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International Socialism, Autumn 1995


Peter Linebaugh

‘To the teeth and forehead of our faults’ [1]


From International Socialism 2:68, Autumn 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


V.A.C. Gatrell
The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770–1868
Oxford University Press, 1994),£20

‘The first law which it becomes a reformer to propose and support, at the approach of a period of great political change, is the abolition of the punishment of death,’ stated Percy Shelley in his Essay on the Punishment of Death (1813–1814). [2] Are we in such a period now? And does it therefore behove us to propose the abolition of the death penalty? To put the questions in perspective, if not to answer them, we may look at two revolutions of the past, the English Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. To force money out of the City of London in 1640 Stafford advised Charles I to hang some recalcitrant aldermen. Two ’prentices were hanged instead, one tortured on the rack (the last time the instrument was used in England). The hangings hastened revolution. [3] Shelley understood the historical logic. Those who suffer for political crimes die,

... in such a manner to make death appear not evil but good. The death of what is called a traitor, that is, a person who, from whatever motive, would abolish the government of the day, is as often a triumphant exhibition of suffering virtue as the warning of a culprit.

The conduct of Charles Stuart during his decapitation in 1649 did the royalist party more good than any other act of his reign. Thus, the English Revolution shows how the death penalty can help social change, and how it can stop it!

Turning to the Industrial Revolution, Shelley wrote about the death of another royal person, and sought to explain abolition of the death penalty and the Industrial Revolution. We Pity the Plumage but Forget the Dying Bird: An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte was the title of his great abolitionist tract. Princess Charlotte died on 6 November 1817. At the same time Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam, and William Turner – the Pentridge rebels – were hanged and beheaded. They had led a wholly proletarian insurrection. Shelley unhesitatingly identified the evil ‘in its simplest and most intelligible shape.’ The ‘day labourer gains no more now by working 16 hours a day than he gained before by working eight.’ At the root of all: ‘Many and various are the mischiefs flowing from oppression, but this is the representative of them all; namely, that one man is forced to labour for another ...’ How is the mischief of hanging ‘represented’ by forced labour? Gatrell, a Cambridge don, has written a big, thoughtful book about hanging during the period of the Industrial Revolution. So it is with great interest that we turn to it.

The book is in three parts. The first concerns the 18th century hanging crowd and the spectacle of plebeian culture. The second part concerns public opinion and the limits of sensibility. The third part concerns the resistance of the old order – the judges, the king and cabinet, or the hanging crew. The book is a major work of scholarship which will take its place with Foucault, Radzinowicz, Masur, Cooper and Potter. [4] Foucault downplays feeling, Gatrell writes. Radzinowicz is too Whiggish and ‘distances us from repudiated parts of our history’. Materialist history ignores ‘the inflation of new emotional repertoires’. Referring perhaps to Corrigan and Sayer, he writes that ‘state formation is too blunt an instrument to serve our present purposes’. [5] What is Gatrell’s approach?

Gatrell begins his book with the seminal jurist of the English bourgeoisie, Sir Edward Coke, writing in 1641. ‘What a lamentable case it is to see so many Christian men and women strangled on that cursed tree of the gallows?’ Gatrell comments rather too hastily, ‘The order of the world depended on these slaughters,’ without pausing to ask which order, or whose? Coke strove for quantification: ‘insomuch, as if in a large field a man might see together all the Christians that, but in one year, throughout England, come to that untimely and ignominious death – if there were any spark of grace, or charity in him, it would make his heart to bleed for pity and compassion.’ Gatrell’s procedure is the reverse: the individual microcase arouses pity and compassion, rather than the large field or systematic study. The crux of his book derives from a statistical observation: a capital code consisting of hundreds of offences was suddenly reduced to a few during the 1830s, yet ‘the noose was at its most active on the very eve of capital law repeals.’

Gatrell criticises ‘Peel’s easy way with figures’ but Gatrell’s are confused, scattered, and twice incomprehensible. ‘There had been a mere 281 London hangings between 1701 and 1750’, he writes on page 7 but then on page 8, quoting The London Hanged, he accepts that 1,232 people hanged at Tyburn in 1703 to 1772. [6] He does not attempt to reconcile these scarcely reconcilable statements. At another time he writes that ‘65 hanged in London between 1816 and 1830 as against 79 in the 80 years of 1701–80’, another statement both careless and preposterous. This is not a book with quantitative interests. Who was hanged? How many were hanged? What were their crimes? What were the demographics: the social and economic background? Black people? Irish people? Gay people? Women? Men? Children? These questions are unanswered.

His study began with the chance discovery of the judges’ reports and petitions for mercy regarding a rapist in Teakettle Row in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, one of the classic sites of the Industrial Revolution and centre of the iron industry. In 1829 John Noden, a neighbouring wheelwright, raped Elizabeth Cureton, the daughter of an iron moulder. Gatrell tells a fascinating tale, while rigorously eschewing general propositions related to the violence of the mines or the mills, or of grown ups against children, or men upon women. Nor does he comment on wages, hours and profits, or how a person ‘is forced to labour for another’. But we are astonished to learn that, in addition to the Noden case, 2,000 pardon petitions landed on Peel’s desk in 1829.

‘I discovered a mountain of appeals for mercy ... unknown to historians.’ ‘Discoverers’ of mountains find they had predecessors. This particular mountain was spied by Doug Hay 20 years ago. [7] Despite this Gatrell goes on to say, ‘How deeply and on what levels the public scaffold permeated the English imagination in the century before its abolition has only lately been looked at.’ When he says that the scaffold crowd has been ‘all but excluded from historical study’, it’s difficult to agree, until, after reading similar remarks at the beginning of each chapter, one realises this is something of a writer’s tic, associated with a tendency not to acknowledge others in the field, like Ronald Paulson, Doug Hay, Roy Palmer, John Beattie, to name a few.

The strengths appear on most every page: a forceful voice of narration committed to abolition, passionately realised microhistories, and the resources of thousands of ‘humble’ petitions with their occasionally cool or withering observations (a petitioner told Sir Robert Peel, ‘A familiarity with scenes of blood has disqualified your august presence [from] rightly appreciating the life of man’). There is William Meredith MP, angry at the hanging of Mary Jones, her baby at her breast. There is the unsung radical James Harmer who broke the thief takers in 1816, who defended Barnford, and later the Cato Street conspirators. There is Sarah Lloyd, a servant girl hanged in 1800 for robbing her employer, supported by Capel Lofft (who once published an answer to Burke’s Reflections) who stood with her on the scaffold denouncing the home secretary. There is Eliza Fenning asserting innocence to 45,000 at her hanging. Silvester did her. He, as recorder of London, was one in a line of hanging reprobates from Fleetwood, the malicious Elizabethan, to the notorious Stuart justice, Jefferys, who had held that office. ‘Fallible magistrates’, wrote William Hone in a tremendous pamphlet about the case, ‘have grown old in the ministration of death.’ There is Edward Harris who, despite an appeal dossier of 112 pages, was unable to make any speech as he intended, and could only vociferate ‘innocent, murder!’ Twelve hundred humble petitions a year arrived from 1812 to 1822, and twice that many afterwards. The voice of the common people in this evidence is ‘the placatory capitulation of the hopelessly impotent’. Quivering with emotion, dealing with his own squeamishness, breaking taboos for the sake of history, Gatrell affirms that the gallows was a place of physical pain. Hanging was ‘an offence against humanity’. ‘The book is not only a history of emotions. It is also (in a measured sense I hope) an emotional book.’

Against these strengths are two major drawbacks. Firstly, its notion of ‘the English people’, to cite the subtitle, is a far cry from the people in England, and secondly, it does not examine these executions in relation to the production of value. These faults have the same root. They arise because, although Gatrell spends a lot of time with the hangers, he has little time for the hanged. There is no need to dwell on the strengths of the book – they are manifest – I wish to develop a debate. We may approach its drawbacks by referring to some notable omissions, the Romantic poets. Oddly they are not here, because the Romantics discover feelings and express them. They also opposed the death penalty. The Romantics raised an issue about class and hanging, and because Gatrell is tired of class he cannot deal with the Romantics – Shelley, Byron or Blake whose critiques of capitalism were root and branch.

Gatrell’s expression is sometimes distorted by euphemism, jargon and vagueness. Thus society was marked by ‘the increasing status differentiations of an economically dynamic, polarised, and urbanising society’. He cannot bring himself to write of capitalism. Instead he employs the common cliches of odious evasion. In the end, the scaffold spectacle will be repudiated ‘by all manner of people lucky enough to swim with a rising economic or social tide’. Luck? Tide? Manner of people? This is writing which avoids analytical reasoning. Besides capitalism, he will not think in terms of class. At the end he confesses to being tired. The discovery of emotion ‘left me with a diminished interest in how far ancien regime criminal law expressed class interests...’ In this he says, ‘I have not sought to comment on this debate directly, partly because it is now more than a little tired.’ It is not the debate that is tired, but Gatrell. Listen to this yawn in a footnote in the middle of the book: ‘We must take it as read here that throughout the 18th cent [sic!] and into the 19th, vast income inequalities, together with fluctuations in wages, work conditions, and food prices, and post-war unemployment, affected prosecution rates and the numbers hanged.’ Why must this be taken as read? Where would it be read? What would we read? The full laziness of the stance emerges later.

Gatrell has stated what puts him to sleep. We may let him catch up on his rest. Meanwhile, Shelley, having raised the important question, provides us with the necessary jolt of caffeine. He was interested in those who tried to overthrow the most deadly regime in British history: the Irish workers of the 1790s, the expropriated people of Scotland, the vast numbers of enslaved producers of the plantations, the teeming multitudes, the mobilitas vulgus of the city, the machine breakers of the Midlands, and the artisans of the crafts provided an unstoppable entropy to capitalism. Yet they didn’t quite yet form a ‘class’ in one well known Marxist schema. So it is unsurprising at the beginning of the period to find that Gatrell in the first part of his book describes the hanging crowds in the terminology of early modern Europe – the carnival, the plebeians. Edward Thompson wrote, ‘A plebs is not, perhaps, a working class. The plebs may lack a consistency of self-definition, in consciousness; clarity of objectives; the structuring of class organisation’. [8] He argued that the plebeian culture was not a revolutionary culture: ‘It bred riots but not rebellions: direct actions but not democratic organisations.’ Its mode of action was symbolic or theatrical. Patricians and plebs performing ‘theatre and countertheatre in each other’s auditorium’. Gatrell advances the chronology of this theatre right through the Industrial Revolution, so that, despite the classic Marxist (and Thompsonian) narrative, there emerges no working class at all.

In an oxymoron Gatrell says that ‘those who watched executions were far from uniformly lumpen.’ He refers to ‘the tatterdemalion poor’. He quotes the Daily Telegraph describing the crowd at the last public execution in England as ‘a straggling motley procession ... the beggars were coming to town ... there was the wretched raggedness, there was the dirt, sloth, scurvy, and cretinism of rural vagabondage, trooping over the bridge.’ The emphasis is on the rags (lumpen in German) which was picked up by Marx and Engels to make a powerful sociological category, the lumpenproletariat. Peter Stallybrass has shown how complex the term was; indeed, as the Daily Telegraph quote suggests, how bourgeois it was. He stresses two characteristics. [9] First, it conjoined depravity with racial fear. It was often perceived as foreign – roués, maquereaus, literati, lazzaroni, la bohème. Second, more looked at than looking, the lumpenproletariat was unsteady, protean, theatrical and clownish. The two characteristics are found in the two meanings to the term ‘motley’. Even Marx in Capital refers to ‘the motley crowd of labourers of all callings, ages, sexes’, though Marx omits colour or ethnicity from his ‘motley crowd’. When Thomas Dartmouth Rice opened with Bone Squash Diavolo at the Royal Surrey in London 1836 dressed in rags and singing Jim Crow he got the jump on Marx by showing that poor people could represent themselves. [10] The black Atlantic people embraced scaffold wit nor did their consciousness deny its terror. [11]

Thompson found a more theatrical category in plebeian. As Marx and Engels sought a category of danger and volatility to contrast with proletariat, they found it in lumpenproletariat with its coloured theatricality. Gatrell makes use of both terms and he also writes with a pervasive sense of theatre. He compares the hanging crowd to the Greek chorus; he sees it peopled by ‘stock’ characters; he compares the hanging to a ‘scene’; he describes the evidence of it as ‘texts’; the emotional responses of those witnessing executions are called ‘repertoires’. He refers to ‘postures’ in the culture of the urban menu peuple. Adopting an 1802 mouth filling term for an optical exhibition of imaginary figures who quickly change their size, he refers to the ‘phantasmagoric array of characters’ at hangings which at another point he calls ‘an age old plebeian festival’. The danger of this writing is that it makes us spectators who watch history rather than actors who make history.

The process of expropriation had theatrical representations – this is true – but in itself it was a historical fact, not theatre: the gallows was as essential for the slave trade as for the punishment of vagabonds who had lost the commons. Stallybrass notes that Fanon figured The Wretched of the Earth and the lumpenproletariat in terms of the gallows tree of the coloniser. Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770), the classic response of 18th century feeling to enclosures and the depopulation of the countryside, suggested that the gallows was one of the options in the limited choices available after enclosure:

If to the city sped – What waits him there?
To see the profusion that he must not share;
To see ten thousand baneful arts combined
To pamper luxury, and thin mankind;
To see those joys the sons of pleasure know,
Extorted from his fellow-creature’s woe.

Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade,
There the pale artist plies his sickly trade;
Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display,
There the black gibbet glooms beside the way.

Gatrell’s main source of information for his first section is the Francis Place collection which was gathered by the ageing London radical by asking his friends to recollect the ballads of their youth. Thus the flash ballads became ‘texts’. Gatrell is not the first to have noticed the demise of the older oral culture, and the suppression of ballads and chanting Mayhew described and regretted it. Gatrell usefully explains how the huge, printed, pedagogical effort by Jemmy Catnach and Hannah More, the anti-radical Tory publicists, transformed a transgressive to a sentimental culture. He concludes:

It is foolish to look for uniform postures ‘radical’ or ‘deferential’ as the case may be. People steered a wavering course between tacitly ethical approval, sardonic and transgressive defiance, and mockery, sentimental anguish, or outright voyeurism.

‘People’ perhaps did. People means many thousands of persons, tens of thousands of persons. Plebeian persons and otherwise. One of them was William Blake, who thought about this subject long and hard: deeply, magically, mythically and personally. The sheriffs closed Tyburn in 1783 after hanging the man to whom Blake had almost apprenticed himself years earlier. Why does Gatrell not bring up Blake as a scaffold witness? I’ll explain by and by.

This is a middle class book, at least according to the author, it is for ‘those of us who eat, prosper, and are safe.’ Its meat and potatoes may be found in the middle in ten substantial chapters about ‘how the middle classes felt about the bloody code, or the polite and would-be polite classes.’ These are chapters about manners, religion, education, sensibility, evangelicalism and the utilitarians. The aesthetic repugnance of the fastidious and the squeamishness of the dainty increased the aversion to the ‘bloody code’ of ‘the middle-to-middling classes’. Adam Smith and Francis Place said that the expansion of commerce and manufactures softened social relationships. Gatrell interprets a hanging dream that disturbed Charles Darwin. He explores and appreciates James Boswell’s curiosity (’I was sure that human life was not machinery’). Contrasting them with the irony of the plebs, Gatrell calls these people merely facetious, because ‘the killings were for or by them’. They had the neck for the job, but not the stomach. Gatrell is influenced by Peter Gay who, inspired by Freud’s Totem and Taboo, considers civilisation a punishment upon a primal, prehistoric crime. [12] Yet the book is relatively free of blather about ‘Western societies’ and its platitudes (’we know what a fragile construct civility is’) are mercifully few.

While students of British terrorism will be disappointed in not finding the subject directly addressed – this was the period when Burke’s doctrine of the sublime was adumbrated directly from his observations of hangings – nevertheless the creation of dread in particular segments of the labour market, or the production of anxiety at the social level, are evidenced by numerous examples. Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough wrote, ‘Men are punished not with reference to the extent of their own crimes, unless they be very great, but with reference to the number and circumstances or similar cases committed by others at the same time.’ The same was said of women. The home secretary, Portland, denied mercy to Sarah Lloyd in 1800 with the reminder that ‘the great object of punishment is example.’ According to William Hone, Eliza Fenning was hanged in 1815 to terrorise maidservants:

All the masters and mistresses of families, whose credulity or idleness rendered them proper subjects for alarums, were excessively devoted to the vociferous execration of the wickedness of servants ... Thus a general cry was raised for the hanging of Eliza Fenning, as an example to all maidservants suspected, upon presumption of murderous intentions.

Archdeacon Paley expressed the view most directly saying it was necessary for the innocent to suffer lest the guilty escape. ‘What can we do more than Pilate did under similar circumstances?’ acidly asked John and Leigh Hunt than ‘wash our hands upon the accident of guilt or innocence and go to dinner?’

What did the lord chancellor look for in selecting a judge? Answered one: ‘A gentleman, and if he knows a little law so much the better.’ Sydney Smith tried to understand their justice. ‘The principle is, because a man is very wretched, there is not harm in making him a little more so.’ Or, ‘To force an ignorant man into a court of justice, and to tell him that the judge is his counsel, appears to us quite as foolish as to sit a hungry man down to his meals, and to tell him that the table was his dinner.’ Gatrell savours the sarcasm against the ‘sable bigots’. What will bring them down?

At the end of his book he has this great sense of discovery, as he reveals the secrets of power: ‘We hide ourselves behind the arras,’ he says. Polonius, we recall, hid himself behind the arras in order to eavesdrop on Hamlet while Gertrude, his mother, scolded him. Polonius made a noise. Hamlet lunged at the arras with his sword, and Polonius was slain – ‘Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell.’ What was Polonius doing there in the first place? He went there on behalf of Claudius, Gertrude’s husband, the king of Denmark, who had slain his own brother, Hamlet’s father. Claudius suspects that Hamlet has discovered him. He sends Polonius to find out.

Gatrell thus wants us to assume the part of Polonius, and to be a spy. The last part of the book is about listening in on the secret meetings of the king in council, and the king would fall asleep, when they decided which among those sentenced by judges to be hanged would be granted a reprieve and which would not. This is a chapter to be relished. The increases of hangings in the 1820s was less the cause of the Old Bailey judges or those on the Assize circuit than of the king, the archbishop, the lord chief justice, the recorder of London, cabinet ministers and privy councillors meeting to determine who was to get mercy and who not. Although ‘the king had recourse to laudanum’ before the meetings, it is unclear whether his naps were caused by the narcotic or not. We savour the spying at a cost, however, on the grounds that history is made, not behind the arras, but in the streets and fields, as Byron described.

Gatrell enlists Byron as an innocent observer only to ignore Byron the ardent abolitionist. In February 1812, at the age of 27, Lord Byron, ‘hot from the furnace of riot and near revolution in Nottingham’, delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords. [13] It was debating the bill which made the breaking of stocking frames a capital offence. The first major test over the conditions of acceptance of machines in the industrial revolution was being fought in the Midlands. Byron was there and reported ‘several notorious delinquents had been detected – men, liable to conviction, on the clearest evidence of the capital crime of poverty; men, who had been nefariously guilty of lawfully begetting several children, whom, thanks to the times! they were unable to maintain.’ He turned to the ruling class in the House of Lords:

It is the mob that labour in your fields and serve in your houses, that man your navy, and recruit your army – that have enabled you to defy all the world, and can also defy you when neglect and calamity have driven them to despair! You may call the people a mob; but do not forget that a mob too often speaks the sentiments of the people ... Setting aside the palpable injustice and the certain inefficiency of the bill, are there not capital punishments sufficient in your statutes? Is there not blood enough upon your penal code, that more must be poured forth to ascend to heaven and testify against you? ... Will you erect a gibbet in every field, and hang up men like scarecrows? Or will you proceed (as you must to bring this measure into effect) by decimation? ... Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace? Will the famished wretch who has braved your bayonets be appalled by your gibbets? When death is a relief, and the only relief it appears that you will afford him, will he be dragooned into tranquillity? Will that which could not be effected by your grenadiers be accomplished by your executioners?

Byron reports on an experienced working class, which in word and deed has already developed a critique of capitalism. It is a working class fully in the throes of thanatocracy (thanatos – Greek for death), and at the crux of industrialisation when the rate of surplus value advanced by lengthening the working day, or, when that met insuperable opposition, the rate increased by reducing the necessary value of the working class. ‘What you gain in labour, I lose in substance,’ as the worker says to the employer. ‘Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power’, Marx wrote in Capital, published the year before public hangings came to an end. Overwork in the potteries led to the ‘slow sacrifice of children’. In June 1863 all the London newspapers were filled with the sensational death of Mary Anne Walkley, age 20, who died of overwork whilst making dresses for the ladies attending the ball for the newly imported Princess of Wales. ‘The capitalist mode of production ... produces the premature exhaustion and death of labour-power itself. It extends the labourer’s time of production during a given period by shortening his actual lifetime.’ The struggle over the length of the working day Marx calls a protracted and dissembled civil war. [14] The death penalty is at the apex of this war, infrequently exercised, frequently imitated.

Gatrell does not see executions as part of thanatocracy, or the continuum with other forms of state sanctioned murder, or with other types of capitalist punishments. This was precisely Byron’s and Shelley’s theme. Moreover, they contemplated the utility of hanging to the corruption of the oppressed. Shelley wrote, ‘Men ... come to connect inseparably the idea of their own advantage with that of the death and torture of others.’ Shelley argued that hangings helped to reduce the value of labour power:

The spectators who feel no abhorrence at a public execution, but rather a self-applauding superiority and a sense of gratified indignation, are surely excited to the most inauspicious emotions. The first reflection of such a one is the sense of his own internal and actual worth as preferable to that of the victim whom circumstances have led to destruction.

Hangings became functional to the creation of divisions within the working class – of race, ethnicity and nation.

Besides assiduously avoiding the analytical construct, as well as the historical reality, of capitalism, The Hanging Tree suffers mildly from nationalism. Gatrell sums up the significance of the repeal of the ‘bloody code’: ‘It was as if England had become another and gentler country – or a little more like other countries.’ Later an alarming note enters the tone: Benjamin Ellis, a Waltham Forest labourer, was ‘ascertained to be too busy with the deer and wood’ and was transported, thus disappearing ‘from English history’. Sarah Wharmby, a maidservant who stole her mistress’s quilt, was also transported to Van Diemens Land and ‘disappeared from English history too’. He indulges even in some ethnic rah rah – ‘Anglo Saxons needed these evasive defences rather peculiarly, it seems’ – and some retro-Podsnappery – ‘A guillotine would do the killing better, if only that machine were not so French.’ [15]

Otherwise his insularity is admitted, even proclaimed. Referring to mayhem in court, bias against prisoners, and the speed of trials, Gatrell imagines the conservative historian warning, ‘Paint not the island story therefore, in darkest hues,’ to which Gatrell replies:

You don’t have to be a Marxist historian to see that what happened in the early 19th century courtroom takes us to the heart of the shadows. These things should not be left wholly off our island record.

No, of course not. But why so defensive? Whence the accusation? Let us go back a moment. Before Hamlet killed Polonius, he spied upon Claudius who was trying to pray:

May one be pardon’d and retain th’ offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law. But ’tis not so above.
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence.

I propose that the offence in this case is national insularity. Further, I argue that the hangings cannot be pardoned without giving up the insularity, because hangings helped to constitute the imagined notion of England. Everything else is shuffling. We see Dickens shuffle. By 1849 Charles Dickens changed his mind and favoured the death penalty. He went to watch the hanging of Mr and Mrs Manning. She was a Belgian, and had shouted at her trial, ‘There is no law or justice to be got here! Base and degraded England!’ A few years later Dickens published his counter-revolutionary novel A Tale of Two Cities (1859) in whose first chapter Dickens summarizes the essence of the English and French nations by the personality, character and behaviour of their executioners. Religion, property, language, work, agriculture, industry – whatever might be said to differentiate national characters – are here figured entirely by the death penalty.

In 1973 when we were putting together our research at the University of Warwick for a book on 18th century crime we chose a title, Albion’s Fatal Tree, from William Blake who is the third Romantic poet whom Gatrell ignores. It is a symbolic title, with mysterious resonances, which only now with the work of Ben Anderson and Jonathan Mee am I beginning to understand. Gatrell also chose ‘tree’ like us. Strictly speaking it is a misnomer, because culprits did not hang from trees. There were parts of the English speaking world where hangings were from trees. Indeed Lord Baden-Powell called one such hanging place in Africa the Christmas Tree. It is not just that deforestation was more widespread in England, nor that a mechanical contrivance replaced a natural one. The ‘hanging tree’ had become a symbol laden with meanings. We see this in William Blake writing in 1795:

The Tree still grows over the Void
Enrooting itself all around
An endless labyrinth of woe!

Round the pale living Corse on the Tree
Forty years flew the arrows of pestilence.

His language of liberation is based upon a critique of Tyburn, ‘Where Satan the first victory won.’ In Blake the fatal tree refers to the human sacrifices alleged by Roman writers on the Druids. The relation of the Druids to Rome and English history became a subject of antiquarian interest in the 18th century with passionate disagreement about the origins of the British state. When Blake took up this argument in the 1790s, it was parallel to the more celebrated debate between Burke and Paine. Blake, like Old Hubert or Wordsworth (’It is the sacrificial altar fed/With living men’), says that the Druids laid the foundations of the British state. The Druids crushed the original liberty of an egalitarian, bardic time. [16] ‘Albion slept beneath the Fatal Tree.’ Like Shelley to whom abolition was the first law of political reform, for Blake the death penalty’s abolition was part of a general project for the realisation of Jerusalem.

The gallows, like human sacrifice, played a part in the formation of the nation, as an imagined community. Anderson suggests that executions form part of the nation’s biography, and in some cases actually constitute it. [17] Antique slaughters become family history, a kind of fratricide took place, a blood compact. Tyburn elides the hangers and the hanged, in ‘bloody ole Englande’. ‘The principle of the law was, that the execution of a person was the act of the whole nation,’ said the defenders of public execution. In employing the metaphor in The Hanging Tree Gatrell thus alludes to a Blakean argument that subverts his own chauvinism. It explains his mistakes. Gatrell writes that ‘Scotland (and Ireland’s) relative innocence of the noose continued into the mid-19th century’. Oh? Grattan said, ‘The more you hang, the more you transport, the more you inflame, disturb, and disaffect.’ He referred to the house burnings, pitch cappings, and half hangings of official lawlessness. The Wexford Rebellion of 1798 was sparked in May by the hanging of 28 prisoners at Dunlavin and a further 28 at Carnew. [18] The bridges across the Liffey were adorned with gallows of the summarily condemned in 1798. Having read Bob Scally’s recent study of the Ballykilcline Rebellion of 1846, it is impossible to speak of 19th century innocence. [19] Gatrell wears historical blinders.

He won’t see what he can’t see. He examines a picture of the execution of the five Cato Street conspirators – ’the detailing is lasciviously complete’, he comments – however, the artist depicts every head but that belonging to William Davidson which is quite obscured by the executioner’s shoulder. Davidson was descended from slaves. From the picture we would have no idea that he was a black man. That he was Jamaican is likewise hidden from Gatrell’s commentary on the facsimile of his handwriting reproduced as an illustration. He refers to it as ‘copybook aphorism in copybook script’, but surely it looks different in the light of the experience of Jamaican Methodism: ‘Thou shalt not oppress a stranger in a strange Land’, or, ‘thou shalt not pervert the judgement of a stranger’, or, ‘He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and a shame upon him.’

When it comes to recounting or explaining the abolition of public hanging in 1868, the insularity becomes particularly obtuse, because extra-insular concerns were so prominent. For one thing it was an Irish Fenian who was the last person publicly hanged in England, at a high point in ‘Fenian fever’ affecting the British Isles, North America and the First International. [20] For another, it was the hanging in 1864 of the five pirates, four from Manilla and the fifth a Levantine, for a mutiny aboard the Flowery Land en route to Singapore. Lascars, as Asiatic sailors were called in England, arrived in England at the rate of 3,000 a year. They received one sixth of European pay. [21] Their hanging brought an enormous scaffold gathering described in full heterogeneity and more than 1,000 law enforcement officials. A costermonger, as reported to a parliamentary commission, said, ‘So help me, Bill, ain’t it fine; five of them and all darkies.’ The crowd may not have been the international working class of proper aspiration, but its inchoate danger arose from the unpredictability of planetary workers. The reaction in the House of Commons was instantaneous: John Hibbert moved to abolish public executions.

’Was it merely a coincidence that just as the 1832 Reform Act presaged the end of gibbeting and anatomising and the repeal of the most capital statutes, so the Reform Act of 1867 presaged the end of public executions?’ He is beguiled by the questions and never quite answers them, perhaps for the reason that they omit another ‘coincidence’. The largest slave rebellion in Jamaican history, the Baptist War of 1831–1832, after which 232 were hanged, led to emancipation in 1833. [22] The end of public execution in England was presaged by the Jamaican Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 led by Paul (‘Cleave to the Black’) Bogle after which 400 were flogged and 1,000 were hanged. [23] The labour moved by capital had neither an ethnic nor a territorial identity. These were moments of deep international class recomposition against which the narratives of the English franchise and English hanging need to be situated. ‘There ain’t no black in the union jack.’

Thus we take the argument ‘even to the teeth and forehead of our faults’. We must, for it enables us to come to the present, and to note again Shelley’s starting point. The judicial committee of the Privy Council, meeting on the first floor of Downing Street, remains the court of last resort for the British West Indies. Bermuda retains the death penalty; its governor is David Waddington QC, who delivered the call for a return to the death penalty at the Conservative Party conference in 1990. The government of Trinidad and Tobago flouted an undertaking with the Privy Council in 1994 and executed Glen Ashby, a mentally ill stonemason, by hanging him for two hours. It was the first execution in 15 years. The death row of St Catherine’s Prison (formerly a slave market) in Jamaica contains more than 300 people, most of whom are kept in cages. Jamaica’s minister of national security, K.D. Knight, announced in the summer of 1994 proposals to speed up executions. The last hanging was in 1988. He was responding directly to a group of businessmen who were protesting against the robbery and murder in May of a tourist at the resort town of Ocho Rios. Owing to crime the tourist trade had fallen to its lowest level in a decade. In Jamaica a direct correlation is thought thus to exist between the balance of payments and hanging, a view shared in the World Bank and the IMF. [24] In 1808 in London Samuel Romilly and Basil Montagu formed the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death. That knowledge must include slavery or how one person is forced to work for another. The Anti-Slavery Society survives going on two centuries, and its work now is more daunting than ever with perhaps 100 million slaves on the planet today.


1. I thank my friend, Misha Jakobson, for helping me think.

2. D.L. Clark (ed.), Shelley’s Prose, or The Trumpet of a Prophecy (Albuquerque 1954), pp. 154–158.

3. C. Hibbert, Charles I (Harper & Row 1968), p. 150.

4. M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated A. Sheridan (Penguin 1979), L Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and Its Administration, 4 vols. (Stevens and Sons 1948), D.D. Cooper, The Lesson of the Scaffold: The Public Execution Controversy in Victorian England (Ohio University Press 1974), L.P. Masur, Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776–1865 (Oxford University Press 1989), H. Potter, Hanging in Judgement: Religion and the Death Penalty in England from the Bloody Code to Abolition (SCM Press 1993).

5. P. Corrigan and D. Sayer, The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution (Blackwell 1985).

6. P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the 18th Century (Penguin 1991).

7. D. Hay et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England (Allen Lane 1975), ch. 1.

8. E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Merlin Press 1991), p. 57.

9. P. Stallybrass, Marx and Heterogeneity: Thinking the Lumpenproletariat, in Representations 31 (Summer 1990), p. 72.

10. W.T. Lhamon Jr, Performing the Lumpenproletariat: Bone Squash in London, 1836–37, in his forthcoming book Raising Cain.

11. P. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Harvard University Press 1993).

12. P. Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred (Fontana 1993), vol. 3 of The Bourgeois Experience, pp. 160, 181.

13. M. Foot, The Politics of Paradise: A Vindication of Byron, (New York 1988) p. 135.

14. K. Marx, Capital: A Critical Analysis of Production, ed. and translated Dona Torr (London 1946), pp. 239ff.

15. Mrs Podsnap was a character in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. She exemplified British Philistinism.

16. J. Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (Oxford University Press 1992), ch. 2 especially. A. Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Standford University Press 1989), pp. 190–198.

17. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (Verso 1991).

18. Grattan is quoted by J. Smyth, The Men of No Property: Irish Radicals and Popular Politics in the Late Eighteenth Century (St Martin’s 1992), pp. 173–175, but see also B. Henry, The Dublin Hanged: Crime, Law Enforcement and Punishment in Late Eighteenth Century Dublin (Irish Academic Press 1994).

19. R.J. Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, and Emigration (Oxford 1995).

20. P.B. Ellis, A History of the Irish Working Class (Braziller 1973), p. 140.

21. R. Visram, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain, 1700–1947 (Pluto Press 1986), ch. 3.

22. Daddy Samuel Sharpe told Rev. Bleby, ‘I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.’ He was the last British slave to be executed before emancipation. See P. Fryer, Black People in the British Empire: An Introduction (Pluto Press 1989), p. 95.

23. H. Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (African World Press 1987), p. 38.

24. Times, 16 July 1994, Boston Globe, 9 July 1994, Toledo Blade, 13 January 1995.

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