Suffolk is home to many a curious tale, from the mysterious green children of Woolpit to a mansion which disappears and re-appears in the west of the county. However, these tales take on a different timbre when we realise that they emanate from a true story. In the case of Drummer Boy Toby Gill, this involves a possible injustice and his subsequently frightening death at the hands of our legal system backed up by a local mob pre-disposed to not like him very much. Read on….
In 1754 when George II was on the throne, the 4th Hussars were quartered in Blythburgh in Suffolk to help quell smuggling which had become rife among the local people. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons and he acquired this nickname because of colour of his skin. Described as being in possession of ‘great charm’ when sober, Toby had acquired a reputation as a drunken brawler, a ‘drunken profligate fellow’ according to the Derby Mercury, and had been banned from many of the local beer-houses.
He wouldn’t have been unusual in this behaviour either. The dragoons were not made up of local men who might have been too sympathetic to the smuggling industry which had become fairly lucrative by then in a part of the country where it could be a struggle to earn a fair living. These troops were fresh from the war of Austrian succession and despite being battle hardened, they were ill-disciplined and not well disposed towards the locals who reciprocated in kind. Journals such as the Ipswich Journal regularly reported on the troops’ drunkenness and rowdy skirmishes as a result.
One night, having had a few ales, Toby blundered across the common, which would have been lit only by moonlight, and encountered a young servant girl named Ann Blackmore. Unfortunately, the next day Ann’s lifeless body was found prone among the bracken and gorse and Toby was arrested and accused of her murder after being found sprawled next to her body in a drunken stupor. No signs of injury to her body could be discerned by the coroner and little evidence of his guilt could be elicited. Unfortunately for Toby, this made little difference to the local people and the judiciary who seemed to hunger for justice at the expense of hard evidence and held little regard for the troops who must have seemed to them, even more of a threat to their way of life.
June 30th 1750.
Tobias Hill, a black, one of the drummers in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment was committed to Ipswich gaol, the coroner’s enquiry having found him guilty of the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick.
Ann’s murder was never satisfactorily proven: it has been postulated that she died of fright, and Toby continued to plead innocence but he was dragged in chains, to the exact spot where her body was found and condemned to die by hanging from a gibbet. The judge reflected the popular feeling at the time by saying, “I never before desired a power of executing the legal penalties, but if I had such a power I would exercise it in this case.”
August 25th 1750.
At Bury Assizes, Toby Gil, one of Sir Robert Rich’s drummers received the death sentence for the murder of Ann Blakemore of Walberswick, next Monday is appointed for his execution which will probably be in Ipswich and he is to be hanged in chains near the place where he committed the murder.
Toby’s place of execution was close to a derelict barn and a crossroads on the main route for the London Mail. Toby pleaded for his life and begged that a halter should be placed around his neck and tied to the mail coach so that he might meet his death in this way but this request was refused and he was hanged in chains and then his body dipped in tar. To make matters more gruesome, a Southwold gentleman called Mr Bokenham was viewing the proceedings from the saddle of his horse and, as Toby’s body dropped to the end of the rope, the horse reared, bucked him off, broke his neck and killed him.
Hanging in chains (also known as ‘gibbeting’) was one of the more repulsive methods of capital punishment and had only been ratified under English law some two years before Toby’s trial. It is unsurprising that the terrified Toby begged to be harnessed up to the mail coach instead, which, in itself, still sounds like a cruel and terrible punishment to us. Gibbeting meant that the condemned person was hung in a tall and stark cage-like structure constructed from metal bands fashioned into a series of hoops. The gibbet was often positioned on a crossroads which was not a random location but deeply symbolic as a denial of the profane: the treatment of Toby’s body showed societal disapproval of his crime and the crossroads execution site was a collision between old pagan habits and a more modern Christian doctrine. His death probably took some time and once he breathed his last, his body remained, swinging from the chains for months and at the mercy of the elements and local wildlife. His bones were buried where they fell.
The next twelve months saw many a villager report ‘dreadful sights and sounds’ as his skeleton roamed the countryside, chains clanking and making terrible moaning sounds. This hysteria was compounded by the disquiet over what some feared was a miscarriage of justice and probably not helped by the fact that the gallows remained standing until around 1800 as a discomfiting reminder. These ghostly sightings were reported well into the 1940s and because of Toby’s lonely nocturnal wanderings along the Walberswick road and paths over Blythburgh Common, many locals refused to go anywhere near them at night.
When the gallows and gibbet eventually disintegrated into many pieces, a master-thatcher made a thatching comb from the nails whilst others were collected as talismans. The posts, carved with Tobias’s initials, were taken to a shed at Westwood Lodge and even shavings from the wood were gathered up and used as a cure for toothache. Oddly enough, no evidence exists that these relics retained any kind of a malign abilities although locals claimed that Toby’s barn (as it became known) had to be tiled because the thatch would never stay on it.
Toby’s ghost didn’t travel solely on foot though as he was also seen driving a phantom coach. A local man was driving with three of his men from the coast to the village and his route took him close to the barn one night where the gibbet still stood. As they approached the barn they saw ‘a large coach, driven by four headless horses, driving straight towards them.’ The three passengers jumped straight out of the cart but their master continued to drive, his cart passing right through the apparition which he described as ‘like driving through a cold fog.’ In another incident, a local farmer was surprised to discover a large figure stumbling around the barn one night. He wasn’t frightened by this, stating that ‘if only he hadn’t vanished so quickly. I’d have gone for my gun and shot him.’
Tales of ghostly figures and fearsome creatures are particularly prevalent in regions whose coasts provide rich pickings for smugglers and in East Anglia we are well acquainted with the ‘Black Shuck’, a dog-like phantom whose red and glowing eyes will kill should you accidentally make eye contact with it. Sir Robert Rich’s troops were stationed here because of the widespread smuggling that went on which would have set them at odds with locals who, living in a harsh and unforgiving part of the country, would have resented anything making life even more challenging. These were people living on the edge in a metaphorical and literal sense where they ran the gauntlet of an untamed coastline which provided them with cover, plunder and also threatened their lives. It is possible that perpetuating tales of a phantom dragoon drummer who stalks the commons which run alongside the beaches of Suffolk would serve law enforcement well, discouraging people from the beaches and functioning as an informal curfew. It is also possible that local smugglers took advantage of poor dead Toby and made him the subject of a number of ghost stories for their own ends.
Rather oddly, the ghost of Anne Blakemore has been seen to run across the road at Five Finger Post crossroads in the dip between Blythburgh and Westleton on the B1125 every 24th June, the anniversary of her death. She wears a blue dress and has apparently startled many a car driver.
AN OLD SUFFOLK TALE
Fine momin sah, wot’s thaat yaou ax
Wot plaace be thaat ahid ?
Woy thaat be Blybrer straate, tha’s ware
I live, an’ allers did;
An’ yon’s the chuch, but haps yaou know’t
For these hare larst few yares
A mort o’ fooks come round these paarts,
An’ at the chuches stares;
For sure ’tis mighty ‘musin’ tew,
Ter hare the waay they torks;
Yus, hinder be the Wukhus, an’
These hare be Toby’s Walks;
Hew’s Toby? did I hare yaou saay?
Woy then, ’tis plain ter see
Yaou doan’t belong ter these hare paarts,
Ware mought yar buthplaace be ?
In Lunnon town! woy then in coorse
Yaou cou’nt be ‘sposed ter know,
Il’ tell yer wot I’ve allers heerd;
Yaou’ll ‘souse my bein’ slow,
‘Cos I haain’t larnt ter spaake up shaarp,
Nor niver bin ter skule.
An’ wen I sees fooks read an’ write
I faals a blarmed owd fule ;
But this hare’s wot my grammother
Hev orfen towd ter me,
An’ she wore right a tough un, foor
She lived ter ninety three ;
How more’n a hunderd yare agoo,
Wen good owd Goorge wore King,
An’ England fowt the Frenchmin, as
I’ve heerd owd sowdjers sing ;
A regiment o’sowdjers come*
Along o’this hare rood,
An’ laay in Blybrer Straate a waak,
A’ lodgin’ ware they could;
An’ they’d a band o’ music got,
With drummers tew oor three,
An’ one o’ these hare drummers chaps
Wore blaack as blaack could be;
Blaack Toby wore his Chrissen uaame,
His naature, ‘twore thaat baadd
As iy’ry one as knowed ‘m said
The devil wore his daad;
One ev’nin he wore stroamin’ round
Good tidy full o’booze.
Wen a gal come gald’rin’ down yon rood,
An arter har he goos;
Now wot he said oor done ter har
I caan’t ezackly tell,
Foor yaou be bound ‘twam’t nuthin good.
An’ baad tork doan’t sound well;
Howsever she won’t none o’him,
An’ towd ‘m so I spec
For arter har he went right quick
An’ catcht har by the neck.
Har hankercher he then pulled out,
Which round har throot he tied,
An’ then he hulled har on the ground.
An’ graained har till she died;
An’ then, ’tis wonndy straange to saay,
The drink began ter tell,
An’ in drunkin kind o’slaape
Right by the coorpse he fell.
The next d’ morn some laabrin’ fooks
A comin from the Straate,
They see owd Toby i’ the holl,
With the gal agin his faate;
An’ as ’twere clear he kilt the gal,
Altho’ he fowt ‘m haard,
They took ‘m up right out ‘n hand,
An’ kep ‘m under guard;
The Crowner’s Quest saat on the coorpse,
An’ orl o’ them agreed
As how ‘twore plaain the gal wore kilt,
An’ plaain hew done the deed;
They found as Toby done the job.
An’ as he con’nt ha’ bail ;
They sent ‘m orf ter Ipswich town,
An’ hulled ‘ni inter jaail.
An’ there he laay till ‘Sizes come.
An’ senteneed ‘m ter deth,
Sayin’ as how he must be hung
On this hare wery heth ;
They browt ‘m tew them cross roods there,
An’ hanged ‘m up in chaains,
An’ there he hung till he dropt down,
Wore out by winds and raains ;
An’ ef aat midnight time yaou stan’.
Jest ware them gallers stood,
Fooks saay yaoull hare a carriage come
A rattlin’ down the rood.
Foure bosses blaack without no bids,
A Fun’ril bus behind,
A blaack maan settin’ on the box
A drivin’ loike the wind;
They saay ‘cos Toby hain’t no graave,
Noor yet no parsin’ bell,
He’re got ter come hare iv’ry night,
An’ drive hisself ter hell.
The gals an’ childen i’ the plaace.
An’ growed up wimmin tew,
They on’t goo parst hare arter daark
Onless there be a crew;
But hinder come our Maaster’s dorg,
So he bain’t faar awaay,
He caan’t abear us mardlin’ so
I wish yaou Sab, Gooddaay.
Ernest R. Cooper.
[The East Anglian; or, Notes and queries on subjects connected with the counties of Suffolk, Cambridge, Essex and Norfolk (1800)]
You may also like Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story by Susan Gardiner.
Image detail from The Desperate Man by Albrecht Dürer (Public Domain)