Your favourite ERO documents: a death penalty debate

As part of our 75th anniversary celebrations this year, we recently asked you, our users, to nominate your favourite ERO documents. Thank you very much to those of you who have sent in nominations so far – today we bring you the next in a series of your favourites.

Today’s nomination (D/DEb 85/6) comes from Kate Masheder, who has been using the ERO for over ten years:

This letter relates to William Palmer who was condemned to death for sheep stealing in 1819.  He was the husband of Hannah Noakes Reeve, my gt gt gt grandmother but not (so far as we know) the father of Joseph, her firstborn, my gt gt grandfather.  William’s death left Hannah with a young son and baby, plus the six children from his first marriage.  Although Thomas Gardiner Bramston (MP) sent a letter appealing to Mr Justice Bayley for clemency, the death penalty was upheld.  I often wonder how Hannah managed during the year following his death and what happened to William’s children.  She did remarry but died in 1824 at the age of thirty.

In his letter, Mr Justice Bayley asked T.G. Bramston if he could think of any special grounds for clemency but none were forthcoming.  The crime was not a violent one but, because of his occupation as a butcher (with the means to get rid of the evidence) it was felt an example should be made of him.

The death penalty was a harsh one for a man with eight children but perhaps transportation would have left Hannah in worse circumstances as, even after a short sentence, he might not have returned home and she would have been unable to remarry.


The letter from Mr Justice Bayley discusses why it was decided to make an example of William Palmer by sentencing him to death for sheepstealing. As a butcher, he was able to easily conceal his crimes, and had stolen for sale rather than for food. Bayley discusses the problem of sheepstealing in Essex and the need to deter others, even though Bayley wrote that ‘it would have relieved my mind from great uneasiness, could I have found any Circumstances in the Case which would have warranted me … to have granted a Reprieve’.

Thank you very much to Kate for nominating this document as a favourite. We’ll be bringing you more favourites over the next few months. Nominate yours by downloading our form and either returning it in to the Searchroom desk or e-mailing it to hannahjane.salisbury[at]