Years ago, back when considering my degree dissertation, I had an idea of digging into an event from the 1840s in Cornwall: a murder that led to the punishment of the murderers. I was mostly intrigued on how the public hanging of the culprits turned into such a massive event in the region, and my intention was outline as to why this was (perhaps with a comparison with other hangings). However, I worried that I could not sustain something over 10,000 words, so shied away in order to do another project. However, I still wanted to dig into this event – particularly of the Lightfoot Brothers – and so I was able to end up with a shorter article; this was printed in ‘The Cornish Banner’ in 2009.
On the eighth day of February 1840, on his return home to Wadebridge from Bodmin market, local trader Nevil Norway was accosted by two local men. They attacked Mr Norway, robbing him of his money and killing him in the process. They took what they could find and ran away in what appeared to be a safe getaway. Such presumption was wrong; within weeks the two attackers were apprehended and identified as William and James Lightfoot. Brought before the bench, their punishment was a sentence of death.
What lead the authorities to the Lightfoot brothers? The investigation has been recounted before, notably by S. Baring-Gould in his book Cornish Characters and Strange Events, in which Norway’s body was initially found by unsuspecting locals. A local surgeon with the surname Tickell examined the body which was host to injuries to the face and head ‘produced by heavy and repeated blows from some blunt instrument, which had undoubtedly been the cause of death’ (Baring-Gould, p.118).
Further evidence at the site was found: footprints and the hammer of a pistol. That it was a robbery was obvious, due to the absence of purse and other valuables. In order to complete the enquiry a constable from London was sent for – by the name of Mr Jackson – and a request for any information was put out to the locality. Over the coming days people stepped forward, all with a recurrent family name on their lips: ‘Lightfoot’. It was the younger brother, James, aged 23, who was first paid a house-call. There his pistol was found ‘concealed in a hole in a beam that ran across the ceiling’ (Baring-Gould, p.120). He was taken into custody on the 14th February, followed three days later by William, his elder brother by thirteen years.
Under scrutiny confessions flooded out from the brothers, it being reputed that both accused the other for striking the blows to Mr Norway. The younger brother, James, noted that they took upon the unsightly career of robbers as a way to make money, hearing of other exploits of others who had been successful in escaping detection. He explained:
We had no settled intention of attacking Mr. Nevell Norway [sic]; any other person who might in our opinion have been possessed of money, would have showed the same fate; if he had been equally unprotected.
The gun they purchased for the task – its origins remain obscure – misfired. Reacting quickly and with no secure back-up plan, William struck Norway with a stick; James following the action with blows from the butt-end of the pistol, which were deemed by the surgeon to be fatal. With Norway’s body having fallen, they dragged it across the road and into the stream before running off into the distance.
After the confessions, the brothers were tried at Bodmin at the end of March; on the 7th April their families – James had been married two years, William for eight with whom he had four children – whilst their execution was set for 13th April 1840. The attack caused a sensation throughout Cornwall. Estimates of twenty thousand attending the execution are given by numerous writers on the subject; from the local historian (such as Sally Pocock) to histories that concentrate primarily on leisure (such as James Walvin). The hangings were fixed for Monday, yet people flocked to Bodmin – then Cornwall’s capital – from the start of the weekend, as early as Friday. The local reporter for the West Briton announced with shock of the ‘hundreds of people’ who travelled to the town, ‘and every hour, both day and night, bringing great numbers of people anxious to witness the execution’. To highlight this, a special excursion was run from Wadebridge to Bodmin, with three trainings carrying 1,100 people. The inns were overflowing, and the reporter noted how ‘there was the same boisterous mirth, the same noisy hilarity, which characterise the masses collected at a fair’; with sideshows and attractions running related to Norway’s murder. The streets, states Pocock, became ‘impassable because of the wagons, coaches and carts that had brought onlookers from the ends of Cornwall, to enjoy an afternoon’s carousal and holiday pleasure’.
According to the West Briton, the brothers painted a ‘melancholy and painful sight’ when being led to the gallows: ‘a scene in which the hardest and the boldest ruffian… involuntary shrank’. William’s last words are reported to have been: ‘I die happy’. He was asked by an official at the proceedings: ‘Are you happy in Jesus?’ He repeated again: ‘Yes, I die happy; remember me to my wife and family, and beg them to pray to meet me in heaven, and request them to shun the paths of vice that I have fallen into, and not to break the Sabbath as I have done and particularly to go to church’.
They were hung and died ‘almost immediately’, a shoe of William falling off from his foot through the force of a sudden jerk. Their bodies hung for an hour before being cut down. Later, they were put into two black coffins and buried, states Pocock, ‘in a hole about three foot deep in the coal yard just inside the prison…. No service was performed for them’.
After the hanging anecdotes flowed throughout the town, with previous stories of unsuccessful attempts by the Lightfoot brothers of highway robbery, the reporter of the West Briton noting there were ‘two in which they got severely drubbed’, with William Lightfoot being seen for days afterwards ‘with his head bound up’. Baring-Gould points out a cruel irony: one of the murderers wore a coat of which Norway ‘had given him a few weeks before, out of charity’. Such generosity on Norway’s behalf was returned in the raising of £3,500 for his family after his death, whilst a monument was raised to his memory in Egloshayle Church.
The murder has grown in fascination ever since: with numerous mistakes being made along the way. One such story, told by a descendant of Norway’s family (more directly by the novelist Nevil Shute Norway), describes the setting:
And it was the day… they were hanged in Bodmin, which is the capital of Cornwall, and it was the day the railroad opened, and it was also the last public hanging in Cornwall…
On many accounts it is wrong: No, it was not the railway’s opening – though, as stated, it did pack a great many passengers – and it was not the last public hanging in the county (furthermore, yet in a less crucial way, Bodmin is also no longer Cornwall’s capital). Yet, such apocryphal mistakes are awash throughout all local histories. More interesting is the sub-story in which Mr Norway’s brother, Edmund, plays a significant part. Histories on this topic (from as early as Carlyon’s 1843 writings) note how Edmund was thousands of miles away from his brother at the time of the murder – an officer of the ship ‘Orient’, then based near St Helena – yet he managed to dream of his brother’s death in, supposedly, full detail. It is a story in which Arthur Conan Doyle (yes, he of the fairies) took up with fervour in his book, The Edge of the Unknown (1930). He highlights this mystic bond between the brothers, stating that the dream ‘exactly corresponds with that of the crime’; concluding: ‘These are the actual facts, and, though they may be explained, they cannot be explained away’. Other writers on this issue are not as whimsical. Baring-Gould believes ‘there are some difficulties about this account’, noting that the letter is dated the 8th February 1840, yet Edmund would surely have dated any written account on the ninth: after he had dreamt the murder. Common sense tells us that Edmund’s account is highly dubious; Baring-Gould goes as far to include mathematical equations to back up his claim that it was all a lie (please refer to pp.123-124 of Cornish Characters and Strange Events). Meanwhile, the growth of the “ghost-hunter” industry must also be noted; those who stay at supposed haunted places in the hope of experiencing a ghostly adventure. Bodmin Gaol, naturally due to the high level of hangings, has featured prominently in local guides and websites, one of which notes ‘there have been many supernatural incidents reported’, with William and James Lightfoot being reputed to roam the ground floor cells.
In the early 1800s more than two hundred offences carried the penalty of death, many convicted of trivial offences. Bodmin Gaol was built in 1779, with the first hanging occurring in March 1785, the victim being a twenty-one year old, Philip Randal, for the crime of burglary. In 1791, William Moyle was hanged for killing a mare; in 1818, William Rowe met the same fate for sheep stealing; whilst in 1820 Michael Stevens, a twenty-seven year old, was executed for ‘killing a ram and stealing part of its carcase’ (Cornwall Record Office, X326/78). Theft and fraud were similarly harshly dealt with: in 1787 the twenty-three year old William Congdon was killed for stealing a watch; as was Pierre Francois in 1812 for simply forging a £2 note (the French name suggests possible Franco-phobia, it being in the midst of the Napoleonic wars). Much campaigning in the following decades would abolish the majority of such hangings, most notably Robert Peel’s prison and law reforms of the 1820s. After 1835, execution was reserved for those found guilty of only manslaughter and murder. Yet it was not until 1868 that public executions were stopped. Bodmin continued to hang criminals until 1909, when this dubious service was transferred to Exeter (the last hanging was of the murderer William Hampton on the 20th July 1909); yet it would not be until half a century later when the death penalty was finally outlawed in the UK.
Richard Clark has calculated that over a 230 year period (1735-1964) there were 10,935 executions in England and Wales; all but 557 were men, with 32 of the 375 women executed between 1735-1799 extraordinarily being burnt at the stake. Such statistics show there was nothing uncommon about the Lightfoot brothers’ punishment; but yet, the historian and reader and similarly intrigued about it. If we discount the rumours and stuff of legend that have surrounded the hangings, perhaps the largest feature of the whole affair is the bulk of people who came to watch their deaths, treating the occasion – as the West Briton reporter declared – as a holiday.* Was this really the state of leisure in the mid-nineteenth century? – and if so, then it seriously dents the long standing beliefs of notable historians on the Victorian period, significantly Professor Perkin, who claimed that leisure by the mid-1800s had become enlightened. The figures show that popular attention for executions, as well as blood sports, had not diminished. Nationally, Gatrell has tackled the issue in his book The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868; yet due to the question marks that are aroused in Cornwall’s locality, further research as to the ethics and morals of the time yanks at the chain of the historian, a bell ringing out that requires quenching.
Further Reading / References:
Baring-Gould, S., Cornish Characters and Strange Events, 1925
Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Edge of the Unknown, 1930
Gatrell, V.A.C., The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868, 1996
Pocock, Sally J., Behind Bars: A Chronicle of Bodmin Gaol, 1998
The West Briton – 17 April 1840 (contains account of execution of the brothers; also found in Cornwall Record Office, Ref: X364/31)
Cornwall Record Office; X326/78, List of Executions in Cornwall – from 1785-1882, Compiled by John Burton, the Old Curiosity Shop, Falmouth.