the Duke, I love him!” The Court immediately gave directions that he should be permitted to sit down; and Mr Kirby, the keeper of Newgate (who all the time sat next him), told him he had the permission of the Court to sit down, which he did, and remained composed during the remainder of the trial. The Newgate Calendar continues ‘When the prisoner was asked what could have induced him to commit so atrocious an act, he said he was tired of life, and thought he should have been killed’.

Erskine called various medicos to attest to the meaning of insanity and insane delusions, the problem being that up until that time the defence of insanity was only available if the insanity was so total that the accused was utterly irrational and had no control over his actions. That was clearly not the case here – Hadfield obviously intended to kill the King, and had brought along his pistol for the express purpose of firing it at the monarch. Eventually the judge halted the trial saying that the medical evidence meant that the verdict would inevitably mean an acquittal, because it was quite obvious that the guy was as mad as a hatter. But he added that “the prisoner, for his own sake, and for the sake of society at large, must not be discharged”.

The difficulty here was that in the past, the criminally insane were often handed back to the families to be looked after, but Hadfield could hardly be let loose to wander the streets. Parliament quickly passed new laws – the Treason Act and the Criminal Lunatics Act (both in 1800). The latter enabled prisoners who were found to be criminally insane to be locked up indefinitely, and Hadfield was carted off to Bedlam, or more correctly, Bethlem Royal Hospital.

bedlam st georges fields southwark

When the asylum was rebuilt in 1815 (which involved moving it to St George’s Fields, Southwark) Hadfield moved too. Apart from one time when he escaped and headed for Dover, intent on catching a ferry to France, he finished his days in the asylum, eventually dying of tuberculosis in 1841.

Sheridan, painted by Reynolds.

Sheridan, painted by Reynolds.

Poor Sheridan: he was already stretched financially by the cost of building the new theatre, and running it was an expensive business.In 1809 disaster struck and the theatre was burned to the ground. It gave rise to the famous remark by Sheridan, when he was encountered wandering around with a wine glass in his hand, watching the flames destroy his project:  “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.”

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The loss of the theatre completed his financial ruin – he died in poverty in 1816 and was buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Aug 182012

18th August 1720 marked the arrival in this world of someone born with not just the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but with an entire canteen of hall-marked cutlery. His name: Laurence Shirley; he was to become Earl Ferrers and his story is one of arrogance, cruelty, dissolute living and ultimately murder.

His grandfather the First Earl had sired no fewer than 15 sons and 12 daughters (by two wives) and looking after that lot rather diminished the fortunes of the earldom. Nevertheless the title included family estates in Leicester, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. Laurence’s father was the tenth son and Laurence inherited the title in 1745. It may be worth mentioning that there appears to have been a strain of madness in the family …

At the age of twenty he had turned his back on a University education (Oxford) and had gone to Paris where he displayed a talent for every excess especially drinking, gambling, fighting and whoring. He returned to England and initially set up home with a Mrs Clifford, by whom he had four daughters. Requiring a son once he succeeded to the earldom, he married a sixteen year old girl called Mary Meredith in 1752, but without giving up his mistress. For the young bride it must have been horrific. Her husband was twice her age; he was violent when drunk (which was often). She must have been humiliated by his womanising. Remember, this was a time when the rich – particularly the males, and especially the nobility – could do more-or-less what they wanted. As it turned out, the one thing they could not do was ‘get away with murder’.

All the more amazing that in 1758 Mary succeeded in petitioning Parliament for a formal separation from the Earl, on the basis of his cruelty. Parliament not only took the unusual step of awarding a formal separation (which must have cost Mary’s family a bomb) but also declared that the Earl’s assets should be controlled by trustees and that the trustees should pay Mary  rents and profits from the family estates. Laurence must have been furious at having to watch as he lost control of his affairs. Initially he had been keen to recommend his steward John Johnson as rent collector to the Trustees – John had worked for him loyally for some years and was good at book-keeping. Maybe he thought he could lean on John to ‘cook the books’ … we don’t know. But it appears that over time the Earl grew to distrust the steward, perhaps inevitably given John’s role as go-between, serving the Earl but paying his rents to the Earl´s  estranged wife.

On Sunday 13th of January 1760 Earl Ferrers went to his home at at Stanton, about two miles from Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire, and ordered the unfortunate Mr Johnson to come to him on the Friday following, at three o’clock in the afternoon. The steward arrived as requested on 18th January and waited to be summonsed to the Earl’s quarters. The Earl was still eating his lunch. After the meal he sent Mrs Clifford and her young daughters for a long walk and arranged for all five of the male servants to depart on sundry errands. This left only the three housemaids, an old man and a young boy in the house. He then called Mr Johnson into his Study, locked the door and, according to the Newgate Calendar, “being thus together, the Earl required him first to settle an account, and then, charging him with the villainy which he attributed to him, ordered him to kneel down. The unfortunate man went down on one knee; upon which the Earl, in a tone of voice loud enough to be heard by the maid-servants without, cried: “Down on your other knee! Declare that you have acted against Lord Ferrers. Your time is come — you must die.” Then suddenly drawing a pistol from his pocket, which was loaded, he presented it and immediately fired. The ball entered the body of the unfortunate man, but he rose up, and entreated that no further violence might be done him; and the female servants at that time coming to the door, being alarmed by the report, his lordship quitted the room.”

The Earl agreed that a doctor could be sent for, and went off for a drink or two in his private quarters, emerging worse for wear some hours later. He refused to let the doctor take the dying man away to his own house. The doctor patiently awaited until the earl retired to bed, and rigged up an easy chair with poles so that the dying man could be carried away in a makeshift sedan. He died the following morning at nine o’clock.

Come the morning and the Earl declined to give himself up – half-dressed he rode off on his horse, but a few hours later was confronted by an angry crowd and despite being armed with a blunderbuss, a brace of pistols and a dagger, was disarmed and taken before the magistrates.

But the Earl was entitled to insist that his trial should take place before his peers in the House of Lords. Not for him the humiliation of being tried as a common criminal. He was permitted to drive in his landau, pulled by six horses, to London where in April his trial started in Westminster Hall. The Earl conducted his own defence, apparently most eloquently, which may have hindered rather than helped his claim that he was insane. He was found guilty – and at that stage he indicated a regret at having pleaded insanity, saying that he intended to kill his victim, and showing no remorse.

Murder carried an automatic death penalty. In vain the Earl pleaded to be dispatched in the manner of a nobleman, that is to say by being beheaded by a swordsman. But that penalty only applied to treason, and the Earl was forced to accept that he would end up in the hangman’s noose, just like any other common felon. He was however entitled to travel from his place of imprisonment (The Tower) to Tyburn in his own landau, accompanied by a guard of lancers. A huge crowd was in attendance to see the hanging and the journey to Tyburn took nearly three hours. The Earl was attired in his best white suit, richly embroidered with silver, (the one he wore at his wedding) saying “This is the suit in which I was married, and in which I will die.” A specially made set of gallows had been put up, furnished with black silk cushions for his Lordship’s comfort.

The Newgate Calendar continues:

“The executioner now proceeded to do his duty, to which his lordship, with great resignation, submitted. His neck-cloth being taken off, and a white cap, which he had brought in his pocket, being put upon his head, his arms secured by a black sash, and the cord put round his neck, he advanced by three steps to the elevated part of the scaffold, and, standing under the cross-beam which went over it, which was also covered with black baize, he asked the executioner: “Am I right?” Then the cap was drawn over his face, and, upon a signal given by the sheriff (for his lordship, upon being before asked, declined to give one himself), that part upon which he stood instantly sank down from beneath his feet, and he was launched into eternity, the 5th of May, 1760.

The accustomed time of one hour being past, the coffin was raised up, with the greatest decency, to receive the body; and, being deposited in the hearse, was conveyed by the sheriffs, with the same procession, to Surgeons’ Hall, to undergo the remainder of the sentence. A large incision was then made from the neck to the bottom of the breast, and another across the throat; the lower part of the belly was laid open and the bowels taken away. It was afterwards publicly exposed to view in a room up one pair of stairs at the Hall; and on the evening of Thursday, the 8th of May, it was delivered to his friends for interment.”








He was the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged. It was considered to be his duty as a nobleman to die in a proper and dignified manner – he did his duty, but probably only for the first and last time in his life…

 A contemporary etching of the deceased Earl in his coffin.

Post script: hopefully the widow of the unlovely Earl found solace after his death: she re-married but was to die in a house-fire some years later. A melancholy tale.