Death of a watchman - and the last public hanging in Birmingham

Early morning on Wednesday 15th July 1806, Watchman Robert Twyford was on duty in the Snow Hill area of Birmingham. Upon hearing of suspicious characters lurking about his patch, he went to question them.

He spoke to one of the men who shot him in the chest, and 'the ruffian promptly decamped' according to the Oxford University and City Herald, Sat 19th July 1806.

A typical 1800s Watchman

Twyford received a gunshot wound to the chest, which passed through his lungs and right shoulder blade, becoming lodged in his shoulder. Initially there were fears he would not recover from the operation to remove the bullet, however he went on to make some form of recovery, although he was unable to return to his duties as a Watchman due to the debilitating effect on his health.

He was therefore unable to support his wife and children and the family were destitute. Robert Twyford and his wife Ann had 6 children together, although one had sadly died a year after being born and a further two were to die in 1806 and 1807, at 8 and 7 years of age respectively.

Twyford and his family managed to scrape by until 1814, when he underwent an operation for a strangulated hernia, from which he seemed to recover well, with the exception of a bad cough that continued until he died on the 22nd November 1814. The surgeon who examined Robert's body after his death indicated that the hernia operation had indeed gone well, but that his lungs were in a terrible state, for which he attributed this to the gunshot wound 8 years prior.

This image shows a typical Watchman in the 1800s.

A subscription was started by the Birmingham Gazette to help his family.

The man who shot Twyford was believed to be Philip Matsell, a former sailor, who was hanged on the corner of Snow Hill and Great Charles Street. This was to be the last public hanging in Birmingham, which has been commemorated with a plaque from the Birmingham Civic Society, following research by local historian Kay Hunter to identify the correct site. It was argued after Matsell's death that he couldn't have been the killer as an alibi was established that proved he was drinking in a local public house and was too drunk to have shot Twyford. It was Kay's painstaking research that identified Twyford's death from his injuries all those years later.

You can read more about Matsell's story and Kay's research in the below article by the Birmingham Evening Mail: