A Miscarriage of Justice in York – A blog by Volunteer Steve Pickard
John Stevens & Thomas Lastley, 17 April 1790
(A Prank Gone Wrong)
A Miscarriage of Justice in York
John Wharton was a button maker in Sheffield. He had recently married and his young wife had asked him to buy a basket of food and told him not to come home late. He and four work colleagues, John Stevens, Thomas Lastley, John Booth and Michael Bingham, had gone to the White Hart Public House in Waingate, Sheffield for an after work drink. Wharton told his mates that he would have to leave soon and then went to relieve himself. While in the lavatory he left the basket of food stuffs outside. His mates as a prank decided to take the basket and go to another Public House, the Barret Inn, in Croft Lane hoping that Wharton would follow them. Once there they persuaded the landlady to cook a shoulder of mutton that was in the basket. They then proceeded to eat the money but laid money by to pay for it.
Wharton on leaving the lavatory discovered the basket missing and was obviously angry. He made his way home, but en-route met the local Constable Eyre and complained to him of the theft. Apparently Eyre assured Wharton that he would teach the men a lesson for taking the basket, and went to the Barrel to check that they were there. He heard the noise inside and went away, meaning to return later. When he did go back, all was quiet but there was Wharton’s basket in a cupboard. Constable Eyre, much to his discredit, knowing the seriousness of the resultant consequences, went to a magistrate to sort out an arrest warrant for the men.
It is unclear at this point what the real intentions of Eyre were. If it was a partly humorous move, to worry the men and have a laugh at their expense, then the obtaining of actual warrants does not fit with that. He must have known that such warrants could possibly lead to more than an appearance before a magistrate and a fine or a warning. Indeed the worst did happen: the four men were arrested. Stevens was taken to Sheffield Town Hall and put in a cell; the others were tracked down one by one, as word was circulated that they were being searched for by the law.
In front of the magistrates, evidence was taken about what the men had done and why. They all corroborated the tale that the affair was meant as a joke, but they were remanded in custody. At a second hearing, the contents of the basket were itemised: a shoulder of mutton, a pound of tobacco, half a stone of soap, £7 of butter, and 4d in cash. Technically, the ‘Joke’ was indeed a felony.
The local magistrate, Vicar Wilkinson, referred all four men to trial at York Assizes for highway robbery. The reasons for this wildly disproportionate reaction take us from a shopping list and the fug of ale and clay pipes in the White Hart to the other end of the class spectrum. Julie MacDonald (Circuit Court Judge) argues that “It can be no coincidence that [Wilkinson] took this decision on the same day as the Prince of Wales and his party, including the Duke of Norfolk, was expected to arrive at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of Earl Fitzwilliam” (p.222). The Earl paid close attention to events in the town and was concerned about the spread of radical ideas since Joseph Gales had started the radical Sheffield Register in 1787. (A newspaper which gave extensive coverage to local issues while reporting on major national stories). The Earl, through or with Wilkinson, might have encouraged Eyre to intimidate known radicals or ceratin groups in the town; the fact that he and Wharton would split a statutory £160 reward if all four were convicted – the ‘Soul Sinking Gold’ – would only have made the Constable all the more willing. The unfortunate four men were committed to York Castle Prison until their trial.
Mr Justice Buller at the York Assizes was, in many ways, at a distance from the local context. How could he possibly understand the male behaviour of such a prank among workmates? As for Wharton, he had taken offence and could see no fun in the business at all. The Jury found John Stevens, Thomas lastly and Michael Bingham guilty of the felony and they all sentenced to death. John Booth was discharged, as eye witnesses had sworn that he was merely a bystander.
In Sheffield a large crowd gathered at Lady’s Bridge and started shouting Wharton’s name and were ready for revenge. Both Wharton and his wife were forced to flee for their lives as their little shop was broken into and smashed. The premises were then set on fire. Wharton and his wife fled to Manchester and set up a new life there.
The question now was; would the men actually hang? Surely there would be a reprieve, it was thought. The course of action decided up on was the most extreme action possible: a petition to be presented to King George III. In four days, some representatives from the Sheffield Cutler’s Association took a coach to London with a petition in their hands. They did indeed obtain a reprieve. But the real drama was yet to come.
At that time the only route for all efficient travel north was by the Great North Road, and it had become flooded around Lincoln. A Royal Messenger was sent to York with notice of the reprieves, but he arrived too late to save Stevens and Lastley who were hung at the Tyburn on York’s Knavesmire. Fate smiled more kindly on Michael Bingham: his reprieve was not needed. For some reason, the judge had commuted his sentence to transportation for life to Australia.
The case became a local sensation, and one local poet, Joseph Mather, wrote these lines, which sum up the terrible miscarriage of justice:-
O, Wharton, thou villain so base!
Thy name must eternally rot;
Poor Steven’s and Lastley’s sad case
For ever thy conscience will blot.
Those victims thou wickedly sold,
And into eternity hurled,
For lucre of soul-sinking gold,
To set thee on foot in the world.
Thy house is a desolate place,
Reduced to a shell by the crowd;
Destruction pursues thee a pace,
While innocent blood cries aloud.
Poor Booth in fetters thou’st left,
Appointed for Botony Bay;
He is of all comforts bereft,
To die by a hair’s breadth each day.
Depend on’t thou never canst thrive,
Thy sin will ere long find thee out;
If not while thy body’s alive,
It will, after death, without doubt.
When Stevens and Lastley appears,
Requiring their blood at thy hands;
Tormenting a million years,
Can’t satisfy Justice’ demands.
Those death hunters, subtle and vile,
That prompt thee to this wicked work
(In order to share of the spoil
Thou got by the blood spilt at York),
Are equally guilty with thee,
And as a reward for your pains,
You ought to be hung on a tree,
And then be suspended in chains.
“Criminal Chronology of York Castle” published by C.L.Burdekin, No 2 Parliament Street, London, Simpkin, Marshall & Co, (1867) page 103-109.
“Hanged at York” by Stephen Wade, published by the History Press Ltd. 2008, page 33 – 35.