Social Memory and the Sites of Execution Part 2

This post is the second and concluding part of a talk given at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art on the subject of Social Media. SEE PART 1 here.

So let’s take Newcastle. In a very rare instance of a public recollection of a hanging, railwayman Richard Lowry’s diaries give a detailed account of the 1844 execution of Mark Sherwood. Like all criminals hung in Newcastle, he was executed on the Town Moor, 

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Prisoners of Northumberland were separately hung outside the Westgate Wall. Lowry’s diary perfectly captures a form of punishment in flux. Sherwood was incarcerated at the recently built jail on Carliol Square (a place I will return to later, but for anyone still out and about on a Friday night, it’s where World Headquarters is). I’ll let Lowry describe the rest.

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The modern Day Pilgrim Street leading on to Northumberland Street (now a bustling centre for shopping and cinema going).
The modern Day Pilgrim Street leading on to Northumberland Street (now a bustling centre for shopping and cinema going).

What interests me particularly about Sherwood’s record is that this is clearly not a bloodthirsty barbarous observer, this is a man who sees this as nothing less than state murder but still stands 20 yards from it.

But perhaps the most interesting phrase in Lowry’s diary entry comes as an afterthought, “A time is fast coming when such murder will be no longer be Perpetrated. Probably another will never take place-in Newcastle at least we will hope so.” Lowry was half right, a time of change was indeed coming, but not, as he suspected, a time when execution would be ended, but when it would disappear from sight. He wasn’t alone in this thought either,

In fact, in most other parts of the country, it already had started to. By the early 1780’s in London the execution crowd had become a serious problem for the authorities. Put simply, if the execution was intended as a lesson, then the pupils weren’t learning, worse still they weren’t behaving as desired. This poor behavior wasn’t exclusive to the nation’s capital and was equally common in the North East. In 1783 In London, the authorities reacted to this by removing the processional element of executions – the procession was an intrinsic part of the public execution. It made it an unavoidable spectacle, whether you chose to attend the hanging itself or not. Indeed, at the 1829 execution of Jane Jamieson in Newcastle, we are lucky enough to have another surviving diary of a local apprentice surgeon – indeed, he would later attend and detail Jamieson’s public dissection. Giordani Wright, the apprentice, lived in the centre of town and in his diary entry on 7th March 1829 we see the following thing,

“The poor woman was hung this morning at the old place of execution near the barracks. The procession passed along this street and within sight of my window but I had not the curiosity to join the assembled thousands who crowded to the last scene of her existence.”[1]

The procession was an essential part of the public execution, but it became problematic. In a strange way, one could say that executions became a victim of their own success. The crowd that the authorities so desired to be learning from them had grown too large and boisterous. It was not for want of an audience that these events moved inside, far from it.

From 1789 onwards, in London, executions took place in a sort of ‘semi public’ style, the convict being at once visible from a gallows located on either the exterior walls or roof of the prisons in which they had previously been incarcerated. This was a marked change in the presentation of the execution and was almost exclusively undertaken to curtail the behaviours of the crowd. This same change wasn’t introduced in Durham until 1816 and in Newcastle even later, it wasn’t until 1850 that a prisoner was executed without procession in Newcastle and that was Patrick Forbes at the Carliol Square prison. An execution that Richard Lowry also attended. But these changes often failed too.

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The site of execution in Durham after 1816. The central image shows the window on which from which the prisoner would have stepped out of, onto a raised gallows. The small red arrows indicate stone plugs, that filled in the holes made for the gallows support beams, they are still there to this day. The image on the right is of a nearby house with a balcony from which more affluent members of the public would pay to watch from a greater vantage point. This practice was commonplace in London and done frequently by, amongst others, Charles Dickens.

In Durham executions moved here (see above) in 1816 and the second execution was that of John King, in 1819. We can see here the image shows a window above the main entrance onto a balcony – the prisoner would be walked out onto the balcony and onto a raised scaffold. If you go there today you can still see the stone plugs where the gallows were placed.

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At the 1819 execution of John King the behaviour of the crowd was at first exemplary, but immediately after his death, it was reported to have descended to levels that ‘would have disgraced the uncivilized tribes of Ethiopia.’ Streets were taken over by ‘parties of drunken men’ with ‘innumerable battles’ fought across the town and in some instances shops ‘were obliged to close their shop windows for the sake of security.’[2].

Luckily, that sort of behaviour is a thing of the past in the North East!

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Similarly in Newcastle where changes were adopted very late on – the adaptation of executions to without the prison walls, brought about little change. In 1863 at what was to be the last semi-public execution, George Vass was hung at Carliol Square Prison. The behaviour of the crowd was described by the Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury as follows.

george vass.008

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The result of executions like this was that in 1868 The Capital Punishment Amendment Act was passed, legislating that from henceforth executions would take place out of sight behind the prison walls. As the novelist and establisher of the forerunners of the Police Force, Henry Fielding, had put it over 100 years earlier.

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In just over a century execution had gone from an entirely public event, a day out if you will, to a dark secret hidden behind high walls and out of sight.

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So, what am I getting at here and how does this in anyway involve social memory and photography? What I am calling for is a more nuanced reading of our past and to ask whether there is another story to be told. Perhaps revealing what we’ve hidden as a society, tells us as much about ourselves as what we’ve chosen to display.

I’ll conclude where I started, with this final slide.

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A seemingly innocuous building, I passed everyday on my way through Newcastle, just before the Pilgrim Street roundabout and under the railway bridge leading to Manors metro. What it actually is is the surviving Gardener’s Cottage for the Barber Surgeons whom we met earlier.
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This would have been one of the sites of greatest fear to the public as it was were the dreadful dissection of executed criminals took place. This building still stands, bisected overhead by the railway line to Manors. Interestingly it was this railway that led to the closure of the Barber Surgeons in the 1840s and they then eventually took up residence at Bells Court and Rye Hill.

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Courtesy of Tyne and Wear Archives

This conflicted symbol of a brutal past may be dormant now, but it was the very Surgeons who worked in it who formed the Newcastle Medical School that was later to become Newcastle University.

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Sometimes our history is closer to us than we might think.

So what do we learn from photographing or even walking on the Moor and other sites of death and knowing that people were once crowded in their thousands to watch a man hang. Perhaps nothing, or at least nothing of use. Or perhaps not, perhaps what we learn is something that is inside all of us and difficult to ignore.

Thank You.

FOOTNOTES:

1). Thomas Giordani Wright and Alastair Johnson, Diary of a Doctor: Surgeon’s Assistant in Newcastle 1826-1829, 1St Edition edition (Newcastle upon Tyne: Newcastle Libraries and Information Service, 1998), 69.

2). Durham County Advertiser August 21, 1819, 2.

DISTRACTION 1: Richard Dawson Collages – New Bridge Books.

This week I went to an exhibition of collages by the legendary musician and North East folk hero Richard Dawson. I had actually commissioned one on his collages  for my friend and comedy partner, Hal Branson’s, wedding present and have always been fascinated by them. They are an astonishing collection of works and often bring to mind a sort of more benign and mercurial Heirnoymous Bosch.  See for yourself here. If the collages don’t do it for you, then see him live as he is peerless in his field.

DISTRACTION 2: Kids Company

Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder of Kids Company
Camila Batmanghelidjh, Founder of Kids Company

I watched a fascinating documentary this week about the charity Kids Company. This BBC Inside Story episode was directed by Lynne Alleway, a former employee and friend of the company’s founder; the ebullient Camila Batmanghelidjh. I have a sister who works on the frontline with kids in London and so I have an insight, all be it very limited, into the work the great work these companies do under immensely challenging circumstances. The piece left me with an overwhelming feeling of sadness that the company had failed in the way it did. For all her failings, and there were plenty, Camilla had one intention at heart which was to protect disadvantaged children and to help them. The sad and troubling reality was you were left with the sense that in some cases, her desire to help people at all costs had actually had an unintentionally detrimental affect on their lives. Well worth a watch.

 

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