It hardly seems surprising that what has become England’s fourth city has within its rich history a sinister and darker side. Take a journey to discover cases of petty crime, riots, burglary, robbery, assault, suicide, unlawful killing, manslaughter, and murder, as well as a host of quirky and quizzical crimes from the early Victorian period to modern times. One sensational case covered is that of Sheffield-born Charles Peace, considered by some criminologists to be England’s most notorious murderer. He was hanged at Leeds on February 25, 1879, for the killing of Arthur Dyson at Darnall in 1876. Peace’s criminality seemed to know no bounds. Several other sensational and forgotten murders are featured and a range of cases mentioned refer to many former landmarks in and around old Sheffield, from public houses and hotels to factories, shops, and steelworks. This book is sure to be an absorbing read for anyone interested in our local social history.
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Meting Out of Justice in Sheffield
In 1699, a local builder was paid £2 3s. to prepare plans for Sheffield's first Town Hall. His designs were approved and he was paid a further £200 to construct the building, which opened in 1700. The Town Hall was built on land in the south-east corner of St Peter's churchyard. St Peter's was then Sheffield's parish church and remained so until 1914, when this ancient church was raised to cathedral status; and is presently known as the Cathedral Church of St Peter and St Paul. The Town Hall was erected by the Town Trustees as a meeting place and courthouse. It was a two-storey structure, built of brick, with a pitched roof and a tower sited at the building's centre, with a belfry surmounted by a pyramidal roof, crowned with a gilded ball. The hall on the first floor served as a courtroom. This courtroom was generally used for petty sessions, presided over by magistrates, but every third year the West Riding Quarter Sessions sat there. Several shops occupied space on the ground floor of the High Street side of the building, behind which a narrow passageway led to three cells, in which prisoners were kept prior to their appearance before the magistrates.
In keeping with the widely held practice throughout England, Sheffield's magistrates could only dispense justice for petty crimes. They did not have the power to try felony (crimes regarded by the law as being grave, weighty enough to be considered serious or threatening, from larceny [the illegal taking away, or stealing of another person's goods with the intention of converting them to one's own use] to more serious crimes, virtually all of which (amounting to around 200 different offences) were capital crimes. In such cases they had only the power to examine the prisoners brought before them and to decide if there was sufficient evidence to bring a charge or charges; or, if sufficiently serious, to be sent to trial at the county Assizes. Magistrates dealt with petty crime, up to and including petty larceny (taking away goods of a value of less than 12d. one shilling – or in today's money 5p). The stealing of goods over this value was a capital offence. Those committed for trial were usually sent to the county gaol, as bail was seldom given, and never in the case of those accused of capital offences. As Sheffield's population grew, so did the number of cases being heard before the magistrates. By 1790s the courtroom facilities at the Town Hall were inadequate for the needs of the rapidly growing town, so it became necessary for some cases to be heard in a ground-floor room at the Cutler's Hall, which served as an overspill court.
For cases involving homicide, hearings were heard before both the magistrate and the coroner. The purpose of the coroner's inquest was to establish the identity of the deceased person and the cause of death. Inquests were commonly held in public houses, usually conveniently close to where a fatality had taken place. In 1884, a public mortuary and coroner's court was built in Plum Lane and afterwards most inquests in the Sheffield district were held there. This building was replaced in 1914 by a new building in Nursery Street. Since 1977 Sheffield inquests have been held at the Medico Legal Centre in Watery Lane.
If the accused person was present at the hearing, he or she, was allowed to give evidence and to put questions to witnesses. If the coroner's jury returned a verdict of either manslaughter or murder, the coroner would then commit the prisoner to trial. This also applied in the case of prisoners already committed to trial by the magistrate. At the end of each day's court proceedings those prisoners sentenced by the magistrates to prison sentences, or to be detained in custody to await trial at the West Riding Quarter Sessions, were chained together and handed over to the custody of the town beadle. They were then taken to the Wakefield House of Correction or to the county gaol at York. In 1864, Leeds became the Assize Town for the West Riding of Yorkshire. From then onwards Sheffield's criminals would no longer be tried at York, which afterwards tried crimes committed only in the North and East Ridings.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, pressure had been mounting for over twenty years to replace Sheffield's first Town Hall with a more fitting structure, as the old building was deemed to be incapable of improvement. A new building fronting Castle Street, with five bays sited at the corner of Castle Street and Waingate was constructed to the designs of Charles Watson at a cost of £5,600 and opened in 1808. The old Town Hall was demolished in 1810. The new building was to serve for most of the remainder of the nineteenth century as both a magistrates' and Quarter Sessions courthouse. It contained two courtrooms, as well as four cells and offices. When Elizabeth Fry (the renowned prison reformer) visited Sheffield in 1818, the cells were already in 'a state of very great filth'. Further expansion in Sheffield resulted in the Town Hall being extended in 1833 by William Flockton. In the 1862 Guide to Sheffield and its Neighbourhood by Pawson and Brailsford, facilities for the prisoners had hardly improved as it states 'The Town Hall cells are confined partly underground and most unhealthy.' Flockton carried out further improvements in 1866 with his partner John L Abbot, when a central clock tower was added and the entrance was reoriented to Waingate. At the same time an underground passage was constructed to link the building to Sheffield's police offices.
In 1867, Sheffield's town councillors promoted a Bill to make Sheffield an Assize Town, with the intention of serving the southern part of the West Riding. At that time Sheffield didn't even possess a court of Quarter Sessions, and in the outlying towns and districts which under the Bill they would be required to pay part of the cost of both building a new court and administering the Assizes, there was much opposition, which eventually resulted in its withdrawal. Sheffield was granted its own Quarter Sessions in 1884 but it had to wait until 1955 to finally become an Assize town.
On Thursday 15 September 1892, the following article appeared in the Sheffield And Rotherham Independent:
It is a singular coincidence that a series of exhibitions of instruments of torture and death and a series of lectures on executions by an ex-executioner should be simultaneously appealing for the support of the public of Sheffield. Yet each is the case, and the circumstances suggests the idea that the two 'entertainments' might appropriately be amalgamated. Mr James Berry's lecture, and the description he gives of the methods by which capital offenders are 'worked off' at the present time, if given in the presence of the collection of cruel instruments on view in the Montgomery Hall, would afford a very powerful illustration of the growth of a humane and kindly spirit in the world towards breakers of the law as compared with the fiendish instincts which animated those who administered justice three or four centuries ago. In olden times the criminal was only allowed to die after he had undergone a protracted course of agonising torture. Now the worst of all our criminals, according to Mr Berry, is launched into eternity in less time than it takes to blow out a candle, and he has only time to feel a momentary sensation of pain.
Mr James Berry, who recently retired from the office of public executioner in Great Britain and Ireland, delivered his illustrated lecture in the Temperance Hall last night to a small audience. Mr. Berry is a young man of determined, but not unpleasant countenance. He is not a man that a child would instinctively flee from, and when he dons his tall hat and best suit he might readily be taken for a commercial traveller, as he more than once was whilst undertaking his professional journeys to various towns. Mr. Berry's lecture was characterised by good taste on the whole. Although not a polished orator, the audience would experience no difficulty in grasping the sentiments and ideas which he expressed – sometimes in very forcible language – with regard to officialism in connection with executions, and to the system of capital punishment. He explained that he voluntarily gave up his gruesome office on account of his constant disagreements with the Home Secretary and some of the Sheriffs, and which he is of [the] opinion, would ultimately [have] led to his superserssion [sic] by another and more acceptable hangman. He complains that several Sheriffs, advised by prison surgeons, tried to interfere with him in such matters as the length of the drop. He greatly prides himself on his methods of carrying out the extreme penalty of the law, and boasts that of the 150 executions he has conducted not one has been attended with the slightest mishap. The decapitation of Conway [John Conway, hanged by Berry at Kirkdale Prison on 10 August 1891] at Liverpool, he says, was the result of interference. He wanted a drop less than four feet, the surgeon advised a six foot drop, the Sheriff supported the doctor, and he had his way, with the result which is known. The lecturer incidentally remarked that he had made up his mind that, in the event of an accident occurring, he would refuse to go down into the pit and attend to the criminal – his nerve would forsake him in such an ordeal. He also asserted that he lost favour with the Home Secretary for openly expressing his disgust with some of the decisions of that Minister on memorials praying for reprieves. He was particularly severe with the Home Secretary, and he advocated the abolition of capital punishment, for one reason because the present system places the power of granting life and death entirely in the hands of one man. His experience also leads him to the opinion that capital punishment does not act as a deterrent, but that it is feared less than penal servitude and the cat [the multi-stranded leather whip with ferocious tips, with which criminals were punished, more commonly known as the 'cat o' nine tails'. The severity of this punishment sometimes resulted in death if a sufficient number of strokes were administered at one time, or, more often than not, death was the result of infection of the wounds sustained.] Another argument used was that it is possible for innocent people to be hanged. He insinuated that Roman Catholics had been more leniently treated than Protestants, and that it was usual to bring in as of unsound mind criminals with genteel connections.
The lecturer related the circumstances of the execution of three men, one of whom named Baker, told him that he shot an inspector at Romford, in Essex, whereas one of his pals, named Lee, was hanged for the crime [Anthony Rudge, John Martin and James Baker, were hanged at Carlisle on 8 February 1886 for the murder of PC Bymes. James Lee, aged forty-five was hanged at Chelmsford on 18 May 1885]. He [Berry] remembered Lee cursing and swearing at the judges and lawyers for sentencing him to death, and denying the crime. All four however, were dreadful criminals and deserved death. He frequently executed men who were clearly insane, and never failed to complain about it. A man at Lancaster was so mad that he bit into him and a warder, and had to be carried to the scaffold by the frog's march. On the other hand, he had seen a reprieve come to a condemned man as he was writing out his confession. It was a case where there was some doubt as to the man's guilt. He [Berry] was in the cell the night before the execution was to take place, and saw him writing the confession. When the governor told him that the reprieve had come he [Berry] related what he had seen, the circumstance was telegraphed to the Home Secretary, who refused to withdraw the reprieve. When the boy Davis was hanged at Crewe for murdering his father he said the governor of Knutsford Prison went nearly mad, he was so disgusted at the Home Secretary's refusal to reprieve him [Richard Davis was hanged on 8 April 1890]. He also had to hang a boy of 17 in the South of England, who spent the eve of his death crying for his mother. When he had to execute the brothers Boswell, at Worcester, for shooting a gamekeeper, he allowed them to kiss one another and shake hands as they stood on the scaffold. They denied their guilt, and their companion stated that he, and no one else fired the fatal shot [Joseph and Samuel Boswell, aged twenty-nine and thirty-nine respectively, were executed on 11 March 1890]. The lecturer stated that he got in the company of a number of jurymen one evening during the sitting of an Assize, to whom he explained his views on the question of capital punishment, and his belief that murder was rarely committed by sane people, and the result of his conversation was that none of the four men on trial for murder were hanged. He said he was writing a letter which he hoped to get into the hands of the Queen, urging her to make her reign memorable by refusing to sign any more death warrants. He also wants a Royal Commission of inquiry into the circumstances under which reprieves have been granted or withheld. – We learned that Mr Berry received £10 for every execution, in addition to his expenses. His lecture will be continued all the week.
By the 1890s work was underway to build Sheffield an even grander Town Hall, this time without the provision of court facilities. This new building was constructed between 1891 and 1896, in Pinstone Street, to the designs of E W Mountford, at a cost of £80,000. It was officially opened by Queen Victoria on 21 May 1897. The Old Town Hall in Waingate was reconstructed and extended between 1896–7 to house Sheffield County Court and Sheffield High Court. These courts remained there until they moved to new premises in the 1990s.CHAPTER 2
Foul Deeds from 1766–1923
Caught Stealing in Sheffield Market Place, 1766
... driven through the City of York on a cart ...
In the spring of 1766 Caleb Roberts and Matthew Lambert, both linen drapers, were residents in Sheffield Market Place. Whilst they were hard at work another Sheffield resident, one Isaac Turner, was also being industrious in their homes, stealing their goods and possessions. Caught in the act, he was brought before Sheffield magistrates charged with theft and subsequently arraigned to appear before Mr Justice Bathurst at York Lent Assizes. Found guilty as charged, Turner was sentenced to death. On Saturday 6 March 1766, Isaac Turner was removed from the condemned cell and, along with two other felons, driven through the City of York on a cart and hanged at Tyburn.
Ex-Apprentice Recognised During Robbery, 1775
... a gang of villains whose speciality was to rob the patrons of Sheffield's public houses, hotels and inns ...
John Vickers was born at Hemsworth Back Moor in Norton. Later on in life he moved to Attercliffe. As a young man there he became involved with some of Sheffield and district's more unsavoury residents, joining a gang of villains whose speciality was to rob the patrons of Sheffield's public houses, hotels and inns, who often emerged from those establishments the worse for strong drink. Such vulnerable prey often yielded rich pickings for the likes of John Vickers. Vickers, however, was to come to a sticky end in 1775, when he unwittingly selected the wrong person to rob. The victim of what proved to be Vickers' last robbery turned out to be a man to whom he was once apprenticed. The victim of this robbery, John Stainforth, having recognised Vickers during the attack on him, brought him quickly to the attention of the authorities. This led to Vickers' apprehension and to him being charged not only with robbing Mr Stainforth but also John Murfin, along with his alleged accomplice.
The events leading up to Vickers' downfall began on the night of Saturday 11 February 1775. Vickers was up to no good with one of his accomplices, John Booth and several unknown individuals. Sometime between 11pm and midnight, Vickers and John Booth allegedly robbed John Murfin of 3½d., a bad shilling, a breast of mutton and half a pound of butter. This robbery took place near the Blue Ball. On the same night Vickers and three persons unknown and unidentifiable to the victim, robbed John Stainforth outside the Glass House of 3s. 6d., a leg of mutton, 6lb of sugar, some flax and small sundry items.
Vickers was brought before Mr Justice Gould at York Summer Assizes on two charges of robbery. He was indicted with Booth on the first charge for robbing John Murfin. Booth was acquitted of the charge of robbing Mr Murfin but Vickers was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged at York's Tyburn on Saturday 30 March 1775.
Sheffield Button Maker's House Robbed, 1786
... stole some horn combs and 7d ...
On 19 August 1786, two felons were hanged at Tyburn, York for a crime they had committed in Sheffield earlier that summer. Twenty-six-year-old William Sharp hailed from Conisborough. His accomplice in crime was twenty-eight-year-old labourer, William Bamford, of Clifton, Rotherham. Sharp and Bamford's rapid journey to the scaffold began when they broke into the house of Sheffield button maker Duncan McDonald and stole some horn combs and 7d. They were apprehended for the crime and promptly brought before a magistrate who committed them to the West Riding Quarter Sessions, where they were found guilty as charged and sentenced to death.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in & around Sheffield"
Copyright © 2009 Geoffrey Howse.
Excerpted by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction & Acknowledgements,
Chapter 1 Meting Out of Justice in Sheffield,
Chapter 2 Foul Deeds from 1766â&8364;"1923,
Chapter 3 Charlie Peace: The Not So Lovable Rogue and the Banner Cross Murder, 1879,
Chapter 4 The Shelf Street Hatchet Murder, 1881,
Chapter 5 The Bath Street Shooting Case, 1892,
Chapter 6 Suicides, 1892,
Chapter 7 The Woodhouse Murder, 1893,
Chapter 8 The Walkley Murder, 1923,
Sources and Further reading,