Posts Tagged ‘Regency crime’

Vendors set up their carts and booths hours before execution time, doing a roaring trade selling food, drink, souvenirs, even pornographic material, to a frenzied crowd. Minstrels and jugglers entertained the crowd. With the advent of cheap printing in the 16th and 17th centuries, touts created lurid “broadsheets” detailing the supposed history and scandalous crimes of the victim, the precursors to modern day tabloids. These “broadsheets” sold like hotcakes to an excited audience. – The History of Executions in Olde London Towne– Roy Stevenson

Detail of an execution broadside purchased March 5, 1817. Image @Harvard Law School Library

Life was cheap in Georgian England as this 1817 broadside attests. Five criminals were executed in March 1817 for forgery, burglary, and robbery. Poor Elizabeth Fricker protested her innocence, but to no avail.  Executions were public events, even during Jane Austen’s day, and one wonders if she ever saw a body left to rot on a gibbet, or if she cautiously avoided such sights and averted her eyes.  In any event, crowds would gather early at the execution spot to witness the hanging. They came in droves especially if the execution was of a notorious person.

Vendors set up stalls, selling drinks and refreshments to the large crowd, which, as the Hogarth illustration shows, were stacked on top of each other. The atmosphere must have been festive and somber at the same time, for even though there were jugglers and entertainers to amuse the crowd, a certain “execution” protocol was followed. Criminals were expected to speak to the crowd and to die well.

Broadsides, which were purchased for a pittance (in this instance a penny) described the crimes in detail, and were purchased much like programs to sporting events are purchased today.  Read the entire broadside here. This particular broadside was printed by J. Pitts of Seven Dials. Like other broadsides, it featured an illustration of the execution. Someone (the purchaser?) carefully penned in the date below the image.

Hogarth, 1747. Image @Wikimedia

Persistent Link to the Broadside:
Executions of criminals: more generally known by the uninviting name of “Dying speeches.”. Execution broadside (Andrew Savage, Ben Savage, Thomas Cann, William Kelly, Elizabeth Fricker, James Baker, James Gates)
(seq. 11)
Harvard Law School Library
Harvard University
09 June 2011

Other related links:

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Inquiring readers: Once upon a time, road travel was fraught with danger and a traveler could be held up by a highwayman at any time. Jerry Abershawe was such a man. Tony Grant (London Calling) writes about him in this post.

Not far from where I live, on the edge of Wimbledon Common where the Kingston Road passes, are some trees on the side of a small rise of ground. This part of the common is called Jerry’s Hill. It is named after the 18th-century highwayman called Jerry Abershawe, who frequented those parts and held up carriages on their way between Kingston and London. He was one of the last highwaymen.

Jerry's hill. The gibbet was near here. Image @Tony Grant

A highwayman was a thief who held up passers by, usually people travelling in carriages, at gun point or blunderbuss point, and relieved the passengers of their valuables. Some attacks on coaches were brutal and people were killed. Highwaymen weren’t all the dashing handsome masked desperados of fiction with the manners of a lord and a twinkle in the eye for a beautiful lady. “Stand and deliver!” was their traditional call. They chose lonely remote stretches of the highways to perform their dastardly deeds, but they also had to be sure they chose an area where there was regular traffic going to and fro or their despicable mission would be pointless. They chose places just outside towns and cities where there was a constant flow of people travelling. Wimbledon, then a small rural village on the outskirts of London and with a vast area of wild untamed common land around it, was an ideal spot.

Gibbet post at Tibbet's Corner. Image @Tony Grant

Jane Austen was travelling to London from Steventon in 1796 the year after Jerry Abershawe was executed. They were about the same age, 20 and 22 years old.

To Cassandra Austen Thursday 15 – Friday 16th September:

“….As to the mode of our travelling to Town, I want to go in a Stage Coach, but Frank will not let me. As You are likely to have the Williams’ & Lloyds with You next week, You would hardly find room for us then-. If anybody wants anything in Town, they must send their Commissions to Frank, as I shall merely pass thro’ it- The Tallow Chandler is Penlington, at the Crown & Beehive Charles Street, Covent garden.”

Travelling from Steventon, Jane would not have gone through Kingston upon Thames and the London Road leading out of Kingston where Jerry Abershawe plied his highwayman trade. However, you can understand Frank’s concerns for Jane using the stagecoach. A stagecoach carrying a variety of passengers, some undoubtedly wealthy, would have been a target for a highwayman.

From Steventon, the most direct route to London would have taken her through Basingstoke, Virginia Water, Staines, Richmond upon Thames, Hammersmith and on to Westminster and the centre of London. From Staines she would have been travelling on what was known as The Great West Road which lead directly to the second most important city after London, in Georgian times, Bristol, the centre of the slave trade. Some very wealthy merchants and members of the aristocracy would have travelled this road. It must have had its fair share of highway robbers. Stagecoaches on this road would most certainly have been prime targets. So Frank was right to refuse Jane her wish. But maybe the excitement and the risk appealed to Jane. She was young after all. It does not say in Jane’s letter how they did get to Town, but I presume it was in less conspicuous transport and with her brother.

Wimbledon Common showing Jerry's Hill

In 1813, Jane did travel along the London Road leading out of Kingston, Jerry Abershawe’s haunt. She did this many times from Chawton. There is no hint in her letters of any possible dangers but by the time she was living in Chawton, although the Kingston route was now her most direct route to Town, highwaymen were all but extinct. The toll roads had made highway robbery very difficult. Roads were manned every few miles and the people on them had paid to use them. This made it very difficult for highway robbers to make their escape along these routes so this crime virtually died out.

Jerry's Hill, London Road. Image @Tony Grant

To Cassandra Austen Wednesday 15 – Thursday 16 September 1813 Henrietta Street (1/2 past 8-)

Here I am, my dearest Cassandra, seated in the Breakfast, Dining, sitting room, beginning with all my might. Fanny will join me as soon as she is dressed & begin her Letter. We had a very good journey- Weather & Roads excellent – the three first stages for 1s – 6d & our only misadventure the being delayed about a quarter of an hour at Kingston for Horses, & being obliged to put up with a pr belonging to a Hackney Coach & their Coachman, which left no room on the Barouche Box for Lizzy, who was to have gone her last stage there as she did the first;- consequently we were all four within , which was a little crowd;-We arrived at quarter past 4 …”

This time there was no sense of Jane’s brothers putting their foot down and refusing this time to let her travel in what appeared to them in the past in an inappropriate mode of transport. The party Jane travelled with appeared to be Henry, Lizzy and Fanny. There was no sense of danger, just the excitement of the journey, and from Kingston on their last stage, the cramped conditions of four of them inside the barouche. (Imagine being squashed inside a barouche with Jane Austen. What a thought.)

The women would have passed the inn at the bottom of Kingston Hill, where Jerry Abershawe made his headquarters, before their barouche made the long rising trek up the hill onto Wimbledon Common, going past Jerry’s Hill, where I am sure the gibbet would still have been displayed on the right hand side of the road. There probably was no sign of the remains of Jerry Abershawe by that time though. His body had been pecked clean by the crows and his bones had been taken as souvenirs. His finger bones and toes bones were used in candleholders. Jerry Abershawe was the last person to have his body displayed like this on a gibbet.

Jerry Abershawe

Louis Jeremiah Abershawe(1773-3 August 1795), better known as Jerry Abershawe, terrorised travellers between London and Portsmouth in the later 18th century. He was born in Kingston upon Thames and at the age of 17 began his life of crime. He formed a gang, which was based at an inn on the London Road between Kingston and Wimbledon, at the bottom of Kingston Hill called the Bald Faced Stag. I am sure, as well as his primary occupation of highway robbery, Jerry Abershawe also managed to gain the odd carcase of a King’s deer from Richmond Park, which backed on to the Bald Face Stag Inn. The inn no longer exists, but there was a very large and comfortable pub and restaurant built there in the early 1900’s that, just a few years ago, was demolished for new housing built on the site.

Jerry had other places of refuge at Clerkenwell near Saffron Hill. He used a house called the Old House in West Street. Other highwaymen also used this house. Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild were known to have stayed there. It was a house renowned for its dark closets, trap doors, and sliding panels.


All attempts to bring Jerry Abershawe to justice failed until in January 1795, when he shot dead one of the constables sent to arrest him in Southwark and badly injured the other constable sent along too. Abershawe was arrested at a pub in Southwark called The Three Brewers. He was brought to trial at Surrey Assizes in July of 1795, and convicted and sentenced to death. On Monday 3 August 1795, Jerry Abershawe was hung on Kennington Common, a couple of miles from Wimbledon and then his body was set up on a gibbet on the hill overlooking the Kingston Road, which was more commonly known then as the London Road, next to Wimbledon Common near the scene of many of his highway robberies. It remained there for all passers by to see and be warned about the price to pay for evil ways.

Newgate Prison

The Newgate Calendar for 1795 describes the manner of his being found guilty of murder. Newgate prison was a notorious London prison in which criminals waiting for trail would be held, and it was there that Jerry Abershawe was incarcerated before his execution.

When the judge appeared in his black cap, the emblem assumed at the time of passing sentence on convicted felons, Abershaw, with the most unbridled insolence and bravado, clapped his hat upon his head, and pulled up his breeches with a vulgar swagger; and during the whole of the ceremony, which deeply effected all present except the senseless object himself, he stared full into the face of the judge with a malicious sneer and affected contempt, and continued this conduct till he was taken, bound hand and foot from the dock, venting curses and insults on the judge and jury for having consigned him to, “murder.”

The Newgate Calendar also describes his execution on Kennington Common.

He was executed on Kennington Common, on the 3rd of August, 1795 in the presence of an immense multitude of spectators, among whom he recognised many acquaintances and confederates, to whom he bowed, nodded, and laughed with the most unfeeling indifference. He had a flower in his mouth, and his waistcoat and shin were unbuttoned, leaving his bosom open in the true style of vulgar gaiety; and talking to the mob, and venting curses on the officers, he died, as he had lived, a ruffian and a brute!”

A hanging at Tyburn 17th c.

Highwaymen especially were supposed to affect an attitude and a jocular type of behaviour called gallows humour. It seems that Jerry Abershawe went to his death displaying ribald and stentorious gallows humour.

Jerry's hill view. Image @Tony Grant

At least Jane was now safe on her journeys to London. But I wonder if she had just a small wish for the thrill of danger and would have loved to encounter Jerry on the wild wilderness of Wimbledon Common and ,”stand and deliver,” to him. If it had happened, would her novels have turned out differently in some ways?

Jane was 20 years old when Jerry died at the age of 22. Just maybe Jane would have loved the thrill of adventure on a journey with the threat of Jerry Abershawe round the next bend.

Tibbets Corner. A stylized sign commemorating Jerry Abershaw. Image @Tony Grant

Post script:

After writing this article I just couldn’t get a nagging thought out of my head.

Why and how did Jerry end up as a highway robber?

I know he was young, 22 years of age when he was caught and executed. There is no mention of family or wife or children or any sort of familial attachments. I can imagine him being brought up, an orphan, perhaps on the market streets of Kingston having to survive and live by his wits. It doesn’t take much to imagine the step into criminality to survive. He got in with the wrong lot obviously. An intelligent, bitter, hard done by, street wise kid gone wrong and obviously with a big personality. We can compare him with those who go off the tracks in our own society today. The forces for evil don’t change apparently. Obviously this is a total surmise but I feel better for it.

Tibbets Corner today - where Abershawe held up coaches. Image @Tony Grant

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Inquiring Readers: Lynn Shepherd, author of  Murder at Mansfield Park, has written this guest post. She lives in in Berkshire, England, with her husband Simon. Murder at Mansfield Park is her first novel, but she’s been a professional copywriter for the last ten years. Going freelance in 2000 gave her the time she needed to see if she could make a dream into a reality. Ten years and two and a half unpublished novels later, it’s finally happened…

There were two big challenges in writing Murder at Mansfield Park, and they’re summed up in the title of the book. The first was creating an accurate and convincing version of Jane Austen’s own language and idiom, and the second (and in many ways the most fun) was producing an authentic Regency murder mystery.

When I started writing, I didn’t know very much about how a violent (and extremely aristocratic) killing would have been investigated in 1811, when the novel is set. I knew there was nothing we would now recognise as a police force –London didn’t get its first ‘bobbies’ until 1829, and the provinces were much later. But as I did more and more research, I realised that people who’d been the victims of a violent crime had precious few alternatives open to them – as one historian has said, the system at the time was extraordinarily ‘fragmented and inept’. There were the parish constables, of course, but this was often little more than an honorary position, and the elderly men who invariably performed the role would have been little or no use faced with a serious crime like rape or murder. So if you didn’t catch the perpetrator red-handed, your only real options were to post a reward for information in the local newspaper, or pay – very handsomely – for someone to conduct an investigation on your behalf.

This is where the ‘thief takers’ came in: private citizens functioning, in effect, as licensed bounty hunters. The profession – if we can call it that – dates back to the 17th century, when Parliament set a scale of ‘no win, no fee’ rewards for the apprehension of ‘most wanted’ criminals, such as coiners or highwaymen. At that time catching a highwayman was worth £40, and you also got to keep his money, weapons, and horse. Thief takers operated in the shadowy world between the criminals and the law, negotiating between thieves and their victims to return stolen goods for a fee (hence the name). The most famous and infamous of them all was the self-styled ‘Thief Taker General of England and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, who dominated London’s criminal underworld in the early 1720s. He set up an office where victims of robbery could register the details of their lost possessions, which Wild would then undertake to recover. But what many of his clients didn’t realise was that Wild was also running a very lucrative sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, so more often than not he either had their missing property himself already, or knew who did.

It may sound like nice work if you can get it, but thief taking was a notoriously dangerous undertaking – by the time he was hanged in 1725, Wild had two skull fractures and a plate in his head, and had survived having his throat cut. Wild’s notorious career was one of the main reasons why the thief taking system became so unpopular with more law-abiding citizenry – many people felt it caused more crime than it solved, and some thief takers even became ‘thief makers’ by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then informing on them and claiming the reward. But the bald fact was that English criminal justice couldn’t function without them – they got results even if their methods didn’t bear too much scrutiny.

It was this growing public dissatisfaction with the whole thief taking system that led directly to the founding of the Bow Street Runners in 1748. If Tom Jones is Henry Fielding’s great achievement as a novelist, the Runners were the equivalent for his career as a magistrate. Fielding started out as a group of half a dozen ‘official’ thief takers, who he would send out to track down and arrest culprits when a crime was reported. They would often travel across the country in pursuit of their quarries, and some occasionally got involved in solving crimes on the outskirts of London – in the 1780s half a dozen Runners were involved in arrests in Essex, and a Runner called Patrick McManus made £24 from 4 arrests (up to £2,500 in today’s money).

Lynn Shepherd, Author

Thanks largely to the establishment of the Runners, detection became a lot more professional in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1780s they had developed the sort of techniques we would recognize today, including interrogating witnesses, examining crime scenes, and checking alibis. They’re also known to have used ID parades, and to have traced offenders through lodging house receipts, or vehicle registration numbers! One of the more celebrated Runners, Charles Jealous, was even said to be able to tell country mud from city mud on a highwayman’s boots.

My Charles Maddox is a former Runner who’s set up a (very lucrative) business on his own account. He’s also a man very much after Jealous’s heart – more like a modern private investigator, than a thief taker in the strict sense of the term. All the same, he has a very different background and ethical code from the fine folk at Mansfield Park, and bursts upon the elegant Austen landscape with all the force of an asteroid hit…

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Bow Street Runners

According to The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,

In order to encourage victims to report crimes, magistrates in both the City of London and Middlesex established “rotation offices” in the 1730s where Londoners could be certain of finding a magistrate present at fixed hours. One of these was set up in Bow Street, near Covent Garden, by Sir Thomas De Veil in 1739. ”

In 1748, Henry and John Fieldings introduced a new practice of capturing thieves by

“employing thief-takers as “runners” who, when a crime was reported, could be sent out by the magistrates to detect and apprehend the culprit. Thief-takers, such as William Pentlow, made a living out of the fees they charged for their services and the rewards they obtained from victims for identifying suspects and from the state for successful convictions.”

Click here for The Proceedings of the Old Bailey. This impressive website is a”fully searchable online edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing accounts of over 100,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.”

Find more on Bow Street Runners here.

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