John Parker: hanged 1813; skull sold 2014

Recently (16-21 May 2014), it has been reported in the media that the skull of convict John Parker, who was hanged at Gloucester in 1813, was sold at an auction house in Billingshurst, West Sussex, for £2,000. As John Parker’s story is included in my book, Hanged at Gloucester, I thought I would write a short piece about him here.

John Parker was from Langney, near Chippenham, in Wiltshire. In the Gloucester Gaol Calendars, his age is given as 30, but newspaper reports say he was 36 or 37. He was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 25 June 1813, along with three other men – Thomas Rodway, Joseph Bath and William Webb. The four were charged with breaking into the dwelling house of Elizabeth Grey at Clifton, Bristol, and stealing silver spoons, a damask tablecloth, two shirts, and various other items.

Parker, Rodway, Bath and Webb were tried at the Gloucestershire Summer Assizes, held in late August 1813. Joseph Bath, who was the youngest at 22 years old, was found not guilty. The other three were found guilty and condemned to death, but William Webb, aged 26, was reprieved. This left Parker and Rodway for execution. Thomas Rodway was either 36 (according to Gaol Registers) or 30 (in newspapers), and from Bristol. He had a previous conviction, having been sentenced to transportation at the Easter Quarter Sessions in Bristol in 1805, for stealing lead. He wasn’t sent to Australia, but instead served his sentence on a prison hulk at Portsmouth.

Once Parker and Rodway had been sentenced and were back in gaol, waiting in the condemned cells until the day of their executions came, the prison chaplain began paying them frequent visits. It was one of the duties of the chaplain to try to persuade condemned criminals to confess that they were guilty of the crime for which they were to suffer, and also to ask about any other offences they might have committed. In this case, it was known that Parker and Rodway were members of a very large gang which had been terrorising the area around Bristol, and the chaplain made frequent visits to the two men, during which he endeavoured to get information out of them concerning their crimes and the names of their associates. The Gloucester Journal reported that “much useful information” had been obtained, but the chaplain recorded in his prison journal that Parker and Rodway had divulged little of any use.

John Parker and Thomas Rodway were hanged together on the roof of the prison lodge, on 11 September 1813. What happened to their bodies afterwards is not recorded. As they had not committed murder, there was no legal requirement for them to be sent to be anatomised, but it appears now that this is what happened to Parker, at least. A report on the “This Is Wiltshire” website (link below) states that John Parker’s skull had been partially cut away to serve as an anatomical specimen.

John Parker’s skull was auctioned at Summer Place Auctions in Billingshurst, West Sussex, on 20 May 2014, with an estimate of £2,000 to £3,000. The auction house had stated that there was one person who was seriously interested in buying it, and it sold for £2,000. It is to be hoped that whoever bought this “curiosity” remembers that he or she now owns part of a fellow human being.

Sources:

This is Wiltshire, 16 May 2014, “Executed Chippenham burglar’s skull up for auction.”

BBC News Wiltshire, 21 May 2014, “Hanged thief’s skull sells for £2k.”

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

Gloucester Journal, 30 Aug 1813 and 13 Sept 1813

Gloucestershire Archives:

County Gaol Calendars, Q/SG2, Trinity 1813 (Prisoners for Summer Assizes)

County Gaol, Chaplain’s Journal, Aug-Sept 1813 (Q/Gc31/1)

© Jill Evans 2014

 

 

 

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