Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.


“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.


Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.


A List of Slaves

I was going to write about this, which I found in a slightly eccentric periodical called Fragmenta Genealogica, privately published in ca. 1906, but it’s only really necessary to read the document – and particularly the names of the slaves – to get the picture :

The Widow’s Coffee House, Bury St. Edmunds

 On 14th January 1890, the Bury & Norwich Post published the following letter:


A correspondent writes:- “I have long been seeking a clue to the personality of Mrs. Letitia Rookes, of Bury St. Edmunds, a portrait of whom by Bunbury, if I remember aright, is preserved in the admirable collection of engravings in the Archaeological library in the Bury Athenaeum. I had already discovered that the memorial tablet affixed to the wall outside St. James’s Church, near the Norman Tower, is to her memory, but the note in the ‘Jottings from old newspapers,’ in your interesting ‘Memorials of the Past’ has afforded me considerable enlightenment as to who and what this woman was, for there is no doubt that she was the occupier or proprietress of the coffee house which stood under the shadow of the Norman Tower, and between it and St. James’s Church, and that she was probably the proprietress of the ‘Sirop de Capillaire,’ which may have been a medicine in which considerable faith was placed at the time. I may point out that the day of her death was 23rd September, 1782.”

The writer was referring to a snippet of information that had been re-published in the newspaper on 7th January 1890:

“Bury St. Edmunds, 1st of October, 1776. Mrs. Rookes begs leave to return her grateful Acknowledgements to her Friends, for their Favours received during the Time she has kept the Coffee-House; She is very sorry it is not in her power to continue it any longer, but her bad State of Health makes it requisite for her, after this Week, to retire from Business. The true genuine Sirop de Capillaire, so much esteem’d may be had of P. Deck at Post-Office, Bury.”

Sirop de Capillaire was a French liqueur made from the maidenhair fern which was supposed to have medicinal properties. Of course, Mrs. Rookes may well have had the monopoly on sales of the stuff at her coffee house, but other references to her in the Bury Post and elsewhere suggest that she provided the citizens, and particularly the clergy, of Bury St. Edmunds with other things altogether.

Bury & Norwich Post, 24th March, 1887: “There was also a coffee-house called the ‘Widow’s coffee-house’ – in what sense I cannot say… kept by one Laetitia Rookes. .. Laetitia succeeded Felicia, of the same name, and was a well-known character in St. Edmundsbury.”

And, as late as March 1951, the following item appeared in an article about the Suffolk artist, Henry Bunbury, in the East Anglian Magazine: [The Widow’s Coffee House] “was kept by the notorious Mrs. Laetitia Rookes, … who was assisted by her two daughters. It was an establishment never referred to in polite or mixed society. Warren, in his map of Bury had an engraving of this building showing Mrs. Rookes’ two beautiful but frail daughters ogling the passers-by from the upstairs window. The widow remained in business until 1776 when she retired to live in another part of the town for the remaining sixteen years of her life. The caricature is absolutely devoid of offence but the curves of the mouth and face are so cleverly drawn that anybody looking at it cannot be in dount for one moment of the old lady’s true vocation in life.”

Laetitia Rookes was supposedly also buried within the precincts of the church, so grateful were the local clergy for the services that she and her daughters had provided to them. Or at least, half of her was buried within the consecrated ground. According to this story – which may be apocryphal – the other half was buried outside the precincts of St. James’s. I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which half that was.

A heavy price to pay

According to Peter Ackroyd, there was a “thriving homosexual community” in London in 1339  (London: The Biography). You would not know this from reading most history books about the city or, indeed, anything very much about homosexuality before or after the 14th century. However, historiography has caught up a little in recent years so I am only going to give one small example of what happened to gay men in the early 18th century.

The following are verbatim accounts of cases that were tried at the Old Bailey in the year 1726-7 [taken from the wonderful Old Bailey Online website, ]. The charges were what was almost invariably described as “the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy.” Interestingly, in similar accounts of the time, reference was also often made to the fact that the “crime” was “unknown in Christian countries” although this was rather belied by the number and regularity of the charges brought. In most cases the defendants were acquitted for lack of evidence. I have chosen all of my extracts from the year 1726-7, although the accounts are quite typical of any in the late-17th and 18th centuries. Some of the 17th–century cases aren’t suitable for a blog, not this blog anyway, as the accounts are quite detailed and luridly (I hesitate to use the word ‘lingeringly’) described. Some of them are taken from Ordinary’s Accounts, which were written up by the chaplain of Newgate prison after a last interview with a condemned prisoner. They were supposed to give an opportunity for the admission of guilt and repentance. Sometime they were.

The events below mostly took place in the unfortunately-named Mrs. Clap’s house in Holborn, London. She kept what was well-known as a “molly house,” a pejorative name for a place where homosexuals and cross-dressers met. Three of the men who were convicted, Gabriel Lawrence, William Griffin and Thomas Wright, were hanged at Tyburn on 9th May 1726. Others were sentenced to a time in the public pillory. In case anyone thinks this was a lenient sentence, contemporary accounts describe prisoners being pelted with “with tubs of blood, garbage, and ordure from their slaughter-houses, and with this ammunition, plentifully diversified with dead cats, turnips, potatoes, addled eggs, and other missiles.” Homosexuals who were pilloried were quite often also hit by stones and bricks and it was not uncommon for them to receive fatal injuries. It all seems to me to be a heavy price to pay for love.

“9th May 1726, Ordinary’s Account

Gabriel Lawrence was indicted for feloniously committing with Thomas Newton, aged 30 Years, the heinous and detestable Sin of Sodomy. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. At the End of last June, one Peter Bavidge (who is not yet taken) and – Eccleston (who dy’d last Week in Newgate) carry’d me to the House of  Margaret Clap (who is now in the Compter) and there I first became acquainted with the Prisoner. Mrs. Clap’s House was next to the Bunch of Grapes in Field-lane, Holbourn. It bore the publick Character of a Place of Entertainment for Sodomites, and for the better Conveniency of her Customers, she had provided Beds in every Room in her House. She usually had 30 or 40 of such Persons there every Night, but more especially on a Sunday. I was conducted up one pair of Stairs, and by the Perswasions of Bavidge (who was present all the Time) I suffer’d the Prisoner to commit the said Crime. He has attempted the same since that Time, but I never would permit him any more. When Mrs. Clap was taken up, in February last, I went to put in Bail for her; at which Time, Mr. Williams, and Mr. Willis told me, they believ’d I could give Information, which I promis’d to do, and I went next Day, and gave Information accordingly. – Samuel Stephens thus depos’d. Mrs. Clap’s House was notorious for being a Molly-House. – In order to detect some that frequented it, I have been there several Times, and seen 20 or 30 of ’em together, making Love, as they call’d it, in a very indecent Manner. Then they used to go out by Pairs, into another Room, and at their return, they would tell what they had been doing together, which they call’d marrying. The Prisoner acknowledg’d, that he had been several Times at Clap’s House, but never knew that it was a Rendesvouz for such Persons. – He call’d several to his Character. Henry Hoxan thus depos’d. I have kept the Prisoner Company, and served him with Milk these 18 Years, for he is a Milk Man , and I am a Cow-Keeper, I have been with him at the Oxfordshire Feast, and there we have both got drink, and come Home together in a Coach, and yet he never offer’d any such thing to me. Thomas Fuller thus depos’d. The Prisoner married my Daughter, 18 Years ago; She has been dead these 7 Years, and he has a Girl by her, that is 13 Years old. – Several others deposd, that he was a very sober Man, and that they had often been in his Company when he was drunk; but never found him inclinable to such Practices. Guilty . Death . He was a 2d. Time indicted, for committing Sodomy with   Mark Partridge , Nov. 10 . But being Convicted of the Former, he was not Try’d for this.

“20th May 1726

William Griffin was indicted for Committing Sodomy with Thomas Newton, May 10. Thomas Newton thus depos’d. The Prisoner and Thomas Phillips (who is since absconded) were Lodgers for near 2 Years at Clap’s House. I went up stairs, while the Prisoner was a Bed, and there he committed the Act with me. Samuel Stevens depos’d, That he had seen the Prisoner, and his Gang at Clap’s House. Guilty. Death.

“20th May 1726

George Kedear, alias Kegar, was indicted for committing Sodomy with Edward Courtney, aged 18 Years, July 15. Edward Courtney thus depos’d. I first became acquainted with the Prisoner, when I was a Servant at the Yorkshire Gray in Bloomsbury Market, but I went afterwards to live at a Cook’s Shop in  St. Martins Lane and there the Prisoner follow’d me He came there to Dine in July last, and sat in a back Room in the Yard. I went to fetch away the Plates, he took me in his Arms and kist me, and sollicited me to let him commit Sodomy with me. I consented, and he committed the Fact. I afterwards went to live at Thomas Orme ‘s a Silk-Dyer, at the Red Lyon in Crown Court in Knaves Acre, and he kept a House for entertaining such Persons, and sold Drink in private back Rooms; and there the Prisoner came often after me to persuade me to do the same again. The Prisoner thus made his defence. Ned Courtney ask’d me to do it; but I told him I could not, for I had got an injury. What, says he, I suppose I am not handsome enough for you, but if you don’t like me, I have got a pretty younger Brother, and I’le fetch him fir you. – As for going to Tom Orme ‘s, he was my School Fellow, and sold a Pot of good. Drink Ned there again solicited me to do it, and beg’d me to go into the Privy . He was afterwards turn’d out of his Place, and I met him in a very poor Condition, and he told me that he had nothing to subsist upon but what he got by doing such things. – I advis’d him to leave off that course of Life; but he said he wanted Money, and must have it, and if I would not help him to some, he’d swear my Life away. The Prisoner call’d 2 or 3 Women to his Character, who Swore that he was a very civil courteous Fellow. The Jury found him Guilty. Death .

“22nd Feb 1727

Richard Skews and  James Coltis, were indicted for Sodomitical Practices at a  Tavern in Drury-Lane, (where ’tis thought they might had a more Natural Entertainment) on the 19th of Jan. last. Roger Davis depos’d. That some Time after the Prisoner came to his House, his Drawer told him there was two Men above Stairs, which he did believe to be Sodomites, for he heard them kissing each other, and saw such Actions as was very unseemly for Men to offer; upon which he raised a Ladder in the Yard, and which the Drawer look’d into the Chamber-Window; where they both had an ocular Proof of what they both suspected: But the particular Relation being too Beastly to appear in this Paper, we refer the Reader to the Pillory, where he may see the Heads, &c. the Jury found them both guilty .

“Richard Skews and James Coltis, for Sodomitical Practices, to stand on the Pillory, to suffer one Year’s Imprisonment, and to give Security for one Year more.”

Insurrection: a Suffolk tradition

Visit Suffolk [ ] is an organisation that has the task of promoting tourism to the county and is one of many bodies marketing Suffolk as a picturesque and bucolic retreat for jaded city-dwellers & holiday home buyers. According to its website Suffolk has “a countryside dotted with quintessential English villages and thriving market towns.” It alludes to the county’s history, too, as a selling point. “Suffolk has its place in history,” it says, “tales of Anglo Saxon kings and Tudor Queens.” 

Cavendish Green in Suffolk

Cavendish Green

All this may well be true, but just as in the 18th century, when Constable and Gainsborough’s paintings portrayed a landscape and society at odds with the sordid reality and enormous social unrest of the time,  Suffolk’s pretty aspect hides real hardship and social division. There are many towns and villages where local people have simply been driven out by the high costs of housing (or even of beach huts). Closures and cuts in local services have resulted in the people of Suffolk taking to the streets in protest. But this is nothing new, the county has a long history of rebellion.  Here is my brief survey of the long tradition of insurrection in Suffolk.

In 1214, the Norman Barons of England met at the abbey in Bury St Edmunds and swore an oath to force King John to accept Magna Carta. The Barons, of course, were merely protecting their own interests. It would be a long time until the lower orders were even regarded as human beings. However, Bury itself would be the scene of many more open acts of revolt. In The History & Antiquities of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds by Richard Yates (1843, 2nd  ed.) there is a chapter with the odd title of “Contests with Townsmen.” This, in fact, describes the ongoing political unrest in the town for almost the whole of the period of the Abbey’s power. During the mediaeval period, the Abbots had supreme power over the inhabitants of the town. Yates describes many of the conflicts  from 1264 onwards. He clearly feels that the Abbey had the right to hold totalitarian power over the town, and so his history has to be read in that light. In “1292 we find the convent and the townsmen again involved in a dispute, that appears to have been conducted with much asperity and animosity on both sides.” There was more trouble in 1305 when the Alderman and burgesses were brought to court for “withholding fines …  resisting the officers employed in distraining, throwing stones upon, and damaging, the roof of the church; stoning the workmen employed in repairing the same; beating the servants of the Abbey; etc.” In 1327 “a vast force from the neighbouring towns and villages made several attacks upon the monastery and its possessions.”

The events of 1327 in Bury were perhaps the most violent and certainly the most serious. What Yates describes as a “vast force” has been estimated at around 20,000 local people. They attacked the abbey and, over a period of several days, burned down and destroyed buildings in the abbey grounds and satellite  properties in nearby villages like Horningsheath (Horringer) and Fornham St. Martin. The Abbot still clung to power but concessions had to be made. Unrest continued until the Abbey lost its powers during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and gradually fell into disuse.

The Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The image that the mediaeval peasantry were compliant or servile is not borne out by historical documents. The Court Rolls of Walsham le Willows, 1351-1399; edited by Ray Lock (Boydell Press, 2002) give hundreds of examples of low-grade acts of rebellion and petty law-breaking amongst the bonded labourers of Suffolk in the fourteenth century. It’s hard to know whether these examples of “contempt of the lord” were political in any sense that we would recognise today but it certainly doesn’t give an impression of docility:

   “Elias Typetot made an assault on the reeve of this manor, threatening him in breach of the peace and in contempt of the lord. Elias being questioned could not deny [the charge] and placed himself on the lord’s mercy…” [Walsham Court, 15 July, 1363] … “John Manser and John Pye each amerced 12d because in the autumn they made an assault on John Baner, the lord’s bailiff, in contempt of the lords.”  [Walsham Court, 16 September, 1376] … “Edmund Patel amerced 3s 4d for contempt of the lord, openly abusing all the jurors in full court.”  [Walsham Court 22 February, 1380] … “William Grocer, the son of William, amerced ½ mark for contempt of the lord, making an assault on the lord’s bailiff and beating him.”  [Walsham Court, 26 September, 1385]

There is an extensive account of the poll tax rebellion known as the Peasants’ Revolt which took place across the whole of England in 1381, in Edgar Powell’s The Rising in East Angliain 1381 (Cambridge University Press, 1896). The principal leader of the rebels in East Anglia was John Wrawe of Sudbury, described in contemporary documents as a chaplain.  In June 1381, he led an attack at the manor of Overhall in Essex, near Long Melford, directed against the lord of the manor Richard Lyons, who was notoriously corrupt. The rebels proceeded to Cavendish and attacked the parish church where they took the goods of John de Cavendish which had been hidden in the church tower. They then visited various towns and villages in the area, such as Lavenham, Sudbury and  Bury,  their attacks being directed upon the property of the lords of the manor. Although condemning the violence in his account of the peasants’ revolt in East Anglia, Powell admits that “we cannot…  withhold a large measure of sympathy both for the ideas which prompted, and for the results which followed the action.” The rebellion was crushed and the ringleaders were punished severely. In Cavendish, the village sign still celebrates those events.

The village sign at Cavendish in Suffolk depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.

The village sign at Cavendish depicting events from the Peasants' Revolt.

Although Suffolk was relatively quiet during the Tudor period, some Suffolk people joined up with the Norfolk-based Kett’s rebellion in 1549, in what became known as the “year of the many-headed monsters.” The rebellion was caused by increasing enclosure of common land by the wealthy. Although historians generally regard enclosure as a progressive move which eventually led to the agricultural revolution, the issue of enclosure was a matter of life and death for peasants who had traditionally survived by grazing livestock on common land. A contemporary account of Kett’s rebellion, Stow’s Summarie (1565), the earliest account, played down the fact that there were similar rebellions at the same time in Devonshire, Cornwall, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire and the contribution “made by the commoners of Suffolk to the commotion time.” But the work did admit that those who had ‘encamped them selves’ on Mousehold Heath (near Norwich) had come from both ‘Norffolke and Suffolke’ and gave as much attention to the execution on 5 February 1550 of Robert Bell of Gazeley, the leader of the Suffolk insurrection, as it spent upon the execution of William and Robert Kett.

From The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England by Andy Wood (Cambridge University Press, 2007): “The most powerful surviving plebeian memory…  comes, appropriately enough, from the town of Lavenham. Early Tudor Lavenham provides a strong example of continuity in local traditions of popular protest. In 1525, and again in 1549, the weavers and farmers of the Lavenham area rose in armed rebellion. In the spring of 1525, thousands of local people had gathered in the town in order to demonstrate against Cardinal Wolsey’s Amicable Grant. … Twenty years later, a Lavenham man named James Fuller admitted to plotting the new rising with John Porter. The target of the insurrection was to be the ‘rich churles’ and ‘heardemen’ of the locality, whom they intended to kill. They had had enough and in defending themselves, alluded to being let down over promises made  to the poor after the Kett rebellion: ‘we wyll not be deceived as we were at the last rysinge, for then we were promised ynough and more than ynoughe. But the more was an hawlter.’ ”

The Captain Swing period and the “bread or blood” riots, the rick-burning, machine-breaking and attacks on the clergy of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have also been well-documented. In fact the labourers and farmers in Suffolk were accused of collusion, as  both were hostile to the parsons who insisted on taking a tithe of the farmer’s income. The Ipswich Journal repeatedly reported on court cases resulting from allegations that labourers had sent threatening letters to their “betters.” These are just two cases that were brought to court:

In By a Flash & a Scare, John Archer quotes from examples of such letters. One, from someone called Grimwade of Polstead begins: “Sir, This is to inform you that unless your tenant, Mr. Brown of Polstead, pays his men an advance of wages… he will be visited with a blaze…” In 1844, the subject of “incendiarism” in Suffolk was debated in Parliament

At Rushmere Heath, near Ipswich, villagers from miles around attended meetings to discuss labourers wages in 1830.  This was amid a huge amount of unrest in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex about wages, agricultural changes such as the introduction of threshing machines which meant that labourers were thrown out of work, and the tithe system which entitled clergymen to a substantial percentage of farmers’ incomes.  The meeting at Rushmere was banned, troops were called in and three Ipswich craftsmen were prosecuted for inciting labourers to engage in “illegal assemblies.”  Around the same time, “ in Ipswich the magistrates dispersed a ‘Disputing Club’ in an ale-house consisting of ‘very Inferior people’ ” [EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 125]

The violence of the labourers against their masters seems extraordinary today, but this was the age of the Houses of Industry, the Poor Law (which meant that if you were poor you could be forced to return to the parish of your birth), transportation to the colonies for petty crimes like poaching. There were no trade unions and no franchise for the labouring classes, in a county notorious for its rotten boroughs and corrupt politicians. Behind the images of the haywain and Flatford Mill, lay poverty and hardship, cruelty and murder. Luckily, the people of Suffolk would never put up with it.

Capel Lofft: a Suffolk humanitarian

I have to admit that the subject I’m writing about today is a hero of mine. I have a print of a portrait of Capel Lofft (1751-1824) looking over me as I write. It is a portrait of a young man dressed in barrister’s robes and he looks what I imagine he was: kind, intelligent and idealistic. Lofft was from a wealthy Suffolk family and, at one time, was the owner of both Stanton Hall and Troston Hall. Unlike many East Anglian landowning families, however, there was also a strong intellectual background. His uncle, Edward Capell, is credited as being the scholar who discovered one of Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ plays, Edward III.

Capel Lofft could have spent his life as a privileged dilettante. He was educated at Eton & Cambridge and mixed with an artistic and literary crowd. He certainly wrote a great deal of fairly bad poetry – something which won him the lifelong emnity of Charles Lamb, who was miffed because Lofft published his dodgy odes under the soubriquet “C.L.”

But Capel Lofft was a man with ideals and a conscience. The causes he chose to take up are relevant today: slavery, hunting, the death penalty and the restriction of civil liberties. He was closely involved, as a young barrister with “Somersett’s Case,” in 1772, which ended in a legal ruling that was the beginning of the end of slavery in England with Lord Mansfield’s ruling that “the state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political…. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it…”

In middle age, Lofft became a magistrate in Suffolk. Years later, John Glyde wrote in The Suffolk Garland (1866): “As a Magistrate, the well-known Mr. Capel Lofft was indefatigable in the performance of his duties,” but somehow he became involved in a case which led to his dismissal from the Suffolk bench. In October 1799, a 22-year-old serving woman, Sarah Lloyd from Hadleigh, let her boyfriend, Joseph Clark, into the house of her employer. Property was stolen and a fire was started, although no serious damage was done. Lloyd and Clark were arrested and charged. Sarah Lloyd was found guilty of stealing goods to the value of forty pounds and sentenced to death. Clark was acquitted. Sarah Lloyd may not have been of average intelligence. She is described in contemporary reports as “deluded” or simple and child-like. Horrified at the death sentence, Lofft took up her case. He managed to persuade William Pearson, the Sheriff of Ipswich, to grant a stay of execution and appealed to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, for a reprieve. The Times declared that Lloyd’s crime was of “unequalled… atrociousness” and the Duke of Portland refused the petition. Lofft accompanied Sarah Lloyd to the scaffold in Bury St. Edmunds. It was raining and he gave her an umbrella and helped her to hold it over her head. Lofft was distraught after the execution had taken place, apparently making frantic attempts to revive her. Sir Nash Grose, the judge in her original trial was furious, describing Lofft’s conduct as “improper interference.” This, along with the fact that he had made a speech that explicitly attacked the Tory government, led to his being struck off the magistrate’s list.

Capel Lofft’s life didn’t end very happily. He was mocked and derided for many of his views, which would be regarded as quite reasonable today. He ended his life in self-imposed exile in Italy. He died at Montcalieri, near Turin, in 1824 and was buried in the Protestant church of St. Germain, in Piedmont. Sarah Lloyd’s memorial is closer to home and can be seen in the old churchyard in Bury.