In common with many towns that had gaols and courts in the Middle Ages there is an element of cruelty and torment Horsham would not like to be remembered for. Of course the punishments were broadly in line with the law of the day but that does not make them any the less harsh when we interpret them by today’s standards.
Although much of the detail has been left out the faint-hearted may choose to move onto another post!
Horsham has had three gaols in its history. The first was in the 1530s, taking over from Lewes, the last one closed in the mid 19th century. There is also a full feature on Horsham’s Gaols. Together with the trials held in the court house, now the old town hall, some severe punishments were handed out.
During the 17th century, being a Quaker assured you the full attention of the law. In 1655 Thomas Lawcock (or Laycock) was gaoled for calling the vicar a liar and an ‘antichrist’. However, just being a Quaker was enough to get a gaol sentence. Ambrose Rigge (1635?-1705) was locked up in 1662 for 7 – 10 years although he was allowed to marry. His wife, Mary Luxford, bore him one child within the prison walls.
The more serious crimes were punished by burning at the stake or hanging. The last burning at the stake was in 1776 and the last hanging in 1844. A year later the gaol closed.
One of Horsham’s more infamous claims to fame was that it was the last place* in England to carry out the ‘peine forte et dure’ (hard and severe punishment). Even in those days a euphemism was required to describe being crushed to death. In 1735 John Weeks of Fittleworth was accused of the murder of Elizabeth Symonds near to Petworth. Weeks declined to offer a plea and, according to the law, the courts had no jurisdiction over him. Weeks was found guilty of ‘standing mute through malice’ and was sentenced to the peine forte et dure to persuade him to enter a plea. This should have taken place within a prison cell but instead it was carried out in full public view in the gaol grounds. Weeks was laid down with a board over him, a prison door according to some reports. Onto the door was piled 100 weights, then another 100 then a third. Weeks appeared to be dying and another 50 weights were added. Finally the 16 stone gaoler laid on the board and Weeks passed away
Why did Weeks not enter a plea? The answer lies with his dependents; by not entering a plea the Crown could not confiscate his house and property.
* Cambridge claims to have carried out a peine forte et dure in 1741. The punishment was abolished in 1772.
Two contemporary accounts are quoted below:
The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Vol. 13, Issue 371, May 23, 1829
LEGAL CRUSHING TO DEATH
At the assizes in Sussex, August, 1735, a man who pretended to be dumb and lame, was indicted for a barbarous murder and robbery. He had been taken up upon suspicion, several spots of blood, and part of the property being found upon him. When he was brought to the bar, he would not speak or plead, though often urged to it, and the sentence to be inflicted on such as stand mute, read to him, in vain. Four or five persons in the court, swore that they had heard him speak, and the boy who was his accomplice, and apprehended, was there to be a witness against him; yet he continued mute; whereupon he was carried back to Horsham gaol, to be pressed to death, if he would not plead—when they laid on him 100 weight, then added 100 more, and he still continued obstinate; they then added 100 more, which made 300 lb. weight, yet he would not speak; 50 lb. more was added, when he was nearly dead, having all the agonies of death upon him; then the executioner, who weighed about 16 or 17 stone, laid down upon the board which was over him, and, adding to the weight, killed him in an instant. G.K
Highways & Byways in Sussex
by E.V. Lucas, 1921
Horsham was the last place in which pressing to death was practised. The year was 1735, and the victim a man unknown, who on being charged with murder and robbery refused to speak. Witnesses having been called to prove him no mute, this old and horrible sentence, proper (as the law considered) to his offence and obstinacy, was passed upon him. The executioner, the story goes, while conveying the body in a wheelbarrow to burial, turned it out in the roadway at the place where the King’s Head now stands, and then putting it in again, passed on. Not long afterwards he fell dead at this spot.
In another case a few years later Ann Whale and Sarah Pledge fell foul of the law. Newly married to James Whale and about 20 year old Ann conspired with Sarah to kill her husband. The reason was Ann’s £80 [2006: £9,667.66] inheritance which James would have had control of. The first poisoning attempt failed; roasted spiders in beer did not have the desired effect. The second attempt, using the rat poison arsenic succeeded. Ann had tried to buy the poison from a shop where she would not be remembered. The purchase was made from the apothecary Mr Harfrey and this was the cause of their downfall. When the landlord of Ann’s house, Mr Agate of Corsletts, visited the apothecary Mr Harfrey asked whether the rat poison had been effective – Mr Agate was not aware of the rat problem!
When the pair came to trial they confessed the crime. Whereas Ann was a model prisoner Sarah was not. However, when the clergy intervened, both came to the execution with grace. On Friday 7th of August 1752 at 3:30 in the afternoon the hangman, ‘Jack Ketch’, despatched Sarah Pledge. Some two hours later Ann Whale was chained to the stake, strangled and burned to death. An immense crowd was reported to have watched both deaths. The executions were in this order to prevent Sarah inheriting Ann’s estate.
Ann was burned at the stake because her crime, murdering her husband, was considered to be petty treason and that was the only punishment. It is interesting to note that murdering your wife in those days was not treason. The final note on this tale is that Sarah Pledge’s body was taken away to Storrington where it was dissected by Dr Dennet Junior, the first recorded case in Sussex.
A six pence [2006:£3.02] pamphlet reported the case, the front cover is reproduced below, capitalisation and italics reproduced as per the original:
ANNE WHALE and SARAH PLEDGE
Who were tried and condemned at the Assizes held at Horsham in the County of Sussex,
Before the Right Honble Sir JOHN WILLES, Lord Chief
Justice of his Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas,
Sir THOMAS DENISON Knt, one of his Majesty’s Justices,
The 20th of July, 1752.
For the barbarous and inhuman Murder of JAMES WHALE, Husband of the said ANNE WHALE, by poison, when ANNE WHALE was sentenced to be burnt, in being guilty of Petty Treason
And SARAH PLEDGE to be hanged, as being an accessory, Aider and Abettor in the said Crime, which Sentence was accordingly executed on them on Friday the 7th of August 1752, at Horsham aforesaid.
Together with their Authentick Examinations and Confessions, taken before JOHN WICKER, and SAMUEL BLUNT, Esqs, two of his Majesty’s Justices of the Peace for the County of Sussex.
This Pamphlet is worthy of the Perusal of Persons of all Ranks and Denominations, as it contains a Series of uncommon Events, and more particularly the remarkable Contrivance of Sarah Pledge, in endeavouring to poison the said James Whale, by putting Spiders in his Beer.
L O N D O N
Printed for M. COOPER, at the Globe in Pater-noster Row, and Messrs VERRAL and LEE, at Lewis
Another case of dissection is also recorded, this time a public event. Richard Grazemark was convicted of murdering his daughter, also of incest with her and of attempted suicide. In the spring of 1790 it was reported that, following his hanging, Grazemark’s corpse was handed over to local surgeons Price & Sopay who carried out the dissection in public – from the first incision to the boiling of the bones. Some of his skin was even passed to local tanners and made into the soles of footwear for some Horsham residents.
On Saturday the 6th March 1830 a drunken brawl outside the Queen’s Head in Brighton Road led to the murder of Edward Smith. Following an evening of drink and card playing the fighting broke out in front of the public house. Initially it was not between Smith and his assailant Henry James Hewett, the fight began between William Smithers and Thomas Woodman. Before this had ended the second, fatal, fight had begun. Hewett stabbed Smith who was said to have died within 15 minutes. During the trial on the 30th March 1830 Hewett was acquitted of murder but transported to Bermuda for life on a manslaughter charge. Some reports say that Hewett was back in Horsham after 10 years although his name does not appear on the 1841 census.
A much shorter sentence awaited James Booker for the theft of a horse roller, stolen on the 15th January, 1841 from Henry Padwick, Esq. Booker made the mistake of taking it to a local pawnbroker, Mr Tulhurst of West Street, Horsham. Tulhurst refused the item and reported it to Horsham’s first full time police officer John Coppard Gower, appointed in 1839. Booker was brought before the magistrates the following day at the King’s Head Hotel. He was sentenced to 14 days in prison and one private whipping.
Some ten years later a death took place that today may have been viewed as an accident. On Saturday 14th June, 1851 an eleven year old boy, John Payne, stabbed thirteen year old William Gibson. Payne stayed with Gibson until help arrived but Gibson died on the 25th of June. The incident took place outside 28 Causeway. In the Sussex Assizes at Lewes later that year Payne was found guilty of manslaughter and was transported for 10 years.
Perhaps one of the more bizarre prosecutions took place at the Summer Assizes in Horsham on Friday 11th July 1788 – and it was a second offence! A local school master Richard Thornton arranged for the dumping of 80 buckets of night soil to be dumped on Gaol Green, approximately where the Carfax Bandstand is today. The offence took place overnight on Tuesday 2nd of October in 1788 and the human excrement stayed in place for a week, the smell for two weeks longer. Thornton arranged for the night soil to be cleared by James Vinall and his servant on the nights of 7, 8 & 9th of October. His previous conviction cost him 40 shillings [2006: £190.26], the fine for this offence is not recorded although it was the 16th of January the following year before was able to pay it.
In more recent times Horsham played host to the Acid Bath Murderer John George Haigh. His committal trial was held at the old town hall and he was held at cell number two in the police station in Barttelot Road. At that time it was the Sussex Police Headquarters
Haigh’s infamy arose from his misinterpretation of the law. Whilst in prison for more petty crimes he read up on the law. He determined that a body of evidence was required before a prosecution could take place and mistakenly took the statement too literally. Haigh disposed of his murder victims in baths of acid in a basement in London SW7 and in his workshops in nearby Crawley. Haigh was executed by hangman Albert Pierrepoint at Wandsworth on 10 August 1949.