This week I found myself in Sheffield at the Centre for Criminological Research’s (CCR) annual conference. This is usually an in-house event at Sheffield University, but thanks to co-ordinator Lisa Burns, I was allowed to attend and I’m very glad I did. The day was packed full of fascinating presentations on everything from street lighting to stag dos, all offering fascinating insight into the study of crime and criminal behaviour. I was there specifically for the final talk, given by Dr Richard Ward on the work of the Digital Panopticon – a new project of remarkable ambition and one that is already providing fascinating findings.
One of the highlights of the day was getting to meet with Dr Ward and, to my surprise, my old Professor in criminal history (Robert Shoemaker), who is the inspiration for my interest in this study. He even bought me a drink after and as ever offered a very sage suggestion that blogs may come to be seen as the historians ‘first draft of history’.
Dr Ward had been kind enough to ask my opinion in the run up to the event, on his latest paper. I immediately came over all Manuel from Fawlty Towers, but luckily my ‘I know nothing’ protestations were done in the privacy of my own home – email communication is the perfect mask (until I write it on a publicly available online forum). Luckily I did have some thoughts on the article and found it very helpful for focusing my study and getting me thinking more critically about my area of focus.
Now, onto the study. I got a fantastic tip-off, from crime historian Barry Redfern, about an execution that sparked a lot of debate in Newcastle (Mark Sherwood, 1844). He pointed me to the Town Council Proceedings held at Newcastle City Library, specifically for the year 1844, where he said there was 20 pages of speeches on the execution itself and capital punishment. Now, I am going to veer off topic a bit here but I think the process of finding this titbit says a lot about the frustrations and joys of research. I have mentioned Barry in previous blogs, but I am eternally grateful for the day I saw his book and bothered to email him for advice, he has been a font of knowledge ever since and once again his tip-off here was fantastic. On this occasion however, I began to briefly doubt him when I got to the Local Studies shelf and this is what faced me.
Further searches by the librarians led to the conclusion that it was missing along with a few other years. I was gutted. This is an eternal frustration with research. You can plan all you want, put days aside, but then one missing book can throw you completely. .. I think my hangdog face must have been noticed by the librarian, Sue, though as two hours later she tapped me on the shoulder and said – ‘I found it on a totally miscellaneous stack downstairs’. The moral of this tale is ask for help as it’s there should you need it – you cannot do a PhD alone.
The 1844 proceedings didn’t disappoint. They are a fascinating insight into the conflicting sentiments towards capital punishment in the period and are a perfect microcosm of the major dividing lines in the debate. It has all the the hallmarks of a strong chapter in a thesis.
The debate was sparked around the execution of Mark Sherwood on 23rd August 1844. Sherwood was a Sunderland Army pensioner who was convicted for slitting his wife’s throat in a drunken passion. For various reasons his death sentence seems to have invoked strong responses from the public¹ and this strength of opinion led to a motion being raised at Council level for the abolition of Capital Punishment. Unfortunately for Sherwood this was raised after his execution.
The proposer of the motion for debate, the abolition of Capital Punishment, was Alderman Armorer Donkin, Esq (they don’t make names like they used to!). His opening statement gives a good insight into the leanings of the council.
In bringing forward the motion…I trust I shall have the support of the Members of this Council. For it does appear to me that a great change in public opinion has taken place over later years on the subject; and that capital punishment …is considered by the best informed persons to be no longer expedient.
Alderman Armorer Donkin, Esq. – Proceedings of the Newcastle Town Council, 1844. p. 210
Donkin’s assuredness that he would have the ‘support’ of the council was somewhat misplaced. He was not alone in his views, but it was by no means an easy ride. The debate was a very passionate one and split the room along several lines. The key argument in the pro camp was about making the most efficient and just law based on evidence while those against were arguing that there was an indisputable biblical truth that God had sanctioned execution and man was not above God’s law.
The Divine command runs thus, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.
Mr.W.Cookson (Sheriff) – Proceedings of the Newcastle Town Council, 1844. p. 214
Within these two broad camps, there was many nuances in arguments that give fascinating insight into the period. By way of context, the debate came at a time when Capital Punishment had largely been limited to acts of murder, previously up to 220 different crimes were punishable by murder under the notorious ‘Bloody Code.’
Proponents for the abolition of capital punishment were not by any means ‘soft on crime’, quite the contrary. The prevailing argument given by those proposing is that capital punishment actually stops the proper punishment of crimes, as juries and judges often let people off or transmute/downgrade their sentences as they are unwilling to see someone hang. This reluctance to use the available punishment meant lots of ‘capital’ crimes got downgraded by Judges and Juries alike and it was a problem commonly recognised in the period.
Other arguments expressed are that the intended ‘awful’ spectacle and lesson of the gallows is not being taken in by the public. The hanged men are often seen as ‘stoical’ and ‘heroic’ and in certain cases are hero worshipped for ‘dying hard’ (unrepentant and indignant).
The fact is well known in this country; because it is common for members of the ‘swell mob’ to ask, respecting an old friend who had perished on the gallows, if he died ‘hard’ considering his death glorious provided he showed an indifference to the fate he was about to meet.
The Mayor – Proceedings of the Newcastle Town Council, 1844. p. 214
The final arguments in the proceedings for trying to block the motion are around whether capital punishment is a subject ‘suitable’ for Local Council level debate and whether private execution (behind the prison walls) would stop the distaste for the execution. The former is widely disputed by the councillors, ‘how are the consequences of capital punishment to be ascertained without consulting general opinion.’ While the latter is an argument that will go on to become law in 1868 and arguably go some way to stalling its ultimate abolition.
The motion passed by a ‘considerable majority’ but was something of a Phyric victory as the naysayers ultimately won the debate, with the spectacle of execution staying for another century.
My little phyric victory is having made this fascinating part of Newcastle’s history more publicly available in the library, phyric because i know it will’ve gone awol next time I come to use it. In lieu of that here’s proof that I am a man of my word.
1. Martin Wiener, believes it was the fact that the crime was not deemed pre-meditated, which was one the key facts that wouldlead to a manslaughter charge rather than a Murder charge. See Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England. Martin J. Wiener, p.249
PS: Thanks to my old university buddy Max Munday and his lovely partner Danielle for having me to stay in Sheffield and being their usual hospitable and hilarious selves. By way of thanks here’s a plug – if anyone thinks the prospect of a radical socialist earnestly and occasionally incoherently rambling on local radio sounds fun, then tune in to Max’s show every week – it’s well worth a listen (Max Munday’s Mouthpiece – http://www.sheffieldlive.org)
Distraction 1: Rebels of Oz BBC Four
This was a fantastic series on the arrival of four, now eminent, Australians to the UK (Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Clive James and Robert Johnson). Their effect on the counter culture was argued to be partly to do with the Australian lack of self doubt and also the coarse and memorable Australian turn of phrase, the choicest one in the programme being Germaine Greer’s on generosity, ‘he’d give you his arsehole and shit through his ribs’.
Distraction 2: Jeff Buckley – BBC Radio 4
This was a brilliant piece of radio. Very rare recordings of the astonishing voice of Jeff Buckley and heartbreaking anecdotes about a tragic soul. Catch it before it goes.
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