Sarah Lloyd was a
young maid servant in the household of Mrs. Sarah Syer in
the night of
Sarah was the chief and only real suspect, particularly as she had gone missing and she and Joseph were quickly arrested and taken before a magistrate. Both were committed for trial and sent to Bury St. Edmunds gaol. There were two Assizes a year in Suffolk at this time (Lent and Summer) and therefore prisoners spent a considerable time on remand, over five months in this case.
eventually came to trial at the Suffolk Lent Assizes which opened at Bury St.
At the end of the Assize all the convicted prisoners were sentenced together and six men and two women, including Sarah, were condemned to death. The other woman and five of the men were subsequently reprieved. Sarah was returned to Bury Gaol where she was visited on several occasions by a radical local magistrate called Capel Llofft, who had watched her trial and by a small number of other local people of high standing in the community. He got up a petition for a reprieve which was signed by many locally who sympathised with her plight and sent it to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland. Llofft pleaded on her behalf that the extenuating circumstances of her age and immaturity should have been taken into account at her trial. Her age was given as 22 to the court but was not quite 19 according to Llofft. He thus contended that her death sentence was excessive. Whilst over 200 years later it is easy to agree with him, it should be remembered that it was the mandatory sentence for the crime, although there was the possibility of commutation to transportation. It is probable that the judge also took into account the aggravating circumstances of the arson, which could easily have killed Mrs. Syer had it not been quickly spotted, in his decision not to recommend a reprieve.
Although we may see the theft alone as relatively minor, Sarah’s crimes were viewed very differently at the time as is shown by this extract from The Times of the 11th of April : "The circumstances attending the case of Sarah Lloyd are perhaps unequalled for the atrocious intentions of the perpetrator, who was a servant to a very respectable lady, residing at Hadleigh, named Syer. On the 3rd of October last she set her mistress's house on fire in four different places, and robbed her of some considerable property. Her intention was the destruction of her protectress, for, to prevent the escape of her mistress, the principal combustibles were placed under a staircase which led to her mistress's bedroom, and, but for the timely assistance of the neighbourhood, she would have perished in the fire."
Capel Llofft wrote on Sarah’s behalf to various publications rebutting what he saw as obvious hostility towards her in the press, including a letter to The Monthly Magazine in which he set out the details of her crimes and the fact that she was acquitted or not tried on all but the least serious count. However all this was to no avail and Sarah’s execution date was set for Wednesday the 9th of April, but on the 8th John Orridge, the keeper of Bury Gaol received a reprieve for one "S. Hop". He had no prisoner by this name and thus decided to postpone Sarah's execution until he received clarification from the Duke of Portland. This duly arrived by messenger, the letter also saying that "the great object of punishment is example". A new execution date was therefore fixed for Wednesday the 23rd of April.
Capel Llofft went to Bury St. Edmunds Gaol on the
morning of execution and Sarah told him that she had managed to eventually get
off to sleep the night
before and that then she had woken and got dressed. John Orridge had allowed her to say her
goodbyes to the other prisoners before she was prepared for execution. The morning of the 23rd was a typical April
day, both windy and rainy. Llofft had brought an umbrella which Sarah managed
to hold over herself, as the cart conveyed her to the gallows set up on Tay
Fen, about a mile’s journey from the Gaol on the other side of town. Llofft accompanied her on the journey. The procession was led by the Under Sheriff
of Suffolk on horseback and a small number of Javelin men to prevent any rescue
attempt. It is probable that the hangman sat in the cart with Sarah.
According to Llofft the hangman was also affected by Sarah’s brave demeanor and appeared nervous as he went about the preparations for her death. It is reported that Sarah pulled back her hair for him as he put the noose around her neck, although it is unclear whether she did this at the gallows or at the Gaol before he pinioned her.
When the procession reached Tay Fen Llofft got up into the cart and stood beside her, launching a tirade to the large number of spectators against her punishment and the intransigence of the Duke of Portland that lasted a full five minutes. Sarah stood calmly beside him until he had finished and then as was common at the time she was allowed to give the signal to the hangman to proceed. She was now “turned off” and after she had been hanging for a minute, both hands were twice raised slowly and evenly toward her throat. These movements were interpreted by Llofft as signifying “content and resignation“. No convulsive struggles accompanied her death and she died quite easily for the time. After she was taken down Llofft paid the hangman for her body so that he could give her a proper burial that evening at St. Mary’s Church. A thousand people attended her funeral and Llofft told them that Sarah’s mother had tried to hang herself when she had been told that there would be no reprieve. Two months later a tombstone was erected over Sarah’s grave and this can still be seen today. It is engraved as with the following words “She suffered a just but ignominious death for admitting her abandoned seducer into the dwelling house of her mistress and becoming the instrument in his hands of the crime of robbery and house burning.”
Lofft was summarily dismissed as a magistrate for his activism in trying to save Sarah and for his impassioned attack on the Home Secretary at the execution.
Sarah clearly impressed Capel Lloft, John Orridge the jailer and perhaps even the hangman with her femininity and bravery and it was easy to sympathize with her. However the outcome of her actions could have been very different if the Mrs. Syer had died in the fire, which is why The Times and other newspapers took the view that they did.
Sarah Lloyd was one of seven women hanged in
1800, six in