Wednesday, 13 June 2012

13th June 1812: The execution of 8 prisoners at Lancaster Castle

On Saturday 13th June 1812, eight prisoners convicted and sentenced to death at the Lancaster Special Commission were executed at Lancaster Castle.

The account of the execution is from the Lancaster Gazette of 20th June 1812. When reading accounts of executions in this period, the context and the intended message and all important. Accounts generally paint a portrait of individuals expressing remorse, often admonishing others not do as they have done. For the authorities and the media, this was an important part of the legal and judicial process - punishment as an awful spectacle and as a warning. The accounts of 'lamentations' of the prisoners in this account are scarcely credible to the modern reader.
Execution of the Lancashire Rioters.

On Saturday last, at noon, and eight malefactors under sentence of death, in our Castle, suffered the dreadful sentence of the law, viz Hannah Smith (54) for rioting and highway robbery, at Manchester; Abraham Charlson (16) Job Fletcher (34) Thomas Kerfoot (26) and James Smith (31) for rioting and burning the mill, at West Houghton; John Howarth (30) John Lee (46) and Thomas Hoyle (27) for rioting and breaking into a house, and stealing provisions, at Manchester—A vast concourse of people assembled to see the awful end of these deluded wretches, who felt the bitter consequence of listening to the artful insinuations of men, whose principles are at enmity with all law, human and divine. We are told, on the authority of those to whom the unhappy wretches opened their minds, and told their griefs, that there are men in this county, whose days, though lengthened for a short duration, will always be imbittered by the corroding reflection, that their revolutionary ideas have brought their more ignorant neighbours to an untimely end. The general lamentations of the prisoners were, “Oh, that we had not listened to the seditious suggestions of our neighbours!” “God forgive them!” “They have betrayed us into the gulf of misery” “Oh, that our example may be a warning to all who hear of our unhappy fate!”—The morning of their exit was spent in most earnest prayer, commending their souls to the Divine Being, through the meditation our Saviour. Perhaps there were never were heard more deplorable supplications, nor a more awful scene than the departure of these wretched beings from the Chapel, in the Castle, to the room adjoining the platform. During the short interval between condemnation and execution, they deeply felt the awful effects of drunkenness, blasphemy, and the neglect of divine ordinances. Tho’ their sins were great, yet there is some hope that their repentance was sincere. The morning after the execution, their bodies were decently interred.

A paragraph having appeared in many of the papers, stating the above unfortunate persons had behaved with the greatest indifference and unconcern, after their condemnation, we have the authority of the Rev. Mr Rowley, Chaplain to the Castle, for assuring our readers, that during the whole time after receiving sentence they behaved with the utmost decorum, appearing truly penitent, and repeatedly wishing that their untimely fate will prove a warning to those who had broken the laws, and cause them to refrain from their evil ways.

A troop of the Blues attended at the place of execution, and four companies of the Berkshire Militia were under arms, during the awful scene; but we are happy to add, but not the least symptoms of tumult appeared.
Abraham Charlson's age is often put at lower than that attributed to him in all the contemporary accounts. Whilst all the primary sources have him as 16 years of age, here and there one reads he was actually 12 years of age (although not, it must be noted, in any of the standard secondary sources). It's possible that an account from a contemporary of Charlson has been embroidered: Prentice (1851, p.57) quotes Dr Robert Taylor, a bitter opponent of Colonel Ralph Fletcher, stating that Charlson "was a boy so young and childish that he called on his mother for help at the time of his execution, thinking she had the power to save him" (a not uncommon response of grown men facing certain death, let alone 16 year-olds).

By 1883, William Axon's 'Lancashire Gleanings' stated that "it has been said that [Charlson] was in reality only 12 years old". In his account, Axon also says 'local tradition' said Charlson was 'a cripple' who perched on someone's shoulders and used his crutch to smash the window of  the Westhoughton Mill (possibly confusing Charlson with another of those executed, James Smith, who was disabled and walked with crutches). Axon has Charlson in the hands of the hangman crying out "Oh, mammy, mammy!".

There is no evidence that I am aware of that Charlson was 12 years of age - in any case, his execution at age 16 was bad enough as it is.

Dr Taylor's letter was reproduced in a well known pamphlet 'The Blackfaces of 1812' in 1839. Taylor had spent time taking depositions from victims of Fletcher and his men and had followed the Lancaster Assizes, possibly with the aim of having their conduct questioned in Parliament, and some of these documents appear in the Home Office archive.

1 comment:

  1. thank-you for the information on this