By Nick Brunger
October’s production of “The Welkin”, by the Cotswold Players, recalls a dark time in our county’s history when public executions were commonplace and many women ended their lives on the gallows.
In this tense historical drama a young woman, Sally Poppy, has been found guilty of murdering the daughter of a local aristocrat. Her lover has already been hanged and Sally’s journey to the noose is dependent on whether she is pregnant, as she claims, or openly lying.
While her fate is being determined by the judge a mob outside the courtroom bays for her execution.
In Lucy Kirkwood’s play, a jury of twelve women are plucked from the community to decide whether Sally is telling the truth. If they decide in her favour the young woman will live but if not then she will end her life at the end of the hangman’s noose.
“The Welkin” is set in rural Suffolk in 1759, but the case has strong parallels with similar trials in Gloucestershire.
“Pleading the belly”, or claiming to be pregnant, was a common way for a woman to try and avoid the death sentence. The process allowed a woman in the later stages of pregnancy to receive a reprieve until after she had given birth to her child.
During the 18th century according to what became known as the “Bloody Code” some two hundred or so crimes attracted capital punishment and dozens of women were sentenced to be hanged, often for the most minor of crimes.
Among those who died on the gallows were females who had committed minor crimes including forgery, horse theft and burglary.
In June 1752, Anne Williams was admitted to Cirencester House of Correction, being suspected of poisoning her husband, William, with mercury.
At her trial in Gloucester Mrs Williams was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the sentence was postponed for a few days. The Gloucester Journal reported that she “pleaded her Belly, but after she had been examined by a “Jury of Matrons” she was found not quick,” as the old-fashioned term for pregnancy was then called.
Grotesquely, history tells us that Anne was not hanged, instead ending her life at the stake as the last woman in our county to be burnt to death.
In the same year that “The Welkin” is set Edith Saunders went to the gallows at Over, where Gloucester’s executions were carried out. She had stabbed a man to death with her penknife, but three other women accused of the same crime managed to escape to death penalty.
Despite the constant threat of hanging courts often showed mercy and many of those sentenced to hang found their punishments were commuted to terms of imprisonment or deportation to Australia.
Despite The Welkin’s strong historical theme, the director Jonathan Vickers says the play also has plenty of humour.
“One of the actresses told me that for a play with such a serious subject matter, she was amazed at how funny it is. Nearly every character has a number of laugh-out-loud lines!”
“Although it is set two-hundred-and-fifty years in the past the drama has great relevance today.” “
The central theme of the play is the status of women in a world governed by men, with a stark reminder that, although we have made progress in the last two-hundred-and-fifty years there is still plenty to do.”
“With the accused’s life in jeopardy you could argue that The Welkin is a thriller, albeit with plenty of coarse humour.”
“It deals with timeless issues of privilege, progress, the status of women, and whether violence is ever justified.”
First performed at the National Theatre just before lockdown, The Stage newspaper called the play “thrilling and beautifully calibrated, tight as a high wire … a gripping richly textured history play.”
The Welkin is being performed at the Cotswold Playhouse from Tuesday 11th to Saturday 15th October.
Warning – this play contains adult themes, strong language and some violence. Age guidance: 12+