The Times They are a Changing

Bob Dylan once famously sang that ‘The Times they are a Changing’. This felt bizarrely prescient this week as I spent most of my time furiously trawling through The Times archive before my free 30 day trial expires and saw the constantly shifting size and face of the paper over 100 years.

Having spent the last few weeks with my head buried in academic articles, I felt a strong desire to go and relate what i’d learned to the source material. Nothing beats the primary sources for getting you back into the study.

Having chronologically scoured the regional papers from 1750-1880 ( a task that i drastically underestimated the scale off) I decided to start at the end and work backwards this time, knowing that reports would probably decrease in volume as i got into the 1700’s. This choice led me to become once again helpfully sidetracked by a big piece of legislation in 1868, that is a key area of my PhD; The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868.

This act specified that all prisoners sentenced to death be executed within the walls of the prison in which they were incarcerated and that their bodies would be buried within the prison walls – fundamentally changing the nature and presentation of execution. This was no longer to be a public punishment.

By 1868 the execution was already not as fully open as it once had been, with the act moving to the outside of the local gaol. In Newcastle, executions had moved from the vast open expanse of the Town Moor to the outside of the gaol at Carliol Square, thus removing any element of procession through the town. However, it was still an open public spectacle. What the act of 1868 removed was the crowd. Strangely people did still attend but, with nothing to view other than a hoisted black flag at the point of death, it is difficult to ascertain why. I will hope to address this in later weeks.

The first execution in Newcastle to be enacted in the vicinity of the gaol was that of Patrick Forbes in 1850, for the ‘brutal murder of his wife…by penetrating her person with a poker’.¹ As an aside, Forbes was not the only person in my period to be executed for murdering someone with a Poker, Jane Jamieson was executed in 1829 for running her mother through with a burning hot one! Back to Forbes – The Times states that, ‘the inconvenience and excitement caused by conveying the prisoner through some of the principal streets of the town on his way to the moor was avoided by the present arrangement.’² In York a similar sentiment had led to transferral of executions to York Castle in 1801 because ‘the entrance to the town should no longer be annoyed by dragging criminals through the streets‘.³

In the case of Patrick Forbes, The Times article goes on to highlight initial opposition to the move and how this was assuaged by the successful application of the new process. ‘Though at first objected to on the ground of danger arising from bringing a large crowd into a comparatively small space, is since generally commended.’ These fears of overcrowding were not unfounded, as in 1863 at the execution of 19 year old George Vass, the size and crush of the crowd was overwhelming.

There was an immense concourse of people and several had to be brought out fainting and exhausted from the crowd. The convict was remarkably firm till the last, and admitted the justice of his sentence, but added that he never intended to murder the woman

The Times, 17th March, 1863 – Report on the Execution of George Vass

The Town Moor today and its brutal past, including many witch hangings in the 1600's. Picture courtesy of
The Town Moor today and its brutal past, including many witch hangings in the 1600’s. Picture courtesy of

The rulings of the 1868 act raise several questions for my study. Without the crowd, what was the intended message of execution? And if the execution was the ultimate spectacle of state authority then why was it now being enacted in private, where no-one could see it?

The reports on executions prior and post 1868 shed some helpful light on these questions.

The final execution in the North East (Newc, Berwick, Morpeth, Durham) before the act was that of Matthew Atkinson in 1865. In it we get a good indication of one of the many reasons executions were no longer publically presented.

At a signal from the Under-Sheriff the chaplain retired, and the drop fell. The rope, however, snapped close to the noose. The excitement among the multitude who had assembled to witness the execution was intense. The prisoner fell a distance of about 15ft, and it was thought that, if not killed, he must at all events be considerably injured from the fall.

The Times, March 17, 1865

This terribly botched hanging, performed by hangman Thomas Askern, was not uncommon and indeed it did not stop by taking executions behind closed doors. What it did do though was receive attention in the House of Commons when the question was raised by the MP for Carlisle Sir Wilfrid Lawson. Mr Lawson asked the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, Sir George Grey

Whether his attention has been called to the horrible scene which took place at the execution of Matthew Atkinson in Durham; and whether he has made inquiry into the conduct of the authorities who had the management of that execution?

Sir George Grey had indeed been informed and replied that

the day after this unhappy occurrence the Governor of Durham Gaol wrote to him and stated the precautions which had been taken to prevent any such accident. He had thereupon written to the High Sheriff of the county, who was the person directly responsible for carrying out the execution, calling his attention to the statement of the Governor, expressing his opinion that sufficient care had not been taken to test the rope beforehand, and hoping that if unfortunately another execution should take place at Durham, greater precaution would be used to prevent the possibility of the occurrence of so deplorable an event.

This was not in and of itself a deciding factor in the bringing about of the 1868 act, but it was one of many examples of a spectacle, that demanded the attention of the public, being undermined by its poor operation.

It is perhaps for this, among other reasons, that the first execution in private seems so marked in its reporting. There is no detail of the execution other than the following.

The prisoners were executed within the prison walls, only the Governor of the gaol, the Sheriff and his officers, and the representatives of the press being present.

The Times, March 23rd, 1869

Some scholars have contended that the press in the execution room, after 1868 were the first example of a new form of ‘mediated publicness’ which,

‘provided accounts of sensational events in which publicness no longer depends on sharing a particular location, was cut off from face to face interaction and involved the transformation of the link between publicness and sense perception’

J.Tulloch, The Privatising of Pain., Journalism Studies, Volume 7:3, p.440

This mediated publicness was fairly short lived as reporters had largely been removed from executions by the end of my period (1880). Perhaps in no small part because they didn’t provide the message of seamless state authority that was intended by closing the hanging to public view.

Private executions had been introduced to create a series of seamless and seemly events, designed to terrify the masses and remove sympathy from the condemned. But the black comedy of the situation was that the logic of modern reporting was to highlight the condemned person at the centre of the state’s ritual and/or flaws in the process.

J.Tulloch, The Privatising of Pain., Journalism Studies, Volume 7:3, p.440


1).  The Times 26th August 1850

2). The Times 26th August 1850



Distraction 1:

I am a huge fan of Smiley Lewis and this week I have been listening to him non stop. I thought this song was the most prescient, given that the first execution after 1868 in the North East was done on a Monday. I’m sure John Dolan and John McConville would’ve concurred with Smiley about their hatred for the day.

Distraction 2: 

This week I have been to see a couple of theatre and stand up shows, both big interests of mine. One was a heartfelt one man show, by Ian Mclaughlin of the brilliant improv group The Suggestibles about a mans quest to find the father he had been told had died when he was a child. The moral of the tale was imploring people to not avoid getting in touch with anyone, regardless of the reason, because you may never get the chance again. This was particularly prescient this week as the author of several of my quotes was an academic called John Tulloch, who I was in the process of emailing this week when a quick google search for his email showed me he had sadly passed away a few years back. I’m sorry i didn’t get the chance to thank him for his insightful work and i would like to dedicate this post to him as the questions his article raised were the genus of it.

The other show I saw was of a Welsh comedian called Tommy Rowson. He was supported by my long time comedy collaborator Hal Branson and they both gave stellar performances.Rowson is a shining example of a shambolic man, putting the case for the underdog beautifully and much of his set involved his minor brushes with the law, so felt like extra research. It’s a cliche to mention the lyrical nature of the Welsh language, but there’s such a beauty in even the most sundry phrases and Rowson doesn’t disappoint there. Both Ian and Tommy’s shows are on at the Edinburgh Festival and I would recommend a trip to both. Hal will be in Edinburgh soon and I would keep your eyes peeled for his work, which is often on at The Stand Comedy Club in Newcastle.

Edinburgh Show Links:

Tommy Rowson
Ian Mclaughlin


4 thoughts on “The Times They are a Changing

  1. Pingback: Latest: Edinburgh, Execution and Embellishment | lastdyingwords

  2. Pingback: Panopticons and Semi-Private Executions | lastdyingwords

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