Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Shirley, Laurence

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SHIRLEY, LAURENCE, fourth Earl Ferrers (1720–1760), born on 18 Aug. 1720, was the eldest son of the Hon. Laurence Shirley, by his wife Anne, fourth daughter of Sir Walter Clarges, bart. His father was youngest son of Robert Shirley, first earl Ferrers. Walter Shirley [q. v.] was a younger brother. Laurence matriculated at Oxford from Christ Church on 28 April 1737, but left the university without taking a degree. He succeeded to the title as fourth earl on the death of his uncle Henry in August 1745, and took his seat in the House of Lords on 21 Oct. following (Journals of the House of Lords, xxvi. 510). No speech of his is to be found in the ‘Parliamentary History,’ but he entered a protest against the war in Flanders on 2 May 1746, and another against the bill for the abolition of heritable jurisdictions in Scotland on 21 May 1747 (Rogers, Protests of the Lords, 1875, ii. 45–51).

Though his behaviour was occasionally eccentric, Ferrers seems to have been quite capable of managing his own affairs. He married, on 16 Sept. 1752, Mary, youngest daughter of Amos Meredith, and granddaughter of Sir William Meredith, bart., of Henbury, Cheshire. She obtained an act of separation from him for cruelty on 20 June 1758, when the Ferrers estates were vested in trustees, a certain John Johnson, her husband's steward, who had been in the service of the Shirleys for many years, being subsequently appointed receiver of the rents. Though on friendly terms with Johnson previously, Ferrers appears to have contracted a great dislike to him after his appointment as receiver. Failing to turn him out of a farm of which the trustees of the Ferrers estates had recently granted him a lease, Ferrers, on 18 Jan. 1760, deliberately shot him with a pistol at his house at Staunton Harrold in Leicestershire, having previously locked the door of the room in which they were conversing. Johnson died from the effects of the wound on the following day. On the same day Ferrers was arrested and taken to a public-house at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where he was kept until the 21st, when he was sent to Leicester gaol. On 14 Feb. he was carried before the House of Lords, and, on the proceedings at the coroner's inquest being read, was committed to the Tower. He was tried by his peers in Westminster Hall on 16 April and on the following days. Lord-keeper Henley presided as lord high steward, while Pratt, the attorney-general, Yorke the solicitor-general, and George Perrott (afterwards a baron of the exchequer) were counsel for the crown. Ferrers pleaded not guilty, and set up the plea of ‘occasional insanity of mind.’ Though he called many witnesses, including two of his brothers, he completely failed to prove that he was not responsible for his actions, and he was unanimously found guilty of murder.

Ferrers was sentenced to be hanged on 21 April, but was subsequently respited until 5 May. While in the Tower he was frequently visited by his first cousin Selina Hastings, the famous Countess of Huntingdon [q. v.] On 5 May Ferrers, dressed in a suit of light clothes embroidered with silver, was driven in his own landau, drawn by six horses, from the Tower to the gallows at Tyburn, where he was hanged in the presence of an enormous crowd. He is said to have been ‘the first sufferer by the new drop just then introduced in the place of the barbarous cart, ladder, and mediæval three-cornered gibbet’ (All the Year Round, new ser. vii. 180; see Walpole, Letters, 1857–9, iii. 304, 310). There appears to be no foundation for the oft-repeated statement that Ferrers was hanged with a silken cord instead of a hempen rope. The cord of silk which he wished to be used on this occasion is said to have formed part of a singular collection of historic ropes belonging to an eccentric member of the Humane Society (Hayward, Biographical and Critical Essays, 1873, ii. 29). The body, after being duly ‘dissected and anatomised’ at the Surgeons' Hall, was privately buried under the belfry of the church of St. Pancras. On 3 June 1782 the remains were disinterred and removed to Staunton Harrold. Ferrers left by his will 1,000l. each to his four natural daughters, 60l. a year to their mother, Mrs. Clifford, and 1,300l. to the daughters of the murdered Johnson. Lady Ferrers married, secondly, on 28 March 1769, Lord Frederick Campbell, lord clerk register of Scotland, third son of John, fourth duke of Argyll, and was accidentally burnt to death at Combe Bank, Sundridge, Kent, in July 1807. There is a large print of the execution of Ferrers at the Salt Library at Stafford. An engraving of Ferrers ‘as he lay in his coffin in Surgeons' Hall,’ with his hat and halter at his feet, is prefixed to the ‘Memoirs’ of his life, published by J. Coote in 1760 (London, 8vo). There being no issue of his marriage, Ferrers was succeeded by his brother,

Washington Shirley, fifth Earl Ferrers (1722–1778), born on 26 May 1722, who entered the navy at an early age. He was appointed second lieutenant on 6 Jan. 1741, first lieutenant on 9 Jan. 1746, and post-captain on 19 April 1746. He took his seat in the House of Lords on 19 May 1760 (Journal of the House of Lords, xxix. 690). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 14 Dec. 1761 for his observations on the transit of Venus and ‘other useful discoveries tending to the improvement of mathematical knowledge’ (Collins, Peerage of England, 1812, iv. 103). The king, by letters patent dated 6 Dec. 1763, confirmed by a private act of parliament passed in March 1771, regranted to him such estates as had been forfeited by the fourth earl. He was further appointed rear-admiral of the white on 31 March 1775, vice-admiral of the blue on 7 Dec. 1775, and vice-admiral of the white on 29 Jan. 1778. He died at Chartley in Staffordshire on 2 Oct. 1778, aged 56, and was buried at Staunton Harrold. Ferrers sold the family estates at Astwell, Brailsford, and Shirley, and out of the proceeds of these sales rebuilt the house at Staunton Harrold in the Palladian style. Leaving no issue by his wife Anne, daughter of John Elliot of Plymouth, who died at Hampton Court on 26 March 1791, aged 68, he was succeeded in the earldom by his brother Robert, from whom the present earl is descended.

Portraits of the fourth and fifth earls are reproduced in Doyle's ‘Official Baronage’ (1886, i. 742).

[Authorities quoted in text; Howell's State Trials, 1816, xix. 885–980; Burke's Celebrated Trials connected with the Aristocracy, 1849, pp. 193–227; Walford's Tales of our Great Families, 1890, pp. 50–63; Cradock's Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs, 1828, i. 8–9; Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, 1839, i. 401–9; Temple Bar, liii. 316–33; Gent. Mag. 1752 p. 432, 1760 pp. 44, 100, 151, 198, 199, 200, 230–6, 246, 247, 1778 p. 495, 1791 i. 382, 1807 ii. 783; Annual Register, 1760, ii. 38–47; G. E. C.'s Complete Peerage, iii. 337–8; Burke's Peerage, &c., 1896, pp. 54, 554–5; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886, iv. 1290; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iv. 369, 6th ser. xii. 145, 8th ser. ii. 104, ix. 308, 349, 435, x. 53.]

G. F. R. B.