Short Stories

Hanging the Culworth Gang

Relaxing one evening with a friend in the Royal Oak at Eydon, conversation soon turned to an infamous chapter in the history of a neighbouring village. Having lived my entire life in rural Northamptonshire, I could not believe how this local story had eluded me. “What, a notorious gang of highway robbers operated in this area?” I blurted. “Yes!” my friend replied. “A housebuilder found human remains whilst clearing land at the crossing. You should look into it!” he added, plonking a second pint of cask-conditioned ale onto the wooden table between us.

The open fire crackled and my third pint slid down effortlessly, along with a resolution to follow up on the story. Fascinated by history, some weeks later I visited Culworth and the Red Lion, where the gang of farm labourers used to meet, as well as the 13th century church where William Abbot, a flamboyant, pistol waving parishioner, stored some of their bounty. The village still occupies the local strategic high ground with good escape routes at either end of the High Street and leads directly onto Banbury Lane.

Over the years, I had resigned myself to eternal disappointment that my home county only featured in our nation’s history on two notable occasions – footwear aside, in 1460 the Battle of Northampton was fought on the doorsteps of (newly refurbished) Delapré Abbey as part of the War of the Roses, and in 1835, Charles Dickens visited to cover the north Northants by-election for the Morning Chronicle, which he later described as Eatanswill riotous borough election in the Pickwick Papers. So, based on newspaper archives and Jack Gould’s research filed with the Northampton Record Society, I composed this scene as the gang are led along the final mile journey to their execution. I have lifted the dialogue from confessions written inside their cells. The White Elephant pub still stands on the corner of Northampton Racecourse where this dramatic event took place.


1787, Friday 3rd August, Northampton Heath

The morning fog lifted, clearing the view of the procession of six death carts crabbing the mile-long journey from Northampton gaol. All the inhabitants of the town lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the convicted felons – shrunken, pale figures from their time inside, clinging to the bars on their final, rickety journey towards the veteran oak tree on the corner of the Common. They had stopped half-way along the crowded route outside the Bantam Cock public house, one last drink for the six malefactors – one for the road. As six tumblers of ale were passed along the top of the carts, the first prisoner snatched four, gulped the contents and lobbed the empty cups into the crowd. As replacement drinks were hurried outside, a mob surged forward, surrounded and started banging on the sides of the wooden carts. Several casualties were trampled underfoot in the chaos – one woman and her children were almost suffocated in the fracas, before the constables on horseback fought back with wooden batons to restore order and move the cavalcade along.

In recent years the authorities had seen an explosion in workload all over the country, ever since Claude Duval and Jack Sheppard had captured the public’s imagination. Desperate to respond to the rise in housebreaking and highway robbery, William Pitt and the Tories had declared these bi-annual events as Bank Holidays to engage with the public and let them see justice in action. But freedom from the daily grind of work mixed with alcohol-fuelled drama had transformed these occasions into showpiece events. Hanged at Tyburn, “Gentleman Jack’s” new celebrity status had confined the execution of all future prisoners in the capital to be conducted inside Newgate, for fear of more escapes along the two-mile trek across central London. But no-one could deny Northampton’s day in the spotlight, fulfilling a desire to see justice doled out to their own celebrity crooks.

For twenty years, John Smith and his gang had terrorised the estates and old drovers’ routes around Whittlewood Forest, but now with his hands bound together, the cart rocked beneath his bulk as he staggered to his feet. The hangman climbed across the bars on the roof of the cab, securing the noose around his neck through the drop-hole. Feeling the prickle of stubble from his jaw wedged tight against the hemp of the rope, he tapped the notorious villain on the shoulder and, with a nod to the justices below, the Town Marshal stepped forward and read aloud the charges. Woozy from beer and a rush of adrenalin, John Smith’s huge chest heaved up and down, unable to hear the long list of crimes above his thumping heart. The hangman poked him with a stick to tell him it was his turn to speak.

‘All you young men,’ he boomed, trying to catch his breath. ‘Must take warning by our sad fate, bad company forsake. May the Lord have mercy upon us!’

The hangman nodded to the Marshal below who stepped up onto the wheel of the cart then dropped his hat as a signal to the Constable to whip the horse’s hindquarters, lurching the prisoner’s cart forward and launching the leader of the Culworth Gang into eternity.

A hush descended as the huge carcass struggled, the lift not sudden enough to kill him outright. His face bulged red as he choked, legs wriggling eight feet off the ground, running on thin air and sprinkling urine onto a row of spectators. Two men burst through the line, jumped up to pull at his legs, finally snapping his neck. Although not officially permitted, the authorities had learned to accept this behaviour, regardless of whether it was to end the condemned man’s suffering or with a grudge to bear, wanting to just finish him off. Either way, it set an example to others and speeded up the business of the day.

The crowd hushed after the initial excitement, but a cheer soon started up, in time with his heavy body as it swung back and forth. Finally, it came to rest, limp and lifeless, the prisoner’s neck no match for the ligature and burn of the Italian hemp rope. The acrid tang of horse manure mixed with the sweet scent of tobacco smoke rose above the expectant faces as they watched William Abbot’s cart line up alongside, the horse whinnying before holding steady. Second in seniority in the gang, Abbot had decided to make full use of his right to dress as he wanted for his final curtain call. Standing in a bridegroom’s frock coat and garters, his theatrical robbery methods, inspired by Dick Turpin, had only ever complicated the gang’s affairs. It was the hold-up of a dignitary from France (Abbé Le Blanc), forcing him to yield by firing a pistol into the air, stealing his money, watch and snuffbox, and leaving only two shillings to continue his journey. Although, they parted courteously, Abbot had never expected to bump into him at Newmarket races. Placing a bet on the same horse, he apologised for that “trifling affair” but was followed and the gang arrested later that day.

“We have been found guilty,’ he declared, sweeping his hand across the other carts. ‘And are sentenced to be hanged, but if us could put right what we have done wrong…it is too late now, as we stand here before you condemned to die.’ He looked down to his family. ‘Goodbye my wife and children dear. May God protect you, where I have failed.’

With another crack of the whip, his slender frame was launched into the air, convulsing then collapsing beneath the flapping tails of his coat.

The six bodies were cut down an hour later, but as the sun set across the horizon fifteen miles to the west, an eager group of farm labourers on horseback waited for the covered wagons of the Oxford Stagecoach, as it thundered along Banbury Lane heading for Plumpton Wood.

[This article was published in Feb 2020 in ‘The Blue Nib Literary Magazine’]


The Fabric of Society

Montague Turner Limited had dressed the gentlemen of Piccadilly for more than a century, but business was now dwindling.

In 1989, Eton educated fourth generation partner — Humphrey Algernon Turner — had received the Royal Warrant from HRH and ever since had fitted new shirts for the Princes. Accustomed to dealing with clients who demanded the best tailoring money could buy, Humphrey had just finished pressing some Tweed Plus Twos when the brass bell jingled above the shop door.

‘Good afternoon!’ he boomed, peering over his glasses at a pale young man with pink braided hair. ‘May I help you?’

‘Man needs a DJ! Sumfin tidy! Ya feel me?’

‘Are you sure you’re in the right shop, sir?’ Humphrey sneered.

‘Yeh, bruv!’ the ruffian slapped, before bursting a bubble of strawberry gum. ‘Man’s got class. For real!’

‘And which man was this?’ Mr Turner said, following him along the rows of expensive suits. Savouring Vivaldi’s Summer Adagio Presto, the shopkeeper yearned for the mahogany Grandfather clock to chime the hour, before finally announcing: ‘I’m sorry, but we are now closed. Good day, sir!’

He opened the door as a red Bentley Mulsanne pulled up and a giant stepped out and marched past Humphrey into the shop.

‘Everyzink ok?’ he nodded to his ward, as a scooter stopped across the road outside Fortnum & Mason, the pillion passenger scanning the limousine with his telephoto lens.

Flipping the sign to “Closed,” the tailor shut the door and turned to address his VIP. ‘Now then, something tidy you say?’

The artisan set to work, quickly basting the skiffle and thirty minutes later stood back to inspect the tab in the mirror.

‘I rate that,’ the celebrity gushed. ‘It is like…a hard fit!’

‘I’m sorry, sir, is it pinching somewhere?’

After winning four Brit Awards later that week, Lil’ Pomp was swamped by reporters, but managed to squeeze out an endorsement above the din.

‘A big shout out to ma’ main man Humphrey! Keepin’ ‘fings sweet down Jermyn Street!’

The following week with a full order book once again, Mr. Turner spotted the superstar splashed across the Times Literary Supplement, and rattling his teacup back into its saucer, lifted the handset to dial his ancient business partner.

‘Mr. Montague? I’m afraid it’s time for me to retire.’

[This article was published in Feb 2020 in ‘Barton Today’]


A cruel flocking business

I knew about flockers from the internet and this morning when I spotted him over the field, I twigged what he was up to.

The only way I would catch him was by surprise so running across open terrain in wellies with my dog to apprehend a man with a quad-bike seemed unlikely. Invisible from the path the undulating surface jarred my knees but we were soon halfway; the sparkling dew forcing me to squint to track him in the shade. With fifty metres to go he wrestled a sheep to the ground pinning it down with his right knee. In dark jeans, dark hoodie and with his back to me I wanted to call out to stop him. I was desperate for the sheep to wriggle free, to make a fight of it – we’re coming to save you!

He had taken his victim into a small recess in the hedge that any other day provided sanctuary for livestock to feed.

But today it offered the ideal killing zone.

The green quad-bike idled in neutral as I approached.

Drawing his arm back I glimpsed a flash of a long knife as the sheep let out a guttural blare, piercing the morning silence, terror and agony in its feral baa.

He hacked as we hurried but with ten metres to go my dog barked, blowing our cover. Angry for disturbing his business he stood up and roared, his hands black with blood. With both of us unsure what to do next I held up my mobile phone as he jumped on the quad-bike shouting abuse, abandoning the crime scene and burned off through the open gate.

I showed photos of the bloody mess to the farmer when eventually he opened his front door. ‘They’re back!’ he barked. ‘They kill ‘em for the meat!’

Grabbing a large case from the hallway he hurried past me stinking of booze and body odour and climbed into his filthy Land Rover. Turning the engine over he yelled back at me: ‘I need to finish her off or she’ll be worth nothin!’

[This story was published in 2019 in ‘Reflex Fiction’]


Tackling Middle-aged Man

The first man to be convicted under the “Middle-Aged Man Prohibition Act (2019)” was Peter Perkins – a forty-nine-year-old seen jogging alone in Wicksteed Park. His plea of ignorance about the new law was no defence at all and when combined with his feeble excuse of relocating in search of work, was rightly dismissed.

Summing up, the Justice of the Peace applied the full weight of the law: ‘It shall no longer be tolerated by society for middle-aged men to roam free, wallowing in sybaritic splendour — whether picking their nose at traffic lights in fully expensed company cars or as you were Mr. Perkins, wantonly jogging and sweating unaccompanied in lycra in a public place — these selfish, vulgar acts are no longer lawful. My duty is to the public, to keep them free from men like you!’

The sixty-eight-year-old Justice’s protruding nasal hair tingled in time with his talk as he boomed from the bar of the crammed Kettering courtroom: ‘Your justification for your reckless behaviour, that you were “unaware of this new law” serves only to remind us all here today of the arrogance and danger posed by middle-aged men. Without any sign of remorse, I have no hesitation in following the guidelines as laid down by statute and passing a custodial sentence. You will have plenty of time to reflect on your conduct whilst serving life at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Moreover, I will be recommending to the Parole Board that you not be considered for early release. Life must mean life!’

Addressing the wider audience and a full press gallery, the magistrate’s grey hair sparkled in the morning sunlight beaming through the high courtroom windows and granting celestial power. ‘Let today’s landmark verdict act as a deterrent for any other middle-aged man who might consider flouting the law. Society rightly proscribes them as a nuisance.’ Turning to Mr. Perkins and lowering his voice, he looked over his glasses and issued instructions to the Police constable: ‘Take him down!’

Handcuffed and wailing beneath a grey blanket, Peter could feel the hatred in the eggs as they pelted the side of his head and the van, as it screeched away from the angry mob.

Later that year, to enhance the law and keep middle-aged men in check, an amendment was passed granting power to local GPs to furnish women with small firearms, on the NHS. Where contact was inevitable at men hotspots (e.g. toddler groups, on the school run), meaning extra assistance may be required, the doctor could sign one of the new Pink Protection and Prescription (PPP) forms and automatically the pharmacy would double the dose of pills and supply a Glock G42 slimline handgun with a single clip of six .380mm rounds, to be used at the owner’s discretion. Adept as market leaders, Mulberry was first to adapt by adopting a small firearm pocket into their range of handbags. Other designer brands of clothing soon followed, sensing money to be made and providing a much-needed boost to retail businesses as the economy emerged from recession and High Streets reverted to safe spaces. British Transport Police launched an awareness helpline to nullify the threat from male commuters – the automated announcement on the trains informing passengers: ‘If you see a middle-aged man that does not look right, then call MAMSTOPPERS or txt 5189. If you feel you are in immediate danger…See him…Stop him…Shoot him!

Panic buttons were installed at every customer checkout in shops and reception desks in case the attendant was smiled at by an unaccompanied man. A National TV Advert campaign was launched to raise awareness of a typical profile; even major Department Stores awarded extra customer loyalty card points if a single man was spotted making idle conversation and removed on the recommendation of a female customer. With clear incentives to rid society of smooth-talking, leather jacket wearing, motor-bike riding men, there was no end to the schemes that popped up. Within the first twelve months of the Act receiving Royal Assent, the streets had been cleared of more than thirty thousand “pests” – with offences ranging from “walking the dog alone with intent,” to “striking up a pointless conversation in the queue at the Post Office,” society was becoming a much safer place to live. In a breakthrough case, a young mother with two children was parked in her enormous SUV outside a Community Centre, waiting for her six-year-old daughter to finish ballet class. As it emerged during the trial, the lesson had finished early and the accused in heavy rain had dashed across the car park to tap on the window of the victim’s car. According to his dubious testimony, he stated that he was trying to be helpful and inform her of the delay, at one point even offering an umbrella, but the discerning victim sensing immediate danger, panicked, screamed, beeped the car horn and shot the man in the leg. When the police arrived at the scene, the intruder was easily found rolling about on the ground (in a pathetic attempt to hide), so was tasered and spread across the bonnet of the woman’s car. The episode was traumatic for the children, helping the prosecution upgrade the offence to aggravated, and through good detective work, the Police found a local carwash that agreed to discretely clean the blood from the victim’s metallic paintwork and post the invoice to man’s home address.

As the number of prosecutions continued to soar (validating the need for the law), HMRC launched a new campaign called ‘TAX-MAN.’ Increasing the basic rate of tax to 80% on all middle-aged men’s income, it was aimed to hit men where it really hurt. Women unemployment reached an all-time low, as entrepreneurs set up businesses to track and oust the remaining middle-aged men who pretended to live as couples. In the early days, bootleg apps were launched for men to ‘buddy-up’ so they could continue to go outside. But the Police soon uncovered this strategy, banning the clubs from operating and the law was quickly updated to demand that marriage certificates were carried at any time in public.

Inevitably, the backlash came as men started to mobilise, the short men moving first. #beenperkined and #mentoo started trending on social media, galvanising support for the plightof middle-aged men. Large groups gathered at the lake to fish or supermarkets for the weekly shop. In the park, it became common for large groups to run together wearing balaclavas; a clear incentive to keep up with the pack or risk being shot in broad daylight.

Eventually, the countdown to the release of Peter Perkins made national news as a huge digital countdown clock (bought cheaply from Parliament Square after Brexit) was installed in the Kettering Market Square; Peter was returning to where it all began, a beacon for justice and redemption. Plastic bunting flickered in the autumn breeze as a bald and frail man, cured of his misdemeanours, hobbled up the podium steps to shake hands with the Mayor and thank everyone for welcoming him home. Despite no-one hearing his mumbled speech, (he could no longer stand up straight or reach the goose-neck microphone), he smiled, waved at the cheering crowd, folded his notes, wobbled back down the steps and slumped back into his wheelchair. As his young care assistant poured soup from a flask and tucked a blanket tight around his legs, he leaned towards her and whispered: ‘Thank you, my dear,’ then slapped her across the arse.

[This story was published in 2020 in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine]