Friday, 14 September 2012

Black Tom of Bedford

As the county town, Bedford has a history going back well over a thousand years. It is home to several fine public buildings, bridges and town houses. It has also long been the centre for royal justice in the region and it is this that led to the most persistent haunting in the town.

Black Tom was, everyone agreed, a rogue. But he was a likable enough young man who did little actual harm to anyone, except to lighten their pockets of silver and gold on occasion. It therefore came as no surprise to anyone when Black Tom was one day arrested and thrown into Bedford Prison. Nor was it much of a shock that he was sentenced to death, this being the official sentence for highway robbery and a host of other crimes in the later 18th century. It was a bit of a surprise, however, that he was actually hanged.

At the time it was usual for the judges and magistrates to retire after the trial to await any pleas for mercy from the condemned man, his relatives or any interested local residents. Depending on the severity of the crime, and the eloquence of the pleas or size of the petition, the sentence was adjusted. Most people condemned to death were not hanged. Instead they were imprisoned for a set number of years, sent to work as convict labour in the colonies or fined. Being a non-violent robber and, moreover, a ready wit, Black Tom had no trouble getting a good petition together signed by the people of Bedford. But he was hanged anyway.

On his way to the gallows on a cart, Black Tom was stopped by the landlord of the inn that stood by the town gates on the main road north. The landlord offered the condemned man a bottle of wine. Black Tom drank a glass, then handed the rest of the bottle to his friends. “I’ll pay for it on my way back” he joked to the landlord. It was the last joke the witty Black Tom ever made.

It turned out that the head gaolor of Bedford Prison had not passed on the petition to the judges who had not, therefore, commuted the sentence. The gaolor had not been given a suitably large bribe by the impoverished Black Tom. This, and other scandals, appalled a Bedford gentleman by the name of John Howard. He discovered that most county authorities did not pay their gaolors a salary, but instead expected them to earn money by charging prisoners for food, drink and by taking bribes. This, Howard decided, could lead only to injustices, corruption and degradation.

Having travelled around England to collect evidence, Howard began to lobby Parliament for reform. It took time, but in 1774 he succeeded in having an Act of Parliament passed that for the first time set down basic levels of sanitation, food and care in prisons and made provision for gaolors to be paid a salary to supply them.

It was all too late for poor Black Tom, but although he is gone he is not forgotten. Nor has he forgotten Bedford. He still returns from time to time in spectral form to the spot where he was hanged. The place is now a roundabout where Union Street joins the A6 a little north of the town centre. Tom stands quietly beside the road, often with head bowed and is sometimes mistaken for some local in fancy dress.



  1. Cool post! I can't wait to see Black Tom one day.

  2. I literally live on that junction..