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John "Babbacombe" Lee

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The Man They Could Not Hang

And Who That Has Suffered

The Glen at Babbacombe: site of the murder

Perhaps he is not a hero in the traditional sense, but he was certainly wrongly convicted, and very nearly hanged for a crime he did not commit, that of cold-blooded murder.
The tale of John Lee is known to many, John Lee is known to many as "The Man They Couldn't Hang". Three times the trap was sprung and three times the trap did not fall, John Lee's life was spared that day. This then is his tale, a tale that inspired Dave Swarbrick to compose an entire album, for Fairport Convention, a tale that should cause us all to look deep within ourselves and determine whether we have the right to judge another, to condemn another, and very nearly take their life....

 At eight o'clock on the morning of the eighteenth of December, 1907 the iron gates of a prison opened, and out into the light of day stepped two middle aged men. One of them was an official in civilian clothes. He bore the hall marks of drill and discipline. The other man...
The other man! There was something strange about him. He looked hunted and cowed, like a creature crushed and broken. He seemed to hang back as if he were afraid of the light of day. He appeared to draw no happy inspiration from God's sunshine. He fumbled at his overcoat pockets as if the very possession of a pocket was a new sensation. He trod gingerly, as if the earth concealed a pitfall . . .
Away they went by cab and rail to Newton Abbot. There the two men walked to the police-station, where the official announced that he was a warder from Portland Convict Prison in charge of John Lee, convict, on ticket-of-leave. John Lee handed his ticket to the police officer, who read it.
What was it that made that policeman start as he read? What was it that made him look so curiously at the tall, thin, clean-shaven elderly man before him? It was this: Certain particulars on the ticket showed that on Feb. 4, 1885, the bearer was sentenced to death at Exeter Assizes for murder at Babbacombe. The man was "Babbacombe" Lee! "Babbacombe" Lee was on his way to spend Christmas with his aged mother John Lee, the man they could not hang, the man under whose feet the grim mechanism of the scaffold three times mysteriously failed in its appointed work.
The story of his life's ordeal John Lee himself will tell. It is the story of one who, rightly or wrongly, was doomed in the flush of manhood to a torture more fiendish than the human mind, unaided by the Demon of Circumstance, could have devised. It is the story of a man dangled in the jaws of death, and hurried thence to a living tomb whose terrors make even death seem merciful.
From this terrible ordeal John Lee emerges with the cry "I am innocent" still on his lips. And who that has suffered will not listen?
 
from the liner notes of "Babbacombe" Lee.
Fairport Convention

Was John Lee Guilty?

Fairport Convention -
Babbacombe Lee

"Babbacombe" Lee. Fairport Convention. 1971

Little did I think when the judge first spoke
Those awful words to me
That I would feel again the cold winds blow
And a heart would beat in 'Babbacombe' Lee
I was born to lead a life of sorrow
I've friends hang their heads in shame
Growing tired and weary of the morrow
Tortured by my terrible name
When I was fifteen, my father called to me
Saying "Now you are a man and all men work
There's a lady and they say her name's Miss Keyes
Her pony's very old, it needs a nurse"
For eighteen months I worked for her at The Glen
She was like a mother to me
But time goes slowly when you're thinking wishfully
Of all the other places to be
There were boats drifting in the harbour
There were sailors talking in the town
That's the life for a boy who wants to wander
For a man who doesn't want to settle down
 
I was sixteen now and full of life, life was full of things to see
Grown up in my little town and only seen Torquay
So it's off I went to Newton Abbot to get myself the deeds to sign
My father took them and tore them up, saying "That's no life for a boy of mine"
"John, my son, don't join the Navy, there's no good in it, I know
Plant your seeds on solid ground and watch your harvest grow
John, my son, don't join the Navy, that's clay that's underneath your skin
John, my son, don't join the Navy, don't go leaving your kith and kin"
A boy must breathe and . . . or call himself a failure
So I would see some foreign shores and I would be a sailor
So I went off to my mother for a week or more and wiled and wheeled and won my way
Father put the pen to paper in the fields at lunch the very next day.
 
A's for the anchor that lies at our bow
B's for the bowsprit and the jibs all lie low
C's for the capstan we all run around
D's for the davits to lower the boat down
(Chorus)
Merrily, merrily
So merry sail we, no mortal on earth like a sailor at sea
Heave away, haul away, the ship rolls along
Give a sailor his grog and there's nothing goes wrong
E's for the ensign that at our mast flew
F's for the forecastle where lives our crew
G's for the galley where the salt junk smells strong
And H is the halyards we hoist with a song
(Chorus)
I's for the eyebolts, good for the feet
J's for the jibs that stand by the lee sheet
K's for the knighthead where the petty officer stands
L's for the leeside, hard found by new hands
(Chorus)
M's for the mainmast, it's stout and it's strong
N's for the needle that never points wrong
O's for the oars of our old jolly boats
And P's for the pinnace that lively do float
(Chorus)
Q's for the quarterdeck where our officers stand
And R's for the rudder that keeps the ship in command
S is for the stunsells that drive her along
T's for the topsail, to get there takes long
(Chorus)
U's for the uniform, mostly worn aft
V's for the vangs running from the main gap
W's for water, we're on a pint and a pound
And X marks the spot where old Stormy was drowned
(Chorus)
Y's for yardarm, needs a good sailor man
Z is for Zoe, I'm her fancy man
Z's also for zero in the cold winter time
And now we have brought all the letters in rhyme
(Chorus)
 
The time is near for things to pass, the time for me to leave
But as I lie hear all alone, I really can't believe
That twenty years I've spent on earth would end in so much grief
That the many friendly faces should now stare hatefully
A letter home to mother and a letter home to dad
Another to my sweetheart, for whom I feel so sad
A lock of hair to cling to is all that will remain
And the grave inside this prison yard, a stone that bears no name
My trials and tribulations are nearly now all gone
A murderer I never was and my spirit will live on
Jesus, help me in this troubled time, this hour of trouble deep
Help me find my peace of mind, help me Lord, to sleep.
 
John Lee, your headache's growing, the cold wind's blowing
But the sea's without a ripple
John Lee, your forehead's damp, your muscles cramp
And the sea can't use a cripple
(Chorus)
John Lee, you're turning around your plate again
Oh, John Lee
John Lee, you're turning around your plate again
Oh, John Lee
John Lee's been made a freeman, his heart's a seaman
But his flesh won't make a sailor
Working in a big hotel, waiting for the bell
That's ringing for his labour
(Chorus)
John Lee, your chances are good, you better touch wood
We think things must get better
John Lee, you've a friend so true, she wants to help you
Miss Keyes has sent a letter
(Chorus)
"Dear John, come and work the Glen, just write me when
And I'll send someone to meet you"
John's gone to where he started from, he's not worked long, just beginning to belong
"It hasn't been a very good day, the missus wants to halve my pay
Close the door and douse the light, it's quiet at night when she's tucked in tight
Sometimes I feel, when they're all in bed, it's almost like the whole world's dead
So I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep"
(Chorus)
(Chorus)
"The customary quiet of Babbacombe, a residential suburb of
Torquay, was greatly disturbed early on Saturday morning
an
d the peaceful inhabitants roused to a state of intense
alarm and terror by one of the most frightful tragedies
that human devilment could plan or human fiend could perpe-
trate. The name of the victim was Miss Emma Anne Whitehead
Keyes, an elder
ly lady of some sixty-eight years. The name
of her home, the scene of her tragedy, was 'The Glen'. She
was found early in the morning, lying on her dining room
floor. Her throat had been horribly cut and there were three
wounds on her head. It
was evident that her murderer had also
attempted to burn the corpse."
 
Breakfast In Mayfair
 
"The world has surely lost it's head, the news is full of crimes
There's robberies in The Telegraph and there's murders in The Times
And always more obituaries and even one of these
Concerns the brutal slaughter of one old Miss Emma Keyes
The police have got their man, they're sure, he never left the scene
Indeed, he raised a hue and cry, a most unusual thing
An arsonist, a murderer, his soul will soon be frying
He's young but old enough to kill and not too young for dying
Now it seems the populace will queue to see him stand in court
To hear him speak his wicked lies while smiling at his thoughts
This arrogant young ruffian is obviously guilty
Though nowhere does it say exactly how or why he killed her"
"Forget it dear, it's not the first, there's bound to be another
The way you carry on you'll have us thinking she's your mother
This man called Lee has had his day and soon he'll be forgotten
So put that paper down before your breakfast goes quite rotten"
 
"Lee," the sargeant said to me, "acting on my discretion
It is my solemn duty to arrest you on suspicion"
They put me in a carriage, I was driven many miles
They locked me in a prison cell to await my trial
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
The man who'd defend me was ill and couldn't come
His brother came to lend me help and ?a dupe? I was undone
"Do just what you want with me, I don't have a choice
You'd do as well without me as I'm not allowed to use my voice"
The judge sits high and mighty and he asks me who I am
The robes he wears impress me but he looks a kindly man
"To all who've come to see me, for those that'd prove me guilty
May the joker hear your call and show you all more mercy"
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
The trial was quickly over and my head was full of pain
I was slowly going crazy with the same story over again
I was tired and aching, I was standing half asleep
All I wanted was to take the weight from off my feet
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
The jury filed in slowly while we waited their command
"Courage, John, you're helpless and you are in heaven's hand"
John Lee's not scared of dying, there's a smile in all you'll find
Cradled in a deep sleep with a perfect peace of mind
I cannot blame the jury, on the evidence they heard
It seemed that I was guilty, hanged by too many words
I ?spied a couple of? people so I told them what it meant
I trust the Lord in heaven and he knows I'm innocent
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
John 'Babbacombe' Lee
 
There's a tiny little window and the sun comes shining through
Dancing with the dust that's in my cell
There's a sparrow sitting on the sill and he stays for a minute or two
But he's frightened by the ringing of the bell
There's a bed that I must lie on when at night I take my rest
And a chair for me to sit on through the day
The men who wait beside me always know what's best
For a man who doesn't have too much to say
Throw a laugh into the corner, blow a tear against the wall
Learn a game to play, improve the mind
Confess your sins, you sinner, and think how the seconds fall
Leave all earthly cares and woes behind
And when my short affair with life is ended and I'm gone
Will you tell the world the story of John Lee?
All you see is nothing and yet everything lives on
I was born to pay the hangman's fee.
 
Sleep has surprised Mr Lee
We'll creep in behind his eyes and, with his eyes, we will see
Wherever he goes to, we'll be close behind
We'll follow his dreams and we'll stroll in his mind
Dream, dream
John's in the garden all green
With uniforms round him, the hound and the fox can be seen
A willow tree leaving its branches to ground
Is breathing in time to a bell's hollow sound
Dream, dream
Dream, dream
Nature, their numbers have swelled
The sun in the east is the lord of the feast to be held
The doomed and the dutiful tread on the dew
With frost on their faces and shine on their shoes
Dream, dream
Looking to earth and to sky
John stares at John walking slowly along with a sigh
The hand of a stranger takes hold of his arm
A voice in his ear says "They'll do you no harm"
Dream, dream
Dream, dream
Dream, dream......
 
Wake up John, it's time to go Come along John and don't be slow
Come along John, don't be slow Wake up John, it's time to go
Wake up John, it's time to go
A priest joins the procession just to help me kneel
With a warder at my elbow and another at my heel
Marching in the morning down a path I've lately seen
I was sleeping in this garden, am I still within my dream?
The echo of my heartbeat is the beating of a drum
And all the earth is singing with life's sweet hum
We filed in solemn silence, shuffled through a door
The place where life is taken for the letter of the law
(Chorus)
Shake the holy water, summon up the guard
Dying's very easy, waiting's very hard
A rope was hanging from the roof, a sight which puzzles me
I thought a gibbet and a guard would make a gallows tree
But now all is revealed, stamped there is the command
My feet are on the trapdoor with a rope around my hand
And now the executioner is shaking hands with me
"My duty I must carry out, you poor fellow," says he
A strap is tied around my feet and a bag upon my head
And then the noose which separates the living from the dead
(Chorus)
There he whispers to me "Have you anything to say?"
My mouth is dry, my throat is tight, I answer "Drop away"
Silence now surrounds me, my heart is beating on
The trapdoor hardly moves at all, my life is still my own
They stand me in a corner with my hands and feet still bound
While a carpenter is called for and an explanation found
"The rain has warped the timbers," I hear the hangman say
"It's funny but it worked well, I tried it yesterday"
"All is mended now," they say, "your ordeal's nearly over
Your life's as good as ended," but I hear their voices waver
Once more the ?board is shaked? and again I hang in limbo
While the guards jump on the trapdoor and my body stands on tip-toe
(Chorus)
They stand me in a corner with my hands and feet still ties
A warder holds onto the noose, the trapdoor opens wide
Is it magic or coincidence that keeps me on the brink?
It seems to work without me, "Will it kill me now?" I think
"Please, I'm tired of living and I really want to die"
I was taken to the scaffold and I heard the hangman cry
"Lee, I'm truly sorry, forgive these hands of mine"
He drew the bolt and I felt the jolt the third and final time
My life was spared that morning 'cos it wasn't theirs to take
Three's the most the law requires, a man could feel the stake
(Repeat chorus)

"Babbacombe" Lee. November 1971

the setting for the murder
of Emma Keyse

a very well researched site

The Man They Could Not Hang

Related Links

Babbacombe is a seaside town
reached by the main road between

an incredibly well researched website
on the history of the British Police

a wealth of local history
and infromation

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