1768: Seven coal-heavers to crush the London port strike

Add comment July 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1768, a year of tremendous labor agitation in London, seven coal-heavers were hanged near the Shadwell dock.

With food prices surging,* the city’s hard-pressed urban proletariat was at peak militancy — which also lent violent energy the cause of hunted radical politician John Wilkes, who had returned from exile this year to stand for Parliament. Two principal loci of labor insurgency in 1768 were the Spitalfields weavers, whose struggle we have already observed, and the “coal heavers” — the men who did the grueling labor of offloading coal from Thames barges.

Coal-heaving was ill-paid and dangerous, and it was notoriously sensitive to fraud: workers (largely Irish: they’d been imported to hold down wages) being paid by the “sack” or the “vat” fought supervisors at riverside over just how fully loaded with coal such a sack or vat should be. Workers had their own recourse to “indirect Practises,” pilfering a few coals on the side to supplement pay up to within hailing distance of subsistence. The boss would call “theft” this grey-area practice harkening to labor traditions ancient and still-current. The rope would help him define it so.

Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial social history The London Hanged dramatically treats the fraught and violent months of the spring of 1768, when Irish workingmen were “bringing river traffic to a stand-still … [and] stopped the imperialist artery.”

Dockside taverns doubled as fraternal entities and regiments in the unfolding dock war. One John Green, keeper of a pub on New-Gravel Lane (not as scenic as the nearby Cutthroat Lane)

organized scab labour from [his] Roundabout Tavern. It was attacked in April with gunfire. A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement, a coal-heaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred’. The taverns were besieged, their furnishings destroyed. Gunfire was frequent. Green was acquitted of murder. Those testifying for him were mobbed and one witness had her jaw broken. The coal-heavers were as violent in word as in deed. ‘They would have Green’s Heart and Liver and Do for him’; ‘they would have him joint from joint’; ‘they would have his heart and liver, and cut him in pieces and hang him on his sign’; ‘they would hang him over his sign Post & cut him into Beef Stakes’.

Our seven — by name John Grainger, Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Patrick Lynch, Thomas Murray, Peter Flaharty, and Nicholas McCabe — were indicted on grounds that they “with force and arms, with certain guns loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did shoot off at John Green.” Not quite cut into Beef Stakes, but it’ll get the job done.

Though the trials of Green, and then of Green’s assailants, were weeks apart, they concerned the very same disturbance on the night of April 20-21, when Green’s residence had been besieged by angry coal-heavers and Green with others had shot out the windows and killed at least two … but managed to hold his foes at bay during what must have been a harrowing night. Green wasn’t hurt, and gave evidence at the “shooting off” trial.

The London Irish had by 1768 an unparalleled knowledge of arms and armed struggle. They contributed to an insurrectionary impulse within the London working class. At the same time, as a consequence, the Irish had close knowledge of violent death. The intimacy of that knowledge was expressed in vivid euphemisms designed to reduce the terror of hanging. Seven coal-heavers received the ‘cramp jaw’ at the Old Bailey only after a new interpretation was placed upon the Waltham Black Act. The seven danced ‘a new jig without music’ on 26 July 1768. This particular ‘crack neck assembly’ was located in Sun Tavern fields, Shadwell … The move from Tyburn was designed to terrify the poor and working people of the river parishes. The ‘breath stopper’ was witnessed by 50,000 spectators, perhaps the largest crowd at such a scene since the hanging of the Earl of Ferrers eight years earlier. The Government anticipated disorders, if not rescue attempts, when these seven were to dance ‘tuxt de ert and de skies’. From 6 a.m. more than 600 soldiers patrolled the streets of Wapping and Shadwell. The Sheriff ordered all the constables of the Tower and Holborn divisions to assemble at the hanging site and to come armed with their staves. Thomas Turlis, the hangman, had stolen coal from a neighbour’s cellar five years earlier. But, that his work might not be interrupted, the Sheriff quickly obtained a pardon for him. He did his duty upon the coal-heavers, sent ‘a-spinning like a whirligig’. Once they had ‘peacably’ exited the world, many of the spectators may have gone for a drink as was customary:

Wid a facer we coddled our blood
For de wind id blows cold from de gibbett.

… The hanging at Sun Tavern Fields … taught a hard lesson about collective bargaining: attempts to counteract the rise in the price of provisions by improving wage rates would not be allowed. … the insurrectionary vanguard of the river proletariat was broken.

Or, as a more sanguine observer put it, after the hangings “the tumults immediately ceased, and peace and industry was happily restored.” And they all lived happily ever after.

* Bread prices doubled in 1768, leading to work stoppages, hoarding, and food riots throughout the city. Representative slogan shouted by desperate rioters: “We might as well be hanged as starve.” (George Rude, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. II, no. 1 (1959))

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1763: Hannah Dagoe, violently

4 comments May 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1763, Hannah Dagoe did it her way in “an extraordinary and unprecedented scene” at Tyburn.

A “strong, lusty”* Irish woman, her crime of theft does not much enthrall us, but her behavior on the way to the gallows would have done many a condemned wretch proud:

On the road to Tyburn she showed little concern at her miserable state, and paid no attention to the exhortations of the Romish priest who attended her. When the cart, in which she was bound, was drawn under the gallows, she got her hands and arms loose, seized the executioner, struggled with him, and gave him so violent a blow on the breast that she nearly knocked him down. She dared him to hang her; and in order to revenge herself upon him, and cheat him of his dues,** she took off her hat, cloak and other parts of her dress, and disposed of them among the crowd. After much resistance he got the rope about her neck, which she had no sooner found accomplished than, pulling out a hand kerchief, she bound it round her head and over her face, and threw herself out of the cart, before the signal was given, with such violence that she broke her neck and died instantly.

(Updated with a fortuitous connection not noted in first passing.)

Somewhere amid that ample throng cheering on the unexpected fisticuffs under the scaffold was notable scribbler James Boswell, he of The Life of Johnson.

Boswell had come along to the spectacle to see another, less pugilistic victim of the hanging party, Paul Lewis, a respectable clergyman’s son and former Navy officer taken to highway robbery. (The third member of the doomed party was stockbroker and forger John Rice.) Boswell’s diary records the happenstance encounter with Lewis and Hannah “Deigo” that led him to Tyburn’s shadow.

TUESDAY 3 MAY.

I walked up to the Tower in order to see Mr. Wilkes† come out. But he was gone. I then thought I should see prisoners of one kind or other, so went to Newgate. I stepped into a sort of court before the cells. They are surely most dismal places. There are three rows of ’em, four in a row, all above each other. They have double iron windows, and within these, strong iron rails; and in these dark mansions are the unhappy criminals confined. I did not go in, but stood in the court, where were a number of strange blackguard beings with sad countenances, most of them being friends and acquaintances of those under sentence of death. Mr. Rice the broker was confined in another part of the house. In the cells were Paul Lewis for robbery and Hannah Diego for theft. I saw them pass by to chapel. The woman was a big unconcerned being. Paul, who had been in the sea-service and was called Captain, was a genteel, spirited young fellow. He was just a Macheath. He was dressed in a white coat and blue silk vest and silver, with his hair neatly queued and a silver-laced hat, smartly cocked. An acquaintance asked him how he was. He said, “Very well”; quite resigned. Poor fellow! I really took a great concern for him, and wished to relieve him. He walked firmly and with a good air, with his chains rattling upon him, to the chapel.

Erskine and I dined at the renowned Donaldson’s, where we were heartily entertained. All this afternoon I felt myself still more melancholy, Newgate being upon my mind like a black cloud. Poor Lewis was always coming across me. I felt myself dreary at night, and made my barber try to read me asleep with Hume’s History, of which he made very sad work. I lay in sad concern.

WEDNESDAY 4 MAY.

My curiosity to see the melancholy spectacle of the executions was so strong that I could not resist it, although I was sensible that I would suffer much from it. In my younger years I had read in the Lives of the Convicts so much about Tyburn that I had a sort of horrid eagerness to be there. I also wished to see the last behaviour of Paul Lewis, the handsome fellow whom I had seen the day before. Accordingly I took Captain Temple with me, and he and I got upon a scaffold very near the fatal tree, so that we could clearly see all the dismal scene. There was a most prodigious crowd of spectators. I was most terribly shocked, and thrown into a very deep melancholy.

The Macheath imagery, if not the melancholy, evidently stuck with the dutiful scribe, who found himself still minded of the Beggar’s Opera hero two weeks later while out on the pull.

I then sallied forth to the Piazzas in rich flow of animal spirits and burning with fierce desire. I met two very pretty little girls who asked me to take them with me. “My dear girls,” said I, “I am a poor fellow. I can give you no money. But if you choose to have a glass of wine and my company and let us be gay and obliging to each other without money, I am your man.” They agreed with great good humour. … We were shown into a good room and had a bottle of sherry before us in a minute. I surveyed my seraglio and found them both good subjects for amorous play. I toyed with them and drank about and sung “Youth’s the Season” and thought myself Captain Macheath; and then I solaced my existence with them, one after the other, according to their seniority. I was quite raised, as the phrase is: thought I was in a London tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head, enjoying high debauchery after my sober winter. I parted with my ladies politely and came home in a glow of spirits.

* London Evening Post, May 3-5 1763.

** The executioner was entitled to claim his clients’ clothing.

† Distantly related to namesake and Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

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