A Hanging Known as English Open-air Entertainment

The following article (part of a much larger article) starts off with a visitor planning to attend the Lewes Fair but instead finds himself at a hanging in Lewes. The article was first published in Dicken’s Household Words on 8 May 1852 and then appeared in the Leicestershire Mercury and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties on 22 May 1852. The execution was for the notorious Sarah Ann French who had been recently convicted of murdering her husband with an onion pie. Here is the newspaper article verbatim:

“And now, good people, for the first fair I saw this holiday time ― I have been treating all this time of the second ― a fair on Saturday following Good Friday; a fair at Lewes, some eight or nine miles inland from Brighton.

Hanging - Brighton

“Brighton, The Front and the Chain Pier Seen in the Distance,” by Frederick William Woledge, 1840. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

I was at this last-named place early on the Saturday morning, on business. There was but little wind, and, when the sun shone, which it did almost without cessation throughout the day, it was as hot as though the day were July. My business was over by a little after ten o’clock. I strolled a few minutes on the cliff, admiring the pretty Amazons and the bold riding-masters, so conscious of their proud position. I held must converse with one of the most melancholy monkeys I have ever beheld, crouching mournfully before an organ on which a child of sunny Italy was grinding dolefully an anatomical preparation (so cadaverous was it) of the Marseillaise. In the midst of the hot dusty Steyne,* with its brown herbage, and waterless fountain, and fareless cabs, and memberless club and princeless palace, it looked (the monkey, I mean) like the ghost of George the Fourth lamenting over the ruins of the Pavilion. He (the monkey) spat on the penny I gave him, for luck, or seemed to do so; and I left him scratching his head with an aspect of the most dreadfully woebegone perplexity. I looked in at the Town Hall, where the Judge of the County court was giving a dreary decision about a smoky chimney; I looked in at the Police Court, where an agricultural labourer (with at least fourteen pounds of hardened clay on each of his boots) was under examination, charged with breaking another A.L.’s head (he might have been his twin brother, he was so like him, clay and all), with a bench, or a four-legged table, or some light article of that sort, in a beer-shop. But I did not incline to Brighton, that hot Saturday morning. Brill’s bath, Wright’s library, bathing-machines, shell-picking, beach-wandering, or the Ocean Queen yacht, with its three cruises a-day at a shilling per head, had no charms for me. I determined to walk to the station and go back to London.

The first feat I accomplished, just as the clock struck the half-hour after ten. I found the station crammed with people-men, women, and children — in their holiday clothes. Sussex in general, and Brighton in particular had come out in immense strength. Coventry had done its duty nobly, for the ribbons were prodigious. Manchester had not flinched, and the display of printed cottons was enormous. There were married couples with their families, loving couples old men and young. ‘Ha!’ I said to myself, ‘I see ― a fair!’

I was confirmed in my impression by the sight of bottles and baskets, and bundles. ‘A fair,’ I said, ‘certainly! Where are they going?’ ‘To Lewes,’ said the guard, with a knowing wink. Now, I wanted a little pleasure a little excitement, for I was dull; hipped, to tell the truth, by the heat, and the dust, the smoky-chimney decision, and the melancholy monkey in the Steyne. I will go to Lewes and see the fair! I thought. I put my London return ticket in my pocket, and bought a return ticket to Lewes. The trains was very full, and to Lewes I went ― to the Fair.

The newspapers said there were between three and four thousand persons present, and they know best; to my mind and to my eyes there were ten thousand living souls screaming, fighting, roaring with gipsy jollity in front of Lewes Gaol, where the fair was held. Besides, the crowds of holiday maker who had come with me from Brighton, there were thousands more who had poured in from the whole country-side — from Hove, Chiddingley, Patcham, Allinghurst, Hayward;s Heath ― even from Chichester, on the one side and Crawley and Reigate on the other. It was a rare sight! Stout yeomen on horseback, with flowers in their coats and their horses’ headstalls; lounging dragoons from the cavalry barracks on the Lewes-road; women in crowds, gaily dress, very merry, holding up their little children to see the show; white-haired old agriculturists in snowy smock frocks, and leaning on sticks; picturesque old dames in scarlet cloaks, that might have been worn by their grandmothers when George the First was king; tribes of brown-faced urchins, farm-labourers, bird-catchers, and bird-scarers; crowds of navvies, rough customers — ugly customers to say the truth — very chalky indeed, striped night-capped, gigantic-shoed, and carrying little kegs of beer slung by their sides. Also gangs of true genuine British scamps, the genuine agricultural vagabonds -— incorrigible poaches, irreclaimable drunkards at wakes and feats, enlisting in foot-regiments and deserting the day afterwards — hawking crockery-ware, or doing dawdling work in Kent — sometimes in hopping time ― brawlers in ale-houses ― not averse to a little bit of burglary on the quiet, with crapes over their faces and shirts over their clothes. Also a great many policemen on horseback, and on foot. What could so many of them be wanting, now, at a fair?

At a fair, too where there are hawkers of cakes and fruit; where there were games and sports going on as at any other fair; where mirth and jollity seemed universally to reign, where they were calling for sale ‘Apples, oranges, ginger-beer, and bills of play.’ Yes! bills of the play! I saw one, printed on play-bill paper, with a rude woodcut at the top; indifferently printed, very indifferently spelt. I read it, ‘The last dying speech and confession of Sarah Ann French, executed at Lewes for the murder of husband at Chiddingley.’ This was the play. This was the sight the people had come to see: had waited from six o’clock in the morning to get a good place at.

hanging - Lewes prison

Original 1853 Lewes Prison facade. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

All the public-houses and beer-shops (Lewes boasts a fair proportion) were crowded. The taps were continually at work; such business had not been done since the day the railway was opened. Eager conversations were carried on these hostelries. Had the criminal confessed? ‘Did her spuk?’ the agriculturists asked. Old stagers related their impression and reminiscences of former murders and hangings. Of Holloway; of Corder, Maria Martin, and the Red Barn; of men hanged for setting fire to hayricks, for smuggling and for burglary; of criminals who had gone to the gallows singing psalms, or who had been hanged in chains, or brought to life again by the fist touch of the surgeon’s anatomising knife. Most of the better class of shops in the High-street were closed; their inmates were either afraid of the rough visits of the mob returning from the execution, or they were gone to see it themselves. I wandered to and fro, noting these things; wishing to go away, a hundred times; turning as many times, my feet towards the station; but every finding myself, as twelve o’clock approached, with my back against a wall, and my eyes fixed on the black stones of the prison, the awful scaffold, and the hot sun shining over all.

All this time the shouting, and singing, and cake and fruit vending, were going on with redouble vigour in the crowd, getting denser every moment. Now, bets begin to be laid whether the prisoner would die, game or not, and odds were freely taken; the proceedings being diversified by a fellow screeching out a doggerel ballad on the culprit’s life and crimes, to the tune of ‘Georgy Barnwell,’ and by a few lively fights.

And all this time, I suppose, they were trying to infuse as much strength in the wretched woman inside the gaol as would be sufficient to enable her to come out and be hanged without assistance. All this time, I supposed, (for I have no certain knowledge on this subject) there was the usual hand-shaking, and the usual worthy governors hoping that everything had been done to make the prisoner ‘comfortable’ (comfortable, GOD help her!); and the usual ordinaries praiseworthy and endeavouring to pour into ears deaf with the surdity of death tidings of Heaven’s mercy and salvation.

I stood with my back against the wall, now completely jammed and wedged in — very sick, and trying vainly to shut my eyes. There was dull buzzing singing in my ears, too, in addition to the noise of the crowd.

Which rose to a roar, to a yell, as some one came out upon the scaffold. But it was not the principal performer. It was a man, who, shading his eyes with one of his large hands, glanced curiously, though coolly, at the crowd, and stamped on the planking, and cast scrutinising glances at the diverse component parts of the apparatus of death. This was the executioner. He knew his trade, and his admirers, in the crowd, did [William] Calcraft ―

William Calcraft. Chief executioner for London and Middlesex. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another roar: a howl. Hootings and groans, and screams of fainting women. The crowd saying to and fro; the glazed hats and batons of the struggling policemen, shining in the sun liked meteors. Two men brought, out and up, a bundle of clothes ― so it seemed to me, for I am naturally short-sighted, and was besides giddy and confused.

It was propped up by some one, whilst the man with the large hands nimbly moved them about the bundle. Then it, and he, stood side by side; and, on the bundle, was something white ― the cap. I supposed ― which I have seen hundreds of times since: which I shall see to my dying day: which I can see now, close my eyes ever so much, as I bend over this paper. There was no roaring, but a dead, immutable silence. On sharp rattling cry there was, of ‘Hats off!’ (whether in reverence and awe, or to see the show the better, I now not); another cry there was, a gasp, rather, from thousands of breasts, as the drop came lumbering down, and the execution, (you would almost have thought he would have fallen with his victim) who had stepped nimbly on one side, gazed on his work complacently.

The elements of the crowd, swaying more than ever, made a great rush to the beer-houses, or refreshed themselves from their own private stores ― yelling, screaming, and laughing heartily; then, the cake and fruit trades recommenced, and apples, oranges, and bills of the play were cried vigorously.

The oral lesson would be invaluable, no doubt, to the little children, who played at ‘hanging’ for a week afterwards; to the professional gentlemen, who had picked pockets at the gallows-foot; to the mothers, who promised their children that if they were good they should go and see the next man hung; the mass of readers of the narrative in the newspapers; the boys who would ask at the Circulating Libraries if the Newgate Calendar was in hand; to the hawkers and patterers, then reaping harvest from the sale of last dying speeches and confessions; to the Railway Company, who had not done so badly by their early trains that Saturday morning; to the crowd in general, who saw so brave a show, free, gratis, for nothing.

Title page from the Newgate Calendar in 1841. Public domain.

I came back to Brighton again, and the train was full of enthusiastic sight-seers. Every minute particle of the horrible ceremony was enumerated, discussed, commented upon; but I conscientiously declare that I did not hear one word, one sentiment, expressed, which could lead me to believe that any single object for which this fair had been professedly made public, had been accomplished.”[1]

*Now known as the Old Steine, it is a thoroughfare in central Brighton. It was was originally an open green with a stream running adjacent to the easternmost dwellings of Brighthelmstone and used by local fishermen to lay out and dry their nets. When Brighton started to become fashionable in the late 18th century, the area became the center for visitors. Buildings around the area started in 1760, and railings started to appear around the green area in the 1770s, reducing its size. This continued throughout the 19th century. The eastern lawns of the Royal Pavilion were also originally part of the Old Steine.


[1] The Leicestershire Mercury and General Advertiser For The Midland Counties, “English Open-Air Entertainments,” May 22, 1852, p. 4.

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