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.
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.