The following quote is taken from The Autobiography of a Stage-Coachman, by Thomas Cross, published in three volumes by Hurst and Blackett in 1861. The author describes a journey by stagecoach in the year 1806:
I have been on many roads in almost every part of England, and in none have I ever witnessed finer scenery than the ride from London to Portsmouth afforded. To be seen to perfection, it must be on a fine day from the top of a stage-coach. Haldown on the road from Exeter to Plymouth may rival it in extent, and Moranscourt Hill on that to Hastings in richness and splendour, but neither of those lengthened rides can come up to it in that diversified and real picturesque beauty, to which my pen must fail to do justice. The vehicle I mounted was not of the most elegant build, and was certainly capable of those great improvements that were so freely bestowed on such carriages before they were quite sent off the road ; neither was the pace anything like what was afterwards reached thirteen or fourteen hours accomplishing the seventy-two miles, subsequently done in seven or eight; still it was considered a great accommodation and a good equipment in those days. The coachman, by whose side I sat, had particular charge concerning me, and was pleased to point out the objects most worthy of notice.
Crossing the Common, where was exposed to view on a gibbet the remains of a celebrated highwayman, called Jerry Abbershaw, at whose dangling chains and half-decayed bones in our holiday walks I had cast many a stone, we ascended Kingston-hill, leaving Coombe Wood, the seat of Lord Hawkesbury, afterwards the Earl of Liverpool, on the left, and Richmond Park on the right, from whence you have a wide extent of prospect the Thames winding its majestic course to the great metropolis from the foot of an eminence, where stands the lofty towers of Windsor Castle, (the residence of our sovereigns for centuries), first washing with its yet unpolluted waters the villas of Pope and Horace Walpole.
Abbershaw was a notorious highwayman who was sentenced to death at the age of 22, for killing a constable who was sent to arrest him, and attempting to shoot another. The memory of Abbershaw was cemented in the minds of the public even more firmly due to the coolness with which he met his fate. When the judge put on his black cap to deliver sentence, Abbershaw donned his own hat at the same moment and looked the judge in the eye with contempt. He laughed and chatted with members of the public on his way to the gallows.
The Common that Cross refers to is Putney, where Abbershaw’s body was displayed after he was hanged on Kennington Common in 1795. It is interesting that the sight of a corpse on display in a public park is really only a passing comment in the narrative, a fond childhood memory in fact. But executions were not especially uncommon at the time, with around 7000 carried out between 1770 and 1830. Public executions continued until 1868, after which they were carried out inside prisons.
We will return to Thomas Cross’s autobiography in a future post. The second part of my detailed essay on Ballard’s England in 1815 will follow within the next few days.