Social memory and the sites of execution – Part 1

I’m not sure if Morrissey wrote this about a PhD, but as with most key moments in life, his words seem to beautifully summarise my emotional state.

Well, a lot happens in a month! Too much to mention in fact, needless to say not quite enough PhD writing and blogging, both of which have taken a back seat whilst i prepared a talk. I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at an event. Organised by CIRCA, a North East Arts Organisation. The event was on the concept of Social Memory and I was asked to talk on my subject with relation to my ongoing photographic project of the execution sites, that I have mentioned previously. I was talking alongside the fantastic photographer John Kippin, whose work I have long admired, so it was a great pleasure. I even got billed as a ‘Historian’!

Given that a lot of effort went into this talk, I thought it’d be foolish to not use it on the blog. So, for those who weren’t there, here it is (with slides too). I have done it in two parts (2nd next week). Just by way of context for the talk, for anyone unaware, I am working on a project to photograph the, now largely disappeared, sites of execution in the North East. Enjoy.


My name is Patrick Low and I’m just over half way through a 3 year PhD on Execution in the North East of England between 1752-1880. That doesn’t explain why I’m here though, I suppose that’s really because I kept noticing in my studies how little surviving visual evidence there was of execution in the region and wondered why. Now, I should make it clear, I am not advocating bringing back barbaric and antiquated forms of public punishment to our town centres, although, having said that, I’m not entirely against the Drunkard’s Cloak for the Bigg Market.

Images (left to right) courtesy of The Chronicle and The Monthly Chornicle of North-Country Lore and Legend (1888).
Images (left to right) courtesy of The Chronicle and The Monthly Chronicle of North-Country Lore and Legend (1888).

What I am interested in is why these symbols have disappeared and what that says about us as a society and I wanted to see if photography can help address this.

Before I go into detail on this though, I thought I’d touch on the concept of Social Memory. This was actually a fairly new area to me, so I’m conscious that some people here may also be unaware of it. I found a helpful explanation by academic Scot. A. French

CIRCA SOCIAL MEMORY PRESENTATION.003A good example of this has appeared recently. Some of you may have seen or heard on the Radio yesterday that the BBC has commissioned a Black History of Britain. Apparently within that series one of the things we will learn is about the African soldiers who guarded Hadrian’s Wall in the third century AD. A history that would otherwise have been lost. So, hopefully that gives a very brief insight into Social Memory and clears it up for anyone unsure.

Now, Dawn (CIRCA Organiser) asked in her correspondence to me if I could speak a little about what my ‘key interests’ were in execution. I love these sort of questions as they’re always very polite versions of ‘be honest, are you a little bit warped?’ Truth be told, it’s hard to explain what interests me about execution because I think it’s what interests all of us, we’ve just learnt to not acknowledge it. Let me explain.

Social Memory is very often built around ‘collective experience’ and we recently had two very pertinent examples of this. Lets try a test, If I said “Drummond Puddle Watch” to you, does it ring any bells? For those to whom this means nothing, this video should explain.

So, in one day a puddle in Newcastle attracted 500,000 views and made global headlines. Being the top trending item on Twitter. I had a unique insight into it as the Managing Director of the company who filmed the puddle (Drummond Central), Beth Hazon, is a good friend and seeing her appear on American CNN news talking about a puddle was as bizarre for me as I know it was for her, but she handled herself expertly and even managed to get a great soundbite from it.


One other recent example of collective experience was the sad passing of David Bowie. An event that achieved a huge emotional outpouring and large public gatherings. It was the sort of public response that may well put it in league with the deaths of Buddy Holly, JFK, John Lennon and Princess Diana as a day in collective memory when future generations will ask “where were you when you heard the news.”

Why I think these events are interesting and both picked up great traction on the internet is because they were rare examples of vast groups of people publicly engaging and congregating in some form, but it never used to be so novel. He’s a more common collective experience from my period of study.

Plate 11 of 12: The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn’ from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series

This is one of the most iconic depictions of a public hanging, done by the c18th artist William Hogarth. This is the final plate in his series Industry and Idleness, a series which Hogarth later described as being “Calculated for the use & Instruction of Youth.”[1] The story told across the series is that of two apprentices who start in the same workplace, Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle – the names are a bit of a giveaway as to their characters. In this slide we see the end of the tableau literally and metaphorically. On the gallows is Tom Idle condemned to death in an earlier plate by none other than, the Sitting Magistrate and Alderman, Francis Goodchild. It was a perfect illustration of the common perception at the time that idleness, a rejection of religion and the taking up of the vices of alcohol and prostitution would lead only to one place – the three-legged mare.

Hogarth’s series came about in the late 1740’s, just before my period of reference, and it was a time in which popular fears about crime and immorality were on the rise. My period starts with a piece of legislation that was intent on putting a stop to this perceived wave of criminal excess – namely the Murder Act 1752.


The intentions of the Act itself can be best summarized by the work in the slide above, that preceded the Act by 50 years. The author is unknown, but the pamphlet is entitled “Hanging Not Punishment Enough.” Rumour has it this text is handed out to all new staffers at the Daily Mail – I may have made that up. The Murder Act proposed that the crime of murder required “some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment” of hanging and “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried.”

This “further terror” was twofold. Either public dissection otherwise known as anatomisation by the Barber Surgeons (depicted below, again by Hogarth). If anyone has ever seen a red and white Barbers pole, that is the origin of it – early surgeons were amongst other things barbers also and used to hang a bloodied red rag round a pole to show what sort of work they did.

‘The Reward of Cruelty’ from Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty. 1751

The other punishment was being Hung in Chains, otherwise known as gibbeting.


Jarrow Slake – the site of William Jobling’s gibbet in 1832. The penultimate gibbet in England. Jobling’s body was stolen not long after it was put in place, despite a 7 year prison sentence for anyone removing people from the gibbet.

Some historians have argued that both of these punishments, particularly dissection became more feared than death itself.

During the period of my study many thousands of people were executed in England and Wales. Indeed, so frequent was the use of the gallows that at its peak in the late c18th to the early c19th is now commonly known as the era of the ‘Bloody Code.’ At one point in time over 220 different crimes were punishable by death. This was a society with the most public justice at its heart. Historian David Cooper said of public execution in this period that,


In other words, the more the merrier – this was a lesson for all. As Scottish essayist Alexander Smith put it in the c19th,


So, we have a picture starting to emerge here of an era in which barbarous acts were played out in public and the authorities actively encouraged people to watch. This was a morality tale writ large. Astonishing to think that it was a regular occurrence for tens of thousands of people to turn out on Newcastle’s Town Moor or Dryburn in Durham and later the County Court steps.

Surely a brutal relic of a backwards past no?

Certainly for leading historians it appears unimaginable. In his epic work on English Execution, The Hanging Tree, Vic Gatrell’s preface opens with the following quote about a hanging,


How indeed! Such enlightened men and women are we. Well, here’s where my real interest lies.

What if it’s not so unimaginable? What if the crowd that gathered for executions aren’t so far removed as we’d like to think?, What if we can understand them, but we just don’t want to.

Now, if there are other historians here they’ll know I’m on shaky ground. As John Tosh makes clear in The Pursuit of History

CIRCA SOCIAL MEMORY PRESENTATION.017Interestingly, by way of example Tosh presents the picture of a public execution in London. Everything in the quote would equally apply to Newcastle or Durham.


For me Tosh here makes two assumptions that I think are as big if not bigger “sins” as the anachronisms he talked about avoiding before. Firstly, this “most people” sounds remarkably like Gatrell’s “kinds of people” who read books like his – i.e. we the reader would never have stooped so low. I don’t see much proof for these assumptions being representative of the whole though. Secondly, is it just possible that there might have been “sympathetic kinds of people” at c18th and c19th hangings. I can tell you that there was and I have the evidence.

So allow me for a moment to commit ‘the worst sin’ a historian can do. What if we’re not so different?

Lets take one simple example. In 2014 fifty years after the last execution in England, a poll was taken by Yougov, a similar poll to one taken every year.

Here we can see that, when asked about the reintroduction of the death penalty, a majority of those polled were in favour. Now, as you can see, this majority has dropped in the last four years, in fact it has been dropping slowly but steadily over the last twenty but it’s worthy of note that even at its current low point (45%) that’s a bigger majority of the vote than any sitting Government since Harold Wilson’s Administration in 1974.[2]

Lets have a look at a few more examples. Here’s a good test for you – the next time there’s a crime that causes scandal, particularly to do with pedophilia or murder, if you have a spare minute check the online comment boards under the newspaper reports. You may be surprised at what you see.

A story from the Daily Mail with online comments below.

daily mail comment.001This is all well and good, but a few angry comments is not the same as watching an execution. It’s one thing to call for it, but quite a leap of faith to suggest those same people would watch one if it was reintroduced. Or is it?

In a TED talk given by Anthropologist Frances Larson in 2014 she revealed the following stats.


So how have we got to a place where there is a quiet majority opinion in favour of capital punishment, a willing audience if you will, but yet it’s history has been removed so far from sight as to be largely untraceable in certain regions, particularly the North East. I believe that in locating and answering this question we may find something deeper about our society as a whole.

To answer these question we Firstly we need to look at why and how the execution changed. A subject to which we’ll turn next week.






Given the gap between this blog and the last there are too many things to mention here, so I will be as selective as I can.

Distraction 1- Chloe Dewe Matthews – Shot at Dawn.

Staying with all things photographic, I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Photographer Chloe Dewe Matthews at the beautiful Mining Institute, Newcastle. The event was put on by the brilliant NEPN and we got an in depth insight into Chloe’s work and method. For me it was particularly fascinating as Chloe’s Shot at Dawn series was what had crystallised my desire to create a project myself (i had had it in mind for a long time, but was struggling for examples of similar projects that have dealt with the subject in an engaging way).

Distraction 2: Making a Murderer:

Lots of people got sucked into this Netflix series and for good reason. It was a fascinating documentary on a perceived double criminal injustice. So much has been written about this series from effusive praise, to stern criticism of its methods, so i will not add anymore here other than to say just watch it.

Distraction 3: Hunderby Christmas Specials. 

My God these were good. If you like your comedy dark, different and beautifully delivered then you have to watch this. Written by Julia Davis, a superlative comic actress and writer who is behind some of the greatest comedy gems of the last few decades. This is like a much bleaker, Blacker than Black Blackadder. Set in the 1830’s, smack bang in the middle of my period, I considered it research and like all great comedies should, it made me jealous that i hadn’t written it myself. Even better, it made my girlfriend laugh who famously dislikes comedy – perhaps it was the fact she’s obsessed with Daphne Du Maurier and Davis says that Rebecca was her inspiration.

Distraction 4: Holiday Reading. 

When you study execution on a daily basis, it’s amazing what turns up in your Christmas stocking. This year I received the following – all of which were excellent.  Richard Barnett’s Crucial Interventions: An Illustrated Treatise on the Principles & Practice of Nineteenth-Century Surgery (Thames & Hudson, 2015) and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. Nothing quite says warm Christmas cheer, like a illustrated tome on surgery before anaesthetic and a theoretical masterpiece on how people observe death!


3 thoughts on “Social memory and the sites of execution – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Social Memory Part 2 | lastdyingwords

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