Saturday, 24 December 2011



The last executions on Penenden Heath attracted a huge crowd. Because of fears of disorder and even of a rescue attempt, there was a very strong military presence which escorted the wagon carrying the prisoners, sitting on their coffins, from Maidstone gaol to the place of execution.

The brothers William and Henry Packman, aged 18 and 19 respectively, had been found guilty firing of a farmer’s barn. In his summing-up the judge had observed that their accomplice, Bishop, who had turned King’s Evidence, was ‘according to the jury, more guilty than you’ but that did not save them. Another man, John Dyke, guilty of setting fire to a barn at Bearsted, suffered a similar fate.

On the scaffold, invited by the chaplain to admit his guilt, Dyke stubbornly refused. Others had perjured themselves, he said. The Packmans were likewise steadfast, shaking hands before, in the last seconds, William, whose wrists seem not to have been bound behind him, tore the hood off his face, declaring that he wished to see the crowd. After the bodies had hung for the usual hour they were cut down. The father of the Packman brothers took his sons to Canterbury for burial.

            In the early afternoon of Christmas Day, the house of William Chainey at Benenden was broken into, the robber making off with more than £20 in notes, sovereigns and seven shilling pieces. The thief also took several initialled shirts, a red waistcoat, several silk handkerchiefs and a velveteen jacket. He also stole a two pistols. A young boy saw the man, describing him as youngish and tall, wearing a short round frock and long trousers. He looked to be carrying something in his shirt front. The boy described him as looking rather like a millwright. But the thief seems not to have been caught.

The Times carries an extensive and detailed report on crime and vagrancy throughout the country. At the time counties and towns were preparing for the first time to establish police forces. Part of the report refers to matters in Northbourne near Deal.

Here the principal felonies were sheepstealing. Such thefts occurred weekly and rarely was anyone caught. The animals were usually slaughtered in the fields at night. There were other minor thefts of poultry and honey from hives. Fruit, when in season, was taken as well as all kinds of garden produce and sacks of corn and barley. Farm tools went missing, even the wheels from barrows, in fact anything ‘not under lock and key.’

Saturday, 17 December 2011



For many years during the mid- to late-eighteenth century a sovereign cure for the gullible, Beaume de Vie, was advertised in newspapers in almost every county. This ‘most admirable Family Medicine’ was on sale for three shillings a bottle at many pharmacies.

Who could resist such persuasive copy? Look at the high-class language: really way beyond the capacities of an ordinary man. And you could always tell an educated gentleman by his language: an educated man could be trusted. Couldn't he?

By the KING’S Patent

The great Number of extraordinary Cures daily performed by this most efficacious Medicine, accounts of which are sent from all Parts of the British Dominions, render it unnecessary to lavish Encomiums on its salutary Effects; suffice it therefore to say, that the Beaume, by its cordial, attenuating, and detergent Powers, fortifies the Stomach and Bowels, and by procuring a good Digestion, purifies the Blood and Juices, and gives Vigour to the whole Constitution. To these Qualities the Faculty attribute its having proved so eminently serviceable in Gouty, Rheumatic, Scorbutic, Languid, Nervous, and Hypochondriac Cases: and hence, also, they account for its being so particularly beneficial in Female Disorders.

CASE – A.C. Esq; of a gross, corpulent Habit, had been several Years so afflicted with ulcerated Legs, that he could not walk: The sedentary life he led had reduced him so low, that he was confined to his Chamber, with both Legs supported on a Stool; and, to add to his Misery, he was constantly tormented with the Gout. A Friend, who was Eye-Witness to the good Effects of the Beaume de Vie, in the Case of Mr S, which he thought similar, strongly recommended it to him: He, for a long time, declined it, from a Dislike to advertised Medicines, but his Case growing daily worse, he at last ventured. The good Effects were almost instantaneous; Sleep, which for a long Time had forsaken him, was restored: His Appetite which had been quite palled, returned; and his Digestion was good. In Six Weeks his Gout left him; and in two more, the Ulcers, which during the Course was dressed with a Dossel [bandage] of Lint dipped in the Beaume were perfectly cicatrised. It is nine Months since the Cure was completed, and he can walk eight or ten Miles at a Time. He has not had the least Return of any Complaint except once that he was threatened with an Attack of the Gout but which yielded to a few Spoonfuls of the Beaume.

Monday, 12 December 2011



In early December 1862, after four months awaiting trial for a serious offence, George Dennis of Cranbrook was acquitted at Maidstone Assizes. It was bad enough being imprisoned for such a time but he also had worries about his wife and children.

Only a day or so before his arrest his wife had borne their third child. What most immediately concerned her was how to provide for the children. She feared she might have to go to the workhouse. ‘I cannot bear to go there,’ she said. ‘They have taken George away and if I go there my poor children will be separated from me too.’ She knew that if the Guardians offered her some financial relief she would be able to keep the family together. But the Guardians were adamant: she must go in to the workhouse. If she refused she would have no help from them. Her father, a farm worker, now offered to take his daughter and her three children into his house and provide for them on condition that the Guardians would allow them two gallons of flour and two shillings a week.

One morning, after having had a small piece of bread and a little weak tea for breakfast, Mrs Dennis, carrying her baby, went to the workhouse to hear the decision on this latest proposal. After waiting for some hours she was told that the Guardians’ decision was unaltered. She must enter the workhouse or do without. By the time she reached home it was 6 o'clock and she had had nothing to eat since breakfast time. No one had thought of giving her or her child anything during the long hours in which she had waited. One of the Guardians said that he was aware that Mrs Dennis would starve but that the remedy was in her own hands.

When George Dennis returned home after his acquittal he found his wife in a state of semi-starvation, and his children in rags. His watch, his furniture, even the bed, had been sold partly to procure bread and partly to provide a counsel to assist him in proving his innocence of the crime of which he was accused.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011



Public executions, likened by some to theatrical events, attracted enormous crowds, sometimes more than four thousand.  No matter how far away, despite the lack of any public transport system, despite the fact that the majority of folk possessed no other means of transport than their hind legs, they would walk miles, from early light, to gain a good vantage point at an execution. For hours, in a noisy fairground atmosphere, an excited mob  would jostle for the best possible positions, struggling past pickpockets, sellers of lace and gingerbread, cardsharps and ballad-mongers who related in detail the last minutes of the not yet despatched criminal. And none would jostle to reach a place at the front more energetically than those who had come for a special reason, that only this place and this hanging man could satisfy.

The Maidstone Journal of 1 April 1819 illustrates this.

James Morgan, a 39-year-old, guilty of the theft of 101 sheep from a farm at Bowhill and William Bowra, a highway robber from Tunbridge Wells, were conveyed on a wagon from Maidstone gaol to Penenden Heath. Despite making the usual preparations, the hangman appears to have bungled the affair. While the 19-year-old Bowra’s departure went off without a hitch, the heavily built Morgan fell down so far that his toes were touching the platform and he appeared to be standing up straight with the rope around his neck. The very full report in the newspaper says that ‘the persons surrounding the scaffold with great celerity and presence of mind almost instantaneously got away the platform from under his feet.’ In other words they assisted the inept hangman.

If this episode was not horrifying enough the Journal offered further detail. ‘After the criminals had hung some time, the usual disgusting scene took place of persons afflicted with wens [tumours; goitre] applying to the executioner for the purpose of having the swellings rubbed with a hand of the deceased which the credulity and ignorance of the afflicted or their relatives led them to suppose it would be an effectual cure. On this occasion, many persons of both sexes, and of various ages underwent the operation. One decent, pretty-looking girl about 17 years of age presented herself at the moment when the body of Morgan was about to be cut down and she actually got upon his coffin to stand sufficiently high for the hand of the corpse to be drawn several times over her neck.’

Superstitious? A ghoulish appetite for violence? Cruel and unfeeling? Not at all like us? Is this how our forefathers were? Should we judge them on this? My great grandmother, born in 1850, could have seen a public execution. The last one was in 1868. When I was a child I met her. To me the past and its people doesn't seem so far off when seen in those terms.

Sunday, 4 December 2011



One ailment particularly rife in many parts of Britain in times past was whooping cough. This wretched illness, with a cough that might last up to three months, was highly infectious and often fatal to babies. There used to be regular epidemics and it is not surprising that in addition to the many herbal remedies available this illness resulted in charmers prescribing a huge variety of cures.

In the late seventeenth century Richard Stapley, who lived at Hickstead Place in Sussex, wrote one of these cures in his diary: ‘Take three field mice, flay them, draw them and roast them and let the party afflicted eat it; dry the others in the oven until they crumble to a powder, and put a little of the powder in what the patient drinks at night and in the morning.’

['flay' means to skin; 'draw' means to remove the innards.]

Others would have the mouse boiled in milk and another recommendation recorded by William Parish, the vicar of Selmeston, was to roast the mouse alive. He was wryly dubious about effect of this particular approach. ‘Whether it is really good for the whooping cough or not I cannot say,’ the vicar comments, ‘but I am sure it must be bad for the mouse.'

As a cure, live spiders wrapped inside cobwebs had its supporters as did a silk bag filled with hair from the cross on a donkey’s neck. In this cure the patient sat on the donkey facing backwards and was sent to a certain spot three times on three successive days. On the other hand there were those who favoured eating bread and butter from a family whose father and mother were named John and Joan.

Do let me know if you find these cures helpful!

Thursday, 1 December 2011



I indicated in my last piece – FACT AND FICTION – that the magistrate Mr Prout had no doubt that the man he went to interview in the cell was guilty even before they had spoken. 'Hanging material', Mr Prout had immediately thought, just judging by the man's disreputable appearance. Well, I suppose we all tend to make judgements based on first impressions.

The newspapers of earlier times always gave lengthy and detailed accounts of trials, often describing those charged with offences in the most unflattering terms, even before any verdict was reached. Today, of course, such reporting would result in fines for the newspaper and  demands for a retrial.

My fictional character who sits manacled and fettered in prison is based on descriptions of members of the Isaacs gang who robbed and murdered and generally terrorised parts of Sussex, Kent and Surrey in the 1840s. These men led brutal lives, a shiftless crew, a gallery of reckless rogues, each seemed to match his neighbour in viciousness. They had little fear, less shame.

At the appearance of gang members charged with murder in the Guildford magistrates court in October 1850, the press had no hesitation, even before the decision to send them for trial at the Assizes, in describing them in lurid terms.

One member of the gang, 25 year old Richard Trowler, alias Hiram Smith, appearing as a prosecution witness to save his skin, is decribed as having 'the slight, active figure of the accomplished burglar with a cast of countenance at once cunning, cowardly and cruel. His face is extremely forbidding in expression, his features having that sharp prominent character which marks the rogue while the doubtful and hesitating glance of the eye indicates a disposition at once cunning and irresolute.'

Even his mother couldn't have loved him. As for the others, well...

One of the two men charged, twenty-nine year old Levi Harwood appears even less prepossessing. 'He is a ruffianly looking man, square built and evidently possessing considerable physical strength. His features are coarse and rugged and his face betrays the mastery of violent passions. He looks like one of those idle fellows, half-hostlers, half-anything else, who are seen loitering about country inns and waiting for any job that may turn up for him.'

The third man is hardly more appealing. 'James Jones is about middle-size, his features flat and repulsive and his whole physiognomy expressive of a life of depravity and crime. Both he and Levi Harwood look like bold determined fellows, capable of carrying through any deed of violence they may once have undertaken.'

At the Assiszes, Harwood and Jones were sentenced to hang for the murder of the Revd Mr Hollest at Frimley in Surrey. Perhaps in this case these newspaper reports did not affect the verdict but they certainly make for lively reading. Perhaps it's rather better the way we restrain the press today. After all they do like a story, don't they? And sometimes they do overstep the bounds!! Don't they?