Earl Ferrers


Lawrence Shirley, the 4th Earl Ferrers, was born on the 18th of August 1720 and has the dubious distinction of becoming the last peer of the realm to be hanged as a common criminal. (note his Christian name is also given as Laurence)

He inherited the title in 1745, at the age of 25, and with it the family estates in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. The main residence was at Staunton Harold Hall about two miles from Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire.

From 1743, he had been having a relationship with Margaret Clifford with whom he had 4 illegitimate daughters between 1744 and 1749. Like most people in his position he needed at least one male heir to inherit the title and the estates, so in 1752, he married Mary, the 16 year old sister of Sir William Meredith of Henbury in Cheshire.  It was not a happy marriage, Mary living in fear of the Earl’s constant drunken rages and violent outbursts and also his womanising (it seems that the relationship with Margaret Clifford continued during the marriage and she went to live with him after the dissolution of it).  In the end, things got so bad that Mary obtained a separation from him by an Act of Parliament in 1758.  This was a most unusual step for that time and she would have had to show very strong grounds to obtain the separation.  As part of the separation arrangements, it was agreed that Mary should receive an income from the rents from some of the properties on the estate.  As a result, control of the estate was vested in trustees, one of whom was an old family steward, John Johnson, who reluctantly became the receiver of these rents. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Johnson was disliked by Ferrers, particularly after he had found out that Johnson had paid his wife £50 without his approval and presumably also because he hated the fact Johnson had power over the estate.  It has also been suggested that the Earl suspected that John Johnson and Mary were having an affair.  Mary later re-married - to Lord Frederick Campbell, dying in a fire at her house in 1807.
Five days before the murder, on Sunday, the 13th of January1760, Ferrers paid a visit to Johnson and invited him to visit the Hall on Friday, the 18th.  Before John Johnson arrived, Ferrers sent away his mistress, Margaret Clifford, the children and the male servants.  When Johnson arrived at the Hall, he was shown into the Earl’s study and a discussion of business matters took place. A heated argument soon erupted and around 3 in the afternoon Ferrers shot Johnson.  He was not fatally injured by the bullet and was given some treatment at the Hall for his wound and put to bed there.  Dr. Kirkland from Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Johnson’s daughter, Sarah, were also sent for.  The Earl continued to abuse and threaten Johnson through the evening before finally falling into a drunken stupor, thus allowing Dr. Kirkland to remove him back to his own house where he died the following morning.  Ferrers had apparently told Sarah Johnson that he would take care of her family should her father die, on condition that they did not bring a prosecution against him.

Arrest and trial.

It was Dr. Kirkland, assisted by a number local men, notably a collier named Curtis, who disarmed and arrested the Earl the following day.  The inquest on Mr. Johnson brought in a verdict of death by wilful murder and so Ferrers was remanded to Leicester prison. As a peer, he could not be tried at the Leicester Assizes so he was transferred to the Tower of London and committed to the custody of Black Rod on the 14th of February to await trial. 

The trial opened at Westminster Hall on the 16th of April 1760 before the Lord High Steward, Lord Henley and was to last 2 days. The Attorney General, Sir Charles Pratt, and the Solicitor General, Sir Charles Yorke, led for the prosecution.  They brought as witnesses, Dr Kirkland, Sarah Johnson and the 3 women servants who were present at the Hall at the time of the murder.

Ferrers conducted his own defence, as all defendants had to in those days. He had been dissuaded by his family from trying to claim that the shooting of John Johnson was justified.  He, therefore, attempted a defence of insanity, a condition for which he was able to offer considerable evidence - just about everyone who knew him thought he was mad.  He later maintained however, that he had only done this at the insistence of his family, and that he had himself always been ashamed of such a defence. It is easy to understand why the family were so concerned at the prospect of the damage to their reputation and the shame of having a prominent member of it hanged as a felon.
One witness, Peter Williams, gave an account of what happened when the Earl came to collect a mare that he had left in the care of the Williams family. Ferrers was unhappy with the way that the horse had been cared for and hit Mrs. Williams and seriously injured Peter Williams with a sword. The Solicitor General pointed out that this was no proof of insanity or eccentric behaviour. He went so far as to say that if a man couldn't take such action against a negligent servant, then everyone present would be in the dock!  This gives you an idea of the way the nobility of the time saw life - they were above the law, Ferrers clearly thought he was.  He did not really seem capable of understanding that it was wrong for a man in his position to shoot Mr. Johnson.

At the end of the trial, his fellow peers decided that Ferrers was legally sane. Although he had presented a strong defence in an articulate manner, it was difficult to see that there was any other verdict open to them.  They had each, individually, to find him guilty of murder, which they did and therefore there could only be one sentence - hanging by the neck until dead followed by dissection, to be carried out on Monday, the  21st of April in pursuance with the conditions of the Murder Act 1752. This Act specified that execution was to take place within two days of sentence unless that would fall on a Sunday.  In view of the importance of the prisoner and to allow time for suitable arrangements to be made, the hanging was stayed until Monday, the 5th of May.  The thought of a public hanging at Tyburn appalled Ferrers - it was the death of a common criminal and he petitioned the king to be allowed to be beheaded instead - the death of a nobleman.  Beheading was not a legally available punishment for murder, only for treason committed by a peer.  Thus, the sentence had to stand and he remained in the
Round Tower awaiting the trip to Tyburn. 
It is said that on the night he was sentenced to death he played picquet with the warders.  He led a very good life style in the Tower - effectively if you could afford it you could get whatever you wanted in prison at that time. The only privilege he was not permitted was visits from Margaret Clifford.  He made his will, leaving £16,000 to his 4 daughters by Margaret, and £200 to Sarah Johnson.  The king, George II, duly signed the Writ of Execution on the 2nd of May.


The hanging of a nobleman was a major public spectacle as well as a wholly unusual event.  A special new gallows was constructed at Tyburn for the occasion.  It comprised of a scaffold covered in black baize reached by a short flight of stairs. Two uprights rose from the scaffold, topped with a cross beam.  Directly under the beam there was a small box like structure, some 3 feet square and 18 inches high, which was designed to sink down into the scaffold and thus leave the criminal suspended.  There were even black cushions for the Earl and the chaplain to kneel on to pray before the hanging.  Every seat in Mother Proctor’s Pews was taken and there was a huge crowd around the gallows, held back by the customary Javelin men.
Click here for a picture of the scene.

For the hanging, Ferrers wore his wedding suit, a light coloured satin one embroidered with silver, saying “he thought this at least as good an occasion for putting them on as that for which they were first made”. As we have seen before, it was considered important to look one’s best at one’s execution.

At nine o'clock on the Monday morning, Ferrers’ body was demanded of the keeper of the Tower, by the sheriffs of London and Middlesex.  It had been agreed that Ferrers could make the trip to Tyburn in his own landau drawn by six horses. He was accompanied in this carriage by Mr Humphries, the Chaplain of the Tower and Mr Vaillant the sheriff.  Ferrers said he "was much obliged to him, and took it kindly that he accompanied him."

The procession to Tyburn was led by a troop of cavalry, with Ferrer’s landau behind them, guarded on both sides, followed by the carriage of Mr Errington, the other sheriff, a mourning-coach-and-six, containing some of his lordship's friends, a hearse for the conveyance of his body to Surgeons' Hall after execution, and another contingent of soldiers.  Huge numbers of people had turned out to watch the spectacle and it took 2-3/4 hours to complete the journey to Tyburn.  Ferrers remarked that he thought “so large a mob had collected because the people had never seen a lord hanged before.”  (The last execution of a lord was that of Simon Lord Lovatt who was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason on April 9th 1747)

Mr Humphries, the chaplain, told Ferrers "that some prayer should be offered on the scaffold, and asked his leave to repeat at least the Lord's Prayer;" to which Ferrers replied, "I always thought it a good prayer, you may use it if you please."

When they finally got to Tyburn, Ferrers told Mr. Humphries "I perceive we are almost arrived; it is time to do what little more I have to do." He gave Sheriff Vaillant his watch, and presented 5 guineas to the chaplain. He had also brought the same sum to give to the hangman, Thomas Turlis, however, he handed it to the wrong man, and there was nearly a fight between Turlis and his assistant. 

Ferrers and Mr. Humphries then kneeled together on the two black cushions and said the Lord’s prayer. Ferrers concluded by saying  “Lord have mercy upon me, and forgive me my errors."  He then mounted the “drop” where his arms were tied with a black silk sash, and the rope placed around his neck. He final words were to ask Turlis: "Am I right?" A white nightcap which Ferrers had brought with him, was pulled down over his head.  He had declined to give the signal to the hangman himself so this was done by the sheriff.  So some time around noon, the platform sank down leaving the Earl suspended.  The mechanism had not functioned properly and Ferrers’ feet were still virtually in contact with the platform.  He writhed slightly for a short period before becoming still.  Horace Walpole reported that it took 4 minutes for him to die.  The body was left to hang for the customary hour before being taken down and placed in the coffin for transport to Surgeon’s Hall and dissection.  A woodcut was made of the body in its coffin. Click here for a picture of his body in it.  After being dissected and the body put on display until the evening of Thursday, the 8th of May, when it was returned to his family for burial in St. Pancras church. Twenty two years later, the body was taken back to Staunton Harold to be re-interred in the family vault. 

It has been said that Earl Ferrers was hanged with a silken rope, but this is a myth.




It was generally accepted that there was mental instability in Lawrence Ferrers, but it was greatly exacerbated by his extremely heavy drinking.  He could behave quite normally when sober but was totally out of control when drunk.  (Compare this behaviour with that of some youths on Friday and Saturday nights nowadays, the peak nights for woundings and killings.)
It would seem that Ferrers’ drinking was also the principal cause of the breakdown of his marriage.

There was clear evidence of premeditation and planning in the murder and of normal “sane” behaviour before and after it.  He had invited Mr. Johnson to the Hall and sent out his mistress and children and his man servants - perhaps because they may have tried to stop him.


There is also his supreme arrogance, probably resulting from his position and the power it gave him as a feudal employer and landowner.  It seems hard to understand today, but Peers really still did think they were above the law in the mid 18th century.  Physically and verbally abusing servants was deemed perfectly normal and acceptable.  (See the Solicitor General’s comments in court above).  Tennants fared little better as they had no security of tenure.


It was expected of nobleman that he would know “how to die” and how to put on a good show for the public and in this Earl Ferrers did not disappoint.  Nor did the Sheriffs of London, as they had to obtain funding for and have designed and built the new gallows and arrange for the cavalry etc. to provide what was perceived by many at the time as a great day out.  Compare the treatment of Ferrers with that of the common felons who was hanged at Tyburn.

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