After the Riots: The Decline of the Bloody Code

Executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?

(Dr Samuel Johnson)

About fifty persons of both sexes who, whether awake or asleep, are beastly drunk from drinking deeply of rum, gin and beer, while every description of the most disgusting ribaldry is going on around.

(A description of the crowd outside Newgate awaiting an execution)

There is as much moral cowardice in shrinking from the execution of a murderer as in hesitating to blow out the brains of a foreign invader … the plain truth is that Christianity has to have two sides. A gentle side up to a certain point, a terrific one beyond that point.

(Sir James Stephen, jurist)


Despite the success of the Fielding brothers, the latter half of the eighteenth century continued to witness the well-established traditions of rioting and other forms of civil disorder, especially in London. They proceeded naturally from a tradition of vulgar and abusive behaviour combined with a freedom of expression which was admired by visitors such as Voltaire, but could rarely be expressed through the ballot box. They served as a substitute for democratic consultation at a time when the franchise was restricted to a privileged few and votes were bought rather than canvassed. In 1762 the Scot Boswell, commenting on the liberties enjoyed by Englishmen, noted in his diary that ‘the rudeness of the English vulgar is terrible. This indeed is the liberty which they have: the liberty of bullying and being abusive with their blackguard tongues’.1 In some cases organised bands of hooligans were directed by their leaders to attack and destroy specific targets associated with unpopular employers, institutions or public figures.

The most spectacular of these events occupied the first week of June 1780 and resulted from a piece of legislation whose intention was wholly benign. This was the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, introduced by Sir George Savile, which removed certain restrictions on the small Catholic population of England, many of these impositions dating from the time of Elizabeth I when there had been a real threat of invasion by Catholic Spain. In 1778 the American War of Independence was in progress and the Relief Act enabled Catholics to join the hard-pressed British forces as well as permitting them to own property and inherit land. This reasonable measure aroused some Tory opposition in Parliament, but it was on the streets that the real battle was fought, with fatal consequences for a new prison which was in course of construction at Newgate.


The first signs of trouble occurred in Scotland where a Protestant Association was formed under the presidency of Lord George Gordon, third son of the Duke of Gordon, with the declared intention of opposing the introduction of any similar measure to Scotland. Riots in Perth and Edinburgh, accompanied by attacks on Catholic chapels and homes, prompted the Lord Provost to promise that no such legislation would be introduced in Scotland. This concession encouraged the Protestant Association and its strange leader to extend its activities to England (and to Canada where a similar Act had removed disabilities from the large population of Catholics in the French-speaking province of Quebec). The Protestant Association attracted the support of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, though he was in no way implicated in the disorder which followed.

Lord George Gordon, born in 1751, had been elected to the House of Commons as MP for Ludgershall in 1774 after a short career in the Royal Navy. His frequent lectures to Parliament on religious questions were not appreciated and led many fellow members to doubt his sanity. One of them commented that ‘the noble lord has got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which runs away with him if anything relative to religion is mentioned’. He organised a petition for the repeal of the Catholic Relief Act which allegedly bore over 30,000 names and assembled a crowd of his supporters in St George’s Fields, Lambeth on Friday 2 June 1780. The declared intention of this mob, whose size was variously estimated as anything from 20,000 to 60,000, was to present the petition to Parliament, but they were soon distracted by more tempting prospects. They proceeded to Westminster wearing blue cockades and carrying blue banners bearing the legend ‘No Popery’.

In the House of Commons Gordon demanded an immediate vote on the issue as his followers ran through the Palace of Westminster threatening and maltreating any members they conceived to be hostile to their demands. The House refused to concede Gordon’s demands and summoned assistance, which appeared in the form of a small number of Horse Guards. This prompted the petitioners to retreat from the building, but not before some of their number had been arrested and taken to Newgate. Enraged by these arrests the petitioners were transformed into a rioting mob who now set about the real business of the day.


First the mob attacked the Catholic chapels of foreign embassies, beginning with the chapel of Sardinia in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and moving on to the Bavarian chapel in Warwick Street. Windows were smashed, doors forced, the contents destroyed and the furnishings burned, thereby setting fire to the buildings themselves. In the days that followed the rioters turned their attention to any buildings that were associated with Catholics, with supporters of the Relief Act, with authority or with the prospect of profitable looting. The Prime Minister, Lord North, was attacked and was lucky to escape with his life, but without his hat which was torn from his head, ripped up and distributed as trophies among the mob. The houses of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and Sir George Savile, promoter of the Catholic Relief Act, were sacked, as was a distillery in Holborn belonging to a Catholic named Langdale. Its contents further inflamed some of the rioters while rendering others insensible and, for the moment, harmless.

The attack on Sir George Savile’s house was described by Susan Burney in a letter to her sister, the writer Fanny Burney. Susan had witnessed the mayhem from the family home in St Martin’s Lane, near Leicester Square. She had remained at home rather than risk venturing on to the unruly streets to attend a party at the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds nearby and she now realised the wisdom of this decision as ‘the populace had broken into Sir George Savile’s house and were then emptying it of furniture which, having piled it up in the midst of the square, they forced Sir George’s servant to bring a candle to set fire to it’.

By now the numbers involved in the disturbances were considerably greater as opportunists joined the quest for loot. On 6 June, the fifth day of the riot, the Negro writer Ignatius Sancho (1729–80) gave an account of the rioters. Born at sea, he had worked as butler to the Duke of Manchester before opening a grocer’s shop in Charles Street, Westminster, and it was from there that he witnessed the mayhem:

There is at this moment at least 100,000 poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats, ready for any and every mischief … There is about a thousand mad men armed with clubs, bludgeons and crows, just now set off for Newgate, to liberate, they say, their honest comrades.


Newgate was, indeed, the next objective of the mob as it was the prison where some of their fellows had been incarcerated four days earlier. On 6 June, the last full day of the riot, they first approached the house of the keeper, Richard Akerman, who refused to admit them. His house was duly sacked and his furniture piled up against the great gate and set alight. This caused great alarm among Newgate’s inmates who feared that they were to be burned to death, though Akerman bravely joined the prisoners inside the gaol rather than seeking to save his own skin. The gate soon gave way, the rioters rushed in and what followed was described by the poet George Crabbe who, on his first visit to London, had paid a householder 6d to watch the attack on Newgate from the roof of a nearby house: ‘Here I saw a new species of gaol delivery. The captives marched out with all the honours of war, accompanied by a musical band of rattling fetters’.

George Crabbe (1754–1832): English poet, naturalist, clergyman and apothecary (pharmacist), Crabbe was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, the son of a tax collector. He studied to be an apothecary and in 1780 went to London where he witnessed and described the Gordon Riots. In 1782 he was ordained priest and became chaplain to the Duke of Rutland at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, eventually becoming rector of Trowbridge, Wiltshire, where he is buried. He was an early naturalist, assembling and classifying collections of plants and insects, but he is best remembered for his poetry which earned him the friendship of such contemporaries as William Wordsworth, Robert Southey and Sir Walter Scott. His poem ‘The Borough’, published in 1810, based upon his knowledge of Aldeburgh, became the inspiration for Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes.

Crabbe was not the only literary figure to record his impressions. The reclusive William Cowper (1731–1800), who compared London with Babylon, observed the riots which destroyed the prison and his fellow poet, William Blake (1757–1827), watched them from his new printing shop in Broad Street.2 A total of 117 prisoners were posted as having been released from Newgate in this way. Besides the English they included Italian, German, Jewish, Irish and Afro-American offenders. Most of them were thieves. Some had robbed their employers while others were convicted of ‘crack lay’ (housebreaking by force) or ‘dub lay’ (entering with a key). There were also murderers, rapists, arsonists, counterfeiters, highway robbers and a bigamist. Most would have faced the death penalty or transportation but for their fortuitous release.3 The effrontery of the mob was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson. He visited Newgate to view its ruins while they were still glowing from the destructive fires and recorded the fact that the looters were still at work on the ruins of its equally notorious neighbour:

As I went by the Protestants were plundering the Sessions House at the Old Bailey. There were not, I believe, a hundred but they did their work at leisure, in full security, without sentinels, without trepidation, as men lawfully employed, in full day.

The riots were now approaching their climax. The King’s Bench, Marshalsea and Fleet prisons were attacked as was the Bank of England, but this prize was denied to the mob by the determined action of John Wilkes who, acting as City Chamberlain in an unaccustomed role as defender of the established order, commanded troops to fire upon the mob who retreated in disorder. By this time the government had recovered its nerve and deployed 12,000 troops on the streets with orders to shoot rioters and looters. Fatalities now began to mount rapidly. Almost 300 were killed and many more were wounded, about 200 seriously. Over £30,000 was paid in compensation to Catholics whose property had been destroyed, but Mr Langdale, the Holborn distiller, declined compensation, accepting instead an offer to distil spirits free of duty for a year – the foundation of a new fortune. Among the other casualties was the Bow Street office of the Fieldings, together with their records.

John Wilkes (1725–97): publisher, agitator and, despite the government, Member of Parliament, Wilkes was born in Clerkenwell, the son of a prosperous businessman. Briefly married to an heiress whose fortune enabled Wilkes to live without financial anxiety, he became MP for Aylesbury in 1757 and founded a paper, called The North Briton, in 1762, which mounted a series of fierce attacks on the government of George III, led by Lord Bute. This led to his prosecution for seditious libel, but the charge was dismissed by the Lord Chief Justice on the grounds that Wilkes was an MP. When Parliament amended the law to remove this impediment Wilkes fled to Paris, returning in 1768 to stand as MP for Middlesex. This led to a farcical series of elections by his constituents, expulsions from Parliament by the government faction, arrests, imprisonment, fines and riots in Wilkes’s support. He campaigned for freedom of the press, Parliamentary reform and against the government’s policies towards the rebellious American States. In 1774 he became Lord Mayor of London, responsible for Newgate prison and later served as City Chamberlain. Upon being informed by his former ally the Earl of Sandwich that he would die of the pox or on the gallows, he replied, ‘That, my lord, will depend upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.’


Considering the scale of the riots, the worst ever seen in London, the retribution exacted by the authorities was relatively mild. Twenty-one were hanged for offences arising from the riots, including three of those who had mounted the attack on Newgate. The executed did not include Lord George Gordon who was very ably defended against a charge of ‘levying war on the king’ (high treason) by Thomas Erskine (1750–1823), a future Lord Chancellor who successfully argued that his client had only peaceful intentions and could neither foresee nor control the actions of his unruly supporters.

Gordon’s connections with Newgate were not yet at an end. In 1788 he was convicted of libelling the British government and Marie Antoinette, who at that date was still Queen of France, and was sent to Newgate where he spent the remaining five years of his life. Eccentric as ever in his religious views, he converted to Judaism and corresponded from Newgate with Baron Alvensleben, the ambassador from Hanover, to whom he complained that the Hanoverian George III had ‘incorporated the system of tolerating Popery into the statute book’ and that ‘the Prince of Wales (if married to a Roman Catholic) might even succeed to the throne.’4 By the time that this letter was written the Prince of Wales, later George IV, had for some years been married to the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert, albeit without the knowledge of his father King George III. Despite his imprisonment, and his conversion to the Jewish faith, Lord George continued to draw supporters to his lost cause. Upon his death a printer named Robert Hawes wrote a lament which he entitled, confusingly,5 ‘An Acrostical Tribute to the Memory of Lord George Gordon who Died in Newgate’, in which he declared, in capitals throughout:


Hawes ended with a long, lugubrious poem concluding:

To Lord George Gordon’s memory this verse
Hawes writes who almost envieth his hearse

A greater writer than Robert Hawes drew attention to the fact that the so-called religious motivation of the rioters was soon lost in the looting and mayhem that the Gordon Riots soon became. In his preface to Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of EightyCharles Dickens wrote that ‘what we falsely call a religious cry is easily raised by men who have no religion’. The Gordon Riots were the worst anti-Catholic riots that England ever saw, though they were not the last. When Cardinal Wiseman re-established the Roman Catholic hierarchy as Archbishop of Westminster in 1850 there were disturbances on the streets of London and rumours that the cellars that John Henry Newman was building for his oratory in Birmingham were for murders.6 In the meantime, despite Lord George Gordon, the Catholic Relief Act remained on the statute book, but Newgate lay in ruins.


The prison wrecked by the rioters was in the process of being rebuilt. For many years the condition of the gaol had been a matter of concern to the City authorities, especially to those who had to sit at the Old Bailey next door. As observed in Chapter Two,7 an outbreak of gaol fever (typhus) at Newgate in 1750 had killed forty-three officials at the Old Bailey. In 1767 a former Lord Mayor, Sir Stephen Janssen, wrote a pamphlet campaigning for the immediate rebuilding of the prison.8 He reminded his readers that in 1750, the year of the disaster, he had been a Sheriff and therefore required to attend the court in that capacity ‘when the Newgate contagion made such dreadful Havock in the Old Bailey Sessions House’, killing the Lord Mayor and two judges as well as others ‘of less note’.

Janssen had himself later become Lord Mayor (in 1755) and was responsible for the installation of the windmill designed by Stephen Hales that was supposed to alleviate the problem of foul air. Hales9 had claimed that his device would be capable of ‘drawing like large heavy Lungs, at the rate of seven thousand Tuns of foul Air per Hour, out of several Wards at the same time’, but clearly Janssen was not fully reassured.10 He obtained a copy of the architectural drawings of the prison at York Castle, whose design he approved, and he recommended that in the new prison at Newgate each felon should have his own cell and a clean shirt once a week. In addition, each cell was to be washed once a week with vinegar and each prisoner should be swabbed down with vinegar before attending court, thus protecting the court officials from contagion. All this information was passed to the City Surveyor, George Dance, with the recommendation that he incorporate the suggestions into the design for a new prison. The design was an improvement on the old one, but the conditions within, as reported by Elizabeth Fry in the following century, were scarcely improved.11


George Dance the Younger (1741–1825) is often confused with his father, also George Dance (1700–68) who was Clerk of Works to the City of London and designed the Mansion House and the Church of St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. Despite being the youngest of five brothers, George Dance the Younger was chosen to succeed his father in the architectural profession. He attended St Paul’s School and then studied in Italy for six years after working in his father’s practice. His experience in Italy, from which many of his sketches survive, strongly influenced him in his own designs, where classical themes are usually evident though often in combination with other motifs. His first major commission involved rebuilding the Medieval church of All Hallows, London Wall, in 1765 whose design he based on a Roman basilica. In 1768, upon the death of his father, he became architect to the City of London and produced a number of innovative designs to improve the Port of London, including a new double bridge to replace the decaying London Bridge. The two carriageways would have been 100 yards apart and fitted with drawbridges to allow shipping to pass – a precursor of Tower Bridge. Like many of his plans, the latter was not adopted by the Corporation, the design of John Rennie being chosen instead shortly before George Dance died. He also designed the front of the Guildhall, Martin’s Bank on Lombard Street and the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The houses that he designed for aristocrats in Mayfair and St James’s have all been destroyed, but John Wesley’s house opposite Bunhill Fields survives as the only Dance-designed dwelling in London.

Dance advised his pupil, John Soane (1753–1837) on Soane’s design for the Bank of England and designed the Giltspur Street Compter, almost opposite Newgate, which opened as a debtors’ prison in 1819 and was demolished in 1855. In the last thirty years of his life he became rather reclusive and devoted himself more to drawing than architecture. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy, outliving all the other founders, but failed to give any lectures in the seven years (1798–1805) that he was professor of architecture there. Upon his death he left more than 200 portraits in pencil of his contemporaries, many of which were acquired by the Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery and the British Museum.

As architect to the City Corporation, Dance was the clear choice to design the new gaol. His proposal incorporated three courtyards with separate accommodation for debtors, male felons and female felons. It also contained a chapel and an infirmary. The external design was stark, with massive blank walls whose entrances were decorated with shackles. A later commentator, writing shortly after the building was demolished, wrote that Dance was ‘determined to appeal to the emotions by the sheer bulk and proportion of his wall’12.

First, however, the money had to be found to carry out the work. In 1766, in the face of campaigners such as Janssen, an Act of Parliament authorised a loan of £50,000 to be raised to rebuild Newgate and the Old Bailey. This was to be repaid from the coal dues, a tax originally levied on coal brought to London to repay for the rebuilding of the City after the Great Fire of 1666. In May 1770 the Lord Mayor laid the foundation stone and the reconstruction of the prison and courthouse began, though in 1778 the Corporation had to gain authorisation for a further loan of £40,000. Work on the two buildings proceeded together, though the massive, fortress-like structure of the prison contrasted with the more elegant design of the sessions house, both in its external appearance and in its internal facilities. Within the sessions house there was a single courtroom, but there was also a room for witnesses who had previously had to wait in a nearby pub. The Lord Mayor’s dining room was luxuriously appointed with a mosaic, an expensive Turkish carpet, mahogany furniture and a fine wine vault.

Work on the prison was almost complete when the rioters descended upon it in 1780, but the reconstruction was completed by 1785 and Newgate remained London’s principal prison until the middle of the nineteenth century when it ceased to be an ordinary prison and became a place of temporary detention for those awaiting trial at the Old Bailey and for those awaiting execution. It remained London’s principal place of execution until it was demolished in 1902.

In 1797, at about the time that Newgate was being constructed, New York was building its first state prison. The newly independent citizens of the United States named their prison in New York Newgate in recognition of the fame of the original and it remained New York’s principal prison until it was replaced by Sing Sing in 1828.

Dance’s design for the new prison was characterised by massive, forbidding, external walls relieved only by four niches containing statues and a few narrow windows in the keeper’s house, which was at the centre of the long wall which ran from Newgate Street south along the Old Bailey. The statues in the four niches represented Liberty, Justice, Peace and Plenty. The irony of these figures was not lost on the acerbic architect and garden designer Sir Reginald Blomfield (1856–1942), who wrote of the statues that ‘there was a bitter irrelevance in their presence on this building for they were gracious and kindly and dearly loved by the pigeons of St Paul’s’. Writing of the destruction of the building by the Gordon Rioters Blomfield added, ‘The instincts of the mob of 1780 were sound, for the place with its narrow windows and gloomy yards seems to me to have been about as hopelessly human as it is possible to imagine.’13 The massive windowless walls were certainly forbidding and were presumably intended to emphasise the seriousness of the business that was transacted within them as well as impeding escape attempts. The building was demolished in 1902, but some comparisons have been made with the windowless lower walls of the Bank of England where security was also a concern and which was designed by Dance’s pupil Sir John Soane. Much of the interior of the gaol was redesigned by the City architect Sir Horace Jones (1819–87) better remembered as the architect of Tower Bridge and Smithfield’s meat market.


The reconstruction of the gaol from its charred remains coincided with the end of the notorious Tyburn processions, since in 1783 public executions were removed from Tyburn to Newgate itself, where they were carried out on a scaffold erected outside the prison the night before. On 7 November 1783 John Austin was the last man to be hanged at Tyburn (for highway robbery) and a month later, on 9 December, nine men and women were hanged on the ‘New Drop’ outside Newgate’s Debtors Door in the Old Bailey. Not everyone welcomed the change. Dr Samuel Johnson was prominent among those who objected to the loss of the Tyburn processions, writing:

Executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it. Why is all this to be swept away?14

The doctor would no doubt have been consoled by the fact that the removal of the place of execution would do little to diminish either the size of the crowds that attended the executions or the unseemliness of their behaviour. Indeed, the coming of the railways in the following century ensured larger crowds than ever for executions outside Newgate, some railway companies advertising excursions for the purpose of viewing this gruesome entertainment.15 The executions were carried out in public until May 1868, after which they took place within the prison walls. Altogether 1,167 people were executed at Newgate either outside or within the prison walls. The public executions at Newgate were compared by some writers with the gladiatorial spectacles of ancient Rome. Hepworth Dixon, who published a study of the London prisons in 1850 described the ritual whereby the scaffold would be erected at Newgate on a Sunday evening ready for the executions on Monday. He observed that ‘an execution is as good as a Lord Mayor’s show for the race of pickpockets’ thirty or more of whom could be arrested in a single morning, and he proceeded to make such a comparison which was echoed in the works of writers such as Dickens, Thackeray and Hardy:

This is in truth our circus, our gladiatorial arena. We Christians, who talk of Rome with measureless pity and contempt here prepare our feasts of blood. The scenes enacted in front of Newgate disgrace us in the eyes of Christendom.16

The seemliness of the executions gained nothing from a widespread belief that the ‘death sweat’ of the hanged would remove warts and other disfigurements if applied to the human body, leading to a stampede to touch the dead or expiring body.17

In 1840 two young writers attended the hanging at Newgate of a Swiss valet called François Courvoisier, who had been sentenced to death for killing his master, Lord William Russell. The assembled crowd was larger than usual because of the novelty of the spectacle of a servant who had murdered an aristocrat. Among them was Charles Dickens, who had rented a nearby balcony to be sure of a good view of the hanging, and the other writer, whom Dickens observed in the crowd from his vantage point, was William Thackeray. Dickens was there as a journalist while Thackeray had been persuaded to attend by his friend Richard Monkton Milnes, who hoped thereby to recruit the famous writer to the abolitionist cause. The event made a strong impression on both writers. Thackeray arrived at 4 a.m., four hours before the time appointed for the execution itself, to find a large crowd already gathered and discussing knowledgeably the finer points of this and similar occasions: ‘Which executions have you attended lately? Do you think he has the rope on yet? Will he be hanged facing the crowd or facing the wall?’ By 6 a.m. the space in front of the prison was full and the ‘ticket-holders’ like Charles Dickens, about 600 in number, were occupying their seats at windows and balconies. Ten pounds could be charged for a really good spot on the occasion of an especially notorious execution.

There were many young people in the crowd along with family parties who had arrived well victualled as for a day out at the seaside in later years. Many were drunk, some were engaged in debauchery and others were busily spotting celebrities among the crowd, such as actresses, politicians or the nobility. Six years after the event, in February and March 1846, Dickens wrote to the Daily News, ‘I did not see one token in all the immense crowd of any one emotion suitable to the occasion; nothing but ribaldry, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes’.18 The only sign of decorum lay in the cry of ‘Hats off!’ which went round the crowd immediately before the trap was opened by the executioner.

Thackeray described the appearance of Courvoisier as he stepped on to the scaffold and his own reaction to the spectacle: ‘He turned his head here and there and looked about him for a while with a wild, imploring look. His mouth was contracted into a sort of pitiful smile’ and then added, ‘I have been abetting an act of frightful wickedness and violence … I pray that it may soon be out of the power of any man in England to witness such a hideous and degrading sight.’19

The hideous and degrading spectacle of Courvoisier’s execution was in fact quite decorous when compared with some of the events that occurred outside the Debtors Door. In 1789 the execution of William Skitch, a burglar, did not go according to plan when the rope became detached from the scaffold and Skitch simply fell through the trapdoor to the ground. The crowd was sympathetic, but Skitch called out, ‘Good people, be not hurried. I can wait a little,’ while the executioner prepared another rope.20 In December, 1827, a house burglar named John Williams was sentenced to death and made a desperate attempt to escape from Newgate by scaling a drainpipe. He fell and injured or broke both legs. These were dressed by a surgeon and he was carried to the scaffold where, during his death throes, blood was seen to be pouring from the wounds in his legs.

In 1807 occurred the hangings of John Holloway and Owen Haggerty who had been convicted of a murder in Hounslow five years earlier, the only real evidence coming from their supposed accomplice, Benjamin Hanfield who, by turning King’s Evidence, was pardoned. Despite a warning from the judge that such evidence should be treated with caution the jury took only fifteen minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Both men went to the scaffold protesting their innocence to the last but the notoriety of the case was such that a crowd of over 40,000 had assembled. A pieman who was plying his trade dropped his basket. Some of the crowd stumbled over it and in the ensuing mayhem more than thirty people were killed by being trampled underfoot, while many others were injured and taken, with twenty-seven of the dead, to St Bartholomew’s Hospital nearby.

Last-minute confessions to a crime were usually well received. In July, 1864, Thomas Briggs was robbed and beaten to death in a train. A suspect, Franz Muller, was identified by a cabman named Matthews, who was acquainted with Muller and believed that Muller had pawned some of Briggs’s property with a pawnbroker in Cheapside, appropriately called Death. By this time Muller had sailed for New York, but Matthews accompanied two policemen to New York on a faster vessel where Muller was arrested. Muller confessed to the crime only when Calcraft, the executioner, placed the hood over his head outside Newgate. Shortly afterwards the cabman, Matthews, was himself briefly jailed at the request of creditors with whom he had run up large debts on the strength of the £300 reward money that Matthews expected for identifying Muller.

More barbarous methods of execution were still in use for certain crimes after the transfer of executions to Newgate. Phoebe Harris, Margaret Sullivan and Catherine (also known as Christian or Christine) Murphy were burned at the stake for coining, which was regarded as high treason, though it was the practice to strangle the victims before confining their bodies to the flames, a merciful end compared with that of the martyrs of earlier reigns at nearby Smithfield. The last of these, Catherine Murphy, was despatched in 1789. On 1 May 1820 occurred the execution of five of the Cato Street conspirators21 who had been sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for high treason. Hanoverian justice was more merciful than its Tudor counterpart, so the conspirators were killed by hanging before being handed over to an unnamed executioner who cut off their heads. As each head was severed and raised aloft by the knifeman the crowd shouted ‘Ah!’ until one of the bloodied objects slipped from his grasp on to the platform itself – an action which was greeted by a cry of ‘butterfingers!’ The last public execution occurred on 26 May 1868 of Michael Barrett, the Fenian (Irish nationalist) whose bomb at Clerkenwell had killed seven people.


Although the Bloody Code22, with its multitude of capital penalties, remained a substantial legal force until the second half of the nineteenth century, its effects were much diminished in practice. Thus in six years between 1822 and 1839 of 5,061 convicts sentenced to death in England only 302 were actually executed, the remainder being commuted by the sovereign in council.23 Legislative changes to the code came more slowly. Sir Samuel Romilly had begun the assault on the code in 1806 when he was appointed Solicitor-General and this was the start of a process of reform which lasted for over half a century. One of his early supporters was Lord Byron (1788–1824) whose maiden speech in the House of Lords was devoted to an eloquent but unsuccessful attack on a proposal to make the destruction of machinery a capital offence.

Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818): grandson of a French Huguenot refugee from the persecutions of Louis XIV and son of a prosperous watchmaker, Romilly was born in Frith Street, Soho, and became a barrister of Gray’s Inn. He visited France and Switzerland and became acquainted with the French leader Mirabeau (1749–91) whom Romilly advised on Mirabeau’s unsuccessful attempts to establish a constitutional monarchy in France following the Revolution of 1789. He was a friend of William Wilberforce and strong supporter of the anti-slavery movement. He was offered the post of Solicitor-General by the short-lived Whig government, which took office in 1806 and subsequently sat for four constituencies. He devoted the rest of his career to mitigating the savagery of the penal codes in the face of determined Tory opposition. His limited successes included the repeal of an Elizabethan statute that made it a capital offence for a soldier or sailor to beg without a certificate from a magistrate or a commanding officer. He committed suicide in 1818, overcome by grief at the death of his wife four days earlier.

A Select Committee on the Criminal Law sat in 1819 and recommended a number of reforms which led to the abolition of the death penalty for many thefts and, in 1823, to the repeal of the anachronistic Waltham Black Act. In the 1830s a Royal Commission led to further reforms. Robert Peel’s government in the 1830s repealed 278 Acts and replaced them with eight.24 Peel himself claimed in the House of Commons, while Home Secretary ‘there is not a single law connected with my name which has not had for its object some mitigation of the severity of the criminal law’.25 By an Act of 1823, in cases not involving murder, Peel allowed a judge to ‘record’ the death penalty while making it clear that it would not be carried out, thereby relieving the convict of the anxiety associated with an appeal to the sovereign. By 1861 only four crimes carried the death penalty: murder, treason, piracy and arson in the royal dockyards.

In the meantime, executive action greatly diminished the effects of the code. By the 1830s only about 7 per cent of those capitally convicted were actually executed, the great majority of sentences being commuted by the sovereign, on the advice of the Privy Council, either to transportation or to service in the army or Royal Navy. About 160,000 convicts were sent to Australia between 1787 and 1864. Those thus sentenced at the Old Bailey were kept at Newgate until they were removed first to hulks (disused ships) in the Thames or Medway and thence to the transportation vessels themselves for the long voyage halfway round the world. There is some evidence that transportation was feared more than death. In June 1789 the Morning Chronicle reported that Mrs Fitzherbert (illegally married to the Prince of Wales) had attended the Old Bailey to listen to 16-year-old Sarah Cowan resisting attempts to persuade her that transportation was preferable to death. At the last moment she was persuaded to accept the commutation of her sentence.26 Long prison sentences remained unusual until the latter half of the nineteenth century when more prisons were built with a view to detaining and rehabilitating prisoners rather than disposing of them to the cemetery or the colonies. Those thus imprisoned either awaiting trial or after sentence were known as prisoners while those sentenced to penal servitude or transportation were convicts.


Since the end of the eighteenth century some campaigners had been arguing for the abolition of capital punishment altogether, though this movement was sometimes confused with more limited, if more hopeful attempts to ensure that executions were carried out in private rather than in public or that more humane methods of execution could be found. Each side of the debate attracted supporters who were eminent and others who were well informed, the two groups rarely overlapping. Thus William Cobbett, writing in 1823, was in no doubt that murderers should be executed: ‘The Law of God is clear: the murderer is always positively excluded from any and from all mitigation of punishment. He shall surely be put to death.’27 Earlier, Dr Samuel Johnson, having presumably reconciled himself to the loss of the Tyburn procession, contented himself with arguing that the death sentence should be reserved for murder and removed from robbery since, to use his own portentous words, ‘To equal robbery with murder is to reduce murder to robbery, to confound in common minds the gradations of iniquity and incite the commission of a greater crime to prevent the detection of a less.’28 Others argued that, while capital punishment should remain on the statute book, it should never actually be carried out, acting simply as a deterrent.29 Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, who had been moved by the spectacle of the condemned he had seen in Newgate30 recommended a method of execution that he had seen while visiting Rome which, though crude, appeared to combine humanity and deterrence:31

The criminal is placed upon a scaffold and the executioner knocks him on the head with a great iron hammer, then cuts his throat with a large knife and lastly hews him into pieces. The spectators are struck with prodigious terror; yet the poor wretch who is stunned into insensibility by the blow does not actually suffer much.

Those who were closer to the condemned were quicker to join the abolitionists and were certainly not persuaded of the deterrent effect of executions. The Reverend Brownlow Forde, Ordinary of Newgate from 1799–1814, told Jeremy Bentham in 1803 that the death penalty should be abolished altogether, reasoning from Christian principles to which the stern Utilitarian would presumably have been notably unsympathetic:

Strange it is that our religion is so mild and our laws so sanguinary. Instead of sparing the life of a criminal in order that he may turn from his wickedness and live, our criminal code nips him in the first bud of his sin, cutting off all hope of reformation and destroying the possibility of atonement to the injured party.32

Cope, a nineteenth-century keeper of Newgate, declared that ‘in his fifteen years’ experience he had never known but one criminal hanged for murder who had not witnessed an execution’,33 a view supported by a man with his own criminal past. Edward Gibbon Wakefield had acquired his own notoriety in 1827 when he was convicted at Lancaster Assizes of abducting an heiress, Ellen Turner, taking her to Gretna Green and obliging her to marry him. A spell in Newgate as a result of this enterprise aroused his interest in prison reform and convinced him that public executions were counter-productive since the sympathy of the public lay with the victim, though his own criminal record made his arguments less persuasive in the cause of reform than they might otherwise have been.34 The Reverend John Davis, Ordinary of Newgate for more than twenty years, could have been a more effective advocate had he known what he believed in. He told the 1864 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment that murderers ‘rush into the crime … murders are committed in mad passion’, but he also argued that the death penalty was necessary. His evidence was so confused that the Commissioners were not clear what his views were.


It was as a result of the Royal Commission’s report that public executions were abolished in 1868, but the case for total abolition had many more hurdles to cross. Indeed the abolition of public executions, with the unseemly behaviour they encouraged, was advocated by such eminent Victorians as Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in order to ensure the continuation of the death penalty itself. Wilberforce, better known as an opponent of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, told the House of Lords that it was important to retain capital punishment but that this worthy aim was threatened by the disorder occasioned by public executions.35 In this respect Wilberforce was representative of many of the most pious clergymen who favoured the death penalty, because of its tendency to encourage the guilty to repent and seek forgiveness.36 Poetry also joined the side of those who wished to maintain the death penalty when Wordsworth, in his declining years, wrote fourteen indifferent sonnets which, while sympathising with the fates of those on ‘Weeping Hill’ defended the retention of capital punishment as a deterrent.

The anonymous author of a pamphlet about the Newgate hangman William Calcraft argued that capital punishment was an unseemly public spectacle and an ineffective deterrent. He described a room opposite Newgate on the day of an execution as:

Containing about fifty persons of both sexes who, whether awake or asleep, are beastly drunk from drinking deeply of rum, gin and beer, while every description of the most disgusting ribaldry is going on around.

He suggested that an Indian Brahmin, attending the spectacle, would be amazed and disgusted and went on to argue (in capital letters throughout) that SOLITARY CONFINEMENT WITH HARD LABOUR FOR LIFE WOULD BE A GREATER TERROR TO MURDERERS THAN THE MOMENTARY ONE OF HANGING AND SOCIETY WOULD THEREBY BY BETTER PROTECTED.37

But this was a lonely voice. More persuasive was that of the eminent jurist Sir James Stephen (1829–94), a prominent member of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy and influential commentator on legal matters. Writing in Fraser’s Magazine in 1864, at the height of the debate on public executions, he declared:

There is as much moral cowardice in shrinking from the execution of a murderer as in hesitating to blow out the brains of a foreign invader … the plain truth is that Christianity has to have two sides. A gentle side up to a certain point, a terrific one beyond that point.38

The case for the complete abolition of capital punishment was kept alive by a small number of determined campaigners who had found the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment in 1846 and whose cause in Parliament was advocated by John Bright whose Quaker upbringing underpinned his many campaigns.

In the following century reforms proceeded slowly. The 1908 Children Act forbade capital punishment for those under 16 and in 1938 Parliament debated a clause in the Criminal Justice Bill which would have suspended capital punishment for an experimental period of five years. The intervention of the Second World War caused the matter to be dropped and thirteen German agents were executed during the war, William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) being the last to be executed for treason in 1946. A number of controversial cases in the years that followed kept the issue before the public. Notable amongst these were the execution of Timothy Evans in 1949 for murders later found to have been committed by John Christie (hanged in 1953); the hanging of the mentally subnormal Derek Bentley, aged 19, for a murder committed by his accomplice; and the last hanging of a woman, Ruth Ellis, in 1955. These and others persuaded many politicians (though never a majority of the public) that further consideration of the matter was required.

The hanging of James Hanratty, the ‘A6 murderer’ in 1962 gave further impetus to the movement since many believed in his innocence. Paradoxically, DNA evidence, almost forty years later, suggested that Hanratty was indeed the murderer of the victim Michael Gregsten. Nevertheless, in 1965 the Labour MP Sidney Silverman, a long-standing campaigner against the death penalty, secured the passage of a Bill suspending the death penalty for murder in 1965, an arrangement that was made permanent in 1969. The remaining capital crimes (treason and arson in the royal docks) were removed from the statute book by a House of Lords amendment to the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, an act further confirmed by the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1999.

John Bright (1811–89): born in Rochdale to a family whose wealth derived from the cotton trade, Bright was educated at a Quaker school and from an early age took up the causes of those whom he knew to be underprivileged. He entered Parliament in 1843 and was a prominent campaigner against the corn laws which, by taxing cheap imported corn, raised the price of bread for the poor and the price of corn for the wealthy landowners who produced it. The corn laws were repealed in 1846. He campaigned against the Crimean War, losing his seat in Parliament as a result, and blamed British misrule for the Indian Mutiny. He returned to Parliament for a new constituency and campaigned for an extension of the franchise which was eventually achieved in 1868. He kept alive within Parliament the case for the abolition of capital punishment by drawing to the attention of the House a number of injustices inflicted in its name, but in his lifetime he succeeded only in his opposition to public executions. He petitioned unsuccessfully for clemency for the Fenian Michael Barrett, the last to be executed publicly outside Newgate.


The cause of the abolitionists was frequently advanced by the behaviour of some of the hangmen associated with the Newgate drop. The most infamous of these was William Calcraft (c. 1800–79) who served in office for forty-five years from 1829 to 1874, thereby officiating at both public and private executions. He was born in Essex, the son of a farmer, orphaned at 10 years old and apprenticed to a shoemaker. His early life was recorded in an anti-hanging pamphlet published in 1846 entitled The Groans of the Gallows: or the Past and Present Life of William Calcraft, the Living Hangman of Newgate, now in the possession of the Guildhall Library.39 Calcraft appears to have inherited the job from his predecessor, Old Tom Cheshire, to whom he acted as assistant and whose acquaintance he appears to have made as a result of his previous occupation which involved selling pies at executions. He was paid 25s (£1.25) a week as a retainer (a good wage for the time), plus a guinea for each hanging and half a crown (12½ pence) for a flogging, another task which went with the job.

Floggings were also carried out in public and, like the hangings, were a major source of public entertainment, especially when women were the victims, until Elizabeth Fry intervened to stop them in 1817. Such was his reputation that Calcraft’s services were much in demand at other prisons, where he could charge fees of £10 or more. Further profits could be made from selling the effects of the deceased to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks so that their models could be dressed in the authentic clothes of the perpetrator of the gruesome murder they were representing. The hangman’s rope could also be sold for as much as 5s an inch if the criminal had been particularly celebrated. Evidence of this practice among hangmen was presented in 1888 to a Parliamentary Committee enquiring into the death sentence.

After carrying out the last public hanging of the Fenian Michael Barrett in May 1868 (seats for which in nearby houses commanded a price of £10) he was then responsible for the first execution within the prison walls, that of 18-year-old Alexander Mackay, who had murdered his employer. This occurred in September 1868 on a gallows erected in a yard close to the chapel and was witnessed by representatives of the press. Calcraft was noted for his short drop, which usually failed to bring instant death by breaking the prisoner’s neck and led to death by slow strangulation, as earlier at Tyburn. In the case of William Bousefield, Calcraft’s miscalculation was so great that Bousefield climbed back on to the platform after the drop. Calcraft, alarmed, hurled himself upon his would-be victim and the two of them tumbled into the drop together.

Other hangmen miscalculated in the opposite direction, an excessively long drop sometimes leading to decapitation. A hangman named James Berry (1852–1913) achieved this in the 1880s and brought further notoriety upon his profession by holding court in public houses on the eve of hangings, giving accounts of executions he had carried out; and by accepting bribes from voyeurs who masqueraded as his assistants in order to view the executions themselves. After another near decapitation in 1891 Berry was not employed again, though he continued to appeal for work until 1902.40

Short-drop strangulation appears to have occurred in the case of Alexander Mackay, so the pressmen were obliged to watch the boy’s death throes before the black flag was hoisted over the prison to tell the waiting crowds that the execution had been carried out. The hoisting of the black flag, sometimes witnessed by crowds of several thousand, continued until Newgate was closed in 1902, but pressmen continued to attend executions elsewhere until 1934. Calcraft retired in 1874 on a pension of 25s a week and died five years later. He had hanged more than eighty at Newgate itself and many others elsewhere, though one of his predecessors, William Brunskill, who was hangman while the Bloody Code was still prevalent, from 1786 to 1814, was credited with 537 executions at Newgate alone. He also carried out executions elsewhere, including several at Execution Dock, Wapping, and it was during Brunskill’s time that the practice of letting three tides wash over the corpses of executed pirates was discontinued.


As previously observed, long periods of imprisonment, in Newgate or elsewhere, were unusual before the middle of the nineteenth century; whipping, transportation and execution were favoured as being much cheaper than incarceration. However, for six years Newgate contained one particularly celebrated prisoner who was listed in the Newgate prison calendar as prisoner number 31, ‘Rhynwick alias Renwick Williams, vulgarly called The Monster’, who was imprisoned from June 1790 to December 1796. This was Newgate’s own monster who had been imprisoned following two trials and some rather doubtful evidence in response to public hysteria which first arose in May 1788. The case is an excellent illustration of the peculiarities of the laws and the processes which could lead a man to Newgate.

In that month Mrs Maria Smyth, the wife of a doctor with premises near Rathbone Place, north of Oxford Street, had been accosted in Fleet Street by a thin man who had indecently propositioned her.41 She made her way hastily to a nearby house and rang the doorbell at which point her tormentor struck at her thigh with a sharp instrument causing a slight wound. Later that summer a similar experience was reported by a Mrs Franklin and her sister, Miss Kitty Wheeler, though on these occasions the assailant contented himself with making indecent propositions and there was no assault. The descriptions of the culprit varied between the incidents, as they continued to do over the next two years while the attacker, who swiftly became known as the Monster, continued his reign of terror. He was variously described as being 6ft tall; 5ft 6in tall; below medium height; short; thin and vulgar-looking; resembling a perfect gentleman; and of medium build. Many descriptions agreed that he had a prominent nose, that he wore a cocked hat and also that his behaviour was shameless. Having attacked or insulted a victim he would make no attempt to escape and would sometimes return to her home where he would stand in the street and taunt her.

In January 1790 the Monster became more active. Late in the evening of the 19th of that month he attacked a Miss Anne Porter outside her home in St James’s Street, stabbing her in the thigh and buttock, and later slashed the clothes of three other ladies in the same area, though without inflicting any wounds. He also adopted a new tactic. In the same month a lady’s maid was grabbed from behind and kneed several times in the buttocks while being subjected to a stream of insults. She then discovered that her buttocks had been penetrated by a sharp instrument which had evidently been attached to her assailant’s knee. A similar assault was made two months later on another lady’s maid in Brook Street and a few days later a Mrs Blaney was stabbed in the thigh in Bury Street, St James’s, by a man who on this occasion was tall, dark, stout, gentlemanly-looking and about 35 years old. A further variation appeared in the form of nosegays among whose flowers were concealed sharp instruments which penetrated the skin when thrust into the faces of the unwary.

By now the Monster was a celebrity. Such was the interest in his activities and the anxiety felt by many to catch him that suspicion began to settle upon innocent people. One of the early victims, Mrs Maria Smyth, identified as her attacker a man whom she happened to see at an auction. He turned out to be William Tuffing, a respectable family man who had worked as a clothes salesman and hairdresser. There was no evidence in his case other than that provided by a number of witnesses who testified to his good character. The Monster’s other victims did not recognise him as their attacker and, fortunately for Tuffing, another attack occurred while he was in custody.


A reward was now offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the Monster. The money was raised by John Julius Angerstein.

In April 1790, at Lloyd’s Coffee-House, Angerstein himself donated five guineas to a reward fund and a sum of £100 was quickly raised. Posters were printed inviting citizens to pass any information to the Bow Street Office and their appearance prompted a series of citizens’ arrests of perfectly innocent people. One person arrested a butcher whose carving knife had aroused suspicion and a few old scores were settled. One citizen arrested his employer (to whom he first administered a sound thrashing) and another delivered his brother-in-law to Bow Street as a suspect. Washerwomen were asked to report anyone who approached them with bloodstained clothing, while cutlers were to look out for anyone seeking a particularly sharp instrument. One washerwoman was herself attacked, but seems to have been rather pleased by the attention: normally he only attacked the nobility and well-to-do.

John Julius Angerstein (1735–1822): born in St Petersburg of Russian and German parents, Angerstein settled in London in 1749 and worked as an office-boy before becoming an underwriter at Lloyds Coffee-House and one of the founders of this famous insurance market. He became so strongly associated with certain types of insurance that they became known as ‘Julians’ and he promoted an Act of Parliament which prevented shipowners from changing the names of unseaworthy ships in order to make them insurable. He also instigated a prize of £2,000, sponsored by Lloyds, for a suitable design for a lifeboat. He devised an early state lottery which was adopted by Parliament. He profited from estates in Grenada (West Indies) worked by slaves and became a patron of the arts, much of his collection forming the nucleus of the National Gallery. He lived for many years in the Westcombe Park area of Greenwich and in 1972 his house, Woodlands, was opened by the London Borough of Greenwich as an art gallery. A Lloyds syndicate bears his name, as do various properties near his former home, including Angerstein Wharf, Angerstein Business Park and a public house. His son, also John Angerstein, became a Member of Parliament.

The washerwoman’s comment, taken together with the widely varying descriptions of the Monster’s age, demeanour and appearance, may itself be significant. One of the more common types of thief at the time was the cutpurse (ancestor of the mugger), who would expertly release a victim’s bag or purse by cutting the strap which attached it to its owner’s arm or waist. In such an attack it was not unusual for the victim’s clothing or person to be slashed either by accident or as a means of intimidation. This would not explain the bizarre behaviour such as the kneeing in the buttocks or the obscene conversation. It is, however, perfectly possible that the Monster was in reality several different cutpurses who would, of course, be more likely to attack the well-to-do than a washerwoman. There may have been other attackers who were deranged or were what later became known as copycat offenders. Moreover, since there was a good deal of hysteria surrounding the Monster’s activities it is possible that some of the victims read into an attack by a cutpurse a more sensational encounter with the infamous Monster himself.

Angerstein himself certainly suspected that more than one person was involved in the attacks. In a second poster, issued a month after the first, he stated that ‘there is great Reason to fear that more than ONE of the WRETCHES infests the streets’ and described a number of different outfits that an attacker might wear.42 A St Pancras Monster Patrol was formed to protect the ladies of that parish, and a debating society, striving to come up with a subject that would convey the full horror of the Monster’s crimes, proposed in May 1790 the motion:

Who is the Greater Disgrace to Humanity, the Monster who has lately cut so many women in London, or the Slave-Trading Wretches, who drag the unhappy Female African from her family and native country?43

A play entitled The Monster attracted large audiences to the spectacle of young actresses having their cheeks and buttocks pierced by the Monster’s fiendish contraptions. One member of the audience was so outraged by the spectacle that he leapt on to the stage and attacked the actor who was playing the Monster’s part. Some reports suggested that fashionable ladies were protecting their bottoms with copper cuirasses or shields made of cork. Cartoonists also profited from the Monster’s activities. James Gillray’s The Monster Disappointed of his Afternoon Luncheon shows the Monster, knife and fork in hand, suspending a young lady by her dress. The Monster is enraged to see that her bottom is covered by a protective shield.


In June, 1790, with Monster mania at its height, Anne Porter, who had been a victim of the monster six months earlier outside her home in St James’s Street, was walking in St James’s Park with her admirer, a fishmonger named Henry Coleman. Suddenly she called out, ‘There he is, the wretch’ and identified a man in the crowd as the Monster. Coleman, who was more a fishmonger than a hero, followed the suspect carefully, at a distance, and eventually realised that he was someone he had met on a number of occasions at public houses. His name was Rhynwick Williams and he was about to become a most reluctant celebrity. Williams accompanied Coleman to the Porters’ home in St James’s Street where the hysterical Porter sisters identified him as the man who had attacked them the previous January. Williams was taken to Bow Street and his meagre lodgings were searched. Nothing suspicious was found among his few belongings.

Rhynwick Williams was the son of an apothecary who ensured that his son had a reasonably good education and paid for him to have dancing lessons with a view to a career on the stage. Nothing came of this and at the time of his arrest Williams had recently lost his job as a worker in an artificial-flower factory in Dover Street where his employer was a Frenchman. His appearances at Bow Street before the examining magistrate were accompanied by huge crowds, some curious, some determined to injure or kill him, though the evidence against him was sketchy. The hysterical Porter sisters not only identified him as their assailant, but claimed to have seen him several times before the first assault. Other victims were less sure while the most positive identifications were the most doubtful. One was from an Elizabeth Davis who had previously described her attacker as tall and gentlemanly-looking. Williams was short and very hard up. Mary Forster positively identified Williams as her attacker, but Williams was able to call a neighbour who testified that, on the day in question, Williams had been in Weymouth, 130 miles away. The neighbour was a Bow Street Runner and as such a particularly convincing witness. Williams also claimed that at the time of the assault on the Porter sisters he had been at work in the artificial-flower factory and that he had many fellow workers who would support his alibi.


Despite the weakness of the evidence Williams was committed for trial at the Old Bailey, but there now arose the question of what he was to be charged with. Assault, even with the intention to maim or kill, was a misdemeanour punishable usually by a flogging or imprisonment. Such a punishment would not have satisfied the mobs outside the court so a means had to be found whereby he could be charged with a felony – a more serious crime for which the sentence would be death or transportation. The magistrates found a statute of 1721, an early component of the Bloody Code, which had been directed against weavers protesting against the import of cheap cloth from India. Under this statute it was a felony to ‘assault any person in the public streets with intent to tear, spoil, cut, burn or deface the garments or clothes of such person’. It was on this charge that Rhynwick Williams was to stand trial.

The trial began on 8 July 1790 at the Old Bailey, the presiding judge being Sir Francis Buller. He was known to the caricaturists as Judge Thumb, because in an earlier trial he had declared that a man might thrash his wife as long as the stick he used was no thicker than his thumb. The trial was a farce.44 Williams’s barrister, when questioning Anne Porter, the witness who most positively identified Williams, adopted an apologetic manner which conveyed to the witness and the court that he had no confidence in his client’s innocence. A Lady Wallace, a supposed victim of the Monster, had offered to testify in defence of Williams by saying that he was not the person who had threatened her. She had thereby gained a front seat from which to view the proceedings. She then explained that she had in fact never been threatened by anyone and that her offer to give evidence for the defence was one of her little jokes. She nevertheless continued to occupy her front seat throughout the trial.

Despite this setback Williams’s defence was strong. His employer at the artificial-flower factory, the Frenchman, Aimable Michelle, testified that, at the time of the attack upon Anne Porter, Rhynwick Williams had been working at his factory. Six fellow employees confirmed this with some convincing and precise evidence concerning timings. Seventeen character witnesses then spoke up for Williams. After a summing up by Judge Buller, which compared Michelle’s evidence and that of his employees unfavourably with that of the Porter sisters, the jury immediately declared Williams guilty.


The trial was immediately followed by the appearance of the traditional pamphlets giving an account of the crimes and the trial. Angerstein was first off the press with An Authentic Account of the Barbarities Lately Practised by the Monsters (note the plural form ‘Monsters’), which he had written before the trial started. His pamphlet was closely followed by The Remarkable Trial of Rhynwick Williams, which was from the pen of a law student from the Temple and was on sale the day after the trial. Others followed, together with likenesses of Williams. Angerstein was congratulated from all sides for his enterprise in promoting the Monster hunt, but he had his own doubts about the conviction and was impressed by Williams’s alibi. So was Theophilus Swift, a relation of Jonathan Swift. Theophilus wrote a pamphlet titled The Monster at Large which argued that Williams was innocent. He drew attention to the discrepancies between the early descriptions given by the Porter sisters (30 years old, 6ft tall, fair hair) with their later testimony and with the appearance of Williams himself (aged 23, 5ft 6in tall, black hair). He suggested that their evidence was motivated by a desire to gain Angerstein’s reward money. In the meantime, however, there was a more decisive intervention by the Twelve Judges of England.

The origins of this curious body are obscure, but certainly Medieval. The Court of Appeal, Criminal Division, was not established until 1907 and in the meantime the Twelve Judges of England acted as a primitive appeal tribunal. The body consisted of a number of judges (despite the name the number varied according to the whims of the monarch) drawn equally from the three Common Law courts of King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer. It was called upon to adjudicate in cases where there were doubts in the minds of a judge or a jury about whether the correct law had been applied in a case. Upon hearing the jury’s verdict in Williams’s case Judge Buller had declined to pass sentence until the case had been reviewed by the Twelve Judges. Perhaps he had his own doubts about the verdict or perhaps he was simply not sure that the statute under which Williams had been tried as a felon should really have applied to the case. The judges found for Williams. The offences were misdemeanours, not felonies, so there had to be a second trial.


Since Rhynwick Williams was now being tried only for a misdemeanour his second trial was held at the Sessions House, Clerkenwell Green. This building, which remains in use in the twenty-first century as a Masonic centre, was then used for the Middlesex Quarter Sessions and the presiding magistrate at Williams’s trial was William Mainwaring, a successor to the Fieldings who had not continued their reputation for probity.45 On this occasion Williams was defended by Theophilus Swift whose enthusiasm sometimes got the better of his judgement. He reduced the principal witness Anne Porter to a swooning fit by suggesting that her home in St James’s Street was little more than a brothel, but his behaviour may have alienated the jury even more than it distressed Anne Porter. Either way, the verdict was the same though on this occasion the jury took all of fifteen minutes to declare Williams guilty. He was sentenced to six years in Newgate.

Rhynwick Williams quickly became one of Newgate’s principal attractions and a source of earnings for the turnkeys who continued to ply their customary trade of charging an admission fee to inquisitive visitors who wished to view the gaol’s more noteworthy residents. He also enjoyed a brief notoriety as a waxwork figure in Mrs Salmon’s exhibition in Fleet Street, which specialised in exotic and violent scenes. Williams also managed to prosper despite his altered circumstances. He resumed his trade of making artificial flowers, which he sold to his visitors. He also composed a pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the Public in an unsuccessful attempt to gain an early release. Some visitors were disappointed at his commonplace and unthreatening demeanour while Williams himself seems to have settled reasonably comfortably into the prison where one of his fellow prisoners (there were only five long-term prisoners) was the (by now Jewish) Lord George Gordon, until Gordon’s death in 1793. Thereafter he was soon joined by his defence counsel, Theophilus Swift, who was sent to Newgate for a libellous attack on the Fellows of Trinity College, Dublin who had offended him by failing to award any prizes to Swift’s son.

Rhynwick Williams was finally released from Newgate in December 1796 and the following February he married. He and his new wife, Elizabeth, already had a son called George who had been conceived in Newgate and baptised at nearby St Sepulchre’s Church in May 1795. From these happy conjugal circumstances we may conclude that, during his stay in Newgate, Williams was living in one of the more salubrious parts of the prison, presumably on the proceeds of his flower making. Nothing certain is known of the later career of Rhynwick Williams, one of the more curious of Newgate’s residents.46



The Triple Tree built as a permanent gallows at Tyburn


Alice Molland the last to be hanged for witchcraft


Waltham Black Act began process of creating many capital crimes


Dissection could be substituted for gibbetting of murderers


Portable gallows with ‘drop’ replaced the Triple Tree at Tyburn


Catherine Murphy last to be burned at the stake at Newgate (for coining)


Last ‘hanging, drawing and quartering’ (of Cato Street conspirators)


Thomas Maynard last to be hanged for forgery


George Widgett last to be executed for sheep stealing


John Barrett last to be executed for stealing Royal Mail; number of capital crimes steadily reduced from this time


Practice of gibbetting abolished


Criminal Law Consolidation Act limited capital punishment to murder, treason, piracy and arson in the royal dockyards


Royal Commission recommended ending of public executions


26 May, Michael Barrett, Fenian, executed at Newgate; the last public execution in Britain


Practice of hanging and beheading traitors officially abolished


Closure of Newgate; George Woolfe executed on 6 May, the last of 1,106 men and 49 women executed there


Children Act; capital punishment prohibited for those aged under 16


Minimum age for capital punishment raised to 18


William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) last to be hanged for treason


Ruth Ellis last woman to be hanged in Britain


Homicide Act; distinguished between capital and non-capital murder


Francis Forsyth, 18, last teenager to be hanged in Britain


Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans last to be hanged in Britain


Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended capital punishment for murder for five years; made indefinite in 1969


Crime and Disorder Act abolished remaining capital crimes; European Convention on Human Rights adopted outlawing capital punishment for murder except ‘in times of war or imminent threat of war’.

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