Although there are some amongst us who find the subject of the death penalty distasteful – equally there are many of us who are morbidly fascinated by it…. I’m sure all of us can name some of the condemned men and women who went to the gallows, especially those from the more notorious and controversial cases….but what of the men who carried out such executions? Who were they, what was it that attracted them to the profession and what qualifications were required to fulfil such a position…?
Hanging as a method of execution in Britain is thought to date from the Anglo-Saxon period; the first recorded official hangman was Thomas de Warblynton, during the 1360s. There was once a time when many ‘perks’ accompanied the job, often a house went with the position – and the hangman may have had other lucrative sidelines attached to his trade. He may have had an agreement with the local surgeon to supply the occasional corpse for ‘medical research’ – or perhaps he would sell pieces of the rope used to hang a well-known notorious criminal as souvenirs…. In the early days he was even entitled to keep any property the convicted person had upon them at the time of execution, including clothing….
As time went by and the profession became more regulated, many of the perks disappeared. The post of ‘official’ hangman was not really a recognised position; executions were the responsibility of the under-sheriff of a county and it was he who usually got someone in to do the deed…. A good hangman would be in demand and would travel to wherever he was needed…. The post of hangman was much sought after from the mid 1800s and remained so until the abolishment of capital punishment in 1964. Each vacancy would attract many applications, even including some from women….
To be a hangman a candidate had to be able to work under pressure, have a strong stomach and be psychologically sound. After the application had been received police checks would have been made, not only for the obvious possible criminal record but also into the general background of the applicant. For example – one candidate, Arthur Gill (a butcher from Harrogate) was refused after police checks revealed he was known for his loose morals…. Another, a police officer named Henry Kirk, was passed over because he had a morbid interest in the job….
Once the checks had been carried out an applicant may have been called for an interview at the prison and undergone a medical examination. One of the main qualities sought in a successful candidate was a strong sense of discretion; one such hopeful, a Daniel Clifford from Fulham, showed off his interview letter to the blokes in the pub and got himself black-listed before even making it as far as the interview….
If accepted, the successful applicant would then attend a 6 day training course; initially this week of induction would have taken place at Newgate Prison, London – but after its closure in 1903 the training was conducted at Pentonville Prison. Only at this stage would governors determine whether a candidate was competent enough to be added to the ‘list’ of approved hangmen. In 1938 there were just seven men on the list who were judged “competent to carry out duties”…. Nearly always the men had settled home lives with stable run of the mill jobs; they were usually married, often with children….
Once approved, the hangman had to sign the Official Secrets Act; he had to adhere to a strict code of conduct at all times, discretion being of the utmost importance. He was expected to avoid attracting attention to himself whilst travelling to and from the prison and both the Prison Governor and Medical Officer would have kept a record of his conduct…. Talking in public or speaking to the press would not have been tolerated…. Equally, offering to carry out a specific execution would have resulted in being struck off the list – the potential hangman had to wait to be contacted if his services were required….
By 1874 executions in Britain were becoming less commonplace and the job of hangman changed from being that of a salaried position to becoming a fee paid per job…. For example, the typical fee in the early 1930s would equate to approximately £100 in today’s terms – one and a half guineas paid at the time of the execution and then a further guinea and a half a fortnight later, once the authorities were satisfied with the conduct of the hangman in the time that followed….
One of Britain’s last executioners was Harry Allen, known as ‘Hangman Harry’, who officiated between 1941 and 1964. He was the chief executioner at 41 executions and acted as assistant at a further 53, including the controversial hanging of Derek Bentley in 1953. Harry applied for employment in the prison service in the 1930s but was rejected – however, he was successful in his application to be added to the Home Office’s list of executioners. He witnessed his first hanging in 1940 (that of William Cooper at Bedford Prison) when he was 29 years of age…. During his role of executioner he pursued a career as a publican, running a couple of pubs during the 1940s and 50s….
Harry performed one of the two final executions in England, that of Gwynne Owen Evans on August 13th 1964, who was hanged at Strangeways Prison (Manchester), for the murder of John Alan West. At the same time the simultaneous hanging of Peter Anthony Allen was taking place at Walton Gaol (Liverpool), performed by Robert Leslie Stewart…. Harry also conducted the last hanging in Scotland, of Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison and that of Robert McGladdery at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He always wore a bow tie when performing an execution, as a sign of respect to the person who’s life he was about to take ~ perhaps a respect ingrained into him by his mentor, Tom Pierrepoint, to whom he was assistant to at the beginning of his career….
The Pierrepoint family – probably the most famous of names in the history of British executioners – a dynasty….
“As long as I can give in the last moments of these people, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment.That’s my job and I can come away satisfied”…. – Albert Pierrepoint
All three men connected to this ‘dynasty’ had a common agenda – pride and the wanting to be humane and respectful. Henry Pierrepoint carried out 105 executions during his time as assistant and then chief executioner; his brother Thomas, succeeding him in his role, performed a further 294. Henry’s son, Albert – born 30th March 1905 – was to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle and was to become recognised by the Home Office as the most efficient executioner in British history. Albert hanged over 400 convicted criminals, possibly even as many as 600…. Among the executions performed by Albert were those of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and also Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged for a crime committed by John Christie – who Albert was to later hang…. He also travelled to Germany and Austria some 25 times in order to carry out approximately 200 executions of those convicted of war crimes after WW2….
After his father had retired as executioner the young Albert became close to his Uncle Tom – he was allowed to read the diaries his uncle kept, recording the details of the executions he had carried out. At the age of 11 years Albert wrote an essay for school saying that when he grew up he wanted to become the Official Executioner…. On leaving school Albert became a drayman, delivering for a wholesale grocer. In 1930 he learned to drive, not only a car but a lorry too – enabling him to earn £2 and 5 shillings a week….
On April 19th 1931 Albert wrote to the prison service and offered his services as an assistant executioner to his Uncle Tom; he received a letter back saying there were currently no vacancies. Later that same year the current assistant, Lionel Mann, resigned and Albert was called for an interview at Strangeways Prison. He succeeded in making it to the next stage of the selection process and attended a training course at Pentonville Prison, London; he was added to the list of assistant executioners on the 26th September 1932. Albert was on his way to fulfilling his ambition – something his mother was apparently none too happy about – she did not wish her son to become assistant executioner, she had a stomach full with the past career of her husband….
The first hanging Albert attended was that of Patrick McDermott on the 29th December 1932 – a young farmer who had murdered his brother. The Chief Executioner was his Uncle Tom. Albert’s first execution that he performed himself was that of gangster and nightclub owner Antonio “Babe” Mancini on October 17th 1941 at Pentonville Prison….
On August 29th 1943 Albert married Annie Fletcher; he had continued working at a grocers and Annie ran a sweetshop/tobacconist in the same street…. At some point in their relationship she learned of his ‘other career’ – but she said nothing – waiting for him to tell her in his own time; as always discretion was key…. Albert finally told his wife of his other life at the beginning of 1944. It was during his travels to Germany and Austria that the Press learned of his identity and he became regarded as a bit of a ‘war hero’ – giving the convicted Nazis what they deserved…. It was the rise in income from these extra executions that enabled Albert and Annie to become landlord and lady of a public house near Manchester, aptly named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’….
In 1956 Albert had a dispute with the Home Office over his fees as executioner. In the January he had travelled to Strangeways to perform the execution of Thomas Bancroft. The preparations had been made – but less than 12 hours before the appointed time Bancroft was reprieved. Albert put in a claim for the full fee (£15) – but the Home Office would not pay as the execution had not taken place – a cheque for £4 was offered to cover his expenses. Some say he had actually already made up his mind to resign by this point anyway, as he had received a lucrative offer from a popular weekly publication to reveal his story and the last moments of those convicted criminals he had executed…. The Home Office wrote to him asking him to reconsider his resignation – they were fully aware of his worth…
“A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who, the Church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain”…. Albert Pierrepoint
It was at this point I intended to continue with a look at one of the Pierrepoints’ predecessors from the previous century, another well-known hangman in British history – one William Calcraft. However, on reflection Calcraft does not have a place here amongst the ‘gentlemen’ of executioners (if one is permitted to describe them as that)…. The Pierrepoints displayed respect and discretion – Calcraft was obviously cut from a different cloth…. He perhaps deserves a blog post all of his very own – but I may not be quite so respectful due to the way he went about things…. I’m now off to see if I can find out a little more about him….
Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….
You may also enjoy Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….