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Gallows medals tell tale of politics

Among top-selling lots at a recent Dix Noonan Webb sale was a 37 mm, 20.30 g copper medallic token. The obverse showed three hanged men suspended above a donkey-drawn gibbet cart. Around a cryptic legend reads THE END OF THREE LOGGER HEADS.

Hanged felons were a not infrequent subject on 18th century tokens and medallions. This was a day and age when public hangings were the norm, often for trivial offences. Towns commonly had a permanent gallows erected on a prominent site.

With most such medals, the theme of the design is self-evident. That sold by DNW prompted my curiosity, heightened by the $4,153 [£3,120] price tag.

While the obverse legend is somewhat baffling, that occupying the entire reverse did little to clarify matters: AS IF / FROM NEWGATE / CELLS, THREE FELONS / LED, AND ON THE /NEW DROPTYD, TILL / DEAD, DEAD, DEAD.

 Obverses and reverses of the two Greatheed Petition meeting medals, several of which have been sold in recent years by Dix, Noonan & Webb. (Images courtesy & © DNW)

Obverses and reverses of the two Greatheed Petition meeting medals, several of which have been sold in recent years by Dix, Noonan & Webb. (Images courtesy & © DNW)

The medal turned out to be No. 2 of a pair. The first showed the same three men in their donkey cart exhorting crowds. Above is a gallows’ beam complete with three nooses. The Demon Sedition is perched upon the beam and is presumably the same creature shown on the later medal staring the hanged “felons” in the face.

A mob on the left are labeled WRONG HEADS; those on the right RIGHT HEADS. Above is the legend GREATHEADS and, in exergue, MEETING AT WARWICK / MAY 31 1797. This time the reverse reads AS IF FROM TEMPLE / BAR SOME HEAD / WAS CUT, / AND / ON REBELLING / TRUNK THE FACE / WAS PUT.

I now appreciated Alice’s cry uttered soon after her arrival in Wonderland: “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Both medals were referenced to Laurence Brown’s “British Historical Medals.” The accompanying explanatory note helped a little:

“The occasion here commemorated is the meeting held on Warwick racecourse on 31st May 1797 to promote a petition to the King to secure the dismissal of his ministers. The High Sheriff opened the meeting and a Mr. Bertie Greatheed of Guys Cliffe near Warwick spoke strongly against the ministers and proposed the petition to the King. Opponents challenged the petition and wanted the motion put to a vote; this was ignored by the Chairman.

“Sir Francis Burdett spoke in favour of the petition and a Dr. Parr of Hatton also tried to speak. They were opposed by the Marquis of Hertford. The Sheriff declared the petition adopted and closed the meeting. Bertie Greatheed (Greatheads) was a Whig of the school of Grey and Fox and an ardent admirer of the earlier stages of the French Revolution. His opinions were shared by the Rev. H. Williams and Dr. Parr. The three people depicted on the medal are Parr, Williams and the High Sheriff whose supporters are shown as the Wrongheads. It was issued by their political opponents (the Rightheads).”

The medals then are political propaganda, but the above explanation leaves a few unanswered questions. Central to appreciating the depth of savagery conjured by the imagery is an understanding of the extreme polarization of England’s politics in the late 18th century.

In the 1790s, England was living in more than interesting times. The French Revolution had prompted a range of measures being adopted in Britain to limit chances of insurrection on the northern side of the English Channel. All were aimed at restricting political protest. It was a period of great repression in the country. Historians commonly refer to it as William Pitt’s “Reign of Terror,” Pitt being the Tory Prime Minister.

By the time 1797 rolled around, Britain was again at war with France; Napoleon was busy taking its ally Austria out of the European game, along with Italy; the last invasion of Britain was undertaken in February unsuccessfully by French forces under the command of American Colonel William Tate; the Royal Navy defeated a large Spanish fleet in February but were routed in April at Puerto Rico; mutinies in the Royal Navy took place in April and June; Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth were investigated as possible French spies; Pitt suspended the convertibility of Bank of England bank notes to gold and Matthew Boulton was busy banging out two-ounce copper twopence in Soho.

The entire political situation was not helped by the once powerful opposition Whig (liberal) party imploding at least twice. Many Whigs crossed the floor and aligned themselves with Pitt. As a result, the actions of the conservative Tory government were seldom subject to critical scrutiny.

An attack on the king’s coach in 1795 had provided Pitt with the excuse to (a) revise the legal definition of treason to one that more suited to his purposes and (b) prohibit public gatherings of more than 50 people without a magistrate’s license. Both effectively stymied the liberal movement throughout England, although some fight remained among a few prominent Whigs.

In 1797, one of these, the Reverend Samuel Parr, requested the High Sheriff of Warwickshire, Robert Knight, to convene a public meeting to discuss submission of a petition to His Majesty. In essence, the petition asked that, given the parlous state of the nation, the king dismiss his ministers and change the system. The Sheriff consented to Parr’s wish and set the meeting down for May 31.

A large number of the landed gentry attended, all strongly opposed to the petition, but so did a large crowd of liberal supporters. Bertie Greatheed presented the petition and, following speeches from prominent Whigs, Sir Francis Burdett and a Reverend H. Williams, the matter was put to the vote and carried.

Subsequently, doubts were cast of the Sheriff’s neutrality by the Earl of Warwick. Certainly Knight was well known to be of the Whiggish persuasion, but Sir John Throckmorton penned a firm response disputing the earl’s allegations in all particulars.

The petition was sent to Pitt’s most able political opponent at Westminster, Charles Fox. However, Prime Minister Pitt wasn’t having any. It went nowhere.

The main result appears to be the two medals, the work of John Westwood of Birmingham. They are intended as a clear statement of what the rich and powerful considered was due to the instigators of the public meeting: being tried and executed for sedition.

The Greatheads mentioned on one obverse is presumably a pun on Greatheed. Certainly the petition has become known as the Greatheed Petition.

From this follows the Whiggish radicals being dubbed the “Wrong Heads” and portrayed as ruffians armed with clubs and axes. The government supporters are clearly the “Right Heads” who, of course, are well-dressed, sober citizens. The fact that the High Sheriff is among the three “Logger Heads” being hanged speaks volumes for whoever commissioned the medals. “Logger Head” in the 19th century was a synonym for “blockhead,” as in a thick-headed person.

This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.

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