As a child I used to play by Jarrow Slake, or ‘Jarra Slacks’ as we would say. It was near to Saint Pauls’ Church, Jarrow at mouth of the Tyne. It was there I heard stories of a man being hung. It was enough to terrify me, even though I knew nothing of the man that had apparently been hung.

I did not know William Jobling had been tried and hung in 1832 at Durham Assizes, for the murder of South Shields magistrate Nicholas Fairles. And that his body was then escorted by one hundred soldiers from Durham to Jarrow Slake where he was placed upon a gibbet twenty-one foot high.

Then in 1972 I became immersed in William Jobling when I researched the Jobling story for an exhibition ‘The Gibbetting of William Jobling’ at the Bede Gallery in Jarrow, held in October of that year, I wrote the chapbook ‘The Gibbeting of Wm. Jobling’ which accompanied the exhibition. Prior to that the doyen of north-east writing, Sid Chaplin, had written an article for the Jarrow Festival programme in 1971 which had prompted Vincent Rea, curator of the Bede Gallery, to organise the Jobling exhibition that went on to successfully tour the U.K.

I also discovered Professor Norman McCord of Newcastle University had written a paper in 1958 for the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society, entitled, ‘The Murder of Nicholas Fairles, Esq., J.P., at Jarrow Slake, on June, 11th 1832’. Professor McCord kindly sent me a copy in 1972. That said the Jobling story had remained largely untold, although does feature in Fynes and Richardson’s Local History Table Books.

Incidentally when carrying out the research I unearthed Jobling’s gibbet which was in the Newcastle Keep. It had been given to the Newcastle Society of Antiquities in 1856 when Tyne Dock was developed. The gibbet was a key piece in the Bede Gallery exhibition. The gibbet was a derrick which would have been used to discharge cargo from ships on the Tyne. It was extended to a height of twenty-one and was secured in a cement base. It can now be found in South Shields Museum.  

In 2010 Filmmaker Gary Wilkinson and myself produced a short film,’ The ‘Jarrow Voices’ looking at the Jarrow Crusade and Jobling at which features Saint Mary’s churchyard at Heworth in Gateshead. I find this particularly poignant and important as there is a memorial stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1812 Felling Colliery disaster. It underlines the conditions in collieries in the nineteenth century in the north-east.

Now when I pass Saint Mary’s churchyard at Heworth in Gateshead, and see the stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1812 Felling Colliery disaster when entire families from eight years of age. In that same cemetery lies the grave of Thomas Hepburn, who founded the Northern Union of Pitmen in 1831. His gravestone reads, “This stone was erected by the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends.” It’s the ‘other friends’ that has, for me, such power.

A cursory glance at colliery records reveals a frightening death toll. Jarrow’s Pit was no exception: January 25th. 1817, forty-two men and boys killed and in a near duplication of events in August 1830, a further forty-two lost their lives, leaving, on that occasion, twenty-one widows and sixty-six fatherless children.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, miners had voiced their dissatisfaction with working conditions and their annual bonds and in 1810 they eventually went on strike. Mineworkers had to sign an annual contract known as a ‘bond’, which meant they had to stay at a particular colliery for a year and a day. As most pitmen were illiterate, they would make their cross on the bond and the viewer or manager of the colliery would add the man’s name.

No permanent union organisation existed, however, until the establishment of the Northern Union of Pitmen of Tyne and Wear, led by Thomas Hepburn. He was a Wesleyan Methodist, as were many pitmen. He was also a lay preacher and learnt to read and write through classes organised by the Methodists.

In April, 1831, he led the pitmen on strike. He wanted boys to work only a twelve-hour day as they had been working sixteen hours. He also sought the abolition of the ‘Tommy Shop’ system. This was a system whereby pitmen were paid in ‘Tommy checks,’ vouchers that could only be used in company stores at prices greatly unfavourable to the pitmen.

This strike led to battles between pitmen and the militia. Hepburn, at his meetings, pleaded with his men to keep a peaceful strike. These meetings were held at Black Fell, Boldon Colliery and Friars Goose, Gateshead and on one occasion, twenty thousand pitmen met on Newcastle’s Town Moor.

The strike lasted until September 1831. Some concessions were gained: Hepburn was made a full-time official but there was still bitter opposition to the unions.

In April 1832 there was another strike among pitmen of Northumberland and Durham, when they refused to sign their annual bonds. Once again there was violence and Cuthbert Skipsey, a miners’ leader in North Shields was shot and killed by a constable. Cuthbert was Joseph Skipsey’s father. The judge recommended leniency and the constable was given a six-month sentence with hard labour.

On June 11th. 1832 at 5.00 p.m. Jarrow pitmen, Ralph Armstrong and William Jobling were drinking in Turners pub in South Shields. On the road near the toll-bar gate, near Jarrow slake Jobling begged from Nicholas Fairles, a seventy-one-year-old well-known local magistrate. He refused. Armstrong, who had followed Jobling, attacked Fairles with a stick and a stone. Both men ran away leaving Fairles’ seriously injured on the road. Two hours later Jobling was arrested on South Shields beach where horse racing was taking place. Armstrong, an ex-seaman, apparently returned to sea.

After his arrest Jobling was taken to Fairles home and was identified as having been present but that he had not been the main assailant. Jobling was taken to Durham Jail and when Fairles died of his injuries on June 21st, was charged with murder. Jobling was tried at Durham Assizes on Wednesday, August 1st. The jury took fifteen minutes in reaching their guilty verdict.

Judge Parke, in his summing-up attacked the unions, “Combinations which are alike injurious to the public interest and to the interests of those persons concerned in them…I trust that death will deter them following your example”. The sentence was that Jobling be publicly executed and his body be hung from a gibbet erected in Jarrow Slake, near the scene of the attack. The judge continued, “I trust that the sight of that will have some affect upon those, who are to a certain extent, your companions in guilt and your companions in these ‘illegal proceedings’, which have disgraced the county. May they take warning by your fate”. Jobling was the last man gibbeted in the North and the last man gibbeted had been some forty years previously.

Jobling was hanged on August 3rd. Hepburn asked his men not to attend the hanging and held a meeting on Boldon Fell. After Jobling was taken from the scaffold his clothes were removed and his body covered in pitch. He was then riveted into an iron cage, made of flat iron bars two and a half inches wide. His feet were placed in stirrups from which bars of iron went each side of his head and ended in a ring, which suspended his cage. Jobling’s hands hung by his sides, and his head was covered with a white cloth.

In a four-wheeled wagon, drawn by two horses, on Monday, August 6th, his body was taken to Jarrow Slake escorted by a troop of Hussars and two companies of Infantry. The gibbet was fixed upon a stone weighing one and half tons that was sunk into the Slake, and the heavy wooden uprights were reinforced with steel bars to prevent it being sawn through. At high tide the water covered four to five feet of the gibbet leaving a further sixteen to seventeen feet visible.

Isabella, Jobling’s wife, had a cottage near the Slake and would have been able to see her husband clearly for the three weeks he was displayed. On August 31st, when the guard was removed, Jobling’s friends stole the body. His whereabouts have never been discovered.

By September 1832, the strike had petered out and the union was almost non-existent and did revive but not for some years and the annual bonds were not abolished until some forty years later.

When the union died, Hepburn tried to sell tea from door-to-door, but anyone buying from him risked losing his job. Eventually, starving, Hepburn went to Felling Colliery and asked for work. He was offered employment provided he had no further dealings with the unions.

He conformed and devoted the remainder of his life to educating pitmen and became involved with the Chartist movement. In April 1891 Isabella Jobling went into South Shields Work House, and died there, too senile to recall her husband.  Jarrow’s colliery closed in 1852 and now there is no indication of where it stood, and a school stands near its former site. Much of Jarrow’s Slake has been reclaimed.

Attempts have also been made to discover Jobling’s body but to no avail. Jobling’s body was stolen by his friends, after three weeks, when the guards were removed. They risked seven years transportation in doing so.

I am not defending Jobling’s involvement in the killing of Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old man, he was, an accomplice to the murder, carried-out by Ralph Armstrong. Armstrong was never apprehended. It is what the authorities did with Jobling’s body and why which particularly interests me.

What effect did Jobling have? What power did the image of his cage swinging on Jarrow slake invoke? It is a powerful image. It underlined the ruthlessness of the government of the day. Were the pitmen of Tyne and Wear bowed by its power?  Perhaps the French Revolution was too near and it was felt that the working class should be treated harshly at any sign of insurrection.

I suggest Judge Parke, the judge at Jobling’s trial and Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne and company made Jobling a symbol, a battering ram, butting the pitmen of 1832 back to work to break the union and it had the desired effect.

What would have happened if the unions had become successful and a working-class revolt had become a reality? What if there had been a more cohesive and organised revolt on a national scale? What if Jobling and the Peterloo massacres of 1819 and other attempts at working class rebellion during this period had brought about change? Shelley, after the Peterloo massacre, asked that we use this bludgeoning as a means of change:

Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

About the Author

Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields.

His ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall.

His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.