The wife who bought rope for her husband to be hanged

Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.

Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious. He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.

Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff's rope
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope

During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!

Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:

I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.

Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.

People who lived on London Bridge

To look at London Bridge now you see….well…..a bridge with traffic on it. But go back three centuries or more and the bridge was full of houses and some illustrious tenants. During the reign of Henry VIII, the court painter Holbein lived there. Two hundred years later, another artist – Hogarth – was a resident. They saw London Bridge in its Tudor and Georgian manifestations. It would have been remarkably similar during both periods.

Nonesuch Palace
Nonesuch Palace

The only highway for hundreds of years across the Thames was made up of about nineteen irregular arches with the original stones being laid in around 1176. Incredibly, this structure would last with many modifications until 1831 By that time, the medieval bridge and its Tudor houses had gone into a severe decline. The narrowness of the arches created fierce rapids and were not navigable by larger vessels.

From the Middle Ages, there was a stone chapel to St Thomas a Becket at the centre of the bridge. At either end were towers and the one facing Southwark was decorated with the severed heads of traitors. One of those heads under Henry VIII belonged to John Houghton, the last prior of the London Charterhouse who wouldn’t take the oath recognising King Henry as head of the Church of England. For that, he was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn gallows. An old story had it that the keeper of the tower who supervised these grisly human remains was an old cripple who would play his lute at night accompanied by his pet owl.

The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge
The mad lute player who looked after the heads on London Bridge

In the sixteenth century, a large wooden building called Nonesuch House (as there was none such like it) appeared on the bridge. It was basically a wooden kit made in the Netherlands and then assembled in situ using just pegs to keep the whole thing together. It was surmounted by onion domes and sundials.

By the eighteenth century, the bridge was something of a death trap. The houses were on the verge of collapse and hung over the street blocking out the daylight. Timber beams slung across the top storeys stopped them collapsing on top of carts and coaches below. There were no footways and the whole thing was clogged up permanently – proving impossible to cross.

The only shops were needle makers and booksellers. One of the latter was Crispin Tucker, who both sold and wrote books and was visited by Alexander Pope and Dean Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels). Nonesuch and the St Thomas chapel were in a bad state and used as warehouses.

During a plague – don’t wear dead men’s hair!

Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary of London life during the year 1665 when plague ravaged the city – killing thousands. He first noticed the onset of the pestilence when red crosses appeared on a door in Drury Lane. In a matter of a few days, King Death had galloped through the City of London and then on to Westminster and the suburbs. Poor Samuel came face to face with the horror when he got off a boat and had to step over a dead body as he headed down an alleyway.

Pepys wearing a fine wig
Pepys wearing a fine wig

It had been a hot summer when the sickness had emerged. Doctors and physicians died so there was nobody to tend the sick. Pepys own medic – Dr Burnett – popped his clogs round about the 25th August of the plague. In the last week of that month, an estimated 10,000 people succumbed. Given the population of London at that time, this was a terrible catastrophe. As Pepys noted, the horror just kept going without any end in sight.

Still, some of the decisions one has to make at the height of a spreading plague are quite mundane. For example, should one wear one’s usual wig? On Sunday 3rd September, Pepys got up and dressed in his fine coloured silk suit. He was about to don his “periwigg” when he remembered that he’d bought it in Westminster just as the plague reached the area.

His worry wasn’t that the shopkeeper had been infected but that the wig might be made of hair from men who had died of plague. Somehow, Pepys reasoned, the disease could transfer from his fashionable head covering to himself. Pepys even wondered if the plague could spell the end for wigs!

It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Needless to say Pepys survived and carried on wearing fine wigs, as did every other man in society, till his death.

A right Charlie! This was the face of British policing in 1800

Old soldiers didn’t die in Georgian London – they became Charlies.

A right Charlie - unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation
A right Charlie – unlikely to be much use in a true crime situation

These were watchmen who were supposed to protect Londoners against criminals on the dangerous streets. Only they weren’t very effective. This was before the modern police force was formed by Sir Robert Peel and Charlies gave way to Bobbies. The Charlie was more often than not a bit of an old codger with a rattle, a lantern and a long white pole they struck on the ground to mark the hours.

They had meeting points round the city and small watch-boxes. But their abilities were held in such low regard that the well-off would either take their valuables with them if they had to travel out of town or park their silverware with the bank. Others would carry a “robber’s purse” which was given up to their assailant to avoid being injured or worse in a struggle.

I’ve read one theory that the Charlies got their name in the reign of Charles II – I’m open to any information you have to support or rebut this.

Houses of Parliament burnt down in massive blaze

On the 16th October, 1834, the old Houses of Parliament were completely destroyed by a huge fire. It took several days to extinguish an inferno that engulfed ancient medieval halls, Georgian houses and most of the palace of Westminster. Westminster Hall – a vast space dating back to the Norman period – was only saved because of the wind direction. But the House of Commons and House of Lords were no more. The centre of government was a smouldering ruin.

Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834
Houses of Parliament burn down in 1834

The reason for the fire was something typically archaic in such a venerable British institution. Incredibly, a primitive system of accounting was still being used by the Exchequer in the nineteenth century that involved digging notches into long pieces of wood called “tallies”. The author Charles Dickens mocked this ridiculous practice saying it was no better than the way Robinson Crusoe had “kept his calendar on the desert island”.

Even under George III (reigned from 1760 to 1820), somebody had asked whether it was time for the state’s finances to be kept using pen, paper, ink and pencils instead of pieces of wood. Finally, in 1826, the tallies were abolished. From now on, no more notches in sticks! However, that left a lot of bits of wood lying around – centuries of them in fact. They were of no use whatsoever and probably never had been. So it was decided to gradually burn the lot.

A stove was used in the House of Lords. A labourer called Joshua Cross was hired to shovel the wood in though it turned out he wasn’t properly supervised in this task by the Clerk of Works. As a result, the raging fire in the stove extended to nearby wood panelling and in no time the whole House of Lords was on fire including a fine tapestry of the Spanish Armada being defeated.

Nearby was St Stephen’s chapel, which had been rebuilt between 1320 and 1352 and under Edward VI became the House of Commons. It was in this chamber that Oliver Cromwell had dismissed parliament. And now it was also consigned to the flames. Thousands watched in awe at the spreading orange glow. The very floorboards that had been trodden by great political figures such as Pitt, Fox, Burke and Canning were incinerated. And all because of a daft form of accounting that had never been of any real use.

Sir Walter Raleigh catches fire in Islington

Sir Walter Raleigh – swashbuckling adventurer under Queen Elizabeth I (or Queen Bess if you prefer) – and Islington don’t exactly sit together in your mind. But Raleigh and other Elizabethans loved popping over to the village of Islington to take the air. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, its dairies would become famous for their creams, custards, cakes and gooseberry fools. But in the sixteenth century – the time of Raleigh – it was archery practice on the fields and just admiring the views over the green valley of Holloway and on to Highgate hill. The view has changed a bit since then!

Raleigh's old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition
Raleigh’s old house converted into the Pied Bull Inn shortly before demolition

The Tudors took to building country homes in the area decorated with oak panels and stained-glass windows. Raleigh, worn out by long voyages of discovery and returning with tobacco to poison his fellow Englishmen, took up residence with gusto. His house was still standing in 1830 by which time it had become the Pied Bull Inn, behind what was then called Frederick Street. There is a very silly story about Raleigh smoking tobacco that I found in an Edwardian history of London:

Sitting one day in a deep meditation with a pipe in his mouth, he inadvertently called to his man (servant) to bring him a tankard of small ale. The fellow, coming into the room, threw all the liquor into his master’s face and running downstairs bawled out: Fire! Fire! Sir Walter has studied till his head is on fire and the smoke bursts out of his head and nose! 

An unusual case of somebody spontaneously combusting due to too much thinking. Pictures depicting this incident used to appear over tobacconist shops. A stained-glass window in Raleigh’s house was bordered with images of sea-horses and parrots plus tobacco leaves. Years later, the pioneer of the filthy habit would be executed for treason. He allegedly took two pipes with him to the Tower of London, his prison, to have a good puff before the big event.

The axe and block used to behead people at the Tower of London

In the Tower of London, they still have the axe and “heading block” used for executions right up to the mid-18th century. There’s also a mask that was worn by the executioner. The block is chipped and dinted as a result of some considerable use. On it, the heads of three Scottish rebels – Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock and Balmerino – were severed in 1746. It’s not true, however, that the head of Anne Boleyn was taken off using it in the 16th century. She was decapitated by a French swordsman in a departure from the usual method. A nice clean cut!

Anne Boleyn

Terrible accident at St Mary-le-Strand

St Mary-le-Strand is the church that appears to be stuck in the middle of the road near Kings college and Somerset House. In fact, it’s been referred to as St Mary-in-the-way. This place of worship was designed by the architect James Gibbs and was one of fifty churches ordered to be built during the reign of Queen Anne. The first stone was laid by Gibbs on the 25th February, 1714 and the whole thing was completed in three and a half years. But it was only consecrated for use by worshippers on the 1st January, 1723.

St Mary-le-Strand - killer church!
St Mary-le-Strand – killer church!

Nobody doubted the skill and craft of Gibbs’ work and it stood proud throughout the eighteenth century. But then in 1802, crowds had gathered in the Strand to celebrate peace between France and Britain agreed at the Treaty of Amiens – after a long period of war between the two countries. A man stood on the roof of the church and leaned on one of the many stone urns to watch the heralds marching past announcing the peace treaty. Incredibly, the large urn suddenly fell into the street below.

Three young men were killed. One died instantly as the urn fell on his head. Another was so badly wounded that he died on the way to hospital. While the third died two days afterwards. A young woman was also seriously injured and others suffered cuts and bruises. The two hundred pound urn had bounced off the side of the church taking another piece of masonry with it and when it hit the pavement, it buried itself about a foot into the flagstones.

The poor man on the roof fainted but was still arrested. However, he was discharged when it was found that Gibbs’ workmen a hundred years before had been a bit shoddy. The urn should have been fixed to the roof by an iron spike but instead there was just a wooden pole. That had rotted away over time and it was no surprise that a killer urn tipped into the street below.

The terrifying London garroters of the 1860s

1862 saw a new crime trend hit the streets of London.  The criminals robbed well-to-do people while an accomplice gripped the victim by the throat from behind.  This outbreak of “garroting” horrified the great and the powerful – especially when a member of parliament fell victim. In 1863, an indignant Lord Norton demanded that the garroters should be flogged in prison and the measure was passed with ease.

London garroters in action!
London garroters in action!

In the century before, thieves and robbers could still be tied to a cart and whipped in public. But these garroters were punished in private at Newgate. Well, not entirely in private. Because wealthy folks could gain access to the room with the “whipping press” to watch the brutal action unfold. They just had to get a ticket from the sheriff and demand was high!

A journalist who attended one flogging described it:

We entered a long, low room, ignorant of furniture, except a sort of press, waist-high against one wall and a long deal table by the other. What I liken unto the press was the whipping apparatus with stocks for the prisoner’s feet and holdfasts for his hands. He stepped into this appartus and his feet were forthwith imprisoned. Extending his arms, he placed them in the crescent hollow of a plank before him, another plank was let down and his wrists were pinioned in rings.

Then a jailer picked up a whip with nine cords and knots at the end of each – the infamous cat o’nine tails! The first garroter led in to be punished was, according to the journalist, a “sullen, lumpish thick-skinned brute, with an evil forehead”. I’ll spare you the full description in the book before me (the Victorians loved to describe a good beating!) though it says the jailer “plied the scourge airily, as a fly-fisher would his line”. A nice angling motif!

Supporters of corporal punishment in prisons – which did continue well into the 20th century – claimed it stopped the garrotting epidemic in its tracks. But even at the end of the 19th century, looking back at this very odd crime, the Liberal Home Secretary Lord Asquith (1892-95) said the crime had already subsided before Norton brought his flogging measure to the House. This view was supported by another Home Secretary, Lord Ridley (1895-1900).

Still – the throttlers had given the rich a big scare – and they’d retaliated with the whip!

London Monster

The London Monster

Everybody knows about Jack the Ripper but there have – regrettably – been other men who have attacked women in the metropolis. And they had equal notoriety. One such was the London Monster. He didn’t actually murder women, unlike the Ripper, but slashed at them in the face or backside. The knives or daggers were reputedly strapped to his knees – as the illustration shows – or concealed in other ways to take his victims by surprise.

London Monster
The London Monster at work – note knives attached to his knees!

Most of the women he attacked seemed to have been ladies of substance – unlike the prostitutes targeted by Jack the Ripper. And he appears to have suffered from some psychopathic condition that necessitated this curious lashing out. Eventually, a man, Rhynwick Williams, was apprehended after allegedly attacking a spinster called Ann Porter. It seems to have been his intention to rip at her clothes more than the person inside them. The court proceedings stated:

RENWICK WILLIAMS , was indicted, for that he, on the 18th of January last, with force and arms, at the parish of St. James, Westminster, in the king’s highway, in a certain public street there, called St. James’s-street , unlawfully, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did make an assault on Ann Porter , spinster , with an intent to tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments and clothes; and on the same day, with force and arms, in the same public street, wilfully, maliciously, and feloniously, did tear, spoil, cut, and deface her garments: to wit, one silk gown, value 20 s. a pair of stays, value 5 s. a silk petticoat, value 5 s. one other petticoat, value 5 s. a linen petticoat, value 5 s. and a shift, value 5 s. her property, part of her apparel which she had on her person, against the form of the statute, and against the king’s peace, &c.

The opening of the trial was full of hyperbole. The Monster had captured the jaded imaginations of Londoners who had feigned terror at being set upon by this madman. Here’s the opening comments from the trial (source: Old Bailey online):

It is an unpleasant task to call your minds to a scene so new in the annals of mankind; a scene so unaccountable: a scene so unnatural to the honour of human nature, that it could not have been believed ever to have existed, unless it had been demonstrated by that proof which the senses cannot resist: but while we are trying the prisoner at the bar, for this unnatural, unaccountable, and until now, unknown offence, we should not forget that he is our fellow being, and give him an attentive hearing.

The attacks, the prosecution railed, had been against women who were “the most beautiful! the most innocent! the most lovely!” But what puzzled the court was that William didn’t seem to be after their money or any riches. His attack on Ann Porter had occurred as she returned from a ball in St James’s, Westminster. Unfortunately for Williams, having torn at her clothes, he then paused to stare at her. As a result, his face was etched on her mind. A little later, she spotted Williams in St James’s Park and a male friend chased him to his dwellings. From there he was arrested and put on trial.

Only some historians cast doubt on whether Williams was the London Monster or indeed if such a person even existed. Was it an example of a kind of urban hysteria? Was Ann Porter leaping on the bandwagon of other reported attacks? Or was Williams just mistakenly identified? Whatever the truth – he got six years in prison.