Updated: Feb 9
Writer and regular contributor Tom Kelly shares his experiences researching the dark tale of William Jobling, a Jarrow pitman who was one of the last people to be gibbeted in England. His story caused shockwaves in the region, and, as Tom eloquently states, continues to pose questions.
As a bairn I would play at ‘Jarra Slacks,’ mud flats, near Saint Pauls’ Church at the mouth of the river Don. It was there I first heard stories of a man being hung and covered in pitch. That terrified me and filled many a nightmare. I see myself playing among the wooden crucifix-like remains of the walkways where timber was seasoned. Big lads are jumping from timber to timber and each time they land water runs right up to their faces. The water is too deep for me. I don’t jump. I can’t swim. And I’m dead scared. It’s getting dark and I want to go home. My mother will come looking for me and I’ll be embarrassed if she turns up shouting.
I start to edge away when one of the big lads’ shouts, ‘Ye not going home?’ I shook my head meekly as I put my shoes round my neck by tying the laces together. My socks were sticking out of my shoes like an inquisitive crumpled mouse. I began to wade towards the timbers where the big lads were. The water’s tar black and scuttled rat-like into my underpants. The lads started to laugh at me. I did not want to go any further but decided going back was not an option. The water was up to my waist. As I looked at the lads standing on the timbers I walked quicker: it was now or never. The next moment sees me fighting for breath and breathing in black sludge. One of the lads, grabbed my hair, dragging me to the bank. I threw up black vomit. He pulled up great clumps of grass to wipe my face and legs. The others did not seem to notice. I was pitch black and when I eventually got home my mother screamed and put me in the tin bath nowhere near the fire, without heating up the water. That must have been part of the punishment; Jobling’s treatment was harsher.
It was in 1972, when I became immersed in William Jobling researching for the exhibition, The Gibbetting of Wm. Jobling at the Bede Gallery, Jarrow which was held in October that year. I wrote the chapbook which accompanied the exhibition. Prior to that the doyen of north-east writing, Sid Chaplin, had written an article for the Jarrow Festival programme in 1971 prompting Vincent Rea, curator of the Bede Gallery, to organise the Jobling exhibition which went on to successfully tour the U.K. That was all later.
I began to dream about Jobling, Hepburn the Pitman’s leader and Jobling’s wife Isabella, who lived in a cottage overlooking the Slake and near where I fell as a child. Researching Jobling took over me beginning with the book by Ellen Wilkinson, The Town That was Murdered, published in 1939 and revered in Jarrow. I discovered Professor Norman McCord of Newcastle University had written a paper in 1958 for the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society, entitled, The Murder of Nicholas Fairles, Esq., J.P., at Jarrow Slake, on June, 11, 1832. Professor McCord kindly sent me a copy.
That said the Jobling story had remained largely untold, although it features in Richard Fynes and A.M. Richardson’s ‘The Local Historian’s Table Books.’ I went on to unearth Jobling’s gibbet which was in Newcastle Keep. It had been given to the Newcastle Society of Antiquities in 1856 when Tyne Dock was developed. The gibbet was a key piece in the Bede Gallery exhibition. The gibbet was a derrick, which would have been used to discharge cargo from ships on the Tyne. It originally extended to a height of twenty-one feet and was secured in a cement base in the Slaaks. We had the top eight feet, which can now be found in South Shields Museum. I helped to steer the gibbet out of the Keep as it raced down its stone steps. Our van dragged at the road leaving sparks flying: it was heavy.
Driving through Gateshead, on the way to the Bede Gallery, we passed Saint Mary’s churchyard at Heworth where you will find a stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1812 Felling Colliery disaster, including entire families from eight years of age. In that same cemetery lies the grave of Thomas Hepburn, who founded the Northern Union of Pitmen. His gravestone reads, ‘This stone was erected by the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends.’ It’s the ‘other friends’ that has, for me, such power.
A cursory glance at colliery records reveals a frightening death toll. Jarrow’s Pit was no exception: January 25th. 1817, forty-two men and boys were killed and in a near duplication of events in August 1830, a further forty-two lost their lives, leaving, on that occasion, twenty-one widows and sixty-six fatherless children.
From the beginning of the nineteenth century, miners had voiced their dissatisfaction with working conditions and their annual bonds and in 1810 they eventually went on strike. Mineworkers had to sign an annual contract known as a ‘bond’, which meant they were contracted to stay at a particular colliery for a year and a day. As most pitmen were illiterate, they would make their cross on the bond and the viewer or manager of the colliery would add the man’s name.
The Northern Union of Pitmen of Tyne and Wear, led by Thomas Hepburn was established 1830. He was a Wesleyan Methodist, as were many pitmen and lay preacher and learnt to read and write through classes organised by the Methodists.
In April, 1831, he led the pitmen on strike. He wanted boys to work only a twelve-hour day as they had been working sixteen hours. He also sought the abolition of the ‘Tommy Shop’ system. This was a system whereby pitmen were paid in ‘Tommy checks,' vouchers, which could only be used in company stores at prices greatly unfavourable to them.
The strike led to battles between pitmen and the militia. Hepburn, at his meetings, pleaded with his men to keep a peaceful strike. Meetings were held at Black Fell, Boldon Colliery and Friars Goose, Gateshead and on one occasion, twenty thousand pitmen met on Newcastle's Town Moor. The strike lasted until September 1831. Some concessions were gained: Hepburn was made a full-time official but there was still bitter opposition to the union. In April 1832 there was another strike among pitmen when they refused to sign their annual bonds which led to violence and Cuthbert Skipsey, a miners’ leader from North Shields was shot and killed by a ‘special constable.’ Incidentally Cuthbert was the poet Joseph Skipsey’s father. The judge recommended leniency and the constable was given a six-month sentence with hard labour. ‘Special constables’ were essentially strike-breakers.
On June 11th. 1832 at 5.00 p.m. Jarrow pitmen, Ralph Armstrong and William Jobling were drinking in Turner’s pub in South Shields, on the road, near the toll-bar gate, close to Jarrow Slake. Jobling begged from Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old well-known local magistrate. He refused. Armstrong, who had followed Jobling, attacked Fairles with a stick and a stone. Both men ran away leaving Fairles seriously injured on the road. Two hours later Jobling was arrested on South Shields beach where horse racing was taking place. Armstrong, an ex-seaman, apparently returned to sea and conjecture.
After his arrest Jobling was taken to Fairles' home and identified as having been present but had not been the main assailant. Jobling was taken to Durham Jail and when Fairles died of his injuries on June 21st, he was charged with murder. Jobling was tried at Durham Assizes on Wednesday, August 1st. The jury took fifteen minutes in reaching their guilty verdict.
Judge Parke, in his summing-up attacked the unions, ‘Combinations which are alike injurious to the public interest and to the interests of those persons concerned in them...I trust that death will deter them following your example’. The sentence was that Jobling be publicly executed and his body be hung from a gibbet erected in Jarrow Slake, near the scene of the attack. The judge continued, ‘I trust that the sight of that will have some affect 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’. Jobling was the last man gibbeted in the North.
Jobling was hung on August 3rd. Hepburn asked his men not to attend the hanging to avoid clashes with the militia and held a meeting on Boldon Fell. After Jobling was taken from the scaffold, his clothes were removed and body covered in pitch. He was then riveted into an iron cage, made of flat iron bars two and a half inches wide. His feet were placed in stirrups from which bars of iron went each side of his head and ended in a ring, which suspended his cage. Jobling’s hands hung by his sides, and his head was covered with a white cloth.
In a four-wheeled wagon, drawn by two horses, on Monday, August 6th, he was taken to Jarrow Slake escorted by a troop of Hussars and two companies of Infantry. The gibbet was fixed upon a stone weighing one and half tons and sunk into the Slake, the heavy wooden uprights were reinforced with steel bars to prevent it being sawn through. At high tide the water covered four to five feet of the gibbet leaving a further sixteen to seventeen feet visible. Isabella, Jobling’s wife, had a cottage near the Slake and would have been able to see her husband clearly for the three weeks he was displayed. On August 31st, when the guard was removed, Jobling’s friends, risking seven years transportation, stole the body. Attempts have been made to discover Jobling’s body but to no avail.
By September 1832, the strike had petered out, the union was almost non-existent not reviving for a number of years. The annual bonds were not abolished until some forty years later. When the union died, Hepburn tried to sell tea from door-to-door, but anyone buying from him risked losing their job.
Eventually, starving, Hepburn went to Felling Colliery and asked for work. He was offered employment provided he had no further dealings with the union. He conformed and devoted the remainder of his life to educating pitmen and became involved with the Chartist movement. In April 1891 Isabella Jobling went into South Shields Work House, and died there, too senile to recall her husband. Jarrow’s colliery closed in 1852 and now there is no indication of where it stood, a school can be found near its former site. Much of Jarrow’s Slake has been reclaimed.
I am not defending Jobling’s involvement in the killing of Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old man, he was an accomplice to the murder, carried out by Ralph Armstrong. Armstrong was never apprehended. It is what the authorities did with Jobling’s body and why which particularly hurts me.
What effect did Jobling have? What power did the cage swinging on Jarrow slake evoke? It is a powerful image that was with me as a child over a hundred and twenty years later. It underlined the ruthlessness of the government of the day. Were the pitmen of Tyne and Wear bowed by its power? Perhaps the French Revolution was too near and it was felt the working class should be treated harshly at any sign of insurrection. I suggest Judge Parke, the judge at Jobling’s trial and the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne made Jobling a symbol, a battering ram, butting the pitmen of 1832 back to work to break the union. It had the desired effect.
What would have happened if the unions had become successful and a working-class revolt had become a reality? And if there had been a more cohesive and organised revolt on a national scale? If Jobling, the Peterloo massacre of 1819 and other attempts at working class rebellion, during this period, had brought about change?
Shelley, after the Peterloo massacre, asked we use this bludgeoning as a means of change:
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few.
Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields. His ninth poetry collection 'This Small Patch' has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall. His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.