A Family Business: Brothers Hanged Together in Gloucestershire, 1730-1830

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley's "Curiosities of Street Literature" (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley’s “Curiosities of Street Literature” (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

Recently I was looking through my lists of people who were hanged in Gloucestershire from 1730 on, and it struck me that there were a number of brothers who were found guilty of committing crimes together, and in consequence were executed together. A few other men who were hanged together shared a surname, and although press reports did not state whether or not they were brothers, it seems likely that they were.

22 August 1735, Nathaniel and Jonathan Willis were hanged at Over, near Gloucester, for committing highway robbery. I have been unable to find a newspaper report of their execution, so cannot confirm that they were siblings.

John and Abraham Wood were executed at Over, for highway robbery. A newspaper report described them as “two gipsies”, who had robbed Henry Lovel of 40 shillings in silver and 16 pence in halfpennies. Again, there was no confirmation that the pair were brothers.

The following have all been confirmed as being brothers:

26 March 1741, Thomas and Francis Cook were hanged at Over. They had been found guilty of “assaulting, beating and abusing in a barbarous manner Roger Rogers, a Carrier, on the Highway”, and taking from him 8s 6d and a pair of scissors, and from his horse, six Cheshire cheeses, a goose and several other things.

6 April 1757, Robert and Richard Colwell were hanged at Over, for housebreaking. At the scaffold, Robert Colwell, the elder sibling, confessed that he had committed the crime for which he had been condemned, and others besides, but he insisted that his brother was innocent. The only crime Richard could think to confess was that he had once stolen some potatoes. A  report on the execution, circulated to newspapers around the country, commented that Richard Colwell might be considered innocent of the crime for which he hanged, but when he and his brother were apprehended, he had swallowed a guinea, part of the loot from the robbery, which “came from him” after he was brought to gaol. He confessed to this and said he would have swallowed more if there had been time. “These are circumstances not much in his favour”, the reporter suggested.

30 July 1784, Henry and Thomas Dunsden were executed for murder. They were hanged at Over, then their bodies were hung in chains near Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, where their crime had been committed. The Dunsden brothers were notorious highwaymen, part of a gang operating in the area around Burford in Oxfordshire. There had been three brothers, Thomas, Richard and Henry (Tom, Dick and Harry), but Richard had disappeared some time before, possibly dying after having his arm hacked off by one of his siblings in order to escape from capture during a botched robbery. The downfall of Tom and Harry was the result of a drinking session at Capp’s Lodge public house, on the edge of Wychwood Forest. Stories vary as to what exactly happened, but the night ended with Henry Dunsden shooting a waiter, William Harding, who later died of his wounds. On the morning of their execution Henry acknowledged that his life of crime had led to his sorry end, but he stated that his brother was far less to blame, and tried to keep Tom’s spirits up to the last. As they were being tied up, Henry said to his brother, who was lame in one leg, “Come Tom, you have but one leg; but you have very little time to stand.” It is unclear why the Dunsden brothers were tried and executed in Gloucestershire, when their crime was committed in Oxfordshire.

2 May 1801, William and James Jones were hanged at Gloucester County Prison, for burglary. The brothers came from Eastleach Turville, two of the nine children of William and James Jones. They were tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in April 1801, and found guilty of breaking into a house in Eastleach Turville and stealing goods with a total value of five pounds. They were buried together in the graveyard of Eastleach Turville Parish Church on 6 May. William was 28 years old and James was 22. The burial register noted that they had been hanged at Gloucester for housebreaking.

24 April 1813, Thomas Edwards and Edward Edwards (also known as Edward Rees) were hanged at Gloucester Prison, along with their brother-in-law James Bailey, for a highway robbery near Northleach. They came from Monmouthshire and had been committing crimes together for years. Thomas Edwards had escaped from a prison hulk at Woolwich in September 1811, and Edward Edwards had deserted from the Glamorgan Militia in January 1812. The two brothers and Bailey had than got together again and continued with their “family business”. After their execution, their bodies were delivered to their friends for burial.

28 April 1827, Mark and John Dyer were hanged at Gloucester Prison for shooting at Thomas Mills. The Dyer brothers were part of the Wickwar Gang, who operated in the south of the county. A number of the gang had been tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1826, and Thomas Mills had “turned King’s Evidence” – giving evidence against his former colleagues in return for not being prosecuted himself. Two of the gang members were executed as a result, and one of them was Thomas Mills’ own brother, William. In an act of revenge, the Dyer brothers shot through a window at Thomas Mills, but missed him and wounded his wife. After their condemnation, Mark Dyer protested to the court and tried to blame his brother for the crime. When they returned to the prison, both of them told the chaplain that they had another brother who had been responsible for the shooting.

18 April 1829, Matthew and Henry Pinnell were hanged at Gloucester Prison for robbing James Kearsey on the highway, between Rodmarton and Tetbury. After their condemnation, Henry asked the judge to order his body to be delivered up to his mother for burial. The brothers were said to be well-built young men, and there were more women than men in the crowd who came to watch the execution. Some of the spectators asked to touch the bodies after they were dead, presumably in the belief that this would cure some affliction, such as a cancerous growth or a wen in the neck.

It is interesting that in all but one case, these brothers were executed for crimes of theft, in particular highway robbery. If they had been found guilty of committing such offences from the mid-1830s onwards, they would not have died together on the scaffold, but would have been transported (not necessarily to the same place) or imprisoned.


Newspapers: Stamford Mercury, 8 Sept 1737 and 26 March 1741, Oxford Journal, 9 April 1757, 5 June and 7 Aug 1784, Bath Chronicle, 16 April 1829. (All accessed via British Newspaper Archive.)

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

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987), Chapter One, “The Highwaymen of Wychwood Forest”.

© Jill Evans 2015


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