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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Tobias Gill

We have a number of newspaper cuttings from the Ipswich Journal concering the activities of smugglers on the coast. To counter what became a vast local industry, the government sent Dragoons. These were not local troops, as East Anglians tended to have a sympathy for the smugglers. In 1750, a detachment of the 4th Dragoons (Sir Robert Rich's Regiment of Dragoons) was based at Blythburgh. They had recently been in the war of the Austrian succession. These dragoons were rather ill-disciplined troops who disliked the location, and hostility towards them began to grow. There were a number of incidences of petty crime and rowdyness which were reported in the Ipswich Journal.

In June, 1750, the body of a local girl, Anne Blakemore, was found on the Walks about a mile west of Blythburgh. The Coroners' jury, prompted by the accusations of a number of Blythbugh residents, decided that she had been murdered by a negro Dragoon called Tobias Gill.

June 30th 1750.

Tobias Hill, a black, one of the drummers in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment was committed to Ipswich gaol, the coroners enquiry having found him guilty of the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick.

Ipswich Journal

The Unfortunate Tobias, a tall, muscular Drummer, was sent to be tried at the Bury Assizes. Tobias, nicknamed 'Black Tob' evidently had great charm when sober, but had gained a reputation as a brawler when drunk, and had been banned from many of the local beer-houses. He was said to have been found next to the dead body of the girl in a drunken stupor, but denied that he had harmed her. He pleaded his innocence most vigorously, but he was found guilty and sentenced to be hung in chains on the spot where the body had been found.

August 25th 1750.

At Bury Assizes, Toby Gil, one of Sir Robert Rich’s drummers received the death sentence for the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick, next Monday is appointed for his execution which will probably be in Ipswich and he is to be hanged in chains near the place where he committed the murder.

Ipswich Journal

The judge reflected the popular feeling at the time by saying, "I never before desired a power of executing the legal penalties, but if I had such a power I would exercise it in this case."

On 14th September 1750, poor Tobias was dragged, pleading for his life, to Blythburgh, and taken to the scene of the crime where the gallows had been set up. He, once again, protested his innocence and pleaded for his life. Just at that moment, he spied the London Mail coach approaching. In a desparate bid to save his life he asked that a halter be put round his neck and the other end tied to the coach, so that he could run by the side of the coach for his life. The answer was no; the sentence of the court had to be carried out, and so poor Tobias was hung in chains at the four cross-ways. His body was left there swinging from the chains for months. The gibbet stood there for the next fifty years, until it finally fell to pieces. A local thatcher made the nails into a thatching comb.

The mob from Blythburgh, who had so emphatically accused the negro dragoon, then began to reflect on what they had achieved and elation turned to disquiet. The coroner had failed to spot the obvious fact that there was not a mark on Anne Blakemore's body and it was by no means certain that she had been murdered at all. There was very little real evidence that Tobias had anything to do with the matter. There had been, it would seem, a miscarriage of justice

Even in death, Tobias was allowed little dignity. To cover up their activities, smugglers made the dead dragoon the subject of a number of ghost stories, including the common one of being a headless driver of a phantom black coach drawn by four headless black horses. Certainly, the thought of ghost of Black Toby kept many of the superstitious indoors at night whilst the smugglers were at work.

Did an injustice take place? My own feeling is that it probably did. In reading the reports of murder trials of the time, one is struck by how flimsy much of the evidence was and how much relied on unsubstantiated opinion. when the suspect confessed, how surprisingly articulate the confessions were, as if scripted by the prison chaplain. It is rare to read these reports and feel at the end that one has got to the truth. The people demanded swift justice when a crime was done and, under such pressure, justice was rapid and erratic in those days.


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