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The story of three men who hanged at Penenden Heath for barn fire in The Swing Riots told by Ivan Sage

It's been just 90 years since the last man was hanged in Kent.

Before Sidney Fox met his fate, dozens of people were killed as punishment in Maidstone , most of which were carried out by William Calcraft.

William Calcraft
William Calcraft

In a series of books, former feature writer at the Essex Chronicle Ivan Sage has looked at Calcraft's life and the 400 people he is thought to have executed.

Over the next few weeks we will share some of these stories, starting with the last time men were killed at Penenden Heath.

Three men had the dubious distinction of being the last to be hanged at Penenden Heath on December 24, 1830 – by the following summer, all other local executions would be held at the new scaffold erected at Maidstone Prison.

Towards the end of October 1830 there had been widespread uproar in the countryside in the southern counties. Thousands of farm labourers, who had seen their jobs and wages at risk owing to the advent of more modern farm machinery such as threshing machines, began to protest and to sabotage equipment.

These protests developed into riots in some parts of the countryside and the problem had become so dire that a Special Commission was eventually set up to try to ensure any guilty parties could be traced and punished. The events became known as The Swing Riots, named after a mythical leader, Captain Swing.

Justice Bosanquet. Picture: Multiple Hangings by Ivan Sage (42199612)
Justice Bosanquet. Picture: Multiple Hangings by Ivan Sage (42199612)

On December 17, 1830, two brothers William and Henry Packman, aged 20 and 18 years, were found guilty at Maidstone Assizes of setting fire to a barn belonging to farmer William Wraight of Blean.

Despite finding the brothers guilty, the jury recommended the judge, Mr Justice Bosanquet, should show mercy – the boys had been led astray by others, including another man, John Dyke, who hailed from the nearby village of Bearsted.

The judge, however, took a dim view of the crime – in his view the boys were obviously guilty and nothing he had heard at the trial would induce him to leniency. The brothers, and John Dyke, were sentenced to hang within days.

And so it was, on December 24, William Calcraft was waiting to dispatch the three unfortunates on the heath at Penenden. A huge, largely sympathetic, crowd had gathered by the time the three prisoners arrived in a heavily protected wagon from Maidstone Prison.

As the wagon approached the gallows, the prisoners, seated on their coffins, dolefully surveyed the scene. One of the Packman brothers was heard saying to the onlookers: ‘That (the gallows) looks an awful thing!’

Rioters burn a farm in 1830
Rioters burn a farm in 1830

Throughout their trial the Packmans had faced their fate quite stoicly and it was not until they witnessed John Dyke being prepared for execution that they truly showed any emotion. Meanwhile, Calcraft was no doubt under pressure to show how well he could handle a multiple hanging before such a huge crowd.

Once all three had been guided up the steps of the scaffold, they were each invited to address the onlookers. The chaplain, in a low tone, said to Dyke: ‘Now you have come to the worst and there is no chance of escape, do tell the truth.’ To which Dyke replied loudly: ‘I am innocent and Hewitt and his wife (who had given evidence against him at the trial) have sworn falsely against me – mind the ninth commandment!’

The Packman brothers had already admitted their guilt but, before the nooses were placed around their necks, they claimed an accomplice named Goodman had urged them to set fire to the barn. Henry Packman faced the crowd and declared that a man named Bishop – who had given evidence against them at the trial – had encouraged them to burn the barn. Bishop had turned King’s Evidence at the trial and, according to the judge and jury, had, in fact, been more guilty than the Packmans.

The Packman brothers, having addressed the crowd, turned to each other and shook hands. Henry and John Dyke had their hands tied behind them but, for some reason, William’s hands were not tied when Calcraft began to place the white hoods over the heads of the three men. Before Calcraft could place the noose around William’s neck, William tore off his hood, declaring that he wished to see the faces of the crowd.

Moments later, all three men were hanging by the neck. After their bodies had hung for an hour, they were cut down. The Packmans’ father removed their bodies for burial at Canterbury. Dyke was later interred in the graveyard of the Church of the Holy Cross at Bearsted.

John Dyke's headstone. Picture: Multiple Hangings by Ivan Sage (42199614)
John Dyke's headstone. Picture: Multiple Hangings by Ivan Sage (42199614)

But this story does not end with the hanging. The offences Dyke was charged with involved two cases of arson, one at Bearsted, and the other at Thurnham. It was not until several years after Dyke’s hanging that a man, on his death bed, admitted to being the real culprit.

On the gallows, John Dyke had indeed been telling the truth. Today, in the churchyard where he is buried, there is a plaque inscribed with the words: ‘This tree marks the grave of John Dyke, who was hanged for rick burning in 1830 at the last public hanging at nearby Penenden Heath. Subsequently it was found that he was not guilty of the crime’.

This story features in Volume 3 - Multiple Hangings and can be bought as an eBook on Amazon for £3.99.

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