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Villagers from Lidgate, between Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket and Haverhill, remember tragic story of poverty-stricken farmworker who was one of the last men hanged for arson

George Pulham, one of the very last men in England to be hanged for arson, was executed in Bury St Edmunds in front of a crowd of 5,000 people on the 8th of April 1835.

In those days punishment was swift and savage. George, aged 22 and unable to read or write, went to his death just one week after being convicted at Bury Assizes.

His story is a tragic one of unintended consequences, triggered by a reckless act that was born out of grinding poverty. From the gallows, the last words he spoke were ‘the want of work brought me here’.

Great fire of Lidgate plaque in the village hall
Great fire of Lidgate plaque in the village hall

The 1830s were a time of deprivation and bitter resentment for farm labourers as the start of mechanisation cost them their jobs and led to attempts at revenge - often by rick burning.

In November 1834 a blaze started by three Suffolk lads in a straw stack spread out of control sparking what has become known as The Great Fire of Lidgate. No-one was hurt, but farm buildings and numerous cottages went up in flames.

George Pulham, Robert Mott and Jacob Rose were arrested and tried for arson. The jury took just 20 minutes to find George, who had made a confession in prison, guilty. But the others walked free as there was insufficient evidence to convict them.

A trial transcript of those who petitioned for clemency for George Pulham
A trial transcript of those who petitioned for clemency for George Pulham

The death sentence was handed down despite a plea for mercy signed by around 50 people including Henry Salmon - the rector of Lidgate and committing magistrate - and James Baldry, the owner of the farm he set light to.

Now a permanent reminder of the fire and its tragic consequences has been installed in Lidgate village hall to ensure that this poignant part of local history is not forgotten.

The plaque, paid for by Lidgate Archaeology Group, tells the story of the fire, and the trial and execution of George Pulham. Village historian Anthony Foreman made the case for a lasting memorial after researching what had happened.

Chris Michaelides and Anthony Foreman reveal the new plaque
Chris Michaelides and Anthony Foreman reveal the new plaque

Laura Perry, secretary of the archaeology group who has lived in Lidgate for 15 years, said: “Anthony made a very compelling case about this story. It’s a very tragic story, almost a miscarriage of justice. We all felt it was worth commemorating.”

Anthony, who has written books about the village’s history and carried out extensive research, said: “When I was growing up in Lidgate there was always this story about this chap who ‘burnt the village down’.

“In 1989 Tony Benge, a playwright who had previously lived in the village, wrote a play about George Pulham which was broadcast on the radio. My father, who was a wheelwright and carpenter, did some work for him when he was here.

Left to right: Lidgate Archaeology Group members Kevin Thompson, Chris Michaelides and Janet Mitson with Cecily Harrod and Anthony Foreman at the unveiling of the plaque
Left to right: Lidgate Archaeology Group members Kevin Thompson, Chris Michaelides and Janet Mitson with Cecily Harrod and Anthony Foreman at the unveiling of the plaque

“In more recent years I took up an interest in the history of the village and got down to doing research, and spent a lot of time in the Record Office trawling through the old newspapers.

“And that turned up the information about the trial which I then added to the back of my book Lidgate: Two Thousand Years of a Suffolk Village. Then I went down to the Kew National Archive and found the actual transcript of the people who put in a petition for clemency.”

Anthony, a retired Roman Catholic priest who has served in parishes including Sudbury, Newmarket and Stowmarket, said the fire was set against a background of extreme poverty and distress.

Anthony Foreman with the plaque
Anthony Foreman with the plaque

Traditionally the job of threshing corn - separating the grain from the straw - had been done by hand but the start of mechanisation made many labourers redundant.

“In the late 1820s and early 1830s, farmers began to introduce threshing machines to do this work,” said Anthony. “This put large numbers of labourers out of work and without enough money to support themselves during the winter months.”

Around 1830, five years before the Lidgate fire, the so-called Swing Riots erupted in agricultural areas. They were named after an imaginary character, Captain Swing,

The facade of Bury Gaol, where George Pulham was hanged
The facade of Bury Gaol, where George Pulham was hanged

The name’s origin is uncertain - suggestions include part of a flail known as a swing or a swingel, which men used to thresh the corn, a swinging corpse on the gallows or gibbet, or the call of “swing” used to tell a scything party to start again after a break.

Farmers were sent threatening letters demanding they stop using threshing machines and cutting labourers’ pay. Often equipment was damaged and hayricks and farm buildings burnt.

It led to 2,000 people being arrested with many sentenced to death - although most were not actually hanged - and a great number imprisoned or transported to Australia.

Judge James Scarlett who condemned George Pulham to death
Judge James Scarlett who condemned George Pulham to death

“By the time George Pulham came on the scene a few years later he was entering this scene of great poverty,” Anthony explains.

This was also the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs - Dorset labourers whose fight for farmworkers’ rights laid the foundations for the modern trade union movement.

“They tried to link the Lidgate rick burning to the Swing Riots but it wasn't, it was probably a local issue.”

One can only imagine what was going through the minds of George Pulham, Jacob Rose and Robert Mott on that fateful autumn day.

All three desperately needed employment from the local farmers but there were no jobs to be had.

Spotting the remains of a bonfire on an allotment, they saw their chance to take revenge on farmer Baldry, the owner of Pippin Park Farm on Lidgate’s main street opposite what is now the Star pub.

“They took this bit of old felt that had been smouldering in a bonfire and put it into the stack. It got out of control and burnt down the farmhouse, barns, a stable and granary, and also cottages along the street,” said Anthony. The fire was finally halted at the point where Lidgate village hall now stands.

“They all denied any implication in the fire. But they were pounced upon and all taken off to Bury gaol.

“The prison governor (John Orridge) was a very humane man for his time, so they would have been treated as well as could be expected. While in prison George Pulham made a confession to the governor.

“He was tried at Bury Assizes and after a very brief trial was condemned to death by Judge James Scarlett, later Baron Abinger.”

Anthony believes George’s sentence was intended to deter others. “He was made an example of.

“The judge said the evidence of George Pulham was good against himself, but not against Mott and Rose. The jury was told if there was any doubt in their minds they would have to acquit them.”

Finding his fate in the hands of notoriously-harsh Judge Scarlett was the final stroke of bad luck in George’s brief life.

Previously a very successful barrister, MP, and former Attorney General, the qualities which brought James Scarlett success at the bar were not equalled on the bench.

He had a reputation for unfairness, and complaints were made about his domineering attitude towards juries.

The record of the sentencing was annotated: “'I do not see any [thing] in the case which would justify me in recommending Pulham to His Majesty for a remission of punishment'.

Petitioners for clemency cited the grounds that he had made a full confession to the governor of the gaol, and had tried to put out the fire

They also stated his accomplices were acquitted, the prosecutor (James Baldry) recommended mercy, there was no loss of life, the prisoner could not read or write and was therefore ignorant of proceeding, and death is not an effective deterrent.

It was all to no avail. George Pulham was hanged at Bury Gaol, in Sudbury Road. The crowd that gathered to watch included a large number of women.

His final words were said to have included a plea for employment and better wages for farmworkers.

According to a report in the Bury and Norwich Post, just before his execution he said in an audible voice: “I hope all you young men will take notice of my fate and hope all you gentlemen farmers, if any are here, to employ the poor young men and pay them better as the want of work brought me here.”

His body was handed over to his friends and taken back to Lidgate in an open tumbril cart. Among the mourners at his funeral were Mott and Rose who were tried with him but acquitted.

No trace remains of the grave of George Pulham. As a convicted felon, he was buried on the north side of the church which was considered at the time to be a less favourable burial place.

Superstitions held that sinners should be buried where there was least sunlight - although it was also where paupers, unbaptised children, and suicides were laid to rest.

By the 1840s people were no longer hanged for arson, which could explain why years after the death of George Pulham farms were still being targeted with fires, including the one attacked in 1834.

“The antagonism towards the local farmers continued,” said Anthony. “In 1841 Charles Lamprill was convicted of setting fire to a stack, again at Pippin Park Farm, and sentenced to 15 years transportation to Tasmania.

“Robert Pulham, a distant cousin of George, was convicted of poaching and trying to set fire to the rebuilt Pippin Park Farm in 1844.”

There is one resident in Lidgate today who has good reason to be grateful that Jacob Rose, one of George’s co-accused, escaped the death penalty.

Cecily Harrod is his many-times-great granddaughter, and although she knew about the fire she didn’t know about her family connection until much more recently.

“I have lived in the village all my life,” said Cecliy. “I heard about the story of the fire a long time ago, and I knew the story of George Pulham.

“But I didn’t know about my ancestor’s involvement until people started talking about it.

It leads her to a sobering thought. “If he had been hanged I wouldn’t be here now!”