TRY to imagine the scene, the atmosphere, the prevailing sense of unease and, yes, even the excitement that surely permeated The Goddard Arms Hotel at 1 High Street, Swindon, on the morning of Friday, July 30, 1819, writes BARRY LEIGHTON.

Safely under lock and key and watched like a hawk by a posse of constables, Robert Turner Watkins ate a hearty breakfast and hopefully savoured every moment. After all, it would be his last.

In another, presumably oak-panelled room at the tavern that had risen a few years earlier on the site of The Olde Crown, Jack Ketch also tucked into a spot of grub before a hard day at the office.

It is impossible not to surmise that the two actually met – maybe even bumped into each other. “Alright Jack – OK Bob – see you later.” But probably not. That would happen in a couple of hours anyway.

Outside an expectant crowd gathered eagerly awaiting the appearance of the two protagonists on this momentous occasion.

It was Jack’s job to kill Robert that summer’s day almost 200 years ago. As Crown-appointed executioner that’s precisely what he did, although a mechanical failure meant that it took two goes before the condemned man met his maker.

A field near Purton Stoke eight miles away was the location and those present almost certainly remembered it for the rest of their lives as it was the last public execution ever staged in the vicinity of Swindon.

Decades later it was still referred to in town as Hang Fair Day. Disturbing as it may seem from a distance of two centuries, the gathering became positively carnival-like, featuring an “immense crowd of sightseers” from Swindon and surrounding areas, and who made “ribald” noises.

So how did Robert Watkins, 25, come to find himself on a newly-erected scaffold next to a gallows pole in a remote corner of the North Wiltshire countryside staring into a sea of up to 15,000 faces?

A “rough diamond” and a “bully and bruiser,” Watkins was a champion bare-knuckle fighter from Wootton Bassett who was not averse to selling his pugilistic skills when required.

Like many rural men during the era of canal-mania, he helped build waterways and had been labouring on a canal in Portsmouth when he returned home in May, 1819 – the very month of the birth of Queen Victoria (though happily, the events are not connected.) On the evening of Friday, May 7 Stephen Rodway, a “respectable salt and coal merchant,” was returning home to Cricklade by horse and cart from Wootton Bassett, his pockets bulging with the day’s takings.

Beneath a full moon at approximately 9.30pm he was brutally waylaid, Dick Turpin-like, by a ruffian or ruffians hiding in the bushes. Shot in the chest, robbed of £40 and a silver watch, his lifeless body was callously abandoned by the roadside.

Hours later it was dragged to The Bell at Purton Stoke where an autopsy was performed on a bar table by a local surgeon.

Evidence soon led to Robert and his brother Edward who were quizzed, charged with murder and sent for trial at Salisbury Assizes.

While Watkins was working in Portsmouth he had formed a liaison with his landlady’s daughter Sophia Cousans. Soon after the slaying, Watkins sent her a £5 note that was marked and identified by Rodway’s son-in-law.

Another two £1 notes that allegedly belonged to Rodway were paid by Watkins to a draper, Edward Belcher.

The Times, which covered the trial, quoted the judge as saying the evidence was conclusive and the jury took just one minute to pronounce “guilty”.

Edward escaped the noose, having been found to have buried the pistol but taken no part in the murder. The judge ordered Robert to be taken to as near as possible the spot of the murder and publically hanged there as a warning to others.

Watkins had vehemently denied the charge, telling the judge: “I am no more guilty of the murder than you, my lord.” He then behaved in an “impudent” manner by putting on his hat, calling for his coat and making to leave.

Prevented from doing so, he added: “I am ready to die for it and I don’t care,” thus accepting his fate in a leisurely and composed manner, according to The Times.

The day after the trial Watkins was taken from Fisherton prison, Salisbury and – after an overnight stay in Marlborough – arrived at The Goddards where the party met the hangman.

Founder of the Swindon Advertiser William Morris wasn’t born until seven years after these events.

However, one of his first childhood memories was of “hearing people talk about going from Swindon to Purton to see a man hanged” in much the same way as they spoke of going to the races at Burderop.

According to Morris, public executioner Ketch arrived in a yellow poste-chaise the likes of which had never been seen in Swindon before.

A somewhat unseemly and, by today’s standards, wholly inappropriate procession left our small but perhaps not so genteel market town en masse in an assortment of horse-drawn vehicles towards Purton Stoke.

Along the way men “blew long brass horns to the notes of some dreadful and melancholy tune,” said Morris.

Purton historian Alec Robbins said Watkins made the journey in a standard mourning coach before being placed for the final leg upon a “hurdle in a cart, together with his coffin.”

His wife had already “died of grief” before the trial. Seeing his children as he was led to the scaffold, one of them said “mammy is dead.” To which Watkins’ replied: “Ah, and so will your daddy be shortly.”

By then between 10,000 and 15,000 people including spectators from Cricklade, Purton and Wootton Bassett had gathered – a crowd of staggering proportions when you consider Swindon’s population was less than 2,000.

Tradespeople and entertainers descended in droves for the bumper day out while 200 special constables were sworn in in case of trouble. Exuding great courage Watkins calmly and quietly joined on-lookers in “earnest prayer.”

Claiming his innocence until the end, he “read aloud to the multitude the 108th Psalm” and as Ketch adjusted the rope he uttered “God bless you all” followed seconds later by “It could only kill the body…”

And then, as if from some Hollywood epic, a “fearful storm” erupted, the fury of which was not witnessed in the area for many a year.

Some saw it as a sign that an innocent man had been put to death… a suggestion later compounded when his father allegedly confessed to the crime.

Sources for the story include the books Purton’s Past, and Records and Recollections of Purton and District both by Alec Robbins, the Purton Stoke Website and Swindon Reminiscences by William Morris.

  •  THE precise location of the execution is a bend on the Cricklade Road a few hundred yards before you reach Purton Stoke from the direction of Purton.
    At the time it was known as Moor Stones but for the past 197 years it has been Watkins Corner.
    Attempting to find it I popped into The Bell. “Ah,” came the response, “you mean Hangman’s Corner – it’s back that way.”
    Naturally, the spot is said to be haunted by the ghost of a certain Robert Watkins.
  • IT is a little known fact that Swindon once had a gallows pole.
    When William de Valence inherited Chipping Swyndon in the 13th Century it included “right of gallows” with the said pole understood to have been located at the top of today’s Kingshill Road
    The stocks and pillory stood in The Market Square while a ducking stool could be accessed at a long gone mill pond in Lawns parkland
  •  SOME 188 years after Watkins’ death, the village of Purton Stoke relived Hang Fair Day – complete with mock murder, autopsy, trial and execution. Arkells, which owns the village pub The Bell, concocted a special brew Gallows Ale (“a nice drop of ale”), while souvenir mugs were sold and a 44-page booklet, The Robert Watkins Story, was produced. Relatives of Watkins and Rodway gave their approval for the 2007 theatrical re-creation in aid of charity. Villagers in period costume re-enacted the drama – from judge, hangman and the condemned man to soldiers and spectators. One of the organisers Denise Simpkins said at the time: “It’s an important though unfortunate part of our local history. “People like me have been aware of it largely because of an old re-produced notice which has been displayed in The Bell fof years"
  •  JACK Ketch was an infamous 17th Century English executioner. He came to prominence during the Monmouth Rebellion and beheaded James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth along with other leading political offenders of the era. The axeman’s notoriety stemmed either from barbarity or incompetence – no-one was quite sure – which saw him botch many a job, often requiring several hacks to complete the task. He died in 1686… so why was he taking breakfast at The Goddard Arms in Swindon 133 years later? He wasn’t, of course. But over the decades executioners in general were referred to as Jack Ketch which was fine by them as it maintained their anonymity