New book tells tough justice tale of county
GRIPPING tales of crime and punishment in eighteenth century Northumberland have been documented in a new book.
Award winning author and retired chief superintendent of Northumbria police, Barry Redfern, has long been fascinated by the history of crime and punishment in the county.
In his new book, The Gallows Tree: Crime and Punishment in the Eighteenth Century Northumberland and Berwick-upon-Tweed, Barry turns his detective’s eye on astonishing real life stories of murder, robbery, high treason and counterfeiting.
He also examines the county’s gaols, including Berwick’s, where the guilty and the innocent were held while awaiting trial.
Once a guilty verdict had been pronounced, punishment was swift, harsh and humiliating. Barry investigates the punishments meted out to criminals - including the last execution in Berwick, which took place in 1823 when Grace Griffin was hung, having been found guilty of murdering her husband.
Barry describes eighteenth century Northumberland as a wild place, where gangs of hardened criminals roamed the countryside awaiting their chance to prey on the vulnerable. Long distances between isolated settlements meant that criminals active in Northumberland could quickly escape into the borders, and Barry admires the parish constables who rode the length and breadth of the county to catch the wrongdoers and bring them to justice.
“Imprisonment alone was rarely used as punishment for wrongdoing, but these prisoners, who had not yet been found guilty in a court of law, could be kept for up to a year in damp, dirty and overcrowded conditions,” Barry says.
Berwick’s gaol was located on the top floor of the Town Hall, above the court house.
The famous Quakers, Joseph John Gurney and his sister Elizabeth Fry, visited it in August 1818. They learned that the prison was so insecure that the criminals could not use their day room unless their jailer was present, and commented that nothing could be “much more defective” than the small prison. Those accused of serious crimes were chained to the wall.
Prison inspector Frederic Hill visited Berwick Gaol twenty years later and found that conditions had deteriorated still further. He said that scenes of the “greatest profligacy” were a frequent occurrence there. He reported: “It is a matter of wonder to me, that the place has not long ago been destroyed by fire; and if a fire could have taken place without sacrifice of the inmates, such an event would have been fortunate.”
The Gallows Tree is on sale at City Library (Newcastle) and other bookshops.
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Friday 24 May 2013
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