From the little we know about Spence Broughton's life, we may surmise that he made a mess of it. Once dead, however, his public image and even his visibility improved greatly. He became one of the most prominent corpses in British history, and people are still making money out of his legacy, more indeed than Spence ever did.
Since 1997, visitors to the Sheffield Arena have been confronted by a rather disturbing contrivance outside the pub opposite. It's a mock-up of a gibbet1, complete with a convincing likeness of a cadaver hung in chains inside a steel cage. The Noose and Gibbet Inn is empty and up for sale at the time of writing, and the gruesome accessory is not mentioned in the estate agents' copy. Their photographs of the premises seem deliberately to exclude the gibbet, and there is talk of it being removed, but the fact that this tasteless device was offered as an enticement to buy beer for more than a decade goes to prove that the Spence Broughton story still thrives. Moreover, the perpetrators can claim that their exhibitionism is entirely in keeping with local tradition.
Broughton was born in about 1746 at Sleaford in Lincolnshire, into a line of respectable and well-to-do farmers. At about 20 years of age, he married a local girl who bore him three children, but for some reason he abandoned his family when in his 40s. A gambling habit that included a predilection for cock-fighting saw off his fortune, whereupon he took to crime as a highwayman. His new career proved to be short lived.
In February 1791, Broughton and an accomplice called Oxley robbed a postman named George Leasley at Ickles, a village between Sheffield and Rotherham. As robberies go, this one appears to have been relatively civilised. Leasley was tied and blindfolded, but managed to free himself fairly quickly. He found his horse tethered to a hedge nearby, but the Rotherham mailbag had gone missing.
The only item of value inside the bag is said to have been a French bill of exchange worth about £100. Broughton and Oxley had some difficulty cashing it, and their inability to explain how it came into their possession was remembered some months later when Oxley was apprehended following a hold-up in Cambridge in October 1791. Broughton was living in London with a criminal named Shaw by this time. All three men were arrested, and both Oxley and Shaw implicated Broughton in the Rotherham robbery. Oxley and Shaw absconded while Broughton failed to, and so Spence Broughton was taken to York Assize where he was condemned to death2. JP Bean, in his book Crime in Sheffield, attributes the following pronouncement to the judge, a Mr Justice Buller:
In order to deter others, his punishment shall not cease at the place of execution but his body shall be suspended between earth and Heaven, as unworthy of either and to be buffeted by winds and storms.
Broughton remained in custody until the sentence of execution was carried out on 14 April of the following year. Two days later, Spence Broughton's body was returned to the scene of his crime. In life, he spent no more than a few hours in the vicinity. In death, he was destined to hang around for a lot longer.
As Buller intimated, the hanging of a criminal's body 'in chains' was supposed to act as a deterrent. From the outset, however, the reaction of the local populace was one of fascination rather than fear. 40,000 people are said to have visited the gibbet on the very first day. The nearest public house was not the Arena one3 but the Arrow in Clifton Lane. The landlord could not believe his luck, though he probably did not anticipate that Spence Broughton would go on selling beer for longer than he would.
The gibbet at Attercliffe is depicted in several contemporary paintings and drawings. It seems to have stood about 20 feet high, so that the cage and its contents would have been suspended well out of reach. If the convention of the time was adhered to, the corpse would have been fully dressed and strapped to the bars of the cage with leather belts4. The site was exposed and the weather was hot and dry throughout the following summer. The conditions were apparently ideal for the desiccation of the corpse, because Spence proved to be in no hurry to decompose.
The crowds kept coming, and it was not long before a groundswell of sympathy for the man in the cage became evident. Within a few weeks of the erection of the gibbet, The Sheffield Register was describing the execution of Spence Broughton in compassionate terms. His behaviour on the scaffold, it said, had been: singularly devout and penitent, and marked with a degree of fortitude and resignation seldom observed in persons in his unfortunate circumstance.
Bizarre as it may seem, Spence Broughton's remains became a celebrated landmark and an object of affection. As bits fell off him down the years, they were dutifully collected and treated with veneration, almost in the manner of religious relics. Two of his fingers were incorporated into a pottery tankard that occupied a place of honour in the Arrow. A trade in Broughton figurines flourished for a while, and the mawkish populace of Georgian England continued to visit him on a steady basis. Songs were written about him, lamenting his fate in romantic style.
Broughton was ultimately abroad in death for nearly as long as he was in life. It was not until 1827 that the gibbet was taken down, complete with its still recognisably-human contents. Even then the reason was the local landowner's frustration with the stream of fascinated trespassers. Some 36 years after his death, Spence Broughton's body was finally laid to rest in a churchyard in nearby Darnall. Fully 40 years later still, in 1867, the Times of London reported the discovery by builders of the lower part of the gibbet post, still set in the ground. It was lifted out and laid in the garden of the pub5, and many hundreds of people came to see it.
More Civilised Times
The protracted and unseemly exhibition of Spence Broughton's corpse may have helped to bring about dramatic changes in the punishments meted out to criminals. Gibbeting ceased in 1833, a mere six years after his final deposition, and at the same time the practice of carrying out executions in public was ended throughout England.
Spence Broughton is today a part of Sheffield folklore. The road on which the Noose and Gibbet Inn stands is called Broughton Lane. Some historians point out that this is pure coincidence, and that the name refers to Broughton Hall near Skipton, one of the residences of the Dukes of Norfolk who own much of the land hereabouts. Sheffielders will have none of it. By popular acclaim, the road name tells of a man whose reputation in death far exceeded the sorry tale of his life.