WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Clap on the Shoulder

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Clap on the Shoulder

This week we discover Plate 4 of A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth – Arrested For Debt. Our hero, or antihero, Tom Rakewell, is truly reaping now what he has sown.

The paintings of A Rake’s Progress are in the collection of Sir John Soane’s Museum, London, and are considered part of the public domain.

Clap on the Shoulder

An arrest for debt; whence a bum bailiff is called a shoulder-clapper.

A Rake’s Progress – Plate 4 – Arrested For Debt by William Hogarth, 1735, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Public Domain.

From the Wikipedia description:

In the fourth, he narrowly escapes arrest for debt by Welsh bailiffs (as signified by the leeks, a Welsh emblem, in their hats) as he travels in a sedan chair to a party at St. James’s Palace to celebrate Queen Caroline’s birthday on Saint David’s Day (Saint David is the patron saint of Wales). On this occasion he is saved by the intervention of Sarah Young, the girl he had earlier rejected; she is apparently a dealer in millinery. In comic relief, a man filling a street lantern spills the oil on Tom’s head. This is a sly reference to how blessings on a person were accompanied by oil poured on the head; in this case, the ‘blessing’ being the ‘saving’ of Tom by Sarah, although Rakewell, being a rake, will not take the moral lesson to heart. In the engraved version, lightning flashes in the sky and a young pickpocket has just emptied Tom’s pocket. The painting, however, shows the young thief stealing Tom’s cane, and has no lightning.

A Rake’s Progress – Plate 4 – Arrested For Debt by William Hogarth, oil on canvas, 1735, Sir John Soane’s Museum, Public Domain.


WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Sheriff’s Journeyman

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Sheriff’s Journeyman

Sheriff’s Journeyman (noun)

The hangman.

The hangman carried out the execution order for those condemned to die for their crimes. The Sheriff’s Journeyman was protected from a charge of murder by order of a writ of execution issued by the court. When executions were moved from Tyburn to Newgate, the principal executioner, Edward Dennis, moved as well. On Tuesday, 9 December 1783, he and his understudy, William Brunskill, carried out the execution by hanging of nine men and one woman.

The New Gallows in the Old Bailey








Criminals were executed side-by-side on the “New Drop” in the “Sheriff’s Picture Frame,” a portable gallows set up in front of the Debtor’s Door or simply outside Newgate in The Old Bailey. The gallows consisted of two parallel beams from which twelve criminals could be hanged at once. It was ten feet long by eight feet wide, and the platform opened by releasing a pin underneath the panels. Criminals only dropped two feet, a “Short Drop,” so death was slow, agonizing strangulation rather than the breaking of the neck. This method would not be changed until 1872. Over 200 felonies were punishable by death under the “Bloody Code;” the concept of prison as punishment in and of itself would not occur until after 1840. Thus the hangman – the Sheriff’s Journeyman – was kept steadily busy.













James Botting, Sheriff’s Journeyman from 1817-1819, was paid one guinea per week and one guinea per execution; he boasted to have hanged 175 criminals during his brief tenure. He was succeeded by James Foxton (sometimes Foxen), who executed 207 men and six women, many for the crime of high treason. In May of 1820, five of the Cato Street Conspirators – the group who plotted the murder of Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and all his cabinet ministers – were hanged then beheaded (the other five were transported).

The Execution of Thistlewood Ings Brunt Davidson and Tidd for High Treason in Forming of a plot to assassinate his Majestys Ministers whilst at a cabinet Dinner

I enlarged the caption for easier reading.


Mr. Foxton also carried out the execution of the Red Barn Murderer, William Corder. Corder had agreed to marry his pregnant lover, Maria Marten, at the suggestion of her parents. He arranged to meet Maria at the Red Barn, but she was never seen alive again. Her remains were found upon digging up the floor of the Red Barn.

confession and execution of william corder













Joseph Timothy Haydn compiled a list of some of the more notable executions undertaken at Newgate, published in London in 1865 as Haydn’s Dictionary of Dates. The list is by no means exhaustive: between 1783 and 1902, some 1,169 criminals were executed, representing 1,120 men and 49 women. Haydn’s list was meant as an example on the importance of record-keeping, and shows the name of the criminal, the date of and for execution, and the location of the trial. Prisoner Christian Murphy was a forger, a crime considered to be high treason; because she was female, her method of execution for this crime burning at the stake. The male punishment for high treason, such as was experienced by Sir Edward Crosbie and the Misters Sheares listed below, was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Mr. Haydn did consider the Cato Street Conspirators worthy of mention in his list, at least.

list of executed at newgate


Further study of the Bloody Code – Georgian England’s system of criminal justice – can be found at the National Archives and The Old Bailey Online. Information on the names of executioners and their efforts can be found at A History of London’s Newgate Prison. Learn more about the plotting and scheming of the Cato Street Conspirators at A Web of English History, and the Red Barn Murder from Regina Jeffers at English Historical Fiction Authors. As always, definitions for the vulgar terms can be found at 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Nubbing

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Nubbing

Newgate was the final stop for most criminals. Literally.

By the Georgian era, Newgate was in need of overhaul and expansion. The designs of George Dance were chosen and construction began in 1770. The Gordon Riots of 1780 all but destroyed the prison, but reconstruction was finally complete in 1782. The style was architecture terrible, a French-based design that was supposed to render prison so repulsive as to deter criminal behavior. Newgate was basically a large, hulking rectangle of thick, reinforced walls, with few windows, with its interior subdivided into three sections built around central courtyards. Accommodations were available for 300 men, with separate quarters for 100 debtors and 60 women. Prison reform advocate John Howard was initially impressed:

john howard quote

In reality, the new design, with its Common area for the poor and State area for the wealthy, was further subdivided into various chambers and cellars to house debtors and felons, both male and female. Basic incarceration was free in the Common area at Newgate, but that came with a hidden cost: infrequent food, appalling sanitation, and rampant over-crowding. Doctors refused to visit the ill unless mandated by court or paid handsomely. Wealthy prisoners, however, were limited in comfort only by their purses.

“Political prisoners and wealthy felons were expected to pay exorbitantly for food, wine and fuel but enjoyed unlimited visits and other privileges. One of them married twice during his forty years awaiting trial and sired ten children.”

It took little time to realize the positive outlook desired by Howard was nowhere near the reality of Newgate. Because the prisoners were allowed to essentially manage themselves. they developed their own methods of provoking sympathy from visitors in the form of food, drink, and even money. The more enterprising developed methods to collaborate in court in pursuit of favorable verdicts and sentences: forgers drafted appeal notices and petitions for financial support from the Bank of England, and those in danger of transport conspired and refused the Royal Pardon that would send them to Australia.

Multiple reforms were attempted but met with little success. Acts in 1774, 1784, and 1791 established rules for cleanliness and adequate ventillation, classification of prisoners, and regular visitation and inspection of prisons, respectively. All were unenforced. Reformer Elizabeth Fry wrote in an 1813 letter:

“I have lately been twice to Newgate to see after the poor prisoners who had poor little infants without clothing, or with very little and I think if you saw how small a piece of bread they are each allowed a day you would be very sorry.”

But few were sorry. Few concerned themselves with what went on behind the monstrous walls. That is, until the public executions occurred. Those evoked a macabre interest in the public, and unfortunately, the end result for most housed in the Common area was rarely freedom; it was more often death, whether by disease or nubbing, from the nubbing cove manning the nubbing cheat.

An Execution Outside Newgate Prison, 19th century, by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1805-1810, via Museum of London.

An Execution Outside Newgate Prison, 19th century, by Thomas Rowlandson, ca. 1805-1810, via Museum of London.

Nubbing (verb)

Nubbing cheat: the gallows.
Nubbing cove: the hangman.


The Story of John Howard Prison Reformer yields bounteous information on prison conditions.
•The quote about political and wealthy prisoners was by Stanley Jackson in his book, The Old Bailey.
•Elizabeth Fry can be studied through her own words, in the Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry.
•Fascinating information on English prisons, and Newgate specifically for this post, can be found at London Lives.
•Slang definitions from 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.