Why is the robbery of the Sheffield and Rotherham mail over 200 years ago still of interest and significance today?
Rob Hindle’s beautifully presented pamphlet from Sheffield’s own Longbarrow Press narrates fragments of the life and death of Spence Broughton, whose body was gibbeted on Attercliffe Common in 1792 and hung there for 35 years. Broughton’s story is vaguely familiar to many from the area, not least because it was immortalised in the name of a particularly scenic stretch of the Ring Road and on the panelled exterior of the city’s most gruesomely kitsch pub, The Noose & Gibbet, which has a plastic Broughton festooned in a grubby England flag swinging outside…
The sequence opens with the voice of authority, Mr Justice Buller, decreeing that Broughton’s ‘body should be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either’. The following page is a Post Office notice offering ‘a Reward of ONE HUNDRED POUNDS’ for the capture of John Oxley, Broughton’s accomplice. What follows is Hindle’s multi-voiced imagining of Broughton’s story followed by a sequence of Illustrations, short poems that elaborate on the themes of Broughton’s tragic life and set them in the social and historical contexts of the period.
Hindle’s lines are clean and controlled, narrating each episode with an understated sense of unfolding drama. The simple seven-liner that introduces the first and central poetic voice closes with the image of the gibbet, ‘the forged outline of a man’. The second uses rhythm brilliantly to convey Broughton’s agonising final moments. The first quatrain is brutally monosyllabic other than eyes that ‘ogle’, whose strangled feminine ending conveys expiring life. In the second stanza the creaking rope and desperate, dying beats of Broughton’s heart are evoked by the simple description of his head and hands in the last moments before his final, convulsive crisis, when ‘the bones of his feet / make the dance of the Tarantella’.
This second poem also introduces another voice, Broughton’s own, which appears in darker, marginal font and functions as a way of complicating the narrative by offering different and at times dissenting perspectives. This technique enables Hindle to present sympathetically Broughton’s descent into a life of ‘dissolution’ and his powerless perplexity at the cruel indifference of the law towards the poor.
Woven into the narrative is a reference to Broughton’s contemporary Joseph Mather (who I’ve written about before and will be returning to this year…), whose ‘Spence Broughton’s Lament’ was composed in response to the letter Broughton sent to his wife asking forgiveness. Mather hawked his songs at mass public events and it’s likely this one was composed in a rush to be sung and sold to the huge crowds – reportedly 40,000 people (more than the entire population of Sheffield at the time, suggesting both exaggeration and attendance from across the whole region) – that gathered for Broughton’s gibbeting. In Hindle’s ‘A Lads’ Wager’, written in excellent dialect (have ‘nayo’ and ‘ayjers’ appeared anywhere else?) a mischievous ‘Mathers’ feeds a bowl of ‘curdlin’ broth to the rotted corpse. Also included is a poem about the potters who snapped off one of Broughton’s fingers with a stone and worked it into the handle of a cup.
Broughton’s own voice becomes more prominent as the sequence progresses, taking a whole poem of its own to deliver his account of the robbery and quote at length from the victim’s testimony. The Illustrations section expands Hindle’s attempt to give voice to the marginalised: ‘A Great Battle at Waterloo’ is voiced by a soldier ‘sick of wars, sick to death of generals and officers’. They movingly expand upon the themes of poverty, injustice and the brutality of an arrogant British elite, conjuring historical events from a refreshingly bottom-up perspective. It is this retracing of well-trodden paths through modern history in the shoes of the 99% that makes Broughton’s tragic life seem so close and familiar to the contemporary reader.
You can buy Rob Hindle’s The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman here for a fiver.