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Letter from Sir John to his wife Jean Fullarton 27 November 1746, written just hours before his execution

Extracts from the trial transcript

From The Wedderburn Book by Alexander Wedderburn (updated July 2001)

SIR JOHN WEDDERBURN, 5TH BARONET OF BLACKNESS

Son of Alexander, 4th Baronet, who was deposed from office as clerk of Dundee for his part in the 1715 Stuart uprising, Sir John followed in his father's footsteps, fighting for the Stuart cause alongside his brothers at Culloden.

 

After his capture, he was imprisoned at Southwark Gaol, then executed at Kennington Common in November 1746. The woodcut was taken from a silhouette projected by candle-light onto paper by the daughter of one of Sir John's gaoler's, the night before his execution. Sir John, the 5th Baronet of Blackness, was, he claimed at his trial, a reluctant Jacobite. His plea carried little weight with the jury who, without retiring, were to sentence him to death. 

 

 

 

 

Sir John had joined up with the rebels in support of Prince Charles in 1745. It is suggested that he was at first unprepared to accept an active role, but he eventually accepted the office of excise collector, raising much needed funds on behalf of the Prince. 

 

The campaign was successful in its early days, Sir John fighting as a 'private man' in David, Lord Ogilvie's regiment as the rebels achieved victories at the Battles of Falkirk and Gladsmuir. George II, it is alleged, was so alarmed by the successes of Prince Charles rebels as they continued to march south that he had already prepared a vessel to take his family and the crown jewels back to his native Hanover. 

 

Culloden was a disaster. Outnumbered almost two to one, having marched on an empty stomach for several days, Prince Charles' troops were defeated, and Sir John, then serving as a lifeguard to his royal master, was captured. After temporary imprisonment at Inverness, he was transported south on board H.M.S. Exeter, part of a fleet of ten ships carrying prisoners to London to stand trial. The prisoners were treated appallingly on board.... 

 

"Gentlemen, — This comes to acquaint you that I was eight months and eight days at sea, of which time I was eight weeks upon half-a-pound and twelve ounces oatmeal, and a bottle of water in the twenty four hours, which was obliged to make meal-and-water in the bottom of an old bottle. There was one hundred and twenty-five put on board at Inverness, on the 'James and May' of Fife. In the latter end of June, we was put on board of a transport of four hundred and fifty ton, called the 'Liberty and Property,' in which we continued the rest of the eight months, upon twelve ounces of oat sheelin as it came from the mill. There was thirty-two prisoners more put on board of the said 'Liberty and Property,' which makes one hundred and fifty-seven; and when we came ashore there was only in life forty-nine, which would have been no great surprise if there had not been one, conform to our usage. They would take us from the hold in a rope, and hoisted us up to the yardarm, and let us fall in the sea, in order for ducking of us; and tying us to the mast and whipping us if we did anything however innocent that offended them: this was done to us when we was not able to stand. I will leave it to the readers to judge what condition they might be in themselves with the above treatment. We had neither bed nor bed-clothes, nor clothes to keep us warm in the day- time. The ship's ballast was black earth and small stones, which we was obliged to dig holes to lie in to keep us warm, till the first of November last, that every man got about three yards of gross harn filled up with straw, but no bed-clothes. I will not trouble you more till I see you. There is none in life that went from Elgin with me, but William Innes in Fochabers; James Brander in Condloch died seven months ago; Alexander Frigge died in Cromarty Road; John Kintrea, that lived in Longbride, died also. Mr. James Falconar is well, and remains on board of a ship called the 'James and Mary,' lying off Tilbury Fort. — I am, gentlemen, your most humble servant,
(Signed) WILL. JACK.
"Tilbury Fort, March 17th, 1747."Jacobite Memoirs, p. 299; Lyon, iii. 15).
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The likes of Sir John fared little better. Although a person of rank, he had been serving as a private soldier, and this added to the harshness of his treatment in captivity. Nor was he a wealthy man, so he was not in a position to pay for any favours. The prisoners were committed to the New Gaol, Southwark. Will Jack goes on to describe their arrival and subsequent incarceration....

 

"But at last, by hunger, bad usage, and lying upon the ballasts and 'twixt decks, exposed to all weathers, they were seized with a kind of plague which carried them off by dozens; and a good many of those who would have outlived their sickness were wantonly murdered by the sailors by dipping of them in the sea in the crisis of their fevers. This was the sailors' diversion from Buchanness Point till we came to the Nore; they'd take a rope and tie about the poor sicks' waists; then they would haul them up by their tackle, and plunge them in the sea, as they said, to drown the vermin, but they took special care to drown both together; then they'd haul them up upon deck, and tie a stone about one of the legs, and overboard with them. I have seen six or seven examples of this in a day. After we brought them up the river Thames, we got orders to separate their officers from what they called soldiers, and bring the officers to Southwark New jail, and leave the commons at Tilbury Fort without meat, drink, money, or clothes; and actually they would have starved, had it not been for the charity of the English, the government not giving them one sol to live upon, except those few that turned evidence; it's no great wonder if they had all turned evidence to get out of this miserable situation, the prospect of which behoved to appear worse than death, for, in my opinion, nothing could come up to it, save the notion we conceive of hell; and I do not know if hell itself be so bad, only that it may be of a longer duration. But to return to our gentleman officers: they were brought up in rank and file, exposed to the fury of a tumultuous mob, who neither spared them with their outrageous words, spittles, dirt, and even stones and bricks, and in that manner carried through all the streets in Southwark, and at last delivered over to the hands of a jailer, who neither had the least fear of God, nor humanity, — a creature entirely after their own heart, who loaded them, the moment they entered his gates, with heavy irons and bad usage...."

 

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When Sir John finally appeared before the special commission presided over by Lord Chief Justice Lee, at the Court House, St. Margaret's Hill, Southwark, he was charged with high treason, to which he pleaded not guilty. The prosecuting counsel produced a dozen receipts for excise payments, each signed John Wedderburn on behalf of the Prince. Without retiring, the jury found him guilty, and he was taken back to Southwark Gaol to await execution.

 

"According to the atrocious treason-law of Edward III., the culprits were only allowed to hang three minutes (in the later executions the period was lengthened). Then with life scarcely extinct, their bodies were placed on a block, disemboweled, and beheaded, the viscera being thrown into a fire. All these unhappy individuals are said to have behaved throughout the last trying scene with a degree of decent firmness which surprised the beholders. Every one of them continued till his last Moment to justify the cause which brought him to the scaffold; and some even declared that, if set at liberty, they would act in the same way as they had done. They all prayed in their last moments for the exiled Royal family, particularly for Prince Charles, whom they concurred in representing as a pattern of all 'manly virtues, and as a person calculated to render the nation happy should it ever have the good fortune to see him restored." — (Chambers). Back to top
 

John's second son James, aged just 15, rode to London to petition the few contacts the family had who might be able to plead for leniency at court. No one however was prepared to risk such an intervention. The Jacobites, after their unsuccessful uprising, retained few friends in London. James made one final desperate attempt to persuade his father to try to escape, by disguising himself as a woman. John would have nothing to do with this plan. He was determined to accept his fate with dignity. When we read more of Will Jack's letter, his bravery appears all the more astounding....

 

"After every execution the mangled bodies were brought back to the jail, and remained there some days, to show the remaining prisoners how they were to be used in their turn. I am very sure nothing could be more shocking to nature than to see their comrades, their friends, brought back in such a condition all cut to piece - the very comrades they parted with about an hour-and-a-half before in perfect good health and top spirits. They had even the cruelty to keep up the reprieves of those that were to be saved till some hours before their execution." — (Jacobite Memoirs," p. 343; Lyon, iii. 167).

 

The Rev. George Innes, Forres, in communicating to Bishop Forbes the above letter, which was from a William Jack, who had been a merchant in Elgin, to his friends there, writes:—

 

"From this letter you may easily see wherein consisted the great lenity of the Government to their unfortunate prisoners, viz., in starving and murdering them in the most barbarous manner that it might not be said there were many brought to public execution. And, indeed, their public executions were the least part of their cruelty."

 

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Besides the hundreds of victims who were put to death in the north of Scotland, without form of law, large numbers were brought to trial in England for high treason. In all, about eighty persons selected from the condemned, suffered death — the executions taking place at Kensington Common, Carlisle, Brampton, Penrith, and York. The sufferers of highest rank were Lords Kilmarnock, Balmerino, and Lovat, and Charles Ratcliffe, taking upon himself the title of Earl of Derwentwater. These were beheaded, and the composure and courage with which they met their fate have been frequently recorded with circumstantial detail. Sir John was not so fortunate. On November 28th, 1746, Sir John was dragged on a sledge to the gallows on Kennington Common. He was hanged, decapitated and disembowelled.

 

Just hours before John had calmly posed for his gaoler's daughter as she cut the profile illustrated above, still preserved by the family today. Sir John Wedderburn was truly a hero of Scotland.

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See the copy of the original letter

 

From Sir John to his wife, on learning that he was to be executed in a few hours time, transcript of letter:

 

My Dearest, Be the time this comes to hand I shall be no more. I hope God who has given me patience to bear with a great many hardships hitherto will support me to the last, the greatest I have now to undergo is the thought of parting with you and my Children and if it is so at this distance it must have been much more so had you been here. I pray God support you under this affliction. I received yours of the 13th which affected me much, but if you'l [sic] recollect you'l be at more than ordinary pains about yourself consider if any thing ail you what will become of your Children. The Presbiterian [sic] Minstrs attestation came to hand but never any thing came from that airth ['earth'] without a sting in the tail of it. I believe it has done me neither good nor harm. As to Interest ufed ['used'] for me - Mr. Wedderburn and his Lady have been at a world of pains and realy procured great folks but it seems I was among the number of the Elect and not to be parted with. The Duke of Cumberland was present at the Councill who determined the thing and you may believe woud soon overballance any Interest. As for G. Anstruther I don't know what he has done nor Mr. John Maule. I don't know any thing they have done but as you have write me. There is one thing I'd recommend to tho' I believe its needless. That is to instill into my Children male or female a just sense of what our Country has suffered in Generall [sic] and I'm particular the Eldest has it. I woud [sic] write to a good many of my friends and acquaintance but am now scrymped with time being to Die tomorrow and to prevent any application it is not yet Intimat to us for I have learned it by the by. Make my Complements to your Brother and his Lady of whose frienship I'm very sensible. I woud likeways have write Peggy whose situation gives me a great concern but have nothing to say but God bless her. I am as ever,

 

My Dearest Wife

Your most affectionate Husband

John Wedderburn

 

Southwark Gaol 27 Novr. 1746

 

I have ordered James to send down my Linnen

 

 

 

"Yet when the rage of battle ceased,
The victor's soul was not appeased,
The naked and forlorn must feel
Devouring flames and murdering steel!

"The pious mother, doomed to death,
Forsaken wanders o'er the heath;
The bleak wind whistles round her head;
Her helpless orphans cry for bread.

"Bereft of shelter, food, and friend,
She views the shade of light descend;
And, stretched beneath the inclement skies
Weeps o'er her tender babes — and dies.

"While the warm blood bedews my veins,
And unimpaired remembrance reigns,
Resentment of my country's fate
Within my filial breast shall beat."

Tears of Scotland.

 

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