The First Leeds Assizes 1864

6th August 1864 was a symbolic day for Leeds and its increasingly confident Corporation.

Six years after the opening of the new imposing Town Hall with a purpose-built court, the High Sherriff and Under Sherriff (Mr.C. Trench Gascoigne and Mr William Grey) and two assize judges (Sir Colin Blackburn and Sir Henry Singer Keating) were at last coming to town.

Leeds Museums hold two bill posters recording these events.The first (above) is a bill announcing the programme of the Leeds Assizes. A woodcut shows the High Sherriff in his carriage, accompanied by two policemen in top hats. The judges were to arrive at Wellington Station and would stay at the Queen’s Hotel. From there a grand procession was organised to the Town Hall where the High Sherriff and judges would be welcomed by the mayor, Obadiah Nussey.

The bill optimistically states that “It is confidently expected that the populace will observe their customary decorum and assist the police in preserving order”.  As well as conducting their judicial business, the visitors were to be lavishly entertained with a mayoral dinner and a Soirée Musicale.

The same welcome was not of course given to the accused whose crimes were to be judged. The main novelty here was that the cases were being judged in Leeds, rather than Leeds felons having to trek 30 miles to York to face trial. However, most of those on the list were still travelling quite a distance for the privilege of being tried, whether from Bradford, Sheffield or Rotherham.

Out of the 67 cases listed, only six were from the Leeds area. These included:

  • William Newton Ackroyd (forgery)
  • Edward Ackroyd (misdemeanour – 4 cases)
  • William Thompson (burglary), John Lofthouse, Edward Buckley, Samuel Buckley and William Sykes (assault and robbery)
  • Patrick Nalls (assault and robbery)
  • The sad case of Mary Ann Winterbottom accused of attempting to murder her child.

Aside from the usual cases of murder, assault and robbery, there are a number of crimes which shine a light on Yorkshire society in 1864. There are rural crimes such as arson of a haystack or sheep stealing and industrial crimes including “damaging warps” in Batley (i.e. sabotaging a textile loom) and “stealing German silver and brass casting models” in Sheffield. A number of people are accused of “uttering base coin” which meant knowingly using forged coins. Someone else was accused of “stealing a post letter” and another of “attempting to upset a train at Whixley”.

Trial & Sentence of Death: James Sargisson and Joseph Myers

The two criminals who made the headlines, however, were James Sargisson and Joseph Myers.  So much so that they feature in a second bill in the museum collection, this time headed “Leeds Assizes – Trial & Sentence of Death on James Sargisson for the murder of John Cooper near Rotherham; also on Joseph Myers for the murder of his wife at Sheffield, June 10th 1864”.

Although both men were sentenced to death for murder, the document clearly shows more sympathy for Joseph Myers.  Sargisson’s crime involved murder as part of a cold-blooded robbery and he had attempted to lay the blame on his accomplice.

Joseph Myers was a tragic case of domestic violence fuelled by drink.  His wife had just managed to get him released for a previous incidence of assault against her and it was argued that he was a “good-natured fellow when he was sober, but that wasn’t very often”.  He murdered her in a frenzied attack with a pair of broken scissors, and then tried to cut his own throat in remorse (or to cheat the gallows depending on which version you read).

The bill includes the words to a ballad which has the refrain “Christians all, far and near, For Joseph Myers pray shed a tear” and exhorts readers to “Always live a sober life, and walk in virtues way” to avoid the same fate. The ballad was set to music by folk singer Jon Rennard (died 1971) and a recording can be heard on YouTube.

The other first (and last) for Leeds was the public hanging of Sargisson and Myers outside Armley Gaol on 9th September 1864. The executions did not go as planned with Sargisson taking several minutes to die and Myer’s self-inflicted throat wound re-opening to gory effect.  No further public executions took place in Leeds and the next hanging at Armley Gaol was not until 1875, eleven years later.

The last execution at Armley was in 1961 and the Death Penalty was abolished in the UK in 1965.

Both bill posters will be on display at Abbey House Museum as part of the Crime and Punishment exhibition from January 23rd to the end of December 2016.

By Social History Curator Kitty Ross

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