Lies, Damned Lies and Excel (statistics)

IMG_0022My work life last week can be summarised in one word (Excel), actually to be more precise (Excel then, after great anger, Numbers – Mac’s much more user friendly ‘pretty stats for idiots’ programme).

Since I began my PhD, I have been compiling a definitive list of North East executions¹ from 1700-1900 and have got to a stage where I am happy with them. As far as possible I have listed the name of the executed, date of execution, crime and hangman – I am still working on age, as there are often quite big differences in reports.

Using my master document, I wanted to make some charts and graphs for this Blog. The original intention of this site was two fold, one to help me learn to write again (still working on that) and two, to provide a useful resource for anyone interested in the subject. It is surprising how little definitive information on regional executions exists on the internet, particularly Northern Executions. As I have produced quite a lot of data, I have broken it down into different sections (execution by region, execution by gender and execution by criminal charge). Where possible I have been as comprehensive as I can and I truly hope that these become a useful resource to anyone interested. As there is a lot of information, I have made a standalone page for the data, which you can access from the main menu, through the snappy title of ‘execution data.’

For the rest of this blog I will just touch on the headline figures and what interesting things came out of them.

From 1700-1900 there were 161 executions.  145 men and 16 women.

In my period 1750-1880 there were 111 executions. 97 men and 14 women.


The most noticeable thing in the figures is how few people were executed. This is across a period that included the ‘Bloody Code’ where over 200 crimes were executionable offences. Indeed, in London alone, in 1750 there were 74 hangings at Tyburn, while in the North-East that same year, there was just one (James MacFidum – alias MacFarlane at Durham, for Robbery). Why this is, is something I will be analysing across the next few years. It was a phenomenon that was not unremarked on in the period.

To the honour…of the inhabitants of Newcastle, there are fewer culprits pass this lamentable road, to receive the legal reward of their crimes, than probably any town in England of its size and numerous employment.

Rev.John Baillie, An Impartial history of the town and county of Newcastle upon Tyne and its vicinity etc. (1801) p.124 cited in Morgan & Rushton, Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law

Another notable feature is the difference in executionable crimes by region. There is a marked difference in the sentencing in Morpeth (a more traditional rural area) to that of Durham and Newcastle. In Durham and Newcastle the overwhelming majority (c60-70%) are executed for murder, while in Morpeth murder accounts for only 17% of executions, making it the 4th largest factor behind robbery (inc highway), Sheep/horse-stealing and housebreaking (inc burglary). This is in line with expectations, as during this period there were very sanguinary ‘game laws’ which meant that the protection of property was brutally enforced, particularly in the countryside.

There are key peaks in execution, experienced across Newcastle Durham and Morpeth particularly. Between 1780 and 1790 there is a marked spike in executions. In Morpeth alone between 1790-99 there are 8 executions (more than the previous 40 years). This was commonly experienced across England as the 1780’s were a period in which there were noted crime waves and political instability.² More importantly, the narrative of declining executions is tested by the figures for the North East, in fact between 1870-1880 there is a very marked increase in execution at Durham – with 12 people being hung (the most in a decade in any of the regions between 1700-1900).

One final thing I noted, was how the figures for Morpeth don’t line up with what the newspapers report. More often than not reports on Morpeth executions will appear with an addendum or prologue that suggests how rare it is to have executions here or how virtuous this part of the world is, as can be witnessed by its execution rate. However, when compared against Newcastle this does not appear to be the case.

Anyway, that’s enough of my take on the stats, go and look for yourself. I’m off to study how to give the perfect TED talk, using statistical analysis.

1.The regions I include in my PhD are Berwick, Durham, Morpeth, Newcastle, Sunderland- York being a notable exception. 

Distraction 1: Viv Albertine’s – Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys 

I’m part if a book group with a few friends (book group in its loosest form) and one of the things I find is that as soon as a book is agreed upon, I find something more interesting and read that. This month the book group selected James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, but in an appropriately punkish spirit, i decided to rebel and instead read Viv Albertine of The Slits’ autobiography. The Slits are a band that have passed me by having disbanded two years before I was born, but the book is a fascinating insight into the struggles of women setting out to make a name for themselves in the music business and it’s a very funny and emotionally raw book, well worth a read. In true punk spirit I’m not going to give the Amazon link, instead the link straight to the publisher  – although knowing my luck they probably take a bigger cut – sorry Viv! Well worth a read. Better still go and see her on tour and buy it from her. I finished it in two days – as for James Joyce I have a week left till our next book group meeting and am on page 6 (the first 5 are the introduction!).
courtesy of

Distraction 2: Trevor McDonald’s Inside Death Row (ITV)

This week I watched the concluding part of Trevor McDonald’s Inside Death Row on ITV. It was a fantastic piece of television and there is an incredibly emotive interview with a man describing how he killed a mother and her daughter in a horrifying way. In all these interviews a common theme occurs – these were not, on the whole, people going out to murder – they were botched robberies or panicked acts by people under the influence of drugs. You could truly feel the deep regret of these man who for one simple act of malice, have spent the best part of their adult lives behind bars. The final shot of the series was Trevor McDonald taking the long walk to freedom from the prison and the song that played him out was this fantastic Tom Wait’s number and if it’s good enough to be the soundtrack for Trevor McDonald’s sign off, then it’s good enough to be mine.

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