“Give us a soul-cake, Missus…!”

That time of year is almost upon us, when excited kids transform into witches, ghosts, monsters and zombies; ready to hit the streets with the aim of collecting enough candy to give a sugar-rush that  could redefine the word ‘hyper’ into something positively lethargic….

I – like many I suspect – could be forgiven for assuming Halloween is a festivity that we Brits have imported from the States. In truth, our American cousins were introduced to its customs and traditions by Irish immigrants during the 19th Century; particularly the 1840s, the time of the Great Famine, caused by the crop failure due to potato blight…. Thousands upon thousands emigrated from Ireland to America to begin a new life….

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Potato famine of Ireland / Ireland in the 1840s Public domain Author unknown

I don’t really remember celebrating Halloween as a child; the focus always seemed to be on Guy Fawkes Night, which of course follows closely after, on November the 5th…. Naturally, we all knew Halloween to be the night ghosts come out to haunt us and witches bomb around on their broomsticks….but certainly for me, that was as far as it went….

Maybe it was because I grew up in the South of England – had my childhood been spent in more Northern parts, or Ireland, indeed anywhere with more Celtic influences, perhaps I would have been familiar with ‘Mischief Night’ and taken part in a bit of ‘guising’ – (which comes from ‘disguising’)….

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You’re never too old to trick or treat Canary Beck (www.canarybeck.com) via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://flickr.com/photos/canarybeck/10511319056/

Halloween, as we now know it, didn’t really become big here in the UK until the 1980s; even as its popularity has increased there are just as many who are not fans. A poll conducted in 2013 revealed 70% of those asked admitted they would prefer trick and treaters not to knock on their door…. I’m sure we all know somebody who turns the lights off and pretends to be out on that particular evening….

So, on discovering it was Irish immigrants who took the customs of Halloween with them to the States, it got me wondering how the festival has its origins rooted in the Emerald Isle in the first place….

Halloween can be traced back to its Pagan roots of some 2,000 years ago…. Certainly the Romans had an Autumn festival, one that was dedicated to Pomona – a divine spirit, representing Nature, also known as a wood nymph – she was the goddess of the fruits of the tree, particularly apples…. This would give an explanation as to why apples are so often involved in the party games associated with Halloween, like apple-bobbing for instance….

Long after the advent of Christianity, Pomona was still celebrated…. It seems these Pagan beliefs  were deeply ingrained and indeed the Celtic people of Ireland, the UK and Northern France were heavily influenced by Pagan beliefs of their own….

The Pagan calendar year can be simplified into four seasonal sections: Imboic – February 1st; Beltane – May 1st; Lughnasa – August 1st and then the one we are concerned with; Samhain – which falls on the first day of the eleventh month. ‘Samhain’ (pronounced ‘sow-in’), being the Irish name for the equivalent English ‘November’, is also the name given to the ancient Pagan festival celebrating the Celtic New Year. Other Celtic regions have their own variations of the name; in Scottish Gaelic it is known as ‘Samhuinn’, whereas on the Isle of Man it is called ‘Sauin’ – it comes from ‘sam’ for summer and ‘fuin’, meaning ‘end’. In Wales however, it is named ‘Calan Gaeaf’ and in Brittany, ‘Kala Goanv’….

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Samhain Fulla T via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/topaz-mcnumpty/15508188868/

Whichever particular Celtic name applied, the celebration was (or indeed, for many still is…) essentially a fire festival. Falling at the time of year when all the crops had been gathered and stored, the animals brought in from the fields either to be slaughtered or over-wintered, it was a time for feasting and festivity…. Celebrations began on the last day of the year, with the ceremonial lighting of bonfires and the sacrificing of animals – the bones being thrown into the fire as an offering. It was also known as the Feast of the Dead; being the last day of the year – a time of transition – it was believed that the barrier between the mortal Earth and the ‘Otherworld’ was at its thinnest. Spirits of departed loved ones were invited to return and visit their Earthly homes and families…. Pagans do not fear death and old age is revered as it brings with it wisdom…. It was believed the returning spirits could help the Druid priests predict the future, fortune-telling was very much a part of the celebrations. Of course, with the path between the Otherworld and human World being open, it was not just invited spirits who made their presence known; this is where the ‘spooky’ side of Halloween comes from. Malevolent spirits, banshees and fairies also came over from the other side, bringing their evil with them. People would dress in scary costumes with grotesque masks and animal heads to scare away the wicked spirits…. Sometimes offerings of food would have been left out in the home, or by the nearest hawthorn tree (where fairies were believed to reside)….

After the festival people would relight the fires within their own homes using flames from the sacred bonfire – thus ensuring protection of the household during the coming year. The following day, the cold ashes from the bonfire would have been spread on the fields to bring luck for the next harvest….

It was around the 8th Century that the Church, in an attempt to quell Pagan beliefs, made November the 1st ‘All Saints Day’; the evening before became ‘All Hallows’ – later to become known as ‘Hallowe’en’. As hard as it tried, the Church was unable to prevent many of the old customs from staying with us, in one form or another….

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Many of this Pagan New Year celebration’s traditions are reminiscent of those we know from our own New Year today….the casting out of the old and welcoming in of the new…. It could be said that the UK’s customs of ‘first footing’, fire festivals and the Welsh ‘Calennig’ – (a festive form of trick and treating) – all stem from Samhain….

Halloween trick and treating in Britain and Ireland goes back as far as the Middle Ages, at least to the 16th Century…. Dressed in ghoulish garb, people would go from door to door reciting prayers, poems and verses – (delivering tales of bad fortune to come if not welcomed) – in exchange for gifts of food, especially ‘soul-cakes’…. “Mercy on all Christian souls for a soul-cake” would be sung at doors and under windows in order to beg for one of the small round cakes, decorated with a cross on the top – either simply scored on or perhaps more elaborately made using currants or other dried fruits….

Trick and treating didn’t actually become popular in the States until the 1920s/30s. The first recording in North America was in Ontario, Canada in 1911….

It wasn’t until the 1800s that it became common-place to display Jack-o’-lanterns in windows to ward off evil spirits…. In days gone by lanterns would have been made by hollowing out and carving faces into vegetables such as turnips and swedes….

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Turnip O’ Lanterns kayepants via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/5112005395/

Upon arriving in America, Irish immigrants encountered pumpkins; being so much easier to carve, the pumpkin soon took over and became one of our main symbols of Halloween….

The story behind the Jack-o’-lantern varies somewhat, depending on which region of the UK it comes from….

The Irish version tells of a farmer, ‘Stingy Jack’ or ‘Drunk Jack’. Jack enjoyed a drink, so much so he ran up a huge debt at his local pub, which he was unable to pay. He did a deal with the Devil, who paid off his bar-tab in exchange for Jack’s soul…. When the Devil arrived to collect his payment, Jack tricked him into climbing up a tree – he then carved a cross into the base of it. The Devil, unable to descend the tree had no choice but to release Jack from the debt…. When the time came for Jack to knock on the Pearly Gates, he was denied entrance to Heaven and so had to try his luck with Hell…. The Devil refused to allow him in, leaving Jack with the only option of wandering through the World of Lost Souls for the rest of eternity…. To make things a little easier for him, the Devil gave Jack a burning coal from the fires of Hell, which he carried in a lantern made from a carved turnip….

Another account tells of a wicked blacksmith named Will – who on reaching Heaven’s gates was given a second chance by St. Peter to redeem his ways. Will continued to live a life of wickedness and so was doomed to wander the Earth for evermore….the Devil gave him a hot coal to keep him warm and guide his way…. Will then used the light to lure travellers at night from the safe paths as they crossed over marshes, bogs and swamps. This tale entwines with the folklore myth of Will-o’-the-wisp…. People travelling at night would sometimes be drawn towards ghostly lights dancing and swirling in boggy areas – on approach the lights would disappear; some believed it was malevolent fairies, others said it was Will-o’-the-wisp….

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Wandering After Will-O’-The -Wisp garlandcannon via Foter.com / CC BY-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/garlandcannon/5416798747/

What they were actually seeing was ‘Ignis Fatuus’ (friars lantern)….an eerie, phosphorescent aura, seen at night, over swamps and bogs – believed to be spontaneous combustion of gas caused by decaying organic matter; also known as ‘marsh gas’….

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Image taken from page 75 of [‘A System of Physical Geography…To which is added a treatise on the Physical Geography of the United States…The whole embellished by numerous engravings and…maps…by J.H.Young.]’ via Foter.com / no known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11239810913/
I suppose Halloween is one of those occasions you either love or loathe…. As a child, for me the night of October 31st was usually spent in a state of utter excitement as the following day happens to be my birthday – I arrived in the ‘wee’ hours of November the 1st, long before sun-up…. I’m not sure if this makes me a witch or a saint – if I’m a witch, then I promise I’m a friendly one…. I quite look forward to trick and treaters knocking on the door – (this old place lends itself to it)….and I always make sure I’ve got plenty of sweets in….to help fuel that sugar-rush I mentioned earlier.

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Trick or Treat Komunews via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/komunews/8143286420/

Perhaps we should be reviving the tradition of giving out soul-cakes instead…. If you fancy giving them a try, they can be made 2 or 3 days in advance and stored in an airtight container….

Try adding dried fruit to the mixture to add a bit more flavour; cherries, cranberries, dates etc all work well…. Me – I’m off to design my Jack-o’-lantern now; last year I used the pumpkin flesh to make caramelised pumpkin and chilli jam – (the caramelised bit was an accident – but it was absolutely delicious)…. Unfortunately, I made the recipe up as I went along and didn’t think to write it down – I will try and replicate it again this year and will pass the recipe on if I’m successful….as it really was rather good, even if I say so myself….


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teknikir via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/teknikir/4061210409/

Soul-cakes   (makes 12)

6 oz butter
6 oz sugar
3 egg yolks
1 lb plain flour (sifted)
Pinch of salt
Milk to mix
4 oz currants (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 180C / gas 5

Cream butter and sugar together; add and blend 1 egg yolk at a time

Fold in sifted flour (add dried fruit if using). Gradually add enough
milk to form a soft dough

Roll out and cut into rounds with a cookie cutter. Either score a cross
on to the top of each cake with a knife or use currants (or other dried
fruit) to make a cross shape

Bake on a greased baking sheet for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.
Cool on a wire rack….

A 19th Century souling rhyme….

A soul! a soul! a soul-cake!
Please good Missus, a soul-cake!
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry,
Any good thing to make us merry.
One for Peter, two for Paul,
Three for Him, who made us all….

Happy Hallowe’en…….X

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There’s an old saying…. “Red shoes and no knickers!” What it is really referring to is someone who’s all for show but has no substance – they are bothered about the ‘flashiness’ of the look – but not the basics – like wearing knickers! We might chuckle at the idea of going ‘commando’ ~ or the slightly less liberated amongst us may raise an eyebrow and think only a loose woman would dare to do such a thing…. But there was a time when it was the complete opposite….until the mid 1800s it was considered improper for a woman to have anything between her legs ~ and that included knickers! (This is why women rode horses side-saddle)….

Fashion in 1898 – original photograph by Leopold-Emile Reutlinger – French photographer : Public domain

Roman men and women wore a ‘shorts’ like garment, resembling a loincloth, called a subligaculum. Women also wore a bandage of cloth or leather around the chest, called a strophium or mamilare – perhaps an ancient equivalent to the modern-day bra. It took until 1913 for the modern version to arrive – and was thanks to Mary Phelps Jacob with her pair of hankies tied together with ribbons….

During the 1400s men began to wear ‘braies’, adopted from a type of trouser originally worn by Celtic and Germanic tribes. Made of wool or leather (and later cotton or linen) they generally hung to the knee or mid-calf, resembling today’s shorts…. Women wore shifts and a chemise – any other form of underwear for the nether-regions was thought unnecessary – as warmth was the main priority and the thicker fabrics of skirts and dresses of the time was deemed sufficient….

Stays or corset. English c.1780 Linen twill and baleen. Hoop petticoat or pannier, English 1750-80 Plain-woven linen and cane. Chemise, English 1775-1800 Plain-woven cotton. All – Los Angeles County Museum of Art Author: PKM via Wikimedia

By 1600 ladies were wearing crinolines or farthingales – a frame of wire or whalebone; an easier, cheaper version was the ‘bum roll’ – a padded roll that was worn around the waist…. Very wealthy women wore silk stockings – (nylon stockings first emerged in 1939 and tights were invented in 1959). Clever ladies may have pinched their husband’s braies to wear underneath their crinolines to combat the droughts….img_1522

The first undergarments to become commonplace, emerging in the mid 1800s, were drawers – so named as they were literally drawn on to the body, with lacing at the back to pull in the waist. The legs were then sometimes gathered into a cuff well below the knee. They were basically two separate leg pieces joined at the waist ~ which is how we get the term ‘a pair’ of drawers, knickers or pants…. The seam running from back to front was left open….so those naughty Victorians actually invented crotchless knickers! By the 1850s drawers became more decorative and elaborate, even sometimes being made of silk – and by the end of the 1800s had become part of every day wear – even for poor women (who’s smalls may have been fashioned from scratchy sack cloth)…!

Open drawers. A. Two darts take in the fullness in the front B. Edge of drawers faced with garment bias facing; C. Ruffle sewed on with a receiving tuck. Circa 1919 Author: Celestine Leantine Schmit via Wikimedia

Meanwhile men’s braies had evolved – firstly into breeches, usually stopping just below the knee but in some cases reaching the ankles – and later, by the mid 1800s these were replaced by trousers….

The term ‘knickerbockers’ may have come from the 1809 book by Washington Irving “History of New York” featuring a Diedrick Knickerbocker, supposedly descending from the Dutch settlers of New York. Well-known caricaturist, George Cruikshank, illustrated the Knickerbocker men dressed in loose breeches, tied at the knee…. From the 1820s onwards breeches were often known as knickerbockers – and were especially popular for sporting activities…. It was not unheard of for ladies to borrow a pair of knickerbockers belonging to their husbands to wear under their dresses for a bit of added warmth – perhaps a tip handed down by their crinoline wearing grandmothers…. With the closed crotch seam of knickerbockers a new era arrived in the development of women’s underwear – and is where the name ‘knickers’ comes from….img_1524

Queen Victoria became an advocate of knickers. Being a fashion icon in her younger days her style was often copied…her hair, her clothes, her love of tartan and her love of drawers – all the fashionable women started to wear them…. From the 1870s various all-in-one combinations started to emerge ~ in the form of camisole bodices being attached to drawers…. By the 1890s Victorian knickers had grown wider at the leg hem, generally with a width of around 20 inches, with a lace frill at the knee – sometimes as much as 10 inches deep. With the wide skirts and petticoats of the period they were easily accommodated….

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Photo credit: express.co.uk

It was the Great Exhibition of 1851 that first introduced the British public to ‘bloomers’ – so named after the publisher of a ladies’ magazine ‘The Lily’ – American Amelia Jenks Bloomer – who was also a devotee of women’s rights…. Fellow feminist Elizabeth Smith Miller had designed a range of clothing aimed at freeing women from the restrictive garments society expected them to wear – namely the unreasonably tight corsets and cumbersome skirts…. She took her inspiration from the clothes worn by Middle Eastern and Central Asian women. One of the ideas she came up with was a pair of loose-fitting trousers that gathered at the ankle, which were to be worn under a tunic-type dress. Amelia Bloomer decided to promote this style and started to wear it in public ~ and by 1849 these ‘trousers’ had become known as ‘bloomers’….

“Bloomer” dress of the 1850s. Public domain via Wikipedia

However, although they were popular amongst the more liberated young women of Britain, they were soon to become undeservedly associated with loose morals and so generally were not accepted in Britain ~ and all because a campaign to promote them went terribly wrong….

On the 6th of October 1851 a grand Bloomer Ball was held at the Hanover Square Rooms in London, to launch and publicise this radical new form of women’s clothing…. Only ladies wearing bloomers were admitted – but unfortunately most of the ‘ladies’ that turned up wearing them were prostitutes…. As the evening wore on it developed into a fracas ~ men were forcing their way in to ‘carry on’ and cavort with the ‘ladies’ – in the end it turned into such an orgy of a brawl that the services of the Metropolitan Constabulary were required….

After this unfortunate event bloomers became condemned by the more refined women of society – they became associated with the loose and fallen…. Amelia Bloomer’s vision of practical, more relaxed apparel – suitable for sporting and leisure activities (such as her mountain climbing outfit – an open skirt reaching the knee, revealing the rest of the leg encased by a frilly legging) – was not for us Brits…. Good job we don’t have too many mountains here in the UK then….

Amelia Bloomer – September 1851. Source: ‘The Lily’. Public domain via Wikipedia

So, ladies’ knickers continued along the road of evolution to become as we know them today…. Brands started to appear – Triumph (have the bra for the way you are) started making underwear in 1886, Silhouette followed in 1887 and Pretty Polly first appeared in 1919…. Our ‘unmentionables’ became more talked about – words crept into our everyday vocabulary, such as ‘lingerie’ – coming from the French word for linen ‘lin’ – things made from linen….


During the 1920s some women were still wearing drawers (those crotchless ones) but most found knickers more comfortable. Wider, shorter ones came into vogue; known as ‘French knickers’ or ‘ skirt knickers’ the style was more suitable for the shorter, closer fitting fashions of the Flapper era…. These replaced the cami-knickers popular in the Edwardian period; by this time much finer fabrics such as lawn were being used….

Image credit: Emma Benitez – DreamDate Art via flickr

Nylon was invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers. The slinkier clothing of the 1930s demanded undergarments to provide a smoother line – it was early days for nylon but it helped enable this…. Skirts had become shorter and the hemline of knickers rose accordingly…. Around 1924 knickers also became known as ‘panties’….adopting the American term….

True Vintage English Nylon Knickers Image credit: Emma Benitez – DreamDate Art via flickr

With the onset of World War 2 – rationing meant drastic means had to be employed….many women had to resort to wearing knitted knickers ~ or if really lucky a best pair made from parachute silk….

Utility Underwear – Clothing Restrictions on the British Home Front, 1943…. A woman and two girls model utility underwear. Left to right: a woman’s wool vest (costing 4/2 and a half d and 3 coupons), and wool panties (costing 3/11 and 3 coupons; 11 year old girl’s wool vest (costing 4/-1/2d and 2 coupons) and rayon lock-knit panties (costing 3/4 and 2 coupons); 4 year old girl’s wool vest (costing 3/6 and a half d and 1 coupon) and wool knickers (costing 1/5 and a half d and 1 coupon) Date: 1943 Photo D 13088 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums

By the 1940s and 50s most women had started wearing ‘briefs’ and the majority of which were made of cotton and so could be included in the laundry boil wash…. Silk was kept for special occasions…. During the 1950s nylon and elastic became commonplace – and this really revolutionised underwear – more machine-made merchandise meant our smalls were more readily available….

1949 saw the first frilly knickers at Wimbledon. American tennis player Gertrude Moran – “Gorgeous Gussy” – scandalised Wimbledon officials with her saucy outfit – even prompting a debate in Parliament….

“1949 ‘Gorgeous’ Gussy Moran asked the Wimbledon organisers if she could wear coloured clothing. Her request was turned down, so tennis fashion designer Ted Tinling created a dress incorporating lace-trimmed knickers which even triggered a debate in parliament. Photographers lie flat on the ground in order to shoot her knickers”…. Via Mazzeo Construction & Tourism on pinterest.com

In the 1960s totally nylon knickers became the norm….and the double gusset arrived. Full briefs reached the waist – but a lower cut became known as ‘hip huggers’ – later they became cut even lower and were christened ‘bikini pants’…. With more figure hugging fashions VPL became an issue that needed to be addressed…. Elongated pants, known as ‘long johns’ or ‘demi johns’ were still being worn but only as practical pants to keep warm in winter….

1974 saw the invention of the ‘thong’ – which was to become really popular in the ’90s…. The 1980s brought us designer knickers with the likes of Calvin Klein and Sloggi….the name emblazoned across the top so it could be viewed peeping above the top of the waistband of a garment – both men and women were guilty of this….

German model with sixpack Artist Kevin Goerner via Wikimedia

The ’80s also brought us that impractical contraption – the ‘teddy’…. An all-in-one body garment, usually made of silk or satin – but other cheaper options of silky polyesters were readily available ~ with fiddly snap fasteners under the crotch ~ an absolute nightmare if the call of nature needed to be answered urgently…. Teddies offered no support as we’d all supposedly started visiting the gym by then and were well toned and so didn’t need any extra support…. Perhaps it was a garment really designed and better designated to the bedroom – or the bin. Crotchless knickers had also made a come back by then…. The eighties had a lot to answer for….

Nowadays we have plenty of choice….briefs, bikinis, tangas, thongs, g-strings, boy shorts, hip huggers, Brazilians….. We can choose our own comfort…. Wonder what they’ll come up with next….



Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you have 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….

Helping the poor wretches through their ordeals….

Before the death penalty was abolished in Britain the job of hangman was surprisingly quite a sought after position… Obviously a successful applicant had to meet a strict criteria; as well as having a strong sense of discretion he had to work well under pressure, be psychologically sound and have a cast-iron stomach. Whilst every effort was made to recruit the right candidates occasionally situations arose that were beyond the tolerances of even those most qualified…. One such instance was that of the execution of Edith Thompson, it affected everyone present who witnessed it – not least the hangman John Ellis – the whole episode had a profound affect on him….

John Ellis was born on the 4th of October 1874 in Balderstone, Rochdale in Lancashire. As a young man he had several casual jobs, labouring around the Manchester area, working in mills and even trying his father’s trade of barber and hairdresser…. Later, after getting married he was to open a newsagents, which he ran with his wife and children…. But it was whilst working in a textile factory, when during a break he and some colleagues were discussing a recent hanging case, he announced “that’s the kind of job I’d like”…. His work mates laughed and pooh-poohed the idea. Ellis on a previous occasion had been heard to say “I couldn’t kill a chicken, and once when I tried to drown a kitten I was so upset for the rest of the day that my mother said I was never to be given a similar job again”….

It was at the age of 22 that Ellis applied to the Home Office to become an executioner – he passed the initial background checks and attended training at Newgate Prison. His wife was shocked – she asked “why on Earth do you want to be an executioner?” – his mother was equally outraged….

Ellis had a 23 year career as an executioner, from 1901 until 1924. The first hanging he attended was in the role of assistant to William Billington in December 1901; from 1907 he then served as chief executioner and was involved in 203 executions. He was committed to ending the condemned person’s life with humanity and with as little fuss and pain as possible – but at the same time he was a strong believer in capital punishment and would often attend trials in the capacity of observer….

John Ellis – Source: own work author Loubreezer via Wikimedia

Ellis performed many high-profile executions in his time, including several members of the IRA in the 1920s. He hanged George Smith on the 13th of August 1915 at Maidstone Prison. Better known as the ‘Brides in the Bath’ case, Smith married then drowned Alice Burnham, Beatrice Constance, Annie Mindy and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty in succession, for financial gain on account of their wills and insurance policies…. Ellis also hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 23rd of November 1910 the infamous Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dubbed the ‘Crime of the Century’ Crippen was caught by the use of the new wireless telegraph system, whilst he was making his escape to Quebec, Canada aboard S.S.Montrose – with his new lover Ethel Le Neve, after he had murdered his wife, Cora Crippen….

For all his conscientiousness there were times when Ellis’s colleagues claimed to have found him difficult to work with. One altercation he had led to a very prominent executioner of the time, Henry Pierrepoint, being struck off the Home Office list of executioners. Pierrepoint had arrived at Chelmsford Prison to perform a hanging on the 13th of July 1910 slightly worse for wear and picked an argument with his acting assistant, John Ellis. Things escalated and others present had to intervene to prevent Pierrepoint from beating Ellis up. As a consequence the Home Secretary of the time, Winston Churchill, had Pierrepoint removed from the list. Pierrepoint’s brother, Thomas, also an executioner (and father of Albert – Britain’s longest ever serving executioner) stated that it was impossible to work with Ellis….

John Ellis may have been cool and collected within his role as executioner but once in a while a case would come along that would ‘rattle’ him…. One such was that of 18-year-old Henry Jacobs, who was convicted for the murder of Lady Alice White in a robbery in 1922. Ellis had watched young Jacobs playing cricket with warders in the prison…. Another case that ‘got’ to him was the execution of Edith Thompson….

Born Edith Jessie Graydon on the 25th of December 1893 in Dalston, London, Edith was the eldest of five children. Her father, William Eustace Graydon was a clerk with the Imperial Tobacco Company and his wife, Ethel Jesse Liles, the daughter of a police constable. Edith had a happy childhood, she showed a talent for acting and dancing and excelled at arithmetic in school. She left education in 1909 and joined a firm of clothing manufacturers. In 1911 she started working for Carlton and Prior, a milliners then based in the Barbican – and she did very well for herself. She was promoted to become chief buyer for the company and regularly made trips to Paris….

It was in 1909, when she was just 15-years-old, that Edith met Percy Thompson, who was three years older than her. After a six-year engagement they married in 1916 at St. Barnabas in Manor Park. At first the couple lived in Westcliff, Southend-on-Sea, Essex but then bought 41, Kensington Crescent, a fashionable address in Ilford – they were doing OK….

Edith’s brother had a school friend, Frederick Edward Francis Bywaters, he was nine years Edith’s junior. Upon leaving school Freddy joined the merchant navy and was soon full of tales of his exotic travels – Edith found him exciting – he wasn’t a bit like her boring 29-year-old husband….

Left to right: Freddy Bywaters, Edith Thompson, Percy Thompson Courtesy of Associated Newspapers Public Domain

Freddy was to accompany the Thompsons and other members of Edith’s family on a holiday to the Isle of Wight. Percy took a shine to him and invited him to lodge with them at their Ilford home; it did not take long for Edith and Freddy to become lovers…. Percy discovered their affair and naturally was angry…. Freddy demanded that Percy divorce his wife – Percy’s response was to throw Freddy out and then give his wife a thorough beating – actually throwing her across the room….

In the garden at 41, Kensington Crescent, Ilford  Author: Uclerew via Wikimedia

Freddy returned to sea and was away for a year, from September 1921 to September 1922. He and Edith exchanged frequent letters and upon his return they met….

It was on the 3rd of October 1922 that the Thompsons attended a performance at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London. Afterwards they returned to Ilford by train and then as they were walking home from the station they were attacked by a man. Edith was knocked to the ground and in the struggle that followed Percy was fatally stabbed….and the attacker fled….

When the police arrived Edith was hysterical. She told them she knew who had done it and named Frederick Bywaters; she told them of her history with him – believing herself a witness and that she was doing the right thing…. Freddy was arrested; from the onset he co-operated well with the police, even leading them to where he had hidden the murder weapon. They also found amongst his possessions the letters Edith had written to him….she was duly arrested as an accomplice. Freddy insisted that Edith was not involved and continued to do so throughout the duration of the trial that was to follow….

The trial began on the 6th of December 1922 at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Shearman; Freddy continued to co-operate…. “I waited for Mrs Thompson and her husband. I pushed her to one side, also pushing him into the street. We struggled. I took my knife from my pocket and we fought and he got the worst of it”…. When questioned as to why he had done it…. “The reason I fought with Mr Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake. I loved her and I could not go on to see her leading that life. I did not intend to kill him. I only meant to injure him. I gave him the opportunity of standing up to me like a man but he wouldn’t”….

The letters were used as evidence at the trial as to Edith’s involvement. Edith had written over 60 intimate letters to Freddy, in them she used endearing terms, such as ‘darlingest’ and ‘darlint’. She referred to times she had tried to murder her husband by attempting to poison him and adding ground glass to his food. She had also sent press cuttings about murders committed through poisoning. Freddy told the Court he did not believe that Edith had really tried to kill her husband – he thought she was fantasising…. Another admission Edith made in her letters was that she had performed an abortion upon herself….

Edith and Freddy Public Domain

On summing up Mr. Justice Shearman described the letters as “full of outpourings of a silly but at the same time, a wicked affection”…. Obviously being a man of high Victorian morals he emphasised the adultery. In concluding he instructed the Jury…. “You will not convict her unless you are satisfied that she and he agreed that this man should be murdered when he could be, and that she knew that he was going to do it, and directed him to do it, and by arrangement between them he was doing it”…. The law of the time stated that if two people wished the death of another person and one carried out the deed, they were both guilty….

The Jury retired to consider….two hours later they returned a guilty verdict on both of them. Even after the verdict had been read out Freddy noisily defended Edith; the death sentence was passed….

Edith was returned to Holloway Prison and Freddy to Pentonville; both lodged appeals – both were refused. Although Edith was an adulteress, had undergone an abortion and had supposedly attempted to poison her husband, the public and press (who had up until now been totally against her) changed their opinion. A campaign for a reprieve was launched and a petition with a vast amount of signatures was presented to the Government – but still the Home Secretary refused to reprieve her…. All the while Freddy continued to protest that he alone had killed Thompson….

At 9am on the 9th of January 1923 Edith and Frederick were hanged in their respective prisons. Freddy faced his execution with bravery; his hangman was William Willis – until his last moments he still proclaimed Edith’s innocence. Meanwhile, Edith was a hysterical mess — she had lost all control of herself – she screamed and sobbed….

Edith had been convinced that she would get a reprieve – as had most of those around her. On the morning of her execution she had to be heavily sedated; when John Ellis arrived to pinion her arms she was only semi-conscious. He too had thought that she would be granted a reprieve….

Edith had to be carried to the gallows by four warders, she then had to be supported on the trapdoor whilst Ellis made his final preparations. The procedure of the execution was carried out…. The after report stated that the cause of death was fracture/dislocation of the neck and mentions some bruising. In this respect there was nothing untoward with regards to the execution procedure itself – but it was what else that happened that had such an adverse affect on all of those present….

The method of hanging used was the ‘long drop’ – as her body fell it was if though her innards came away from within her…. Blood poured down her legs…. Depending on which account of the events you read there are various reasons suggested as to why this happened. Some say she was pregnant – she had in fact gained weight whilst in prison, despite having hardly eaten…. Others think it is possible she suffered an inversion of the uterus – she had admitted to having an abortion, perhaps damage had occurred then…. If she had been pregnant she would undoubtedly have known as she would have been at least 3 months gone by then and used the pregnancy to her advantage in getting a stay of execution – and increase the likelihood of a reprieve…. Later research, carried out on condemned women in Germany just before WW2 showed that the stress these women were under often stopped them from menstruating and then the shock of the actual hanging could bring on an excessively heavy bleed. Maybe this is what happened to Edith…. Whatever the reason it is why all future condemned women in British prisons were required to wear heavily padded underwear at the time of their execution to prevent another similar occurrence….

Edith was buried in the precincts of the prison but in 1970 when Holloway was rebuilt her remains were moved to Brookwood Cemetery, in Surrey….

Grave of Edith Thompson Public Domain Source: own work by original uploader Jack1956 via Wikimedia

Several of the prison officers who were present at that fateful hanging took early retirement. Ellis himself resigned from the post of hangman the following year, blaming ill-health – some believe it was because of Edith Thompson’s execution. However, despite this he carried out a further eleven executions before finally tending his resignation in March 1924. The last execution he carried out was that of John Eastwood at Armley Prison, Leeds on the 28th of December 1923, for the murder of his wife….

Ellis started to drink heavily and became depressed; later in 1924 he attempted to take his own life for the first time by shooting himself in the jaw. As suicide was a crime at the time he was convicted for 12 months and the Judge asked for and received an undertaking that he would never attempt such a thing again….

John Ellis went on to write his memoirs – “Diary of a Hangman”….and even attempted at an acting career, playing the part of William Marwood (the executioner) in a play entitled “The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace” which featured a mock hanging. The play was ill-received being regarded as being in bad taste and closed after just a few days…. Ellis had put his own money into the production and so took his ‘gallows’ out on the road – putting on performances at venues such a seaside resorts and charging sixpence a view…. This particular public may have loved it – but the Government did less so as it made a mockery of the justice system…. Ellis claimed there was “no pension for the hangman” and he had to earn a living….

Ellis continued to have financial problems, still suffered from depression and all the while carried on drinking. It was on the 20th of September 1932 after one particularly heavy bout of drinking that he threatened to behead his wife and daughter with a razor…. He proceeded to turn the razor on himself, slashed his own throat, almost decapitating himself….

During his role as executioner Ellis felt it was his duty to ‘help’ the poor wretches through their ordeals…. It seems there was nobody there to help him through his own wretched ordeal. After he had given 23 years of service nobody from the Home Office even attended his funeral….

Please…. If you have read this through to the end then I assume you have 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 Martha Brown….the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy….

Martha Brown….the woman who inspired Thomas Hardy….

Many of us would have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles at some point – if not we’ve probably seen a film adaptation – be it the one directed by Roman Polanski or another version…. There is little doubt that we have all heard of Thomas Hardy and his story of a complicated love triangle between Tess Durbeyfield, Angel Clare and Alec d’Urberville….which ends in murder, for which Tess takes the consequences…. A story of a beautiful young woman who kills the man who ruined her life….

Scene from Tess of the d’Urbervilles – a 1913 American silent drama film – Public Domain
Thomas Hardy between 1910 & 1915 – Public Domain

Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles was published in 1891, 35 years after a 16 year old Thomas Hardy witnessed the hanging of convicted murderess Martha Brown, at Dorchester Prison in 1856….

Elizabeth Martha Brown (nee Clark) was born in 1811, to a dairyman, John Clark and mother, Martha…. There is little information available on her early life but she married Bernard Bearn of Powerstock and had two sons who died in infancy….she became a widow in 1851…. Martha met John Brown, some 20 years her junior when they were both working as servants together…. They married – she was an attractive older woman, with beautiful curly hair, looking younger than her years – and she had some money put by – which is perhaps why he married her. They lived in Birdsmoorgate, in the Marshwood Vale, near to Beaminster in Dorset. From the onset it was a turbulent marriage, she was to express regret at marrying him…. Before long she was to suspect him of having an affair with a neighbour, a married woman named Mary Davies….some sources say she actually caught them in bed together…. Understandably they had a row – he stormed out and later came home drunk ~ another arguement ensued…. He lost control and hit her with his whip – this was just too much for Martha, she retaliated and hit him over the head with an axe that they used for chopping coal….

Upon her arrest Martha claimed that a horse had kicked her husband in the head; her story was not believed and a murder charge was brought against her. She came to trial at Dorchester Assizes; a guilty verdict was returned and she was then taken to Dorchester Prison to await execution, which was set for 9 am, Saturday the 9th of August 1856 – just 13 days after the death of her husband….

There was much public sympathy for Martha; the case caused sensationalism in newspapers of the time, sparking debates as to the validity of capital punishment and the treatment of women within the justice system. She was a victim of abuse who had been pushed to the edge….but was caught up in her own lie – that a horse had kicked Brown in the head — meaning that the Home Secretary was to refuse a reprieve; diminished responsibility as a defence did not come into English law until a century later…. Martha admitted her guilt whilst in her prison cell – in her confession she said ~ “I was much enraged, and in an ungovernable passion, on being so abused and struck, I directly seized a hatchet which was lying close to where I sat, and which I had been using to break coal with to keep up the fire and keep his supper warm, and with it I struck him several violent blows on the head. I could not say how many”…. Martha would have been attended by two matrons (female warders) in her prison cell and would have been looked after well; she was also frequently visited by a chaplain, the Reverend D. Clemenston….

Martha’s executioner was to be our old friend William Calcraft ~ Calcraft and his assistant travelled to Dorchester by train the day before to make their preparations. The gallows were erected over the gates of Dorchester Prison the night before….in the place that is today the car park in North Square, Dorchester….img_1240-1

It was a grey drizzling start to the day on Saturday the 9th of August but still a crowd of between three and four thousand gathered to witness the execution; it was quite rare for a woman to hang by this time…. Martha chose to wear a long, close fitting black silk dress ~ she shook hands with the officials at the prison gates and then climbed the first set of steps to the scaffold….a total of 11 steps. Here she was met by Calcraft; he pinioned her arms in front of her and then led her up the remaining 19 steps to the gallows and finally on to the trapdoor. Next he placed a white hood over her head and the noose around her neck…. Calcraft turned and started back down the steps to withdraw the bolts of the trapdoor (this was a time prior to there being a lever) – it was at this point he had to be reminded that he had forgotten to pinion her legs ~ decency always being of the utmost importance in Victorian times…. Calcraft returned and secured her legs ~ she all the while stood poised and with dignity on the trapdoor, with a male warder on either side….

Rain had made the hood covering Martha’s head damp – it clung to her face accentuating her features….and no doubt would have made breathing difficult for her. Her dress would have been moulded to her body – causing her to resemble a statue….

Calcraft descended the steps and pulled the bolts; Martha dropped a foot or two ~ there was a ‘thud’ and for a few seconds she struggled ~ and then lost consciousness. At least she was spared the agonising and humiliating 10 to 20 minutes ordeal that accompanied some of the executions conducted by Calcraft – which he engineered to entertain his audience…. In fact Calcraft was later quoted as saying that he “never saw a criminal die so easily”…. Martha Brown was the last woman to be publicly hanged at Dorchester Prison….

To the 16 year old Thomas Hardy the hanging of Martha was a mesmerising sight. He later wrote “what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain, and how the tight black gown set off her shape as she wheeled half round and back”…. Of the hood that covered her head he said “I saw – they had put a cloth over her face – how, as the cloth got wet, her features came through it. That was extraordinary”…. Hardy’s experience of the day was to haunt him all of his life, he was still writing about it in his eighties. He was morbidly fascinated with executions; just two years after the hanging of Martha he was to witness another….that of 19 year old James Seale. He was executed for the murder of Sara Guppy, aged 23, on the 10th of August 1858. Fire had been discovered billowing from Sara’s cottage and she was found inside with her throat slit – the suspicion fell on Seale….

Thomas Hardy wrote some 70 years later after witnessing Martha’s death that he was ashamed to have been at the hanging. In a letter to his friend, Lady Hester Pinney, he stated “my only excuse being that I was but a youth, and had to be in the town at that time for other reasons”….

In his book Tess of the d’Urbervilles Hardy does not describe Tess’s death in detail – instead he describes how onlookers watched as a black flag was raised…. “A few minutes after the hour had struck something moved slowly up the staff, and extended itself upon the breeze. It was a black flag. ‘Justice’ was done”….

Martha Brown would have been buried close to the point of her execution, at the outside walls of the prison precincts. She would have been 1 of 47 buried at Dorchester Prison. The prison closed in 2013, ready to be redeveloped for housing; it was whilst work was being undertaken that human remains were found. The developers wanted to build houses over where the remains lay – but it was actor Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey fame and President of the Hardy Society) who intervened. He wrote to the Bishop of Salisbury urging the Church to take care of the remains buried at the prison. In March 2018 it was ruled that the bodies would be interred in a common grave at nearby Poundbury Cemetery, with a service of Christian committal….

Fellowes actually went as far to say that he would like to see DNA testing carried out to determine Martha Brown’s remains, so that she could be buried in the village churchyard where Thomas Hardy’s heart is interred….


Hardy’s wish was to be buried in his hometown of Stinsford, Dorset….but he was actually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As a compromise his heart was buried at Stinsford….but this is another story….

Image: Signed sketch of Thomas Hardy – The British Library via flickr.com

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you have enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for Cottage Capers 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 William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….

William Calcraft…. 45 years a hangman….

William Calcraft was the longest-serving hangman in British history; there is no firm actual figure of how many executions he conducted over his 45 year career but it was somewhere between 430 and 450. At least 388 of those hangings took place in public and about a further 41 are recorded as having been carried out in private; some 34 of the overall total were of women….

To his family and friends Calcraft was known as either Will or Bill. Apparently he was of a kindly disposition; he loved his wife Louisa, his children and grandchildren ~ he was fond of animals, keeping pets such as rabbits and pigeons…. It is perhaps a little difficult to conjure up an image of such a gentle soul – as it seems far detached from that of his professional life….

William Calcraft

Calcraft was born in Baddow, near Chelmsford in Essex on the 11th of October 1800. As a young man he had a few casual jobs, including work as a night watchman for a brewery in Clerkenwell and also as a butler to a gentleman in Greenwich – but his real trade was that of a cobbler, a skill learned from his father. Upon his father’s death Calcraft took over the family business which included a shop premises…. The shop was no longer doing particularly well, times were changing; progress meant machines were being used more and more – not having the capital to invest in such machinery meant the business was unable to compete….until finally it was forced to close. Calcraft was actually quite relieved – as in his own words he ‘detested the drudgery’. During the final months before the closure of the business he had started to sell meat pies in the streets around Newgate Prison to supplement his income. This was something he actually enjoyed, especially the meeting and chatting with people; one particular friendship he struck up was with a John Foxton who happened to be chief hangman at Newgate Prison. Calcraft asked Foxton if he knew of any job vacancies at the prison and was informed that there was one available, a position that had been unfilled for a while due to the fact most people found it of an unpalatable nature as it involved the flogging of juveniles…. However, this certainly did not put Calcraft off, again in his own words he – ‘undertook it with relish’ – and earned a wage of 10 shillings a week for doing so….

Crime amongst children increased sharply at the beginning of the 19th Century due to a rise in urban poverty. People poured in to the cities looking for work, the poverty rose and slums established, causing more squalor. Many children suffered violence in the home, crime was often a way of life…. No schooling meant gangs of youngsters roamed the streets, thieving and pickpocketing….

Via Wikimedia – public domain

The whipping and flogging of children was a frequent occurrence until the end of the 1800s. It was often carried out swiftly after sentencing or may have been part of a custodial sentence. By the mid 1800s people were becoming more and more uncomfortable with the punishment; 1862 saw the last public flogging and it was during the 1860s that the whipping of boys at Bow Street Magistrates ceased as their screams upset the public so…. The last hanging of a child took place in 1833 and in 1838 Parkhurst opened as the first juvenile prison….

Foxton died on the 14th of February 1829 and Calcraft was to become chief executioner in his place. He was sworn in as Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex on the 4th of April 1829. However, his first official hangings took place before this date; on the 27th March he was called to an emergency case – the double execution of Thomas Lister and George Wingfield. Calcraft’s wage at this time was set at a guinea a week with a further guinea for every hanging and half a crown per flogging…. He also had an allowance to purchase equipment, such as rope and whips….

It didn’t take Calcraft much time to realise the longer a condemned prisoner took to die the more the watching crowd enjoyed it…. He began to make each execution a performance to entertain his audience…. The gallows method in use when he first took over meant the condemned died typically in 2 or 3 minutes – but by reintroducing the short drop method death could take between 10 to 20 minutes ~ death by slow, agonising strangulation…. To add to the entertainment Calcraft would sometimes swing from the prisoner’s legs or even climb on to their shoulders….

Calcraft’s first year as chief executioner was a very busy one; assisted by Thomas Cheshire he performed some 31 executions. He continued to be busy throughout his long career; so many hangings ~ the details of some stand out more than others….

On April 20th 1849 Calcraft publicly hanged 17-year-old Sarah Thomas in Bristol, after she had been convicted of the murder of her mistress, who had cruelly mistreated her. Calcraft was emotionally disturbed by this case due to her youth and good looks….

Later that same year on the 13th of November a rare and unusual case was seen – the double execution of a husband and wife ~ Frederick and Maria Manning ~ for the murder of Maria’s lover Patrick O’Connor, for financial gain; they then buried him under the kitchen floor…. The couple were hanged side by side on the rooftop of Horsemonger Lane Gaol (Surrey’s main prison and place of execution up until its closure in 1878); a crowd of approximately 50,000 turned out to watch the spectacle – amongst them one Charles Dickens….

The last woman to be hanged publicly at Newgate Prison was Catherine Wilson, on the 20th of October 1862. Convicted of being a serial poisoner, Wilson protested her innocence until the end…. She died with no struggle and with great dignity in front of a crowd of nearly 20,000…. An execution that brought an even greater audience was that of a Doctor Edward William Pritchard on the 28th of July 1865. He was hanged in Jail Square, Glasgow for the murder of his wife and mother-in-law – his execution witnessed by an estimated 100,000….

Via Wikimedia – public domain

By the 1860s Victorian society was beginning to find public executions distasteful – public opinion was changing. At one time all classes would attend a hanging but the hordes of drunken, jeering onlookers were becoming less tolerable. Crime amongst the spectating crowds was a problem with theft and pickpocketing rife – policing the masses effectively was an impossible task…. Instances of people being crushed by those wanting a better view were not unheard of….and then there was the danger that public executions would make martyrs of those condemned of crimes of a more political nature….

The 23rd of November 1867 saw the triple hanging of the Manchester Martyrs – three fenians (early IRA) had murdered a policeman in Manchester. William O’Mara Allen, Micheal Larkin and Micheal O’Brien (alias Gould) were all publicly hanged together outside Salford Prison (Calcraft received £30 for his work) ~ a monument to the three still stands in Ireland today….

Public execution was abolished by a Tory government with the passing in Parliament of the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act 29th May 1868. Calcraft was to perform the last public execution of a woman, Francis Kidder, Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged…. at Maidstone Prison in April 1868; he also conducted the last ever public execution – that of Michael Barrett, a fenian, on the 26th of May 1868 at Newgate – after his conviction of causing an explosion in Clerkenwell, killing seven people….

The first private execution took place on the 13th of August 1868 – that of 18-year-old Thomas Wells at Maidstone Prison, for the murder of a Mr. Walsh, who was the station master at Dover’s Priory Station where Wells worked as a porter. His execution would have been a different experience to those who had gone before him…. He was spared the public circus – only the necessary officials would have been in attendance; the governor, under sheriffs, chaplain, a few prison officers, the executioner (Calcraft) and a representative of the Press. The only somber indication that an execution had just taken place being a black flag raised outside of the prison…. By making executions private a whole new regulated system came about, Calcraft had to adjust to a more humane procedure ~ gone were his antics and the use of the short drop method he had favoured….

During Calcraft’s 45 year role as executioner there were times when his competence was called into question…. Perhaps one of the lowest points in his career came around midway, in 1856 – with the bungled public hanging of William Bousfield….

Opposition to the death penalty was beginning to cause unrest amongst certain groups – Calcraft himself became a target when he received a death threat before Bousfield’s execution; a letter advised him to buy a helmet to wear whilst carrying out the hanging – as the intention was to shoot him….

It appears that William Bousfield was a bit of a ‘no hoper’, weak and unable to hold down a permanent job. In an attempt to provide him with steady employment Bousfield’s father-in-law gave his daughter Sarah and her new husband a shop as a wedding gift, a way to provide them with a regular income…. However, it soon came to be that Sarah was doing all the work; with the pressure of her being the main bread-winner, money being tight and three small children to look after it was inevitable that home life was going to become intolerably stressful…. Exasperated Sarah’s father offered Bousfield money to leave the family for good, by emigrating to America….something his son-in-law declined to do….

On the night of the 3rd of February 1856 matters obviously came to a head… Bousfield stabbed his 28-year-old wife in the neck with a chisel at their home – 4, Portland Street, St. James, Westminster. He also stabbed his children to death; Anne (6 years old), Eliza (4 years old) and John William (just 8 months)…. It was some considerable time later, just after 7am the following day, that he walked into Bow Street Police Station and confessed to what he had done. It was PC Alfred Fudge who attended the scene and discovered the true horror of the crime – the walls were sprayed with blood….the bodies of Bousfield’s family lay where he had butchered them….

Bousfield’s trial was held at the Old Bailey on March the 6th 1856, presided over by Mr. Justice Wightman – a plea of ‘not guilty’ was entered on the grounds of insanity. However, the jury were not swayed and took just a few minutes to return a guilty verdict; as the death sentence was passed Bousfield nearly collapsed and had to be assisted from the dock….

During the time in Newgate Prison leading up to his execution, which was set for Monday 31st March, Bousfield portrayed a pathetic figure, claiming to have no recollection of the events of that terrible night – declaring it all a bad dream…. On the Saturday prior to his execution he attempted suicide in his cell by throwing himself on to the fire; his neckerchief caught light and as a result his face and neck were severely burned….img_0887

On the morning of the 31st a 7.30am Sheriffs Messrs Kennedy and Rose, along with the undersheriffs arrived at the prison. At 7.45am, accompanied by the governor and Reverend Davis, they went to the condemned cell – Bousfield was sitting in a chair, being supported by a prison officer at either side…. Calcraft arrived a few minutes before 8am and pinioned the prisoner’s arms…. It soon became obvious that Bousfield was unable to stand – the only option was for him to be carried. So, one man took his legs, another lifted him under the armpits and he was dragged off, his burns swathed in bandages, to the gallows – where some 5,000 had gathered to watch the execution. However, upon reaching the steps of the scaffold another problem arose – how to get him up there…. It was at this point that a high-backed chair was fetched from the governor’s office ~ Bousfield was restrained upon it and then four prison officers carried him up and placed the chair on to the trap door….

Throughout the whole proceedings Calcraft appeared nervous and on edge – no doubt worried due to the death threat he had earlier received. As soon as the chair was in place he quickly placed the cap on the prisoner’s head, adjusted the noose, secured the rope to the chain and without giving any warning or signal ran down the steps of the scaffold releasing the bolt of the trap door on his way…. The chair dropped through the hole – but as it did so, Bousfield – who had been unable to even stand up to this point – suddenly found the strength to throw his arms and legs wide and managed to find a position to stop himself from falling through…. Prison officers climbed back on to the scaffold and attempted to push the man’s legs down; meanwhile, whilst all this was going on, Calcraft was still running away….insisting that Bousfield was already dead. Somehow the prisoner managed to maintain his position – all the while the crowd was jeering and yelling; the sheriffs and officials were horrified as to what they were witnessing….

It was Reverend Davis who finally managed to locate and persuade Calcraft to return and finish the job; which he obliged in doing by going beneath the scaffold and pulling on Bousfield’s legs….only for once again the prisoner to succeed in getting a foothold on the edge of the trap door opening….

Finally, after a fourth attempt they managed to successfully get Bousfield’s legs down…. In a severe struggle lasting for nearly 10 minutes Bousfield eventually died…. This was probably Calcraft’s most botched execution….

Calcraft retired in 1874 on a pension of 25 shillings per week from the City of London. Towards the end of his life he questioned himself as to whether he was ‘truly a bad lot’…. Although he knew he brought pain and suffering to those about to die at his hands he justified it by the entertainment he had brought to others, who in his opinion had little joy and pleasure in their own lives….

Calcraft died five years after his retirement, in December 1879. His final resting place is now in an overgrown cemetery in North London. I will leave you to make up your own mind as to whether this is indeed a fitting memorial to the man….

Image credit: Alan Denney via flickr.com

You may also enjoy Time to meet the Hangman….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you have found it of interest and I hope you have enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers’ page would be very much appreciated & will ensure you see future posts…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I am simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….