William Jobling - martyr or murderer?

SOUTH Tyneside Council has decided to commemorate the gibbeting of William Jobling. But was he a martyr or a murderer?

The grave of Thomas Hepburn, founder of the Northern Union of Pitmen, can be found in Saint Mary's churchyard at Heworth, Gateshead.

His gravestone reads: "This stone was erected by the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends".

It's the phrase 'other friends' that gives the inscription its power.

Conditions in collieries in 19th century North East England were hard, and colliery records reveal a frightening death toll.

Jarrow's pit was no exception. On January 25, 1817, 42 men and boys were killed there, and in a near duplication of events in August 1830, a further 42 lost their lives, leaving, on that occasion, 21 widows and 66 fatherless children.

It's in this context that the story of William Jobling must be seen.

Mineworkers had to sign an annual contract known as a bond, which meant they had to stay at a particular colliery for a year and a day.

As most pitmen of that time were illiterate, they would just write an 'X' on the bond, and the viewer or manager of the colliery would add their name for them.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, miners had voiced dissatisfaction about the conditions of their bonds, and eventually they went on strike in 1810.

No permanent union organisation existed, however, until the establishment of the Northern Union of Pitmen of Tyne and Wear, led by Thomas Hepburn, in 1831.

Hepburn was a Wesleyan, as were many pitmen. He was also a lay preacher and could read and write, courtesy of classes organised by Methodist chapels.

In April 1831, he led the pitmen in another strike. He wanted boys to work no more than 12 hours a day, rather than the 16 hours they had been putting in.

He also sought the abolition of so-called tommy shops. These were company stores charging inflated prices at which pitmen, paid in tommy checks, were forced to spend their wages.

Battles ensued between pitmen and the militia, though Hepburn pleaded with his members to shun violence.

Meetings were held at Black Fell, Boldon Colliery and Friars Goose, Gateshead.

The strike lasted until September 1831. Some concessions were gained. Hepburn was made a full-time official, but there was still bitter opposition to the unions.

In April 1832, there was another strike among the pitmen of Northumberland and Durham, and they refused to sign their annual bonds. Once again, there was violence.

On June 11, 1832, Jarrow pitmen Ralph Armstrong and William Jobling were drinking in a pub in South Shields.

On the road by the toll-bar gate, near Jarrow Slake, Jobling begged from Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old magistrate.

Fairles refused to hand over any money, prompting Armstrong, who had followed Jobling, to attack him with a stick and a stone.

Both men then ran away, leaving Fairles seriously injured.

Two hours later, Jobling was arrested on South Shields beach. Armstrong, an ex-seaman, apparently returned to sea.

After his arrest Jobling was taken to Fairles's home, and it was established that he had been present but had not taken part in the assault.

Jobling was returned to Durham Jail, and after Fairles died of his injuries on June 21, he was charged with murder.

Jobling was tried at Durham Assizes on Wednesday, August 1. The jury took just 15 minutes to reach a guilty verdict.

The sentence was that Jobling be hanged from a gibbet erected in Jarrow Slake, near the scene of the attack.

The judge in the case said: "I trust that the sight of that will have some effect upon those who, are to a certain extent, your companions in guilt and your companions in these illegal proceedings which have disgraced the county. May they take warning by your fate."

Jobling was the last man to be gibbeted in the north east.

He was hanged on August 3. Hepburn asked his men not to attend the execution.

After Jobling was taken from the scaffold, his clothes were removed and his body covered in pitch.

He was then riveted into a cage made of flat iron bars. His feet were placed in stirrups, from which bars of iron went up each side of his head, ending in a ring, from which the cage was suspended.

Jobling's hands hung by his sides, and his head was covered with a white cloth obscuring his face.

In a horse-drawn wagon on Monday, August 6, his body was taken to Jarrow Slake, escorted by a troop of hussars and two companies of infantry.

The gibbet was fixed upon a stone sunk into the slake, and the heavy wooden uprights were reinforced with steel bars to prevent them being sawn through.

At high tide, the water covered up to 5ft of the gibbet, leaving a further 16ft to 17ft visible.

Isabella Jobling, the hanged man's widow, had a cottage near the slake, so she would have been able to see her husband clearly for the three weeks he was left on display.

On August 31, after the guard on the corpse was removed, Jobling's friends stole his body. Its whereabouts are still unknown.

By September 1832, the strike had petered out, and the union was almost non-existent, though it did revive some years later.

After the demise of the union, Hepburn tried selling tea door to door, but those buying from him risked losing their jobs.

Eventually, Hepburn went to Felling Colliery and asked for work.

He was offered employment provided he had no further dealings with unions.

He agreed and devoted the rest of his life to educating pitmen.

In April 1891, Isabella Jobling went into South Shields Workhouse and died there, too senile to recall her husband.

Much of Jarrow's slake has been reclaimed. The town's colliery closed in 1852, and now there is no indication of where it stood.

What effect did Jobling's hanging have? His death and gibbeting have stuck in folk memory.

What impression did his cage swinging on Jarrow slake make? It is a powerful image of the ruthless strength of those in authority.

Were the pitmen bowed by its power? I suggest they were.

Jobling was no murderer. At worst, he was an accessory to murder, and he could be considered callous for leaving Fairles to suffer.

Did he deserve to be treated the way he was? Perhaps the revolution in France was too fresh in the mind, and it was felt the working class should be treated harshly at any sign of insurrection.

Was he a martyr? Here was a poor, illiterate man. We can now recognise that his fate made him a symbol, a battering ram to butt the pitmen of 1832 back to work, and it had the desired effect.

William Jobling, Jarrow pitman, may you now, at long last, rest in peace.