The History of the Dorchester Gallows

Dorchester GallowsFrom the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 32, 1911, an article written by the Rev. S. E. v. Filleul, M.A.  entitled ‘The History of the Dorchester Gallows’

In Speed’s plan of the town of Dorchester, published in 1610, the gallows is clearly located at the angle of what is now called Icen Way, and South Walks. It is depicted, not in the gibbet form, such as one might have frequently seen at cross-roads in the country, with the wasted frames of highwaymen hanging in irons, rattling out their unwholesome sermons to passers-by as long as they held together; but in the usual pattern of two uprights with a crossbeam connecting them. The drawing is suggestive enough of a certain width between the two uprights, giving space enough for the two-wheel cart to pass through that bore the victim and his coffin. Standing between the posts, while the rope was being adjusted, it formed the platform which relatives and friends mounted to bid their last farewells, and upon which the black-gowned priest stood to the end exhorting to confession and repentance.

Dorchester Gallows highlighted on John Speed's Plan of the town

Dorchester Gallows highlighted on John Speed’s Plan of the town

The street now called Icen Way was not so named in years /gone by. It started as ” Gaol-lane,” from the gaol at the corner of High East-street; then a section was known as Bell-street,” taking this name from the Bell Inn, which stood just above the present gasworks. Here the condemned were allowed to halt and take their last earthly refreshment. The final section up to the fatal mound was ” Gallows Hill.” Upon this spot thousands must have suffered the cruel lingering death by strangling that our murderous laws condemned man, woman, and child to suffer for even a theft to the worth of 5s. Here, periodically, following the Assizes, the State provided its public spectacles of torture, thinking to terrorise evil-doers and improve the morals of the people. Up the narrow lane from gaol to gallows the dismal processions with the jolting cart constantly climbed. Sometimes, as a heretic or a traitor, the condemned would be dragged by the heels along the rough road, or upon a hurdle or sledge, with frightened horses kicking and plunging. At the end of his journey still keener suffering awaited him, to be hung, and even before death, disembowelled, and then quartered. The crowd was always ready for the pastime, of which it never grew weary. It was mostly a bloodthirsty crowd that drank and cursed and jeered around the gallows, but many there must have been that pitied and prayed when some ragged, trembling lad was led up to close a life that had hardly begun, or as they saw husband and wife or parents and children ruthlessly parted when the last terrible moment arrived.  Dorchester gallows have a long, grim tale to tell, for they were the County gallows, fed by the County gaol.

The Dorset Martyrs, Bronze maquette, 2/8. Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, 1986. One of eight maquettes made in the creation of the statue group erected at Gallows Hill, South Walks, Dorchester. A memorial to those Dorset men and women who died for their faiths during the religious troubles of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in particular to those who were executed at Gallows Hill, South Walks.

The Dorset Martyrs, Bronze maquette, 2/8. Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, 1986.
One of eight maquettes made in the creation of the statue group erected at Gallows Hill, South Walks, Dorchester. A memorial to those Dorset men and women who died for their faiths during the religious troubles of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in particular to those who were executed at Gallows Hill, South Walks. © DCM

A hundred years after these early plans of the town were drawn by Speed, the gallows was removed to another place. It is shown, still of the same design, standing on the west side of the Amphitheatre, between it and the Weymouth-road, in the engraving of that place to be found in ” Grose’s Antiquities.” The date of the picture is 1755. And Stukeley, in his ” Itinerary,” written in 1723, tells us that ” the amphitheatre was in greater perfection before the gallows was removed hither by an unlucky humour of the Sheriff; since when the parapet at top is on that side much beaten down by the trampling of men and horses at executions.” He seems to speak of the gallows as having been recently removed, further on, when he says, “the parapet is now 3 or 4 foot high, but much ruined on that side next the gallows, since last year at an execution.” However, there is some reason for supposing that the removal was a little earlier than this. The celebrated burning of Mary Channing took place in 1703, and upon the floor of the amphitheatre. Female criminals were frequently burnt alive at that time, and for some years afterwards; perhaps it was the punishment of the worst, in the place of the drawing, hanging, and quartering which would have been the fate of a man. Had the gallows still been in its old position, she would probably have been burnt on Gallows Hill, and not at the amphitheatre. Therefore it seems most likely that the gallows was removed about the year 1700, from that place to the Weymouth-road site. I am making rather a point of this date, because it seems pretty evident that the Monmouth rebels suffered on the old site of Gallows Hill, and not .on the new site.

Maumbury Gallows Engraved by J. Newton, 1786, for Grose's "Antiquities"

Maumbury Gallows Engraved by J. Newton, 1786, for Grose’s “Antiquities” © DCM

The gallows by the amphitheatre seems to have been in regular use up to the time that the new prison was built, facing North-square, about the year 1795. At that time, or soon after, the humane method of despatching prisoners more rapidly, by giving them a longer drop, was allowed. This seems to have been provided for in executions at the prison. An Execution Bill of 1807 describes the hanging of three men on “the new drop upon the lodge of the Castle at Dorchester.” I have a broadsheet giving the sentences of prisoners at the Lent Assizes at Dorchester in 1801. There were 48 cases tried, almost all for thefts. Several were sentenced to transportation for very small offences, ten were condemned to death, one being a woman, Lydia Hiskins, for stealing a banknote. Plainly up to that date harsh measures had not succeeded in curing the poor people of their belief in the right to live by hook or by crook.

But by this time the efforts of men like Fielding and Romilly to obtain more wise and humane treatment of criminals were beginning to tell, and though death sentences were passed according to law, they were not always carried out. In the large scrap-book volume belonging to this Museum library there are several specimens of the broadsheets printed and sold in the streets after executions at the beginning of the last century. These are usually headed with a coarse woodcut of the typical gibbet, and the felon hanging, and generally give an account of his offences and of his last moments These specimens date from 1819 to 1833. They record deaths for burglaries and arson. The so-called “new drop,” which was in use for some fifty years seems to have been arranged over the stout low archway which formed the entrance into the prison from North-square, the predecessor of one lately removed. Some still living remember the body of the last criminal executed there, hanging on the skyline, a woman, Martha Brown, who had murdered her husband.

Then the scene was shifted to a spot within the walls of the prison, overlooking and within sight of the meadows by the river. Many can still tell of the thousands that used to gather below the gaol at the “Hang Fairs.” By daybreak the best places were taken, and the waiting .time was spent in drinking, fiddling, and dancing. The time, it is said, of the executions in early days determined by the arrival of the coach from London, which might possibly bear a reprieve at the last moment. The “Royal Mail”. coach was timed to arrive at the King’s Arms at 9.30 a.m., after 13½ hours run from London, via Salisbury. In Cutler’s ” Original Notes of Dorchester ” the story is told of a poor fellow who declined to halt at the Bell Inn for a parting glass with the constables; listening to his earnest request, they hastened their business, and turned him off just as the postmaster came shouting up the hill bearing a delayed reprieve. They cut the rope in a moment and fetched a surgeon. He could only shake his head and announce “Too late.” ” Sarved him right,” cried the indignant beer swillers standing around, “he should have stopped for his drink.” “Quite the contrary,” retorted the surgeon, with ill-timed levity, “I will stake my reputation on the fact—the poor fellow has taken a drop too much.”

The Mercy Weight. One of two weights made of lead, from Dorchester Prison, dating from the 19th century. These were attached to those executed by hanging, to give weight.

The Mercy Weight. One of two weights made of lead, from Dorchester Prison, dating from the 19th century. These were attached to those executed by hanging, to give weight.

The last public execution was in 1863, when two men named Preedy and Fooks suffered on the same day. The case of Preedy aroused much interest. The Rev. Henry Moule, Vicar of Fordington, visited him in the prison constantly to the last, and afterwards published a book of 94 pages, entitled Hope against Hope,’ giving an account of his life and repentance. Many thousand people assembled on this occasion. Two enterprising brothers erected a temporary grandstand in the meadows, with seats at 2s. 6d., which was so well patronised that it collapsed beneath the weight of sightseers, and they subsided into the mud below. In Mr. Thomas Hardy’s tale of The Withered Arm,’ a day of this kind provides a terrible page of reading. The saddler’s shop in High-East-street which from long custom supplied the new rope required for the gallows has only been closed this summer. This was of the best quality, always of hemp, probably supplied from Bridport; and the old Hangman’s Cottage at the bottom of Glyde-path-hill still stands, where the busy official, the last bearing the name of Davies, once lived. And a curious memorial is preserved in the Dorset County Museum, the two lead weights, engraved with the word ‘MERCY,’ provided by a humane governor of the gaol, to hasten the end of Silvester Wilkins, a very light subject, executed in 1833 for arson at Bridport. The last death sentence carried out at Dorchester was in May, 1887. I was in the neighbourhood at the time, and heard that the hangman sold the rope at so much a foot in one of the public houses afterwards ; but this I can hardly believe.

Hangmans Cottage. Colliton Park, The Walks, Dorchester.

Hangmans Cottage. Colliton Park, The Walks, Dorchester. © DCM

Out of the gloom that gathers round the history of the Dorchester gallows in past centuries, two or three figures, or groups of figures, stand out distinctly, and whilst on the subject it seems a fitting opportunity to recall them. One and the latest has been already named, the unfortunate Mary Channing, but 18 years old, burnt in the Amphitheatre in the year 1703. It was a peculiar case of murder that brought her to this end, but the punishment was not unusual. One female at least suffered in this way 18 years before, after the Monmouth Rebellion ; and the worthy Lady Lisle was condemned to this death on the same account at Winchester, though her sentence was altered to hanging after petition to the King. But the burning of Mary Channing was made a kind of county fete; 10,000 spectators gathered to view it. No doubt the nature of the spot chosen and the good view of the stake provided in this well-arranged theatre, accounted largely for the crowd that gathered, and that made the event so memorable.

The earliest recorded executions of note were those of Roman Catholics in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, on the charge of high treason. Hutchins gives the names of six that died on the gallows. Four of these suffered on the same day, July 4th, 1594; one, John Cornelius, the principal rebel, was hung, drawn, and quartered. His head was nailed to the gallows, but the Sheriff removed it at the prayer of the townsmen, who suffered ill-luck, it was thought, in consequence of it. Cornelius was born at Bodmin, but was captured while resident at the house of Lady Arundel, near Chideock. In Alfred Mark’s ‘Tyburn Tree’ a curious account is given in Strype’s words of the finding of his skull together with three others, in Blackfriars, when clearing away rubbish after the Fire of London. It had evidently been carried away from Dorchester by some sympathising coreligionists. Strype narrates the discovery of four pewter cases containing a head each. He says, “one of these pots I saw, with the head in it, in October, 1703, being in the custody of Mr. Presbury, then sope maker in Smithfield, which pot had inscribed in the inside of the cover, in a scrawling character (which might be used in the time of Henry VIII.), I. Cornelius. This head was without any neck, having short red hair upon it, thick, and that would not be pulled off ; and yellow hair upon the temples ; a little bald on the top (perhaps a tonsure), the fore-part of the nose sunk, the mouth gaping, ten sound teeth, others had been plucked out; the skin like tanned leather, the features of the face visible. The other three heads had some of the necks joined to them and had a broader and plainer razure, which showed them priests. These three heads are now dispersed. It is probable they were at last privately procured and conveyed abroad, and now become holy relics. Who these were, there is no record, as I know of ; nor had any of them names inscribed but one.” The identity of this I. Cornelius with the Dorchester victim was not discovered till some years later. I have the engraved portrait of I. Cornelius from one of the old Books of Martyrs, with the Latin inscription beneath : “Pio Cornelius Anglus Soc. Jesu (Jesuit) Novitius Dorcesta pro Catholica fide suspensus et sectus, an. 1594.” From another Book I have the portrait of John Slade, a Dorset man, who was ” drawn, hanged, bowelled, and quartered ” for maintaining the Roman power ; but the sentence was carried out at Winchester.

Lastly, we come to the batch of prisoners, 13 in number, who were condemned by Judge Jeffreys, and suffered on the old Gallows Hilll. In the Western Martyrology ” the dying speeches of three of this number are given us – Matthew Bragg, Thomas Smith, and Joseph Speed, with special details of their deaths. The 13 were hung in succession, one after the other. Smith being the first by particular order of the Judge. The bodies were treated in the manner usual for traitor, an exception being made of the body of Matthew Bragg, which was given by the Judge to his friends for burial. He was probably an innocent man, and felt, to have been so by his persecutor after the sentence was passed. but foolishly he had pleaded “not guilty ” and so lost all chance of justice. The speeches were made from the ladder, up which the prisoner climbed to reach the noose let down from the crossbeam by the hangman. ‘The cart no longer figures at this particular point in the proceedings. When the speech was finished the ladder was turned over, and so, in the common language of those days, the prisoner was “turned off ” and launched into eternity. They were probably drawn on hurdles in most places to the gallows; “sledges ” is the name given to the rude vehicles used in Dorchester and Lyme. At Lyme Regis two sets of horses refused to draw the sledge; they ended by kicking it to pieces, and the prisoners therefore went on foot through the streets. The quarters of 12 men were distributed in Dorchester and the neighbourhood, the head of one being fixed on a spike that till lately was an interesting ornament of the porch of St. Peter’s Church. This spike is now preserved in the museum. There is no entry in the Borough Records of any expense connected with the executions ; it was outside their department. But a horrible set of entries is to be found in the Weymouth records ; they are published in Moule’s Catalogue of Charters, &c., of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis,” The Mayor of this borough was ordered through the Sheriff to prepare a gallows for the execution of 12 persons, It was erected on or near Greenhill, in the confines of the borough. Thirty-two quarters and six heads were distributed in the villages round, while 16 quarters and six heads were reserved for Weymouth itself. Then the bill of costs is given— “Disbursements for the gallows, burning and boiling the rebels executed per order at this town—£l5 14s. 3d.”

From the “Western Martyrology” we gather that the ghastly preparations for the final disposal of the bodies went on in the sight of the victims. Roger Satchel, at Weymouth. is described, when delivering his dying speech from the Ladder, as ” pointing to the wood that was to burn his bowels.” The barbarous proceedings conducted at Weymouth were no doubt repeated at Dorchester and at other towns. I notice also in the same book the statement that “some scores died every week of small pox “ in the gaol. This, I think, must be an exaggeration, as there is no indication of a corresponding number of burials in our Burial Register. Eighteen only are there entered as ” prisoners ” at that time. Yet possibly friends who could afford it removed the dead to their own churchyards, all over the country, and a much larger number could thus be accounted for.

I am thankful to have reached the end of this short history of Dorchester gallows. The saddest of recollections are awakened, and even after so long a time, resentment kindles at the thought of so much injustice suffered often by helpless and defenceless prisoners. One can enter into the spirit of Dryden when he wrote of the gallows of Tyburn Tree:-

“Oh Tyburn I couldst thou reason and dispute,
Couldst thou but judge as well as execute;
How often woulst thou change the felon’s doom
And truss some stern Chief Justice in his room”.

In a short article written by R. A. H. Farrar, M.A. from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 88, 1966 entitled ‘The Dorchester Gallows’

The, Dorchester Prison mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857.

The Dorchester Prison Mosaic, 4th Century. A tinted photographic lithograph. John Pouncy, 2nd December 1858. Using one of his new experimental photographic processes. This mosaic was presented to the Dorset County Museum by the Governor of Dorchester Prison in 1885, after its removal from the Prison chapel where it had been relaid in 1858. It was set on the north wall of the museum staircase masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857. © DCM

The late Lady Pinney’s essay, published in 1966 in the Hardy Monographs series, on Thomas Hardy and the Birdsmoorgate Murder 1856, recalls to the writer his own interest some years ago in some of the circumstances of the execution of Martha Brown. This was due primarily to the fact that it was in digging her grave, in the burial yard of Dorchester Prison, that the mosaic was found that is now fixed to the staircase wall of the County Museum, although it was not until the burial of James Seal, executed on the 10th August 1858, that rediscovery led to its excavation by Governor J. V. D. Lawrance and subsequent relaying in the former prison chapel.

The writer was of course led at that time to the valuable history of the Dorchester gallows published in our Proceedings, Vol. 32 (1911), by the Rev. S. E. V. Filleul. Since it does not appear that his account, now over 50 years old, has been enlarged on, it may be worth pointing out two errors, one of which, relating to the removal of the gallows from Maumbury Rings, had been stated correctly elsewhere, and the other bearing on the execution of the unfortunate Martha Brown.

Dorchester Prison Mosaic

Dorchester Prison Mosaic now hangs on the staircase wall of the Dorset County Museum masked by the overhanging portrait of James John Farquharson, 1857. © DCM

Filleul’s first error (excluding a mis-dating of 1703 for the 1706 execution of Mary Channing at Maumbury by burning following strangulation) was in supposing that the gallows outside the Rings remained in use until the new prison was completed on the present site in 1795. An entry in the pocket book of William Cummg, M.D., for 2nd December 1766, quoted by Boswell Stone in Proceedings, Vol. 24 (1903), p. 36, tells us that “This Day the Gallows removed fm Maumbury and a new One erected on Fordington Down at expense of ye County Cost of £4.” Newton’s view showing the gibbet at Maumbury, published anachronistically in Grosse’s Antiquities in 1786, was engraved in 1755, as Filleul was aware.

The second error concerns the position of the gallows at the County Gaol. Filleul comments on the hanging of Martha Brown over the lodge formerly existing at the North Square entrance to the prison, supposing that this was the ‘new drop’  which had been in use, as he said, for some 50 years, the site then being ‘shifted to a spot within the walls of the prison, overlooking and within sight of the meadows by the river.’ Martha Brown was indeed executed. on 9th August 1856 over the North Square lodge  in full view of the young Thomas Hardy and a great concourse of sight-seers, but this was an innovation. as the contemporary files of the Dorset County Chronicle, listed by Lady Pinney. make clear. It was not repeated, owing to the resultant dislocation of traffic in the centre of the town, and two years later, when James Seal met his end, it was once again upon the traditional ‘new drop’, over the monumental main entrance lodge that still grimly but elegantly overlooks the meadows.

According to Filleul the last execution in Dorchester was in May 1887, and the last public execution that of Preedy and Fooks in 1863, so Jim Lane of Blackdown, whose memories were taken down by Lady Pinney in 1926. was at fault in according this unenviable distinction to poor Martha.

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Lecture: Thomas Hardy and Dorset Folklore by Dr. Peter Robson

Hardy Players' Mummers

The Mummers in the Hardy Players’ version of ‘The Return of the Native’. Eustacia Vye (extreme left, disguised) was played by Gertrude Bugler. On Christmas Night 1920 the players gave a performance at Hardy’s house, Max Gate.

The novels and stories of Thomas Hardy are filled with examples of folklore – customs, songs, superstitions, witches, mummers and much more.

But were these country traditions actually taken by Hardy from the Dorset of his childhood or were they products of his fertile literary imagination?  On the Thursday 25th July 2013 at 7.30pm at the Dorset County Museum Dr. Peter Robson will explore this question by looking at a variety of examples of Dorset folklore described by Hardy, from the Mellstock Quire to the Egdon Mummers, from Conjuror Trendle to the unfortunate William Privett and beyond. He will illustrate his talk by pictures of the people and places concerned and by sound recordings.

Dr. Peter Robson has been researching Dorset folklore for many years and has written and spoken widely on this subject. Most recently he has become particularly interested in Thomas Hardy’s writings as an almost untapped source for the study of rural folklore.

This is the second in a series of five lectures about Thomas Hardy and is part of a larger project including the National Trust and the University of Exeter. It is hoped that the more academic nature of these lectures will provide the general public and lovers of Hardy’s novels with an increased connection to contemporary ideas about his work.

Entry to the talk is FREE but a donation of £3.00 is encouraged to cover costs. Everyone is welcome and there is no need to book.  Doors open at 7.00pm.

For further information contact the Museum on 01305 262735 or check the website on

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