‘Being a great nuisance to the inhabitants’: Petitions to relocate executions and gibbets in eighteenth-century London

Our latest Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover post is by Anna Cusack. She is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-edits the blog We Hang Out a Lot in Cemeteries. Anna works on the marginal dead of early modern London, focusing specifically on suicides, executed criminals, Quakers and Jews. You can find her on Twitter at @AnnaRCusack.

In 1721, Barbara Spencer was burnt for coining. Her execution was moved at the last minute from Smithfield to Tyburn, after a petition from Smithfield’s inhabitants against having women burnt there.[1] Barbara Spencer’s execution was still attended by a vast crowd, and the people of London did not seem too concerned with this form of execution if it was carried out on the margins of everyday life as opposed to in their neighbourhood. As the original petition for Spencer’s case is lost it is only from a simple newspaper entry that we know it existed, and other newspapers of the time reveal that this was not the only such objection.

By the eighteenth century, alongside the more common petitions of mercy that are found when studying the history of crime and execution, these types of petitions which I have termed ‘relocation petitions’ or, rather, the ‘not in my backyard’ petitions begin to appear and were often reported in the newspapers. The glimpses of the petitions that are visible in these reports show that they highlighted the sensory impact of executions, the problems of crowds, and the general nuisance that the execution would cause due to its proximity to daily life. They were not from the family nor friends of the individual facing execution and show no sympathy for the condemned. Instead, they purely defended the peace and comfort of the local community. Many were similar to the one asking to relocate Barbara Spencer’s execution, however these petitions were always case specific and not every execution held outside the main execution sites of Tyburn, Execution Dock, or, after 1783, in front of Newgate Prison, resulted in a petition for relocation. For example, on the 27 October 1779, fourteen-year-old Isabella Condon was burnt for coining at Smithfield, yet there is no evidence of a petition to relocate her execution.[2]

It was not just executions by burning that provoked relocation petitions. In July 1729, the newspapers reported that ‘Yesterday James Cluff was executed at Tyburn, for the Murder of Mary Green at the Green Lettice in Holborn. He was to have been executed over against the Door where the Murder was committed, but the Neighbours petition’d against it’.[3] The custom of hanging a felon on temporary gallows near the site of their crime, such as in Cliff’s case, had been declining since the late seventeenth century. This decline could also potentially be due to the impact the practice had on the daily lives of Londoners. Therefore, it is not too surprising that these types of petitions began to appear when they do alongside other shifts in the history of execution and the topographical changes of the metropolis.

John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746. The Green Lettice on Brownlow Street, Holborn is on the left circled in red and Smithfield is circled in orange on the right. The increasing density of the city is evident.

Relocation petitions were also concerned with gibbeted individuals, those who were ‘hanged in chains’ – actually meaning being displayed in an iron cage upon a gibbet – after execution. These petitions were also reported in newspapers. In 1730 Drummond and Shrimpton, who were ‘hanged in chains’ on Stamford Hill, were removed with their gibbets to a more remote part of the common. There was no reason given for this, but it could have been down to a local petition.[4] Likewise, Samuel Hurlock, a gunsmith executed at Tyburn for murder on 31 July 1747 and then ‘hanged in chains’ on Stamford Hill, was ‘ordered to be taken down, the Stench of his Body being a Nuisance to the Inhabitants of the Neighbourhood’ just over a week after being erected.[5] In September 1760, ‘The principal inhabitants of Ealing’ petitioned to have the body of one William Odell or O’Dell, who had been executed and gibbeted for the murder of his wife, taken down from his place of display on Ealing Common as it was ‘being a great nuisance to the inhabitants’. This was duly done and he ‘was taken down, and removed cross the road to the other side of the Common’.[6] Sometimes less formal actions were taken against the display of an executed individual within a gibbet. In July 1764 Lloyd’s Evening Post reported:

A few days since, the man that was hanged in chains for the murder of the servant at Windsor, was, by order, removed from the place where he was hanged, to Clewer-Green; but the people came with their pitchforks, &c. and would not suffer him to be put there on which he was carried to Maidenhead Thicket, and there hung up.[7]

Again, these petitions and the ‘pitchfork protest’ at ‘Clewer-Green’ were not against the practice of displaying an executed felon upon a gibbet, rather the petitioners simply did not want it to occur where they lived and where it would affect their daily lives.

The sensory impact of a woman burning, or a rotting corpse, along with the potential dislike of the crowds that came to witness an execution, which were frequently noted as boisterous and problematic, appear to be the most common reasons behind these types of petitions and hint at broader changes in the metropolis. Although only a handful of these ‘not in my backyard’ petitions have been uncovered, their appearance at a time when London and its environs faced accelerated growth, an increase in population density, and shifting ideas about civic space is no coincidence.


Further Reading

All petitions can be found in eighteenth-century newspapers. Specifically, these examples were found through a search of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection.

For more on gibbeting see Sarah Tarlow The Golden and Ghoulish Age of the Gibbet in Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

For more on the individual criminals mentioned see T. Hitchcock, R. Shoemaker, C. Emsley, S. Howard and J. McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 24 March 2012); and, T. Hitchcock, R. Shoemaker, S. Howard and J. McLaughlin, et al., London Lives, 1690-1800 (www.londonlives.org, version 1.1, 24 April 2012).

For a discussion of much earlier negotiations about the sites of burnings, see Laura Sangha’s ‘Memorial and history, Part 5: in which history delivers a warning from history, and I talk about ‘feelings’’ (2016)


Footnotes

[1] Daily Post (London, England), Saturday, July 1, 1721; Issue 547; Daily Journal (London), Wednesday, July 5, 1721; Issue 141.

[2] Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England), October 25, 1779 – October 27, 1779; Issue 3486.

[3] London Journal (1720) (London, England), Saturday, July 26, 1729; Issue 521.

[4] Grub Street Journal (London, England), Thursday, May 7, 1730; Issue 18.

[5] Whitehall Evening Post or London Intelligencer (London, England), August 11 – August 13, 1747; Issue 234.

[6] London Chronicle (London, England), September 25, 1760 – September 27, 1760; Issue Number 586; Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England) September 29, 1760 – October 1, 1760; Issue Number 501.

[7] Lloyd’s Evening Post (London, England), July 27, 1764 – July 30, 1764; Issue Number 1100.

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