Executed in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark, 21st of February, 1803, for High Treason
LORD ELLENBOROUGH, in passing sentence, said: "Such disclosures have been made as to prove, beyond the possibility of doubt, that the objects of your atrocious, abominable and traitorous conspiracy were to overthrow the government, and to seize upon and destroy the sacred person of our august and revered Sovereign, and the illustrious branches of his Royal house."
If such were the objects aimed at by these men, as the noble and learned judge declared to have been the case, it was certainly the most vain and impotent attempt ever engendered in the distracted brain of an enthusiast. Without arms, or any probable means, a few dozen men, the very dregs of society, led on by a disappointed and disaffected chief, were to overturn a mighty empire; nor does it appear that any man of their insignificant band of conspirators -- Colonel Despard alone excepted -- was above the level of the plebeian race. Yet a small party of this description, seduced to disloyalty by a contemptible leader, brooding over their vain attempts at a mean public-house in St George's Fields, alarmed the nation.
The members of this rebellious gang were Edward Marcus Despard, a colonel in the army, aged fifty; John Francis, a private soldier, aged twenty-three; John Wood, a private soldier, aged thirty-six; Thomas Broughton, a carpenter, aged twenty-six; James Sedgwick Wratton, a shoemaker, aged thirty-five; John Macnamara, a carpenter, aged fifty; and Arthur Graham, a slater, aged fifty-three.
Still more shocking to relate, all of them were married men, leaving numerous offspring to bewail their fathers' fate and their own loss. There were others of the gang tried and acquitted, and some pardoned.
Colonel Despard, the ill-starred leader of these misguided men, was descended from a very ancient and respectable family in Queen's County, in Ireland. He was the youngest of six brothers, all of whom, except the eldest, had served their country either in the army or navy.
He so well discharged his duty as a colonel that he was appointed superintendent of his Majesty's affairs on the coast of Honduras, which office he held much to the advantage of the Crown of England, for he obtained from that of Spain some very important privileges. The clashing interests, however, of the inhabitants of this coast produced much discontent, and the Colonel was, by a party of them, accused of various misdemeanours to his Majesty's Ministers.
He came home and demanded that his conduct should be investigated, but, after two years' constant attendance on all the departments of Government, was at last told by the Ministers that there was no charge against him worthy of investigation, and that his Majesty had thought proper to abolish the office of superintendent at Honduras, otherwise he should have been reinstated in it; but he was then, and on every occasion, assured that his services should not be forgotten, but in due time meet their reward.
While in the Bay of Honduras the Colonel had married a native of that place.
The Colonel, it seems, irritated by continual disappointments, began now to vent his indignation in an unguarded manner; consequently he became a suspicious character, and was for some time a prisoner in Coldbath Fields, under the Habeas Corpus Act, then lately passed, and which empowered Ministers to keep in confinement all suspected characters.
Imprisonment increased the rancour of his heart, and on his liberation he could not conceal his malignancy towards Government. Thus inflamed, he endeavoured to inflame others, and at length brought upon himself, and those poor ignorant wretches who were seduced by his arguments, disgrace and death.
On the 16th of November, 1802, in consequence of a search warrant, a numerous body of police officers went to the Oakley Arms, Oakley Street, Lambeth, where they apprehended Colonel Despard, and nearly forty labouring men and soldiers, many of them Irish. The next morning they were all brought up before the magistrates at Union Hall. The result of the examination was that Colonel Despard was committed to the county jail, and afterwards to Newgate; twelve of his low associates (six of whom were soldiers) were sent to Tothill Fields Bridewell, and twenty to the New Prison, Clerkenwell. Ten other persons, who had been found in a different room, and who appeared to have no concern whatever with the Colonel's party, were instantly discharged.
The Colonel's conduct during all his examinations was invariably the same: he was silent during the whole.
The Privy Council, the more effectually to try the prisoners, issued a Special Commission.
The trial of Colonel Despard came on on Monday, the 7th of February, 1803. The indictment, which consisted of three counts, having been read, the prosecution was opened by the Attorney-General, who, in a very eloquent and impartial manner, laid before the jury the whole of the charges.
The prisoners designed on that day to carry into effect their plan, by laying restraint upon the King's person and destroying him. They frequently attempted to seduce soldiers into the association, in which they sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed. Francis administered unlawful oaths to those who yielded, and, among others, to Blades and Windsor, giving them at the same time two or three copies of the oath, that they might be enabled to make proselytes in their turn. Windsor soon after became dissatisfied, and gave information of the conspiracy to a Mr Bonus, and showed him a copy of the oath. This gentleman advised him to continue a member of the association, that he might learn whether there were any persons of consequence engaged in it.
On the Friday before the intended assassination of his Majesty a meeting took place, when Broughton prevailed upon two of the associates to go to the Flying Horse, Newington, where they would meet with a nice man, which nice man, as he styled him, was the prisoner Despard.
Thomas Windsor, the chief witness, declared the manner in which he took the oath, and the plan of the conspiracy. Having mentioned the intended mode of proceeding, he said the prisoner observed that the attack should be made on the day his Majesty went to the Parliament House, and that his Majesty must be put to death; at the same time the prisoner said: "I have weighed the matter well, and my heart is callous."
After the destruction of the King, the mail-coaches were to be stopped, as a signal to the people in the country that the revolt had taken place in town. The prisoner then desired witness to meet him the ensuing morning, at half-past eleven o'clock, on Tower Hill, and to bring with him four or five intelligent men, to consider upon the best manner for taking the Tower and securing the arms. Witness accordingly met him at the Tiger public-house, on Tower Hill, having brought with him two or three soldiers. The prisoner then repeated his declaration that the King must be put to death; and Wood promised, when the King was going to the House, that he would post himself as sentry over the great gun in the Park, that he would load it, and fire at his Majesty's coach as he passed through the Park.
The several meetings, consultations, etc., were further proved by William Campbell, Charles Read, Joseph Walker, Thomas Blades, and other witnesses.
Lord Nelson gave the prisoner a most excellent character. They were on the Spanish main together. They served together, and he declared him to have been a loyal man and a good officer. On cross-examination his lordship said he had not seen him since the year 1780.
Sir Alured Clarke and Sir Evan Nepean bore testimony of his having been a zealous officer.
Mr Gurney, the other counsel for the prisoner, addressed the jury in an able speech; and the Solicitor-General having replied on the part of the Crown, Lord Ellenborough summed up.
The jury returned a verdict of guilty, but earnestly recommended him to mercy, on account of his former good character and the services he had rendered his country. On the following Wednesday, 9th of February, the trial of the other prisoners took place, when the same circumstances, chiefly by the same witnesses, were repeated, and nine (already named) out of twelve were found guilty, three of whom were recommended to mercy.
Lord Ellenborough, in a style of awful solemnity highly befitting the melancholy but just occasion, addressed the prisoners nearly to the following purport: "You" (calling each prisoner separately by name) " have been separately indicted for conspiring against his Majesty's person, his Crown, and Government, for the purposes of subverting the same, and changing the government of this realm. After a long, patient and, I hope, just and impartial trial, you have been all of you severally convicted, by a most respectable jury of your country, upon the several crimes laid to your charge. In the course of evidence upon your trial such disclosures have been made as to prove, beyond the possibility of doubt, that the objects of your atrocious and traitorous conspiracy were to overthrow the Government, and to seize upon and destroy the sacred persons of our august and revered Sovereign, and the illustrious branches of his Royal house, which some of you, by the most solemn bond of your oath of allegiance, were pledged, and all of you, as his Majesty's subjects, were indispensably bound, by your duty, to defend; to overthrow that constitution, its established freedom and boasted usages, which have so long maintained among us that just and rational equality of rights, and security of property, which have been for so many ages the envy and admiration of the world; and to erect upon its ruins a wild system of anarchy and bloodshed, having for its object the subversion of all property and the massacre of its proprietors; the annihilation of all legitimate authority and established order -- for such must be the import of that promise held out by the leaders of this atrocious conspiracy, of ample provision for the families of those heroes who should fall in the struggle. It has, however, pleased that Divine Providence, which has mercifully watched over the safety of this nation, to defeat your wicked and abominable purpose, by arresting your projects in their dark and dangerous progress, and thus averting that danger which your machinations had suspended over our heads; and by your timely detection, seizure and submittal to public justice, to afford time for the many thousands of his Majesty's innocent and loyal subjects, the intended victims of your atrocious and sanguinary purpose, to escape that danger which so recently menaced them, and which, I trust, is not yet become too formidable for utter defeat.
"The only thing remaining for me is the painful task of pronouncing against you, and each of you, the awful sentence which the law denounces against your crime, which is, that you, and each of you" (here his Lordship named the prisoners severally), "be taken from the place from whence you came, and from thence you are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and our bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King's disposal; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls! "
On Saturday afternoon, the 19th of February, was received the information that the warrant for execution, to take place on the following Monday, was made out, which contained a remission of part of the sentence -- viz. the taking out and burning their bowels before their faces, and dividing their bodies. It was sent to the keeper of the New Jail in the Borough at six o'clock on Saturday evening, and included the names already given.
The three other prisoners, Newman, Tyndall and Lander, were respited. As soon as the warrant for execution was received it was communicated to the unhappy persons by the keeper of the prison, Mr Ives, with as much tenderness and humanity as the awful nature of the case required.
Colonel Despard observed that the time was short: yet he had not had, from the first, any strong expectation that the recommendation of the jury would be effectual. The mediation of Lord Nelson and a petition to the Crown were tried, but Colonel Despard was convinced, according to report, that they would be unavailing.
Soon after the warrant was received all papers, and everything he possessed, were immediately taken from the Colonel.
Mrs Despard was greatly affected when she first heard his fate was sealed, but afterwards recovered her fortitude. Mr and Mrs Despard bore up with great firmness at parting; and when she got into a coach, as it drove off she waved her handkerchief out of the window.
At daylight on Sunday morning the drop, scaffold and gallows, on which they were to be executed, were erected on the top of the jail. All the Bow Street patrol, and many other peace officers, were on duty all day and night, and the military near London were drawn up close to it.
Seven shells, or coffins, were brought into prison to receive the bodies, and two large bags filled with sawdust, and the block on which they were to be beheaded. At four o'clock the next morning, the 21st of February, the drum beat at the Horse Guards, as a signal for the cavalry to assemble.
At six o'clock the Life Guards arrived, and took their station at the end of the different roads at the Obelisk, in St George's Fields, whilst all the officers from Bow Street, Queen Square, Marlborough Street, Hatton Garden, Worship Street, Whitechapel, Shadwell, etc., attended. There were parties of the Life Guards riding up and down the roads.
At half-past six the prison bell rang -- the signal for unlocking the cells. At seven o'clock Colonel Despard and the other prisoners were brought down from their cells, their irons knocked off, and their arms bound with ropes. When the Colonel came out he shook hands very cordially with his solicitor, and returned him many thanks for his kind attention. Then, observing the sledge and apparatus, he smilingly cried out: "Ha! ha! What nonsensical mummery is this?"
As soon as the prisoners were placed on the hurdle, St George's bell tolled for some time. They were preceded by the sheriff, Sir R. Ford, the clergyman, Mr Winkworth, and the Roman Catholic clergyman, Mr Griffith.
The coffins, or shells, which had been previously placed in a room under the scaffold, were then brought up and placed on the platform, on which the drop was erected; the bags of sawdust, to catch the blood when the heads were severed from the bodies, were placed beside them. The block was near the scaffold. There were about a hundred spectators on the platform, among whom were some characters of distinction. The greatest order was observed. At seven minutes before nine o'clock the signal was given, the platform dropped, and they were all launched into eternity.
After hanging about half-an-hour, till they were quite dead, they were cut down. Colonel Despard was first cut down, his body placed upon sawdust, and his head upon a block; after his coat and waistcoat had been taken off, his head was severed from his body, by persons engaged on purpose to perform that ceremony. The executioner then took the head by the hair and, carrying it to the edge of the parapet on the right hand, held it up to the view of the populace, and exclaimed: "This is the head of a traitor, Edward Marcus Despard." The same ceremony was performed on the parapet at the left hand.
His remains were now put into the shell that had been prepared for him.
The other prisoners were then cut down, their heads severed from their bodies and exhibited to the populace, with the same exclamation of "This is the head of another traitor." The bodies were then put into their different shells and delivered to their friends for interment.
The body of Colonel Despard was taken away on the 1st of March, by his friends, with a hearse and three mourning-coaches, and interred near the north door of St Paul's Cathedral. The City Marshal was present, lest there should be any disturbance on the occasion.
The remains of the other six were deposited in one grave, in the vault under the Rev. Mr Harper's chapel, in London Road, St George's Fields.