Words and video: Stephen Cracknell
The gallows hardly looked big enough to take a grown man’s weight, under a skylight in one of the back buildings of Oakham museum the timbers seemed too slender for the gruesome work they had carried out. But there they stood, survivors from history. The very gallows upon which John Perkins was hanged on this same date, the 25th March, one hundred and eighty four years earlier. The gallows are not the only survivors from the history of how Jon Perkins from the village of Ketton came to be hanged outside Oakham Gaol on a Monday in 1833. The legend passed into song, a ballad known as the Oakham Poachers or The Lamentation Of Young Perkins, the melody of which forms the basis of a track we called “Against Our Laws Contrary” on A Fair Field the latest album by The Memory Band.
The ballad relates the tale of brothers John, Robert and George Perkins, all stonemasons, who along with two other men were discovered poaching by gamekeepers in Empingham Old Woods on the Normanton estate in the county of Rutland on 20th January 1833. When confronted they shot and seriously wounded gamekeeper Thomas Peach “in a very tender part, between the thigh and the abdomen…of a most dangerous nature” according to the statement made by the surgeon at the ensuing trial. When the two other poachers, William Lomas and William Claypole, were apprehended it was Claypole who pointed the finger at John Perkins for shooting Peach and Robert and George for injuring Peach’s assistant Jonathan Morris. At the trial Claypole gave evidence against them and all three brothers were convicted. John Perkins was hanged in Oakham, Robert died of illness on a prison hulk moored on the River Thames and George was transported to Tasmania. Claypole and Lomas walked free.
So on the anniversary of John Perkins’ hanging I left the museum I headed off on a glorious spring Saturday in search of the ghosts of the song. Stopping first at Kilburn Yard where the execution had taken place, the cycling along the valleys flooded to create Rutland Water reservoir in the 1970s to Empingham Old Wood where the shooting had taken place and then heading off past the now flooded remains of the village of Normanton to Ketton, where John Perkins had lived.