English Executioners from 1850 to 1964. Part 5

John Ellis of Rochdale, Lancashire. (1874-1932)
Henry Albert Pierrepoint
Hawley Harvey Crippen
Roger Casement

William Billington (1875 – 1952)

Period on Home Office List – 1899-1905.

The second of James Billington’s three sons, William, took over from his father and was assisted by his younger brother, john. William was to carry out 60 executions as principal in England and Wales. His first job being the hanging of Edward Bell at Lincoln’s gaol on the 25th July 1899. He had assisted at 15 executions. He also travelled to Ireland for 8 executions there between 1902 and 1905 and also 2 executions in Scotland.

William carried out the last execution at Newgate Prison, that of George Woolfe on the 2nd May 1902. He also dealt with Annie Walters and Amelia Sach who were both hanged at Holloway Gaol on the 3rd February 1903 for baby farming. These were the first two executions at the newly created female only Holloway Prison.

He also executed Mrs. Emily Swan and her boyfriend, John Gallagher, who did together in Armley Prison, Leeds on the 29th December 1903 for the murder of Emily’s husband. Hooded and noosed on the gallows, Emily said ‘Good morning John’ to which he replied ‘good morning love’. Emily said ‘Goodbye and bless you’ before the drop fell ending any more conversation. John Ellis assisted at this double-hanging.

Assisted by Henry Pierrpoint, he also carried out the first hanging at Pentonville on the 30th September 1902 when they executed John McDonald who had stabbed Henry Greaves to death. His last execution was also at Pentonville, that of Charles Wade on the 13th December 1904.

The Home Office list issued in 1901, comprised of James, Thomas and William Billington, plus William Warbrick, Robert Wade, Henry Pierrepoint and John Ellis.  

John Billington (1880-1905)

Period on Home Office List. 1902-1905)

John was also added to the Home Office approved list of executioners in 1902. He carried out 14 hangings as the Principal in England and Wales having assisted William at 24 executions. His first execution as ‘No.1’ was at Strangeways prison in Manchester where he hanged Charles Whittaker on the 2nd December 1903. He hanged John Thomas Kay on the 17th August 1904 at Armley Prison in Leeds, while his brother was dealing with Samuel Holden at Winson Green prison in Birmingham on the same day.

His final commission was at Armley Gaol for the execution of Thomas Tattersall on the 15th of August, 1905. He dies just a few months later I October 1905.

Henry Albert Pierrpoint (1878-1922) from Bradford, Yorkshire.

Period on Home Office list. 1900-1910. 

Henry Pierrpoint assisted at 35 hangings and carried out 70 executions himself, 63 in England and Wales, 4 in Ireland, 2 in Scotland and one in Jersey during his 9 year term of office. He took great pride in his work and calculated the ‘drops’ most carefully – it is said that he never made a single bungled hanging and was judged perfect in all his executions.

Henry’s first commission was at Newgate Gaol when he assisted James Billington, at the execution of Marcel Fougeron on the 19th November 1901. Between January 1902 and March 1903 he assisted at a further 15 hangings and is thought to have carried out some of them as the principle. The lead role was to be the hanging of Richard Wigley at Shrewsbury on Tuesday 18th march 1902. Wigley had murdered his girl friend. Henry assisted by his brother, Tom, hanged Rhoda Willis at Cardiff on the 14th August 1907. She was executed on her 44th birthday for the murder of a day old baby whom she had agreed to look after for £6 paid to her by its unmarried mother. She was thus, in effect, another baby farmer. Her good looks and golden hair made a big impression on Henry.

Like James Billington before him, Henry Pierrpoint was the founder of a family dynasty, persuading his older brother Tom and son, Albert to follow him in his footsteps.

Files released recently by the Public Record office show that Henry Pierrpoint was sacked because he arrived for the execution of Frederick Foreman in Chelmsford on the 17th July 1910, ‘ considerably the worse for drink’ and had got into a fight with John Ellis, his assistant, on the preceding afternoon.

John Ellis of Rochdale, Lancashire. (1874-1932)

Period on Home Office List: 1901-1923)

John Ellis was a notably mild mannered man who ultimately committee suicide, possibly through the stresses incurred by his job as the hangman through the effects of the slump on his business as a barber. He had a particular dislike of hanging women for reasons that will become apparent.

He assisted at 42 executions, his first being at Newcastle on the 17th Deceber1901, assisting William Billington at the hanging of John Miller. Ellis executed 134 people as principal in England and Wales plus 11 in Scotland and another 3 in Ireland between 1906 and 1923, including several notable criminals.

Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen is perhaps the most famous criminal to come Ellis’s way. He was hanged on the 23rd November 1910 at Pentonville prison for the murder of his wife, Cora Crippen. Crippen was the first person to be caught by the use of the new wireless telegraph system allowing him to be arrested aboard the S.S. Montrose on which he sailed to Quebec in Canada with his lover, Ethel Le Neve. At the time, it was seen as the ‘Crime of the Century’ and has held a fascination for many ever since.

George Smith was the famous ‘brides in the bath’ murderer whom Ellis hanged on the 13th August 1915 at Maidstone prison. Smith had married and then drowned Alice Burnham, Beatrice Constance, Annie Mundy and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty for financial gain, via their life insurance policies and wills.

Sir Roger Casement was unusual in that he had been convicted of treason, having tried to get the Germans to send arms and equipment to Ireland to start the Easter Uprising in 1916. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on the 3rd August 1916.

Herbert Rowse Armstrong was hanged on the 31st May 1922 at Gloucester prison for the murder, by arsenic poisoning of his wife. There is some doubt now over Armstrong’s guilt and new evidence has been unearthed by another present day solicitor, who acquired Armstrong’s practice in ‘Hay on Wye’ and works in his old office and even bought his house.

On the 9th day January 1923, Ellis had the worst job of his career when, assisted by Robert Baxter, he hanged Edith Jessie Thompson at Holloway for her part in the murder of her husband, Percy, who was stabbed to death by Frederick Bywaters. She had to be carried to the gallows and it was reported that her underwear was covered in blood after the hanging… After this all women were made to wear canvas underpants.

Ellis and Baxter also hanged Susan Newell at Duke  Street prison in Glasgow on the 10th October 1923. Thirty year old Newell had strangled newspaper boy, John Johnson, who would not give her an evening newspaper without the money. She was the first woman to hang in Scotland for over 50 years and when on the gallows refused the traditional white hood. John Ellis carried out his final execution on the 28th December 1923, when he hanged John Eastwood at Armley prison, Leeds, for the murder of his wife. In March of 1924, he tendered his resignation due to poor health, having by then executed a total of 203 people. Before his suicide on the 20th September 1932, Ellis wrote his memoirs in a book called ‘Diary of a Hangman’ which has recently been reprinted.


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David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.



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