Murder in Fengate

On Monday 8th May 2023 Warboys Local History Society were entertained by Stuart Orme talking about “Crime and Punishment in Peterborough”. He began with what is the oldest victim of violence in the UK. Excavations at Fengate in 1975 revealed a family burial dated to around 4000BC. The male had a flint arrow head embedded in his chest and the remainder of the family, a female and two children had been ceremonially tossed into the grave. Clearly murder
most foul.

In later years the Abbey controlled everything including law and order within the soke of Peterborough (as far as Stamford). The Abbott’s jail was in the building to the right of the archway to the Cathedral with the King’s lodging above. Upstairs was the debtor’s prison (a debt of 20 shillings was all that was needed). The goaler was paid but pocketed the money and then charged for food.

In 1381 the Peasants Revolt happened not only in Essex and London with Wat Tyler, but was especially violent in Peterborough on 17th June when the tax collectors (monks) and the Bishop’s men were attacked. A bloodbath ensued. Some took shelter in the chapel (where Starbucks is now) and the remaining peasants were chased away.

A prisoner Robert Wass (a burglar who stole 20 guineas from Mrs Plum) escaped from the prison in 1815. He dug under the bed but was discovered and was chained up. Later he escaped using a crowbar to dislodge a stone in the wall through which a tall and very thin Robert had squeezed. Later he was discovered in Wisbech dressed as a woman trying to find a boat to escape.

The beadles were part of the mayor’s office and arranged the parish rates which were for the poor. The money was distributed by the beadles to the poor in the workhouse. The conditions in Peterborough were among the worst and a journalist came from London to report. This journalist wrote a series of articles about the workhouse in a place he called Mudflat about 70 miles north of London and close to the North Road – clearly Peterborough. The series were later turned into a book by the same journalist – Charles Dickens, as Oliver Twist.

In the sixteenth century Peterborough was regarded as a bad place and Henry VIII gave the magistrates the power to dispense capital punishment. This power was kept to 1971. Capital punishment was given for items in the Bloody Code. Apart from treason the many crimes included wearing a disguise, being out at night with a dirty face, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, mutiny, murder and arson. Execution was by hanging in a public place. The event was witnessed by a great crowd and souvenirs sold including portions of the rope used –money for old rope.

Victorian prisons (Peterborough’s was modelled on Pentonville) were places of silence, and exercise was done with masks and chains to keep distance.

Lastly Stuart told of ‘claypipe’ Alice Mackenzie who was born in Peterborough and moved to London and became the last victim of Jack the Ripper.

The talk was illustrated by photos of the various buildings mentioned. Peterborough has much history to offer and this talk just scratched the surface.

Brian Lake

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