The Story of Elizabeth Martha Brown

Blackmanston Farm - Steeple Dorset. Where Martha/Elizabeth worked for 10 years
© Copywrite Google Earth
St Marys Church - Powerstock Dorset
© Copywrite Derek Voller and lisenced for reuse under the Creative Commons License
2nd Marriage to John Anthony BROWN Wareham Registry Office 24th January 1852
The old Rose & Crown - Birdsmoorgate. William Stanton Innkeeper in 1856
© Copywrite Chris Downer and & licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Dorchester Prison Letters Patent Edward I March 1305 First known site Gaol Lane Icen Way leading to Gallows Hill
Photographed by Simon Harriyott
An artist's impression of the hanging
HANGMAN: William Calcraft
Hardy between about 1910 and 1915
The end is nigh for Martha Brown in Angel Exit Theatre's production
Gentlemen of the Jury (1861)


Martha, as she was better known was born somewhere in the region of 1811.

She was born to John and Martha Clark. Her father was described in various records as a farm labourer or a dairyman who moved around West Dorset in search for work.

The 1851 census indicates that Martha was born in Whitechurch. The same census indicates that her father was born Netherbury about 1775.

Aged 20, Martha was married to a widower, Bernard Bearn who was 39 years of age at that time. They were married at St. Mary’s church in Powerstock. Martha signed the Church Marriage Book with a cross as she was illiterate.

Her husband was a butcher at that time by trade selling his meat at several markets in the area. He had already had a rather tragic life.

Bernard Bearn

Bernard’s first marriage took place when he was 29 years of age on 10th April 1821 to a young 20 year old spinster, Elizabeth Mawson. She was an illegitimate child of Samuel Wrixon, a wealthy Yeoman. She in turn had two illegitimate siblings.

Bernard died sometime during 1841/42. He left Martha the sum of £50 in his will.

John Brown

She got to know John Brown and they were married on 24th January 1852 at the registry office at Wareham. Martha was 41 years of age at this time.

It is true to describe the marriage as very ‘stormy.’ There were arguments almost daily. This was mainly caused by John’s philandering with a number of different women, single or married. One day when Martha came home she found John in her bed with a neighbour’s wife, Mary Davis. She was stuck in her own unhappy wedded life. Having an affair with John helped to make life a little more tolerable. This started a massive and argument.

On another occasion he arrived home at 2am very drunk and Martha accused him of being out with Mary Davis again. He denied this and said he had just been out for a drink or two. This ended up ain a really violent argument.

It ended up with John lying on the floor dead. Martha ran down the road to a neighbour’s house saying that John had been killed by a kick from a horse. That turned out to be a mistake by saying that at the trial. Later she added another story which also wasn’t true.

The police were called and Martha was arrested on 5h July 1856 for the murder of her husband, John.

The Coroner’s Inquest.

The inquest was held on Monday 7th July 1856 at 5pm in the ‘Rose and Crown Inn’ in Birdsmoorgate before Samuel Skinner Cory, a magistrate from Bridport. He took statements from Martha Brown, Richard Deamon, Harriet Knight and George Fooks.

A surgeon from Bridport, Henry Strangeway Hounsell, examined the body ad found six wounds to his head about one inch in length exposing the skull, the frontal, both parietal and the left temporal bones were much fractured, with protrusion of brain at the frontal wound. On the face over the eyebrow he found a wound more than an inch long and a bruise over the nasal bones, there was a bruise on the back of the neck. Other parts of his body were without any mark or wound except for a slight injury to one of the fingers of the left hand and an abrasion over the right shoulder.

She was tried at the Dorchester Assizes on 21st July 1856 before Sergeant William Fry Channell aged 51 years. (1804-1873.) the titular leader of the Home Circuit who was the Acting Judge on the Western Circuit in 1856. The Jury consisted of 12 persons, all of them being men.

The prosecuting barristers, Mr. Stock and Mr. Compton, outlined the case against Martha. A Mr. Edwards appeared for Martha. The trial lasted just one day but went on until 10pm.

Martha described what happened to cause John’s death: –

She said that she was sitting on a chair when he approached her in a very menacing way, swearing loudly and calling me names. He then kicked out the bottom of the chair on which I was sitting and we continued quarrelling until about 3am. It was then when he struck me a severe blow to the side of the head. This completely confused me so much I was forced to sit down. He then said (supper being n the table at the time)’ Eat it yourself and be damned,’ He then reached down from the mantelpiece a heavy hand whip, with a plaited head and struck me across the shoulders with it three times. Every time he hit me with this whip I screamed out I severe pain and I said “if you strike me again with it (the whip) I shall scream out ‘murder.’ He then shouted at me, ‘if you do that I will knock your brains through that window.’ He said that he hoped he should find me dead in the morning, he then kicked me hard on the left side, which caused me much pain.’


The jury didn’t believe her story about the horse kick or any story except the one that she was responsible for the death of her husband and returned a verdict that she alone was guilty.

The Judge then sentenced her to death by hanging.

There were plenty of mitigating circumstances if only she hadn’t told the story about his death being caused by a kick from a horse.

She was returned to Dorchester Gaol to await her execution. This had been fixed for 9th August 1856.

The Sheriff appointed William Calcraft to carry out the execution; he was very experienced at his job.

While she was in prison she added to her statement of what happened to cause John’s death.

She said,

‘After he had kicked me in the side causing me great pain, he immediately stooped down to unbuckle his boots, and being much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion at being so abused and struck. I sized a hatchet that was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been making use of to break coal for keeping the fire gong to keep his supper warm, and then struck him several blows to the head – I could not say how many – and he fell at the first blow on his side, with his face to the fireplace and he never spoke or moved afterwards. As soon as I done ill would have given the world not to have done it. I had never struck him before even after all his ill treatment, but when he hit me so hard this time I was almost out of my senses, and hardly knew what I was doing.’

Signed Elizabeth Martha Brown.

The utmost efforts were made to save her life, petitions were sent out to several towns in the country and on Friday R. B. Sheridan Esq. M. P. and the Revd. Dacre Clemetson proceeded to London to wait on the Secretary of state for the Home Department to try and obtain a reprieve but t no avail. Martha was visited while in her cell by her sister, and her brother and his wife as well as her murdered husband’s father.

The execution took place on Saturday morning the 9th August 1856

About 7am on this day the under Sheriff (C. Henning Esq.) the sheriff’s officers and the Javelin men met at the County Hall and proceeded to the Gaol, entering by the old entrance, where they arrived about 15 minutes later. The gate was opened by the Governor, Mr. J. V. Lawrence. They entered and the sheriff made his way to the cell.

Outside of the prison a crowd of between 3,000 and 4,000 people had gathered to watch the execution. The weather was described as being a very hazy wet morning.

The crowd became more excited at time of 8 am drew closer. Precisely at 8am, the prison bell peeled forth it’s solemn and warning knell, Martha’s life was getting closer to ending. The procession then appeared from the prison slowly wending their way to the scaffold which was situated some distance away. Martha was described as behaving with much fortitude right up o he last moment. The Rev. Dacre Clemetson walked with her in the procession. As they neared the scaffold the crowd were talking excitedly. There was one young man in the crowd watching the proceedings; it was 16 year old Thomas Hardy.

There were 11 steps up t the scaffold and Martha climbed them, walking with a ‘good firmness’ At this time the female attendants had left her and only the executioner and Martha stood at the top. She was then given a cordial of which she drank a little.

The Rev Clemetson was stopped from mounting the scaffold steps and instead the Rev. Henry Mole accompanied Martha to the platform.


The executioner pinioned Martha’s arms to her side and then son after everything was ready. Calcraft then put the rope over the beam and around her neck. After making some adjustments he was almost ready. After the adjustment of the rope Calcraft left the scaffold but not before he placed a white piece of cloth over her face. Then, he returned to the scaffold as he had forgotten to tie Martha’s dress. He didn’t want to cause any embarrassment to her, without tying her dress down, it would fly up and then everyone would see what she was wearing under her dress. With that done he again left the scaffold. Calcraft glanced around and then a brief second later pulled the bolt, opening the trap doors and Martha fell with great force and after a few brief struggles she just hung there swinging a little at the end of the rope. After an hour she was cut down and after the usual inquest her body was placed into a plain coffin and buried within he walls of his prison. In 1868 public hangings were abolished and were made private. They were then carried out within the prison walls. 

Note: –

An article found in the Dorset Ancestors Article dated 25th December 2009

Stated ‘Martha’s journey from this world to the next took four or five minutes and this can be put down to the cruelty of her executioner, William Calcraft, the hangman who favoured the short drop technique and presided with over her departure from this world. Calcraft’s successor later commented ‘Calcraft killed, I execute ‘Today society would see Martha as a victim and not as a killer. We must hope that a more sympathetic justice awaited her.

Note: – 2.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy, who was 16 when he went to watch this spectacle with a friend and was able to obtain a very good view of it all. Both boys scrambled up a tree which was very close to the erected Gallows. He said ’what a fine figure of a woman she showed against the sky as she hung there in the misty rain. Look how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and then back again as the wind dictated. He noticed that after Calcraft had tied her dress close to her body, was the reason she cut a very good shape.
This made an impression on him that would last well into old age. He still wrote about the event when in his 80’s. In fact it was to provide the inspiration and also some of the matter when he wrote ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles:
It seems possible that Hardy fond something erotic about the execution and particularly her body and facial features through the tight dress and the rain soaked hod. Charles Dickens who had also witnessed public hangings and campaigned strongly against them referred to the ‘fascination of the repulsive, something most of us have experienced.’
James Seale became the last person to be publicly hanged in Dorset, when he was executed for the murder of Sarah Guppy. He went to the gallows just two years later, on the 19th August 1858, an event which was also witnessed by Thomas Hardy.

Note 3.  The Judge: –

Sergeant William Fry Channell (1804 – 1873.)

He was born in Bermondsey, Surrey on 31st August 1804 to Mr. Pike Channell, an officer under Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen and Mary Fry the step-daughter of William Fry.
His father left the Navy and became a merchant and settled in Peckham where William was privately educated.
He was articled to a solicitor called Trustin but soon gave up his articles to join the Inner Temple.
He was called to the bar in 1827 and had a very busy practice, both in Surrey and on the home circuit. In 1834, aged 30 years, he married Martha Hawkes, the daughter of Richard Moseley of Champion Hill in Camberwell but they only had one son.
Channell was made a Sergeant-at-law in 1840 and he and Sergeant Talford led the court until it was thrown open in 1846.
In 1884 Channell received a ‘patent of procedure’ and after Baron Platt was raised to the bench he led the home circuit for quite some time. In 1856 Baron Platt being taken ill, he acted as the Commissioner of assize on both the Spring and Summer Circuits; also the winter gaol delivery and hence appeared at Dorchester.
On the 12th February 1857 he was appointed as by Lord Chancellor Cranworth to succeed Baron Alderton in the Court of Exchequer and was knighted. As a Judge he was thought to be conscientious, careful and learned, but very severe to criminals.

Note: – 4. – The Jury.

The Jury was made up of 12 men who had all qualified for Jury Service, mostly in 1855.

Charles Dyke, aged 41 years, a widower of Broad Street, Lyme Regis, a tailor and draper by trade and employing 13 men and 3 boys by 1861.
Henry Locke, aged 52 years, of Broad Street, Lyme Regis, a printer, bookseller and a stationer.
Albion Layers, 50 years, of Broad Street, Lyme Regis, a Grover.
Robert Radford, 28 years, of Broad Street, Lyme Regis, a junior cabinet Maker and upholsterer.
Robert Gale, 47 years, of South Street, Bridport, a mason.
Charles Lambert, 31 years, of Bowridge Hill, Gillingham, a yeoman farmer, of 100 acres.
Isaac Foster Foot, 26 years, of East Street, Bridport, a butter agent and cooper.
Robert Seymour, 57 years, of East Street, Bridport, a grocer.
Benjamin Hallett, 60 years, of west street, Bridport, a shoe maker or a cordwainer.
Giles Draper Pryer, 47 years, of the parich Charmouth in the hundred of Whitchurch Canonicorum, a master mason.
George Ridgley, 51 years, of Majeston in Gillingham, a cheese-factor.
James Love, 38 years, of the parish of Charmouth in the hundred of  Whitchurch Canonicorum, a butcher.

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