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Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

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Petitioning for mercy in mid-19th century Yorkshire

The case of Sarah Ann Hill, convicted of infanticide at York Assizes

Dick Hunter's talk due in September 2020 has been cancelled, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. But you can read about this subject here, as he explored it in his article in The Local Historian.

I looked at petitions arising from convictions at Yorkshire courts in the mid-19th century, with a York case study. This revealed events surrounding and following the conviction of Sarah Ann Hill, sentenced to death at York Assizes in 1851 for the murder of her new-born child.

The principle of petitioning for clemency or redress was well established, either to reduce a death sentence to transportation, or to lessen the term of transportation, or to allow a convict to serve a term in Britain rather than overseas.

In my research I analysed Yorkshire cases, with tables showing conviction rates at York Assizes and the nature of the sentences handed out. These might be death, transportation for life, transportation for differing lesser terms, and imprisonment in a penal establishment in the county. There is an analysis of the impact of petitioning, which ranged from free or conditional pardons to other mitigation (though it is noted that 79 per cent of petitions were unsuccessful).

There was a broad campaign to save the life of Sarah Ann, both in York, and in her home town of Wakefield.  MPs, newspaper editors, magistrates, lawyers, and traders were among those who petitioned the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey. One petition was signed by over a thousand York householders. A high-level cross-party delegation comprising York's Liberal MP, Sir William Milner, and Alderman George Leeman (lawyer, railway director and, later, Lord Mayor and MP for York) met Grey the day before execution, to urge him to exercise clemency.

Entrance to York Castle

Sarah Ann Hill's story is told in detail in my article, with an analysis of how and why her death sentence was commuted to transportation. Finally I placed this in the context of the increasingly vigorous campaign against the death penalty, or at least in favour of its much-reduced use.

Sarah Ann stayed at Millbank on the Thames, pending departure to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) on board the convict ship Sir Robert Seppings.

Millbank prisonMillbank Penitentiary, London. Engraving by J. Tingle after T.H.Shepherd. copyright: Wellcome Collection

Sir Robert Stebbings

Sir Robert Seppings


Online article:

The Female Convicts Research Centre promotes interest in the female convicts of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), by encouraging research. From 1803 to 1853, 12,500 female convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land , as punishment for crimes, mainly theft. The Centre's website includes a link to a transcript of the journal of the surgeon on board the Sir Robert Seppings for Sarah Ann Hill's voyage.

Here is a link to a project that encourages and supports people and communities to explore the criminal past of their own families, communities, towns and regions: