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….

Time to meet the Hangman….

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….

Hanging outside Newgate Prison – Public Domain

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….

1874 Triple Hanging at H.M. Prison Gloucester Paul Townsend brizzle born and bred on

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….

Thomas Pierrepoint (left) and nephew, Albert Pierrepoint (right) – 1st January 1947 – Public Domain via Wikipedia
Henry Pierrepoint – photo taken 1909 Source: Daily Mail – Public Domain via Wikimedia

“As long as I can give in the last moments of these people, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment.That’s my job and I can come away satisfied”…. – Albert Pierrepoint

All three men connected to this ‘dynasty’ had a common agenda – pride and the wanting to be humane and respectful. Henry Pierrepoint carried out 105 executions during his time as assistant and then chief executioner; his brother Thomas, succeeding him in his role, performed a further 294. Henry’s son, Albert – born 30th March 1905 – was to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle and was to become recognised by the Home Office as the most efficient executioner in British history. Albert hanged over 400 convicted criminals, possibly even as many as 600…. Among the executions performed by Albert were those of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and also Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged for a crime committed by John Christie – who Albert was to later hang…. He also travelled to Germany and Austria some 25 times in order to carry out approximately 200 executions of those convicted of war crimes after WW2….

After his father had retired as executioner the young Albert became close to his Uncle Tom – he was allowed to read the diaries his uncle kept, recording the details of the executions he had carried out. At the age of 11 years Albert wrote an essay for school saying that when he grew up he wanted to become the Official Executioner…. On leaving school Albert became a drayman, delivering for a wholesale grocer. In 1930 he learned to drive, not only a car but a lorry too – enabling him to earn £2 and 5 shillings a week….

On April 19th 1931 Albert wrote to the prison service and offered his services as an assistant executioner to his Uncle Tom; he received a letter back saying there were currently no vacancies. Later that same year the current assistant, Lionel Mann, resigned and Albert was called for an interview at Strangeways Prison. He succeeded in making it to the next stage of the selection process and attended a training course at Pentonville Prison, London; he was added to the list of assistant executioners on the 26th September 1932. Albert was on his way to fulfilling his ambition – something his mother was apparently none too happy about – she did not wish her son to become assistant executioner, she had a stomach full with the past career of her husband….

The first hanging Albert attended was that of Patrick McDermott on the 29th December 1932 – a young farmer who had murdered his brother. The Chief Executioner was his Uncle Tom. Albert’s first execution that he performed himself was that of gangster and nightclub owner Antonio “Babe” Mancini on October 17th 1941 at Pentonville Prison….

On August 29th 1943 Albert married Annie Fletcher; he had continued working at a grocers and Annie ran a sweetshop/tobacconist in the same street…. At some point in their relationship she learned of his ‘other career’ – but she said nothing – waiting for him to tell her in his own time; as always discretion was key…. Albert finally told his wife of his other life at the beginning of 1944. It was during his travels to Germany and Austria that the Press learned of his identity and he became regarded as a bit of a ‘war hero’ – giving the convicted Nazis what they deserved…. It was the rise in income from these extra executions that enabled Albert and Annie to become landlord and lady of a public house near Manchester, aptly named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’….

In 1956 Albert had a dispute with the Home Office over his fees as executioner. In the January he had travelled to Strangeways to perform the execution of Thomas Bancroft. The preparations had been made – but less than 12 hours before the appointed time Bancroft was reprieved. Albert put in a claim for the full fee (£15) – but the Home Office would not pay as the execution had not taken place – a cheque for £4 was offered to cover his expenses. Some say he had actually already made up his mind to resign by this point anyway, as he had received a lucrative offer from a popular weekly publication to reveal his story and the last moments of those convicted criminals he had executed…. The Home Office wrote to him asking him to reconsider his resignation – they were fully aware of his worth…

“A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who, the Church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain”…. Albert Pierrepoint

It was at this point I intended to continue with a look at one of the Pierrepoints’ predecessors from the previous century, another well-known hangman in British history – one William Calcraft. However, on reflection Calcraft does not have a place here amongst the ‘gentlemen’ of executioners (if one is permitted to describe them as that)…. The Pierrepoints displayed respect and discretion – Calcraft was obviously cut from a different cloth…. He perhaps deserves a blog post all of his very own – but I may not be quite so respectful due to the way he went about things…. I’m now off to see if I can find out a little more about him….

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

You may also enjoy Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….


Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….

On the 29th of May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Bill – ending the hanging of convicted criminals in public view…. The last public execution in Britain was that of Michael Barrett at Newgate on the 26th of May 1868.


The previous month saw the last public hanging of a woman, one Frances Kidder, aged 25 years old, at Maidstone Prison on the 2nd of April….

It was a case that divided the British public – the Mayor of Hythe and others petitioned to have her sentence commuted…. Some newspapers reported her story with sympathy – whereas, there were others who saw her as an evil woman who got her just desserts….

Frances was born in 1843 to John Turner, an agricultural labourer and his wife, Frances (nee Drury), in New Romney, Kent. In 1861 the young Frances went to work as a house servant for John English (a bookmaker and newsagent) and his family, in Folkestone. In 1865 she met and married William Kidder, a green grocer….maybe it was a marriage of necessity rather than for love, as Frances had his child before the wedding took place – she gave birth to a daughter, Emma…. William also had two other illegitimate children from a previous relationship (a detail it appears he may have neglected to inform Frances of) with an Eliza Staple, a house servant. Eliza died in 1863; the younger of the two children was sent to live with relatives but the elder sibling, Louisa, aged around 10 went to live with her father and his new wife in Hythe, Kent. By all accounts Louisa was quite a lively child and things were on a rocky footing from the onset of the relationship between the little girl and her step-mother…. Frances was very cruel to the child – she beat her frequently with what ever implement came to hand; she forced her to wear rags, often starved her and even made her sleep in the cellar on a pile of old sacks no matter what the weather…. Children being mistreated in Victorian times was a common occurrence – but in this instance the treatment was so bad that next door neighbour, William Henniker, reported the abuse. As a result the police charged Frances with cruelty and she received a fine. Louisa was sent to live with a guardian – unfortunately her father did not keep up with the maintenance payments for her and the child was returned to William and Frances – and the cruelty began again….

William had a business, dealing in potatoes – Frances helped her husband with his work. In July 1867 there was an accident; a horse bolted and Frances was thrown from a cart….possibly sustaining brain damage. In the words of her husband “she was in a fit for about four hours and she has been strange in the head ever since”….

The following month, on August the 24th Frances went to visit her parents for a few days, in New Romney, taking her own daughter Emma and Louisa with her. It was whilst passing the time of day with her parents’ next door neighbour, a Mrs. Evans, that she apparently revealed how much she detested Louisa and that she had no intention of returning home with her ~ “I mean to get rid of that bitch Kidder’s child. I hate the sight of her as she always making mischief. I do not like other people’s bastards”. Frances often referred to her husband’s daughter as ‘his bastard’….

Postcard map of Kent – image Alwyn Ladell via

On the Sunday morning of their visit Frances claimed she was feeling unwell and was not up to the planned walk with her parents…. She told them she would rather stay at home with the children. As soon as her mother and father had departed she suggested to the girls that they visit a fair in nearby New Romney….and so the trio set off – on foot. It was when they came to a point known as Cobb’s Bridge – a passing over a small stream of water – that the event happened. Frances forced Louisa into the water, she held her face downwards, drowning her in less than a foot of water…..

Meanwhile, Frances’ parents had arrived home to an empty house – at the same time William arrived to collect his wife and daughters…. Concerned William and his father-in-law decided to go and look for them. Frances returned whilst they were out and took the opportunity to rush to her room to change her clothes….

Returning to the house William and Frances’ father immediately realised something was wrong and that Louisa was missing. Her father then discovered the wet muddy clothes that Frances had discarded; she refused to say what had happened…. Due to the previous history of cruelty and Frances’ current state of mind her husband and father decided it was necessary to go to the police…. They returned with a Constable Aspinall, who arrested Frances on suspicion of murder….

When questioned Frances claimed Louisa had fallen into the stream after being frightened by some horses near to the bridge. A search was organised – by now it was dark; Constable Aspinall reported: “It was a clear star lit night and we were furnished with lamps. There was a heavy dew on the grass. Someone noticed something white in the ditch. I threw my light in that direction, it was the body. She was lying on her back, her head was under the water”….

Louisa’s body was taken to the ‘Ship Inn’ to await an inquest. Frances was charged with her murder and taken before the magistrates where she was remanded in custody; the following day she was taken to Maidstone Prison. During the journey she suffered several fits and they had to stop at Ashford Police Station until the seizures had subsided….

Once at Maidstone Prison Frances remained on remand for six months; William did not visit his wife at all in that time – rumours began to circulate that he had begun a new relationship – with Frances’ younger sister….

Frances came to trial on the 12th of March 1868; it was presided over by Mr. Justice Byles – and Court appointed barrister, Mr. Channell acted as her defence. The prosecution raised the cases of her former abuse and cruelty towards Louisa and her previous threats to kill the child…. Among the witnesses against were her own mother, father and sisters. Another witness claimed to have heard a muffled sound at the time but was unable to determine whether it was laughing or crying – but it sounded like a child…. The doctor who had examined Louisa’s body confirmed sh had drowned but saw no signs of violence having occurred. The barrister made little reference to the fact Frances had received head injuries during her work accident the month before Louisa’s death – injuries that could have affected her personality. He did however, suggest that the witness statements had been exaggerated….

Frances herself maintained her story that Louisa had fallen into the water throughout the trial…. “Some horses came along and frightened us. We panicked and my little Louisa fell into the river and drowned”….

On summing up Mr. Justice Byles instructed the jury that if they had any misgivings as to the circumstantial evidence provided to them, they must give Frances the benefit of the doubt. The jury had no such doubts – the trial had taken 6 hours – a guilty verdict came back within 12 minutes…. As the death sentence was passed Frances remained calm and was able to walk from the dock unaided….

Frances was returned to Maidstone Prison to await her execution. It was in the condemned cell that she confessed to a Reverend Fraser (who had been teaching her in religion during her time on remand). William visited his wife twice during this period; on both occasions they argued about his relationship with her sister, which he had finally admitted to. She was also visited by her parents and her daughter, Emma. As the day of the execution drew nearer, Frances became more and more hysterical….

On Thursday the 2nd of April 1868, at just before 12 noon, the appointed hangman – William Calcraft – the under sheriff of the county, the prison chaplain and a number of prison officers came to the cell.

William Calcraft

Calcraft pinioned Frances with a strap pinning her arms to her body at elbow level; her hands were tied at the wrists. She was led out across the prison courtyard to the main gate….the doors swung open to reveal the gallows that had been erected just outside – in County Road….


Frances had to be helped up the steps to the platform; she then had to be held on the trap doors by two prison officers whilst Calcraft made the final preparations. The whole time Frances prayed intently – her last words were “Lord Jesus forgive me”…. Calcraft released the trap and Frances dropped approximately 18 inches; she then struggled for 2 or 3 minutes in the agony of strangulation. Only her top half was visible to the well-behaved crowd of some 2,000 people who had gathered to watch – a large number of them women. Frances’ body was left hanging for an hour before being removed and buried in an unmarked prison grave….

There were those in the crowd who came to witness the execution of what was in their eyes an evil stepmother who had murdered an innocent child in cold blood. There were others who thought she had been misrepresented – and the injuries she had sustained in her accident should have been taken into consideration…. Then there were the ones who were angry about the way William had treated his wife – fathering illegitimate children and replacing her with her sister so quickly…. (reports say an effigy of him was burned in Hythe after the execution)…. But for whatever reason they chose to attend all of them must have been united in sadness over the death of little Louisa….

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

You may also enjoy The Man they could not hang….

Bring back the stocks…I say!!

There have been a few times in the past, when I have jokingly remarked it would be fun to see a set of stocks on the village green…. I may not have been saying that if I had lived in this house a couple of hundred years ago, even less so if I had been one of its first occupants….

Photo credit: ‘Punishment in 18th century Bristol by John Latimer’ brizzle born and bred via / CC BY-ND Original image URL:

Wind back to when No.3 was first built – England would still have been governed under the Feudal System. Feudalism was introduced when William I took control after the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century; it was to become the way of Mediaeval life. As William was still also the Duke of Normandy he had to divide his time between England and France, so was absent for many weeks at a time. Therefore, he needed people he could trust to run things for him in his absence. In order to do this, he divided the country up into large chunks, similar to the counties we know today. These plots of land were ‘given’ to those he considered the most trustworthy, namely those that had fought with him and were prepared to die for him. The land was not ‘given’ to them unconditionally, they had to swear an oath of loyalty and collect taxes for the King. The noblemen (barons, earls and dukes) were the most important men in their allotted portion of land, they were known as ‘tenants-in-chief’. They in turn divided the land further into smaller pieces, called Manors, which were entrusted to Norman knights, who had also served well in battle. Each also had to swear an oath and it was his duty, as Lord of the Manor, to manage the land and its occupants. He had to collect taxes on behalf of the tenant-in-chief and provide soldiers from amongst the men living within his Manor to fight when ever needed. It was also the lord’s responsibility to ensure law and order was upheld….

Photo credit: Image taken from page 210 of ‘The History of England from the earliest dawn of authentic record…Embellished with…engravings.’ The British Library via / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL:

The Manorial Court dealt with crimes that were of a less serious nature. Courts were held at regular intervals throughout the year and all villagers were required to attend, or face a fine. Trial was by jury, which consisted of twelve men, selected by the villagers. A steward, chosen by the lord, was in charge of the Court. The  community was divided into groups, called tithings, each tithing represented by ten adult (over the age of 12) men, who were then responsible for each other’s behaviour. If one member (or part of his household) broke the law or behaved in an inappropriate way, it was the duty of the other nine tithe members to bring them before the Court.

More serious crimes were referred to the King’s Court; these included murder, treason, heresy and witchcraft. Trial by jury did not come to the King’s Court until 1275. Before this time, trial was by ‘ordeal’; it was believed God would decide whether a person was innocent of the crime he or she had been accused of. There were three types of ordeal used to determine a person’s fate:-

Ordeal by fire: The accused was made to walk a distance of approximately 9 foot holding a red-hot iron bar, (or similarly, picking up a stone from a boiling cauldron of water). The hands would be bandaged. Three days later the bandages would be removed, if the wounds showed no signs of healing, the person would have been pronounced ‘guilty’….

Ordeal by water: The accused would have been thrown into water with their hands and feet bound together; if they floated, they were declared ‘guilty’….

Ordeal by combat: Reserved for noblemen. The accused would fight with his accuser, usually to the death; the victor being considered the one in the ‘right’….

In 1215 the Pope made a ruling that priests must not help with enforcing ordeals (as it was his belief they were wasting too much of God’s time) – as a result the King’s Court also became trial by jury. This was actually not popular with the people, some thought those with a grudge against them may use the system to their own advantage. In 1275 a law was introduced permitting the use of torture if trial by jury was refused. Torture was also used to extract confessions or to get the names of accomplices and other information about the crime in question….

Punishments were issued to fit the crime and reflect the social standing of the person who had been found guilty. The worse the crime, the harsher the punishment. For serious crimes, death was usually inevitable; as well as murder, treason and witchcraft, highway robbery and the stealing of livestock carried death sentences….

Although prisons existed, they were used as a holding place for people awaiting trial rather than as a punishment. They were squalid places, lack of food and disease often meant prisoners died before even coming before the Court. Prison sentences were usually not an option as the money to keep long-term prisoners was not available; it was cheaper to either execute or mutilate them….

Most towns had a gibbet. People were hung on them and their bodies left to rot to act as a deterrent to others. Witches were strangled or in severe cases, burnt. Sometimes beheading was used as a form of execution. Serious theft could result in hands being cut off, branding may have been used, along with other barbaric punishments, such as the poking out of eyes. Punishments and executions were always in public….

Photo credit: ‘Gallows’ Jaime Perez via / CC BY-NC Original image URL:

Courts were often biased, the poor discriminated against and judgement would often have been known before the case even came to trial. If somebody did not turn up to attend the Court they were automatically considered to be an outlaw; their possessions would have been seized, becoming the property of the King. Outlaws would often band together and live in hiding; of course, one of the most famous being Robin Hood….

Lesser crimes were dealt with within the community and it was up to the Lord of the Manor to decide a fitting punishment. The Middle Ages had a tendency to use ridicule to punish petty crimes, public humiliation was common practice. Anything from being forced to wear an animal mask to being publicly flogged…. Not working hard enough, cheating on a spouse, blasphemy, not observing the Sabbath and being drunk and disorderly were all punishable crimes in Mediaeval England….

Petty theft could result in being given extra, unpaid work and/or a fine. Slacking at work would warrant a flogging….

Women who nagged, scolded and gossiped could find themselves the centre of the utmost ridicule….by being forced to wear a ‘scold’s’ bridle. Although it looked like a torture contraption it was not really designed as such, more for humiliation. It consisted of a metal bridle that strapped about the head and had ‘bits’ that went into the mouth. Sometimes the bits had spikes to prevent the woman from talking. She would then be paraded through the streets for up to twelve hours; some bridles even had bells attached to them, to add to the indignation….

Another punishment used for women who found themselves fallen from grace was the ducking-stool, popular especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. The offending woman was strapped into a chair on the end of a long pole; she was then repeatedly dropped into a river or lake…. The last recorded ducking in England was in the Herefordshire town of Leominster. Jenny Pipes was a notorious scold and was dunked in 1809. In 1817, Sarah Leeke was found guilty of the same crime; fortunately for her, the water in the ducking pond was too low, instead she was wheeled around the town strapped in the ducking chair, to receive the ridicule of the townsfolk….

Photo credit: ‘The Ducking Stool at Leominster’ copyright John Phillips and licensed for reuse under creative commons license CC SA Wikicommons

Another variation of this was the cucking-stool, in which the guilty person was made to sit, to endure being paraded through the streets….

To us now, the  ducking-stool may conjure up quite a comical image…. However, it was a terrible ordeal for the woman concerned. Deaths did occur, either through drowning or shock. In more severe cases, for example a person accused of witchcraft, the chair would be held under the water for several minutes, repeatedly. If the accused survived it would be assumed they were guilty. If they drowned, the only consolation would be their name was cleared….

Photo credit: Image from page 90 of ‘Essentials of United States history’ (1911) Internet Archive Book Images / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL:

In the City of Canterbury, Kent, the original ducking chair can still be seen in its place at the back of the Weavers House Pub on the banks of the River Stour….

Photo credit: ‘Canterbury Historic River Tours’ Karen Roe via / CC BY Original image URL:

Of course, one form of punishment we commonly associate with days gone by is that which got me on to this subject in the first place….the stocks; (and we must also contemplate their cousin, the pillory, too)….

The stocks go back to at least Anglo-Saxon times…. A wooden construction, where the convicted person would sit and have their ankles trapped in holes within the structure and sometimes their hands too.  Occasionally, although not commonplace, even the neck would be entrapped. Most stocks were capable of holding at least two prisoners at one time….

Photo credit: ‘Stocks’ Kasper Veste via / CC BY-SA Original image URL:

In 1351 the parliament of King Edward III passed a law prohibiting labourers from leaving their home Manor to look for better paid work. After the Black Death there was a desperate shortage of labour – workers were in a situation where they could demand better conditions and wage increases…. To curb this the Statute of Labourers was instated….all upstarts were sentenced to the stocks. In 1405 it was made law that every town and village in England should have them….

Photo credit: ‘St Leonard’s Church Shoreditch’ Alan Denney via / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL:

A spell in the stocks could last anything from a few hours, to days, even weeks! A part from the obvious discomfort of being pelted with rotten fruit, vegetables, eggs and possibly even worse, the fact the prisoner was unable to shift position in all that time, has to be taken into consideration; that and our great British weather….!!

Photo credit: ‘Stocks, Codicote’ Peter O’Connor aka anemone projectors via / CC BY-SA Original image URL:

Stocks and pillories were always positioned in the most prominent place in the town or village….be it the market square, near to the church or on the village green….

The pillory tended to be used for slightly more serious offences. Similar to the stocks but this time the person was in a standing position with their head and wrists entrapped. A term in the pillory was usually shorter, not normally more than a day. Additional punishments may have been administered, depending on the crime. Sometimes the victim’s ears might be nailed to the pillory, to stop movement of the head. Often, the prisoner’s ears would be ripped off through their struggles; if the ears were still intact at the end of the ordeal, they were more than likely to have been cut off at the time of opening the pillory anyway. Branding the face of the criminal, nose slitting and even boring through the tongue with a red-hot iron were all punishments some prisoners of the pillory had to endure….

Photo credit: ‘laurel & hardy’ pinch of salt via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:

Being drunk and disorderly, cheating, blaspheming, not observing the Sabbath, or simply being a vagrant could result in a spell in the stocks or pillory. However, it was possible, if a person was well liked in a town or village, that no real hardship was suffered. Some places stipulated only soft missiles could be thrown, to prevent stoning….

In 1703, Daniel Defoe, a popular writer of the time, was sentenced to the pillory because his work ‘The Shortest Way with the Dissenters’ was considered seditious libel (criticising and discrediting the King and Church). In the July of 1703 he was taken on three consecutive days to some of the busiest parts of London; The Royal Exchange in Cornhill, Cheapside and finally Fleet Street, to spend an hour each time in the pillory. Huge crowds were expected to turn out and mock him and hurl whatever they deemed fitting; however, all that was thrown at Defoe were flowers, whilst his friends read extracts of his work to onlookers….

Photo credit: Image taken from page 146 of ‘Daniel Defoe : his life and recently discovered writings : extending from 1716 to 129. [With plates, including a portrait.]’ The British Library via / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL:
The pillory was abolished in 1837. The stocks, although never officially abolished, began to die out in England in the early 19th Century. The last recorded case of them being used was in Rugby, Warwickshire in 1865.

Most stocks were made of wood (although there have been examples made of iron), so many of the original stocks deteriorated and rotted over time. However, many villages, proud of their old stocks, have managed to preserve them as a reminder of the ‘olden days’. Several villages local to Dunsfold still have theirs, including Chiddingfold and Alfold. Dunfold’s have long gone – and after learning all this, I am not quite so sure now that I would like to see a new set on the green after all….

Photo credit: clare_and_ben via / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL:
Photo credit: ‘Pillory’ balaji shankar via / CC BY-NC Original image URL: