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The Newgate Calendar - WILLIAM PROBERT

Executed for Horse-Stealing.

            The reader will recognise in this criminal the participator with Hunt and Thurtell in the murder of Mr. Weare, and the witness who was examined on the trial of those offenders, who impeached his accomplices.

            He was apprehended on the night of Friday the 18th of February, 1825, and conveyed to Bow-street office, on a charge of stealing a horse, the property of a man named Meredith, a miller, living near Ruarden in Gloucestershire. It appeared that the guilty wretch, after his discharge from Hertford jail, where he had been confined as an approver in order that his evidence might be secured at the trial of his companions in crime, wandered through the country without an object or a name, and followed by public execration. Reduced to the most abject state of misery, he at length found an asylum in the house of his aged mother at Ruarden. Meredith, the miller, was distantly related to him by marriage; and while paying him a visit, the unprincipled villain having seen and admired a mare which was in his possession, marked it for his own. Seizing a favourable opportunity, he carried the animal off with him to London, and there he disposed of her for 20l., having assumed a fictitious name. He was, however, traced by the miller, and at length on the 18th February was taken into custody.

            For this offence he was put on his trial at the Old Bailey on the 7th of the following month of April, and the evidence for the prosecution, which was clear and conclusive, having been gone into, the prisoner read the following defence from a written paper:--

            "My lord and gentlemen of the jury,-- If I have this day pleaded not guilty to the indictment preferred against me, it is not that I wish by subtleties to evade, or screen myself from the verdict and sentence which my country may award against me, but that I may have an opportunity to say something in this court, to evince to the public, that whatever may have been the unhappy circumstances of the latter days of my life, I was not driven into my present crime from depravity of disposition, but from a species of fatal necessity, which had placed me far beyond the reach of all human assistance and charity. The appeal I now make is not with a view to lessen my past error that I unfortunately fell into, as there is a God on whom I alone rely for mercy; but I do beg of the jury to banish all former unfortunate circumstances from their minds. It cannot have escaped your notice, that immediately after and ever since my discharge from Hertford, the public animosity has been kept alive against me by the public press, which has reached every part of England. Wherever I went, even to the remotest village throughout the kingdom, I was spurned as an outcast of society; and the chief instrument which prevented my obtaining employment, or indeed effecting a reformation, was the public press, which has not slackened to follow me, and portray me to the world. As the victim of prejudice, I could scarcely move from one place to another without seeing myself noticed in the daily papers. Those of my former friends, who might otherwise have wished to continue their services towards me, shrunk back from an apprehension of public reprobation for being connected with one such as myself. Every door was shut against me, every hope of future support blasted. My country had spared my life, but individuals rendered that life of no value or utility to me. I was hunted down like a wild beast of the forest. With this desolation around me, and with these dreary prospects before me, I felt my fortitude forsaking me, and I knew not what course to pursue. Heaven and myself only know what I suffered. I was a prey to the most heart-rending care -- I was a prey to a deep and intense feeling, the cause of which, I trust, it will not be necessary to refer to. I appeal to you, my lord and gentlemen, whether my situation was not most deplorable. Perhaps you will weigh in your own humane breasts the miseries which surrounded me, and what you would have done under similar circumstances. If you, gentlemen of the jury, should observe any features in my case deserving commiseration, then I trust you will express a sense of it to his lordship, and recommend me to mercy; and should you, my lord, concur in the same sentiments, then I humbly pray that your lordship will recommend me to the clemency of my gracious sovereign, as no former conviction appears on the record against me. On my way from the police-office to Newgate, my ears were stunned with the horrid yells of the populace, and my life threatened. Indeed, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, since the calamitous event that took place at Hertford, I have been a lost man, and at times on the eve of self-destruction. But the Almighty God has sustained me under my heaviest afflictions, and should his wisdom direct that my life is to be spared, the remainder of my days will be spent in atonement for past errors that I have fallen into. I hope I have not intruded too long upon your lordship's time. I felt it my duty to state to your lordship and the gentlemen of the jury, how miserable my life has been and the severe trials I have undergone since my discharge from Hertford: and likewise my innocent wife has suffered all privations, without comfort and without a friend to assist her, and even on the point of starvation, she having lately been brought to bed with an increase to the family, and no one to assist her in that trying moment or to render her any way comfortable; but, on the contrary, nothing but distress and trouble, and even at the present time destitute of friends and home. Such, gentlemen of the jury, has been, and is now, the situation of my wife. Indeed, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, I have endeavoured to leave the country, and several times offered to work my passage over. But all my endeavours to accomplish my wishes have been unsuccessful. For the indulgence you have this day shown to me, by attending to the address I have now made, I feel greatly obliged; therefore, I cannot help reminding you, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, of the happiness I once possessed, and was ever ready to alleviate the distresses of my fellow-creatures, and to contribute to the support of charitable institutions. I hope I am more the object of commiseration than that of severe censure. I am aware, my lord and gentlemen of the jury, the whole country is against me; but that, I trust, will not bias your minds; as a trial by jurymen of my country does credit to the wise laws of the realm, and does not less reflect the same sensible feelings on my own mind. I therefore trust, if there should be any marks favourable in my case, you will give me the benefit."

            He read the address with great composure, but in a low tone of voice. The judge having charged the jury, a verdict of Guilty was instantly returned.

            On the 13th of the same month the prisoner was brought up to receive sentence, when he protested his innocence (so far as guilty intention went), stated that he was driven to the commission of the offence for which he was about to receive judgment by the greatest distress, and alluded in a feeling manner to the misery in which his wife and children were placed. The recorder, after observing that these topics should be reserved for another place, proceeded to pass the fatal sentence.

            The convict continued in prison till the 14th of June, before the recorder's report was made to the king; and during this long period he had indulged the most sanguine hopes that his life would be spared. On being informed that he was ordered for execution on the following Monday, he felt satisfied, he said, that the public voice was in his favour, and that every one was surprised at the decision of the privy council. When told by a gentleman, who visited him, that he sustained his fate with less fortitude than any of his companions in affliction, (eight being left for execution out of thirty-seven reported,) he replied that that was not to be wondered at, for they were conscious of their guilt, and knew they could have supported themselves by other means than theft; but that he was absolutely impelled by dire necessity to commit the act for which he was about to suffer death -- he must have done it or starved. He solemnly declared that he was completely ignorant of any circumstances connected with the murder of Weare, until after it had been effected, and that the confession of Hunt was in many of its points utterly false, particularly those which related to his (Probert's) wife. It was thought that he could have made some disclosure relative to some persons who were said to have been missing a short time before Weare's murder; but in justice to the memory of the wretched man, it must be stated that there are no grounds for believing him to have been concerned in any transaction of a murderous nature, but that in which his own evidence at Hertford proves him to have been implicated.

            When he ascended the platform on the fatal morning, the 20th of June, 1825, his limbs were completely palsied, and his agitation dreadful. After the noose was tied, he moved as far as he was able, and turning himself, raised his hands in quick and tremulous motion, and so continued till the ordinary had taken his final leave, and the falling of the platform closed the scene.

            His fellow-sufferers were two men, named Sargeant and Harper, for the same offence of horse-stealing, and another, named Smith, for burglary. The four others who were at the same time ordered for execution met their fate on the Monday following.

            On this occasion the concourse of spectators was immense, the windows opposite being crowded as early as three o'clock in the morning, and chiefly with females.


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