Dear Diary: Attending an execution

Newcastle Chronicle Microfilm. One thing you don't realise at the beginning of a PhD is how much it affects your eyesight. I'll be lucky if I can still see by the end of it!
Newcastle Chronicle Microfilm. One thing you don’t realise at the beginning of a PhD is how much it affects your eyesight. I’ll be lucky if I can still see by the end of it!

Say what you like about procrastination but it often leads to some very interesting discoveries. My latest find was made during a session in Newcastle Central Library’s Local Studies Section. It’s becoming a bit of a running theme that I am finding my most interesting things completely by accident. Surely proof, if proof were needed, that I am not an academic!

After 3 solid hours of scrolling through microfilmed copies of newspapers, my eyes needed a rest and so I went and perused the copies of Northern History in the Local Studies section, hoping I could find a distracting article. I settled on Norman McCord’s, Victorian Newcastle Observed: The Diary of Richard Lowry. (Northern History Vol XXXVII, Dec 2000). In it McCord details the inner workings of an astonishing set of diaries in the Tyne and Wear Archives.

The diaries are that of Richard Lowry and for the sake of brevity, this Newcastle Journal article summarises his life succinctly. Around the time of the execution he was

chief agent at Newcastle Station, where he managed the passenger, goods and minerals departments and lived in a new railway house on Forth Banks.

Newcastle Journal, 8th January 2007, ‘We’re steaming through history’ by Tony Henderson 

One particular entry in Norman McCord’s article on the diaries got my heart racing,

In his younger years RL was a strong opponent of capital punishment and public executions. He was one of the crowd of about 25,000 watching a hanging in 1844.

N.McCord., Victorian Newcastle Observed: The Diary of Richard Lowry (Northern History Vol XXXVII, Dec 2000) p.255

I immediately had to seek the diaries out. It is very rare that we find accounts of executions by the public attending them. The predominant source is either the execution report in the newspaper or the ever unreliable last dying speeches and broadsides sold at the gallows.¹

In his fascinating PhD from 2009, Matthew Trevor White from the University of Hertfordshire argued that the lack of reports from people actually attending the execution had led to a

literature describing the carnivalesque and voyeuristic nature of popular behaviour.

Matthew White., Ordering the Mob: London’s Public Punishments, c. 1783-1868 (PhD, University of Hertfordshire, 2009)


 Which had come out of

a negativity embedded within the historical record.

Ibid., p.2

The assumption, rightly I believe, being that an unquestioning reliance on middle class representations of the crowd, such as press reports had led to a “two-dimensional” reading of them as a carnivalesque mob.

So, with the scarcity of this sort of record in mind, I set off to find it, all the while steeling myself for a long and fruitless search that ended in perhaps a two-line statement detailing merely that Lowry had been a witness to an execution (nothing like studying execution to make you an eternal pessimist!). However, what I found was fascinating.

On locating the diaries my heart initially sank as they were quite difficult to read. It often gets forgotten just how time consuming even one small bit of research is. The research for this blog alone has taken two separate trips to the Tyne and Wear Archives and help from my father and Barry Redfern (both of whom I am immensely grateful too) in attempts to decipher the text via PDFs of the photographs. I am now confident that 90% of it is accurate and any words that I am unsure of have been couched in question marks, to avoid misrepresentation.

So, with that caveat in mind, let us turn to the entry itself.

Richard Lowry Diary extract courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives. It’s funny as now looking at it I can read his writing clearly, but at the time I struggled. It must be like magic eye! PS. for any archive pedants, please note the black leather sponge resting on the page is one of the specified allowed page holders provided by Tyne and Wear.

On August 23rd, 1844 Richard Lowry’s diary opened, in the same classically English style that it had nearly every day of the 65 years he covered, with an account of the weather.

Morning cloudy but ?thundering? Rain and it came on in good earnest a little before 12 0’clock and continued without intermission for upwards of an hour.

Richard Lowry’s diary 1844, August 23rd

Unlike other days though, the description of the weather went on to take an altogether different tone, setting the scene for what was to come.

It seemed as heaven was pouring down its anger on the countless thousands who ?were? crowding towards the moor to witness the murder of ?poor? Mark Sherwood.


The use of the term murder is interesting and in case it were inadvertently ignored, Lowry continued.

It cannot be designated by any other name.


This opening sets the tone for what is a deeply melancholic and detailed report of the execution of a fellow man. Immediately it becomes clear that Lowry is at once attendant and against capital punishment, now while one historical source does not an argument make, it is at least noteworthy, especially given the earlier assumptions of Matthew White that we have misunderstood the execution crowd.

Lowry was amongst multitudes of people, several estimates (included Lowry himself) had the crowd at 25,000. This may or may not include the people who watched the procession through the town centre, Lowry stating,

Pilgrim Street+Northumberland Street were literally crammed with people.

For anyone not au fait with the geography of Newcastle, these are two of the grandest streets that make up the spine of the city centre. There is a great surviving map for the year 1844, made by Thomas Oliver that shows it more clearly, unfortunately it was unavailable when I was at the Tyne and Wear Archives, so you’ll have to do with the, largely unchanged, Google Street View!.

Modern day Pilgrim Street leading on to Northumberland street. Image courtesy of Google Maps.
Pilgrim Street leading on to Northumberland street (Directly ahead in this picture). Image courtesy of Google Maps 1844ish!

The procession headed up these roads, through the centre and made its way to the Town Moor. Lowry was part of the procession that eventually arrived at the Moor

I was on the moor and took up my stand about 20 yards from the Gallows…near to the Race course


The crowd waited until

10 mins to 1 o’Clock…before the victim to the laws of a barbarous age arrived at the place of murder.

Lowry was struck by the behaviour of the condemned man, particularly his

calm bearing + the unconcerned manner in which he ascended the scaffold

He noted that Sherwood, on ascending the scaffold

seemed the least unconcerned at his own approaching death of any other person present….He never betrayed the least fear…not a nerve shook that we could discern.

It is Lowry’s comments on his fellow crowd members that are particularly interesting

no words proceeded from the…multitude around him except admiration for his firmness and pity at his condition. He met with commiseration from all. All seemed to condemn the cold blooded butchery.

While we must assume that Lowry’s interpretation comes with its own biases, this is clearly not a baying, rabble.

Another thing of interest is Lowry’s aversion to the hangman – a common feature of execution reports until the later eighteenth century.

The executioner an old hard featured villainous looking rascal seemed quite impatient during the time the Chaplain was praying with him.

Newspaper reports state that the hangman was

a native of Glasgow, named Murdoch.

Newcastle Journal August 24th 1844 p.2

going on to state that

he performed his revolting task with great gusto


Further evidence of the hangman’s unpopularity can perhaps be read from a closing remark in the same paper.

The executioner…took his departure for Glasgow, on foot, yesterday evening, and, it is said, paid six shillings to one of the police, to accompany him on the road as far as the Six Mile Bridge.


The brutal practicalities of the hanging itself are still slightly unclear in my transcription, so I will not report them yet. However, Lowry sums up his feelings on the whole brutal spectacle with a dramatic rhetorical statement.

What will future ages say at such barbarous proceedings as this?

He goes on to state that (and here a lack of clarity in the text is key – the preceeding word to the following quote is either A or No – both with radically different meanings).

time is ?fast? coming when such murder will no longer be perpetrated

Whatever the preceeding word, executions continued in Newcastle for many decades after Sherwoods’. However, in one sense Lowry’s comments were rather prescient. Mark Sherwood was to be the last fully public execution in Newcastle. Following his, executions were moved from the Town Moor to the exterior of the gaol with no public procession preceding the act. It was to be five years until the next execution and wouldn’t you know it – Lowry was there too (I just have 6 impenetrable pages of script to work on, before I can tell you what happened!).

Interestingly,  in Lowry’s later diaries, it appears that by the end of his life he had grown more supportive of capital punishment, McCord noting that in 1867, Lowry,

approved of the death sentence imposed in a celebrated murder case (9th December diary entry). In 1867 he noted that three Fenians who had murdered a policeman in Manchester “will be hung tomorrow to the gratification of all sensible people.”

N.McCord., Victorian Newcastle Observed: The Diary of Richard Lowry (Northern History Vol XXXVII, Dec 2000) p.255

This change of heart brought to mind the following quote, often wrongly attributed to Churchill

If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.²

The final thing of interest to me, as readers of this blog will know, was that Lowry was a keen phrenologist (what are the chances). Which helps account for the followings strange excerpts from his execution report.

I could not observe anything in Sherwood’s features which ?bespoke? a bad character

and later on

I should like to see the size of the faculties that induced him to ?do? the ?dark? deed.

I think I’m on to something here.


1. There are several famous examples of execution reports by spectators attendant, mentioned in earlier blogs. The most famous are probably those from the pens of Thackeray and Dickens, both attendant at the same execution (Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, July 1840), but with markedly different opinions thereon.

2. The Churchill Centre states that,

There is no record of anyone hearing Churchill say this. Paul Addison of Edinburgh University makes this comment: “Surely Churchill can’t have used the words attributed to him. He’d been a Conservative at 15 and a Liberal at 35!  And would he have talked so disrespectfully of Clemmie, who is generally thought to have been a lifelong Liberal?”

Distraction 1: Chain Reaction – Radio 4

Amongst all the dross and middle class crisis dramas on Radio 4 (here’s a great short pastiche of what I mean by Jake Yapp), there are still some excellent programmes. One of them is Chain Reaction, a brilliant format where an individual from the world of entertainment selects someone that they would like to interview. This interviewee goes on to be the next week’s interviewer and so on and so forth. I listened to Adam Buxton (Adam&Joe) interview Reece Shearsmith (The League of Gentleman, Psychoville etc) and as a fan of both, it was a great listen. Shearsmith had an attitude to life that I’m totally  on board with, best summarised as a healthy scepticism.

Of comedy he said that he,

doesn’t watch much comedy as he can’t bear it

and of his occasional reluctance to make work he said something that could be true of every time I write this blog or try and make any comedy stuff with Hot Gulp.

some people like it and if i can bear to keep doing it I will and that’s my life.

Distraction 2: How I Left The National Grid by Guy Mankowski


A good friend and ex-housemate of mine had a book launch this week. It was for his third novel (not bad going for a man as young as he – so far i’ve done a poem that my mum liked when I was 9 and that’s about it). It’s called How I Left The National Grid and it’s about the 1980’s post-punk music scene. I have my signed copy beside the bed, as yet unread, so cannot give my opinion other than to say it’s had great reviews and he’s a very nice and talented young man. Just go and buy it already!

One thought on “Dear Diary: Attending an execution

  1. Pingback: Two’s company, twenty five thousand’s an execution crowd. | lastdyingwords

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