On the night of 25 July 1833, the hay-ricks of three farmers in North Nibley were set on fire. Each blaze was quickly extinguished and no great damage was done, but it was suspected that an arsonist had been at work, and the culprit was soon detected.
Charlotte Long was a native of North Nibley, born Charlotte Bendall in 1799. In March 1819, she married John Long, and the couple had two children. In August 1829, John Long got into trouble with the law and was tried at the Summer Assizes in Gloucester, charged with stealing bacon. He was found guilty and sentenced to seven years’ transportation. Charlotte remained in North Nibley with her children, until in April 1833, it came to the attention of the parish authorities that she was pregnant. As the child was clearly not her husband’s, it was thought likely that she would become a burden on the parish rates when the child was born, so she was questioned as to her place of legal settlement, and it was decided that this was Alkington, near Berkeley. (I have been unable to find out why Alkington was chosen. It may have been the birth place of John Long, or he and Charlotte may have lived there for a while.) A magistrate ordered that she should be removed to Alkington, and she was sent on her way, escorted by North Nibley’s parish officer, Henry Excell. By July of the same year, she had returned to North Nibley, now with an infant son.
Soon after the arson incident, a woman called Betsey Burford stated that it was Charlotte Long who was the culprit. Henry Excell subsequently went to Charlotte’s home with a warrant to arrest her, on charges of setting fire to hay-ricks belonging to Jesse Organ, Thomas Gilman and James Nicholls. When Excell told her that Betsey Burford had sworn that Charlotte was responsible for causing the fires, she replied, “Betsey Burford has dug a ditch for me, and I shall fall into it”. She protested that Burford had put her up to committing the crime.
On 9 August, Charlotte Long was committed to Gloucester Gaol. She took her breast-feeding infant into the prison with her. Betsey Burford had also been committed to gaol, charged with having “procured, counselled, commanded and abetted” Charlotte Long to commit arson. The assizes were already underway at Gloucester, and Charlotte’s trial took place the next day, before judge Baron Gurney. Betsey Burford was not tried alongside her, however, because she had “turned King’s Evidence”, meaning she had agreed to give evidence against Charlotte in return for not being prosecuted.
In court, Charlotte appeared in the dock with her baby in her arms, but as he began to cry, she handed him over to her sister. Burford said that Charlotte Long had told her that she was going to set fire to the hay-ricks of Henry Excell, in revenge for him removing her to Alkington. She had gone to Excell’s field, but then the thought struck her, “that if she set his ricks on fire, she should be found out, because she said to him when he removed her, that she would serve him out when she came back, and if he bit her finger she would bite his thumb.” So, she had decided to set fire to the ricks of a few other people first. Henry Excell was then called and said that when he took Charlotte to Alkington, she had made no threats in his hearing.
Because Charlotte Long had admitted to setting fire to the hay-ricks, the jury had to find her guilty, but after delivering their verdict, the foreman of the jury added, “We beg leave most strongly to recommend the prisoner to mercy, because we think she must have been set on as a tool of some other person”. Two of the victims of her crime also asked the judge to show mercy, but Baron Gurney replied, “I am sorry that I cannot attend to these recommendations. I have considered the matter very much. There were three ricks fired all on the same night. The prisoner is not a young girl, and I find that her husband has been transported.”
Unfortunately for Charlotte Long, setting fire to hay-ricks had been made a capital offence under the Black Act of 1723. In more recent times, agricultural riots had made landowners fearful for their property and the courts were determined to treat incidents of criminal damage severely. At this assizes, another arsonist, Thomas Gaskins of Deerhurst, had also been found guilty, and he was brought up to stand beside Charlotte in the dock as both were sentenced. If Charlotte hadn’t had her character tainted (in the judge’s eyes), firstly by being married to a criminal, and secondly by giving birth to an illegitimate child, her life might have been spared, and Gaskins left to be made an example of, but Gurney sentenced them both to death.
The Gloucester Journal commented, “The impressive effect of the Judge’s sentencing was heightened by the loud and frequent interruptions of the female prisoner crying for mercy, and she was removed from the bar in a most pitiable state.”
Other newspapers gave an even more dramatic description: “During the passing of the sentence a most distressing scene occurred. The female prisoner was crying and begging for mercy, almost every person present was in tears, and the learned baron himself was so overcome that at the conclusion of the address to the prisoners his voice evidently faltered, and as soon as the fatal sentence had been passed, the female prisoner dropped on the floor and was carried out of court moaning most dreadfully.”
Although the judge had told Gaskins and Long that there was little hope of their sentences being commuted, petitions on behalf of both of them were sent to the Home Office, but no reprieves were issued. Charlotte Long’s infant son had remained in the care of his aunt, who had him baptised and named William at Dursley Parish Church on 24 August. Unfortunately, the Dursley Parish Registers reveal that William was buried four days later. According to newspaper reports, when Charlotte was told that her child was dead, she said she was glad, because she would see him soon in heaven.
Charlotte Long was executed alongside Thomas Gaskins on the roof of the prison gatehouse on Saturday, 31 August 1833. On 3 September, she was buried in the churchyard of St Martin’s Parish Church, North Nibley – the same church where she had been baptised and married.
Charlotte Long was the last woman to be hanged in England for committing arson. The last man to be hanged in England for the same offence was Daniel Chase, who died at Ilchester, Somerset, on 31 August 1836. Most forms of arson were removed from the list of capital crimes in 1837.
Jill Evans, Hanged at Gloucester (The History Press, 2011)
Gloucester Journal, 17 August, 21 August, 7 September 1833
Gloucestershire Chronicle, 17 August 1833
Bristol Mercury, 17 August, 7 September 1833
County Gaol Registers, Summer 1833 (Q/Gc5/4)
Poor Law Records: North Nibley, Removal Orders, 4 April 1833 (P230 OV 3/2/157)
Parish Records: North Nibley Parish Registers: Baptisms, 1799; Marriages, 1819 and Burials, 1833 (P230)
Parish Records: Dursley Parish Registers, Baptisms and Burials, 1833 (P124)