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The murderous Earl Ferrers

By This is Tamworth  |  Posted: November 27, 2010

  • The Ferrers family monument in Tamworth Church.

  • FATEFUL DAY: Earl Ferrers shoots his steward Johnson.

  • LEFT AND RIGHT: Thousands of spectators turned out to see the execution of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, at Tyburn in London on May 5, 1760.

  • Earl Ferrers... the last peer of the realm to be hanged as a common criminal.

  • IGNOMINIOUS END: Earl Ferrers in his coffin at Surgeon's Hall.

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YOU wouldn't think there was anything to be ashamed of when you look at the immense carved memorial to the Ferrers family in Tamworth Parish Church.

But the family who were lords of Tamworth Castle for two-and-a-half centuries do have a black sheep – in fact, he was the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in England.

A descendant of an ancient and noble family, Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers (August 18, 1720 – May 5, 1760) was the eldest son of Hon. Laurence Ferrers, himself a younger son of the Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers, a descendant of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.

At the age of 20, he quit his estates and Oxford education, and during the time he spent in Paris he plunged into every kind of excess.

Ferrers inherited his title from his insane uncle in 1745 and with it estates in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. He lived, however, at Staunton Harold Hall in northwest Leicestershire.

In 1752, he married the youngest daughter of Sir William Meredith. But significantly, in 1758, his wife obtained a separation from him for cruelty, which would have been extremely rare for the time.

She was said to be very pretty and clearly did not appreciate her husband's drinking, womanising and the fact that he had a mistress and children.

As part of the court imposed settlement, the Ferrers estates were vested in trustees in order to secure an income for his estranged wife.

Ferrers, however, secured the appointment of his old family steward, John Johnson, as the receiver of rents, acting on the belief that Johnson would act in his interests rather than follow the trustees' instructions.

It seems, however, that the Earl was to be disappointed in this regard as Johnson (who was understandably reluctant to take on the role in the first place) diligently fulfilled his legal duties.

This inevitably led to friction between the two men, and in particular the Earl became unhappy that Johnson had paid across the sum of £50 to his wife without his express approval.

On Sunday, January 13, 1760, Ferrers paid a visit to Johnson and invited him to attend a meeting at Staunton Harold Hall on Friday the 18th to discuss the matter.

In preparation for this meeting the Earl ensured that his mistress, Margaret Clifford, the children and all the male servants were absent. This was later taken as clear indication of premeditation on the part of the Earl Ferrers.

Then, after some conversation, Ferrers shot and killed Johnson.

In the following April, Ferrers was tried for murder by his peers in Westminster Hall.

His defence, which he conducted in person with great ability, was a plea of insanity, and it was supported by considerable evidence. But he was found guilty.

He asked to be beheaded on Tower Hill, but their lordships decided that he should hang like a common criminal at Tyburn, after which his body would be given over to the anatomists for dissection.

Ferrers also asked to be hanged with a silken cord, instead of a hemp rope, as befitted his rank. This request, too, was denied.

The only novel introduction at his hanging would be the use of a trap door.

A platform had been raised about 18 inches above the scaffold with a hatch that measured about three feet square.

The earl was meant to stand on it as the noose was put around his neck. The hatch would then open, killing him. That was the theory of it at least.

For his execution on May 5, 1760, Ferrers wore the same white suit with silver trimmings that he had worn at his wedding.

He travelled from the Tower to Tyburn in his own carriage but the crowds were so thick that the journey took nearly three hours.

"They have never seen a lord hanged before", he remarked to the sheriff.

The procession comprised a detachment of grenadier guards, a company of life guards, lines of constables, numerous city officials, coaches full of friends and well-wishers, and a hearse.

No one wanted to miss the spectacle.

The earl, nonchalantly chewing on tobacco, waved to the crowds.

When the horse of the cavalry man that was escorting him got its leg caught in the wheel of the coach and threw off its rider, Ferrers remarked: "I hope there will be no death today but mine."

According to celebrated English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and politician Horace Walpole, who witnessed the hanging, the funeral procession 'was stopped at the gallows by a vast crowd, but (he) got out of his coach as soon as he could, and was but seven minutes on the scaffold, which was hung with black.' He added: "The mob was decent, admired him, and almost pitied him".

Whatever unpleasantness there was took place on the scaffold itself.

After handing over his watch to the sheriff, along with five guineas to the chaplain, Ferrers mistakenly gave another five to the assistant hangman rather than to the headman, Thomas Turlis.

The two men came to blows until the sheriff finally stepped in and gave Turlis his money.

The earl did receive some privileges as befitted his social status,

His hands were tied in front with a piece of black sash instead of behind him with ordinary cord.

Turlis guided him onto the raised part of the scaffold which was covered with black baize. "Am I right?" asked the earl. Turlis nodded and pulled won the white cap over his face.

He operated the mechanism and Ferrers dropped down – but there had been a grave miscalculation.

"As the machine was new, they were not ready at it," commented Horace Walpole. "His toes still touched the stage and he suffered a little, having had time by their bungling to raise his cap; but the executioner pulled it down again, and they pulled his legs so that he was soon out of pain, and quite dead in four minutes."

After an hour, the body was taken down. This resulted in another brawl between the hangmen.

"The executioners fought for the rope", said Walpole, "and the man who lost it cried."

The rope was, of course, valuable booty.

The body was laid out in a coffin lined with white satin and taken to the Surgeon's Hall, where it was cut open and put on display for the next three days before being handed back to the family for burial.

It was expected of nobleman that he would know 'how to die' and how to put on a good show for the public. In this Earl Ferrers did not disappoint.

Nor did the Sheriffs of London, as they had to obtain funding for and have designed and built the new gallows and arrange for the cavalry etc. to provide what was perceived by many at the time as a great day out.

Tradition states that the following lines, believed to be written by the earl himself, were found in his cell after he'd left for Tyburn.

In doubt I lived, in doubt I die,

Yet stand prepared the vast abyss to try,

and, undismay'd, expect eternity.

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