Almost opposite Mansfield’s Municipal Cemetery, the famous Sanderson’s 1835 Map, (Twenty Miles Round Mansfield), marks a small eminence as ‘Robin Downs Hill’, – now Berry Hill and Robin Down Lane. The name is not an ancient one and dates to an incident in 1767, involving the unfortunate young man Robert Downe – a,k,a. Robin Down. Robin would have been a familiar sight around Mansfield. He was a young man with what we now call learning difficulties, – in his day a halfwit, – who travelled around playing the flute and begging.
Georgian England was full of unfortunates like Robin. Without a proper welfare system the old and disabled who had no family support were forced to wonder from parish to parish begging. However, those in genuine need were hindered by the great number of what might be termed professional beggars. Some years earlier, in 1725, the author of A New Canting Dictionary states that; ‘….no country in the world abounds so much with vagrants and beggars’.
Most people treated Robin kindly and considered him a harmless fool; however, he could lose his temper when provoked. On a fine summers morning Robin was wondering along the road towards Mansfield playing his flute as usual. He was not alone on the road however. A group of younger boys were following along behind Robin, teasing him and calling him names.
One of the boys, a deaf mute, by the name of Thomas Greenwood, egged on by the others, was being particularly annoying. A scuffle ensued and a knife was pulled from Robin’s pocket. The result was that Greenwood was stabbed to death.
Robin was arrested and taken for trial in Nottingham. The jury wanted to acquit Robin on the grounds of what we would now call ‘diminished responsibility’. However the judge decided to put Robin to the test by offering him two coins, a large silver crown and a much smaller gold sovereign. He reasoned that if Robin was in deed a halfwit, he would take the larger coin, believing it to be of greater value. However, after some slight hesitation, Robin chose the gold coin. The judge decided that this was an indication that he knew the value of money and was therefore no idiot. He informed the jury of his decision and instructed them to find him guilty of a capital offence.
Robin was sentenced to death and duly executed on the gallows on 10th Aug. 1767. It is probable that given the date, the place of execution was Gallows Hill on the Mansfield Road just outside Nottingham, – around where Rock Cemetery gates now stand. At this time Gallows hill was the City’s main site for executions which were performed in public.
Robin’s body was cut down and ordered to be hung in chains by the side of the road at the Gravel Pits, Lichfield Road, near Mansfield. The spot became known as Robin Down(s) Hill.
It seems somewhat ironic that the Mansfield Road should run like a thread through the life of an individual like Robert Downe. However, Robin’s is not a unique story as we will see in a future article on Elizabeth Shepherd and her murderer Charles Rotherham.