Lancaster and the Assizes 1800-1910

‘Lancaster and the Assizes 1800-1910’ by Christine Goodier MA

For hundreds of years Lancaster held the only Right of Assize for the County of Lancashire. It was a right that the town guarded jealously, as the regular income generated by the twice-yearly influx of lawyers and their clients brought wealth to the town. The inns and taverns were full, social life swung into action and, from the end of the 18th Century, the wealthy began to build the magnificent houses that still stand on Castle Hill. Here they could live comfortably during the Assize, wine and dine their friends and enjoy the spectacle of the law in all its majesty as the judges of the Northern Circuit arrived at the castle to administer justice

In tandem with the criminal cases, civil matters were thrashed out in the Shire Hall. Divorces, contested wills and arguments over property were a popular draw, but not as popular as the business of the Assize Court. Over a period of two weeks each spring and autumn, a procession of thieves, forgers, highway robbers, burglars and the occasional murderer, as well as the inevitable innocent, followed one another into the dock that still stands in the Crown Court.

Lancaster was known as ‘The Hanging Court’ due to the high number of death sentences handed down there. In the period up to the end of the 1820’s, there were over 200 crimes carrying the death penalty, most of them crimes against property. Lancashire was in the throes of change, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing. This seismic shift in population patterns was forcing many people off the land and into the factories. Life was hard, and many succumbed to the temptation, or the necessity, of crime in order to survive.

While it is true that many of those who stood before the might of the law were multiple offenders, just as many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some had tried to better their lot by forming Trade Unions, or by using violent means to prevent the loss of their livelihoods to the machines that were slowly replacing them. For many, a term in prison, a whipping or a fine was to be their lot. For countless others, a sentence of Transportation to Australia awaited. For some, though, the culmination of their life was to be at the end of a rope.

Before 1800, executions in Lancaster took place on the moors above the town. The condemned would be loaded on to a cart, and taken from the castle up Moor Lane. Tradition has it that they were allowed a final drink at the Golden Lion public house before completing their final journey.

The precise site of the gallows remains unknown, but hangings were a very public affair and remained so even after the site of execution moved to the Castle precincts in 1800. Public hanging remained in force until 1865, and these were carried out at Hanging Corner.The site exists just outside the Drop Room where the condemned were pinioned before being brought forth into the gaze of noisy crowds which could occasionally exceed 5,000. A scaffold was placed in this corner of the castle close to the wall of the Keep, and on a level with the doorway from the Drop Room.

Until 1853, the ‘Short Drop’ was used in Lancaster.This was a slow death by strangulation and was later replaced by the more humane ‘Long Drop.’ Even though we may not realise it, we still use sayings which have their origins in this grim spectacle. To hurry the business of hanging, a victim sometimes had their ‘leg pulled’ by a ‘hanger on’, while some people think that the practice of selling the ropes after hangings (by the inch at sixpence a time – as a lucky charm) was ‘money for old rope’.

The personal possessions of the condemned became, like the rope, the property of the hangman. This was a lucrative sideline but led to some men on the scaffold kicking their shoes off into the crowd to deprive the executioner of his ‘perks’. After the business of the day was completed, to the slow tolling of the prison bell, the bodies were returned to the Drop Room and placed in simple wooden coffins. As an added horror, and to aid the fledgling medical profession, some were given to the surgeons for dissection prior to their ultimate burial in unconsecrated ground within the castle.

Lancaster’s most infamous hangman

Old Ned Barlow ‘turned off’ more than 130 people, many while he was himself under sentence of death for horse-stealing. Ned died in 1812 and from then on Lancaster was served by the national hangmen, men like William Calcraft and William Marwood, who travelled to the town from London.

After the change in the law hangings took place within the prison walls in Execution Yard. Lancaster had lost its sole right to hold Assizes in 1835 and after this time the number of executions in Lancaster dropped dramatically. There were no executions in Lancaster from 1835-1853 for example, and only six in total after 1865, the last being that of Thomas Rawcliffe in 1910, although the ‘Topping Shed’ was to remain in Execution Yard until the abolition of hanging in 1965.

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