Christmas has long been a time for tales of ghostly goings-on. From the quadripartite haunting of Dicken’s Scrooge to the BBC’s M.R. James classics that were a staple of many people’s childhood festivities (or at least my wife tells me – I was too scared to watch after seeing The Lost Hearts….see how you fare with this two-minute clip).
Given this insatiable appetite for all things otherworldly, I thought I would satiate your desires by bringing something long dead back to life……this blog. For anyone who has missed it (don’t all shout at once) I can only apologise. The truth is that life and, more importantly, study got in the way. However, I am now delighted to announce that, as of last week, I am officially a Dr and not bound to a PhD anymore, so am finally able again to blog guilt-free.
Now, I’m sure most of you are wondering what can possibly be the link between Christmas and capital punishment, but I assure you there are many. In fact, if you were formally an avid reader of the blog then you might remember that capital punishment at Christmas had been the subject of a previous blog. For our purposes though, I want to focus on one particular case – the execution of Richard Charlton at Morpeth Prison in December 1875.
Richard Charlton was a 27-year-old agricultural labourer who lived with his wife Sarah Duxfield Charlton, 25, in Dinnington (a small village roughly 8 miles north-west of Newcastle Upon Tyne, in the county of Northumberland). The couple had been married for about two years when the crime for which Charlton was eventually hanged occurred. It was noted in reports that the marriage between Richard and Sarah had been undertaken in a ‘clandestine’ manner owing to Sarah’s family’s disapproval of Richard as a potential husband. Some papers suggested this may have been owing to ‘the difference in social position of the two’. This was further exacerbated when Sarah, along with her two sisters, was left a considerable sum of money by her late father (£1,000 split between them). The money became the cause of frequent arguments between Richard and Sarah as he demanded control of it, a request to which she would not agree. Eventually this disagreement led to Sarah leaving their house and moving in with her brother-in-law, a farmer and renowned cattle dealer in the county. Newspapers reported that this was owing to wanting ‘a more comfortable home for the time…and also to avoid the ill-usage which, it is said, her husband has been in the habit of habitually using towards her.’ Despite general reports of his mild manner, there were numerous incidents recorded of Richard’s excessive drinking and violence towards her. Following Sarah moving out Richard was reported to have made constant demands for her to return to their married home, but she refused each one. On one summer weekend though, he was to make a final attempt with fatal consequences.
On Saturday 5th June, 1875, Charlton made over to Gardener’s House Farm – (a hamlet on the outskirts of Dinnington) the home of Mr. Robson’s house (his brother-in-laws) where Sarah had been living for the last few months. At about 2 o clock in the afternoon he entered the property via the back door into the back kitchen. In the adjoining kitchen were Mrs Robson and Jane Lennon (a servant girl). Also present in the house was Sarah, Mrs Bennet (her sister who resided in Blyth) and a ‘widow; named Robinson. On entering the kitchen Charlton came across Sarah and asked her how she was and she reportedly refused to answer. He then asked her to come back to stay with him to which she replied, ‘No Richy, I’ll not’. These were to be Sarah’s final words. Mrs Robson entered the scene and Richard immediately accused her of having ‘made the mischief’. He then seized his wife, pulled out his revolver and shot her through the head. He then turned the gun on Mrs Robson. In her evidence to the inquest held at the house, she stated ‘he presented the revolver and fired it at my face.’ Luckily the shot missed. She then fled to the pantry and shut the door but Charlton tried to force his way through and continued to fire, a bullet hitting Mrs Robson’s hand. He then proceeded to try to get in around the outside, but eventually gave up and was found in the back kitchen having shot himself through the cheek. Reports from the inquest the following Monday noted that
the murderer Charlton still lies at his house in the village in a precarious condition….his self inflicted wound is of such a character that he may linger for days.
Durham County Advertiser – Friday 11 June 1875
Charlton was under constant police guard and reports noted that ‘his every requirement is carefully attended to.’ It is clear in these reports that the prevailing sentiment was that Charlton was dying. Despite the fears at the time, Charlton survived and his trial was set for 15th July, 1875. However, owing to his infirmity his trial was postponed. The surgeon to Morpeth Gaol, Mr. Matthew Brummel, under oath declared that the prisoner was
quite unable to be removed at present. he is sufering from the effects of a gunshot wound in the right temple, and suffering froma total paarlysis of the left side. He cannot raise himself without asssitance, and he is quite unable to come here.
York Herald – Friday 16 July 1875
Charlton was eventually tried at the Northumberland Winter Assizes, 1875, held at the Moot Hall in Newcastle. The trial was presided over by Justice Denman. In his opening remarks, Justice Denman noted of the cases before him that he saw further proof that ‘three-fourths…of the crimes tried at assizes resulted from drink’. After all the evidence had been presented Judge Denman addressed the jury at ‘considerable length’ and they then retired to make their decision. It only took them ‘a few minutes’ to reach a guilty verdict.
Despite the verdict, in the months between Charlton’s conviction and his eventual sentencing the case had elicited much sympathy through the neighbouring districts and great attempts were made to obtain a commutation of the sentence. On the 10th December, a public meeting was held at Seaton Burn Schoolroom for the inhabitants of Dinnington, Seaton Burn and surrounding neighbourhoods. Reporting on the efforts one paper noted
‘Throughout the entire district there is a very strong and almost universal feeling that the case is one eminently deserving the royal clemency.
Letter to the Home Secretary from Thomas Burt, on behalf of the citizens of Northumberland. Morpeth Herald – Saturday 18 December 1875
It would appear that the sympathy towards Charlton did not end at the prison gates, indeed one report of the execution day noted that
‘There was not an official in the prison but who deeply sympathised with the unhappy culprit; in fact every one appeared more distressed than the culprit himself.
Alnwick Mercury – Saturday 25 December 1875
Further evidence of the strength of feeling towards the condemned and the general dismay felt in the surrounding region can be seen in a letter sent by the Mayor of Morpeth, John Dixon, to the Governor of the Prison, W. Wookey. In the missive, printed in the Morpeth Herald, the Mayor requested, on behalf of the public, that the customary bell tolled before and after executions was silenced on this occasion as it would ‘tend to shock the feelings of the community.’
It would appear that the sympathy was in large part a result of the ‘infirm’ state Charlton now found himself in. Having shot his wife he turned the gun on himself in an attempt to take his own life, but failed. Remarkably though the bullet lodged in his brain, but did not kill him. This made the case of particular interest outside of the region. In particular, there was much interest in the fact that Charlton could clearly see the effects of his actions, but not remember them. As one paper put it
That he did the deeds he is perfectly aware. In his own body he bears the daily evidence of the last of them.
however he appeared to have no memory of the incident. The effects were not purely mental either, his trial reports in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle, Dec 24th, noted that the ‘paralysis’ caused by the wound meant he was ‘unable to stand’ and was ‘supported by two warders’. It is an interesting example of how a case that amongst the public ‘created a great sensation at the time’, could, in a short space of time turn on its head so that the prisoner elicited great sympathy.
Following the failure of the numerous petitions raised to attain a commutation of Charlton’s sentence, his execution was set for 8am on Thursday 23rd December, 1875. Charlton’s was to be the first private execution in Morpeth following the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act, which removed executions to behind the prison wall. The prison can be seen at the bottom centre of the following map from the Northumberland Archives and is pictured in the archival record below.
In the run-up to Christmas and indeed on the day itself, the execution of Richard Charlton filled the newspapers in the North East. The papers reported in great detail everything from the prisoner’s behaviour on his last few days, to visits made and even patterns of sleep. One curious detail was that the position of the scaffold was the subject of detailed discussion with the Morpeth Herald reporting that ‘some difficulty was experienced’ in finding a suitable location within the prison. What is apparent in these discussions is that every effort was made to avoid any person seeing in from outside of the gaol, one paper noting the ‘hills which surround three sides of the gaol’. The scaffold itself was described as ‘quite a model of its kind’ by the Alnwick Mercury, owing to its being ‘almost level with the ground’, thus removing the need for the prisoner to climb any stairs. It was eventually sited against the south-west wall of the Prison.
Charlton awoke on the morning of his execution, 23 December 1875, at 5.30am. Soon after he received a visit from the Prison Chaplain and, at Charlton’s request, Holy Communion was given in the prison chapel at 7am. Less than one hour from his impending doom, Charlton was led to the pinioning room (pinioning was the practice of tying together the prisoner’s arms, usually by the wrist, and or legs, to avoid struggling on the scaffold). Once the straps had been applied a procession formed behind him (this included the executioner William Marwood) and testament to his physical improvement can be seen in the fact that he walked ‘unaided’ to the scaffold. On arriving at the gallows the now customary white cap was placed over his head and he made ‘no statement, and manifested no fear.’ As the clock struck eight, Marwood ‘touched the bolt’ and ‘in a moment the body of Charlton had disappeared from view, death speedily resulting.’ Proof of the rapidity of the proceedings can be seen in reports in the Morpeth Herald that noted that from the act of pinioning to the recording of his official death, ‘only four minutes elapsed’.
So, let Charlton’s case be your own personal ghost of Christmas past. If the stress of Christmas leaves you full of murderous intentions towards your nearest and dearest, think hard on the ends of Richard Charlton and let love conquer all. Failing that then just get the annulment papers prepared early as the first week back of January is now colloquially known as ‘divorce day’ owing to the glut of applications following the winter break.
PS. In a classic case of serendipity, my wife (a florist) called me during the writing of this blogto remind me I had to do my annual Christmas Eve rounds of flower deliveries……in Dinnington. Turns out there is a lot more love there these days.
Blog Dedication: Marcus Price & Barry Redfern
One of the remarkable things about a PhD is just how much happens in the time you undertake it. Owing to work commitments my study took five years which is a long stretch of time however you put it. Inevitably in these periods major life events happen. Many of these have been joyous and rewarding, not least marrying my beautiful wife in October last year. Some have been exciting, most notably being called to be an ‘execution expert’ on the BBC’s Murder, Mystery and My Family ( I just recently completed my 4th episode – due out spring 2020). But inevitably there have also been moments of profound sadness. None more so than the passing of two great men that were intimately involved with my study (Marcus Price and Barry Redfern). Marcus Price was my father in law and something of a Newcastle legend. Many of the written histories of the 1960s in Newcastle mention Marcus and his fashions stores. Apparently they were the place to be seen and dressed in the era, so much so that Bob Dylan even went and Bryan Ferry was a regular. I knew Marcus in his retirement though and he was just a lovely man, full of the joys of life and constantly interested in new things and learning. I hope I can retain his joie de vivre in my later years. One of the things he frequently read was my blog and if I look back now some of his encouraging comments still sit at the end of blog posts. So, it wouldn’t be right for the blog not to remember him. A wonderful man, greatly missed.
*For a fuller account of his life there is an obit in the Guardian
The other man to whom I want to dedicate this blog is Barry Redfern. Formerly Chief Superintendent of Northumberland Police, like Marcus I met Barry in his retirement years. He had written a number of great local histories of the gallows and execution in the region and was incredibly generous with his time in the early stages of my PhD. He also was a frequent reader of the blog and constantly complimented and encouraged my work. He sadly died this year and the last I heard from him he was working on a history of the sedan chair in Newcastle – I often wonder how far it got.
Distraction 1: Paul Brady – Arthur McBride
I have a terrible habit of becoming obsessed with songs and playing them incessantly until I almost can’t bear the sound of them anymore. This is one such song. A beautiful song by a masterful songsmith. It tells the tale of a seaside walk on Christmas morning that quickly turns to violence. So Tynemouth residents, beware if you see any Soldiers on your Christmas morning beach walk….or perhaps it’s the soldiers that I should be warning.
Distractions 2: A Christmas Carol – BBC One
I caught the first part of BBC One’s A Christmas Carol last night and really enjoyed it. I had been dubious after watching the trailer but am a fan of Peaky Blinders. Definetely not one for the purists, but it has a stellar cast and a great visual style (I am pleased to say it is shot and crewed by many of Newcastle’s finest filmmakers – funnily enough I used several of them on a christmas themed corporate fairy tale back in the day, but it appears they were always destined for greater things – good job Si Bell, Tom Finch and Paul Kemp).
Dickens would often publish ghost stories in Christmas Editions, most notably for me, The Signalman, first published in the Christmas Edition of All Year Round in 1866. I studied this, alongside Lord of the Flies, at GCSE and I am often reminded of the story when I return to visit my Family in Cornwall – Lostwithiel to be precise. On New Years eve the residents parade through the village to see in the New Year and on the way home I cross the train station tracks and wait for a second on the platform but I can’t stay there long in case I see a hooded figure in the mist.
4 thoughts on “A not so Merry Christmas in Morpeth”
Congratulations Dr Low. Sincerely Dr Doyle Sent from my Huawei phone
I haven’t looked at your site for a while but you may remember we corresponded over my song “The Snowball Murder”. I am really pleased to see you are now Dr Low. Warmest congratulations and best wishes for the future.
Thank you very much. Seems like a lifetime ago that I wrote that blog but I remember it and your song. Hope all is well with you and thanks again for your kind regards