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Would You Believe It?

by Julie Bunting

From Buxton Races to Eternity

Drinking and gambling have been the ruin of many a man – in 1791 these twin vices cost William Rider his life.


A Yorkshireman in his early twenties, Rider was a weaver who had fallen into bad company and joined a gang of travelling pickpockets and fraudsters – the sort of ‘loose, disorderly persons’ who descended on crowded race meetings and country fairs. At Buxton races Rider was caught with his hand in a gentleman’s pocket and treated very roughly by an angry crowd of onlookers. He was taken off to Tideswell House of Correction to await trial in Chesterfield, where he would be committed to three months’ hard labour in Derby House of Correction as a ‘rogue and vagabond’.


On his release, Rider travelled no further than Makeney before violently attacking a woman named Mary Barton, robbing her of six half-pennies. Splattered with blood, he made straight for the nearest public house but was shortly apprehended by the Makeney toll-keeper, who had heard Mary’s cries and chased after her assailant.


Rider was brought before the March assizes to face charges of robbery and ravishment. Following a lengthy trial he was indicted for robbery on the King’s Highway, a capital offence for which the learned judge, Sir Nathan Grose, pronounced the death sentence. Rider was taken to Derby gaol and shackled in a cell.


With time to reflect, he admitted that he had been so drunk when robbing Mary Barton that he barely knew what he was doing. The prison chaplain tried to persuade Rider to make a full confession but he remained unrepentant. He went so far as to declare that it was as well his career had been brought to an end, as he would certainly have gone on as before. In his final days Rider made a desperate attempt to escape from his cell with the help of an ‘artfully procured’ light and a large stone. He managed to free himself from his chains and was attempting to make a hole in the wall when the gaoler caught him in he act.


Five days later, on 1 April 1791, came the morning of his public execution in Derby. A contemporary broadsheet tells how he made his last farewells and received the sacrament. Then ‘... on the arrival of the Under-Sheriff, and the Javelin-men, he was put into a cart, and carried through the streets, amidst a great concourse of spectators, exhibiting an awful lesson to Youth in particular, and Mankind in general ... After the usual prayers, &c. at the place of execution, the cap being drawn over his face, he was launched into eternity!’ 

Julie Bunting

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