Today (April 19) in London History – the crime of the year

The clergyman who murdered his lover. It was the crime – and the execution – of the year. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


“The dreadful effects that the passion of Love may produce.”

That was James Boswell’s verdict. 

Anyway, it’s April 19th. I’m writing this, in London, on Saturday, April 16th, 2022. Easter Vigil – Holy Saturday, if you prefer.

We’re going to get back. And then we’re going to go for a bit of a ride.

How shall we do the trip back? One possibility is that old cinematic convention of pages being torn off a calendar. A whole lot of pages. Over 2,000 of them. That’s one of doing it, one way of getting back to April 19th, 1779. Which was a Monday. A hanging day. Two weeks and a day after Easter Sunday. There’s another way though. Let’s say the passing of time is white water rafting. That fast, furious voyage is what’s been filmed. We’re just going to run that film in reverse. Right back to 1779.

And when we get back to 1779 we’re just for a second going to look further upstream. Look upstream to April 19th, 1775. Something pretty special happened on that April 19th. Didn’t happen in London. But it sure had consequences for London. Indeed, for the whole word. What happened? Well, where it happened is the essential clue. Boston, Massachusetts to start with. And the road from Boston to Lexington and then Concorde. A squadron of British soldiers – red coats – rode out of Boston, headed off to Lexington. Why were they going there? They were going to disarm the colonists. They got to Lexington Green. They were on one side of the green. Some colonists were on the other side of the green. A shot was fired. We don’t know who pulled the trigger. A nervous British soldier? One of the colonists on the other side of the green? A colonist who was hidden away. Maybe behind a tree. Or from a window. Whoever it was, that was the shot heard round the world. An exchange of fire followed. People were killed. Same thing happened in Concorde. The British troops were harassed all the way back to Boston. It was of course the beginning of the American War of Independence. 

I’d very much like to know whether James Boswell registered – in due course, it will have taken months for word of that engagement to get back to London – would very much like to know whether James Boswell registered what happened on that April 19th, four years before the one we’re concerned with here. Did he make a note in a diary? Put a circle round the date? Did he think, when he was on his way to the April 19th, 1779 execution at Tyburn, “this is the anniversary of it all starting over the ocean?”

Anyway, just a thought.

Now about our execution here. When I sat down this morning to tell this tale I was going to say, once we’d established the date – April 19th, 1779 – we’re going for a ride this morning with James Boswell, author of the greatest biography in the English language. His biography of the great man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson. I was going to say, quite a special ride. We’re going to join Boswell in the mourning cart on the way to Tyburn. Boswell liked a good execution – and what do you know, he rode in the mourning cart with the condemned man to Tyburn. The condemned man was the clergyman the Reverend James Hackman. And that was of course his last ride. When they got him to Tyburn he would be launched into eternity. And the thought that Boswell was riding along with the Reverend, along streets crowded with Londoners keen to see the condemned man on his last ride, well, that was just too extraordinary to pass up.

Funny thing about history, though. And historians. They sometimes get it wrong. And that’s exactly what my initial source – who put me onto the story –  did. He came right out and said Boswell was in the mourning coach. Did a bit more digging – as one does – found a better authority – and it turns out the Boswell probably was at the execution, did witness it, but he did not ride with the condemned man, in the mourning cart, to the execution. A teensy bit of regret that that was the case. Imagine if he had – and written about the experience – what the two of them had discussed. Was it small tallk? Was the clergyman paralysed with fear and dread? Would Boswell have tried to console him: “you’re a lucky man, you’ll be at the side of God in a couple of hours – and what a fine day to meet your marker?”

Well, it’s all food for speculation?

Let’s find out who the Reverand Hackman was and what his crime was. It was the crime of the year, really. People couldn’t stop talking about it.

Reverend Hackman grew up in Gosport in Hampshire. He was the son of a former naval lieutenant. He was apprenticed to a mercer. He may have attended St. Johns College Cambridge. He joined the army. On a fateful day in 1775 he was a member of a recruiting party that visited the home of John Montague, the fourth earl of Sandwich. There he met Martha Ray. She was a staymaker’s daughter. She had been apprenticed to a mantua maker in Clerkenwell. Fourteen years earlier she had met the Earl of Sandwich. She became his mistress. She gave him nine children in 14 years. Five of them survived their mother. Martha Ray was described as ‘a lady of an elegant person, great sweetness of manners, and of a remarkable judgement and execution in vocal and instrumental music.”

Martha Ray and James Hackman may have become lovers. His regiment was posted to Ireland and in consequence the relationship faltered. Ended, really. He resigned his commission. Entered the church.

He hadn’t got over Martha Ray. He’d be called a stalker today. He suspected that she had a new lover. On April 7, 1779 he followed her to Covent Theatre. The play was Love in a Village. She’d begun life as a village girl. Hackman had begun life as a village boy. Given what happened at that theatre that night, the title of the play must have sent shivers up the spine of many Londoners. Hackman saw Martha Ray talking to Lord Coleraine. He assumed he was her lover. He stormed out of the theatre, got his hands on two pistols, and raced back. He waited in the nearby Bedford Coffee House. When the play let out he came up behind Martha Ray. He grabbed her cloak. He turned her round so she was facing him. He put a pistol to her forehead and shot her dead. The clergyman shot that mother of five children in the forehead, at point blank range, three days after Easter Sunday. That was the first act. The second act was shooting himself with the other pistol. His aim wasn’t so good with the second shot. It only grazed his head. He then beat himself with both pistols. He was overpowered. He, along with Martha Ray’s corpse, was taken to St James’s Street. To the Shakespeare Tavern. Lord Sandwich was apprised of what had happened. The record tells us that he wept exceedingly on hearing the news. I can hardly bear to think what it was like for her children. Five of them, the oldest no more than 12 or 13 years old.

If you go to Elstree parish church, that’s where Martha Ray rests today. In the churchyard. 

Enter another giant of English Literature. Sir John Fielding. Fielding wasn’t just the novelist who wrote Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, he was also a magistrate. He committed Hackman to the Tothill Fields bridewell (a prison). Incredibly, the arched entryway to that prison still stands. It’s well hidden. And it’s chilling. Depending on which route I take my walkers there on my Old Westminster walk.

Hackman’s initial intention was to plead guilty. He changed his mind because he “would not be accessory to a second peril of my life.” How’s that for a piece of special pleading. He read a speech. Some people think James Boswell may have authored the speech. He said he had intended only suicide but a momentary phrensay overcame me and induced me to commit the deed I now deplore.”

Mr. Justice Blackman said there was no need for much in the way of deliberation. He said a letter found on James Hackman showed ‘a coolness and deliberation which no ways accorded with the ideas of insanity’.

Hackman was convicted. And sentenced to hang on this day, April 19th. How swift justice was. Remember he’d committed the crime on April 7th. 

After being hanged he was dissected in Surgeon’s Hall. 

Witnesses said, he ‘behaved – at the gallows – with great fortitude; no appearances of fear were to be perceived, but very evident signs of contrition and repentance.”

As I said, it was the most celebrated crime of the year. It became a cause ‘d’celebre.

It’ll come as no surprise that an important current of public opinion was that it was all Martha’s Ray fault, that she was “a capricious and ungrateful woman.”

My own view – from the perspective of 243 years on, I think Boswell probably got it right. The case was a classic example of the dreadful effects that the passion of Love may produce.”

Though of course, you have to ask, what kind of love is it that prompts a man to put the business end of a pistol against his lover’s forehead and pull the trigger.

And something in the way of a final thought – here I’m waving that London Walks anthem, what inexhaustible food for speculation the streets of London afford – public executions, what a major part of the London panorama there were in the 18th century. Over the course of the century about 1100 men and 100 women were hanged at Tyburn. That works out at a hanging every single month throughout the 18th century. Nor was Tyburn the whole shebang. They were also hanging people at Smithfield and Tower Hill. Imagine waking up and thinking, “it’s execution day.” Public execution day, I hasten to add. What’s that do to your head? What’s that do to the way you see the world. It’s sort of like bullfighting. Except it’s not a bull and it’s not a fight. It is atavistic though. And horrible. Public hangings – indeed capital punishment in this country – being a thing of the past, that’s something to thankful for. I wouldn’t like to witness one. Even to know that they took place would turn my stomach and take my mind to a place I wouldn’t want  it to go. Ever.

And on that note, Goodnight from London.

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning company. London Walks – the premier walking tour company in the entire as they so kindly put it a few years ago at that American convention of walking tour guides.

Our credo is: it all comes down to the guiding. Which is why, with London Walks, uniquely you 

get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And no, I haven’t forgotten. The London Walks Today in London recommendation is howzabout a trip to the Morpeth Arms, the pub at 58 Millbank. By the Tate Britain. Built in 1845, it was originally established as a deportation facility. A tunnel system running beneath the city streets carried convicts from the old Millbank prison to a holding area beneath the pub, while they waited for transportation to whisk them away. They don’t let you go down in the basement but you can see down into it via a live feed. And for a bonus, it’s got a Spying Room. Because it looks directly over the river at the MI6 building, the headquarters of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Spend enough time at the Morpeth Arms it’s a dead cert that you’ll end in a conversation – no matter how anodyne – with a British spook.

See ya tomorrow.


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