Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers

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4th Earl Ferrers, engraving dated 1810

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers (18 August 1720 – 5 May 1760) was the last member of the House of Lords hanged in England, following his conviction for murdering his steward.

Biography[edit]

The 4th Earl Ferrers, descendant of an ancient and noble family, was the eldest son of Hon. Laurence Ferrers, himself a younger son of the Robert Shirley, 1st Earl Ferrers-a descendant of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. At the age of twenty, he quit his estates and Oxford education, and during the time he spent in Paris he plunged into every kind of excess. Ferrers inherited his title from his insane uncle in 1745 and with it estates in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire. He lived, however, at Staunton Harold Hall in northwest Leicestershire. In 1752, he married Mary, the youngest daughter of Sir William Meredith of Henbury, Cheshire. Ferrers was also a cousin to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, the prominent Methodist lady and supporter of George Whitefield, though he was not involved in the Methodist revival.[citation needed]

Marriage troubles[edit]

It was said that there was insanity in his family, and from an early age his behaviour seems to have been eccentric, and his temper violent, though he was quite capable of managing his business affairs. Significantly, in 1758, his wife obtained a separation from him for cruelty, which would have been extremely rare for the time. She was said to be extremely pretty and clearly did not appreciate her husband's drinking, womanising and the fact that he had a mistress and children. The old family steward (see after) was murdered, it would seem, because he may have given evidence on Mary's behalf and was afterwards taxed with collecting rents due to her. She married again in 28 March 1769 to Lord Frederick Campbell. Mary later died in a fire at her country seat, Coomb Bank, Kent, on 25 July 1807.[1]

Murder[edit]

18th century illustration of Laurence Shirley shooting his steward, from the Newgate Calendar

The Ferrers' estates were then vested in trustees; Ferrers secured the appointment of an old family steward named Johnson, as receiver of rents. This man faithfully performed his duty as a servant to the trustees, and did not prove amenable to Ferrers' personal wishes. On 18 January 1760, Johnson called at the earl's mansion at Staunton Harold, Leicestershire, by appointment, and was directed to his lordship's study. Here, after some business conversation, Lord Ferrers shot him, fatally.

In the following April Ferrers was tried for murder by his peers in Westminster Hall, Attorney General Charles Pratt leading for the prosecution.[2] Shirley's defence, which he conducted in person with great ability, was a plea of insanity, and it was supported by considerable evidence, but he was found guilty. According to Horace Walpole, "Lord Ferrers was not mad enough to be struck with Lady Huntingdon's sermons. The Methodists have nothing to brag of his conversion, though Whitefield prayed for him." Ferrers subsequently said that he had only pleaded insanity to oblige his family, and that he had himself always been ashamed of such a defence.[citation needed]

Execution[edit]

On 5 May 1760, dressed in a light-coloured suit embroidered with silver (the outfit he had worn at his wedding), he was taken in his own carriage from the Tower of London to Tyburn and there hanged by Thomas Turlis.[3] There are several illustrations of the hanging. It has been said that as a concession to his order the rope used was of silk. After the execution his body was taken to Surgeon's Hall for public exhibition and dissection. The Execution was widely publicised in popular culture as evidence of equality of the law and the story of a wicked nobleman who was executed "like a common criminal" was told well into the 1800s.[citation needed]

Notes[edit]

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Further reading[edit]


Peerage of Great Britain
Preceded by
Henry Shirley
Earl Ferrers
1745–1760
Succeeded by
Washington Shirley