Victorian Justice


In July 1878 a poorly educated master cobbler, William Marwood, closed his shop (which still exists) in Church Lane, Horncastle, in the county of Lincolnshire and packing a small bag and saying goodbye to his wife Ellen left his home nearby at 149 Foundry Street, to keep an appointment in Durham. Although it was unusual for a poor artisan to undertake such journeys in those days, Ellen was used to such occasions which he undertook on a regular basis. William had an appointment with Robert Vest a cook on the sailing ship William Leckie in Durham for he was the Crown Executioner.

The 26 of June 1878 was one of the hottest days of the year and the Port of Sunderland lay idle as the ships awaited a breeze to fill their sails. The crew of the sailing ship William Leckie lay exhausted in the heat awaiting a wind that would drive their ship to Montivideo in South America.

When ship’s Master, Captain Lumley Fletcher, who had been on shore on business returned to the ship he was dismayed at the conditions he found on the deck. The ships new cook, a stocky man with a badly scarred face whose duty it was to feed the 20 crew, was slumped on the deck waving his arms and mumbling incoherently. The captain, a strict disciplinarian, assuming Vest was drunk told him he would not allow drunkenness on his ship and that he should pack his kit and leave. As his torrent lessened the ship’s Pilot John Wallace a 62 year old well respected man, jokingly shouted to the crew,” Lay aft boys and put him in Irons” and as the Captain and Pilot left, Robert Vest stumbled to his galley.

By evening the temperature was still over 90 degrees and as the pilot passed the galley Robert’s mind snapped, he grabbed a 10 inch knife and ran after the pilot slashing his throat and stabbing him in the stomach. As the pilot tried desperately to remove the knife he screamed “Boys I’ve been stabbed”. In an attempt to save him the captain ordered a crew member to fetch rum and bandages but within seconds the pilot was dead.

As the crew covered him with the ships ensign the captain ran up a distress signal for assistance to which Inspector James Larkin of the River Police in Low Row responded an hour later.

As the crew apprehended Robert Vest who put up no resistance, he became more incoherent and mumbling but in a statement later, the apprentice Thomas Talbot who had been charged with guarding him, said, he mumbled “I hope the poor man’s soul is in heaven” and that he explained for a long period he had suffered horror dreams of hanging and murder.

Two days later, the jury, after visiting the home of the victim John Wallace in Peel Street and seeing his body, retired to Salem House in Salem Street, Hendon, the home of Mr Hugh McAllister to hold an inquest and on the 12 of July Robert Vest was taken to Durham Assizes where he pleaded not guilty to murder, as his wife and five daughters, who had travelled from their home in Seaham looked on from the public gallery.

Reports in the local press said Robert Vest had five terrible scars on his forehead and a deep depression on the side of his head none of which he could account for but only that they gave him constant pain.

However in his defence a relative cast light upon the scars and gave evidence that Robert had received them in the army.

At the age of 17 years he had joined the 16th Regiment of Infantry and was later in the Horse Artillery serving in India where he had suffered badly from sunstroke.

In 1854 whilst serving in the Crimea serving a gun, he had been severely injured when a shell exploded near him and during an attack he had been stabbed in the forehead with a bayonet. This was confirmed in a letter sent to the court from the War Office.

In his defence his brother said, prior to his army service Robert had been a steady young man and told of the agony and depression he had suffered since his return from the war.

Dr Mathew Francis gave evidence as to the extent in which Roberts injuries had affected his sanity and that the injuries from which he had suffered from for 24 years were severe enough to cause loss of sanity in the hot conditions that had been experienced on the fateful day, the temperature having been in the nineties.

The prosecution however disputed this and said it was due to alcohol despite the fact no one had observed him drinking and that all the bottles were still sealed.


On Friday 12 July 1878 the jury found Robert guilty but recommended mercy and the hope that he would be sent to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane but their hopes were misplaced.

Donning his black cap, Judge Justice Baggley told Robert “The law imposes upon me the duty of passing sentence of death upon every person convicted before me of the crime of wilful murder. The jury have recommended a strong recommendation for mercy. It will be my duty to forward the recommendation to the appropriate authority where it will receive its fullest consideration. However I implore you not to rely on that recommendation to mercy leading to your sentence being commuted but to endeavour from this moment to make your peace with God. It remains with me only to pass the sentence on you in the terms of law and that is, you shall be taken to the place from whence you came and from thence to a place of execution and shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And your body shall then be buried in the prison in which you shall be last confined after this your conviction. And may the Lord have mercy on your Soul”


Such was public feeling that a petition was raised and names collected from as far dispersed as Sunderland, Seaham, Durham and Chester le Street in an attempt to have his sentence commuted and money was collected for his wife and daughters who, lived in Seaham who were to be left destitute.

The Grim Walls of Durham Prison where

Robert Vest spent his last days


Dr Smith of Sedgefield and The Reverend Blunt of Chester le Street mounted a campaign for an in depth inquiry as to his mental condition but to no avail.

The newspapers gave detailed descriptions on the 30 of July 1878, how Robert not having slept the night before and with tears running down his cheeks walked to meet his fate.

As the hangman went to tie his arms and legs together he begged him to be allowed to shake the hand of everyone present. He turned to the Chaplain as the hood was placed over his head and said. “I’ll pray for you in Heaven”.The trapdoor opened and William Marwood kept his appointment with Robert. He collected his £10 fee and set off to return to his cobblers shop in Hornchurch, travelling to 177 such appointments throughout the country in his nine years in the post. 

Colin Clifford

November 2010

Robert Vest had arrived in Seaham sometime after 1871 (probably from Spennymoor) and at the time of the murder lived in Gunn’s Buildings, by 1881, his wife lived at 32 William Street with her three daughters Martha 17, Isabella 14 and Margaret 10.   DA

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