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The Gallows at Dorchester

In Speed’s plan of Dorchester published in 1610, the gallows prominently illustrated as two uprights with a connecting crossbeam, was marked at the junction of what today is Icen Way and South Walks. In an earlier time, Icen Way was known as Gaol Lane and started at the Gaol then on the corner of High East Street; the final section leading to the gallows was known as Gallows Hill and for many men, women and children the journey along Gaol Lane was their last.

This final journey along the narrow lane from jail to gallows was for some, heretics and traitors, even more of an ordeal. Dragged by their heels by horses frightened by the crowd to be strung up and disembowelled while still alive, their quartered remains boiled before being despatched to outlying villages as a warning to others.

Dorchester the county town was host to the Assizes, sentences handed down were quickly executed, and in those days the theft of a few shillings would merit a death sentence. Following the Assizes there was a barbaric spectacle thought by government to improve the morals of the people. Actually, the opposite was true, the crowds often numbering thousands drank too much and degenerated into a drunken rabble shouting, cursing and jeering at those unfortunate beings who, to use the term of the times, were to be “turned-off.”

Nearly a century later the Dorchester gallows was moved to the Roman amphitheatre then as now known as Maumbury Rings. The young Mary Channing was brought here in 1703 and burned alive in front of a crowd said to number thousands. (See ‘Mary Channing – a path to the gallows’ in our Archived Articles section-Ed.) Females found guilty of crimes that are more serious were frequently burned alive presumably this was considered more humane than hanging, drawing and quartering, the fate endured by men.

Death by hanging was in practice death by slow strangulation; not until the early years of the 19th century was the longer drop allowed.

The Lent Assizes at Dorchester in 1801 tried 48 cases mostly for theft. Several people found guilty of minor offences were ordered to be transported. (See ‘Transported to such place beyond the seas’ in Archived Articles – Ed.) Ten were sentenced to death including one woman, Lydia Hiskins; she had stolen a bank note.

By the mid 19th century the long drop had been in use for nearly fifty years and the gallows had been arranged at the entrance to the prison in North Square and later moved inside the prison to a spot with views overlooking the meadows by the river.

One of the last public executions at the prison entrance was that of Martha Brown, which was witnessed by a young Thomas Hardy and is said to have haunted him all his life. (See Elizabeth Martha Clarke – “a most kind and inoffensive woman.” Published 24th December 2009 in Real Lives category.)

“Hang Fairs” held below the jail would attract people to Dorchester from all over the county. By daybreak all the best vantage points were taken and the spectators occupied their time drinking, fiddling and dancing. Two centuries on and the public was still attracted to these dreadful spectacles, viewed by many as a free entertainment.

The Royal Mail coach from London pulled in to the King’s Arms at about 9.30 a.m. after a 13-hour journey from London and its arrival determined the time of execution, usually stayed in case there was a last minute reprieve from London.

The last public execution at Dorchester was in 1863. Two men, Preedy and Fooks, were to die on the same day. The Vicar of Fordington, The Rev. Henry Moule, was concerned about Preedy and frequently visited the man in jail. Following the executions The Rev, Moule published a book entitled ‘Hope against Hope,’ an account of Preedy’s life and his repentance. (See ‘The Prisoner a Padre Befriended’ published 9th February 2010 in the Real Lives category.)

This double execution drew thousands from far and wide. It was reported that two brothers erected a grandstand on the meadows and charged for seats. Their enterprise was so well supported that the stand collapsed under the weight of the spectators who all subsided into the mud below.

For year’s the saddler’s shop now long closed but then in High East Street supplied the new rope needed for the gallows. This was always the best quality hemp and probably supplied from Bridport.

In the Dorchester Gallery at the CountyMuseum there are on display two lead weights each about the size of a brick, engraved with the word “Mercy.” Silvester Wilkins was a very light man and even with the benefit of the long drop he faced a lingering death, the weights were a humane gesture from the Governor of the jail. Wilkins was executed in 1833.

Six Roman Catholics were executed on a charge of high treason during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and then there were the 13 prisoners condemned by Judge Jeffreys, who suffered on the old Gallows Hill. The thirteen were hung in succession one after the other, their bodies treated in the manner reserved for traitors. The quarters of 12 men were distributed in Dorchester and the body of one man handed to his friends by order of the Judge.

There is reference in the Weymouth and Melcombe Regis records to a bill of costs in connection with a gallows erected at Greenhill. It reads: “Disbursements for the gallows, burning and boiling the rebels executed per order of this town – £15 14s. 3d.” It is reported that the horrible preparations for the final disposal of the bodies went on in the sight of the victims. These horrors would have been repeated at Dorchester, Lyme Regis and other towns in the county.

The last execution at Dorchester was of David Jennings who had murdered a night watchman. Jennings was 21 years old when he was executed in 1941.



Book Review

See Book Review category for more about Brian Bates book.

See Book Review category for more about Brian Bates book.

Book Review

Dorset’s Great War dead remembered

There cannot be a community in the country that was not deeply affected by the catastrophe that was the First World War. As the county town, Dorchester of course had to endure and suffer its share of bereaved relatives, empty living-room chairs, a generation lost, as the country took stock of the aftermath following the armistice.

Now, author Brian Bates has written a definitive gazette documenting those four momentous years in words and a wealth of illustrations. Dorchester Remembers the Great War is organised into eleven chapters which, following a foreword by Leslie Phillips MBE, is headed by a brief overview of Edwardian Dorchester and an account of how the war came to Dorchester.

For each of the four years of the war there follow accounts organised into two sections: the Battle Front sets the scene with an account of the events, strategies and developments across each theatre of the war for the given year.
Roll of Honour then deals with the backgrounds and obituary accounts of key troops of the Dorset regiments to fall in action. The book then concludes with chapters on a post-war roll of honour and remembrance and two appendices.   

As an example of one of the citations, there is that of Pte Frank Adams of the 3rd Btn the Dorsetshire Regiment (p.54) who enrolled with the Dorsets on 31st August 1914, even though he was only 5’ 2” and weighed under 8 stone. He also lied about his age, stating he was 19. Yet the appaling irony is that Adams was not killed by the enemy; he died after accidently being shot dead by a comrade. Frank’s father had to inform the coroner that Frank had turned 16 sixteen a month before his death. Considerably maturer was 30-year-old Rifleman Fred Piddden (p.131) who died from wounds sustained during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Brian Bates, a resident of Dorchester since 1969, has maintained a particular passion for the history of Dorchester ever since writing a thesis on the county town’s economy as it was in the 17th century, a subject on which he lectures from time to time. He particularly focuses on the common man and the community he is a part of.

Bates has previously published a transcription of the diary of William Whiteway, a 17th century Dorchester merchant as well as three biographies of military figures. He lives with his wife Doreen and two daughters.

Dorchester Remembers the Great War comes as a paperback in a six-and-three-quarter by ten inch format and is half-an-inch thick. It is published by the Roving Press at £12.99.
ISBN 978-1-906651-16-9

 A photo of the book cover is in the gallery.

The Monmouth Rebellion

Dorset could have played a vital part in a return to Protestant dominance in England in the late 17th century. The Duke of Monmouth arrived on Lyme Regis beach from Holland, impelled by volatile evangelicalism in that country, and soon gathered an army of thousands which marched north, only to be defeated by King James II’s forces at Sedgmoor.

It was an army of peasants or serfs, armed with farm implements, and stirred to action by the death of Charles II and the arrival of a Catholic king on the throne. The attempt, in the summer of 1685, did not have the support of the Whigs as it might have done, and it was cut down among the Somerset rhines, the drainage canals in the moors, by a smaller but more professional force led by John Churchill, later the First Duke of Marlborough.

Monmouth and Lord Grey made for the Dorset coast, hoping to get away by sea from Poole. They abandoned their horses, disguised themselves and separated but Monmouth was caught in Cranbourne Chase and within weeks he was executed for treason at Tower Hill, London.

An associated rising planned in Scotland, a stronghold, like the West Country, of the burgeoning Protestant religion, resulted in defeat. It was left to William III of Orange to sail from Holland three years later, put ashore at Torbay with an army and eventually to be made king by Parliament once James II had sailed away to France.

The political and church scene at this time was mercurial and transient. The Civil Wars, which were intended to straighten things out, were not long over. The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Draconian rules were in force governing worship, and Baptists and others were meeting in the woods. A century later the situation was somewhat similar, before there began to be an acceptance of the Roman Catholic Church once again. Things were going round in circles.

One James, Duke of Monmouth, aged 36, bastard son of Charles and claiming the throne in the place of his uncle the Duke of York, had stepped ashore near the Cobb at Lyme Regis, his Declaration was read out at the ancient cross. He had a high profile supporter in Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury. Monmouth’s followers were euphoric, yet there were many Dorset men in the king’s forces, which were soon to harry them.

The end was very violent and very sad. At the Bloody Assizes in September 1685, based in Dorchester, Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys took revenge in a courtroom said to have been draped in red. The Oak Room, still preserved, and now a rather select tearoom, overlooks an alley thoroughfare not far from the town’s tourist information centre. The judge’s lodgings in the town’s main street are also now tearooms. Altogether 292 people were condemned to death and 800 were transported to the New World.

Four years later, following William’s “Glorious Revolution”, the ‘hanging judge’ himself died rather ignominiously in the Tower of London.

Everything was against Monmouth: a badly equipped army, quarrelling amongst his chief officers, poor preparation, and an inept skirmish at Bridport. By midnight on the landing date Mayor Gregory Alford of Lyme Regis was at Honiton ordering an express message to Whitehall, and two Lyme Customs officers were also on their way to London to raise the alarm.

Taunton and Bridgwater welcomed the rebels with flower lined streets. The rebels wished to take Bristol, then the second city in the kingdom, but were easily discouraged and made their way through Frome and Shepton Mallet to Wells, and to Bridgwater again. By this time the people were losing heart and Taunton asked the rebel army not to return.

Monday July 6th 1685 decided things. Monmouth decided to attack the king’s army near Weston Zoyland, but was defeated by the rhines and the accidental or treacherous firing of a pistol in the dark by one of his own side.

The duke had hatched his plans with the fugitive Argyle and some hotheads in the Netherlands. Argyle was to start an insurrection under the Covenanting banner in the Borders and Campbell territory. The idea was that they would then both march on London. Argyle landed in Kintyre but the Marquis of Atholl occupied the countryside there and he was eventually captured when approaching Glasgow, and executed.

This activity north of the border had caused Parliament to vote money for a professional army. More troops came from the Continent, and help even came from William, showing that while their aims were similar, he had no time for Monmouth.

The strange thing is that four years earlier; Monmouth had toured the West Country and was led to expect massive support from the gentry. But his ragged army was one mostly of farm labourers and cloth workers. Even the supplies he had brought from Holland were seized.

Later, hundreds were caught as they ran from the battleground, cut down or hanged on the spot. A garrison newly returned from Tangiers was sent in, and retribution in nearby towns such as Shepton Mallet and Taunton followed.

Maurice Ashley, in “The English Civil War” (1974) set the scene for the Monmouth fiasco and what followed very well:

“Lastly, because Parliament won the civil wars it henceforward became an unchallengeable part of the British constitution. The Church of England ceased to be the sole religious institution because, in spite of heavy penalties imposed upon them, dissenters – known as nonconformists – emerged as a permanent feature of public life and influence on society.”

There was never to be another civil war in England. And when it began to seem that Roman Catholicism would hold sway again, along came William of Orange with his armed force to reverse the situation again. King James II fled to France and the nation remained Protestant.

Dorchester – No Dignity in Death

There were some in the 18 and 19th centuries who explored the notion that criminals shared common physical characteristics: the study of phrenology was in its early stages but it was thought a person’s features or expressions were an indication of their personality. During this period it was not unusual for casts to be made of the heads of executed criminals in furtherance of these ideas.

In the middle years of the 19th century the Dorchester Gaol employed the services of Dr. John Good as its prison surgeon. Dr Good is known to have applied for licences to make casts of the heads of some executed prisoners, although it is not clear why as there are no records to suggest he had any particular interest in phrenology or physiognomy.

In the 1960’s four casts were offered to the Dorset County Museum and as far we know they remain in store there. Dr John Good practiced from 48 High West Street, Dorchester, and when he retired his son William Good took over and was joined by a partner, Gerald Taylor. Dr Taylor later moved to Icen House, Icen Way, Dorchester. The four casts moved with him and resided in the garage of Icen House until either Dr Taylor or an associate offered them to the museum.

In a paper published in 2000 G.A. Chester, having sifted through all the available documentary evidence and newspaper reports then carefully considering all that is known about the characteristics of the persons hanged at Dorchester between 1833 and 1887, makes a compelling case for the casts being from the heads of: Charles Fooks; Edwin Alfred Preedy; Jonah Detheridge and Thomas Ratcliffe. (See our story ‘The Prisoner a Padre Befriended’ published 9th February 2010 in the Real Lives Category).

A note made by Thomas Hardy dated 9th of September 1888 provides more information about the making of the casts: “T. Voss used to take casts of heads of executed convicts. He took those of Preedy and Stone. Dan Pouncy held the heads while it was being done. Voss oiled the faces, and took them in halves, afterwards making casts from the masks. There was a groove where the rope went, and Voss saw a little blood in the case of Stone, where the skin had been broken – not in Preedys.” In his account Hardy has confused Stone, who was the victim, with Fooks, who killed Stone.

Thomas Haviland Voss (1806-1889) of Durngate Street, Dorchester was listed in directories as a builder and a plasterer. After his death the Dorset County Chronicle published an obituary on the 3rd of October 1889 saying: “Dorchester has just lost its oldest tradesmen in the person of Mr Thomas Haviland Voss. The deceased who belonged to an old and much respected Dorchester family whose connection with the town extended considerably over a century was in business himself for more than half-a-century as a plasterer, &c, from which he retired some years ago.” Thomas Voss’ grandson, Harold Lionel Voss, was reputed to be Thomas Hardy’s favourite chauffeur.

There are no records of casts being made of the heads of any other criminals executed at Dorchester. We know the casts were made under the supervision of Dr Good but we can only wonder about why he wanted them.


The Dorchester Rovers Cycling Club photographed in the 1880's

The Dorchester Rovers Cycling Club photographed in the 1880's


High West Street, Dorchester. Photographed in 1861.

High West Street, Dorchester. Photographed in 1861.

W.J. Fare Esq.

W.J. Fare Esq. Mayor of Dorchester 1930 and 1931

W.J. Fare Esq. Mayor of Dorchester 1930 and 1931

Pouncy Family at Dorchester

Previously, we have written about the respected Dorchester journalist Harry Pouncy (1870-1925) and John Pouncy (1818-1894) the house painter turned photographic innovator and his son Walter Pouncy (1845-1918), who in his day was Dorchester’s pre-eminent photographer. But the municipal records for Dorchester reveal that in the early 17th century many of the family were an unruly lot. (See our stories: ‘Harry Pouncy – A Great Publicist for the Dorset Scene,’ and ‘John Pouncy’ in the Dorchester Category.)

Frequently on the wrong side of the law they saw themselves as victims of the town authorities. As butchers they leased their premises in the Shambles near St. Peter’s church from The Corporation. They were a couple of rungs up the social ladder and one or two of them were surprisingly well connected. Much of the trouble stemmed from them preferring the old ways; they were at odds with those trying to reform the town but at the same time some of them were Freemen of the town and one of them was appointed the town’s “Viewer of flesh.”

In 1606, after the arrival in Dorchester of the puritan minister the Reverend John White, the townsfolk were persuaded to turn away from their ungodly ways and most saw the Great Fire of 1613 as a sign of God’s displeasure with them all. (See our story ‘The Great Fire of Dorchester,’ in the Dorchester Category.)

While Matthew Chubb, at the time Dorchester’s richest resident, demonstrated his disapproval of the reverend gentleman and his puritan ways by surreptitiously publishing slanders against him and very publicly choosing to walk to Fordington for his Sunday sermon, the Pouncy’s were more hands-on with their objections and frequently clashed with any one representing authority. (See our story ‘Matthew Chubb of Dorchester’ in the Dorchester Category.)

At a ceremony at Dorchester’s Holy Trinity Church on the 16th of June 1570 John Pouncy married Margaret Haggard uniting two of the town’s families of butchers. We don’t know a lot about the couple other than that they had a large family and at least two sons,  of whom Thomas and Roger, survived. In the accounts for the borough for 1585 there is an entry: “Paid to Hunte, the Surgion, for healinge of Pouncye.

The name of Thomas Pouncy appears in the borough records. He was in trouble on one occasion for missing church and he also had a couple of drinking offences listed against him. Yet he was a saint when compared to his son and some other family members; he was considered respectable enough to sit on juries.

Roger Pouncy was a Sheriff’s bailiff for the gentry as well as being a butcher and he was a member of Matthew Chubb’s circle. Chubb left RogerPouncy a small bequest. Roger was to become the most prosperous of the Pouncy’s and has been described elsewhere as the “Godfather to the unruly and unregenerate of Dorchester,” perhaps, a reference to the fact the he often gave bond or stood surety for family and others who found themselves in trouble. Roger Pouncy like Matthew Chubb preferred the old ways and disliked the reforming tendency of the town authorities. In his old-age he was an angry and embittered man.

Thomas’ son, also named Thomas, was a thug and regularly in trouble with the authorities. The records tell of how he threatened to kill a man and then threw his meat cleaver at him. There is a report of him threatening a maid at an ale house, beating-up a man from Martinstown, breaking a bull-keeper’s head with a cudgel at a bull baiting session and he was frequently accused of abusing the constables, sergeants and anyone in authority. He had little respect for his own family: in 1633 he was bound over following attacks on his mother-in-law and when in 1637 he was charged with attempting to stab a neighbour the records reveal that his wife had run away and left their children on the church steps. 
Thomas and Rogers son’s came to the attention of the authorities in 1632 as we can see from an entry for June 1st:  “1632, June I. ” William Douche, servant to Mathew Bonger of this Borough, Henry Pouncey and William Pouncey, Sonne Nathaniell, Giles Morey yonger, Rychard Stone the glouer’s Sonne, Edward Meller sonne of Wm. Meller. Wm. Douch confeseth that all these boyes and John Green’s sonne met together vpon Sabbath day last at Burton in farmer Monday’s ground, and played at Nine Holes for money, a farthing a game. Wm. Douch confesseth he lost one farthing and Wm. Perry, Htimfrey Perry’s sonne, lost a penny in that company. This was doen about 4 of the clock at afternoone, and not one of them were at ther parish church at prayer at afternoone that day, nor at any other church. These all being greate boyes, yt is ordered they shall find good sureties to play no more at vnlawfull games, and shall pay xzd. A peice for absens from church at that time.”

A few months later William Pouncy, the son of Roger Pouncy, was put in the stocks for a similar offence: “1632-3, March 9. Wm. Pouncy, son of Roger Pouncey, senr., confesseth that he and other young men ” in two severall companies thr they plad Five Holes, some other Nine Holes,”at the time of Evening Prayers and sermon. Wm. Pouncey committed to the stocks.

An entry in the town records for 1633 suggests the Pouncy womenfolk behaved little better than their husbands: “1633, June 28. ” It is now ordered that Christian Jenkens, Susan Lyeigh wife of John lyeigh, Charitie Robenson, and Thampson Pouncey wife of Thomas Pouncey the elder, shalbe plounced or duckt three severall times vnder the water for common Scolds presented at the last Iyawe day, and a warrant granted to the constables to that purpose the same day.”

There is an entry in the records for March 26th 1636: “Thomasyn, wife of Thomas Powncy” saith that a little before Easter last Roberte Powncy, sonne of Roger Powncy of the Borough aforesaid, being in his father’s howse in the same Borough, and there being some speeches vsed that the said Roberte Powncy was to goe to Mr. White, the minister, to be examined before he came to the Sacrament, he, the said Roberte Powncy, said he would not go to the said Mr. White, he would see his . . . . on fire in or at the pulpit first.”

Another of Thomas’s sons, Henry, found himself before the courts on a charge of incest with his younger sister Grace. It seems the two youngsters shared a bed, probably as a result of overcrowding and the girl complained about her brother’s unwanted attentions. The boy found himself in the workhouse because he was “Masterless and living in a lewd and uncivil manner.”

Another of Roger Pouncy’s sons, also named Roger was a little less rowdy than his cousin, Thomas. Nevertheless, he would frequently clash with the authorities, often as a result of his duties as a Sheriff’s bailiff acting for the country gentry. It seems he was foulmouthed and he was charged for uttering 24 oaths during one argument with the authorities. He would use violent language to denounce the town’s officers and when that did not work he would think little of assaulting them.

Like Matthew Chubb and most of the country gentry the Pouncy’s were set against the Reverend White and his puritan ways but they were fighting a loosing battle. Come the Civil War Dorchester was for Parliament and The Corporation provided a list of Royalist sympathisers in the town; the list was kept in London and the Pouncy family was on it. On the Restoration one member of the family was granted a pension for services to the King.

Later in the 17th century the Pouncy’s were still making trouble and two of them were arrested but escaped. In 1699 there were complaints about eight unlicensed ale-houses in the town and again the family was involved.
In the 18th century the name of Harry Pouncy appears on a list of school masters at Trinity School  and then there was Robert Pouncy born 1756 (possibly the son of the schoolmaster) who was a Captain in the British East India Company, and in 1813 the name of Thomas Pouncy is included in a list of Dorchester’s freeholders. It seems respectability evolves.

Dorchester – The Visit of the Prince of Wales 1887

On the 2nd of June 1887 the residents of Dorchester turned out and lined the gaily decorated streets to welcome the Prince of Wales. He was met on his arrival by the Mayor, Mr Alfred Pope, the Lord Lieutenant Lord Ilchester, and Mr Brymer, the High Sheriff. The Prince drove through the town in an open carriage and was accompanied by Lord Alington and the Hon. Humphrey Sturt and attended by General Teesdale.

The visit was on the occasion of the Bath and West of England Show. At a luncheon at the Corn Exchange the Aldermen and Councillors were presented to the prince. Afterwards he was taken to the Show-yard where he was shown around by Lord Ilchester.  Reports made at the time say he was “heartily cheered on his return drive through the town.” He departed by train late in the afternoon.

We have placed in the photo section a copy of an etching taken from a photograph of the event shot by Walter Pouncy the  Dorchester photographer.