On this day in history : 5th May 1760 – The public hanging at Tyburn, London, by the new ‘drop’ method, of Earl Ferrers….who is executed for the murder of his servant…. He is the last Peer to be hanged….
Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers was born on the 18th of August 1720 into a family of long-established nobility…. At the age of 20 he left his Oxford education to live a life of debauchery in Paris….
When 25 he inherited his title from an insane uncle along with estates in Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire…. He returned to England to take up residence at Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire….
He married Mary in 1752….it was to be far from a happy marriage. Although he could be reasonably normal when sober he was a heavy drinker and became violent…. He was also a womaniser and had a long-term mistress, Margaret Clifford, with whom he had 4 illegitimate daughters…. This relationship continued after he was married….
In 1758 Mary had endured enough and obtained a separation by Act of Parliament on the grounds of his cruelty…. She must have had a strong case as this was almost unheard of at the time…. As part of the separation agreement Mary was granted a proportion of the rents from the Estate….An old family steward, John Johnson, was appointed to collect the rents on her behalf…. Not surprisingly Ferrers dislike Johnson and hated the fact that he had authority over the Estate….
It is thought the tipping point came when Johnson paid Mary £50 without Ferrers’s consent….he asked to see Johnson at the Hall….Prior to the appointed meeting time on the 18th of January 1760 Ferrers sent Margaret and their daughters (who had moved in after Mary left) out, along with all the male servants of the household…. When Johnson arrived he was shown to the study where Ferrers awaited him…. Before long an argument broke out over the £50 and at around 3pm Ferrers shot the steward…. Johnson did not die immediately and a doctor was sent for and he was treated at the Hall…. Also sent for was Sarah, Johnson’s daughter….
Ferrers had been sober at the time of the shooting but afterwards turned to the bottle. As the day wore into evening he continued to shout and rant at Johnson, before finally falling into a drunken stupor…. Dr. Kirkland and Sarah were then able to take Johnson back to his own home, where he died the next morning….
Ferrers was arrested; being a Peer he could not be dealt with at the Leicester Assizes and so was taken to the Tower of London to await trial….
On the 16th of April 1760 Ferrers was brought before Lord High Steward, Lord Henley at Westminster Hall; the trial lasted two days…. Ferrers ran his own defence, as was normal practice in those days, he tried to plead insanity…. Witnesses for the prosecution included Dr. Kirkland, Sarah Johnson and three female servants who had been at the Hall at the time…. Ferrers seemed incapable of understanding that it was not acceptable, even for a man of his position, to shoot a servant….
On being found guilty there was only one sentence applicable in accordance with the Murder Act 1752 – death by hanging…. A date was set for the 5th of May…. Ferrers was utterly appalled by the thought of public hanging at Tyburn – this was the death of a common criminal…. He pleaded with the King to be beheaded instead – the death of a nobleman…. But the sentence was upheld….
Ferrers was held at the Tower of London whilst awaiting execution….and would have been treated well and enjoyed relative luxury…. He wrote his Will, leaving £16,000 to his daughters and £200 to Sarah Johnson….
New gallows were constructed; instead of the barbaric cart, ladder and three-cornered gibbet – known as the ‘Tyburn Tree’ – a scaffold, covered with black material and reached by stairs, was built…. On the platform was a box, designed to sink into the structure, leaving the condemned suspended….
At 9am, on the morning of the 5th of May, the call was sent to the Tower for Ferrers to be brought to his place of execution…. An enormous crowd had gathered….the execution of a nobleman was a rarity…. Ferrers arrived in a carriage drawn by six horses….he wore his wedding suit of light coloured satin embroidered with silver thread…. He was accompanied by the Tower’s chaplain – also in the procession was a mourning coach carrying six of his friends and a hearse….
He was led to the scaffold and up the steps….the Lord’s Prayer was said and he mounted the drop…. His arms were tied with a black silk sash and the rope placed around his neck…. A white nightcap, which he had supplied himself, was pulled down over his head…. Around noon, having declined to give the signal himself, the Sheriff gave the command and the platform sank…. The mechanism didn’t quite work correctly – Ferrers’s feet were almost touching the platform; he was left writhing and took about 4 minutes to die….
His body was left for an hour, as was the custom before being taken down and put into the coffin…. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection – and then his body was put on display until the evening of the 8th of May…. His remains were then returned to his family for burial at St. Pancras Church – and in 1782 he was reinterred at the family vault in Staunton Harold….
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….
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….
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….
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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….
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….
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….
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….
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….
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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….
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Agnes Waterhouse was born around 1503 and lived in the village of Hatfield Peverel, near to Chelmsford, Essex – and she was the first woman in Britain to be hanged for witchcraft….
Agnes was known locally as ‘Mother Waterhouse’, which would suggest she may have been a wise woman and healer. It appears she was rather an argumentative woman, repeatedly falling out with her neighbours…. In July 1566 Agnes was accused of witchcraft – along with Elizabeth Francis (believed to be her sister) and Joan Waterhouse, her 18-year-old daughter….
Elizabeth had a cat; a white spotted one called ‘Sathan’ – or Satan – given to her by her grandmother, ‘Eve of Hatfield Peverel’ – who taught her grand-daughter the secrets of witchcraft when she was 12 years old…. Sathan was able to talk; he taught Elizabeth how to make magical potions – and promised her a lifetime of riches – a promise that indeed appeared to have been kept, as she always had sheep in her pasture….
Sathan would do anything for his mistress – all he asked for in return was bread, milk and a drop of blood – her blood – which she provided by pricking herself and allowing him to suck from it….leaving spots on her skin never to disappear….
As a young woman Elizabeth took a fancy to an Andrew Byles – a man of wealth – to be her husband…. Sathan promised to get him for her….but in order for it to be possible she must allow Byles to ‘abuse’ her – which she did. Only things did not quite go to plan – for afterwards Byles refused to marry her. Enraged Elizabeth ordered Sathan to ‘waste his goods’ (destroy his property)…. Still not content she demanded the cat ‘touch his body’ (cause illness) – and so he did…. Byles subsequently died from his illness….
Soon after Elizabeth discovered she was carrying Byles’s child – so Sathan advised her which herbs to take to cause a termination of the pregnancy….
Elizabeth set her heart upon another man, Francis….although not as rich as Byles she decided she must have him and so set her trap…. After sleeping with him, once again she fell pregnant – they married and a daughter was born to them some three months later….
It was not a happy union, the pair fought constantly – family life was not as Elizabeth had expected; so when the child was just 18 months old she got Sathan to kill her….and inflict a lameness of the leg on to Francis – from which he never recovered….
By now Elizabeth had somewhat tired of it all – and this included Sathan who she’d had for some 15 years…. It so happened that she encountered Agnes one day, who was on her way to the ovens to bake some cakes…. Elizabeth decided to bestow the cat upon her as a gift – telling her that all she needed to do was feed him bread, milk and a drop of blood and he would do anything she wanted….in return Agnes gave Elizabeth a cake….
Agnes was eager to try out the cat’s skills…. She asked him to kill one of her pigs – more than willing to prove himself Sathan obliged. Having fallen out with a couple of her neighbours Agnes then got him to kill three hogs belonging to Father Kersey and drown a cow owned by Widow Gooday…. Each time Agnes rewarded Sathan with a chicken and a drop of her own blood. Realising the power at her fingertips Agnes began causing no end of mischief for her neighbours….ruining their brewing and butter making amongst other things…. Sathan taught her the art of witchcraft, how to terminate pregnancies and helped her to kill people…. As she wasn’t getting along with her own husband Agnes arranged his demise too – she spent 9 years as a widow before things finally caught up with her….
Eventually, for whatever reason, Agnes too had had enough of Sathan, he was beginning to cause her problems; so, she turned him into a toad – he was far easier to keep under control this way….
It was while she was away one day that her daughter, Joan, decided to amuse herself by playing with him…. Feeling hungry and as her mother had left no food, Joan went to the house of a neighbour to ask for some bread and cheese…. On arriving she encountered the neighbour’s daughter, 12-year-old Agnes Brown – who refused to give her any food. On returning home, Sathan offered her his help….providing she gave him her soul – Joan agreed to this…. Sathan went to visit the young Agnes and found her churning butter. The toad manifested himself into a demon – a black dog with horns – and asked the child for some butter….when she declined he then set about terrorising her….
By now people were becoming suspicious of the tragic events and goings-on that seemed to surround Agnes and her cat…. It was after the death of yet another of her neighbours, William Fynne, who died on the 1st of November 1565 having suffered from an illness said to have been caused by her, that the accusations were finally officially made….
Agnes, Elizabeth and Joan were brought to trial in Chelmsford in July 1566, accused of witchcraft…. Agnes was cited as having caused illness that resulted in the deaths of William Fynne and her husband and also the deaths of her neighbours’ livestock…. But the evidence that actually convicted her was when the 12-year-old Agnes Brown testified against her…. Agnes’s first examination was on the 26th July, followed by a second one the following day….at which she confessed and pleaded guilty….
King Henry VIII had made witchcraft a felony punishable by death in 1542; some say he did this as he thought Anne Boleyn was a witch trying to harm him with her craft….
Agnes was hanged on the 27th July 1566. At her execution she asked God for forgiveness; when asked she said she prayed often but always in Latin to hide her doing so from Sathan, as he would not allow her prayers…. Along with her repentance she also added to the list of accused crimes…. She told of how she had sent Sathan to damage the goods of a tailor named Wardol and to do him harm….but the cat returned to her and said he was unable to do as he had been bade as Wardol’s faith in God was too strong. Agnes also confessed she had been practising witchcraft for 25 years….
Elizabeth was given a lighter sentence – but 13 years later she herself was hanged for a further conviction…. Joan was cleared during the trial; she had testified against her mother and Elizabeth helping to convict them – and so saving her own skin….
Agnes has been an inspiration for many writers and artists since – people remain fascinated by the story…. When we stop to consider what life was like back then it is hard to visualise how it must have truly been. In this modern scientific World that we live in, we know cats can’t talk to us, no matter how it sometimes seems like they can…. They certainly don’t go around killing pigs, cows and people and they definitely can’t turn themselves into demon dogs anymore than we can turn them into toads….
We also now have an understanding of that terrible illness dementia…. Many of us know only too well the heartbreak of having a loved one who suffers from this dreadful disease – the confusion, forgetfulness and sometimes argumentative, aggressive behaviour….
One can’t help wondering if the case of Agnes and Elizabeth centred on mass hysteria, the mischief of a 12-year-old girl, a couple of old ladies suffering from dementia and their obsession with a cat…. How many ‘witches’ hanged were actually people suffering from diseases of the mind? Not having any other means to explain odd, erratic, confused or aggressive behaviour it would not be surprising if people had considered those affected to be under the influence of the Devil himself….