Friday 17 August 2012

burning children in Devon

We went to East Portlemouth to look at St Winwaloe's rood screen, painted with what Nikolaus Pevsner drily describes as 'rather dumpy little figures of saints'. There was Winwaloe, holding a little abbey; and St Sebastian, with his tell-tale arrows sticking out of him; and some other folk of a saintly disposition. The screen cheered up an otherwise quite austere church; it's hard to get much ornamentation in the carving of granite.

A church guide leaflet by the font talked darkly of witchcraft, so we went hunting for the grave of Richard Jarvis. 

We found it.

The gravestone is in the top picture. The inscription reads

Body of Richard Jarvis
of Rickham in this parish
Who departed this life
the 25th day of May
1782 Aged 77

Through Poison strong he was cut off
And brought to Death at last
It was by his Apprentice Girl
On whom there's sentence past
O may all People warning take
For she was Burned to a Stake

 Home again, I looked for the story of the unnamed 'apprentice girl'. She was Rebecca Downing, apparently either an orphan or a foundling, who, having been "committed to the lukewarm tenderness of a parish nurse", and then employed as a servant to a local farmer, Richard Jarvis, "who commonly employed her in the fields to pick weeds and stones, attend cattle, and such-like occupations", ...reacted to her "state of bondage" by murdering the seventy-year-old farmer with arsenic which he used to wash diseased horses, putting it "in the tea-kettle with the water to be boiled for his and his grand-daughter's breakfast". Her guilt became evident when she refused to drink the potion herself. After her conviction, she showed herself "incapable of fixing a meaning to the words" of the Lord's prayer. She had heard of God but not of a Saviour, "and had never been told anything about a soul".  ..."Sometimes a tear would fall, but on the whole she seemed more stupified than grieved by her situation. She suffered in her 16th year".[1]

 Her execution is described in Trewman's Flying Post:

July 31st, Amongst the persons capitally convicted at the Assizes was Rebecca DOWNING, sentenced to be burnt alive for the murder of Richard JARVIS. "Rebecca DOWNING was on Monday last, pursuant to her sentence drawn on a sledge to the place of execution [at Ringwell], attended by an amazing concourse of people, where, after being strangled, her body was burnt to ashes. While under sentence and at the place of execution she appeared totally ignorant of her situation and insensible to every kind of admonition

A broadside ballad circulated at the execution concludes

"When to the fatal stake I come
And dissipate in flame.
Let all be warn'd by my sad doom.
To shun my sin and shame.
May I thus expiate my crime.
And whilst I undergo.
The fiery trial here on earth.
Escape the flames below.

 ...though this, of course, gives no voice to Rebecca, who is silenced and stifled by the law and by history. Burning was the punishment for 'petty treason' -the murder of a husband or master, people set above the offender by god. I was surprised that people should still be burned alive at this late date; more so that it was a punishment reserved solely for women (men were 'only' hanged); it seems that they were usually strangled before being committed to the flames, though it could not be certain that they were either already dead or insensible when burned, as was the case with Catherine Hayes, who...

 was burned alive in 1726. Her son, Billings, who had assisted her in the murder of her husband, was hung. "An iron chain was put round her body, with which she was fixed to a stake near the gallows." On these occasions, when women were hanged for petty treason, it was customary to strangle them, by means of a rope passed round the neck, and pulled by the executioner, so that they were dead before the flames reached the body. But this woman was literally burnt alive: for the executioner letting go the rope sooner than usual, in consequence of the flames reaching his hands, the fire burnt fiercely round her, and the spectators beheld her pushing away the faggots, while she rent the air with her cries and lamentations. Other faggots were instantly thrown on her; but she survived amidst the flames for a considerable time, and her body was not reduced perfectly to ashes in less than three hours.--"Chronicles of Crime, or the New Newgate Calendar." G. C. Pelham, June 1840.

[1] From the Christie's website describing The Life, Character, Confession, and dying Behaviour of Rebecca Downing, burnt at Heavitree, Monday, July 29th 1782, for poisoning her master, Richard Jarvis, Exeter: Elizabeth Brice, [1782].


  1. Blimey. Thank you for finding out about things like this for us all.

  2. "God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate". I had no idea that going against this was thought to be "minor treason", though. How very convenient for Church and State.

    I'm thinking of the modern equivalents...

  3. I was very keen to get to the computer and find the full story, Delia! ...or at least, more of the story.

    I find that I should have said "petty treason", Chris; so I have amended the text.

  4. What a terribly sad and hateful story. Poor poor Rebecca.

  5. What a convenient god for some...

  6. I love researching on the computer and you certainly had a juicy subject.

    There is an old prison in a village near to us where villagers were sent for minor crimes (nagging at husbands for example). Men were to be detained for 3 days maximum. No time limit for women.

  7. I am going to have nightmares now but am glad to see you included the bit about garrotting prior to burning. It was only when a friend told me that Hollywood liked to forego this bit in the name of drama I realised it was common practise for a victim to be dead (or almost) first. I would like to say this is what happens when an institution like the church becomes too powerful but it only goes to show what we humans are capable of.

    Let us hope we never return to these desperate and hard times.

    Right, I'm off to polish my broom stick!

  8. It's odd, but the burning was seen as an act of clemency in some quarters: presumably as it originated, in this context, as a less horrid alternative to hanging, drawing and quartering.

    In earlier times, people were certainly conscious when burned, as with the religious martyrs and witches. It's lazy of the church guide at Portlemouth to suggest that this crime was one of witchcraft, though presumably it sounds juicier.

    ...must do some more research, I think.