Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Last Dance at Tyburn

By Catherine Curzon

In the world of Georgian highway robbery there are some names that have stood the test of time. "Blueskin" Blake, Plunkett and MacLaine and, of course, Dick Turpin himself are characters who have passed into English legend. They have appeared in literature, film and theatre, inspired fashion and music and, particularly in Turpin's case, become virtual folk heroes since their most notorious days. Less well known is the name of John Austin but, though he was not the most famous highwayman history has known, he does hold the dubious honour of being the last man to swing from the Tyburn tree. What were the circumstances though brought him to his sorry fate, and how did the matter of a hat lead a man to the infamous gallows?

The Tyburn Tree
On 23rd October 1783 a man named John Spicer was making his unassuming way to London, dreaming of a new start and hopefully, new opportunities. He had come from Grays in Essex and was something of an innocent abroad, with little experience in the city. So, when he encountered two very friendly chaps who promised to show him the way to decent lodgings where a man might fill his belly, Spicer was happy to go along with these new, heaven-sent friends. For a couple of days all was rosy on the road to London, yet on the third night things took a sinister turn. Spicer's companions invited him to follow them to their new lodging, promising a pleasant evening in good company. No doubt looking forward to a warm bed and good food, the hapless traveller instead found himself in the middle of open fields near Bethnal Green.

Out in the middle of nowhere and with no chance of rescue, Spicer must have thought his time had come when one of the men drew a cutlass and demanded that he hand over his valuables. Despite being outnumbered and unarmed, Spicer fought furiously, but Austin and his accomplice were able to wrestle him to the ground, binding his hands tightly and taking all of his possessions, or so they thought. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey record that he was relieved of:
"...one silver watch, value 30 s. a steel chain, value 1 s. a steel key, value 2 d. two silk handkerchiefs, value 4 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 4 s. one linen shirt, value 12 d. one man's hat, value 12 d. the property of the said John Spicer."
If not for the intervention of a local man named James Strong, it might be that the attack could have been even worse. Strong was working in the garden of his employer, Giles Wells, when he heard the altercation and interrupted the assault, even giving chase to the felons when they fled the scene. Unable to catch either of the men, Strong instead helped the badly beaten Spicer to the local infirmary where his injuries were tended; luckily, he was not fatally wounded and was able to tell his rescuer exactly what had happened.

Upon hearing of the attack, Wells asked Strong to return to the scene of the crime by daylight and see if the men had dropped any of Spicer's stolen belongings. Instead, what he found was the clearly very dedicated John Austin searching the field where the robbery had taken place for Spicer's hat, which was left behind after the attack. Challenged by Strong, Austin told him that he was an innocent man, forced to participate in the robbery by his unnamed accomplice under threat of death should he not go along with the scheme. Strong found the explanation unlikely to say the least and locked Austin in a stable whilst the authorities were summoned. When Austin was taken from his makeshift cell, Wells found the stolen shirt and stockings concealed in the stable, reaching the inescapable conclusion that Austin must have concealed them there in an effort to rid himself of any damning evidence.

The Tyburn stone
The case was presided over by a Mr Eyre, who showed no hesitation in passing the death sentence on Austin, and on 7th November 1783 he was taken by cart to the Tyburn gallows through a mob of enthusiastic spectators. His dignified composure failed him at the last, and as the noose was placed around his neck he implored the crowd:
"Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul. Let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed. Keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me. Jesus look down with pity on me. Christ have mercy on my poor soul!"
With his final words uttered, Austin's head was covered by the cap. He seemed to speak again, but his words were silenced as the cart started forward. In a final cruel twist Austin's neck didn't break immediately; instead, he was slowly strangled to death over ten excruciating minutes.

John Austin was the last person to die on the near legendary Tyburn gallows. Though the Tyburn Tree has long since been dismantled, and a busy road covers the place where so many died, it remains an iconic image of Georgian England, and one with many stories to tell.

Sources

http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t17831029-4-defend133&div=t17831029-4#highlight

Gatrell, Vic, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (OUP, Oxford, 1996)
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David, Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree (The History Press, 2013)
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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

4 comments:

  1. Well worth reading Lucy Moore's book The Thieves Opera for more background on this.

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    1. I got that book at the weekend, I'm really looking forward to reading it!

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  2. This was such an interesting post. It brought the term "highway robbery" to life for me. I'm glad Spicer escaped with his life and got some of his belongings back.

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    1. Thank you! I find the world of Tyburn and Newgate utterly fascinating, such a wealth of wonderful material.

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