This thread was originally written and published in March 2023.
“Drawn at The Execution of John Young in the Grass Market, Edinbr., 1751” The description says “a crowd… in the foreground, beyond them the gallows officers with the condemned man on a platform“. Except that’s not quite what’s going on here… Let’s find out more!
The image is by the hand of Paul Sandby, the young English draughtsman who came to Edinburgh in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion to turn the triangulations of William Roy’s survey of Scotland into the incredible illustrated map. Sandby also proved to be quite the artist and with his little gang of esteemed friends (including John Clerk of Eldin and Robert Adam) in his free time he would sketch the street scenes of the city. But this isn’t a thread about Paul Sandby, it’s a thread about the scene he drew and how not is quite what meets the eye.
John Young was an Irishman, born into a lower middle-class protestant family in Belfast. He had a good start in life, was educated and apprenticed to a linen draper. But when his master died, he ended up having to go to London for work, which he found as a clerk. But he had to abandon this position in a hurry however and fled London in disgrace after he got his master’s serving maid pregnant. On the road, with no prospects, he was easy prey for the Army’s recruiting sergeants and with liberal application of intoxicants he took the King’s Shilling
This was about 1744, the War of the Austrian Succession was raging, and the Army was in need of recruits. Being educated, intelligent and amenable, the officers liked him and the disgraced clerk actually found that military life in the ranks suited him. It was (apparently) the 4th Regiment of Foot (The King’s Own) that he joined and his manners and abilities quickly saw him promoted into the first sergeant’s vacancy that came along.
Shipped off to Flanders, John was said to be at Fontenoy when the Allied Army, the British contingent under the Duke of Cumberland, were defeated by the French under Louis XV. However most of the 4th missed the battle as they had been detached beforehand. Wherever he was, and whichever Regiment he was with, he apparently acquitted himself with bravery and was rewarded with promotion to company paymaster and with being sent back to England with a recruiting party to help replace the Army’s losses in Flanders.
It turned out that recruiting was also something John took to naturally. He signed men up on honest and frank terms and didn’t swindle them (or their families) out of their sign-on bounty. Again he was recognised by his superiors and a promotion to Sergeant Major was forthcoming. He rejoined his regiment in a hurry, as they had been shipped back to Britain along with the Duke of Cumberland to help put down the Jacobite Rebellion. (This fits with him being in the 4th). He was at the Battle of Falkirk Muir in January 1746, and apparently accounted for a few Jacobites with his Sergeant Major’s halberd. Although it was a Jacobite victory, it was a hollow one and they retreated from it.
John marched on with his Regiment after the retreating Jacobites and was at the bloody Battle of Culloden in April. Circumstances fit that he was in the 4th, the Grenadiers of whom are prominent in David Morier’s well known painting of that battle. The 4th were hit hardest of the Government units by the Highland charge, taking 25% losses.
But John, and the 4th, survived the Jacobites and survived the battle. As a result of its performance and losses, the regiment remained in Scotland for “mopping up” duties, before being sent to garrison Edinburgh castle. John was sent off recruiting, reaching as far south as Bristol. Coming back to Edinburgh with plenty of recruits, he was sent off again, this time to Yorkshire. But it wasn’t just recruits who followed him back to Edinburgh on this occassion, he also had an innkeeper’s wife, with whom he had fallen in “criminal intercourse” with.
That might have been that, except the woman had cleared out her husband before fleeing. It wasn’t long before an aggrieved Yorkshire innkeeper pitched up in Edinburgh on the hunt for his wife, his money and a licentious recruiting Sergeant He didn’t take long to find all three; but John was saved from punishment on account of his having been ignorant of the wife’s theft and having not conspired with her, and the fact his officers liked him; he was a good soldier, and the army needed such men.
The 4th were shipping out anyway, so John was sent off with them to Inverness and (the first) Fort George, garrisoning the remains of it while preparations were made to build the bigger replacement at Ardersier. Coincidentally, Paul Sandby made a reconstruction illustration of it as it would have looked before the retreating Jacobites blew much of it up .
It was in Inverness that John became familiar with one of his new recruits, a man by the name of Parker who had served some time as a printer. John was company paymaster, and when assisting him one day, Parker mentioned how easy it would be to copy the bank notes if you knew how. John knew better than to continue the discussion in public, but managed to get Parker aside in a tavern and pick his brains. It would be easy, said he, if you could just get a note to copy, somewhere safe to copy it, and the materials to engrave a printing plate. John could do all three, and he took on a private room where Parker and another could work, “borrowed” a Royal Bank of Scotland note from the company purse, and acquired all the materials a forger might need from the Garrison’s supplies.
Parker was good to his word, soon he had produced some Royal Bank notes that couldn’t easily be told apart. They could get away with things for a reasonable time, if they were clever, as such promissory notes would circulate in the local economy for a good long while, rather than being sent back to Edinburgh to be reconciled with the accounts against which they were issued. And although he was a mere Sergeant Major, as a paymaster it was not unusual for John to have reason to be carrying and exchanging paper money.
They got away with it for at least 6 months, before their regiment got notice that it was leaving Inverness. It now seems that he may have been with the 24th Foot, the Earl of Ancram’s, rather than the 4th.
The hitherto cautious John now over-reached himself, and before leaving Inverness he had an Aberdeen stocking manufacturer, Mr Gordon, convert £60 worth of notes into Sterling. This suited Gordon as it was safer than carrying “real” money on his journey home. Gordon left a merry trail of counterfeit paper notes across the north of Scotland as he made his way home from town to town and tavern to tavern. He was horrified to get back to Aberdeen and find notices in the newspapers from the directors of the Royal Bank that they were advising merchants in the north of Scotland that they were aware of counterfeit notes circulating and to please be on the lookout for them
Realising he had been swindled, Gordon went straight back to Inverness and called upon the Sheriff. It didn’t take long to put the facts together, and news was sent chasing along after the 24th that the law would like to ask one of their Sergeant Majors a few questions. The law caught up with the Regiment, and with John, in Glasgow. When arrested, he had the copper plate and 300 forged notes on his person.
He was sent to Edinburgh to stand trial. He was optimistic that he might be let off or treated leniently, but the embarrassed bankers of Edinburgh wanted an example made of him, and so it was. Parker and the other accomplice turned King’s evidence. The trial on November 9th 1750 lasted all of a day. He was found guilty and sentenced to hang. John prevailed upon his officers to intercede, on account of his good record, but they couldn’t, wouldn’t, or were of no avail. He was sent to the Tolbooth to await his fate.
On the evening of 19th December, as was the custom, he was chained in the Iron Room, the “escape proof” cell where the condemned of Edinburgh spent their last night before the final walk to the gallows. The following morning, the magistrates and 2 ministers awoke him to read him his sentence. Did he have any objections? No he did not. Would he like to speak with the ministers? Yes he would. He asked to be excused with the latter for some “ghostly consolation” for a while.
But John was less concerned with spiritual matter, his quick mind was instead hatching a plan. His sentence, which had just been read to him, had stated that he would be hung between 2 and 4 PM that afernoon. Having been misled by other prisoners, he assumed all he had to do was delay proceedings until after 4 and he would get a temporary reprieve. After prayers with the Ministers, he asked the men of God if they might give him a moment’s private contemplation, to prepare himself for his maker. This they readily agreed to. They left the cell, and he quietly pulled the door shut.What nobody was sure how he did it, but somehow he contrived to lock himself in the cell, and the ministers, magistrates and gaolers out of it.
When it was realised what he had done, no amount of pleading, shouting, or beating of the door could get John Young to come to his senses and accept his fate. “No“, said he, “in this place I am resolved to defend my life to the utmost of my power”. As he saw it, all he had to do was buy himself a few hours for another night on earth…
The tradesmen of the City were called, but they said it was impossible to break through the Iron Room’s door or wall without compromising the building. More likely they couldn’t be bothered with such heard work and found it all very funny. Time was ticking away. Perhaps John was going to get away with it. The magistrates summoned the Lord Provost, George Drummond, and together the combined minds of the city administration hit upon a simple scheme to thwart him. They had the town clock stopped!
This bought them the time they needed, and finally they resolved to smash through the floor of the room above the cell and get him out that way. This took 2 hours hard work but once a large enough hole was made, one of the Town Guard poked his musket through to help persuade him out. But John was a battle-hardened soldier and had faced worse than the Edinburgh town guard. Quick as you like he grabbed the barrel of the gun and pulled it to himself, “declaring, with an oath, that, if any man attempted to molest him, he would immediately dash out his brains“
The gun however was unloaded, so the guardsman followed through the hole after it. He took the full force of the butt of it for his efforts, knocking him down, and it took 4 of his burly colleagues to subdue John Young. Asking if it was now after 4PM, he was informed that it was, but “he would be hanging even if it was after 8“. Realising the game was up, John resolved to be “no accessory to my own murder” and be uncooperative to his last. It took 8 guardsmen to carry him, head first, out of the Tolbooth. Refusing to walk, a cart had to be sourced, and he rode this, with the noose already around his neck, the short distance down the West Bow to his place of execution in the Grassmarket. James Skene’s sketch of 1827 shows a scene fundamentally unchanged from Sandby’s of 1750. The gallows is on the left, the structure on the right was used as a corn market.
What I am pretty sure we can actually see in Sandby’s sketch is not a crowd watching the condemned ascend the gallows, it’s a scene of one waiting, in boredom and anticipation, wondering where is John Young? Where’s the afternoon’s promised gruesome entertainment?
The guardsman on the left, the one with the Lochaber Axe, looks positively bored. Is his colleague on the right pushing back the restless crowd? And what – or who – is that arriving in the background on a cart…
“John Young underwent the sentence of the law in the Grassmarket of Edinburgh, about six o’clock on the evening“. Uncooperative to the last, he had to be carried up the scaffold. It apparently took a whole 30 minutes for his desperate cling to life to be extinguished. It is unclear what motivated him; he was not known as a spender of money or an indulger in drinking or gambling. His men and his officers liked him, he was otherwise a good, honest and brave solider, and there seems little in life he desired that his pay could not cover
It is not known either where John Young’s final resting place was. No Edinburgh Kirk recorded his death or burial in their registers that I can find. The newspapers are the only record of his exploits, his final story being printed far and wide. “This poor man had served in the army many years, with reputation, was beloved by his officers, being never before convicted of the least offence, and was said to have been recommended to the first vacant colours in his corps.” In June 1751, the Royal Bank re-issued all its 1750 edition. 20 shilling bank notes.
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
I found your talk on Sandby tonight very informative – I didn’t realise how many Edinburgh images he produced! But I was very intrigued by your reference to a visit to council archives to view a large 1759 map of Edinburgh. Is this John Fergus and Robert Robinson’s ‘lost’ ‘Survey of North of Edinburgh and North Leith’ of 1759? If so, I would very much like to know more about it!