This blog was originally written for www.newcastlegaol.co.uk reproduced with permission.
Although construction of Newcastle Gaol was completed in 1828 the first execution to take place there was not until 1850. This is remarkably late in comparison to many other major towns and cities in England – executions in London moved from the open land of Tyburn to the exterior walls of Newgate Prison in 1783. Even in the North East Newcastle’s transition was relatively late with York moving to Castle executions in 1801 and Durham to executions on the external wall of the Court House that adjoined the prison in 1816. So why was Newcastle so late to make this adjustment?
In part it was for want of a suitable prison, hence the moves to build Newcastle Gaol in 1828, but even when executions arose following its completion (Jane Jameson 1829) they continued, as before, on the open land of the Town Moor.
The last of these executions was in 1844 and the unfortunate victim of the rope was artillery pensioner, Mark Sherwood, sentenced for the murder of his wife Ann Blandford. The circumstances around his execution would lead to numerous debates and heated discussions about the nature of execution and would ultimately lead to moves for future hangings to take place on the outside walls of the prison. As such they offer a fascinating insight into the decisions made around the publicity of executions in this period.
In the intervening years between its completion and Mark Sherwood’s sentence, Carliol Square gaol had become an established and imposing feature of the city centre. Significant architectural developments around it meant that the original open land on which the prison was built was now surrounded by heavily populated residential streets. On choosing the site for Sherwood’s send off one broadside noted that, ‘it was originally intended of the magistrates that Sherwood should suffer at the foot of Carliol Street,’ a smallish side street to the North of the gaol. However, a fatal accident at a Nottingham execution in the same month, was to cause national scandal and put paid to Newcastle’s plans. Following the execution of William Saville at Nottingham’s Shire Hall, on 7 August 1844, a crush ensued caused by spectators rushing to leave the packed streets.
The tragedy unfolded on the steep steps of nearby Garners Hill. Eleven were left dead at the scene and many more injured, the majority of whom were under twenty, with one victim only nine years old. Noting the effect of the tragedy on the decision surrounding Sherwood’s execution, the Newcastle Courant stated: The sad occurrence which was lately witnessed at Nottingham…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 it is feared some serious accident might happen (as at Nottingham) from the want of space to hold the vast multitudes who usually attend such occasions. Reports initially suggested that the usual site ‘on the Town Moor, a little beyond the Barracks would be used; the site where criminals have been put to death for six hundred years’. However, Sherwood’s execution was to be like no other before or after, instead it took place on the opposite side of the Town Moor ‘erected on the race-course fronting Morpeth Road.’
The racetrack itself (outlined below on Thomas Oliver’s 1830 map) was triangular in shape and just shy of two miles in length and had been in operation since 1721, hosting many hugely popular race days. It had a grandstand at its North End, built in 1800, that played host to wealthier patrons, whilst all others entered from the Southern end of the course. On the day of the execution, numerous precautions were taken at the site to ensure that Sherwood was removed from immediate contact with the crowd and any potential crush. Amongst these precautions was the use of a brake (a vehicle often used in the training of horses) draped in black cloth and drawn by two black horses to convey Mark Sherwood to the Moor. The Durham County Advertiser reported that Sherwood was stood up in the chase on reaching the outer yard of the gaol, ‘took off his hat and bowed to all present.’ Despite the authority’s best efforts to contain the crowd, on the commencement of his procession from the gaol to the Town Moor one broadside noted that a ‘dreadful scene of confusion took place’ owing to ‘the crowd assembled being so dense’ the police finding it ‘impossible to contain them’.
Floods of people had been entering the town from the early hours of the morning, with estimates of between 25,000 and 40,000 spectators. The Newcastle Courant noted,
Unlike the cart or ladder execution of old a new scaffold had been constructed, using the ‘drop’ technology and numerous reports gave extensive details of its construction:
Although it was the product of a last-minute compromise, Sherwood’s execution marked a middle ground between a fully public execution and the more hidden spectacle of a prison execution that was to follow. The processional element remained, but the crowd were removed from the immediate site of the gallows and their access to the condemned limited further by the height of the raised scaffold that largely concealed his body on release of the drop. In a remarkably prescient diary entry, one spectator at Sherwood’s hanging, who had obtained a spot ‘about twenty yards from the gallows’, noted that ‘a time is fast approaching when such murder will be no longer be perpetrated…probably another will never take place in Newcastle at least we will hope so.’ Sherwood’s execution garnered hitherto unprecedented attention at the Town Council. In a meeting on October 9 a motion was raised to petition for the wholesale abolition of capital punishment and many of the proponents used the spectacle of Sherwood’s execution to present their case. Speaking for the motion Mr Alderman Donkin opined:
“I cannot conceive anything more horrible than taking a man from prison, parading him through the streets up to the Town Moor, and then hanging him like a dog (hear, hear). Moral Effect! Why more picking of pockets takes place at the foot of the Execution of Mark Sherwood which took place this day gallows than anywhere else in ten times as many days or weeks in the year.”Alderman Donkin – Newcastle Town Council, 1844
Donkin’s sentiments were not met favourably by all on the Council, but they were in line with several reports at the time of the execution. In particular one broadside noted that ‘the Town Moor has got another victim, the disgusting apparatus of death has again raised its hateful head above the grass.’ Although not officially recorded, it was becoming apparent that the appetite for the repetition of such a public spectacle, amongst the opinion-formers of the day was waning. Sherwood’s was in fact the final execution to take place in a fully public setting. In the intervening years, prior to the 1868 Act that moved execution behind the prison walls, executions were undertaken on the exterior walls of the prison or just inside the roof.