William Jobling - Last Man Gibbeted
It was bitterly cold. It always was on the slake. The wind would whistle across the barren mud, where the earth melded into sludge towards the river. The river, the giver and taker of life, the source of existence. The artery that carried the ships between the damp, dingy docks and the wide, frightening North Sea.
The ships. Since her earliest memory there were ships. Ships and coal. Black, dirty coal and black, dirty, browbeaten men who mined it.
That morning was the same as every other. In the ramshackle home, the child struggled out of bed, shivered, wrapped herself in a flimsy gown and glanced at the empty hearth. She knew she needed coal.
She found her mother at the window, staring out to the river, transfixed across the slake. Something different was there today, something sinister, something hideous.
She followed her mother's gaze and recoiled. The black tarred body, bound and caged, suspended on an oak timber staff, was dead. Unrecognizable it swung with every gust of wind, it creaked on every hinge, it swayed with every breeze. The man was dead of that there was no doubt.
As she looked upon the dead man she would learn he had been hanged. She would learn that his body was soaked with pitch black tar and encased in a metal frame. She would learn that it was called a gibbet. Finally she would learn that the poor creature within it was her own father, and she, her younger brothers and mother, would confront the scene every day for the next three weeks.
A permanent guard of Hussars would surround it. Her family had nowhere to go. No work, no income, only charity from neighbours. As the child grew older, and the years took their toll, she would eventually see her mother committed to the workhouse, so distressed and withered, that no recollection would ever exist in her mind of the events of that fateful time.
Yet this was not ancient Rome, nor Medieval Japan, not Stalinist Russia, nor Nazi Germany. This was 19th century Britain - the greatest modern empire the world had ever known.
What transpired on that day of August 21st 1832 is infamous in its cruelty and injustice. The man hanging in the cage was the last man to be gibbeted in England. His name was William Jobling.
On June 11th, William Jobling, a Jarrow pitman, was involved in a drinking session at a local pub with Ralph Armstrong. By the toll-bar gate in Jarrow, a grim north-east mining village, on a grim north-east English coast, Jobling, having spent his last penny, recognised Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old magistrate, riding past.
Jobling approached him in a friendly gesture and asked for some money. Fairles refused to hand any over, but was not unduly distressed by Jobling's inebriated state, and in a well tempered altercation attempted to carry on his journey. Unfortunately this snub enraged Armstrong who, high on drink, assaulted him with a stick and stone.
The magistrate fell from his horse, and the shocked and confused Jobling attempted to offer compassionate assistance. His friend in panic, grabbed him and persuaded him to flee, or else they would both be for the chop. Fairles was left seriously injured. Two hours later Jobling was arrested, found wandering drunk on the beach, and hauled before the victim.
The magistrate still had the wherewithal to acknowledge that it was not Jobling who struck him, but the other man, who had escaped. Nevertheless, Jobling was removed to Durham prison, until, ten days later Nicholas Fairles died, and Jobling was charged with his murder.
What became of Armstrong is unknown, however he was a sailor, and no doubt managed to return to his ship and sail away.
Meanwhile the politics of the time were set to act profoundly on William Jobling.
The background to this event was the coal mining strike of 1832.
The history of coal mining in Great Britain is a road paved with blood, toil, tears, sweat and slavery. In the early nineteen century, when William Wilberforce instigated the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which eventually led to it's abolition in 1833 and ending the practice in Britain's dominions and empire, it was astonishingly still upheld in the mother country, albeit by another name.
That name was "bonded". Britain was the powerhouse of the world. It's where the industrial revolution began, and it's where mass production had its base. The great factories and mines were the wheels that rolled production. People left their rural and agricultural bases to seek work in the new industrial nirvana.
There were no Health and Safety Acts, no Industrial Relations Acts, no protections in force for the workers, no adequate housing, no social provisions, no education for the workers or children. No unions, no redress, no way out.
There was nothing save a job. Lose it and starve! The Industrial magnates and barons had a workforce in abundance, and built their wealth upon it.
The Iron Fist of the Ruling Class
Jobling was a bonded miner, in other words a worker committed by a cross on a piece of paper which held him bonded to the mine for a period of time, to be treated as the owner wished.
One day he got drunk. One day he was in the wrong company. One day he was tried at the Durham Assizes, hanged and gibbeted! It was a miserable life which ended in misery. It was a miserable life which brought misery to his wife and children.
His country had abolished slavery and freed the enslaved. It didn't free Jobling, and it would be more than another one hundred years before British miners and the working classes were freed from their shackles.
Ralph Armstrong was never caught and may have escaped to Australia (there's been a long held and tenuous theory that he was actually Red Kelly - an Irish convict transported to Australia in I843, who eleven years later spawned the infamous outlaw Ned Kelly).
In context of the times, with industrial unrest, and revolutionary France across the sea, it was the establishment's method of ensuring the ruling classes maintained their position through an iron fist.
Britain may have beaten Napoleon, consolidated her position, increased her power, but an army of soldiers returned disillusioned, forgotten by the flag they fought for, and dissent was rife.
Meanwhile the wheels of industry needed to turn, and the industrial barons required labour. The crown ruled, parliament acquiesced, and the law ensured they would. Stability was essential, and the rights of man were negligible.
Prisons were overcrowding, hangings for robbery and murder were unwise. No wars - no conscription. Employ the masses or export them. Hence, slavery in the factories or transportation to Australia.
With the noose around his neck, Jobling attempted to apologise, but words failed him. The ground beneath him disappeared, and his neck, after a delay, finally snapped. His death was prolonged because just as the trap opened, he turned his head briefly in recognition of a voice of familiarity crying out from the crowd. Some suggest the caller may have been Armstrong in disguise. In any event, the action dislocated the rope.
His body was then eviscerated and soaked in tar. It was placed in a metal cage, paraded through the streets, and in a final indignity, hung on a wooden post, just a few hundred feet outside his home.
There it swung, guarded by a contingent of Hussars, until it became so putrid a few brave people eventually managed to clandestinely remove and bury it - to a place still unknown.
Was Jobling a political scapegoat to be made example of in a time of industrial unrest?
He was tried by Mr Justice Parkes, a notorious judge who hung or transported prisoners with impunity. Upon sentence, with the black cap on his head, he addressed Jobling saying:
“I trust that the sight of that will have some effect upon those who are, to a certain extent, your companions in guilt and your companions in these illegal proceedings which have disgraced the county. May they take warning by your fate.”
Victoria came to the throne five years later. The golden age of empire had begun.
As for William Jobling's family, they are lost to history. His wife was committed to the workhouse, and his children probably suffered the same fate.
Charles Dickens wrote about the workhouses and gave Oliver Twist a happy ending. There was no happy ending for Jobling's family.
170 years later, this story must be told.