Staunton Harold Hall was the home of Laurence Shirley (1720–60), fourth Earl Ferrers, the last English peer to suffer a felon’s death. Although normally perfectly capable of managing his business affairs, he was given to manic outbursts of rage, exacerbated by drink. He once ordered a manservant to shoot his brother, and the servants themselves he would beat, horse-whip, kick, and on one near-fatal occasion stab.
He was such a monster to his wife, whom he married in 1752, that Parliament passed an Act granting her a separation and maintenance out of his estates. These were vested in trustees, who appointed as receiver of rents John Johnson, who had served the Ferrers family nearly all his life. This was at the earl’s suggestion, evidently because he thought an old retainer would help him cheat his wife, but (according to T. B. Howell’s State Trials), finding Johnson to be incorruptible, ‘his … mind … altered towards him’. He gave Johnson notice to quit a farm promised him before his appointment. When Johnson produced a legal lease, granted by the trustees, his resentment grew. However, the matter was dropped, and seemingly amicable relations resumed.
Consequently, when the earl asked Johnson to come and see him on 18 January 1760, Johnson went. But Earl Ferrers had packed his household off for the day apart from a few women servants. On arrival, Johnson was shown into the parlour:
After Mr Johnson had been there the best part of an hour, one of the maids … heard my lord … say, … Down upon your knees; your time has come; you must die; and presently after heard a pistol go off …
Johnson did not die immediately but was led upstairs to bed. Someone went to inform Johnson’s children and summon the surgeon. After a couple of hours, Dr Thomas Kirkland, from Ashby-de-la-Zouche, arrived. The earl told him that he had shot Johnson ‘coolly’ and ‘desired he might not be seized till it was known … whether Mr Johnson would die or not’. At the same time, he threatened ‘that if any person attempted to seize him, he would shoot him’.
Later, after he had been drinking, he began to rail at the dying man and made to pull him out of his bed. He would not hear of Johnson being carried to his own home, as he wished to keep his eye on the ‘villain’. At last he himself went to bed, and Kirkland spirited Johnson out of the house to his home, where he died next morning.
Attempting to run away, Ferrers was intercepted by two colliers and arrested. On Wednesday, 16 April 1760, he went on trial before the House of Peers in Westminster Hall. He pleaded ‘not guilty’ and conducted his own defence, during which witnesses were called to give evidence of the insanity in his family. However, on the third day, the peers unanimously found him guilty of murdering Johnson ‘feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought’. Condemned to death, he petitioned, as a peer, to be beheaded in the Tower of London, but the king refused. He was to be hanged at Tyburn like an ordinary felon.
Earl Ferrers carried off his execution with style. According to the sheriffs’ report, ‘dressed in a suit of light clothes, embroidered with silver’ (some say his wedding suit), he drove from the Tower to Tyburn in his own landau, drawn by his own six horses. A crowd of ‘many hundred thousand spectators’ turned out, so that the short journey took two and three-quarter hours, during which ‘he appeared to be perfectly easy’.
Earl Ferrers mounted the scaffold calmly. There was one concession to his rank: he would not swing off the hangman’s cart but be executed from what Horace Walpole termed ‘a new contrivance for sinking the stage under him’ – the first modern-style scaffold used in Britain. However, it ‘did not play well’ and he took minutes to die. His body was taken for dissection and ‘anatomizing’ at the Surgeons’ Hall, then privately interred at St Pancras.
The flamboyance of his life and death, inspiring tittle-tattle and rumour, has turned Earl Ferrers’ history into fantasy. It is frequently said that he was hanged with a silken rope, but it was common hemp. Though Roy Palmer was told as a boy that the room where the murder took place had been locked ever since, it must have been opened when the house was remodelled as a Palladian mansion from 1763 on.
The surgeon, Thomas Kirkland, supposedly had a prevision of the earl’s funeral four months before the event. On 18 January 1760, he was out riding when, at about four in the afternoon, he stopped to allow his horse to drink from a stream. Falling into a trance, he saw a magnificent funeral pass, including a coach drawn by six horses and bearing the Ferrers arms. On reaching home, he was summoned to Staunton Harold, where he learned that Johnson had been shot at 4 p.m. In reality, it was nearly a quarter of a century before Earl Ferrers’ remains were exhumed and taken home to Staunton.