A HISTORY OF WARRINGTON IN 10 1/2 OBJECTS: GIBBET IRONS
Hello and welcome to Episode 8 of a History of Warrington in 10.5 Objects. My name is Craig Sherwood and I’m the Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
I’ve struggled a lot in selecting an object for this, the 8th episode of this series. We’re at the 18th century and the enlightenment now and although this was the era of such cultural milestones as the Warrington Academy or the first poems of Letitia Barbauld the problem I have is that neither of these have left much physical evidence in their wake. Much as I would like to discuss 18th century education or literature this is, after all, a podcast about things and indeed stuff.
So for the next object I’ve chosen an artefact that lets us delve briefly into the genre of true crime. In some ways it speaks to us about what Warrington was like in the 18th century, because it tells us a little about what life was worth in Georgian England.
Object Number 8, an iron gibbet cage, made in 1793 in Warrington.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term a gibbet was a gallows-type structure from which the dead bodies of criminals were hung on public display to discourage others from committing similar crimes. In England, gibbeting, also known as “hanging in chains”, peaked in the middle of the 18th century when it was most often used for traitors, murderers, pirates, sheep rustlers and highwaymen.
I’m standing in front of the gibbet now and it looks like what it is, a person-shaped iron frame designed to hold a corpse together in the shape of a person in a really creepy grey area between the living and the dead. Although it’s popularly called a gibbet it’s probably better described as gibbet irons or a gibbet frame as technically a gibbet was the gallows-like structure from which the cage containing the corpse would hang.
Gibbeting started off as an unofficial practice which then became official with the Murder Act of 1752. This called for the bodies of convicted murderers to be either publicly gibbeted or given over to surgeons and anatomists for dissection. Women were never gibbeted, it would be nice to think that this was out of some kind of respect for the female body but the truth is that female murderers were so rare in comparison with men that their corpses were always claimed for dissection. Even the gibbeting of male criminals wasn’t a frequent occurrence – between the passing of the Act in 1752 and the end of the practice only 80 years later the bodies of 134 men were hung in chains somewhere in England, an average of roughly 1 or 2 a year.
This particular gibbet was made for the body of a highwayman, one who committed one of the most sensational and high profile highway robberies in England at the time.
The main reason that the crime was so high profile is not that it involved murder, but that it was a crime against the post office. During the 18th century the mail was usually carried in relays by post boys, who were called ‘boys’ regardless of their age, and who travelled between so-called posts in towns and cities on horseback. Each stage of the post boy’s journey was around twenty miles apart, at which point they would replace their horse with a fresh one in order to maintain a speed of around 4 miles per hour. They carried mailbags full of letters, often containing money, between towns and cities and would deliver them to the local postmaster or postmistress who removed the letters for the area and had them picked up or delivered. The post boy would then continue onto the next town or city, carrying the rest of the mail as he went. The system was notoriously inefficient but it was the best available and very much in demand even though sending a letter could cost you as much as a shilling, a weeks wages for most people.
At around 5 am on the morning Thursday 15th September 1791 James Hogworth, a 24 year old post boy, heard the sound of the post horn of the approaching post boy from Liverpool and mounted his horse ready to set off. He collected the mail from his Liverpool colleague and slung it over his own horse along with the mail from Warrington. He then jumped on his horse and rode out of Warrington in the direction of Manchester. Inside the mailbags were post bags from Chester, Liverpool and Warrington containing letters from as far away as Ireland which were destined for Manchester and Rochdale. Some of the bags contained correspondence between wealthy cotton merchants in the area and bills of exchange, the 18th century version of postal orders.
James rode out of Warrington along Church Street and past the parish church of St Elphin and the Mote Hill, site of the former Warrington castle and out along the Manchester Road which followed the route of the modern A57. About a mile along the road he crossed the little bridge over Bruche Brook, now known as Padgate Brook, and carried on onto Bruche Heath, a flat, marshy piece of pasture with a few Birch trees spotted here and there giving the heath its name. Across the heath to his left was the local manor Bruche Hall while to his right was a farmstead called the Twyste. It was a very lonely and exposed spot which must have made James even more nervous as he heard riders approaching from behind him.
There’s been a long tradition in English popular culture, which started in the medieval period with Robin Hood, of treating robbers and highwaymen as heroes. The common view of the 18th century highwayman is that of a romantic anti-hero wearing a tricorn hat which we’re all meant to root for. The truth is that highwaymen were actually robbers and killers. The historical Dick Turpin – who differs significantly from the romantic version – was originally a member of a violent gang and shot and killed at least two people. Highway robbery was a hanging offence in its own right, so highwaymen had nothing further to lose by adding murder to their crimes.
We don’t know exactly what happened that September morning except to say that James horse was found wandering amongst the fields near the Twyste with only the bridle attached around an hour later. A search was organised but it was a full day later before anyone found James. His body was floating face down in Padgate Brook, his feet were tied together and his hands were tied behind his back. His bugle, the only means he had of summoning help, was also found discarded in the brook about 20 yards away. When James body was pulled from the brook it became obvious that he’d put up a fight and had been badly beaten – a blow above his left eye was deep enough to expose the skull underneath and he’d d been stabbed twice in the throat almost opening up his jugular vein and windpipe. Nearby were the discarded mailbags which had been thoroughly ransacked, leaving only a single letter.
The Warrington postmaster William Orrett lost no time and issued something known as a hue and cry. Nowadays we mainly know hue and cry as a Scottish pop band from the 1980s, but in the 18th century it was a written proclamation ordering the capture of criminal. This proclamation was distributed in the form of pamphlets and posters giving the details of the robbery and asking for information. On the 19th September the General Post Office offered a reward of £200 pounds to anyone apprehending the robbers, worth around £30,000 today and an incredible amount of money for the time. In comparison the standard reward for anyone catching a robber had been set at £40 a century earlier, the equivalent of £6,000 today. Crucially this reward along with a pardon was offered to any members of a highway gang who decided to turn on their colleagues.
Following the announcement of a reward a few witnesses began to come forward to say that they had seen two men on horseback galloping through Warrington in great haste the direction of Manchester shortly after James had left town. The same men were seen returning to Warrington about 45 minutes later mounted on sweaty horses and wearing muddy boots. They had then left town in the direction of Liverpool but had stopped not far out of Warrington to have their horse’s shoes re-fastened. As they waited for the farrier to complete his work the two men had apparently taken breakfast inside but had refused to remove their greatcoats indoors, the pockets of which were observed to be bulging. Equally suspiciously the men seemed particularly impatient and kept asking the farrier when the next ship to Dublin was leaving from Liverpool.
This may have been deliberate deception because when descriptions of the two men were circulated throughout the country reports soon came back that two men matching the description had been seen 5 days and 200 miles away in an apothecary shop in London where one of them was looking for treatment for a bad bruise on his face that looked very much like someone had kicked him in the head.
Various names were put forward for the suspects and on the 30th September, 2 weeks after the murder, a wanted poster was published in newspapers, pasted up on walls around towns and distributed in pamphlets. The authorities were now looking for 4 men – namely the brothers Edward and George Miles, their brother-in-law Edward Lydiate and Thomas Fleming. Ironically by this time Fleming was already in jail for another highway robbery, but the authorities hoped that mentioning his name might lead other witnesses to come forward.
One of the accused, George Miles, was soon arrested in Manchester but was eventually released due to lack of evidence. Edward Lydiate on the other hand had moved to Exeter where he posed an angler called Mr Whiteman. Unfortunately for Edward news of the robbery and a description of the suspects had reached as far as Devon and he was recognised by the keeper of the county gaol. This prompted him to flee to Cornwall and rapidly running out of places in Southwest England to hide he was eventually captured in a boarding house in Bodmin in 1792 and sent to Warrington for trial. There, like George Miles before him, the courts found there was insufficient evidence to charge him with the crime and he was released. The third named member of the gang Thomas Fleming was of course already in custody for another highway robbery in Liverpool and although he continued to protest his innocence of the murder of James Hogworth there was sufficient evidence to convict him of the Liverpool robbery and he was hung at the gallows at Lancaster.
This only left Edward Miles. A major breakthrough in the case occurred when a Liverpool jeweller Robert Jones came forward to say that Miles, who had previously been in his shop offering to sell him Spanish silver dollars, had sent him several bills of exchange for silver. Jones suspected that Edward Miles was buying silver dollars with the proceeds of the robbery in order to make counterfeit English silver coins that he could then sell back or use as currency – a remarkably sophisticated combination of money laundering and counterfeiting for the 18th century. Counterfeiting or “uttering of false coin” as it was then fabulously known was rife at the time and while less serious than highway robbery multiple offences carried a death sentence. Having examined the bills of exchange that Edward had sent him Jones realised they had not been endorsed correctly. He notified the authorities who determined that two of the bills had been amongst those stolen from James’ saddlebags. Another of the bills had been stolen at another highway robbery at Prescot. They had their man.
Edward was finally captured in 1793 when a Warrington lawyer called James Nicholson recognised him in a Manchester Street and performed what we’d now call a citizen’s arrest. Miles initially protested his complete innocence but later, sat in Lancaster gaol, confessed to the lesser charges of counterfeiting and passing stolen bills. He continued to protest innocence on the charge of highway robbery, claiming that it was the work of other members of the counterfeiting ring.
Some witnesses sensationally claimed to have seen James Hogworth riding and even drinking with Edward Miles and that Hogworth had hoped to give up the notoriously badly paid job of a post boy soon afterwards, his wife being around 3 months pregnant with James’ son. The implication was that Miles and Hogworth may have been in on the scheme to rob the mail and Hogworth had been betrayed and murdered at the last moment. If this unlikely tale was true Edward Miles continued to deny it but ironically it was on the charges of highway robbery alone, rather than the other charges to which he had confessed that Edward was found guilty on August 1793 and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
On the 14th September 1793 Edward Miles climbed into the back of a cart at Lancaster gaol and was taken through the streets of Lancaster to the jeers of the crowd, stopping off at the Golden Lion on Brewery Lane where Edward was allowed to sup one last pint of ale as was tradition for a condemned man. Finally he was taken to Gallows Hill on Lancaster Moor where he was hung by the neck until dead.
Edward’s body was taken down from the gallows and coated in tar before being transported 60 miles back to Warrington to the scene of the crime, the Twyste farmstead at Bruche. There a gibbet had been erected and an iron cage had been made to hold Edward’s body. Because it was such a rare practice there was no established design for gibbet cages and so the Warrington gibbet is, like all the other examples, a bespoke design that was made for Edward Miles alone.
Edward’s tarred body was encased in the iron frame which was then hung by chains 30 feet or more off the ground on the gibbet. It would almost certainly have attracted a crowd, but anyone living on the nearby Twyste farmstead had little cause for celebration. The smell of rotting flesh would have been so potent that they would have had to shut their windows against it when the wind blew in a certain direction. In addition to the smell, gibbets were designed for maximum horror and the cage containing Edward’s body would have clinked eerily as it twisted as it swayed in the wind – a warning to other would-be thieves of the consequences of highway robbery.
Gibbets and their occupants sometimes remained in place for decades, as the insects and birds did their grisly work. Some gibbet cages were then taken down and turned into souvenirs, but not the Warrington example. Instead the cage was taken down and buried near by. In 1845, only 11 years after the practice of gibbeting was formally ended in England, the cage which had encased Edwards body were dug up and given to the Warrington Museum where it remains to this day.
Next time we’re looking at an object which lives in the intersection between industry and nature. It’s a birds nest and one that gives us an insight into what was probably Warrington’s most important product of the 19th and 20th century – wire.