George Lyon - Upholland Highwayman, some relevant dates and information
George Lyon was 54 when he was executed. Sentence was passed on Sat. 8th April, 1815 along with Houghton and Bennett, the other accomplice, Edward Ford, who had been working at Walmsley House as a painter and it was here that the last robbery took place, and the one for which Lyon and his accomplices were eventually indicted. It had been Ford who had suggested robbing the house to Lyon, and he himself had taken part in some 17 previous robberies, but because he turned Kings evidence he was spared the capital sentence. The execution of Lyon, Houghton, and Bennett, took place just before noon on Saturday, 22nd April 1815 - the year of the Battle of Waterloo.
Just five years before in 1810 the House of Lords had thrown out a law passed by the Commons that would have prohibited the death penalty for theft offences.
All other capital sentences passed that day were commuted, except for the Upholland trio of Lyon, Houghton and Bennett, and two others, Moses Owen for horse stealing, and a John Warburton for "highway robbery".
John Higgins, Chief Gaoler of Lancaster Castle - known as the gentleman gaoler - allowed Lyon to wear his best black suit and "topped" jockey boots for his execution as he had promised, and these items had duly been brought over from Up Holland for him.
On that Saturday morning just before noon the condemned men were marched from their cells in Lancaster Castle to the Drop Room, and through its doors and out on to the scaffold. and in front of the usual hanging day crowd some 5000 people who crowded onto the grass bank of what had once been the castle moat, and is opposite that which is called Hanging Corner, the sentences were duly carried out.
Visitors to Lancaster Castle today can still visit the Drop Room, where the condemmed had their arms pinioned before execution, and see the pitch-dark, widowless cells which had also been used to hold the dozen or so Lancashire witches over a century earlier.
The sentences were duly carried out by Old Ned Barlow, who was hangman of Lancaster Castle and who in his career executed some 133 people.
After his death Lyon's body was handed over to Simon Washington, landlord of The Old Dog Inn in Up Holland, and a companion, for it's return to Up Holland for burial.
The Old Dog Inn still stands on the steep street called Alma Hill, in the village and it has changed little since Lyon's day.
The double doors in the photograph below lead from the Drop Room, where the condemmed were pinioned before being led out onto the scaffold, which was erected in front of these doors, after execution the bodies were taken back in through the opening below the doors and up through a trap door into the Drop Room. Note the low height the scaffold would be, height wasn't important as the "drop" method of hanging where the neck is dislocated had yet to be devised, death was usually a slow one by strangulation.
Lyon had not wanted his body left at Lancaster as it would have been handed over to surgeons for dissection as was the normal procedure with the bodies of executed crimminals, in a poignant letter to his wife written on the 14th April written with the aid of the prison chaplain the Reverend Cowley, who had visited all the prisoners on death row, he implored her to arrange for his body to be returmed home.
That return journey home undertaken by Simon Washington and a companion was horrendous, made during a raging thunder storm, so bad, with thunder and lighting all around the cart, that at one stage both men had to shelter under it from the torrential rain, Washington declared that the devil himself had followed them throughout the journey, and he swore he would never make such a journey again.
As the cart approached the final part of it's journey, a huge crowd was observed moving off from Orrell Post near Upholland in the direction of Gathurst, to observe the return of George Lyon's body. When word came through that the cortege was instead passing through nearby Wrightington and heading for the road through Appley Bridge instead, the crowd rushed across the fields from the Gathurst bridge which still spans the Leeds to Liverpool canal, to meet the cart at Dangerous Corner, and then followed it in procession through Appley Bridge, and up the long steep climb through Roby Mill, until it eventually reached Parliament Street in Up Holland, and the last few hundred yards to The Old Dog Inn, where Lyon's body was laid out in the landlady's best parlour overnight.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the pub the next day, and even climbed onto the roofs of adjoining buildings, to see the coffin as it was taken for burial to St. Thomas's churchyard in Up Holland on Sunday 23rd April 1815. George Lyon is buried in his daughter's grave, the inscription simply reads "Nanny Lyon, Died 7th April 1804" His name is not recorded on the stone. I am grateful to Ian McGuinn for pointing out it was his daughter's grave, as it was always assumed that Nanny was his mother or grandmother. The parish records make it clear she was his daughter, buried on the 10th April 1804.
It has been assumed by many that the bodies of Bennett and Houghton had been left at Lancaster, but indeed their bodies too, were brought back to Upholland, their burials appear in the parish register of St.Thomas's Church, along with George Lyon, and all three were buried on the same day, 23rd of April 1815. In the records their entries run consecutively, no reference is made to the manner of their deaths, they, like every other villager's burial in the parish records, are simply entered by name, age, and occupation, as : George Lyon, age 54, Weaver. David Bennett age 35 Flagger. William Houghton, age 33, Collier. The Rev. William Bird, Curate, conducted all three burials.
It is a fitting and heart warming conclusion to the story of the Upholland highwaymen that Upholland village took back into it's bosom it's three wayward sons, and didn't just leave them in Lancaster to the ignomy of the dissector's scalpel, but instead brought them home and laid them to rest within the peaceful confines of St. Thomas's churchyard.
On the road directly opposite the grave of George Lyon stood the famous haunted house, where violent poltergeist happenings took place over a long period in 1904. This phenomenon drew thousands of sightseers to the village, and many locals thought that the ghost of George Lyon was responsible.
Prior to arrest
George Lyon's one claim to fame as a highwayman came from the fact that with his accomplices he had planned a stage coach robbery at a meeting in the Legs of Man public house, Lyon and his friends then persuaded the ostler at his local The Bull's Head Inn in Upholland, to lend them horses for a few hours and held up the Liverpool mail coach at nearby Tawd Vale, firing two shots across the coach, and so forcing the driver to pull up, they robbed the passengers before returning to Upholland, and were back in the Bull's Head when the robbed coach later arrived at the inn with the tale of the robbery, Lyon and his accomplices of course had an alibi as people had seen them in the pub earlier in the afternoon. Other than this one highway robbery incident it seems he was just an habitual thief, and indeed in his younger days had been transported to one of the colonies for a number of years before returning to Upholland.
It was in the Bull's Head after the robbery at Westwood Hall that an undercover agent and thief taker by the name of John McDonald met up with George Lyon. The agent had been loaned to the Wigan police by the assistant Chief Constable of Manchester because the local Wigan police were too well known to Lyon and his friends, by frequenting the Bull's Head over a period of time that McDonald was able to gain the trust of Lyon, making out he was a dealer in stolen goods and used some of the money loaned by the Assistant Chief Constable - a sum of £10 out of the £20 loaned for the purpose - to buy the stolen silver which Lyon had agreed to sell, Lyon took McDonald to his house and showed him the stolen goods, this was the downfall of George Lyon and his accomplices, leading to their arrest, conviction and subsequent execution.