Mobile menu

There but for the grace of God: The Execution of William Barnes, 1885

Jim Potts

Whilst working in Australia for seven years, I developed interests in many aspects of Australian culture and history, including, inevitably, issues of crime and punishment: from the story of the outlaw folk-hero Ned Kelly, and the fate of early convicts transported to Australia and their treatment in prisons such as Port Arthur, Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land), to the fate of Dorset’s Tolpuddle Martyrs, to the experiences of immigrants from Greece and the West Country of England, and the tragic fate of the Aboriginal peoples – including individuals such as Yemmerrawannie, who, with Bennelong, was brought to England by Governor Arthur Phillip. They arrived in May 1793. He died in Eltham on 18 May, 1794, aged 19.

I was also interested in the early explorers such as William Dampier, of East Coker (1651-1715), who probably attended my old school in Bruton, Somerset.

I append two of my poems which reflect some of these interests.

Although my work (as Director of The British Council, Australia) involved regular contact with all the universities in Australia, I regret that I never met Tom Burton (Professor Emeritus T. L. Burton) at Adelaide University when I visited the English Department. He had left England for Australia in 1974. He had studied English at the University of Bristol and taught in East Africa, so we might have had a lot of common interests, including the poetry of William Barnes.

This is an article from an Australian newspaper, The Argus, May 16, 1885, about another William Barnes who died in the year before the Dorset poet. It is unlikely that the Dorset Barnes had heard of his Australian namesake, although he was aware of wider developments in Melbourne (see “True Wealth” in “Views of Labour and Gold”).

“It is true that men may win in Australia a fulness of good life-gear and the elements of true wealth and happiness, if they seek them, rather than worse elements of wealth and vicious pleasure”.

His unfortunate namesake down-under admitted that gambling and women had been his downfall.

There but for the grace of God, the Revd. Barnes might have said.

The Argus, Saturday, May 16, 1885

“William Barnes was executed at the Melbourne Gaol yesterday for the murder of Joseph Bragge Slack at South Melbourne on the 9th September last. Since his conviction the prisoner had been much depressed, and on Wednesday he showed signs of breaking down. He became subject to fits of stupor, but during the visits of the Rev. H. R. Scott, who attended him assiduously, he listened attentively, and showed signs of repentance. On Thursday night he sank into an apathetic state of half consciousness, and it was feared that he would not be able to walk on to the drop. At half past 7 yesterday he refused breakfast, and he had to be supported when an hour later his irons were knocked off and he was conducted to the condemned cell near the gallows. Presently the Rev. H. F. Scott arrived at the gaol, and found him in a most abject condition, but he rallied under the reverend gentleman's ministrations, and asked that his last words should be given as words of warning to all evil doers to give up their crimes before they were brought to die on the scaffold like "Billy Barnes."

He said gambling and women had been his ruin. He also told Mr. Scott that on the drop he would say he was guilty, but the clergyman said he need not do so, as he had already confessed. Just as the clock struck 10 the sheriff, Colonel Rede, accompanied by Dr. Shields, the medical officer of the gaol, went to the door of the condemned cell and demanded the body of the prisoner. The hangman, William Jones, pinioned Barnes, who was offered a cordial by Mr. P. Dwyer, governor of the gaol, but he declined it. He walked on to the scaffold with a feeble step, and looking very livid. In a low voice, when Colonel Rede asked him whether he had any thing to say, he replied, "No." While the rope was being adjusted, prisoner's fingers twitched at it convulsively. The white cap was then drawn over his face and while the Rev. H. F. Scott was reading the service for the dead the signal was given, and Barnes died instantaneously, the sole sign of life after he fell being a single convulsive contraction of the legs. The usual inquest was held an hour after the execution, and a formal verdict returned. The crime for which Barnes suffered the last penalty of the law is doubtless familiar to our readers. His victim, Joseph Bragge Slack, an old man, lived by himself and had some jewellery in his keeping which had once belonged to a man named Thompson, who was a fellow prisoner of Barnes, while the latter was serving a sentence in Pentridge. On the 9th September, a few days after Barnes was liberated, Slack was found dead in his bed with his throat cut, and with a razor clasped in his left hand. The verdict of the jury at the inquest was one of suicide, but three months afterwards Barnes, who had returned to Pentridge on a charge of robbery, confessed that he had gone into Slack's house to steal his jewellery, that he was surprised while under the bed waiting his opportunity, and that in a struggle with Slack he killed him, and made it appear that the unfortunate man had died by his own hand. Slack's body was exhumed, when it was found that his neck was broken. Some of his property was traced to the possession of Barnes, and a complete chain of evidence, resulting in his conviction, was established by the police. At the trial Barnes pleaded not guilty, but after his condemnation he repeated his confession and asked for mercy on the ground that the murder would never have been discovered if he had not voluntarily brought it to light. The Executive, however decided that the law hould take its course. After this decision His Excellency the Governor was addressed by the prisoner's solicitors in favour of a commutation of sentence, on the ground, among others, that the murder was unpremeditated, and was really the result of an accident while Barnes was trying to make his escape from Slack's grasp, but Sir Henry Loch replied that the petition did not raise any considerations which had not previously received full attention, and no respite was granted”.

This William Barnes, a murderer, had served two sentences in Pentridge (HM Prison Pentridge; opened 1851, closed 1997). It is believed that the bones of bushwhacker Ned Kelly were much later reburied in Pentridge Prison.

Pentridge must ring a bell for lovers of the poetry of the Dorset William Barnes.

Pentridge!—oh! my heart’s a-zwellèn
Vull o’ jaÿ wi’ vo’k a-tellèn
Any news o’ thik wold pleäce…

Bleäded grass is now a-shootèn
Where the vloor wer woonce our vootèn,
While the hall wer still in pleäce.?
Stwones be looser in the wallèn;
Hollow trees be nearer vallèn;
Ev’ry thing ha’ chang’d its feäce.?
But still the neäme do bide the seäme—
’Tis Pentridge—Pentridge by the river.

Pentridge Farm in Dorset was the home of Charles Roberts, William Barnes’ uncle, by marriage, who had become insolvent and was evicted from his farm, before it was sold. Barnes had often visited his uncle, aunt and cousins at Pentridge, as it was close to his own birthplace, ‘Rushay’.

There but for the grace of God:

Faced by sudden eviction and poverty, his young cousins might well have been forced to emigrate, like so many others, and like Richard, in Barnes’ eclogue, “Rusticus Emigrans: Emigration, Robert and Richard:


Well Richat, zoo ‘tis true what I do hear
That you be guoin to Dieman‘s Land to-year…


And how d‘ye veel now Richat in your mind,
To leave your bethpleace and your friends behind?


Why very queer, I do, I cant deny:
When I do think o‘ be‘en piarted
Vrom al my friends var ever, I could cry
But var the shiame o‘ be‘en so softhearted.
Here be the trees that I did use to clim in,
Here is the brook that I did use to zwim in,
Here be the ground where I‘ve a worked and played;
Here is the hut that I wer barn and bred in;
Here is the little church where we‘ve a prayed,
And churchyard that my kinsvolk‘s buones be laid in;
And I myzelf, you know, should like to lie
Among ‘em too when I do come to die;
But ‘tis noo use to have zich foolish wishes;
I shall be tossed, i‘ may be, to the vishes


‘Tis hard a man can‘t get a luoaf to veed ‘en
Upon the pliace wher life wer vust a gied ‘en;
‘Tis hard that if he‘d work, there‘s noo work var‘n,
Or that his work woon‘t bring enough o‘ money
To keep en, though the land is vull a carn
And cattle; and do flow wi‘ milk and honey.


Why ees, ‘tis rather hardish, oone ca‘nt doubt it,
But ‘tis‘n any use to tak about it; talk
There‘s noo work here at huome that I can come at,
And zoo I‘ll goo abroad and try var some‘hat.

Barnes writes about his uncle’s eviction in Views of Labour and Gold, 1859, in the section Selling and Buying, Auctions, A Sketch:

“My uncle was a farmer in the West of England, but became insolvent from the depression of the agricultural interest after the end of the French war…everything that was dear to them was taken away”.
The Australian Pentridge was so-named in 1840, by a surveyor called Henry Foot who lived and worked near Merri Creek. It was named after the birthplace of Foot's wife, Pentridge in Dorset (Wikipedia).
Pentridge Prison in Australia, which was said to be haunted and had become the site of ghost-tours after its closure in 1997, is being re-developed.

ABC News, November 29, 2017:

“After being decommissioned in 1997, and trading hands between private developers for more than a decade, the sprawling grounds, guard towers and cell blocks of Pentridge Prison are now being turned into a luxury development. The site will include apartments, boutique shops, cafes and a 15-screen cinema in what developers say will be a "well-designed urban village that invigorates an important historical asset." So is this a necessary modernisation, or papering over our history in search of a dollar?”

One thinks of Dorchester Prison, and the public executions (such as the hanging of Martha Brown in 1856) which had so interested Thomas Hardy, who had witnessed some of them, Martha Brown’s certainly.

How soon will the prison in Dorchester be redeveloped? What of the 185 homes for which controversial permission was granted? We are still waiting to find out. Have the bodies of the inmates been exhumed and reburied with a Christian ceremony in Poundbury cemetery, as planned and announced?

The dead don’t worry about delays.

Appendix, Two Australian Poems by Jim Potts

Port Arthur: Island of the Dead

The first two stones we're shown
When we've been transported
To the Island of the Dead-
They stand alone on the lower ground-
Commemorate two convicts
Who had creative flair.
From Poole in Dorset,
Edward Spicer,
Who penned his moving epitaph,
Soon to disappear,
By erosion of the sandstone face;
Henry Savery,
A Somerset man,
Inveterate forger -
Remembered by a modern stone,
A forgery itself,
As befits the maker
Of Australia's first novel;
He cut his own throat,
And died of a "stroke".
They are part of a long tradition,
Death in custody, dishonourable graves;
From Rottnest Island
To Tasman Peninsula
The story's much the same.
The stones of soldiers, officers, guards
(Those on higher ground, along with wives and children),
Face North, not East:
Face not the rising sun, but Home. The convicts' headstones do not mark their graves.
But somewhere hereabouts, a few paces, more or less,
Two sons of Somerset and Dorset share
A common plot
Of broadly

Dampier's Landfalls in New Holland

They beat the drum
To scare the Bardi
Who ran away
Crying "Gurry, Gurry."

They fired a gun
To scare the Djawi
Who, unimpressed,
Cried "Pooh, pooh. pooh."

A native shot,
A sailor wounded.

Three hundred years!
Still no-one knows
How to heal the wounds.

How to translate
"Gurry, Gurry?"

To repulse the Brits
"Pooh, pooh" won't do.

"Miserable brutes!"
The Bardi shouted.


See also
Dorset Dialect
Society events