Sheffield’s Horrible History

Clara Morgan, Curator of Social History, on Weston Park’s most macabre exhibit

One of the most popular, and most gruesome, objects on show at Weston Park is the metal shackles and belt thought to be part of Spence Broughton’s gibbet chains. The story of Broughton’s robbery of the Sheffield to Rotherham post and the severe punishment he received for his crimes is fascinating:

On 4 February 1791, the Sheffield Register reported:
‘On Saturday night last the post-boy going between this place and Rotherham, was stopped within one mile of the town by a footpad, and robbed of the mail-bag containing the letters for that place and neighbourhood. The villain was dressed in flannel and had a white cap upon his head. He dragged the boy from off his horse, tied his hands and feet, and bound his eyes with a handkerchief’.

Robbing mail coaches was a serious crime, as the postal service was the main means of communication across the country. As well as letters, the post also delivered money and ‘Bills of Exchange’ which were used to transfer large amounts of money by businesses and individuals.

Later that year, a man named John Oxley was caught after robbing the Cambridge mail. He admitted to two more robberies – the Sheffield and Rotherham Mail and the Aylesbury Mail – and implicated Spence Broughton and Thomas Shaw in the crimes. All three were arrested.

gibbet chainsIn court in London, Shaw gave evidence against his accomplices and played down his own role in the robberies in order to escape conviction. Oxley also avoided prosecution, escaping from prison before the trial. This left Broughton to stand trial alone, charged with robbery of the Sheffield and Rotherham mail.

The trial took place at York Castle in March 1792, with Thomas Shaw as a witness for the prosecution. Broughton was found guilty of Highway Robbery, sentenced to death, and executed in April of the same year. However, as an example to others, the court also ordered that ‘thereafter the Execution of Spence Broughton, his Body be hung in chains, on a Gibbet to be erected on some conspicuous spot on Attercliffe Common, in the County of York, on the South of the Road leading from Sheffield to Rotherham, not less than Three Hundred Yards from the Road’.

The display of Broughton’s body drew great public interest, with over 40,000 people said to have seen his corpse in the first few days of its arrival at Attercliffe Common. The gibbet was made up of a cage on a high scaffold, with Broughton’s body strapped in and left to decompose. The gibbet was to remain on show for 36 years, becoming a macabre local landmark.

In 1827 the gibbet was taken down, and Broughton’s remains were buried in a churchyard in Darnall. However, Spence Broughton is still remembered in Sheffield today. The Noose and Gibbet pub on Broughton Lane, Attercliffe takes its name from the events.

Images © Museums Sheffield.

Oct 03 2011

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