May 5, 2015 § 1 Comment
Spence Broughton, a farmer from Lincolnshire, was tried and convicted at York Assizes in April 1792 for his part in robbing the Rotherham mail. He was executed at York Tyburn and his body transported to be hanged from a gibbet on Attercliffe Common, between Sheffield and Rotherham, where it remained until 1827.
As part of the South Yorkshire Poetry Festival, Ray Hearne and I will be giving an open-air performance of my sequence The Purging of Spence Broughton in the grounds of Boston Castle, Rotherham, on Wednesday 20 May. We will read and perform poems, songs and other texts that illuminate the life and death of the ‘Highwayman’, within the wider political and historical context of the most explosive – and oppressive – period of modern European history.
The event is organised in association with Longbarrow Press, who will be publishing a new, expanded edition of Spence Broughton for the Festival date. Booking details and further information can be found at the Festival website.
The road between Sheffield and Rotherham crossed, in large part, a rural district interspersed with villages, farms and individual buildings, unremarkable in itself – except for the fact that, in its concentration of flowing water, limestone and coal, this landscape was, by the end of the 18th century, already one of the most important industrial sites in the world.
In 1788, Thomas Paine came to Rotherham to meet the Walker family, owners of the ‘most eminent’ iron works in England. He had a patent to build an iron bridge, and the Rotherham foundry was the best place for it to be built. Over the next two years – between his travels to and from France and his battles at Westminster with Edmund Burke – the iron bridge was commissioned, designed, shipped to London and constructed. Eventually, as he put it, ‘The French Revolution and Mr Burke’s attack upon it, drew me off from any pontifical works’; but he remained convinced of the importance of ‘bridges for the people.’
What drew Paine off his bridge-building was to have cataclysmic repercussions across Europe. By the time of Broughton’s sentence, even robbing (without violence) a post boy of his bag was deemed worthy of capital punishment. In 1792, the English establishment were looking in horror across the Channel. The French populace had risen up against their masters: would not the English – and certainly the Irish – do the same? Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, published as a pamphlet the previous year and in wide circulation in England and Ireland (over 200,000 copies of Parts 1 and 2 would be printed by the end of 1793), sounded the clarion call:
“What are the present governments of Europe, but a scene of iniquity and oppression? What is that of England? Do not its own inhabitants say, It is a market where every man has his price, and where corruption is common traffic, at the expense of a deluded people? No wonder, then, that the French Revolution is traduced.”
A cheap edition was printed for mass circulation by the Dublin Whig Club; and organisations like the United Irishmen, advocating justice and democracy, were gaining popular support among its countrymen.
So Spence Broughton was not just hanged. For his crime (the mail bag, perhaps significantly, containing nothing but a promissory note from a French bank), he was condemned ‘to be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’, ‘in order to deter others’. For over 35 years, his tarred skeleton hung from its chains and manacles, close to the main road of commerce between the two towns at the hub of the new world. It was there while Paine was tried for sedition and the French Republic grew into a Terror; while the United Irishmen rose up in Wexford and Ulster, and fell at the gates of Dublin; it was there throughout the wars with France and the Peninsular Wars, through Trafalgar – the Walker foundries working day and night casting arms, including cannon for HMS Victory – and Waterloo; it was there, still, when the 15th Hussars, bloodied and scarred from their fighting across the continent, mowed down their own people at Peterloo.
‘Why will the laws continue to sport with the wretched after life is at an end?’ he wrote, finally, to his wife. The tale of those 35 years, from revolution and the hope of people for a just life, to the crushing, bloody reaction of those who maintained power through ‘iniquity and oppression’, provide the starkest of answers.