Spence Broughton has been catching up with me.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Spence Broughton, son of a respectable Fenland farmer, was convicted with another man of robbing a mail boy on the highway between Sheffield and Rotherham in 1791. Despite what appeared to have been a rather genteel hold-up (the boy was tied to a hedge), and Broughton’s consistent denial of the charge, he was condemned at the Spring Assizes in York the following year, hanged at York Tyburn, and his body taken back to the scene of the crime and suspended in a gibbet – betwixt heaven and earth (as unworthy of either) to be buffeted by the winds and storms, to quote the hanging judge, Mr Buller. And buffeted he was, for over 30 years: it was only when the land where the gibbet pole stood was sold in 1827 that the remains were taken down. Too much of an eyesore for the new owner, apparently.
My poem sequence, The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman, was published by Longbarrow Press in 2009. It was an attempt to give the dead man some right of reply. Set against the weight of formal narratives and the edicts and pronouncements of authority, Spence’s is a fractured voice. The sequence traces a loss – of identity and sanity as well as corporeality – to a vanishing point, ‘just sticks and wind’. Nevertheless, he is given some form of redemption as the ‘soft earth’ swallows him.
The sequence was read, along with other pieces, one fading summer’s evening in 2009, to a small audience that had made the journey to the 17th century Hill Top Chapel, hidden and almost forgotten behind willows and cracked gravestones, in among the dust of factories and the gleam of the new sports temples in the Don Valley. It is a short walk up Attercliffe Road to the site of the gibbet. The gathering of people in this simple, surprising building, its three-foot walls holding our voices perfectly, made an event that I hope did some justice to the subject.
Some months ago, I was put in contact with one of Broughton’s descendents, who had bought a copy of the sequence and who was visiting Yorkshire in the tracks of the man. We met in the Botanical Gardens – father and son, me and the poems, and talked about Spence Broughton. One question I was asked was the simplest: Why? I’ve been mulling my answers over since. My original thought went only as deep as some general sense that 18th century justice was summary and cruel – mixed with the idea that the poor and ‘vicious’ always got the rough end of the wedge.
But, as I was reminded, Broughton wasn’t of poor stock: his father had land; his son (this was something I didn’t know) became a surgeon and travelled the world). Yes, he had fallen into gambling and so on; but given his background, you would have thought his end unlikely.
Why, then? One reason – which I gave at the time, and have become more convinced of since, is that the last man in England to be gibbeted was to an extent a victim of his times. 1792 was an explosive year: the revolution in France was beginning to turn grisly; Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen were working to unite Catholics and Protestants against English oppression; the radical outpourings of Paine, Godwin and Wollstonecraft, reacting to the Establishment patriarchs like Edmund Burke, were voicing the sense that the spirit of freedom and emancipation would at last release the philosophies of the Enlightenment into the lives of all.
The response of the authorities, of course, was entrenchment and violent suppression – supported, of course, by those parts of the population who had something to lose, or were persuaded that they did. Societies of ‘Loyal Britons’ sprang to the defence of the realm against the French and whoever else was seen as threatening to subvert their way of life. Effigies of Thomas Paine were burned in villages and towns across the country.
And Spence Broughton, son of a farmer who had gone to the dogs (or the cocks at any rate), was hanged, dragged across country and strung up for all to see: a dire warning to anyone on the road who might be harbouring thoughts of discontent. He is, I think, very much the symbol for those vilified in our own times: the rioter, the scrounger, the cheat.
(First published on http://robhindle.wordpress.com, 29 June 2012)