English Executioners from to 1850-1964. Part 1

"Listen to informed opinion, sir, not to a lot of woolly do-gooders!"
Associated Newspapers Ltd. / Solo Syndication
George Smith from Dudley, Staffordshire. (1805 - 1874.)
William Calcraft - from Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex (1800 - 1879.)
Maria Manning
Execution of Peace by William Marwood - 1879 waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds London
Just before noon on 2 April 1868, executioner William Calcraft went into the condemned woman's cell at Maidstone prison, accompanied by the prison chaplain. Calcraft swiftly pinioned her, winding a strap around her arms and her body, then binding her wrists. The prison officers marched the woman across the prison yard and outside the main gate, where she was confronted with a crowd of between three and four thousand people - and the gallows.
The Flogging Ward. Newgate Prison.
Calcraft in later years
Frederick Manning

English Executioners from until 1850 to 1964.

Part 1

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile, 
Tell me that I’m free to ride, 
Ride for many mile, mile, mile. 

Oh yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold, 
She warmed my blood to boiling hot to keep you from the Gallows Pole, 
Your brother brought me silver, Your sister warmed my soul, 
But now I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole 
Swingin’ on the gallows pole!

Swingin’ Swingin’ on the gallows pole!
See-saw marjory daw
See-saw knock at my door

Post of Hangman

The post of Hangman became much sought after in the mid 19th Century and remained so until capital punishment was abolished in 1964 with large numbers, including women, applying for each vacancy. When William Calcraft retired, the post of hangman for London and Middlesex ceased to be a salaried position. His successors were paid a fee for each execution they carried out and these fees remained static at £10 for the hangman and three guineas for the assistant from the 1880’s until the late 1940’s. Then the fee was increased to £15. The cost of rail travel was also reimbursed. These fees were paid half at the time and half two weeks later. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that most of those who held the post of Hangman did it not for financial gain but for other, more personal reasons.

After Berry resigned, the Home Office maintained a list of Executioners and Assistants that were made available to Under Sheriffs when they had to organise an execution in their County. The Under Sheriff selected the Hangman and Assistant’s from his list. Where there was to be a double-Execution there were normally two assistants. It was also decided that all future Executions and Assistants would undertake a week’s training. This was initially at Newgate Prison and then after the prison closed in 1903, the training moved to Pentonville Prison. At the end of the training, applicants could be added to the list if they were deemed to be satisfactory. Merely being on the list did not automatically mean that they would be chosen by the Sheriffs. Normally they would attend an execution or two as a second assistant, just to observe the proceedings and for the Governor to observe them and their attitude and report back to the Sheriff. Not everyone could cope with the reality of an execution. Then the successful candidates had to sign the ‘Official Secrets Act’ and were not permitted to divulge any details of what went on in the Execution Chamber, and especially to the press.

A few short biographies of the Hangmen from 1850 through to 1964. 

George Smith from Dudley, Staffordshire. (1805 – 1874.)

Period in Office was 1840 1872.

George Smith was born in Rowley Regis in 1805 and happened to be a prisoner himself at Stafford when he entered the ‘trade’ as an assistant to William Calcraft. His first job was to assist at the double hanging of James Owen and George Thomas outside the Stafford Gaol on the 11th April 1840. Smith was known as the ‘Dudley Higgler.’ A ‘Higgler’ being a local slang term for a hangman. His first execution as Principal (Executioner) was the execution of Charles Higginson at Stafford Gaol on the 26th August 1843. It is believed that he hanged Betty Eccles at Liverpool’s Kirkdale Gaol on the 6th of May 1843 for the murder of her stepson, and also Mary Gallop at Chester Gaol on the 28th December 1844 for killing her father.

George Smith’s most famous solo execution was that of the Rugeley poisoned, Dr. William Palmer for the murder of John Parsons Cook, before a huge crowd outside the Stafford Gaol on the 14th June 1856.

On the 7th August 1866, Smith failed to secure the rope adequately to the beam and William Collier fell to the ground when the trap doors were released and he had to be hanged again a few minutes later. This happened to be Staffordshire’s last public hanging. George Smith hanged 20 men and 1 woman during his time as the Public hangman. The woman, Sarah Westwood at Stafford and a further three men at Chester Gaol. These were then private hangings as by then the law was changed so that there were no further public hangings.

Smith also assisted William Calcraft at the first two private hangings in England. These hangings were of two men, Thomas Wells and Alexander Mackay in 1868.

George Smith was renowned for his long white coat and top hat which he wore at all his public hangings. Smith’s son, also called George, may have assisted at the three executions outside of Stafford Gaol in 1866. Initially, it is said that Smith (junior) was hired by the Under Sheriff of Staffordshire to save the cost of bringing Calcraft up from London,

George Incher took over the post of Staffordshire’s hangman after George Smith’s death on 4th April 1874.

William Calcraft – from Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex (1800 – 1879.)

Period in office – 1829 – 1874.

William Calcraft was the longest serving Hangman of all. It is not known exactly just hw many executions he carried out but it is somewhere between 430 – 450, including those of some 34 women, of which there were at least 388 public hangings and about 41 executions carried out in private.

In some provincial executions the records of 1830 and thereabouts, do not show clearly who the hangman was.

William Calcraft was a cobbler by trade and also sold pies outside Newgate Prison on ‘hanging days’ Here he became acquainted with the then hangman for London and Middlesex, James Foxen and through this was recruited to have the job of ‘flogging juvenile prisoners’ in Newgate Prison.

His first experience as an executioner was the hanging of housebreaker Thomas Lister at Lincoln Castle and the highwayman George Wingfield at Lincoln Beastmarket on the 27th March 1829. The latter was a Lincoln City execution. James Foxen died on the 14th March 1829 and it was announced in the ‘morning Post’ of the 18th of March that Calcraft would succeed him as the hangman for London and Middlesex on the 4th April of that year. As it happens, the first execution in London was to execute the murderess, Ester Hibner at Newgate Prison on the 13th April 1829.

As it turns out 1829 was a very busy year for Calcraft taking care of a total of some 31 executions. He was assisted by Thomas Cheshire in some of these.

On the 20th April 1849, Calcraft, assisted by George Smith, hanged 17 year old Sarah Thomas in public in Bristol for the murder of her mistress who had maltreated her. This was one job which greatly affected Calcraft on account of her youth and good looks. It is thought that George Smith assisted at this execution as he had become Calcraft’s preferred assistant on the few occasions when he actually required one.

Frederick George Manning and his wife Maria were hanged ‘side by side’ on the 13th of November 1849 on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Gaol. The Manning’s had murdered Patrick O’Connor – Maria’s erstwhile lover for money. It was extremely unusual for a husband and wife to be executed together. As a result this brought together the largest crowd of an estimated 50,000 persons, all crammed together around the prison area. This was a record for an execution in the surrey area.

However, Doctor Edward William Pritchard drew an even bigger crowd when he was executed. The crowd then was estimated to be around the 100,000 mark, when he was hanged in Jail Square in Glasgow on the 28th July 1865 for the murders of his wife and mother-in-law. Then there was Catherine Wilson who was a serial poisoner whom Calcraft executed in front of the Debtor’s Door at Newgate Prison on the 20th October 1862, witnessed by crowd estimated by about by about 20,000. She maintained her innocence to the end and met her fate with great dignity, dying without a struggle. She was the last woman to be executed in public at Newgate Gaol.

In 1867 it brought together the execution of three ‘Fenians’ who had murdered a policeman in Manchester. William O’Meara Allen, Michael Larkin and Michael O’Brien alias Gould. They suffered together on the 23rd November 1867 outside of Salford Prison. Afterwards, they became known as the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ and a monument was erected to them in Ireland, which can still be seen today. Calcraft received the princely sum of £30 for this execution.

William Calcraft officiated at the last public hangings in Britain– those of Francis Kidder (who was the last woman to be hanged in Maidstone Gaol on the 2nd April 1868 for the drowning of her step-daughter and Michael Barratt at Newgate Prison on the 26th of May 1868. Barrett was a Fenian (what we now call an Irish Terrorist.) who was executed for his part in the Clerkenwell Prison explosion, which killed 12 people and injured at least 100 more. At the time of his execution it was known that that this would be the last public hanging in England.

Only the year before Frances Kidder might have been in another crowd outside the gaol, watching 29-year-old Ann Lawrence swing from the same gallows. Mad with jealousy over her lover’s affairs, Lawrence from Tunbridge Wells, had slashed her four-year-old son’s throat with a bill hook and hacked off two of her lover’s fingers before he fled.  

Now reporters scribbled notes, as Frances trembled on the scaffold. The Standard reported: “Before the cap was put over her face she turned…smiled and the last words she uttered were ‘Lord Jesus, forgive me!’” Other papers claimed that Frances “went into hysterics and had to be supported on to the drop by two warders.” The noose was placed around her neck and Frances’ body hurtled through the trap door. 
 Calcraft, an old fashioned executioner, used the short drop method, where prisoners were slowly strangled by the rope. Frances dangled, kicking and choking “before life was extinct.” She was 25, mother to a three-year-old girl.  


The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868

The Government passed ‘The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868’, three days after Barratt’s execution which transferred all executions inside of the prison walls. The press and witnesses could still be permitted to attend, although executions were no longer the great public spectacle they once were.

The first execution within the prison walls was that of 18 year old Thomas Wells at Maidstone on the 13th August 1868. Wells was a railway worker who murdered the station Master, his boss at Dover Priory railway station. Well had been reprimanded and went away, produced a gun he had hidden and shot the Station Master; Although the execution was in private there were reporters  and invited ‘guests’ present as the sentence was carried out. The ‘short drop’ was used to hang Wells and it is reported that he took between 3 and 4 minutes to die as he dangled on the end of the rope.

As Calcraft was now the official executioner for London and Middlesex he also carried out floggings at Newgate Prison. He received one guinea (£1.05p) a week as a retainer and a further guinea for each hanging at Newgate. He received and half-a-crown (12.5p) for each flogging. His earnings were greatly enhanced by executions at other prisons where he could charge higher fees, typically £10, plus expenses. He also held the post of executioner at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in the County of Surrey and received similar fee to Newgate gaol. Here he hanged 24 men and 2 women between April 1829 and October 1870.

He was the exclusive executioner at Maidstone Prison, carrying out all the 37 hangings there between 1830 and 1872. in addition to these earnings, he also allowed to keep the clothes and personal effects of the condemned people he hanged. He could then sell these afterwards and keep whatever money he sold them for. Some of these effects he sold to Madam Tussauds for dressing the latest waxworks in the ‘Chamber of Horrors.’

The rope which had been used at a hanging of a particular notable criminal could also be sold for good money, in fact up to 5 shillings or 25 p per inch. (Hence the expression; ‘money for old rope.’)

William Calcraft claims to have invented the leather waist band waist belt with wrist straps for pinioning the prisoner’s arms and also one of the nooses he used is still on display in Lancaster Castle. It is a very short piece of three-quarters of an inch rope with a loop worked into one end with the free end of the rope passed through it and terminating in a hook with which it was attached to the chain fixed to the gallows beam. This particular noose was used for the execution of Richard Pedder on the 29th August 1857.

He was a regular visitor to Durham Prison, where he was to hang Britain’s greatest mass murderess, Mary Ann Cotton on the 24th March 1873, assisted by Robert Anderson.

Most of Calcraft’s early work came from London and the Southeast, as the Midlands had George smith and Thomas Askern, who operated in Yorkshire and the North. With the advent of the railway system in the mid 19th Century, Calcraft was soon able to operate all over Britain and apparently loved travelling. There were 6,000 miles of railway in Britain by 1850 which meant that he could effectively and in a way conveniently work Nationwide now. He managed two trips to Scotland, one on the 28th July 1865 to execute Dr. Edward William Pritchard who had poisoned his wife and the other trip was on 4th October 1870 to execute George Chalmers at Perth in what was then Scotland’s first private execution.

His is last London hanging was that of John Godwin at Newgate Prison on the 25th May 1874, his final execution in the Provinces was that of John Donald at Exeter on the 10th august 1874.

Calcraft retired on a pension of 25 shillings (£1.25p) per week provided by the City of London in 1874. He died on the 13th December 1879 aged 79 years. (Apparently he was 74 years of age on retirement.)

It is often said that William Calcraft bungled his hangings because the ‘short drop’ method, causing most of his victims to strangle to death. However, this is neither true, nor fair to Calcraft. He could not be expected to know about something that hadn’t been invented (The Long Drop – where the neck was broken causing instant death.) He carried on what had always been done before. It wasn’t until near the end of Calcraft’s career that the concept of using a longer drop began to take shape. At this time Ireland was part of retain, hangmen in Dublin were experimenting with much longer drops in the 1860’s aided by surgeons there, especially the Rev. Dr. Samuel Haughton.

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