History: A harangued hangman and racing rivals - glimpse Havering’s past

19:00 16 February 2014


Foxton's stagcoach raced to get away from the hecklers


Time is a curious concept. It’s been called nature’s way of ensuring that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Foxton at one of his most famous executionsFoxton at one of his most famous executions

It’s strange that other people once lived in our streets and suburbs, leaving no echo of their voices.

Sometimes we can get a glimpse of events long ago.

Two cameos of the A12 in Colchester Road and Harold Hill linger vividly across the centuries.

Stagecoaches rattled along the lonely Brentwood to Romford road. There was no Harold Hill, Harold Wood or Gidea Park in 1823.

Prof Ged MartinProf Ged Martin

A Suffolk man was due to be hanged at Ipswich one August day for the crime of arson and the authorities sent an expert to carry out the execution.

John Foxton was the hangman at London’s Newgate Prison.

In 11 years, he swung 206 men and six women to their deaths.

Foxton supplied his own rope, pulley, manacles and blindfold. Ipswich provided the gibbet.

But when he arrived, Foxton found that the prisoner had been reprieved. There would be no fee for the official strangler.

Waiting to travel back to London, he got drunk and loudly cursed his bad luck.

People boarding the luxury Telegraph stagecoach objected.

Foxton as a fellow passenger was bad enough, but the grisly “implements of death” in his luggage were revolting.

So Foxton took second best – an outside seat on the mail coach, which departed later.

However, the mail coach was faster. It overtook the Telegraph between Brentwood and Romford.

Passengers perched on the roof of the Telegraph spotted the befuddled hangman as the mail coach caught up.

They jeered and, insultingly, lashed walking sticks together, jamming them in the luggage to make a mock gallows.

The Telegraph’s passengers also abused the driver and guard of the mail coach, who could only escape the curses “by extraordinary speed”.

I cherish image of two coaches, racing past Harold Hill and through Gidea Park, with gesticulating passengers and their ersatz gallows.

My second glimpse is a nicer tale.

On a February day in 1834, two Romford gentlemen staged a horse race through Harold Hill.

William Henry Tolbutt owned a South Street mansion. Young Mr Tyler challenged him to a steeplechase - a gallop through fields and over hedges, with no marked-out racecourse.

Spectators had “an excellent view” of the route from the high ground around the starting point, Foxborough Wood, a mile north-west of modern Harold Hill, near the bend in Broxhill Road.

The winning post was “the 14th mile stone”, a well-known distance marker from London, on Colchester Road behind today’s Sackville Crescent, Harold Wood.

By strange coincidence, the two men must have raced along the line of Harold Hill’s Edenhall Road and Chatteris Avenue.

No doubt there were more onlookers clapping the winner, Tolbutt, at the A12.

Everybody adjourned to a slap-up meal in Romford, where the “utmost hilarity” prevailed until late at night.

The jeering passengers on the Colchester Road stagecoach and the cheering spectators of the Harold Hill horse race have vanished into the mists of Time.

But are they still there - somewhere? Will we one day be able to press a rewind button and hear their catcalls and their laughter?

Probably not! But it’s an intriguing thought.


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