Skip to main content

4th Earl Ferrers: The Last British Peer to Be Hanged in England

I enjoy researching and writing about British and royal history. Most people have not heard of the Kingdom of Dumnonia. Welcome.

Murderer Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers.

Murderer Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers.

Murderous Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers (1720-1760) was hanged at Tyburn Tree, London on the 5th May 1760 after he was found guilty of the murder of his chief steward John Johnson.

Laurence, sometimes spelled Lawrence, was a grandson of Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers, and his first wife Elizabeth. Laurence's own parents were Laurence and Anne (nee Clarges).

He left the schoolroom without a backward glance and fled to Paris, where he keenly took up the pleasures of the French capital. Back in England in 1744, he acquired Margaret Clifford as his mistress and they had four daughters between 1744 and 1749. (Margaret, Anna Maria, Elizabeth and Mary).

His fifty-three-year-old uncle Henry Shirley, 3rd Earl Ferrers, died on 6th August 1745. He'd suffered from mental health issues, and he was apparently insane by the time of his death.

At twenty-five years old a hedonistic Laurence became the 4th earl and he inherited the family lands in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, a stately pile in Leicestershire named Staunton Harold Hall which had its own place of worship the Holy Trinity Chapel, and considerable wealth.

Lady Mary Shirley nee Meredith later Lady Frederick Campbell. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough

Lady Mary Shirley nee Meredith later Lady Frederick Campbell. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough

Mary Shirley, Lady Ferrers: Six Years of Cruelty

On 16th September 1752, the earl married Mary Meredith (c.1730-1807), the sister of Sir William Meredith, 3rd Baronet. Their marriage was a thoroughly miserable one. They had no children and could barely endure one another's company.

They were legally separated in 1758 when Mary claimed that his cruelty, womanising, drunkenness and flaunting of his mistress and illegitimate children were so unbearable that she must be released from the union.

That she was able to do this with legal support was exceptional. Wives rarely received sympathy, let alone legal redress for their suffering, because they were considered to be their husband's property to do with what they wished, even if that was to beat them senseless. She secured the testimony of some servants, including her husband's chief steward John Johnson who spoke in her defence.

For several years there was widespread gossip about the 4th Earl Ferrers probable insanity. Certainly, his volatile nature had presented itself at an early age, and it had never been calmed.

The earl moved Margaret Clifford and their daughters into the hall when Mary left.

A contemporary illustration of Earl Ferrers shooting his chief steward John Johnson.

A contemporary illustration of Earl Ferrers shooting his chief steward John Johnson.

The Murder of John Johnson

John Johnson was given the task of collecting Mary's share of the tenants' rent. He was dutiful to his task, helped Mary (he was suspected of paying Mary £50 that hadn't been authorised by the earl) and refused to be intimidated by his master. There was speculation that the earl believed Johnson and Mary were lovers; this was never proven nor investigated.

On the 18th January 1760, Johnson was told to attend a meeting with the earl at 3 p.m. in the study of Staunton Harold Hall. He did so. He and the earl were heard talking and then arguing before a gunshot rang out. Johnson was not killed by the shot from Ferrers's gun. The staff at the hall tended to his wounds as an inebriated earl spat obscenities at Johnson and his underlings.

Dr. Thomas Kirkland was called, and he ascertained that it was possible to move Johnson to his own home under his supervision and with Sarah Johnson nursing her father. Sadly, John Johnson died the following morning.

A rumour emerged that Sarah had been promised financial assistance by the earl if she didn't bring a charge of murder against him. If this was true, it was to no avail. Dr. Kirkland and some local men arrested the earl.

The Trial at Westminster Hall

George, Prince of Wales, Duke of Edinburgh (King George III by the close of the year) was instructed with his fellow peers to attend the ancient Westminster Hall in London on the 16th April 1760 at 10 a.m. for a murder trial. The Lord Chancellor and Lord High Steward commanded their presence because as a peer Ferrers, had the right to a trial by his fellow peers, people who were deemed worthy to pass judgement on one of their own. Attorney General Charles Pratt acted for the prosecution.

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, conducted his own defence. He claimed insanity, but this was not accepted by the court. His other line of defence was that he hadn’t intended to kill Johnson, just to wound him as punishment for not serving him faithfully, so could that be defined as murder?

Holy Trinity Chapel in the grounds of Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire. This was Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers final resting place.

Holy Trinity Chapel in the grounds of Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire. This was Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers final resting place.

"He observed that the apparatus and being made a spectacle of to so vast a multitude was greatly worse than death itself..." — Caroline Powys, diarist.

Executed at Tyburn

A guilty verdict was delivered on 17th April. He was sentenced to hang at Tyburn before his public exhibition and dissection.

Earl Ferrers was incarcerated in the Tower of London until his execution on 5th May 1760. He wore his wedding outfit and travelled in his own carriage from the tower to the scaffold. He commented that his unhappy marriage had led to his execution, so he wanted to die in the outfit because "he thought this at least as good an occasion for putting them on as that for which they were first made.”

The hangman was named Thomas Turlis. The earl's body, or what remained of it after dissection, was buried at St. Pancras Church in London. In 1782 it was transported to the family vault in Holy Trinity Chapel at Staunton Harold Hall.

Laurence Shirley's brothers Washington and Robert were the 5th and 6th Earl Ferrers. The 7th-10th earls were of Robert's direct line.

Mary Shirley married Lord Frederick Campbell in 1769, this was a happier match, and they had two daughters. Mary died in a fire in 1807; Frederick survived her by eleven years.

Sources

© 2022 Joanne Hayle