Local archives can be a rich source of inspiration as Michael Chacksfield discovered
Hanging the Culworth Gang
Relaxing one evening with a friend in the Royal Oak at Eydon, conversation soon turned to an infamous chapter in the history of a neighbouring village. Having lived my entire life in rural Northamptonshire, I could not believe how the story had eluded me. “What, a notorious gang of highway robbers operated in this area?” I blurted. “Yes!” my friend replied. “A housebuilder found human remains whilst clearing land at the crossing. You should look into it!” he added, plonking a second pint of cask-conditioned ale onto the wooden table between us.
The open fire crackled and a third pint slid down effortlessly, along with my resolution to follow up on the story. Fascinated by history, some weeks later I visited Culworth and the Red Lion, where the gang of farm labourers used to meet, as well as the 13th century church where William Abbot, a flamboyant, pistol waving parishioner, stored some of their bounty. The village still occupies the local strategic high ground with good escape routes at either end of the High Street and leads directly onto Banbury Lane.
Over the years, I had resigned myself to eternal disappointment that my home county only featured in our nation’s history on two notable occasions – footwear aside, in 1460 the Battle of Northampton was fought on the doorsteps of (newly refurbished) Delapré Abbey as part of the War of the Roses, and in 1835, Charles Dickens visited to cover the north Northants by-election for the Morning Chronicle, which he later described as Eatanswill riotous borough election in the Pickwick Papers.
So, based on newspaper archives and Jack Gould’s research filed with the Northampton Record Society, I composed this scene as the gang are led along the final mile journey to their execution. I have lifted the dialogue from confessions written inside their cells. The White Elephant pub still stands opposite, on the corner of Northampton Racecourse where this dramatic event occurred.
1787, Friday 3rd August, Northampton Heath
The morning fog lifted, clearing the view of the procession of six death carts crabbing the mile-long journey from Northampton gaol.
All the inhabitants of the town lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the convicted felons – shrunken, pale figures from their time inside, clinging to the bars on their final, rickety journey towards the veteran oak tree on the corner of the Common. They had stopped half-way along the crowded route outside the Bantam Cock public house, one last drink for the six malefactors – one for the road. As six tumblers of ale were passed along the top of the carts, the first prisoner snatched four, gulped the contents and lobbed the empty cups into the crowd. As replacement drinks were hurried outside, a mob surged forward, surrounded and started banging on the sides of the wooden carts. Several casualties were trampled underfoot in the chaos – one woman and her children were almost suffocated in the fracas, before the constables on horseback fought back with wooden batons to restore order and move the cavalcade along.
In recent years the authorities had seen an explosion in workload all over the country, ever since Claude Duval and Jack Sheppard had captured the public’s imagination. Desperate to respond to the rise in housebreaking and highway robbery, William Pitt and the Tories had declared these bi-annual events as Bank Holidays to engage with the public and let them see justice in action. But freedom from the daily grind of work mixed with alcohol-fuelled drama had transformed these occasions into showpiece events. Hanged at Tyburn, “Gentleman Jack’s” new celebrity status had confined the execution of all future prisoners in the capital to be conducted inside Newgate, for fear of more escapes along the two-mile trek across central London. But no-one could deny Northampton’s day in the spotlight, fulfilling a desire to see justice doled out to their own celebrity crooks.
For twenty years, John Smith and his gang had terrorised the estates and old drovers’ routes around Whittlewood Forest, but now with his hands bound together, the cart rocked beneath his bulk as he staggered to his feet. The hangman climbed across the bars on the roof of the cab, securing the noose around his neck through the drop-hole. Feeling the prickle of stubble from his jaw wedged tight against the hemp of the rope, he tapped the notorious villain on the shoulder and, with a nod to the justices below, the Town Marshal stepped forward and read aloud the charges. Woozy from beer and a rush of adrenalin, John Smith’s huge chest heaved up and down, unable to hear the long list of crimes above his thumping heart. The hangman poked him with a stick to tell him it was his turn to speak.
‘All you young men,’ he boomed, trying to catch his breath. ‘Must take warning by our sad fate, bad company forsake. May the Lord have mercy upon us!’
The hangman nodded to the Marshal below who stepped up onto the wheel of the cart then dropped his hat as a signal to the Constable to whip the horse’s hindquarters, lurching the prisoner’s cart forward and launching the leader of the Culworth Gang into eternity.
A hush descended as the huge carcass struggled, the lift not sudden enough to kill him outright. His face bulged red as he choked, legs wriggling eight feet off the ground, running on thin air and sprinkling urine onto a row of spectators. Two men burst through the line, jumped up to pull at his legs, finally snapping his neck. Although not officially permitted, the authorities had learned to accept this behaviour, regardless of whether it was to end the condemned man’s suffering or with a grudge to bear, wanting to just finish him off. Either way, it set an example to others and speeded up the business of the day.
The crowd hushed after the initial excitement, but a cheer soon started up, in time with his heavy body as it swung back and forth. Finally, it came to rest, limp and lifeless, the prisoner’s neck no match for the ligature and burn of the Italian hemp rope. The acrid tang of horse manure mixed with the sweet scent of tobacco smoke rose above the expectant faces as they watched William Abbot’s cart line up alongside, the horse whinnying before holding steady. Second in seniority in the gang, Abbot had decided to make full use of his right to dress as he wanted for his final curtain call. Standing in a bridegroom’s frock coat and garters, his theatrical robbery methods, inspired by Dick Turpin, had only ever complicated the gang’s affairs. It was the hold-up of a dignitary from France (Abbé Le Blanc), forcing him to yield by firing a pistol into the air, stealing his money, watch and snuffbox, and leaving only two shillings to continue his journey that proved their undoing. Although, they parted courteously, Abbot had never expected to bump into him at Newmarket races. Placing a bet on the same horse, he apologised for that “trifling affair” but was followed and the gang arrested later that day.
“We have been found guilty,’ he declared, sweeping his hand across the other carts. ‘And are sentenced to be hanged, but if us could put right what we have done wrong…it is too late now, as we stand here before you condemned to die.’ He looked down to his family. ‘Goodbye my wife and children dear. May God protect you, where I have failed.’
With another crack of the whip, his slender frame was launched into the air, convulsing then collapsing beneath the flapping tails of his coat.
The six bodies were cut down an hour later, but as the sun set across the horizon, fifteen miles to the west, an eager group of farm labourers on horseback waited for the covered wagons of the Oxford Stagecoach, as it thundered along Banbury Lane heading for Plumpton Wood.