A few days ago I read an article that brought back a memory long since forgotten. Herewith the following memory, a dit or two, as well as a brief history lesson. Are you sitting comfortably? Good! If not, then adjust your position; after which I shall begin…
Upon completion of training I was handed my draft order to join to 40 Commando RM, which at the time was based in Plymouth (referred to by Matelot’s and Bootneck’s alike as ‘Guzz.’) My first adventure ashore was an alcoholic one that passed by as an emotional blur (as did most of the long weekend that I mentioned in a ‘dit’ at the end of a previous post --> Elf’s, Safety, and an old Sea Dog!) The following friday lunchtime was my first non alcoholic ‘cultural’ adventure around Guzz, where I eventually made my way to the Hoe, which is Plymouth’s grassland area waterfront. Sitting on the steps of the Naval Memorial gazing out into the sound, I watched mesmerised as a variety of Her Majesty’s ‘grey funnel line’ ships steamed slowly past Drake’s Island heading towards ‘Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport.’ Little did I realise then, that the throughout the following 23 years I would be viewing the same Naval Memorial from the decks of Commando Carriers and Frigates alike, as they entered the sound from foreign adventures courtesy of H.M.’s Government. Naval memorial over-looking the Hoe and Drake’s Island
Plymouth Hoe has a variety of war memorials scattered about it, though scattered in a regimental style as you would imagine with great pride; with some more prominent than others. Having had my fill of all things nautical I perused the more obvious monuments until my hunger pains finally took charge, brought on by the delicious aroma of Cornish pasties wafting across from a nearby cafe. Walking inland towards the small eatery I happened upon a small stone Naval cross at the side of the narrow pathway, it was laid flat and set within the path itself with the number 3 etched deep within. Over the years that followed, it would become obvious that small religious icons were to be found dotted around the old military walls and keeps of the historic forts surrounding the area. Especially those built using french POW’s from the Napoleonic era, who would hand carve a french cross into a granite block where a POW fell through ill-health or exhaustion, never to stand again.Later that same year in November; I was part of a fighting company who attended the Remembrance day parade on the Hoe in front of the Naval memorial. Dressed in full No.1 ceremonial Blues uniform the company ‘formed up’ and marched from the nearby Royal Citadel to fall in with the remainder of the military parade. As we ‘wheeled’ right on the small pathway junction an elderly gent stood next to the inlaid cross, he was obviously ex military and purposely avoided eye contact with the 120 Marines as they crunched past in heavy parade boots. He stayed at the same position throughout the service, and only after the playing of the last post did he walk away. Several times I noticed the elderly gent take up the same position at each annual Remembrance day service, until one year he failed to show up. I presumed he had crossed the bar, and was annoyed with myself for not approaching him to seek out the significance of the inlaid cross as well as his presence. This day of his non-attendance someone had placed a small wooden British Legion poppy cross in the grass verge close to the stone cross. Perhaps a significant act of kindness on behalf of the elderly gent? The thought left me with a lump in my throat. The Royal Citadel
It also pushed me into seeking the background and history covering the inlaid Naval cross, and if possible information on the elderly gent who paraded by it each year. The RN Padre was close at hand so I brought the story to his attention as we walked over to the stone icon. He viewed it with many hmmm’s and urrrm’s, which meant he was just as flummoxed and as ignorant as I. We each agreed to scour the various libraries in the area, as well as the historic Naval ledgers in the hope of resolving the issue at our feet (’twas’ the days of pre-internet!) A fortnight later as arranged we met up at the education office of RM Barracks Stonehouse to share our findings.
Our independent research revealed the history behind the stone cross as well as its historic significance; although we had no information to share on the elderly gent whose attendance in the past added to the mystery. We could only presume that the old-n-bold ex serviceman was well aware of the it’s significance and chose to remember and honour the fallen it represented.
Sadly my notes from that meeting have long since been misplaced through years of travel and home moves, though I am able to complete the history lesson using a post from the excellent website belonging to writer and historian Derek Tait whose permission for release I sought yesterday.
Execution on Plymouth Hoe: Between the Naval Memorial and the Hoe Lodge Gardens, there is a cross with the number ’3′ embedded in the pavement. This marks the spot where three Marines were executed by firing squad on 6 July, 1797. Their names were Lee, Coffy and Branning and they were found guilty of attempting to excite a mutiny at Stonehouse Barracks. Another Marine, M Gennis was convicted of a similar crime and sentenced to 1000 lashes and transported to Botany Bay for life. RM Stonehouse Barracks external main gate entrance 2014
The incident was reported in the Sherborne and Yeovil Mercury on Monday 10th July,1797. It read: ‘PLYMOUTH, July 8 – On Wednesday morning an express arrived here from the War-Office, with a warrant for the execution of Lee, Coffy, and Branning, three marines who were last week tried by a General Court-Martial, and found guilty of an attempt to excite a mutiny among the marine corps at Stone-house Barracks and on Thursday at 12 o’clock the troops at this place and in the neighbourhood, consisting of the Sussex fencible cavalry, four companies of the royal artillery, the Lancashire, East Devon and Essex regiments of militia, the 25th regiment of foot,royal independent invalids, and Plymouth volunteers, assembled on the Hoe, and formed in a half circle in order to witness the execution. M Gennis, another marine tried for a similar crime, and sentenced to receive 1000 lashes, and to be afterwards transported to Botany Bay for life, was brought on the ground soon after twelve o’clock, and received 500 lashes, and then conveyed back to Stone-house Barracks. At half past one o’clock, Lee, Coffy and Branning were marched from the Citadel under the escort of a party of marines, with a coffin before each, preceded by the band of that corps playing the Dead March in Saul. RM Stonehouse Barracks internal parade ground Circa 1870
The former was attended by the Rev. Dr. Hawker; and the two latter by a Roman Catholic priest, who after praying with them near an hour, quitted them, and they all three knelt on their coffins for a few minutes, when an officer of marines came and drew the caps over their faces, and a party of twenty marines immediately came down and put a period to their existence by discharging the contents of their muskets through their bodies, after which all the regiments marched round them in solemn procession, the whole forming, perhaps, one of the most awful scenes that the human eye ever witnessed. They all behaved in a manner becoming their melancholy situation, and apparently very resigned and penitent. About thirty thousand people were supposed to be present at the execution’.
There was more to the execution than mentioned in the newspaper though. Ten thousand men of the Fleet and garrison were there to watch them die and most of Plymouth appeared to have turned out too. When the three men faced the firing squad and the shots were fired, Coffy and Branning fell forward, dead, into their coffins. However, Lee was not hit and had to go through the whole procedure again. The reserve firing squad lined up, took aim and fired but again Lee was untouched. Once more, they loaded up, took aim but again missed Lee. In the end, a sergeant came up behind him and shot him dead at close range. It seems odd that the firing squad missed Lee three times and perhaps there was some sympathy with him amongst the troops.
Earlier fourteen seamen had been hanged at the yardarm on their ships in the Sound.
This was to be Plymouth’s last public execution.
One can only imagine what went through the minds of those present as they followed the Marine band playing the solemn death march from Handel’s Saul, who in turn were followed by a horse-drawn military carriage that carried 3 measured wooden coffins for the intended that followed, escorted by a guard of Marines – their own kind. Yours Aye.
Derek Tait. Plymouth local history: Execution on Plymouth Hoe