Macabre tradition – or moneymaking scam

When the parish church ruled people’s lives and determined what tax  you paid. Parish boundaries were delineated by markers set at intervals, usually where the line changed direction. 

A macabre tradition associated with life in old parishes was a scheme known colloquially as a ‘Tyburn Ticket’. Tyburn,  the main public gallows in London became nationally synonymous with executions in the same way that Newgate had become for prisons.   Bristol’s former Newgate now only marked by the road name. When most businesses were family run, for many taking time off to attend to parish matters was very difficult and hence unpopular, but Parish offices and civic duties were just that. Like jury duty today, non-attendance without just cause could result in a hefty fine. Often people did their best to avoid office: records abound with the names of people fined for not taking up office. Particularly unpopular duties were those of Surveyor of Roadworks, Overseer of the Poor or even Sheriff.  

There was a legal way of avoiding the duty without incurring any penalty. All you needed was a ‘Tyburn Ticket’. From 1699 ‘Any person convicted of burglary, horse stealing or shop theft to a value of five shillings or more, could be hanged’. However, for the person apprehending the thief, resulting in a conviction they were entitled to a reward. A certificate entitled the holder to be discharged from all manner of Parish duties for life within the parish where the offence had been committed.  The single-use ticket was transferable  leading to opportunities for corruption  and gross miscarriages of justice. ‘Tyburn Tickets’ were even advertised for sale. 

I wonder how many innocent people were falsely accused and sent to the gallows to meet the market for Tyburn Tickets. Even worse were instances where the reluctant office holder approached someone who could arrange a convenient ‘apprehension and conviction’ to be able to buy the necessary ticket.  I expect many such a deal was struck in the old Marsh Street stews. 

Out of the sixty-one persons hung in Bristol between 1752 and 1800 only five were for murder, which leads one to wonder how many of the remainder had been framed and ended up swinging from the gallows at, St Michael’s Hill, Gallows Acre Lane, (Pembroke Road), Gib Taylor, or at the ‘Three Lamps just so that someone could avoid their civic duties.  

As recently as 1813 the Bristol Journal for the 4th of September  ran an advertisement for two tickets, exempting the holders from Parish and Ward Offices of St Paul’s and St James’ respectively. This iniquitous system ended in 1818 but unfortunately one is reminded of  Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who wrote in 1849  “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

Photo: A Tyburn Ticket, 11 August 1800, exempting John Norman from all parish or ward duties. It was given to him for his part in the apprehension of John Armstrong, successful conviction of stealing 6s 8d worth of lead.