End of the Bloody Code: Burglary in Hertingfordbury
Through the 18th century, English law took on the death penalty for over 200 offences in what was later known as ‘The Bloody Code’. Up until 1823, burglary (breaking and entering a premises) was a capital offence with an alternative sentence of transportation for a set period. The passing of the ‘Judgement of Death Act 1823’ made these sentences discretionary. So how would those convicted of burglary be treated at the end of ‘The Bloody Code’?
Gang of Burglars
On a dark, chilly night in February 1823, four young men came to Hertingfordbury looking for easy money. George Brace, Samuel Barby, William Green, and John Turvey travelled together by foot, sleeping in the open and coming by money through begging or theft. About midnight on the 21st, the gang broke into two houses in the village and stole property worth more than 40 shillings (£275 in today’s terms) plus a pair of shoes. They fled as far as Wormley, about 4 miles away, to a lodging house run by Abraham Cockman. On route they stole a sheep, slaughtered it in the field and presented it to Cockman to be cooked for dinner. The following day the gang were apprehended. They confessed to the crimes, producing bundles containing part of the stolen property. One of them was wearing the stolen shoes.
At the Hertford Assizes a couple of weeks later, the men were tried and found guilty. This was some 3 months before ‘The Bloody Code’ was withdrawn. Cockman was sentenced to transportation for 14 years, while the rest received death sentences. Reports said that the prisoners received the news with indifference. 1
Robbery in the Parish
The following year, the crime was more serious: robbery is theft with violence. As the steward for Lord Cowper, one of John Haines’ tasks was to collect rents from his tenants. On June 8th Haines is reported to have collected about £1800 (just under £250,000 in today’s terms), storing it at his home in Cole Green. That night the family were awoken by an armed gang of eight men breaking into their house. Haines and his son were beaten and threatened with a pistol to the head. However, in the confusion, Mrs Haines managed to raise the alarm. The gang fled with just over half the intended amount, violently knocking down three men who were responding to the alarm. Passing through the Cole Green turnpike, the gang made for London.
Over the following months, Bow Street Runners set about apprehending the culprits. James Harris (alias Long Ned) and James Davis were discovered in a coffee shop in Chancery Lane. Transferred to Hertford, they were tried at the end of July. The event caused considerable local interest and the court was crowded with the public. Mr Taddy, speaking for the prosecution, said that “this was perhaps one of the most daring robberies of the kind within the memory of any living person.” Both prisoners were found guilty and sentenced to death. 2 By December, William Jones and George Weaver too had been apprehended. They were tried for their part in the robbery on the evidence of accomplice Benjamin Jacobs. Both were found guilty and again, sentenced to death.
Hertford County Gaol
The death sentences for two of the robbery gang were reprieved. Davis received a pardon on condition of transportation for life. In Harris’ case, he was declared innocent, despite the verdict of the court. He received a free pardon and, after already serving 6 months in gaol, was immediately released.
Wheeler and Jones were not so fortunate. A petition for clemency signed by Lord Cowper (owner of the stolen money), Baron Garrow (trial judge) and the gentleman of the jury, was not been successful. At 8am on Wednesday 15th December the condemned men stepped out in front of a large crowd at the entrance of Hertford County Gaol. A reporter wrote that “at five minutes past eight o’clock, this world closed on them, after a few convulsive struggles.”3 Wheeler, a hardware hawker from Kent, left his wife and an infant; Jones, a Whitechapel butcher, left his wife and 3 children.
Life after Hertfordshire
But what happened to the gang of thieves sentenced to death the year before? Several weeks after the verdict, the death sentences were reprieved to transportation. At the end of April, Brace, Barby and Turvey were removed from Hertford County Gaol to prison hulks at Sheerness, to prepare for the 5-month voyage to the British colony on Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania).
It seems likely that George Brace escaped custody to live in the bush. Within 2 years of his arrival, he had been hanged for robbery in Hobart. However, both Samuel Barby and John Turvey appear to have finished their sentences and stayed on in Van Dieman’s Land. Barby married a fellow convict, Maria Christian and lived to the age 82. Turvey became a farmer and died in 1888, aged 85. His obituary said he was “one of the pioneers in that part of Tasmania”.
1 “Desperate gang of thieves” in The County Chronicle, 11th March 1823 p.4
“Hertfordshire Assizes” in The Cambridge Chronicle, 14th March 1823 p.4
“Robbery at Lord Cowper’s” in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 2nd August 1824 p4
2 “Burglary at Lord Cowper’s” The County Chronicle, 3rd August 1824 p.4
“Robbery at Earl Cowper’s” in The County Chronicle, 7th December 1824 p.3
“Execution at Hertford” in Common Sense 19th December 1824 p.3
3 “Execution at Hertford” in The County Chronicle, 21st December 1824 p.3