You’ve probably noticed that the 280,000 sq ft Royal Exchange, one of Manchester’s most iconic buildings, is currently undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment.
But if you had been walking through St Ann’s Square in the summer of 1746, you would have been greeted by quite a different sight – the severed heads of Thomas Deacon and Thomas Syddall, two of Manchester’s most prominent citizens, on spikes on the Royal Exchange. It was a warning to Mancunians of the penalty for treason.
Deacon and Syddall were prominent Jacobites who had rallied to the cause of Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, who, the previous year, had arrived triumphant in that same square looking for recruits for his army to march on London and reclaim this throne.
Manchester had never rallied behind the German royal lineage, so when Charles Stuart began his march south in 1745, the town waited to welcome him.
The story is well known. The Jacobite army marched towards Macclesfield, some crossing the Mersey at Cheadle Ford on a the bridge made from felled poplar trees, others via Stockport. The Manchester Regiment carried a flag with the words ‘Liberty and Property’ on one side and ‘Church and King’ on the other.
They got as far south as Derby, where the Pretender’s army received the news that Lord John Drummond had landed in Montrose. The highland chiefs decided that it was best to return to Scotland to rally the larger army.
Their return could not have been more chilling. Rumours of the retreat had already reached Manchester. Over two hundred of the Manchester Regiment had deserted and when the rebel army returned, they were greeted by stones thrown at them as they crossed Hanging Ditch.
The Prince exacted his revenge by levying a five thousand pound fine while the remains of the regiment headed north. They were hotly pursued by the Hanoverian forces of the Duke of Cumberland, who had sent a message to the town’s magistrates to seize any stragglers from the rebel army.
By the time they reached Carlisle, two thirds of what was by this time a dispirited Manchester Regiment had deserted and when the Duke of Cumberland arrived, four days before Christmas 1745, he lay siege to the town. Within eight days the Manchester regiment had surrendered.
A terrible revenge would be enacted on the traitors on Kennington Common on the 30th July 1746. Deacon and Syddall’s heads were brought back to Manchester and displayed on spikes atop of the Royal Exchange.
It is said that on seeing his son’s head on a spike, Dr William Deacon raised his hat, something that he continued to do every time he passed the building. As the celebrations of the suppression of the rebellion were taking place, the houses of Deacon and Syddall were burnt to the ground.
The heads were stolen after being displayed for 30 months. What happened to them was revealed by Dr S. L Bardsley who was at the death bed of a Miss Frances Hall who lived in King Street and was a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She told him her brother had stolen the heads and buried them in the garden where she was now living.
Three skulls were indeed found in the garden and were placed in the Churchyard of St Ann’s. When the first Exchange was taken down in 1792, accounts of its demolition maintain that the two spikes where the heads had been placed still remained fastened to the stones in some macabre manner of remembrance.
For more forgotten stories about people and places from around the region, Around Manchester by Nigel Barlow is available here priced £14.99