It is almost impossible to write anything about Great Totham without mentioning Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, 4th baronet (1847–1935), a remarkable character: a sportsman in the widest sense of the word, and someone who frequently crops up in anthologies in Great British Eccentrics. The family came to England in 1785/6 as Huguenot refugees and settled in Camberwell, an area that has since become known and Champion Hill. Their house in Great Totham, like their house in Camberwell, was called Champion Lodge, and had been built in 1877 not long before Sir Claude bought it. Here he laid out a private steeplechase course; the house was filled with hunting trophies; and he was an intrepid balloonist. A tramp who asked him for money had to earn it by first engaging in a bout of fisticuffs. He thought nothing of walking the 45 miles from Great Totham to London in order to win a wager of half a crown. He was never High Sheriff, and would have been, in many ways, quite unsuited for the position; at the age of 67, for example, he struck a police constable at Bungay races (where he was acting as steward) and was fined £20. On the other hand, he was well qualified because, unlike most High Sheriffs (one hopes and suspects), he would have relished that part of the role that required him to see that death sentences were carried out.
On Monday 18 May 1885, James Manson alias Lee was hanged at Chelmsford Prison (then known as Springfield Gaol) for the murder of Inspector Simmons of Essex County Constabulary at Romford on 20 January. Those present included the Sheriff’s Marshall, Mr D. Powell; Mr Walter Gepp, taking the place of his brother Charles, the Under Sheriff, who had sprained his ankle; and Messrs F. Smee and D. Thompson from the Under-Sheriff’s office. The High Sheriff himself (J. F. Lescher of Hutton Park, Brentwood) was not present, although he had been at the prison earlier; but Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny, with no official function and for no obvious reason, walked in the procession from the condemned cell to the scaffold (Essex Standard, 23 May 1885, p. 8). Sir Claude later claimed that he had been there in his capacity as a magistrate, although no one had actually required his presence.
The executioner was James Berry, who carried out 131 hangings in England between 1884 and 1891. Later in 1885 three men were convicted of the murder of a policeman near Penrith and sentenced to hang at Carlisle on 8 February 1886. A triple hanging was a rare event and attracted a good deal of press attention. Berry was assisted in his task by one ‘Charles Maldon’, soon exposed in the press as Sir Claude. This caused an outcry, with questions asked of the Home Secretary in the House of Commons as to whether he now approved of amateur hangmen. When interviewed in his ‘elegant mansion’ by a reporter from the Yorkshire Post, ‘Mr Maldon’ defended his actions by saying that ‘I have a great dislike to ordering anyone to do things I should not like to do myself. It is within the bounds of possibility that I might be High Sheriff in the course of years; I have not been pricked out yet, but if I were I should have to serve. We will suppose that one of these “martyrs,” one of these Fenian fellow, was to be hanged. The executioner might be threatened, and it is possible that we might not be able to get a hangman. I would not order anyone to do what I could not do myself.’ A triple hanging, where Berry would be in need of an assistant, seemed a good opportunity for Sir Claude to learn the necessary skills, so he offered his services. He allowed Berry to keep the £5 that he had been given to pay his assistant, and tipped him another fiver on top (Carlisle Reporter, 26 February 1886, p. 3).
There is little doubt that Sir Claude’s actions, and his subsequent comments, would have put paid to any prospect of his becoming High Sheriff. There is such a thing as being too keen to carry out certain duties.
[Much of the above is based on ‘The amateur hangman: a Victorian sportsman’s pastime’ by Fred Feather, one of a series of History Notebooks published by Essex Police Museum.]