Judgment vs Justice
Standing at the railing on the old Victorian promenade, one looks out to the sparkling waters beyond the beach.
On clear bright days it is possible to take in extraordinary views up and down the coast – North to the ancient cliffs above St Cyrus; South to the rocky point and lighthouse at Scurdy Ness. The river South Esk meets the North Sea here and centuries ago gave access to the place that became, in time, the Royal Burgh of Montrose. Gazing with a passionate imagination still rewards one with a view of many wooden-masted sailing ships bobbing and rolling upon the gentle swells as they await tide and turn to enter the river mouth, to be carried thus to rest in the tranquil but bustling harbour.
Time has blurred the romance of a once active and ocassionally infamous port (pictured c1824). Â Its history replete with men of science, men of letters, men of commerce, men of law andâ€¦ a woman, only vaguely remembered now and sadly that fame is one of a negative hue.
Margaret Tindal Shuttleworth, on a cold and stormy day, Dec 1821, was the last woman to be publically executed – hanged – in Montrose, Scotland.Â Â Her punishment, â€œâ€¦with the pain of law, to deter others from committing the like crimes in all time coming.â€
I came across her sensational story whilst researching some other local history. I was touched and astounded by this poor womanâ€™s predicament, realising quickly its terrible unfairness, and how mistreated she was.Â Occurring in the early 19th century, still in the Georgian era, judgments were quick, harsh, patrionic,Â and very often predetermined on thin and conflicting evidence, including a great deal of local â€˜gossipâ€™. I felt deeply for her plight and grew to respect her incredible bravery.Â As was written in the papers of the time, she had held fast to her confirmation of innocence to the last – â€œâ€¦even as she stood upon the drop.â€
Accused of murdering her husband by hitting him in the head with a fireplace poker, she was also known to have a wee bit of a temper when she drank and when they both drank, they quarrelled viciously and he became a bully – â€œpeevishâ€, in her own words.
It was Margaret, while on a nightly sojourn to the kitchen for water, who found the dead man, tripping over him in the passageway at the foot of some stairs, his head in a pool of blood. It was she who ran next door to wake the brewer and raise the alarm. However, it was later determined – within only a few hours of investigation – that the crime could have been committed by no one but Â Margaret herself, or from no other cause.Â The house servant, a young woman who also lived there, gave the most damning statements; even though she was out all night at a funeral wake.Â I was always impressed by the girl’s seeming dislike for Margaret and that she possibly had a soft spot for her â€œMasterâ€.
Henry Shuttleworth was an Englishman, the son of a Birmingham button maker; a retired Sergeant of the Royal Marines.Â He met Margaret 17 years earlier when in Montrose on a recruitment effort. He often stayed at Johnstonâ€™s Â Inn in Dummie Haâ€™s Wynd, where the young, attractive barmaid had caught his eye.Â They married in 1804 (section of their marriage proclamation pictured), removed to Portsmouth, then finally Taunton where he was promoted to Sergeant and appointed the â€˜District Clerkâ€™.Â In 1816, the Napoleonic Wars ending, he was released and given a life pension of half-pay for his 19 years of service.
The childless couple returned to Montrose where it is possible Henry became involved with smuggling or dealing in contraband spirits. His small grocery and Vintners shop on the North Road did not prosper and he then took over the Hope Inn, from a local brewer, Henry Farquharson. The brewery and inn shared the close between Bridge Street and Castle Street.Â It was here that life began to fall apart for Henry and Margaret.Â Here that Henry lost his life. And, finally, within sight of this last home, that Margaret was hanged.
But, the tragedy did not end there. Â The heart wrenching fact is that about nine years later, in 1830, a letter was received in Dundee; a scaffold confession had been made down in England confirming what Margaret Tindal Shuttleworth had attested to the endâ€¦ â€œI die innocent – I love my husband – I love my life – Jesus Christ have mercy on my soul.â€
(Sandy Campbell is currently writing a ficitonalised account of Margaret Shuttleworth’s life and death).