A Reporter’s Unpleasant Duty: Attending Executions at HM Prison Gloucester

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Gloucester reporter E. Kendall Pearson, pictured in the Gloucester Journal, 23 Feb 1933. (British Newspaper Archive)

In June 1935, preparations were being made at Gloucester Prison to carry out the execution of Arthur Franklin, who had murdered his former lover, Gladys Nott, at Hanham Woods, near Bristol. This prompted a former Gloucester journalist, Edward Kendall Pearson (known as E. Kendall Pearson), to write in The Citizen about his experiences attending executions in the 1890s. His recollections appeared in the column ‘Gloucester Day By Day: Views and Gossip For the Tea Table’, on 24 June 1935, the day before Franklin was executed.

The earliest execution Pearson had witnessed on behalf of The Citizen newspaper had taken place ‘on a grey March morning, 42 years ago’. [Albert Manning was hanged on 16 March 1893, for murdering his former lover at Kingswood, near Bristol.] This execution, Pearson said, attracted unusual public attention because the accused ‘feigned madness with so much cleverness as to puzzle the experts in lunacy who had him under observation’. Also, after the event, a London newspaper reported that the man was hanged ‘in sight of his open grave’. This led to a question being raised in the House of Commons. During the trial, Manning had been a ‘hunched-over dwarfish figure’. After being sentenced, his mother visited him in the condemned cell, and from then on, he started to talk and behave rationally. Pearson was amazed, when standing near the gallows on the morning of the execution, to see approaching his doom ‘not a dwarfish, hunched-over figure, but a much taller man than the occupant of the dock had seemed to be’.

Regarding the open grave story, the prison governor, Major Knox, had been furious at the statement, and invited several journalists, including Pearson, to replicate the walk from the condemned cell to the gallows taken by Manning, to prove that he could not have seen his grave. Pearson described ‘walking in the steps of the condemned man, from near the cell, down a flight of winding stairs, like a belfry, into the open yard and  right up to the gallows’.

In the same year, Pearson attended another execution, ‘rendered all the more sensational by the prisoner addressing some farewell words to the reporters as he came in sight of the scaffold’. [Frederick Wyndham, who shot and killed his father, was hanged 21 Dec 1893.] He was reported to have said, ‘I wish you all goodbye. I should have liked to have killed that whore [his father’s mistress] before I die’.

The attendance of newspaper reporters at executions came to an end at Gloucester Prison in 1912, when a special execution chamber was built on the end wall of A Wing, which was too small to admit anyone other than the prisoner, the executioner, and a few officials. Pearson noted that the execution of Franklin would take place in this chamber, ‘a room adjoining the condemned cell, on the same floor as the Prison Chapel’.

Pearson’s recollections prompted a former colleague of his, Paul Francillon, to continue the subject in his column in the Gloucester Journal, ‘St John’s Lane and It’s Memories: Glancing Back Over the Years’, which appeared on 29 June 1935. Pearson had made no mention of his personal feelings about attending executions, but Francillon indicated that his friend had found this to be a particularly unpleasant duty. Regarding his time working at The Citizen, Francillon said that he had never had to do this task, so had no ‘gruesome memories’ of executions in Gloucester Gaol, unlike his friend Kendall Pearson. His [Francillon’s] nerves might have better stood the ordeal of attendance in pursuit of professional duty, as Pearson found it ‘utterly repugnant’. Francillon was glad that he had never been instructed to attend an execution, because, he asserted, he would have ‘mutinied’ rather than being ‘the unwitting instrument of ministering to a morbid public taste which happily now belongs to a past age of journalism’.

Francillon recalled that there used to be a fierce competition to be the first paper with the news of the actual executions in the times of which he wrote, 40 or 50 years ago. He remembered the speed with which Pearson got his copy in and ‘the feverish haste with which it was composed and sent to the press, and the despatch of a big issue by a convenient express train to sell on Bristol streets in competition with the Bristol papers, which we did not count half so go-ahead as the lively little Citizen’. Francillon recalled that he had his own work to do in forwarding the production of these ‘Execution Specials’, so although he never witnessed an actual hanging, he had a share of responsibility in passing through what he still regarded as ‘a not very delectable side of journalism’.

When he and Pearson started work at St John’s Lane, there were still many people to whom public executions had been a familiar scene. The attendance of reporters when executioners were withdrawn from public into the gaol [in 1868] marked a transition stage in which reporters acted by proxy for the public. Now it was an ‘almost extinct’ practice for reporters to attend. Instead the newspapers had to rely on documentation – the registration of death and the inquest certificates – for information.

In Francillon’s early days, the public had ‘an avid appetite for the ghastly details’ of an execution. Execution specials in The Citizen usually brought the total day’s issue to a new high record of circulation. Old time publicity was not confined to newspapers. Itinerant vendors sold copies of ‘last dying speeches’, etc, to morbid crowds waiting outside gaols for the black flag to be raised over the gaol gateway. Today [1935], the black flag, the tolling gaol bell and ‘the last dying speech and confession’ were all things of the past.

Looking back at Kendall Pearson’s report on the execution of Albert Manning, which  appeared in The Citizen on 16 March 1893, it is clear that Francillon was correct in his assertion that his colleague did not enjoy this part of his job. After giving all the details of the crime and the trial, he wrote, under the sub-title, ‘THE SCENE AT THE SCAFFOLD. MANNINGS LAST MOMENTS’:

Of all the duties which the reporter whose lot in a county town is called upon to perform in the interests of the paper which he represents and the public, none, perhaps, are more irksome or unpleasant than his attendance at an execution. The “ordeal” must be faced and the Pressman must leave his feelings – if he has any – at home, and proceed to the spot where the unhappy criminal is to end his day, with mind intent on one thing only, and that the absorption of all those impressions of the scene which are necessary to the compilation of a faithful and accurate description of what the public are anxiously waiting to know.

Pearson went on to describe how he arrived at the prison gatehouse with two other local reporters, was taken to his place near the gallows to watch the execution, then ushered forwards to peer down into the pit where the body was hanging, fingers still twitching. An unpleasant duty indeed.

 

Edward Kendall Pearson was on the staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 43 years. He joined the newspaper group in 1891, and worked as chief reporter for both newspapers for 33 years, before becoming news editor of The Citizen. He retired in 1932, but continued to contribute to the column ‘Gloucester Day-By-Day’ in The Citizen, as ‘E.K.P.’ He died on 26 May 1946.

Paul Francillon joined the newspaper group at St John’s Lane in 1886. The group published the Gloucester Journal, The Citizen, the Gloucestershire Chronicle and the Gloucester Standard. He was on the editorial staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 59 years. By the end of the 19th century, he was the leader writer for The Citizen, and by the time he went into semi-retirement in 1838, he was the Deputy Editor. He continued to write leaders and columns until his death, on 25 April 1945.

Sources

Newspapers all accessed on British Newspaper Archive, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, 21-24 May 2018):

Gloucester Journal, 25 Feb 1933, 29 June 1935

The Citizen, 16 March 1893, 24 June 1935, 30 April 1945 (report on Francillon’s funeral)

Gloucestershire Echo, 27 May 1946 (obituary of E.K. Pearson)

Further Reading (aka Shameless Plugs):

Hanged at Gloucester, by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011)

A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950, by Jill Evans (Glos Crime History Books, 2017)

 

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‘Masquerading as a Man’: A Gloucestershire servant arrested in London, 1913

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From The Tatler, 15 Jan 1908*

In the first decades of the twentieth century, variety shows in British theatres often contained a popular act in the form of a woman who dressed up as a man and sang. Some of these women, such as Vesta Tilley and Daisy Burrell, became huge stars and photographs of them dressed in male clothing appeared in the pages of magazines and newspapers such as The Tatler, The Era and The Sphere. Everyone knew that these ‘boys’ were really females; they were always given the title of ‘Miss’ in theatre programmes, so there was no misunderstanding. When it came to females in ordinary life who ‘disguised’ themselves in male clothing, for whatever reason, there was less approbation, and when such a female was discovered, it could lead to a disturbance and an appearance in court. Once such case occurred in London in 1913.

 

On 25 January 1913, the Cheltenham Chronicle reported that a ‘Cheltenham girl’ had been arrested in London. Lilian Cawley, who gave her address as Queen’s Road, Bayswater, had appeared at Marylebone Police Court, looking ‘very downcast and depressed’. She had been arrested on a charge of ‘behaving in a disorderly manner by masquerading in male attire in Bishops-Rd, Paddington, and thereby causing a crowd to assemble’. A police constable had found her on Saturday night, surrounded by a crowd, and took her into custody ‘for her own sake’.

The magistrate, Mr Plowden, thought the matter quite amusing and asked if she had been dressed as a field-marshal. The police constable replied solemnly that the girl had been dressed in normal male clothing. Lilian Cawley said that she had previously worked as a domestic servant in Cheltenham, but on coming to London she thought she would stand a better chance of getting a job if she dressed as a man. Mr Plowden told her that she had been very foolish, for ‘no-one would ever take her for a man’. On her promising not to do it again, she was dismissed from court.

This might have been the end of the story, if the Gloucestershire Police had not been sent the girl’s details and found that her description matched that of a servant named Annie Cownley, who a few weeks earlier had disappeared from her master’s house, taking some of his clothing and money with her. She was taken into custody in London and Detective Frank Hallett went to fetch her from Paddington Green Police Station and bring her back to Gloucester on the train.

It transpired that Lilian or Annie Cownley, who was 23 years of age at the time of her arrest, had been born in Worcester and had gone from an orphanage into domestic service in Malvern, then spent eight years in Cheltenham. (The 1911 census has her as Lilian Hilda Cownley, living at Atherstone Lawn, Cheltenham, as a domestic servant in the household of Alfred Loxley Creese, a fancy draper.) By January 1913 she was a servant in the home of Charles Henry Organ, of 25 Brunswick Square, Gloucester. She had been employed there for only five weeks when she was found to have gone missing on the morning of 6 January, along with male clothing and a purse containing around £14 in cash.

On being charged with theft, Cawnley admitted her guilt. She told Detective Hallett that she didn’t know why she had done it. She said she had left Mr Organ’s house at 3 o’clock in the morning, wearing her master’s clothes. She had gone to Worcester, then to London, where she had bought a suit of men’s clothes for two guineas, a gent’s overcoat for two pounds, a trunk for 18 shillings and six pence, a pair of men’s boots for eight shillings and six pence, and paid five shillings and six pence in advance for a month’s lodgings.  She spent the next three weeks masquerading as a man and looking for work, without success. The trunk, containing Organ’s clothes, was found at her lodgings. She had the purse with her, containing five shillings and six pence and a pawn ticket.

Cawnley appeared before the city magistrates at Gloucester on 27 January, charged with stealing £13. 10s in gold and a quantity of male wearing apparel, the property of Charles Henry Organ. The newspapers reported that she sat dejectedly in court with her eyes fixed to the ground. She was dressed in female clothing, which was described in detail (long blue coat, black skirt, black mushroom felt hat with silver-grey band, and a blue muffler over her shoulders). She was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment with hard labour, which the Chairman of the magistrates ‘hoped would be a warning to her for the rest of her life’.

A story about a woman dressing as a man was always a popular read in the newspapers, and there were several such cases reported by the Gloucestershire press at around the same time. In June 1913, a young girl was taken into custody in Cheltenham after people became suspicious that she was a female wearing boy’s clothes. It was discovered that she had run away from her family in Swindon and had dressed herself in some of her brother’s clothes, partly in the hope of remaining undiscovered, and also because she thought she would have a better chance of finding work as a boy. Although very reluctant, she was eventually persuaded to return home.

During the First World War, attracting suspicion because of what you were wearing had an added danger. In 1915, again in Cheltenham, a woman dressed as a man nearly caused a riot when a crowd gathered round her, apparently as word spread that she was a German spy. She took refuge in a hotel bar to escape the mob and a policeman went in afterwards to look for her. It took him some time to realise that the confident young fellow drinking and smoking in the corner was in fact the suspicious female. The constable took her out of a back door to avoid the crowd gathered outside, where she disappeared into the streets, before the authorities had a chance to question her.

Sources:

Newspapers: Cheltenham Chronicle, 25 Jan 1913, 28 June 1913, 23 Oct 1915; Gloucester Journal, 1 Feb 1913. (All accessed on British Newspaper Archive, March 2018)

1911 Census, Cheltenham, District 11. Household of Alfred Loxley Creese, Atherstone Lawn Cheltenham. (Accessed on ancestry.co.uk, March 2018)

*Image From The Tatler, via britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.  ©The British Library Board. All Rights Reserved.

©Jill Evans, 2018

 

 

 

Quarrelling Radicals in Gloucester Prison, 1799-1801

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John Binns as pictured in his autobiography, 1852

In the late 18th century, a number of political or ‘State’ prisoners were sent to Gloucester Prison, to be held on suspicion of intending to commit treasonous practices. After the events of the French Revolution, the British Government was very nervous of individuals or group that criticised the government or the monarch, and the habeus corpus was suspended in 1794, enabling the government to commit suspicious persons to prison without trial. Gloucester County Prison, with its individual cells, was regarded as an ideal location to house such prisoners.

Kid Wake could be regarded as being Gloucester’s first State prisoner, although he had been tried for committing an actual crime. In May 1796, he had been sentenced to five years’ hard labour, for shouting “No King, No War!” as George the Third’s carriage made its way to the opening of Parliament. Wake was kept in the penitentiary at Gloucester from 20 May 1796 to 7 May 1801. As part of his sentence, he was made to stand in the pillory in the middle of Gloucester for an hour on every market day, for the first three months of his term.

While Kid Wake was serving his sentence, another political prisoner, John Binns, arrived at Gloucester Prison. Unlike Wake, Binns had not been tried for committing any particular crime. He was a member of the London Corresponding Society, which had formed in 1792, with the aim of campaigning for parliamentary reform. The leaders of this society, and its most active members, were frequently arrested, interrogated and sometimes put on trial. John Binns had been held in a number of jails, including the Tower of London, several times before he was sent to Gloucester Prison in May 1799. This was the result of a committee report to parliament in which Binns was named as ‘a person particularly zealous in organising political associations, in opposition to the government’. Binns was detained on 16 March 1799 and held in Clerkenwell Prison in London until 9 May, when he was sent to Gloucester on the orders of the Duke of Portland, the Secretary of State.

John Binns published an autobiography in 1852, in which he gives some interesting details of the time he spent in Gloucester Prison. As he had not been tried and convicted for committing a crime, he was treated like a prisoner waiting for trial, but as a man of a higher social status than most of the inmates, he was given some special privileges. However, the governor was given strict instructions by the Duke of Portland not to allow him to mix with other prisoners. Therefore, Binns was given a dayroom for his sole use, where he spent most of time alone. At night, he was locked in an individual cell, the same as the other prisoners.

Binns recalled that he had been allowed the use of a yard, ‘abundantly large’ where he exercised for three or four hours a day. He was also given two plots of ground, on which he cultivated vegetables, for his own use. Soon after his arrival at the prison, he met with the board of visiting magistrates, several of whom offered to lend him books. He later met the Dean of Gloucester, who offered him the full use of his library. Binns had a microscope at the prison, but he was not allowed to read any newspaper, and the warders and officials were not permitted to talk to him about national or international events. While at Gloucester, Binns had two pets to keep him company: a cat which followed him wherever he went and a toad. He took the cat away with him when he left the prison, but released the toad.

After Binns had been at the prison for three months, he was joined by two more political prisoners. John Bone and Robert Keir were both members of the London Corresponding Society and were committed to Gloucester in August 1799, by the Duke of Portland, for ‘treasonable practices’. Bone and Keir were put into the same dayroom as Binns, then locked up in separate cells at night. The three men already knew each other, and Binns recalled that they got along well for the first few months, spending their days using books to learn French and mathematics, and exercising in the yard allocated to them. However, according to Binns, the other two became jealous of him and ‘conspired’ against him, leading to the three being split up.

In January 1800, the governor noted in his journal that the three State prisoners had been put into separate rooms for fighting. In his autobiography, Binns related what had been the cause of their quarrel. He stated that one morning, he and his companions were exercising in their yard, ‘whipping tops’, when Bone and Keir were summoned to appear before the Board of Magistrates, who were in the governor’s house. After about forty-five minutes they came back, and Binns was sent before the Board. He was told that Bone and Keir had made a complaint of a serious nature against him. They had claimed that for some time past, two or more evenings a week, after they had all been locked up in their cells, Binns, instead of being locked up, had been taken to the governor’s rooms, where he would spend the evening in company with the governor, his wife, and sometimes his niece, until the outer prison bell was rung, at which time he would be conveyed back to his cell and locked in.

Binns expressed great surprise at the charge, as neither of the two prisoners ‘had ever apprised me of their mean suspicions or petty jealousies, nor warned me that they had, or thought they had, cause of complaint against me.’ He denied their accusation and was then taken back to the yard. He described what happened next:

‘I no sooner found myself in the yard, on my return from the board, and within striking distance of my worthy compeers, than I began thrashing them soundly; while they, to do them justice, “ran and roared” lustily, until the turnkeys came and took them out of the yard into the prison.’

Binns stated that he never saw then in the jail again, but his memory of the incident may have dimmed over time, as according to the prison journals, they were in the same dayroom until October 1800, when Keir was separated from the others after Bone complained that Keir had prevented him from keeping their room clean.

Binns, Bone and Keir were all liberated from Gloucester Prison on 1 March 1801, along with all the other political prisoners in the kingdom who had been detained under the suspension of the habeus corpus. No doubt the officials and staff at Gloucester were happy to see their quarrelsome ‘guests’ take their leave.

Sources

Recollections of the Life of John Binns (1852)

Whiting, JRS, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975)

 

 

 

 

A postman shot at Christmas: Chedworth, 1924

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Sketches of the Chedworth shooting in the Illustrated Police News, 1 Jan 1925, via British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk). The victim was originally named as George Gardner, later corrected to William. The ‘Mrs Gardner’ who came to his aid was probably his wife, not his mother.

 

On the morning of 24 December 1924, postman William Gardner left his house in Lower Chedworth to go to work at his usual time of seven o’clock. As he turned to close his front door, a gun shot rang out and Gardner fell to the ground. Mrs Gardner and neighbours who had heard the gunshot came outside and went to the aid of the wounded man. He was taken to Cirencester Memorial Hospital, with severe injuries to his face, and other wounds on his body.

The assailant was quickly identified as being another postman, Frederick Broad, who had resigned from his job the previous day. Just before the shooting, a man named Arthurs had met Broad going towards Gardener’s house, dressed in his post office uniform. Arthurs thought he saw Broad throw something into the long grass beside the path. He wished him ‘good morning’ and Broad muttered a reply. After they had passed each other, Arthurs looked back and saw Broad retracing his steps, as if going to retrieve something he had hidden.

The police were called and Superintendent Wyman of Northleach station was informed. Wyman soon arrived in Chedworth and headed a search party which set off to hunt for Broad. He was tracked past a farm and along a lane to Chedworth Woods, but then the trail was lost. However, in the meantime, a railway ganger had come across Broad’s mangled body lying next to the railway line, about three hundred yards from a tunnel and not far from the Roman villa. A double-barrelled shotgun lay nearby. His remains were taken to Chedworth railway station.

On the following day, an inquest was opened by Mr Morton Ball, the Stroud coroner, at Chedworth Police Station. At this time, a jury was sworn in and evidence was taken from William John Broad, the deceased man’s brother, who had identified the body. He stated that his brother was a single man, 24 years of age. His general state of health had been good physically, but he had been ‘somewhat strange at times’ and had been seeing a doctor. He had served in the Army during the late conflict, and was demobilised in the usual way at the end of the war. The inquest then was adjourned until 1 January. Meanwhile, William Gardner continued to be cared for at Cirencester Memorial Hospital, where his condition was said to be ‘fairly satisfactory’. His jaw had been shot away, but there were hopes for his recovery.

Between Christmas and New Year, the local press investigated the background to the incident and spoke to some Chedworth residents. It was reported that Broad had lately developed ‘several peculiarities’ and had been very upset about some changes made at his work. The postal rounds at Chedworth had been altered recently, and Broad had been given a new, shorter route, which meant he was paid slightly less money. His former round had been taken over by William Gardner, a colleague of many years service, and Broad had become convinced that the older man held some responsibility for the changes. He had resigned with immediate effect on the day before the shooting and another Chedworth man named Percy Mabberley had been appointed to take over his job in the sudden emergency.

As speculation grew that Broad must have done something wrong to have his round changed, the Cheltenham Postmaster made a statement in which made it clear that there was nothing personal in the alteration of the rounds. ‘No report whatever had reached me of any unsatisfactory working on the part of Broad which would lead to his being changed from one duty to another. Whatever action has been taken is not the outcome of any complaint about duty. The fact of the matter is we have reorganised the whole of the postal service in the district in connection with the motor work.’

On 1 January 1925, the inquest into the death of Frederick Broad was resumed, at the YMCA Hut, Chedworth. The first witness called was the father of the deceased, William Trotman Broad, a mason, living in Chedworth. He stated that at half past six on the morning of December 23rd, his son opened his bedroom door and said he was going to assist Mr Mabberley (his replacement) in bringing in the mail. He was dressed in his postal uniform. Broad senior advised his son to remain at home, go downstairs and light the fire. When he came downstairs, his son had gone. At breakfast the deceased’s mother heard the report of a gun, and looking up at their gun rack, he saw that Fred’s gun was missing.

Peter James Morse, an engine driver in the employ of the Great Western Railway, and living in Cheltenham, stated that on 23 December he was the driver of the train leaving Andover Junction at 8 am. He pulled up at Chedworth, and on leaving the station, also on reaching the tunnel, sounded the whistle. On coming out of the tunnel and on entering the cutting he thought the engine struck a small stone. He did not see a man on the line, but later was told that he had probably knocked someone down. He inspected the engine and found no evidence of a collision, but he was afterwards told that there were some marks on one of the coaches.

James Buttle, a ganger of Withington, employed by the Great Western Railway, stated that on the morning of December 23rd he was walking along the line from Withington in the direction of Chedworth Tunnel. He saw a passing train and some distance on he discovered the arm and hand of a man lying in the six-foot way. About 800 yards further on, he found the body of the deceased lying in the four-foot way, and terribly mutilated. Death must have been instantaneous. The witness added that there was no public crossing or footway near where the body was found.

In summing up, the Coroner said it was perfectly clear that the deceased was killed by a passing train. What the jury had to ask themselves was: Did he deliberately place himself on the line; and if so, they had further to consider the state of his mind at the time. The jury returned a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind, and expressed their sympathy with the parents and relatives in their sad bereavement.

The funeral of Frederick Broad was held on the afternoon of Saturday, 3 January, at Chedworth Church. There were only a few private mourners, but about twelve parishioners came to the service. The parents were ‘too ill’ to attend.

 

Sources

Cheltenham Chronicle, 27 Dec 1924 and 3 Jan 1925

Illustrated Police News, 1 Jan 1925

Gloucester Journal, 3 Jan 1925

All accessed on http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

 

©Jill Evans 2017

A sham curate hanged at Gloucester, 1814

In the spring of 1812, the parish church at Newnham-on-Severn was in need of a new curate. The Revd Mr Parsons held the perpetual curacy there, but he resided in Oxford, so he employed a curate to perform his duties in the parish. The former holder of this position had resigned in March 1812, and so Revd Parsons advertised for a replacement. He soon received a response from one Thomas White, a clergyman in his forties, who was sent to Newnham to meet Parsons’ agents, solicitors Thomas Tovey and John James. White told them that he held a living in Ireland, but when they asked to see his credentials, he said that all his papers were still over there and it would take some time for them to be shipped over. Although Tovey and James had some doubts about the new recruit, Parsons had approved of him, so he was allowed to take up his duties at the church, starting on 22 March.

Newnham church

Newnham-on-Severn church (Jill Evans, 2010)

On 17 April, White told the churchwarden, Job Thatcher, that he was short of money. He asked Thatcher if he would give him £30 cash in return for a bill of exchange, bearing the name of a Mr William Jennings, who White said was his agent in Dublin. Thatcher agreed and gave him the cash.

On 15 May, Tovey and James, who had grown increasingly suspicious about White,  demanded to see his references and proof of his qualifications. White said his documents still had not arrived from Dublin and gave the address of Mr Jennings in Dublin, to write to him themselves. Four days later, on 19 May, White disappeared. Shortly afterwards, the bill of exchange the churchwarden had been given was refused payment. In addition, Tovey and James received a letter from Dublin, in which Mr Jennings stated that he knew Thomas White, but was not his agent and had nothing to do with his financial affairs. On making enquiries in Newnham, it was discovered that several parishioners had loaned White money in the short time he had been their curate.

Thomas Tovey and John James were keen to find their sham curate, but it was not until the summer of 1813 that he was sighted on several occasions in Bath, Bristol and Worcestershire. Tovey and James finally caught up with him in Worcester, on 29 November. He was removed from there to the Kings Head in Gloucester, where several of those who had known him as Thomas White came to identify him. He pretended not to recognise any of them, but later admitted to being the person known as Thomas White in Newnham. He said that his real name was Richard Williamson and that he came from Ashley in Wiltshire. It later transpired that his real name was Robert Peacock, but he bore the aliases Thomas White, Richard Williamson, Richard Thomas, William Whitefield and William Whitmore.

While Peacock waited in Gloucester gaol for his trial, more was discovered about what he had been doing in the time between leaving Newnham and being arrested in Worcester. He had gone first to Cornwall, where he had served as a curate under the name Richard Williamson, at the parish of Tailand, near Looe. This time he stayed in the position long enough to marry a respectable young lady, but soon after the marriage, when he had obtained some of her money, he went to London on ‘urgent business’. Not long after that, a notice appeared in a Cornwall newspaper, announcing the sudden death of Mr Williamson. The friends of his shocked wife went to the newspaper offices to find out if this was a mistake and were shown a letter which had been sent commissioning the announcement, which they believed was in Williamson’s handwriting.

After that, Peacock abandoned his clerical disguise, and was seen in in Bristol and Bath wearing more colourful clothing and living in some style. A fortnight before his arrest, he drove from Bristol to the King’s Head in Gloucester, with his carriage, horses and servants bedecked in orange ribbons, and announced that the Duke of Wellington had secured a famous victory over Marshal Soult in the Peninsula War, which proved to be completely untrue.

The Cheltenham Chronicle reported on the case under the headline ‘SHAM PARSON’, and commented, ‘It would be difficult to trace this extraordinary character thro’ the various disguises under which he has for several years been preying upon the public.’ The report added that the solicitors Tovey and James had been tracing his steps for the past two months and during that time, they had prevented his marrying two more ‘unsuspecting females’, one of whom lived in Bristol.

During his time in prison, Peacock repaid some of his debts, especially to people he owed in Newnham and in Wiltshire. He certainly could afford to do this, as when he was arrested he had over £150 in cash on his person, and he was found to be worth thousands of pounds in property and stocks. Many people asked to see him in prison, perhaps hoping to identify him as someone who had swindled them in the past, but he refused all visitors. He spent his time teaching scripture to his fellow prisoners and reading books lent to him by the prison chaplain.

Robert Peacock, alias Thomas White, Richard Williamson, Richard Thomas, William Whitefield and William Whitmore, was tried at the Gloucestershire Spring Assizes in April 1814. He was charged with uttering a bill of exchange, with intent to defraud Job Thatcher of Newnham. The prosecution stated that Peacock had passed the bill for £30 when acting as a curate at Newnham. He pretended the money was due to him as a quarter’s stipend for the living he held in Ballyporeen, Ireland. The bill bore the acceptance of William Jennings of Dublin, upon whom it was drawn, and the prosecution stated that this had been forged by Peacock. Jennings appeared as a witness and swore that it was not his writing on the bill.

After a trial lasting five hours, the jury took only a few minutes to find Robert Peacock guilty of forging and uttering the bill of exchange. Forgery was a capital offence, but the judge, Mr Dallas, respited the sentence on Peacock. The defence counsel had raised a point of law concerning the evidence given against him, so Dallas referred the case for the opinion of his fellow judges. Peacock was sent back to Gloucester gaol, to await the next Assizes.

At the start of the Summer Assizes, in August 1814, Robert Peacock was called before Mr Justice Dallas. The judge told Peacock that in his case, ‘the proof was very clear; but your Counsel contended that the facts were not proved in point of law.’ The evidence had been submitted to the Judges, along with the grounds of objection, and ‘their opinion was that no doubt whatever could be entertained of the facts being clearly proved’. Robert Peacock was sentenced to death. The judge said that he would be executed on 3 September, ‘unless the mercy of the Prince Regent be interposed; and great interest is made to implore Royal Clemency on his behalf’.

A Judge’s Report on Peacock’s case was immediately sent to the Home Office, along with four individual petitions, the first being from Peacock himself. His mother, Sarah Peacock, sent two and the other was from the Marquess Camden. A collective petition was also submitted, signed by the prison chaplain and surgeon and four of the Visiting Magistrates. The grounds given for clemency to be shown were that the prosecutor had asked at the trial that the prisoner be shown mercy, the prisoner had an aged mother and three helpless children, he had been behaving well in prison and had been teaching the other prisoners scripture. The judge recommended that Peacock should be shown mercy, but the appeal for clemency failed.

Robert Peacock was hanged on the gatehouse roof of Gloucester prison on 3 September 1814, alongside another convict, George Symes, who had been condemned for horse stealing. The Gloucester Journal reported that Peacock had been counselling Symes in the condemned cells, ‘bringing him from obduracy to a more perfect understanding of the awful change he was about to undergo’.

On the scaffold, Peacock shook hands with Symes and with the executioner. He told the latter that he would find a few shillings in his pocket. On the following day, his body was buried at St Nicholas Church in Westgate Street, Gloucester.

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 11 April, 18 April, 12 August, 5 September, 1814

Cheltenham Chronicle, 9 December 1813

The National Archives, Judges’ Reports, HO47/53/34, 20 August 1814

Gloucestershire Archives, Parish Registers, St Nicholas Gloucester, Burials (P154/15)

This case appears in Hanged at Gloucester, by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011)

© Jill Evans 2017

 

Escape from Gloucester’s City Gaol: Mary Steward, 1799

On 6 May 1799, the Gloucester Journal reported that ‘two genteely-dressed women’ had been committed to the city gaol, after stealing a quantity of lace from a milliner’s shop in Gloucester. The pair had been pursued and apprehended in Cheltenham, where some of the stolen lace was found among their possessions. The newspaper commented that it was supposed that the women were members of a large gang of shoplifters, who had been operating for some time in the country.

The two women, Mary Steward and Jane Bowers, were held in the city gaol in Southgate Street until July, when the Assizes were held. When the time came for their trials, it was revealed that Bowers had ‘turned evidence’ against her colleague, and was acquitted as a result. Mary Steward was found guilty of stealing lace from the shop of Mrs Bright, milliner. She was sentenced to be transported to Australia for seven years. She was taken back to the city gaol, to wait there until she was transferred to the next available convict ship.

On 5 August 1799, it was announced in the Gloucester Journal that Mary Steward had escaped from the gaol. The city prison had only opened in 1782, but Steward had been able to make a hole under her cell window, big enough to climb through, then she had lowered herself down into the street, using sheets which she had torn into strips and sewn together to make a rope.

In the same paper, an advertisement appeared, submitted by William Dunn, Gaoler, offering a reward of five pounds to anyone who detained Steward or gave information leading to her recapture. The notice stated that Mary Steward was twenty-eight years old, and from ‘Harwin’, in Ayrshire, Scotland. She had dark brown hair, hazel eyes, was round-featured with a fresh complexion, had a scar between her eyebrows, a mark from a sore on her left arm, near the wrist, and was five feet one and a quarter inches in height. She had previously lived in Nottingham, Sheffield and Birmingham. At the time of her escape, she was wearing ‘a pair of black Stockings, a flannel under Pettycoat and a black Skirt over it, a Night Cap and a black Bonnet, but no Gown, Stays, nor Shoes’.

 

JackSheppard-15

Detail from a sketch by G Cruickshank, in ‘Jack Sheppard. A Romance’ by WH Ainsworth, 1839.*

 

A week later, the Gloucester Journal reported that Mary Steward was ‘still yet at large’, but it was hoped that she would soon be retaken. The advertisement for her recapture was repeated on the same page, with the reward being offered now increased to ten guineas.

Unfortunately, no record has been found of where or when Mary Steward was recaptured, but she certainly was, because she was listed as one of the convicts who were transported to Australia on board the Earl Cornwallis, which set sail on 18 November 1800, arriving in New South Wales on 12 June 1801. Her initial sentence of seven years had been increased to transportation for life.

 

Sources:

Gloucester Journal, 6 May, 15 July, 5 Aug, 12 Aug 1799

Transportees from Gloucestershire to Australia, 1783-1842, Irene Wyatt, ed. (Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Gloucestershire Record Series, Vol. 1, 1988)

Australian Convict Transportation Registers, Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868, via ancestry.co.uk

convictrecords.com/au/ships/earl-Cornwallis/1800

*The full sketch is ‘Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess escape from Clerkenwell Prison’, by George Cruickshank, in Volume II of Jack Sheppard. A Romance, by WH Ainsworth (accessed via archive.org). I removed Jack Sheppard from the sketch on this occasion, because this sister was doing it for herself!

© Jill Evans 2017

 

 

 

Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

William Birt was supposed to be the first person to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the new Gloucester Prison, which opened in the summer of 1791. However, having been found guilty of murder and condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1791, he decided not to wait for the executioner, and took his own life in the condemned cell.

The charge of murder against Birt was far from being a straightforward case. Birt was a carpenter, 26 years of age, who lived in Tewkesbury. He had been ‘walking out’ with Sarah Powell, who was a servant maid in the household of a Tewkesbury family. In the spring of 1791, Sarah had discovered that she was pregnant, and William had given her a powder to take, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the powder caused the death of both mother and child.

Sarah Powell had lingered on for eleven days after taking the powder, and so she was able to tell her doctor who had given her the substance and why. After Sarah’s death, William Birt was committed to Tewkesbury Gaol at first, then was removed by habeus corpus to Gloucester, to await trial at the Assizes. This was in April 1791, before the new prison opened, so he was held in the old gaol in Gloucester Castle, where the conditions were terrible. In the last week of July, although the building works were not entirely completed, the new prison was judged to be fit for occupation, and the prisoners were moved from the crumbling old castle keep into their new quarters, where everyone had their own cell in which to sleep. Birt was held in the gaol section of the prison to await his trial, which took place on Friday, 12 August.

Newspaper reports on the trial were not sympathetic to Birt. They said that he had ‘deluded the Deceased under a Promise of Marriage’. When she told him she was pregnant, he gave her a small quantity of a powder, telling her it would do her no harm, but rather would do her good, as he had taken twice as much in the past. Back at her home, she had taken the powder with some sugar, after which she was ‘seized with violent vomitings’, and after lying in agony for eleven days, she died.

It was clear that William Birt had never intended that Sarah Powell should die, so it might have been thought that he would have faced a charge of manslaughter rather than murder. However, the judge explained that, ‘having recommended to her a Medicine to procure abortion, and death ensuing, he was considered as guilty of Murder’. According to a well known principle of English Law, the judge said, ‘where Death ensues in consequence of an illegal Act, Malice is implied, and the offence, with its consequences, is deemed Murder’. Abortion was an illegal act, so Birt was considered to be guilty of murder. The judge added that although Sarah Powell ‘might be an Accomplice with him in the guilty Design’, her account of how Birt had encouraged her to take the powder was enough to ‘fix the crime upon the Man’. The source of the powder had not been discovered, nor exactly what it contained, but the surgeon who attended Sarah Powell was sure it was poisonous and had caused her death.

Birt was said to have remained calm during the trial and when receiving the death sentence, but when he was taken from the Bar, ‘his Confidence forsook him, and he fainted away in the Pen, and as he was conducting away from the Court, he dropped down again in a Fit’. That evening, when he arrived back at the prison, Birt was conducted to a condemned cell to await his execution, which was to take place on the following Monday, 15 August. As he was taken to the cell, he was said to have ‘wrung his hands as in the utmost Misery and Despair’. Next morning, when his cell door was unlocked, he was found hanging and dead. The prison surgeon made a brief note of the incident in his journal: ’13 Aug 1791. William Birt meant to hang on 15 August but hanged himself in cell.’

A Coroner’s Inquest was held later that day. It was said that Birt’s body had been ‘quite cold’ when the cell door had been opened. He had twisted the sheet of his bed and fastened it to the bars of the window, then tied the other end in a running knot round his neck, before throwing himself from his bedstead. The inquest jury returned a verdict of felo de se. This translates roughly as ‘felon of himself’, and the verdict had great significance, as it meant that Birt’s body was ordered to undergo the traditional fate of suicides who were judged to have been of sound mind at the time they took their own lives, which was to be buried at a crossroads, without any Christian service. The Gloucester Journal of 18 August 1791 reported that on that same Saturday, Birt’s body “was buried in a cross road, near Tewkesbury’. The treatment of the bodies of those buried at crossroads varied, but they were supposed to be ‘desecrated’ in some way, such as having a stake put through their body. The newspapers gave no details of what had happened in Birt’s case.

The authorities were keen not to disclose the exact burial places of suicides, so no details were given of the site of Birt’s burial. However, Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, published in 1830, gives some useful information on the subject:

‘The corpse was sent by order of the coroner, to the parish officers at Tewkesbury, and buried in the cross-road at the entrance into the lane which leads to the Lodge, near the House of Industry’.

The House of Industry, later Tewkesbury Workhouse, was south of the town, on Gloucester Road. An examination of a map of Tewkesbury from 1835 shows that the most likely place of burial is in the area with the lane leading to the Lodge (now Lincoln Green Lane) on the left and a lane to the right just before the House of Industry (which now leads to the cemetery).

 

Tewkesburydetail1835

Detail from a map of Tewkesbury, from Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England 1835. (via GENMAPS website). The ‘House’ is the House of Industry. The burial took place at the crossroads just below that.

 

The reason for burying suicides at crossroads has never been completely clear. The practice took place from at least medieval times, when crossroads were believed to be ‘otherworldly’, God-forsaken, places. (There is an interesting article about the subject here: www.oddlyhistorical.com/2015/09/27/crossroads-suicide-burials.) Whatever the reasons for the practice, it ceased with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823. However, taking one’s own life continued to be a criminal act until 1961.

 

Sources

Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, 1830, p.214, note (via archive.org)

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

Gloucester County Gaol, Surgeon’s Journal, 13 Aug 1791 (Q/Gc32/1)

“A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads”, 27 Sept 2015, on http://www.oddlyhistorical.com. (Link in the main text above.)

Map of Tewkesbury 1835 from GENMAPS (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genmaps/index.html)

© Jill Evans 2017