1814 was quite a year for Walter Wilson to be Cornet, and the end of an era.
The long Napoleonic wars seemed finally to be over – Napoleon had invaded Russia, and then retreated from Moscow, leading to a hundred French, German and Polish officers from his army coming to Hawick as prisoners of war , with a marked effect on the small burgh “the presence of so many well dressed persons for so long a period [from 1812 until 1814 ] produced a marked reform of the costume of the inhabitants”
and as John Gibson was to find out, be very likely to turn the head of at least one respectable Hawick wife.
In 1813, Napoleon was defeated at Leipzig, and “the town is illuminated in honour of the victory at Leipsic”. Conveniently, the council had that year “resolved to light the streets with sixty oil lamps”
Then in 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate, and went into exile on Elba , arriving on 3 May 1814.
And there was lots going on in Hawick – in March 1814, the body of the new born child of Janet Weens, daughter of a shoemaker in the town, had been pulled out of the Teviot, and Janet was charged with concealing her pregnancy and murder.
On 11 April, the Caledonian Mercury reported that the Cossacks were near Boulogne, Wellington was nearing Toulouse, the French Senate had deprived Buonaparte of the throne, and had appointed a Provisional Government which had declared that “property shall be preserved, as well as the public debt and public pensions, that the press shall be free, subject to certain restrictions” … and that the Emperor of Russia had promised to release all French prisoners.
And then the paper printed a list of “persons indicted to stand trial at the following circuits”
Aberdeen – Robert Middleton rape
Ayr – Robert Gibson, collier for robbery; John Macmanua, private soldier in the 27th Regiment for murder; David Young and Adam and David Galt for riot and deforcing officers in the collection of taxes
Dumfries – William Wright horse stealing
Glasgow – Alexander Brown assault and murder; James Jackson murder; Agnes Findlater theft
Jedburgh – John Gibson murder; Robert Ford horse stealing.
John Gibson wasn’t a Hawick man – he was born in Ayr in 1774 and was a soldier in the 91st Regiment of Foot, the Argyllshire Fencibles, when he arrived in Hawick in 1795. The soldiers been posted there in case of unrest – in case the spirit of the French Revolution spread amongst the workers in Scotland [and it did – the Government was increasingly concerned by the activities of the Friends of the People who erected Trees of Liberty in places like Auchtermuchty, leading to state show trials which transported their leaders]
John was in a good billet with Gideon Renwick, who was not only a butcher, but a butcher with an unmarried daughter, and the 21 year old John promptly married Janet Renwick before the year was out.
As a soldier, John was on the move with postings to Lanark, then Berwick, then to Ireland in 1798 to suppress Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen . Janet followed John, but after their 4th child [of 11] returned to Hawick, where John Gibson settled in 1802 as a nailer.
However he re-enlisted – or was tricked into re-enlisting – and deserted before being press-ganged into the navy , and jumping ship, then setting up in business in Langholm and Kelso before being arrested and tried – and acquitted – for desertion. By 1810 he was back in Hawick with Janet and her 11 children, and living in the Millport, which even today is an odd, out of the way place, even although it is a stone’s throw from the Tower Knowe.
Walter Wilson was a baker’s apprentice with his father, just up the Howegate.
There were three Wilson properties in the 1824 map – but people don’t move around all that much – so that moving up the Howegate we have Hugh Goodfellow’s baker’s shop at number 1 at the corner of the Sandbed [with the future John Goodfellow, 1822 Cornet] ; then Wilson the shoemaker at the bottom of the Howegate at number 2 – next to Cumming the hardware shop; then another Wilson at 6 Howegate – a grocer and spirit dealer; and so up to 8 Howegate , where John Smith the whip and thong maker’s wife Elizabeth had just given birth to James Smith the 1846 Cornet.
And finally up to 10 Howegate, and our Walter Wilson the baker.
[and of course another baker – the Kedie house of the 1776 and 1836 cornets appears at the bottom right hand side of the map in Kirkstyle]
Back in the Millport, the 1814 inhabitants can’t have changed much from what they were in 1841 and the census. Running down from the Tower Knowe, at the first house, number 1 Millport, the trades of the inhabitants were listed as chimney sweep, a pauper, a handloom weaver and family, and agricultural labourer. Presumably the chimney sweep and wife, and female pauper in basement rooms, the family weaving on the first floor, and the single ag lab up in an attic room. This is likely to have been the house where John Gibson murdered his wife, with a stocking maker in the attic; the Gibsons on the main floor, and soldiers billeted on the ground floor.
Next door at 2 and 3 Millport there was a collection of people presumably each in a single room – an army pensioner with his 3 children; 3 pauper children – a brother and sister aged 7 and 10 and a 10 year old boy; and a 70 year old pauper shoemaker – all locals born in Roxburghshire. Then people born outside the county – a woollen spinner with wife and child; two labourers; a printer; a basket maker and wife; a 20 year old “pit man”; husband and wife hand loom weavers from Ireland with three children; a widow with 2 children under 5; and a labourer.
At number 4 an army pensioner; and a four families of Irish weavers.
So Millport would be the sort of place that a soldier would be billeted in – and if the house belonged to Gideon Renwick, your wife’s father, it was exactly the sort of place you would live in.
John Brook, a stocking maker, had a room in the garret of the house [probably number 1], and described at John Gibson’s trial on 6 April 1814 , that he had heard an argument between the Gibsons about 11 o’clock one night, and then screaming at about 3 in the morning “which the witness conjectured were occasioned by some soldiers who lodged in the house” so he jumped out of bed and went down stairs to be told “Gibson’s murdered his wife”. In the room, he saw Gibson standing in his shirt , with blood on the floor and the bed. He said “Man, man, what have you done” to which Gibson responded “Frenchman! Frenchman!” and “yes, I have sold her to a Frenchman now”
The trial only lasted a single day, but appeared to be quite thorough – two doctors gave their accounts of the body., with three different cuts to the windpipe, one of which was a deep cut from the wind pipe across to the left side of the neck which had cut through two muscles, the jugular vein and the carotid artery. But there had been no signs of any other violence. The floor had been washed, but there was a pool of blood under the bed – and Gibson’s penknife could have been the weapon used.
James Turnbull a shoemaker who had lodged in the house, testified of quarrels with Gibson accusing Janet of keeping back fourpence from some nails she had sold; of finding “Gibson with his wife’s head under his arm, beating her very severely in the face with his fist” and thought that “Mrs Gibson a very respectable woman, and he had never heard any thing injurious to her character”.
Aside from some ill feeling towards the Renwicks because they had refused to transfer Janet’s share of the property into his name as her husband “the old people ought to be in hell, and he should burn the house”, the main motive appeared to be allegations about a French prisoner.
Although John had no doubts about the paternity of 10 of his 11 children, he was suspicious that the 7 month old baby belonged to “a French officer was in the habit of frequenting the house” although he had “never seen familiarities between them”.
Feeding this suspicion was his conviction that Janet was putting poison in his tea.
For about 10 days before the murder, “his wife always contrived to raise some dispute, then rose from the table, and she would take no tea. Last Thursday he took tea by himself and saw his wife sneer at him and immediately felt himself seized with a pain more severe than formerly; said to his wife she was poisoning him; she laughed but made no answer” He then had some high words with his wife, and went to bed about 10 o’clock – during the night, he thought he saw the Frenchman coming into the room ……. and so on and matters escalated until he felt for his penknife in his waistcoat pocket …….
One witness who wasn’t heard was the one of the three children who were still alive – Gideon Gibson then 10 years old [and still living in O'Connell Street in 1841] but he was considered too young to give evidence, even although he said that he wanted to “tell about his mother’s death”.
Whatever Gideon might have said, the trial closed with evidence that John was “labouring under a considerable degree of melancholy”, and then on Saturday 9 April 1814 he was judged Guilty, and he was taken back to Jedburgh prison and fed on bread and water until 12th May, when he was to be “hanged by the common executioner on a gibbet until he was dead” and his body was to be given to the Drs Monro senior and junior , Professors of Anatomy in Edinburgh, for dissection. [They later turned to Burke and Hare to supply corpses for dissection]
On the day “a little before 10 o’clock he was put in a carriage at Jedburgh … and escorted by yeomanry cavalry of the county. About two o’clock they reached Hawick, where the gallows was erected on a green nearly opposite to the house where the murder was committed”
Presumably then, just across the Teviot Bridge on the main road out of town, on the common Haugh – and long before Commercial Road was built.
The 1824 map – but showing how the other side of the Teviot looked then – and where the gibbet would have been erected – symbolically facing the Millport for the condemned man to see as he was hanged; close to the main road so that the heavy timber for the gibbet could have been brought in easily enough, and with enough space for the cavalry to graze and water their horses – and keep the crowds at bay.
“the scaffold was surrounded by a detachment of local militia. After spending some time in devotion, he mounted the fatal drop and was immediately launched into eternity. Gibson was a stout, but not a tall man, of about 40 years of age. … An immense multitude attended on the occasion, the first time that such a scene had taken place in the town .. his body has been brought to the city [Edinburgh] for desection”
For Walter Wilson, it was a short stroll from the Howegate across the Sandbed to the Teviot Bridge
Down the Howegate, past Hugh Goodfellow [baker, farmer, corn dealer, later of Trow Mill] and round past where they were starting to prepare for the opening of Buccleuch Road and across the Teviot Bridge. There are accounts of public hangings – enjoyable and sobering at the same time. But any worse than the millions of people who sit comfortably watching TV cop series showing beatings, rapes, murder and grisly violence of every kind. At least Walter Wilson watched only one hanging – no rewind button, no close-up, no music playing in the background. Just a simple scene – a gibbet, on the Haugh, opposite Millport, with a short stout 40 year old who he probably knew – probably by sight and certainly by common gossip – “married to Renwick the butchers daughter” .
And then for Walter, it wasn’t long between mid-May and his moment as Cornet.
The same crowds on the same Haugh – but watching horse racing rather than a hanging.
Aftterwards – Walter married Isabella and carried on Wilson the Bakers at 10 Howegate, with son Walter a bakers apprentice; eldest daughter Jane about to marry another baker John Armstrong [of 1 Sandbed in the 1840s]; and another 7 children. [His wife Isabella was to carry on the business with sons Walter and James until the 1860s]
Walter became Burgh Treasurer, and was “the most prominent townsman to die” in the Cholera epidemic of July – September 1849 which claimed 197 lives. He was buried in the Wellogate cemetery which opened only a fortnight before the first cholera funeral.