Vauxhall History co-editor Naomi Clifford’s The Murder of Mary Ashford: The Crime That Changed English Legal History (Pen & Sword, 30 May 2018) presents new evidence in a notorious 200-year-old case of rape and murder which changed English legal history, leading to the abolition of ‘trial by battle’ as a means of settling murder cases.
On 11 May 1818, the Morning Advertiser carried an advertisement for that night’s inaugural show of the Royal Coburg Theatre (today’s Old Vic). After a short address by Mr. Munro to mark the opening of the theatre, the main offering was to be the premiere of a new William Barrymore 1 melodrama, Trial by Battle; or, Heaven Defend the Right, followed by a ‘Grand Asiatic Ballet’ and closing with a splendid Harlequinade based on Milton’s Comus.
With Trial by Battle, there was something for everyone, an evening designed to tempt City-dwellers to venture across the new Waterloo Bridge and on to the far-from-respectable Surrey shore. Trial by Battle was nothing if not topical. It must have been in production while the court case that inspired it was still playing out back over the bridge in the Court of King’s Bench at Westminster Hall.
The whole country had been obsessed with the case, which was to decide whether a trial by battle to settle a murder case could be legal. The alleged killer was Abraham Thornton, widely held to have got away with the rape and murder of 20-year-old Mary Ashford. He was being sued by William Ashford, the victim’s brother. Every time Thornton made the journey from King’s Bench Prison at Newington to Westminster Hall, crowds of onlookers jostled to catch sight of him, to hiss or boo him, or better still, to bag a place in court to watch the legal drama unfold.
Thornton was a singular character. Previously acquitted at the Warwick Assizes, he seemed coolly confident that he would win again. Popular opinion, however, seems to have disagreed with the Warwick verdict and held that Justice had not been served. A murderer had gone free and an honest young woman’s death remained unpunished.
Mary Ashford had left a party near Erdington, on the outskirts of Birmingham, late on 26 May 1817 in company with her best friend Hannah Cox, Hannah’s fiancé Benjamin Carter and Thornton. He was a beefy 25-year-old bricklayer from Castle Bromwich who had suddenly latched onto Mary and her friends at the end of the evening. Mary’s bruised and bloody body was found in a stagnant pond early the next morning.
Immediately identified as the prime suspect, Thornton and stood trial for murder at Warwick in August. He admitted to having had sex with Mary but not to murdering her (his solicitor put it about that Mary had killed herself out of a sense of shame). There was general surprise and outrage after his acquittal. Sponsored by the magistrate who had investigated the crime, Mary’s brother William sued Thornton using an ‘Appeal of Murder’, a civil suit of medieval origin designed to give families a means of avenging a death.
The case was to be heard in London where it attracted the horrified fascination of people of all ranks of society. Thornton, advised by his smart barristers, countered William Ashford’s suit with a dramatic challenge. In Westminster Hall, he threw down a white leather gauntlet and declared his right to ‘trial by battel’, that is, hand-to-hand slugging it out in Smithfield with cudgels and shields. Reluctantly, after much deliberation and argument on both sides and many sittings of the court, the four judges were forced to admit that such a process was still legal. The burly bricklayer was free to fight for his life.
The problem for William, Mary’s brother, was that he was a slightly-built lad of 23. Whether or not Thornton murdered Mary, killing William would be no problem. William was forced to withdraw and Thornton won again. Public detestation was so severe, however, that Thornton eventually took himself off to America. Appeal of murder and trial by battle were both expunged from the statute book in 1819.
This then was the background to William Barrymore’s play Trial by Battle. The characters were rendered as mere stereotypes and the action was shifted from England to an unspecified European country and a world of castles and gothic interiors, in an era that was vaguely medieval: Abraham Thornton was now Baron Falconbridge, a ruthless and lustful villain; Mary Ashford, his wronged and virtuous victim, became Geralda, and her brother and champion William was the brave Hubert. But where in real life due process failed to provide the cathartic ending the public craved, justice for Mary and death for Thornton, Barrymore’s Third Act delivered all that supporters of Mary Ashford had wished for.
Barrymore’s play has a band of smugglers, hired by dastardly Baron Falconbridge, abducting Geralda, who has resisted the Baron’s efforts at seduction. Her brother Hubert and father try to protect her, but the Baron kills her father. One of the smugglers, Henrie, who had previously refused to take part in the plot, rescues Geralda while her brother pursues the Baron to his castle. After a trial, the Baron and Hubert agree to combat but it is Henrie, acting as champion for Geralda’s family, who kills the Baron. In the imaginations of the audience if nowhere else, the world was put to rights.
According to the Huntingdon, Bedford and Peterborough Gazette the ‘scenes were throughout well executed, and the performances are passable. The house was crowded to excess, and the pieces met with a good reception.’ Whatever the play lacked in literary merit was more than compensated for by glamour and spectacle, and by the new music, scenery, dresses and decorations.
Behind the scenes of the Royal Coburg, however, things were far from perfect.
The theatre had been a difficult build from the start. It was not just that the theatre was built on marshland on the south bank of the Thames – the foundations were made from the rubble of the old north bank’s Savoy Hospital on the north side, demolished to make way for Waterloo Bridge itself – but inadequate investment was followed by a walk-out of construction workers who had not been paid. also because inadequate investment led to a strike by construction workers who walked off the job in 1817 for lack of payment. The design was ambitious — costs ran to a massive £12,000 — and boasted state-of-the-art scene-painting and property rooms, and an in-house gas-making plant and gasometer.
The Coburg opened on Whit Monday, 11 May, in an ‘unfinished state’ 2. Even so, it must have been a night to remember. The building could accommodate 3,800 and the orchestra pit up to 30 performers. Gas-powered cut-glass lustres shone over and on either side of the stage, while blue and gold boxes and gilt pillars shimmered.
Everyone who attended the opening night of the Coburg would have been aware of the absence of one of its patrons: Princess Charlotte. The 21-year-old heir to the throne was widely admired for her strength of character and for being neither corrupt like her father the Prince Regent nor foolish like her mother Princess Caroline. Charlotte, with her husband Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, laid a foundation stone at the north-west corner of the Royal Coburg site in September 1816 but had died fourteen months later a few days after delivering a stillborn son. As the theatre audience for Trial by Battle trooped through the refreshment room where twin portraits of Leopold and Charlotte hung either side they perhaps reflected for a moment on the fragility of life.
As the audience exited they found that additional lights had been installed in the surrounding roads including the new road to Waterloo Bridge, and the theatre management had also laid on extra patrols to guard against muggers and thieves. Although the Coburg had an advantage over other south London venues, being so close to the new bridge, there was still some reluctance to venture across to the ‘wrong’ side of the Thames.
Barrymore’s Trial by Battle ran initially for 15 nights and was still being sporadically performed in provincial theatres as late as the 1860s. Debate about the guilt or innocence of Abraham Thornton continued for much longer.
The Old Vic will be marking its 200th anniversary with a three-day party comprising a free performance on Friday 11 May, an open house and street party for families on Saturday 12 May, followed by a one-off celebration in the evening, and a gala on Sunday 13 May.