The terrible end of a Rotherham highwayman

An artist’s impression of Spence Broughton

by ANTONY CLAY

IT IS like a scene from a Hammer horror.

The corpse of a highwayman swings from a gibbet through rain, snow and blazing summer sun, open to the pecking of crows.

And he will be there dangling in the wind for an astonishing 35 years.

Even then what remains of the body will only be removed from the gibbet cage because the landowner gets fed up with people still going to gawp at it.

It is truly an awful end for a man who made off with the Rotherham post.

Spence Broughton, and his accomplice John Oxley, held up the mail cart at Ickles on a midwinter day in 1791, leaving the driver blindfolded and tied to a hedge. The only valuable item in the bag was a French bill worth £123.

Little did Broughton realise that just over a year later his body would be swinging from a gibbet at the scene of his crime.

Broughton was not executed on Attercliffe Common where he would be gibbeted. That grisly deed took place at York but the authorities felt it necessary to ship the body south and display it close to the scene of the crime as a stark warning to others not to interfere with the property of the King.

The robbery took place either on January 29 or on February 9 — the records are unclear — but whichever day it was Broughton and Oxley took it upon themselves to hide on the road to Rotherham at Ickles in readiness for the arrival of the mail cart.

As it passed, the pair leapt out and overpowered its driver George Leasley, described in records as a “boy”, and left him tied up.

He freed himself after an hour and discovered that the miscreants had made off with the post bag. He duly sounded the alarm and the authorities set about chasing the two criminals.

Broughton and Oxley made their way to Mansfield before Oxley headed south to the capital to cash the French bill.

But the pair were brought to book that October in London after taking part in more robberies elsewhere in the country. Another accomplice, John Shaw, was also taken into custody.

After their arrest, Shaw shifted all the blame onto the unfortunate Broughton, and Oxley claimed that he and Broughton only worked together because they had been involved with the same woman.

Oxley promptly escaped custody so that it was Broughton alone who was sent for trial in York on March 24, 1792. It didn’t go too well for him — he was hanged on April 14.

The law officer who arrested Broughton, Oxley and Shaw told the trial judge, the formidable Mr Justice Buller, how the crime had played out and, after just an hour and a half, Broughton was sentenced to death.

This old image shows Broughton’s gibbet on the far right and the pub which benefited from visitors to see it on the left

Mr Justice Buller added that after the execution the defendant should be “hung in chains on the Common, within three miles of Sheffield, where the robbery was committed.”

He also said: “that in order to deter other his punishment should not cease at the place of execution but his body should be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either, to be buffeted by winds and storms.”

Broughton’s body was probably brought to Attercliffe Common in the dead of night, likely tarred to preserve it, to act as a warning from the powers-that-be at a time when there was social unrest in Europe and here “masterless” people were moving to the towns from the countryside where they were perceived as a potential threat to law and order.

The forces of authority were worried about losing their grip over the masses who had to be reminded of their place.

Fear was their weapon.

Barbaric as it all seems to us nowadays, Broughton’s hanging and gibbeting were a source of, for want of a better word, entertainment for the people. Hangings back then were a popular public spectacle which drew in large crowds.

Indeed, interest in Broughton’s corpse lasted for the entire period it was on display at Attercliffe Common.

It arrived there on April 16, 1792, just two days after Broughton’s hanging at York. It remained until 1827.

According to the innkeeper of local pub The Arrow, George Drabble, around 40,000 people turned out to see Broughton’s gibbeted body and it was still attracting plenty of ghoulish sightseers three decades later.

The innkeeper was delighted with the huge numbers of people as he made a small fortune plying them with drinks and food. It was a trade which continued for a long time as the decaying body remained a visitor attraction.

It is said that some worse-for-wear workers from the local Don Pottery threw stones at Broughton’s skeleton to dislodge two fingers which they then incorporated into a jug.

Perhaps to the authorities’ chagrin, the gibbeting of Spence Broughton actually made him into something of a local hero who would be remembered in folk songs.

An opinion voiced in the Sheffield Register in 1792 reflected the sense of sympathy felt by many to the people who had been gibbeted. It read: “The behaviour of these unhappy men was singularly devout and penitent – and of Broughton in particular, was marked with a degree of fortitude and resignation, seldom observed in persons in his unfortunate circumstance.”

Simon John Newton, the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Spence Broughton, said in a radio programme about his infamous ancestor that it was “a great story” and that it “makes me feel proud” that he was related.

Continued interest in Broughton’s demise was exemplified by the huge crowds which turned up when the supposed remains of his gibbet were found during work to build new houses in Clifton Street, Attercliffe Common, in 1867.

So who was this highwayman? Very few facts about Broughton’s early life are known but it is believed that he was formerly a farmer in the Lincolnshire town of Sleaford where he had a wife and three children. Research suggests that he was born in Horbling near Grantham, the son of farmers John and Anne Broughton.

But the rural life did not seem to appeal and he took to gambling and left his family to participate in cockfighting in Sheffield, Derby and Grantham. He had fallen into bad ways and bad company.

After the trio were finally arrested for the Ickles crime, the concept of honour amongst thieves seems to have evaporated in the fetid air of gloomy prison cells. Shaw, who was said to have been behind the hold-up plan, instead gave evidence to convict Broughton who he claimed was the mastermind. Shaw escaped punishment for his snitching.

Oxley did a runner from gaol. What happened to him after that is a mystery and he was never brought to book for his part in the highway robbery. Some say that he went to America to escape justice and start a new life, others suggest he died penniless and desperate in a barn on Loxley Moor, to the west of Sheffield. We will never know the truth.

It was claimed that Broughton, perhaps understandably, repented for his actions as the day of his dispatch approached. He is said to have written the rather flowery lines: “Surely I have greatly transgressed the laws both of God and man! In what manner shall a sinful wretch, like me, presume to approach the throne of mercy? Alas! my repeated provocations do now wound me to the very soul.” If this message of repentence is to be believed, he must have been an unusually literate former farmer and cockfighter!

At his execution, he is said to have denied any involvement in the highway robbery, despite receiving some of the proceeds. He admitted travelling to Rotherham to take part in the crime but said he was six miles away when it took place. But there was to be no reprieve, no fresh trial or delay to the execution.

It is believed that Spence Broughton was the last man in England to be gibbeted.

The court system in the 1790s were not about in-depth trials as much as showing what would happen to anyone who fell foul of the law. Broughton’s trial only lasted 90 minutes, remember, and he was on trial for his life.

Highway robbery meant death for the perpetrator, and little sympathy. For the masses it was a grisly entertainment.

Indeed, the gibbeting of criminals was by no means a rare feature of British criminal justice. For example, there were a staggering 100 gibbets erected on Hamslow Heath in London by the year 1800.

Has much changed today? Sensational court cases still fascinate us and there are always calls for “justice” after crimes are committed. Today we don’t hang but if capital punishment were returned would such events enthral the mob as Spence Broughton’s demise did? The jury is out on that but the verdict is probably a ‘yes’.

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