On this day in history : 5th May 1760 – The public hanging at Tyburn, London, by the new ‘drop’ method, of Earl Ferrers….who is executed for the murder of his servant…. He is the last Peer to be hanged….

4th Earl Ferrers – Public domain

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers was born on the 18th of August 1720 into a family of long-established nobility…. At the age of 20 he left his Oxford education to live a life of debauchery in Paris….

When 25 he inherited his title from an insane uncle along with estates in Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire…. He returned to England to take up residence at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire….

He married Mary in 1752….it was to be far from a happy marriage. Although he could be reasonably normal when sober he was a heavy drinker and became violent…. He was also a womaniser and had a long-term mistress, Margaret Clifford, with whom he had 4 illegitimate daughters…. This relationship continued after he was married….

In 1758 Mary had endured enough and obtained a separation by Act of Parliament on the grounds of his cruelty…. She must have had a strong case as this was almost unheard of at the time…. As part of the separation agreement Mary was granted a proportion of the rents from the Estate….An old family steward, John Johnson, was appointed to collect the rents on her behalf…. Not surprisingly Ferrers dislike Johnson and hated the fact that he had authority over the Estate….

It is thought the tipping point came when Johnson paid Mary £50 without Ferrers’s consent….he asked to see Johnson at the Hall….Prior to the appointed meeting time on the 18th of January 1760 Ferrers sent Margaret and their daughters (who had moved in after Mary left) out, along with all the male servants of the household…. When Johnson arrived he was shown to the study where Ferrers awaited him…. Before long an argument broke out over the £50 and at around 3pm Ferrers shot the steward…. Johnson did not die immediately and a doctor was sent for and he was treated at the Hall…. Also sent for was Sarah, Johnson’s daughter….

Lord Laurence Earl Ferrers shooting his steward, Mr Johnson. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

Ferrers had been sober at the time of the shooting but afterwards turned to the bottle. As the day wore into evening he continued to shout and rant at Johnson, before finally falling into a drunken stupor…. Dr. Kirkland and Sarah were then able to take Johnson back to his own home, where he died the next morning….

Ferrers was arrested; being a Peer he could not be dealt with at the Leicester Assizes and so was taken to the Tower of London to await trial….

On the 16th of April 1760 Ferrers was brought before Lord High Steward, Lord Henley at Westminster Hall; the trial lasted two days…. Ferrers ran his own defence, as was normal practice in those days, he tried to plead insanity…. Witnesses for the prosecution included Dr. Kirkland, Sarah Johnson and three female servants who had been at the Hall at the time…. Ferrers seemed incapable of understanding that it was not acceptable, even for a man of his position, to shoot a servant….

On being found guilty there was only one sentence applicable in accordance with the Murder Act 1752 – death by hanging…. A date was set for the 5th of May…. Ferrers was utterly appalled by the thought of public hanging at Tyburn – this was the death of a common criminal…. He pleaded with the King to be beheaded instead – the death of a nobleman…. But the sentence was upheld….

Ferrers was held at the Tower of London whilst awaiting execution….and would have been treated well and enjoyed relative luxury…. He wrote his Will, leaving £16,000 to his daughters and £200 to Sarah Johnson….

New gallows were constructed; instead of the barbaric cart, ladder and three-cornered gibbet – known as the ‘Tyburn Tree’ – a scaffold, covered with black material and reached by stairs, was built…. On the platform was a box, designed to sink into the structure, leaving the condemned suspended….

The ‘Tyburn Tree’ – Public domain

At 9am, on the morning of the 5th of May, the call was sent to the Tower for Ferrers to be brought to his place of execution…. An enormous crowd had gathered….the execution of a nobleman was a rarity…. Ferrers arrived in a carriage drawn by six horses….he wore his wedding suit of light coloured satin embroidered with silver thread…. He was accompanied by the Tower’s chaplain – also in the procession was a mourning coach carrying six of his friends and a hearse….

He was led to the scaffold and up the steps….the Lord’s Prayer was said and he mounted the drop…. His arms were tied with a black silk sash and the rope placed around his neck…. A white nightcap, which he had supplied himself, was pulled down over his head…. Around noon, having declined to give the signal himself, the Sheriff gave the command and the platform sank…. The mechanism didn’t quite work correctly – Ferrers’s feet were almost touching the platform; he was left writhing and took about 4 minutes to die….

His body was left for an hour, as was the custom before being taken down and put into the coffin…. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection – and then his body was put on display until the evening of the 8th of May…. His remains were then returned to his family for burial at St. Pancras Church – and in 1782 he was reinterred at the family vault in Staunton Harold….

The body of Earl Ferrers, displayed upright in his coffin. Credit: Wellcome Collection CC BY

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