Tag Archives: oxfordshire

Executions in Oxford

Another snippet from the Percy Manning archive, this time from his ‘Oxford Collections’ scrapbooks which contain notes, newspaper clippings and assorted ephemera on topics ranging from Academic Halls to Earthquakes to Knucklebone Floors, to Lady in the Wall to …. Well, it’s wonderfully diverse!

This one is a simple clipping from the Oxford Times of 21 July 1888, and a chilling reminder of where the saying ‘you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb‘ comes from. A compendium of executions carried out in Oxford between 1778-1888, it lists 44 men and their capital crimes, which range from murder to… sheep-stealing.

A list of executions in Oxford, 1778-1888, from MS. Top. Oxon. d. 180, fol. 69.

Executions in Oxford, 1778-1888, from MS. Top. Oxon. d. 180, fol. 69 – click to enlarge

John Grace, John Cox and Richard Cox were executed on the 27th of March 1786 for stealing sheep (joined at the gibbet by Miles Ward, whose crime was robbing Magdalen College, Oxford); Jessie Wiggins was executed for stealing sheep on the 24th of March 1801 and Richard Wiggins (a relative?) on the 2nd of August 1818. There are five horse thieves too, the last of whom was executed as late as 1827, after which the list of crimes men are executed for narrows sharply to highway robbery, arson and murder.

It’s perhaps interesting that no women were executed – it’s likely that they were transported instead – although one woman is listed, poor Mrs. Barmister, whose husband James was executed for her murder on the 10th of July 1815.

The list also includes Thomas White, who robbed Blenheim House (Palace?), and Charles Walter Wyatt, the postmaster of Witney, whose crime was stealing money from his customers’ mail. They were executed together at Oxford Castle on the 6th of August 1787 in front of ‘a prodigious assemblage of spectators’. Manning’s scrapbook includes a description of their deaths copied from Gentleman’s Magazine.

A description of the execution of Thomas White and Charles Walter Wyatt, from MS. Top. Oxon. d. 180, fol. 68.

The execution of Thomas White and Charles Walter Wyatt, from MS. Top. Oxon. d. 180, fol. 68 – click to enlarge

These two particular deaths were notable because they were executed

…according to a new mode, the more sensibly to affect the prisoners who were made spectators of the melancholy catastrophe

Literally spectators – their fellow prisoners were compelled to stand near the gallows and watch. And then

the cords were fixed, the caps pulled over their faces & in little more than 2 minutes having themselves requested dispatch, the platform sunk & the unhappy wretches were launched into eternity

Unfortunately though, it looks like the Oxford Times list of 1888 is incomplete. The Oxfordshire History Centre has a fuller list here (taken from Oliver’s City of Oxford Almanack, 1929) and it adds more sad detail, including more sheep and horse thieves like Joseph Wren, aged only 17, who was executed in March 1783 for stealing a horse, bridle and saddle. And William Bowler, aged 23, executed in the same month for stealing a single sheep. Yes. Just one.

Using the Oxfordshire Record Office list for the period 1778 to 1836, I tallied:

  • 1 execution for forgery
  • 2 for arson
  • 5 for murder
  • 14 for stealing a horse or sheep
  • 16 for every other kind of theft, including burglary and highway robbery

After 1836 people were executed for murder alone, 13 more executions up to 1921. 18 murders in 144 years seems like quite a small number, somehow (perhaps I’ve been watching too much Morse). Then again, nobody in these lists is being executed for manslaughter or any other killing offence. In Oxford’s courts, it seems, ending somebody’s life really did mean less risk to your neck than nicking that proverbial lamb. Grim.

This blog post is written as part of our project to increase the accessibility of the Bodleian's Percy Manning holdings in the run up to the centenary of Manning's death in 2017. We are grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund for its generous support of this project.

Lizzie Bennett – Blacksmith

Percy Manning (1870-1917), an Oxfordshire antiquarian, archaeologist, and local historian, bequeathed his collection of drawings and prints, photos and detailed notes on everything from sports and pastimes to local folklore (and much more besides) to the Bodleian Library, while his archaeological collections went to the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums.

To mark the upcoming centenary of his death, the Bodleian is contributing to a mapping project that will pinpoint these collections against the places they relate to, and this involves adding more details to our existing catalogue.

This collection is full of delights, from 18th-century prints of rural idylls that are now thoroughly built-up Oxford suburbs to detailed notes on Oxfordshire dialect words and obscure local festivals.

Elizabeth Bennett, blacksmith, in a 1708 manuscript account of works at Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, MS. Top. Oxon. c. 230, fol. 45v.

MS. Top. Oxon. c. 230, fol. 45v – Click to enlarge

And this pleasing thing, the last entry in a 1708 account book that records building and landscaping work done on the then-unfinished Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, only 3 years into what would be an eyewateringly expensive 29-year construction project.

An account of blacksmithing work done in December 1708 by Eliz[abeth] Bennett at Blenheim ‘Castle’, her job included making 32 dozen holdfasts for the joiners (at 2 shillings a dozen), making new handles for three saws, mending a pump in the meadows, and making wedges and clouts (patches or plates) used in the stairs. But in addition to making items for a fixed price, she also charged for work by the pound weight. Twenty five pounds of iron works for a grindstone at 4 pence a pound earned her 8s 4d (100 pence total) and 31 pounds of wedges and clouts, also at 4 pence a pound, made her 10s 4d.

The total for what would have been several days or weeks of highly skilled work? 4 pounds, 17 shillings, 2 pence. Not bad at all if you compare it to a female servant’s income at about that time – maidservant Sarah Sherin made £4 a year in 1717, while in the farming world, a female labourer called Goody Currell was paid 4 pence a day at an Oxfordshire farm in 1759, fifty years later.

Elizabeth appears three times in this account book, which only covers the outlay on  Blenheim from October to December 1708. In October (fol. 9v) she had a more lucrative commission, earning a handsome £8 12s 9d doing very similar work, including another 12 dozen holdfasts (this time, puzzlingly, at a mere 6d per dozen, a quarter of the amount charged in December – perhaps they were a simpler design?). She also made small cramps at 3½d per pound: over two hundredweight of small cramps which, needless to say, is a lot of small cramps, earning her £3 19s 0d.

Nothing has made me so grateful for decimalisation as checking the maths of an early modern accountant. Elizabeth made precisely 2 hundredweight, 1 quarter, and 19 pounds of small cramps in October. That’s an astonishing 271 pounds of metal work. 3½d per pound earns her 948½ pence. And with 240 pence in a pound (20 shillings in a pound, 12 pence in a shilling) that’s… well, have fun working that one out. By my reckoning it comes to £3 19s and 0.4d, so they seem to have shorted her a farthing or so. I had the benefit of a digital calculator, however. Kudos to Mr Henry Joynes, the architect who signed off on these accounts.

In November, Elizabeth made over £14 making more small cramps (a lot more – 767 pounds total) and 12 ‘gudgeons’, which the Oxford English Dictionary tells me means:

A pivot, usually of metal, fixed on or let into the end of a beam, spindle, axle, etc., and on which a wheel turns, a bell swings, or the like

But how much would a male blacksmith have been making? Well, luckily, the account book also has entries for a John Silver, Blacksmith, who earned himself the grand sum of £46 9s 9d in October, and then £12 9s 9d in December. Interestingly, however, he was paid exactly the same pound rate of 4d to make wedges and clouts (but was paid 4d a pound to make holdfasts for the joiners, rather than being paid by the dozen). Plus he, like Elizabeth, was paid 3½d per pound to make small cramps. Was this a smiths’ guild-mandated price? Or perhaps the result of a tendering process: did Elizabeth and John simply offer the lowest bids? Would they have charged more than this usually, or about the same?

Poster for the 1898 National Exhibition of Women's Labour, Netherlands (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague). Uploaded to wikicommons by Jan Toorop.

Poster for the 1898 National Exhibition of Women’s Labour, Netherlands (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague). Uploaded to wikicommons by Jan Toorop.

And as for who Elizabeth Bennett was? An interesting puzzle! It isn’t so unusual to come across craftswomen in this period and earlier – there’s a picture of a woman forging a nail in the 14th-century Holkham Bible – and the work of women silversmiths like Hester Bateman is extremely collectible to this day. Like Hester, it’s likely that Elizabeth was a widow carrying on her husband’s trade, but there are no Bennetts listed on this (very unofficial) directory of Oxfordshire blacksmiths, and no Bennetts working near Oxfordshire either. Perhaps she was a member of a local craft guild – possibly an Oxford guild? – but surviving records are poor (although a good chunk of the what’s left is, conveniently enough, here at the Bodleian). Perhaps she took an apprentice after 1710, in which case, there should be a registration record. And there’s always parish records, of course, to, try and track down her baptism and death dates, and any marriages. I for one, would love to know more!

This blog post is written as part of our project to increase the accessibility of the Bodleian's Percy Manning holdings in the run up to the centenary of Manning's death in 2017. We are grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund for its generous support of this project.