Today (May 5) in London History – “the only peer of the realm hanged for murder”

Lord Ferrers was the only peer of the realm hanged for murder. He was executed at Tyburn gallows on May 5th, 1760. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


Let’s get this said right at the outset. This one comes with a warning. It’s macabre. It’s gruesome. If you’re squeamish you need to switch off right now. 

You’re listening to London Walks.

This is the May 5th episode of our 

Today in London History series.

The year is 1760. 

We’re going to an execution.

We’re not hanging about, so to speak. We’re going straight there. We’ll be in the front row. In the parlance of lit-crit types that’s an in medias res opening. In medias res. It’s a Latin phrase. It means ‘in the thick of the action.’ A narrative work beginning in medias res opens in the midst of the plot. The midst of the plot in this case is the moment a condemned man is launched into eternity at London’s Tyburn Tree, its main gallows. So we’re not beginning where it all started, we’re beginning at the climax – the denouement – the most dramatic moment of the story.

Namely…a nobleman, a peer of the 

realm hanging, by the neck, from the grim Tyburn gallows. He’s writhing in agony. He’s suffocating. His feet are flailing for a floor that isn’t there. Thousands of Londoners are looking on, transfixed, watching his death struggle. 

We’ll take on board what’s remarkable about that May 5th, 1760 execution. And then we’ll trackback. See what led up to it.

And finally, we’ll take a big picture view – put the whole thing in context. And ask some troubling questions. Questions I don’t have answers to. Maybe you will have.

The man hanged at Tyburn gallows on May 5th, 1760 was Lawrence Shirley, the 4th Earl Ferrers. 

There were five things about that execution that set it apart from the thousands of executions that took place at Tyburn over many centuries. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Tyburn Gallows – Tyburn tree as it was popularly known, stood at the western end of Oxford Street – Oxford Road as it was known then, because it was in the countryside, well outside of town. It stood approximately where Marble Arch is today.

And here are the five things that set this execution apart.

  1. the condemned man – the 4th Earl Ferrers – was a nobleman.
  2. the Earl was the first person hanged using the ‘drop’ method. Unfortunately for the 4th Earl, the drop method didn’t work. Oh he died all right but it wasn’t a clean, quick death – the broken neck and spinal column, more or less instantaneous unconsciousness – that the drop method was supposed to bring about. Like the thousands of others who’d gone before the Earl at Tyburn, the Earl’s was an agonsing, writhing, slow death by strangulation. His feet doing the Tyburn jitterbug. Horace Walpole, the prime minister’s son, said it took four minutes for the Earl to die. 
  3. The Earl was the last English nobleman to suffer a “felon’s” death. In other words to be executed by hanging as opposed to beheading. 
  4. The Earl was the only peer of the realm hanged for murder.
  5. Back to the “drop.” The Earl’s execution wasn’t just the first time the drop was used at Tyburn – it was the only time. Final point, popular views to the contrary, the Earl was not hanged by a silk cord, nice touch that that would have been. That silk cord was an urban legend. Like everybody else, the Earl swung from an ordinary hemp rope. Ok, let’s run the film backwards. Just a little bit. A little more than four minutes backwards.

We’ve got an eyewitness account of the moments leading up to the execution. The memoirist William Hickey said, “His lordship was conveyed to Tyburn in his own landau, dressed in a superb suit of white and silver, being the clothes in which he was married, his reason for wearing which was that they had been his first step towards ruin, and should attend his exit.”

It’s always the way, isn’t it. They always manage to pin at least some of the blame on a woman. 

And let’s hand the ball again to Horace Walpole – extraordinary to think that the Prime Minister’s son was there, watching the ghastly business. 

Walpole said, ‘this horrid lunatic … shamed heroes’ in his final comportment. ‘He was stopped at the gallows by the vast crowd, but got out of his coach as soon as he could, and was but seven minutes on the scaffold, which was hung with black … The mob was decent, admired him, and almost pitied him’.

Now keep an eye on the reel of time. We wound it back a few minutes from the moment of the Earl’s being launched into eternity. Now we’re going to fast forward it past the execution. What happened to the Earl after they cut him down?

How he would have hated this.

His remains were dissected by anatomists. Then they were buried under the belfry at St. Pancras. That turned out to be just an interlude – a 22-year-long interlude. His final resting place was at Staunton Herald. On a fine June day in 1782 they exhumed him from St Pancras and reburied him at Staunton Herald. 

And now a big rewind of the reel of time. A rewind all the way back to 1720, the year the 4th earl comes into this world. Born in 1720, that makes him 39 when he was executed. Old enough to know better. Old enough not to have done what he did that led to his appointment with Tyburn tree.

Especially given the head start he had in life. A head start that included a privileged education. The fourth earl matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford. Didn’t graduate, though. 

When he was 25 when he came into his peerage and his estates. That door opened for him thanks to the death of his Uncle Henry, the third Earl, who had been confined as a lunatic.

A close blood relative. Confined as a lunatic. You thinking what I’m thinking? Maybe something in the family? Something more than a peerage and estates he’d inherited? Quite possibly.

And suddenly you begin to see where the trail is heading. 

The fourth earl marries. In short order he imprisons his wife in his house at Staunton Herald in Leicestershire. With some difficulty she obtains her release. She separates from him on the grounds of his cruelty. And make no mistake, it’s not a lowly divorce court that brings in that ruling. It was an Act of Parliament in 1758. The fourth earl has two years to live. They were a turbulent two years. He can’t have been fun to be around. Sometimes he was ok. Other times he was anything but ok. His family considered committing him – sectioning him, as they say in this country. The madness and chaos of Bedlam. Which everybody understood, would have made him worse. Pushed him irretrievably, irrevocably over the edge.

According to his biographer, he had phases during which he was distracted or ungovernably excited. In these fits his gesticulation, grimacing, and suspicion of secret plots were wild.  

Come January of 1760 a dispute with the steward of the earl’s estate monstered into a murder. The victim  – the steward, a man named John Johnson – had worked for the family for years.

In a moment of rage the Earl shot the old family retainer with a pistol.

The steward died the next day. The Earl hightails it. He’s spotted crossing his bowling green, armed with a blunderbuss, dagger and pistols. A crowd of colliers detains him. He’s taken to the Tower of London. He’s tried in Westminster Hall. He tries to escape a capital sentence by arguing periodic fits of temporary insanity,

And sure enough, the Prime Minister’s son attended the trial.

Here’s Horace Walpole’s judgement: “In general he behaved rationally and coolly; though it was a strange contradiction to see a man trying by his own sense to prove himself out of his senses. It was more shocking to see his two brothers brought to prove the lunacy in their own blood, in order to save their brother’s life. Both are almost as ill-looking men as the Earl.”

Despite that plea, the Lords unanimously found Ferrers guilty of felony and murder. And the Lord Keeper, the first Baron Henley, sentenced him to death. 

The story is fairly well known but as always with these things there are gleanings. Takeaways. For example, I didn’t know that the earl’s execution was the only instance of the drop being used at Tyburn. I didn’t know that he was tried at Westminster Hall. That’s another brushstroke for the building that more than any other building crystallises this country’s history. And as long as we’re at it, I didn’t know that the fourth earl’s widow, bless her, remarried at St Martin in the Fields. Nor that many years later she was killed in a fire. She was reading in bed. The bedclothes caught fire.

And a nice touch – I love the Georgian phrasing here – her widower, Lord Frederick Campbell, died in his house in Queen Street, in Mayfair, “still elegant and distinguished even in decay.” How’s that for a legend on the front of a tee-shirt. 

And so we come to the big picture, the troubling question? It’s 1760. What do you do with Lord Ferrers and other people who have committed serious crimes? There are no long term prisons. Transportation to the penal colonies is for people who’ve committed petty crimes. As for the aforementioned madness and chaos of Bedlam – that was no solution. So what do you do? Do you let a murderer go free? A murderer who clearly has issues, as we might say today.

Or do you do as they did? Hang him.

And what does that do to your populace? In the 18th century there were eight hanging days a year. Everybody always took those days off to go and watch the spectacle?

It was an education in brutality for Londoners. And it wasn’t just Tyburn, just those eight days. Right across London there was the pillory, there were constant floggings through the streets, there was the violent coercion of press gangs. (Also known as Shanghai-ing or crimping.)

These things had been going on for centuries. It’s not an off-handed, casual question this: how could a people brought up for so many generations in such surroundings be anything but coarse, violent and brutal?

Well, I’ll leave that one for you to wrestle with. Welcome to the London of yesteryear everyone – the London of the gallows. Welcome to the capital of merry old England. Welcome to historic old London.

And now for a handbrake turn, Welcome to Today in London. The recommendation is from Mary. Mary the classically trained dancer. She says “they mustn’t miss The Car Man at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s on from June 9th to June 19th. Fourteen performances only. Here’s the legend on the flag the Royal Albert Hall is waving: “A dance-thriller based on Bizet’s beloved Carmen, The Car Man will be completely reimagined for the gladiatorial arena of the Royal Albert Hall, adding a frisson of danger as the dancers perform throughout the auditorium.” And the verdict’s in from the jury known as the press. It’s a unanimous verdict. In the words of The Observer, “sultry perfection.” The Evening Standard: “Glamorous, sexy funny and dangerous. A triumph.”

The perfect tonic for too many thoughts of Tyburn.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

The secret? It all comes down to the guiding, doesn’t it. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. This is not a summer job guiding done by college students. It’s not paint-by-numbers guiding. You will NOT be guided by a callow youth who’s memorised a script. You will be guided by accomplished professionals – barristers, doctors, Museum of London archaeologists, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, historians, distinguished academics, elite, professionally-qualified Guide of the Year Award-winning Blue Badge, City of London and Westminster Guides. Well-connected, experienced, savvy, assured guides – Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. It’s elementary my dear Watson: A top-flight guide is worth every penny. A mediocre guide is time and money wasted. The time wasted is of course compounded by the opportunity cost. 

And on that caveat emptor note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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