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James Addington - Hanged Arsonist

Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service has a series of copied articles which seem to have appeared in the Wilshamstead parish magazine just before the First World War, presumably written by the Vicar (Richard Charles Whitworth). Two of these pieces concern the crime, trial and execution of James Addington, as set out below. Baron Brampton was born in 1817 and so was 15 at the time of the events he narrates.

"The notes appearing from month to month under this heading in our local magazine make no profession of regular historical sequence. The incident now related occurred in the year 1832".

"In our parish register of burials there appears under that year the following:

James Addington – Wilstead – buried March 25th 1832 – aged 18 years.

This entry in its external official form is exactly similar to hundreds of others in the same book but by reason of the story it incases it possesses a pathetic interest peculiarly its own. The following narrative is taken from a recently published book entitled “Reminiscences of Sir Henry Hawkins, Baron Brampton” (better known, perhaps, as the late Judge Hawkins)".

"“In the year 1830, Bedford School-house occupied the whole of one side of Saint Paul’s Square, which faced the High Street. From that part of the building you commanded a view of the square and the beautiful country around. The sleepy old bridge spanned the still more sleepy river, over which lay the quiet road leading to the little village of Wilshamstead, and it came along through the old square where the school-house stood”".

"“It was market day in Bedford, and there was the usual concourse of buyers and sellers, tramps and country people in their Sunday gear; framers and their wives, with itinerant vendors of saleable and unsaleable articles, from far and near”".

""I was in the upper schoolroom with another boy, and looking out of the window, had an opportunity of watching all that took place for a considerable space. There was a good deal of merriment to divert our attention, for there were clowns and merry-andrews passing along the high road, with single-stick players, Punch and Judy shows, and other public amusers. Every one knows that the smallest event in the country will cause a good deal of excitement, even if it be as small an occurrence as a runaway horse”".

“"There was, however, no runway horse today; but suddenly a great silence came over the people, and a sudden gloom that made a great despondency in my mind without my knowing why. Public solemnity affects even the youngest of us, at all events it affected me”".

“"Presently – and deeply is the event impressed on my mind after seventy years of a busy life, full of almost every conceivable event – I saw, emerging from a by-street that led from Bedford Gaol [presumably Harpur Street], and coming along through the Square, and near the window where I was standing, a common cart, drawn by a horse which was led by a labouring man. As I was above the crowd on the first floor, I could see there was a layer of straw in the cart at the bottom and above it, tumbled into a rough heap as though carelessly thrown in, a quantity of the same; and I could see also from all the surrounding circumstances, especially the pallid faces of the crowd, that there was something sad about it all. The horse moved slowly along, at almost a snail’s pace, while behind walked a poor sad couple with their heads bowed down, and each with a hand on the tail-board of the cart. They were evidently overwhelmed with grief"”.

“"Happily we have no such processions now, even justice itself has been humanized to some extent and the law’s cruel severity mitigated. The cart contained the rude shell into which had been laid the body of the poor man and woman’s only son, a youth of seventeen, hanged that morning at Bedford Gaol for setting fire to a stack of corn!"”

“"He was now being conveyed to the village of Wilshamstead, six miles from Bedford, there to be laid in the little churchyard where in his childhood he had played. He was the son of very respectable labouring people of Wilshamstead; had been misled into committing what was more a boyish freak than a crime, and was hanged. That was all the authorities could do for him and they did it. This is the remotest and saddest reminiscence of my life, but years afterwards when I became a Judge, this picture photographed on my mind as it was, gave me many a lesson which, I believe, was turned to good account on the judicial bench. It was mainly useful in impressing on my mind the great consideration of the surrounding circumstances of every crime, the degree of guilt in the criminal, and the difference in the degrees of the same kind of offence”".

"It will be noted that there is a discrepancy as to dates in the narrative of Sir Henry Hawkins and the Parish register. The year mentioned in the latter is doubtless the correct one".

Here the first article ends. The second followed in the following month’s magazine.

"Last month we described in his own words the lasting influence which the execution of the youth James Addington exercised on the judicial mind of the late Lord Brampton, a Judge of the High Court. Now, by the courtesy of the proprietors of the “Bedfordshire Express” we are enabled to give the account of Addington’s trial which took place at Bedford Assizes in 1832, Baron Gurney being the presiding Judge".

“"James Addington was indicted on a charge of setting fire to a barn of William Dines. The prosecutor, who was deputy-overseer of the parish of Wilshamstead, had had some altercation with the prisoner, and had prosecuted him at the last Assizes on suspicion of setting fire to his haystack. The fire now in question took place on Friday evening, the 11th of November last, between 7 and 8 o’clock. The barn stood close to the road; it was filled with beans and barley; the boards at the end next to the road were full of holes; and it was there the fire began. On the evening of the fire the prisoner was leaving his work with George Rogers, a boy about 12 years old. He told Rogers to go to one Morgan’s and buy him, half an ounce of tobacco, and gave him the money, while the prisoner passed on. Rogers got the tobacco and gave it to him”".

""Francis Ambridge stated that he lived about 70 yards from the barn that was burned. On the evening of the fire the prisoner came to his house between 7 and 8 and asked to light his pipe. He said to the prisoner ‘How long have you been a smoker?’ The prisoner said ‘A long time’. He asked this because he had never known the prisoner smoke before. He lighted his pipe and smoked it partly out. He left the house about a quarter before eight. In about ten minutes after witness heard the alarm of fire”".

"“George Morgan said he lived close to the premises of Mr. Dines and was at the Black Hat public house that evening. A little before eight o’clock the prisoner came in and asked for some beer. He had no pipe. After the prisoner had been there a short time the alarm of fire was given”".

"“Mary Phillips, the landlady of the Black Hat public house, said she remembered the prisoner coming in just before eight o’clock. A person of the name of Spring had left the house just before the prisoner entered. He seemed in a great hurry. Mr. Spring returned almost immediately and gave the alarm of fire; and the prisoner went with Morgan and Spring to the fire. Prisoner came to the house again at 2 o’clock in the morning. Many other persons were there, several of whom exclaimed ‘that the person who caused it ought to be burned or hanged’. At this the prisoner appeared greatly confused and walked about the house and said to a companion, ‘Come let us go, Jack’ and left the house without drinking his beer. The witness remarked the conduct of the prisoner to her husband”".

"“On the Sunday after the fire, the prisoner was passing the scene of the fire with Rogers, the boy whom he had employed to buy the tobacco, and said to him, ‘All the farmers thought he had set the barn on fire, and tried to find him out because he had set the haystack on fire’. He said he had been to Bedford and had seen one Redman, and was afraid Redman would turn against him. Before they parted he desired him to say nothing of what he had told him, but Rogers told it to his father, and the prisoner was apprehended in consequence”".

"Thomas Sharpe said he worked at Mr. Armstrong’s with the prisoner and that on November 21st, Mr. Armstrong scolded them while at breakfast for not doing their work. After he had gone the prisoner said Mr. Armstrong was a rascal; he could set fire to him at the back of the rick and burn him down as low as a tobacco dish. He added, ‘I can trust you with a secret. I went to Polly Childs’ to light my pipe, and I went to Dines’ and it was done’. Sharpe asked if he were alone, and he said he was”".

"“The prisoner’s declaration before the Magistrates was read in which he stated that having lighted his pipe at Polly Childs’, he was smoking at the door when the witness Thomas Sharpe came by, Sharpe asked him to let him smoke a little, and he gave him the pipe and they walked towards Dines’ barn. Then Sharpe went over into the yard, and he thought he saw him take the tobacco out of the pipe and put it into the side of the barn”".

"“Sharpe, the principal witness for the prosecution, was cross-examined with the view of showing that he had been transported to Bermuda, but this he strongly denied, though he admitted being in Bermuda some years before. A witness named Eleanor Robinson spoke to a conversation with the prisoner in April during which he said that the fire had not done Dines any harm, and that he was not dine with him yet. Mary Burn, with whom Sharpe lodged, said she went to bed at 6 o’clock on the evening of the fire, and got up when the alarm was given”".

"“For the defence Joseph Redman was called to prove that the prisoner was active in helping to put the fire out. Then a course which is rarely followed at the present time was taken, witnesses being called to show that Sharpe was a worthless character whose evidence should be received only with the greatest caution. Thomas Stokes, who had been transported to Bermuda for seven years, said he saw Sharpe there as a convict going under the name of John Glover; and similar evidence was given by one Robert Chattle”".

"“The trial lasted four hours, and ended in a verdict of Guilty. A charge of burglary, which had also been preferred against the prisoner, was not proceeded with. On being sentenced he shed tears and said. ‘It was Thomas Sharpe who did it’. He did not, however, persist in this statement”".

"“A short time after the conviction the unfortunate youth confessed his crime to the Rev. Maclear, the chaplain to the gaol and to Mr. Hankin, Solicitor, Bedford. The following is the substance of what passed between them. After some prefatory remarks as to what was the duty of the prisoner, Mr. Hankin said,

“Did you do it, Addington?” he answered “I did”.

“With what – with the contents of your pipe?” “Yes”.

“Did Sharpe see you?” “No”.

“Did you ever tell him you did it?” “No, never”.

“Did you set fire to the haystack at Wilstead the year before?” “Yes”

By the Chaplain: “Was it from malice towards Dines you did it?” “No I had no spite towards him”.

“What was the motive?” No reply"".

"Afterwards he confessed that he was aggrieved because Mr. Dines, as overseer of the poor, paid him sixpence a week less than some of his fellow labourers about his own age. “The Northampton Free Press commenting on this said": -

“"This should act as a caution to unfeeling parish officers who, instead of really affording that relief which a wise and humane law allows to preserve the destitute of this country from starvation, will go almost any lengths to save the parish the expense of assisting a pauper … in the ordinary affair of life they are not unfeeling men: but in administering the Poor-law both magistrates and overseers are apt to forget the first principles of humanity – for poverty to some is so like crime that they are troubled to know the difference! Even the harmless amusements of the labouring poor are prohibited by some in authority, who compel them to drag on a starving existence upon weekly relief that will hardly suffice to keep body and soul together”".

"Lord Brampton, doubtless writing from memory, states that Addington suffered for setting fire to the haystack. This is clearly an error. The account of the fire “The Bedfordshire Express” reported at the time must be accepted as the correct version and this shows that though guilty of firing both haystack and barn it was for the arson of the latter that Addington was tried, convicted and hanged”".

There seems an element of rough justice to all of this which underlines what a harsh place England was at the time, when the poor were routinely given the harshest of punishments for crimes of property against the rich.

Three of the principal characters had criminal records, as revealed by the Bedford Gaol registers. Addington himself had served three months, half of it on the treadmill, at Bedford New House of Correction between December 1827 and March 1828 [QGV11/1]. He was then 15 and just 4 feet 11 inches tall. He had grey eyes, a fair complexion and light coloured hair. His offence was a breach of the game laws, in other words, poaching. When awaiting hanging he was measured at 5 feet 5 inches and his hair was described as being brown [QGV10/1], the comment was made: “Conduct and resignation remarkably good”.

Thomas Sharpe or Sharp was a regular bad character. He was first imprisoned in 1817, aged 16, for “quitting the poor house without leave”, he received three weeks hard labour [QGV10/1]. He was 5 feet 4 inches tall, with light brown hair and a fresh complexion. Whilst in the Old House of Correction in Bedford he was “orderly and well behaved”. In February 1832, three months after the fire at Dines’ barn, and aged 30, he was sent to Bedford Gaol on remand for shooting his brother [QGV10/1]. He was then 5 feet 10 inches and pock-marked. He was acquitted. The following year he got one year’s hard labour for “want of sureties and misdemeanours”. However, there is no record of his deportation to Bermuda under his own name or as John Glover.

Thomas Stokes, however, was deported not once but twice! In 1818, when aged 15, and living in Bedford, the 5 feet 2 inch Stokes was sent to Bedford Gaol for a “misdemeanour in apprenticeship”. He served 26 days and was discharged. He was described as having brown hair and a fresh complexion. In 1821, aged 18, he was sent to the Bedford New House of Correction, for a breach of the game laws and served three months. He was now 5 feet 4 inches and his eyes were described as hazel; he had moles on his right cheek. He was a common labourer earning one shilling per week and his behaviour inside was “good”. It was in 1823 that he was transported for seven years after serving a term of waiting on the hulk Ganymede at Chatham [Kent]. His offence had been stealing pigs. He would have returned home in 1830 and kept his nose clean until 1839 when he was again sentenced to seven years’ transportation, for stealing fowls [QGV10/2].