The Hanging of Joseph Varnham

September the 19th 1802 was a special day for William and Hannah Varnham as they celebrated the christening of their first-born child, Joseph, at St Mary's Church Coleorton. On that day they could have had no inkling of the dreadful fate that would one day await their son, nor that of his brother John, christened four years later. The fate of the two brothers, however, would be inextricably linked.

In time Joseph followed his father’s profession as a travelling potter, a career that gave him ample opportunity to travel around the country without arising suspicion. Meanwhile his brother John became a groom and in consequence an expert in the handling of horses. Their seemingly innocent occupations however provided a cover for the much more lucrative activity of horse stealing, culminating in their arrest and trial at Leicester Assizes before Lord Chief Justice Sir W. B. Best, on the 3rd April 1829.

Joseph was charged with stealing a dun gelding, the property of Thomas Green in the parish of Telsworth in Oxfordshire. The two brothers Joseph and John with an accomplice "John Smith" sold the horse to William Kirby of Coleorton for nine pounds, but it was recognised by its owner and repossessed at the Rose & Crown Inn, Coleorton (now known as The George). Both John and Joseph were found guilty as charged. The judge was in no mood to show mercy, as "horse stealing had become so prevalent in the country that an example must be made". Both brothers received the most extreme penalty of the law, Death by Hanging.

Joseph was committed to the New Leicester County Gaol (built the previous year) together with fellow horse thieves Henry Hinton and Charles Forrester and their execution set for the 20th April. In an attempt to avoid their fate the three men attempted an unsuccessful escape, in consequence of which they were shackled in irons and placed on bread and water.

The day of their execution must have been a fine one, it was a holiday, Easter Monday, and a crowd estimated at 20,000 was assembled, it was comprised equally of men and women with many children to witness the event. At 11 o'clock the men now unshackled, were led to the gallows a contemporary report of the execution appears in the Leicester Chronicle of 25th April 1829.

The executioner then having suspended the unhappy men to the fateful beam, Hinton turned towards his companions, and they took leave of each other. Hinton then closing his eyes, awaited his fate with great firmness and composure, not once opening them, nor appearing to betray the least agitation of mind or body. The conduct of Varnam and Forrester, although not indecorous, was more indifferent, particularly that of Varnam, who looked about him, instead of directing his attention to a higher object. The executioner having pulled the caps over the culprits’ faces, retired to complete his duty, when a short but painful suspense took place, owing to some difficulty in removing the bolt which causes the platform on which they stood to fall. At length, it gave way, and they were launched in to eternity. Hinton, with the exception of the motion given to his body on first falling, did not move for several minutes, when he slightly lifted up his legs. Varnam who was a short but strong muscular man, appeared very much convulsed for about five minutes, as did Forrester, whose feet shook for a considerable time after the motion in other parts of his frame had ceased. The bodies having hung the usual time, were cut down and placed in shells brought to the scaffold for that purpose. Varnam's was removed by his friends to Coleorton.

Joseph Varnham was buried at St Georges, cemetery Swannington. But, what of Joseph's brother John? His fate was a happier one. In return for providing information on horse stealing gangs around the country, which resulted in the apprehension of five other thieves his sentence was commuted to transportation for life. In May of that year John was transferred to the prison hulks at Gosport, and embarked on the ship "The Thames" on 27th July 1829 bound for Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) arriving on the 21st November that year. The manifest lists him as 20 years old, but this is not consistent with his baptism in 1806! In the first years he would have been employed on public works as a prisoner, but on the 22nd of May 1839 he was granted a "ticket of leave" and was considered sufficiently reformed to be employed as a constable. This confidence appears to have been misplaced, since in 1840 he was dismissed his post, deprived of his ticket of leave, and ordered back to roadwork for wrongful confinement of a woman for drunkenness when she was in fact sober!

John went on to marry Elizabeth Vickers (or Vernon) at Launceston, Tasmania on 14th of November 1842, but the marriage was short lived, his wife dying on 29th June 1846. He went on to marry Harriet Madine (or Nadine) on 28th of December 1847 by whom he had one son, William. John Varnham died on 2nd of August 1884 at Beaconsfield, Tasmania of "stricture".

Sources and Acknowledgments:

  1. Samuel T. Stewart's online book, Death by Public Hanging of a Local Man for Horse Stealing,
  2. Various contemporary newspaper reports appearing in The Leicester Chronicle and The Leicester Herald
  3. Convict Records of Australia

Compiled by: Terry Ward, member of the Coleorton Heritage Group