Henry Smith, Esq. was appointed Coroner for South Staffordshire in 1800.  Over the next half-century, the coroner presided at thousands of Inquests into the deaths of local people who departed this life in strange or controversial circumstances.  In the coroner’s first recorded case, in May 1800, will you agree with the jury’s verdict? You must examine the evidence and then decide for yourself in this first installment of the “Black Country Coroner’s Casebook”.

Revolution in the Air

A bread riot in the 1790s.

In 1800, Great Britain was at war with France and fears that their revolution might cross the Channel terrified the English establishment.  The year saw two attempts to murder King George III, as well as serious food riots by starving agricultural labourers in south-west England.  In Dudley, on Monday 28 April, a large crowd of angry “colliers and nailors” assembled before heading off towards Tipton. 

Their aim was to “bring out” the miners in that district.  As many of “the mob were armed with bludgeons” and led by a man “bearing aloft a large ragged club” , their activities were closely monitored by the part-time soldiers of the Dudley Loyal Association.  Before the introduction of the civilian police force the army and part-time units of volunteers were often used to carry out ‘policing’ duties.  After remonstrations by Magistrates Rev. Cartwright and J. Amphlett, Esq. the crowd dispersed.  However, an hour later they reassembled and the “Dudley mob” marched off to Brierley Hill.

The Canal Blockade

The modern phrase arises from the act of Parliament in 1714, which was literally read to rioters.

At Brierley Hill, the crowd took control of two canal boats at a place then called “the Nine Locks”, now known as Delph Locks.  These boats were owned by Messrs. Underhill & Co. and laden with wheat and barley headed for Birmingham.  The ring-leaders announced to the cheering crowd that they were going to sell the barges’ contents “at a reduced price”.

At that precise moment twenty men of the Dudley Loyal Cavalry arrived with a Magistrate who read the Riot Act – requiring the streets to be cleared within the hour.  Instead, the troops were “immediately attacked by the mob, from a large brick-kiln” and bombarded with bricks and stones and savaged by ferocious bull-dogs. 

The position had been carefully chosen by the ring-leaders because the ground was too uneven for the cavalry to deploy.  In the melee the commanding officer and many of his men were “severely hurt” and the soldiers felt “compelled to fire in their defence.”  They were probably armed with flint-lock carbines – muskets that were very inaccurate due to their short barrel length of only twenty inches.  Shots were discharged – seriously wounding several people including one who was “particularly active” and later died from his injuries.  Order was only restored when men of the Inniskillen Regiment of Dragoons arrived.  They dispersed the mob, ended “the tumult” and released the trapped barges; enabling them to pass through the locks and proceed towards Birmingham. 

However, the Black Country emergency was not over. 

The Penn Riot

The following day riots broke out in Sedgley, Penn “and Horton, in the neighbourhood of Wolverhampton.”  This time the mob attacked and plundered the properties of Mr Toy at Lodge Farm, Mr Shepherd at Muchall and Mrs Pursehouse at Penn.  When the Rev. Mr Haden received this news he leapt on his horse and went off in search of the rioters at the head of the Inniskillen Dragoons and Volunteer Cavalry.  The troops arrived in Penn soon after twelve o’clock and managed to capture about fifty of the rioters as they fled from the scene. 

Meanwhile, members of another mob in Tipton had fixed a rope around the local miller’s neck and were “on the point of hanging him” . Fortunately, more Inniskillen Dragoons and men of the Bilston Association arrived to save him, in the nick of time.  A further forty-six arrests were made and all the rioters were sent to the house of correction in Wolverhampton.  Here they “underwent an examination before the Magistrates” Mr Haden and Sir John Wrottesley at the Swan Inn.  A hard-core of twenty prisoners refused the option of enlisting in the Army and were committed to the Stafford county gaol. Calm was finally restored to the Wolverhampton area by the end of the week. The twenty captives were conveyed to Stafford in waggons guarded by an armed escort of Dragoons.

An Unexpected Ringleader

Three months later those arraigned for “rioting and robbery at Penn” stood trial in Stafford at the August Assizes.  Several were acquitted, but ten were imprisoned for a term of one month and soundly whipped.  However, the ring-leader of the “rioting at Lane End,” Penn, received a death sentence – her name was Emma Vernon. 

It is unclear whether she was actually hanged, but newspapers do point out that her punishment was:

“a very serious lesson to such women as are generally foremost in aiding these desperate attacks on property and personal security.”

What About our Coroner?

So, what of the 22 year old Coroner, Henry Smith Esq.? His first recorded case was the death of the un-named victim of a soldier’s gun-shot at Brierley Hill.  Here, the “body of the deceased” was examined by Smith and “a most respectable Jury”.  Taking into account evidence that the dead man had been directly involved in “feloniously seizing the boats” and the “unprovoked attack upon the Cavalry, after the Riot Act had been read,” the jury’s verdict was a unanimous: “Justifiable Homicide.”  Furthermore, Coroner Smith and the jury congratulated the troops and “declared the country was much indebted to them for their exertions.” 

Verdict: “Justifiable homicide”

So, do you agree?

Sources used:

  • The Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 May and 23 August 1800
  • The Reading Mercury, 12 May 1800
  • The Chester Chronicle, 29 August 1800
  • The Leeds Intelligencer, 8 September 1800

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