The Changing Presentation of Punishment in the North East of England 1816-1868 Part 2

This is the second half of a paper I gave as part of a panel at the fantastic Lives, Trials and Executions conference at Liverpool John Moores University. The conference took place in May this year and my paper was part of a three paper panel on the last public execution in Newcastle, that of George Vass in 1863. I have included an audio recording that I made on my phone and the text of the talk is below (scripted dad jokes and all). …….READ Part 1 here.

Newcastle was not to have another execution until some fifteen years later, when on 23rd August, 1844, Artillery Pensioner Mark Sherwood was hung for the murder of his wife. Unlike at Jamieson’s send off, Carliol Square prison was chosen as the site, with the understanding that Sherwood would be hung on the north side of the gaol at the “foot of carliol square,”[1] the widest of the surrounding streets. However, a fearful scene in Nottingham led to a dramatic last minute change of plan.


At the execution of William Saville outside Nottingham’s Shire Hall (now the Galleries of Justice Museum), on the 7th August 1844, a huge and unmanaged crowd led to a crush that killed 16 people and injured many more. Writing of the authorities decision the Newcastle Courant stated,

“The sad occurrence which was lately witnessed at Nottingham, where sixteen persons were crushed to death, when a man was executed for murder, has caused the idea to be given up of carrying the sentence of the law into effect upon Sherwood in the immediate vicinity in the gaol.”

As a result, Mark Sherwood was hung on the Town moor but although his execution shared key elements with its predecessors, it was arguably the first of what I will term the ‘semi-public’ or ‘semi-private’ executions that took place in Newcastle from then on.


Firstly, the location, although on the Town Moor, was moved from the edge of Barrack Road, to the centre of the race-course, a track complete with a grandstand for the fee-paying well to do.


Secondly, Sherwood was not conveyed on a cart but instead was in a partially covered ‘break’ draped in black. Thirdly, unlike the cart executions of old, a new much larger contained scaffold measuring “nineteen feet in height…and covering ten feet by eight feet”[2] was used that incorporated the now wide spread ‘drop’ technology. It also contained the body after death with a coffin beneath and left little of the prisoner on show.. Fourthly, as the Newcastle Journal reported the crowd were removed to new previously unseen distances from the scaffold.

the gallows were surrounded by a staked octagon, about seventy yeards between its opposite sides, and none but the representatives of the press and official personages were admitted within the enclosure.”[3]

Despite the best intentions of the authorities there was still a vast crowd lining the streets and a crush did occur. One broadside noted.

“on reaching the Gate of the Gaol a dreadful scene of confusion took place which baffles all desription the crowd assembled were so dense that the police found it imp-ss-ld to keep them back the confusion and clamor for an instant put Sherwood in surprise for he looked round as if reproaching them for their evident want of decorum.”[4]

The same fears that had hindered Sherwood’s execution were still apparent at the next one, that of Patrick Forbes, some 6 years later. In the run up to the day a special meeting was held to decide the location of his hanging. A report in the Newcastle Journal (August 24th, 1850) noted that whilst the decision ultimately lay with the Sheriff, he had called a special meeting with magistrates to discuss the matter. The paper reported.


“Concerning the place of execution, there is considerable diversity of opinion.”[5] The final decision was made to have the “scaffold erected against the north wall of the gaol, fronting Carliol-Street”

The lack of provision for execution at the prison is fully evident in the preparations for the day.


The execution was set for 8am on Saturday 24th, August, but as early as midnight on the Thursday before, masons had to make a huge hole in the wall for the prisoner to reach the scaffold and it doesn’t take a genius to know that a prison with a hole is the wall is not ideal. The reason for the action was that it was feared that if Vass left through the front gates he would have to get through the crowd which would cause considerable excitement and danger and, as the letter writer of years past noted, could possibly lead to an attempt to rescue him. Creating the hole was a huge task. The thickness of the wall was some 18 inches of freestone and took the masons a day and a half to complete. Eventually,

“The breach was made down to the basement course, nearly two feet above the level of the street and garden behind; the stairs leading to the platform were made to commence a short distance from the wall, and proceed direct through it, the prisoner landing on the platform, with his face to the public.”

As Forbes stepped on to the gallows he was watched by an estimated 20,000 people who crowded the streets and every surrounding window and rooftop. Unsuprisingly It was the behaviour of those watching that were the main focus of the newspaper reports that followed. The Newcastle Journal noted

“the composition of this crowd Will be perfectly well understood by newspaper readers. Vast numbers were of that class which, in all large towns, delight in “the horrible,” many were females of doubtful character, and not a few were recognised by the police as notorious pickpockets who doubtless plied their vocation as well as they could. Of course, no salutarily impression, but the very reverse, could be produced on such parties by witnessing an exhibition so brutal and revolting.”[6]

After Forbes had hung the customary hour the gaol wall was immediately rebuilt and as one local newspaper put it

  “in a short time no trace of the fearful scene remained.”[7]

But that fearful trace was to reappear one more time, some 13 years later for the last public execution in Newcastle. That of George Vass. In the intervening period several key changes had been made to the prison architecture that affected the decision of the authorities in siting its location. Unlike at Forbes’ execution, where a breach was made in the North-facing wall opposite Carliol Street, a report in the Newcastle Journal noted that

“The gallows on this occasion will, therefore, be erected at the south-west corner of the gaol, opposite the Railway Bank and George the Fourth public-house.”[8]

Slide20The paper went on to note that the reason for this was as follows.


“The Female Ward now stands near Carliol Street, and Mr. Robins, the governor, was afraid of the effect which the tragedy might have upon the minds of the female prisoners, so he wisely resolved upon having the scaffold placed in the southern portion of the Gaol, where there is a large vacant space.”[9]

Further to this no breach was made in the wall and instead “the scaffold has been erected inside the wall within about a foot of the top.” The walls were so high that “nothing is visible from the street but the beam of the scaffold.”[10]


Despite the efforts of the authorities it was the behaviour of the crowd and not the punishment itself that filled the newspapers.

“Their conduct on this occasion was unseemly in the extreme. Shouts and cheers were repeatedly given; and many persons were trampled underfoot, or fainted from fear and exhaustion; whilst the crowd, unheeding the sufferings of a few, strove to obtain a nearer view of the scaffold.”[11]


Another paper noted of the crowd.

“The blackguardism of the town was indeed fully represented….those who saw it very generally expressed a strong opinion that the town would gain greatly were four-fifths of those gathered in front of the Gaol shipped off, en masse, to Botany Bay.

Despite all the efforts of the authorities this was a crowd that was not conforming to the model of behaviour expected of it and was arguably only getting worse.  As one newspaper put it

“The conduct of the crowd thus assembled was, in one respect, about as bad as it could be.”[12]


Vass’ rooftop execution then was the logical conclusion of a spectacle in crisis. one that required the public gaze for its legitimacy but found their attendance and behaviour unhelpful, inconvenient and abhorrent. In incremental steps the Newcastle authorities curtailed the condemned’s participation in the spectacle to the point, in Vass’ case, where he was no more than a head high above the prison wall, barely visible to any and more importantly inaudible to all. Fears of the crowd had meant that at each step the condemned had been further removed from interaction with the crowd, at once severing any agency they once may’ve had in their last dying words and behaviour.

So why is Newcastle’s changing punishment and what it says about the execution crowd important?

I’ll finish with this observation. In any attempt at understanding the execution crowd we must acknowledge that there is a gaping hole in the historical record, namely the absence of the voices of those attending. It is notable that the few surviving accounts we have are largely from the perspective of the well to do. Chief amongst these perhaps are Thackeray and Dickens’ articles and letters on attending executions in the 1840’s – interestingly both of which take a markedly different view of the crowd. Owing to this absence we are left with a heavy reliance on the mediated accounts of the newspapers. In his work on public punishments in London, Matthew White correctly noted a “negativity” embedded in these historical records. The reports of the crowd at Vass’ execution were indicative of this.

What I want to suggest is that in the pervading notions of ‘civilising’ we too often forget that just because reformers and newspapers grew sick of the spectacle, the crowd didn’t. These were not spectacles short of an audience. Indeed, execution crowds, if anything, were growing in this period. The increasing rarity of the spectacle combined with the advent of cheap rail travel meant, more than ever before, that the execution was a destination event. Numerous reports, Vass’ included abound of the trains from neighbouring villages and cities being packed with spectators travelling to Newcastle executions.

So what am I trying to achieve here? Surely, I’m not calling for a reintroduction of public hanging….well, actually I am.

No, just kidding – I wanted to see if you were all still awake. I’ll leave that to Priti Patel MP.

What I am suggesting though is we need to ask who does the ‘civilizing’ theory count for. I would suggest that perhaps there’s an uncomfortable truth in uncovering the crowd, one that recent work by people like Frances Larson has gone some way to highlighting. In seeing the removal of public punishment as a ‘civilising’ moment we all get a communal back slap for our enlightened views and agreed abhorrence at the removal of barbaric practices. However as Larson has pointed out, whilst we baulk at the idea of 20,000 people attending an execution, millions of people in this country watch videos of executions and beheadings. Perhaps the real problem with studying the crowd is if we look too closely, we might not like who we see in it.

FOOTNOTES: (Distractions section below). 

[1] Execution of Mark Sherwood which took place this day August 23rd 1844 &c broadside

[2] Newcastle Journal 24th August 1844

[3] Newcastle Journal 24th August 1844

[4] Execution of Mark Sherwood which took place this day August 23rd 1844 &c broadside.

[5] The Times 24th August 1850

[6] Newcastle Journal 24th August 1850 p.5

[7] Newcastle Courant  30th August 1850

[8] Newcastle Courant 13th March 1853

[9] Newcastle Journal 16th March 1863

[10] Newcastle Journal 14th March 1863

[11] Newcastle Courant 20th March 1863

[12] Newcastle Journal 16th March 1863



Director Steven Spielberg. Courtesy of
Director Steven Spielberg. Courtesy of

My girlfriend is a huge fan of Jaws, but I have never seen it. I finally got the chance when the brilliant Tyneside Cinema put on a showing to celebrate it’s 80th Birthday. Patrons got to vote for their favourite films and Jaws was amongst them as was the brilliant Some Like It Hot, which we also caught). I was blown away by Jaws, it’s a remarkable achievement even today and I’m so glad I saw it on the big screen first, it’s made for a movie theatre. What struck me was how well Spielberg plays with the unseen. Like any great Director Spielberg knows that it is the anticipation of what’s to come, far more than the reality of the shark itself, that is terrifying. The imagination conjures far more terrifying spectacles than the screen. This was a concept accepted back in the mid eighteenth century. Jurist and Playwright Henry Fielding, noted of executions that they would be far more feared if placed out of sight of the public, purporting that

“a murder behind the scenes, if the poet knows how to manage it, will affect the audience with greater terror than if it was acted before their eyes.”

Henry Fielding, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c (A. Miller, 1751), 193. 

I’ll leave you with what I thought was the greatest scene in the film, a masterclass in ensemble acting.




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