I’ve been meaning to write a post on this marvellous place for ages, but things like work, being a mum and the occasional bit of writing kept getting in the way. As part of my research into 18th century crime and punishment, I had the pleasure of visiting Nottingham’s Galleries of Justice Museum. I was in Nottingham on an interpreting course for my day job, but time being extremely limited, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and go along to the museum to find out what I could about the justice system three hundred years ago.
We were greeted by a lady dressed as a Victorian barrister, who first pointed out a gibbet hanging above our heads. I was hooked already; one of my leading gents in Five Guns Blazing was gibbeted and his body displayed just outside Port Royal in Jamaica. A gibbet was metal cage in which a body would be hung and left to rot, as a macabre warning to all against a life of villainy. In Nottinghamshire, one of the most famous cases was that of John Spencer. Spencer murdered an toll-bar keeper, William Yeadon and his elderly mother, but was seen by travellers as he tried to dispose of one of the bodies in the River Ryton. He was executed and his body hung on display from a beam at Gibbet Hill.
Standing underneath the gibbet, we could see that holes had been made in the foot of the cage. These, we were told, were to allow the fluids to seep out as the body liquefied. Yuk! Obviously extremely unpleasant for anyone unlucky enough to be walking underneath it!
Next were taken into the austere Criminal Court which countless villains were tried and sentenced to death. This was also the setting for grisly human dissections – definitely not for the faint hearted!
My favourite part of the whole tour though was the squalid 18th century gaol, which we were shown round by a fabulous actor dressed as an ex-convict turned gaoler.
“I’m going to whip you!” he told one of the women.
“I might like it!” she replied.
“You won’t!” he said drily.
Chilling stuff when you consider the care of women and juvenile prisoners would have been placed in the hands of such a man. Gaolers at that time would have demanded money and other favours from inmates in return for less fetid conditions or better food. He even shut our party into one of the tiny cells, and left us there just up until the point when I started wondering whether we’d all have to eat each other, and whether I’d be able to get a signal on my mobile phone! Thankfully we all lived to tell the tale!
The sight of the gallows too in the exercise yard also was very sobering indeed, considering that during the eighteenth century, one could be hanged simply for stealing food or pickpocketing. It was the poorest and most desperate people in our society for whom the death penalty posed the biggest threat. The so called ‘short drop’ used at the time resulted in death by strangulation, which was an extremely gruesome way to go, with relatives of the condemned person pulling on their legs in order to speed up the process. The ‘measured drop’ was introduced in Britain in 1872 as a more humane means of execution, based on a calculation between body weight and length of the rope. Executions were carried out in public until 1868 when a law was passed bringing them inside the confines of the gaol. This was deemed as a more humane practice and was better for public safety; executions had become almost carnival-like events by that time; pickpocketing was rife and there were instances of people being crushed to death in the crowds.
The final part of the museum was self-guided and dealt with the theme of transportation. Again, this was extremely useful to me as my main character was transported to Barbados at the age of eleven with her mother:
I can’t recommend this place highly enough for anyone interested in the history of the British penal system. The Galleries of Justice Museum is a fascinating place; it definitely helped me to picture conditions in the gaol, the courtroom and on board the King’s ship, Redemption whilst writing my novel. Historical fiction depends on attention to detail and plenty of visual colour. This visit certainly allowed me to research in a more holistic way, and hopefully helped me to create a more rounded story of an eighteenth-century petty criminal and her daughter:
We were taken down to one of the lower decks which was dark and airless. I stumbled and clung to the walls to find my way, sliding my feet along the planks. I heard my mother cry out as one of the other convicts bumped against her, with the galling of her chains. Then a single lamp was lit beside the door and through the gloom I saw a floating dungeon of only about fifteen feet long, with a ceiling so low that most of the men could not stand, but yet more people kept coming in, convicts chained together in gangs of six, until there must have been at least eighty of us crammed into the hold.
I had thought that the first night must surely be the worst, when the lamp was extinguished and the rats came scurrying amongst us in the pitch black where we lay, when the darkness was pierced by the shrieking of women against the vile assaults taking place below deck. Then there was the bestial grunting of men as they stifled their screams, the filling of the necessary pots whose stench became sickening and foul. But as we sailed through Dartford and Gravesend then finally through the mouth of the river, along the coastline to Portsmouth and into the wide open sea, the waves grew high and tempestuous and the wind began to howl. There were rolls of thunder, forks of lightning way out on the horizon which lit up the hold through holes in the rotten timber.
Redemption was tossed around like a matchbox on the crashing Atlantic waves as the storm lashed against the ship, lifting its bow from the raging ocean while the captain fought to bring her under control. We slid from one end of the hold to the other. My mother’s skin where her collar chafed against her neck became bright and horrible in shades of purple and crimson and black as it peeled back and rubbed away, but while others screamed now at every movement of the ship, my mother stared icily into the gloom, as if she was no longer there at all. It was only then, as I imagined land fading into the distance, and the vast expanse of sea that it hit me: my old life was gone forever. (Five Guns Blazing – Emma Rose Millar and Kevin Allen).
Five Guns Blazing is now available on Amazon. For further information, please visit my author page.