On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.
A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.
And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.
So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;
And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.
In English crime as in culture and commerce, the capital city can’t help but throw its shadow over the rest, and small wonder. Who could deny London her laurels as one of the world’s great hives of true crime: haunt of gallant highwaymen and underworld kingpins, skulking servants and reprobate lords, fantastical escape artists and the mysterious Whitechapel murderer. So it is for executions, too, although a site like ours might attribute London’s primacy as much to the convenient digitization of Old Bailey records as to the notoriety of the Tyburn tree or the Dickensian ribaldry under Newgate’s gallows or the legend of Jack Ketch.
Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.
For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.
The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.
This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.
When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?
With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.
March 22, 1824: Richard Overfield
March 23, 1812: John Griffiths
March 24, 1823: John Newton
March 25, 1775: Joseph Skidmore
March 26, 1785: William Williams, Edward Edwards, and Sarah Davies
* Keeping sheep by moonlight: a euphemism for hanging in chains.
** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”