Execution of Silvester WILKINS
From Bridport at Dorchester gaol on 30 March 1833

(Report of his trial in the Morning Post (London England) Friday March 15th 1833)
Transcribed by Michael Russell OPC Dorchester - November 2010 (Last updated Mar 2017)


(Before Mr. Justice LITTLEDALE)

Wednesday, March 13

ARSON - Silvester WILKINS was indicted for having maliciously and feloniously set fire to a certain combing-shop at Bridport, on the 25th of February last, the property of John FOLLETT.

The prosecution was conducted by Mr. BARSTOW.

John FOLLETT deposed that he was a flax-comber, residing in Irish-lane, Bridport; had a flax-shop adjoining his dwelling-house. Prisoner's father lived about sixty yards from his shop; his garden ran along the side of witness's shop; witness's back wall was against his garden; there was a hole in the wall about five feet from the ground, for the purpose of letting air into the shop; under this hole there was some flax. On the evening of the 8th of February witness was from home; he was alarmed by the cry of fire; returned at a quarter past ten; the fire was extinguished. The flax had been burned which was under the hole. Witness always worked with a lamp, and there had been no other light in the shop. Saw the Prisoner afterwards in his father's garden, in the company of John MIDDLETON and David CURME. On the 25th February witness was again away from home, when he was alarmed by the cry of fire. He returned home at half past ten. He had left his watchman, Robert CRABB in the shop. Found the back part of the combing-shop on fire. The door of the shop was closed. The shop, witness's dwelling-house, and seven other houses, were burnt down.

In his cross examination by Mr. RAWLINSON the witness said he had never had any quarrel with the Prisoner.

Robert CRABB worked for Prosecutor on the 25th Feb; left the shop a little before nine o'clock in the evening; all was then safe; he had not had any light.

David CURME knew the Prisoner, and ODDER was with them on the day of Bridport fair; Prisoner said Follett's combing-shop would make a good fire, and asked Odder and witness if they would help him to set it on fire; they refused to do so; saw Prisoner and his brother on a Sunday morning, about six weeks ago; they could see Follett's shop; Prisoner asked them to set it on fire with him; they said they would do so on the next evening, but they did not meet; about a fortnight afterwards saw Prisoner and his brother at his father's shop; he asked if they would help to set it on fire that evening; they agreed to do so. The witness then detailed different circumstances which left no doubt but that the shop had been previously set on fire. Saw the Prisoner about three weeks ago; they went to the Antelope, where they remained till ten minutes past ten o'clock; Prisoner left first, and witness joined him shortly after by the side of his father's house. Prisoner asked him if he had any tobacco. Witness replied that he had not. They went and got the key of his father's house. Prisoner got some tobacco and put it in his pipe, which he lighted with a candle he obtained next door. Witness said it would not smoke. Prisoner took a fork and cleared the pipe. Witness lighted it. They then went into his father's garden; it was about a quarter past ten o'clock. They went towards Follett's shop, and the Prisoner went close to the shop, and pulled out some of the thatch. He then put some oily paper, which he took out of his pocket, into the place from whence he had taken the thatch. He took a match out of his pocket, and tried to light it with his pipe. He put it to the oily paper which was in the hole, and it caught fire. They then left directly. Prisoner went down through the garden into his fathers house. Shortly after heard the fire-bell ring; asked the ostler of the Greyhound where the fire was. Went as far as the Market-house with him. Then went to the fire. Follett's house was burning. In about an hour after saw the Prisoner opposite the fire. They were three or four houses then on fire. Saw Prisoner and Middleton together the next day. Middleton asked them if they had set it on fire. Witness said to Prisoner, "We may as well tell Middleton, for he was with us the first time, and if we are found out he will be as bad as we are". They then told Middleton they had set it on fire. Prisoner said he went out to see it burning and heard the woman calling out "Oh my dear Lord!" and he could not help laughing.

Cross-examined by Mr Rawlinson - Heard the bell ring between 20 and 25 minutes past 10.

By the JUDGE - Was committed on this charge, and came from the gaol to save himself punishment, from being hanged. Came to give evidence against the Prisoner to save himself. Witness expected to get off whether the Prisoner was convicted or acquitted. Witness is 17, Prisoner 16.

John MIDDLETON - Was now in custody for attempting to set fire to the shop about a fortnight before the fire took place. Had received a promise that he should be let off if he would give evidence against the Prisoner. On the 8th of February Prisoner called on him, and said he had a lark in view if he would join him; there was an old combing-shop which he meant to burn down if witness would join him. Witness said he did not mind, and asked him how it could be done. Curme said it could be done with a pipe, and gave him a halfpenny to buy one. Curme and Prisoner the next day said they had done it.

Other witnesses were called, who deposed to the Prisoner lighting the candle, saying "What fun it would be to have a fire," and to other corroborating circumstances.

The case for the prosecution being closed, In his defence the Prisoner had a good character given him.

His LORDSHIP summed up at very considerable length; after which the Jury returned a verdict of Guilty, but recommended him to mercy on account of his youth and previous good character.

His LORDSHIP immediately passed sentence of death upon the prisoner, who was a mere boy of sixteen.

Genealogical Notes:-

(1). Silvester WILKINS was the son of Thomas WILKINS a carpenter by trade and Ann SHEPICK [SHEPPICK] who married in St Marys Church in Bridport on 24 Jan 1808. (See CLDS Film 1279486). They had at least six children there although the first Eliza (1809) and Walter Symes (1812) died in infancy, he appears to have had 3 other surviving brothers Walter Symes (1814); Augustus (1824) and Hezekiah (1828). His parents and his 2 younger brothers are all still in Bridport in the 1841 Census.

(2). Silvester WILKINS was baptised in St Mary's church Bridport on 4th May 1817 and buried there after his execution on 5th April 1833 the Parish register giving his age as 15.

(3). It was to be twenty three years before the next public execution in Dorchester of Elizabeth Martha Brown. The Western Gazette on 24th July 1856 whilst reporting on that case referred back to this when the editor stated "It is twenty-three and a half years ago since the quietude of the county town was disturbed by a public execution, and we cannot look back on the last occasion when the grim apparatus of death was erected over the goal entrance without a shudder of indignation. The poor fellow whose life was last taken upon the scaffold in this county, Sylvester Wilkins, was only fifteen years old! In a lark he ignited a piece of tow that had been stuffed into a hole in an adjoining house. An accomplice older than himself, was permitted to turn King's evidence. The Jury recommended the convict to mercy on account of his youth, yet the judge left him for execution and he was hanged on the 23rd March 1833. We live in more humane times, and thank God such judges as Littledale have passed away. Such a crime as that which young Wilkins expiated with his life, would now consign its perpetrator to the enlightened and humane provision of modern days - a Juvenile Reformatory."

(4). In the Dorchester Gallery at the County Museum there are on display two lead weights each about the size of a brick, engraved with the word “Mercy.” Silvester Wilkins was a very light man and even with the benefit of the long drop he faced a lingering death, the weights were a humane gesture from the Governor of the jail. Link to the Dorset County Museum website and an account of the 'History of the Dorchester Gallows'. Page down to see an image of the Mercy Weight

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