The history of judicial hanging in Britain.

Contents.

The sentence of death.
The gallows
The noose
The hood
Pinioning
The condemned cell
Places of execution
A 1750's hanging at Tyburn

1820's hanging at Newgate
1850's hanging
1950's hanging
After the execution
The role of the Church
Surviving the gallows
Hanging of children and juveniles

Please note! This page contains images of real executions which some may find disturbing.
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Introduction.

In Britain hanging was the principal form of execution from Anglo-Saxon times up to abolition of the death penalty in 1964 (see Timeline of capital punishment in Britain). There were hundreds of executions a year in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with the greatest number being carried out at Tyburn, near what is now Marble Arch, at the end of Oxford Street in London. There is a plaque on the pavement there showing where the gallows stood. 1,140 men and 92 women were hanged at Tyburn between 1703 and 1783. It is estimated that 90% of all those executed were young men aged under 30.

Between 1800 and 1964, some 5,508 people suffered death by hanging in Britain (including Southern Ireland, prior to independence). 763 were hanged in England and Wales during the 20th century, a further 34 in Scottish prisons (including one female, Susan Newell, in 1923) and two men in the Channel Islands. 16 men were hanged in Northern Ireland and 37 people were hanged in Wales.

In Britain hangings were carried out in public until 1868, the last being on the 26th May of that year (see below). From then on executions were carried out within the walls of county prisons, under the provisions of the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act of 1868 which received Royal assent on May 29th, 1868. The first "private" hanging was that of eighteen year old Thomas Wells who was hanged by William Calcraft at Maidstone Prison on August 13th, 1868. A few witnesses, including reporters were admitted up to about 1910 but thereafter executions were carried out in complete secrecy. The last hangings in Britain were two carried out simultaneously at 8.00 a.m. on August 13th, 1964 at Walton (Liverpool) and Strangeways (Manchester) prisons. The last hanging in Scotland was that of 21-year-old Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on August 15th, 1963 for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan.
Public hangings apparently met the needs of justice well, attracting large crowds who were at least supposed to be deterred by the spectacle, but who more probably went for the morbid excitement and a day out. (The modern expression Gala Day is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gallows day.)
Hanging was also the main form of execution in most other countries up to the end of the nineteenth century when there was a general trend to abolition or to use more humane methods of execution than the form of hanging used at that time. As the nineteenth century progressed there was a general move towards less use of capital punishment in Britain. The number of executions began to decline. In London in 1820 there were 43, 17 in 1825 and only 6 in 1830. After that they seldom exceeded fifteen a year and it was often far fewer, except in times of war. The average was 11 a year for the whole country in the 20th century.
At the beginning of the 19th century there were an amazing two hundred and twenty-five capital crimes including such terrible offences as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging London Bridge. By 1861 these had been reduced to just four (high treason, murder, piracy and arson in Royal Dockyards) largely by the efforts of Sir Robert Peel and a growing tide of public opinion educated by the emergence of the press and notable figures of the day such as Charles Dickens and John Howard. Dickens also campaigned strongly against public executions and finally succeeded in 1868 when Michael Barrett ,a Fenian, (what would now be called an I.R.A. terrorist) became the last man to be publicly hanged before a huge crowd outside Newgate prison. for causing an explosion at Clerkenwell in London which killed Sarah Ann Hodgkinson. Barrett was hanged by Calcraft, who was noted for his short drops, but was said to have died without a struggle, unlike so many of Calcraft's other victims. Calcraft retired in 1874 and was replaced by William Marwood. The last hanging at Newgate took place in private on the 6th May 1902 when George Woolfe went to the gallows for murdering his girlfriend.

The sentence of death.
The death sentence was mandatory for persons found guilty of murder up to 1964. Before they were sentenced the prisoner would be asked if they had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon them. Occasionally a woman would "plead her belly" i.e. that she was pregnant and up to 1827 men could demand "benefit of clergy" which was a wonderful excuse cooked up by the church to ensure that clerics could not be executed for most offences. However if neither of these excuses were available the judge (or his chaplain) would place the "black cap" - a square of black silk about 9 inches across, on his head and proceed to pronounce sentence. Up to 1947 the judge would say "Full name of prisoner you are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul". In 1947 The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that the sentence be modified slightly by the substitution of the words "suffer death by hanging" for "be hanged by the neck until dead". Notice that the sentence did not change with the ending of public execution or the introduction of the long drop. In the later eighteenth and in the nineteenth century a minimum of three Sundays had to elapse before the sentence was carried out. Prisoners often spent longer in the condemned cell due to their appeal but execution was typically carried out with 4 - 8 weeks.

The gallows.
(Visit the
Gallows Gallery for pictures of British gallows up to the beginning of the 20th century)
A tree was the earliest form of gallows with prisoner being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder or a cart. There are still some hanging trees in existence - there is one at Weeping Cross in Stafford.
Two trees with a beam between them formed the gallows (see
picture) for 33 year old Mary Blandy's execution at Oxford on April 6th, 1752 when she uttered the famous words "for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don't hang me high". She had been persuaded to poison her father by her lover, Captain Cranston, who presumably hoped to get her inheritance. He is thought to have escaped abroad. For a detailed account of her case go to Mary Blandy.
In other places more conventional gallows were built, having either a single upright with a projecting beam cross braced to it or two uprights and a cross beam where more than one person could be hanged at a time. Both types still required the use of a ladder or a cart to get the criminal suspended. In many cases these gallows were not permanent and were dismantled after each execution. In some cases the gallows was erected near to the scene of the crime so that the local inhabitants could see the outcome.
In 1571 the famous "Triple Tree" was set up at Tyburn (see
picture) to replace previous smaller structures and was, at least once, used for the hanging of twenty-four prisoners simultaneously. This was on the 23rd June 1649 when twenty three men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery having been conveyed there in eight carts. Another mass execution took place on March 18th 1740 when the famous pick-pocket and thief, Jenny Diver, was hanged before a huge crowd, together with 20 other criminals. Tyburn gallows remained in use until the end of 1759 and consisted of three 18 foot high uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form to provide a triple gallows under which three carts could be backed at a time. The structure was removed as it had become a cause of traffic congestion and was replaced by a portable gallows which had a raised stage under the beam which collapsed giving the prisoners a small amount of drop. The last person to be hanged at Tyburn was John Austin who suffered on 4th November 1783, executions from then on being carried out outside Newgate prison (where now stands the Old Bailey in London).
The first executions on the "New Drop" took place on the 9th December 1783 when 10 people were hanged simultaneously by Edward Dennis and William Brunskill. The design of the new gallows had been copied from the Irish pattern in use in Dublin at the time, a similar arrangement having been used to execute the Earl of Ferrers at Tyburn in 1760. The gallows was on wheels and was brought out specially for each hanging by a team of horses. It had two parallel beams from which a dozen criminals could be hanged at once. The prisoners stood on a box like stage, on top of the main platform, which when all the preparations were complete was released from below. The condemned now fell some 12 - 18 inches, roughly to knee level. From inside the box the hangman and his assistants could pull upon their legs to hasten their end without being seen by the crowd. It had 96 customers between February and December of 1785, with 20 men being hanged on the 2nd of February of that year. All of the prisoners were aged under 30 and not one was convicted of murder. (The "New Drop" is shown in its 1809 form - see
picture). At a typical Newgate hanging in February 1818 four people were executed, Mary Ann Jones for forgery, Charlotte Newman and John Attel for burglary and William Hatchman for an unspecified crime. Note that none of them were murderers however. By 1820 as hangings became less frequent the double beam gallows was replaced with a single beam pattern which could still accommodate six prisoners. (see picture).
In some parts of the country the gallows had steps up to the platform (as in Nottingham) whilst others were of the balcony type as at York (see
picture) and Lancaster where the prisoner was brought directly onto the platform through first floor French windows. Some counties used two uprights with a cross beam and with the single or double trap doors set over a pit (e.g. at Durham Castle in Victorian times). The trap doors were released mostly from underneath by withdrawing bolts and latterly from above by pulling a lever. In some prisons there was an execution shed which housed the gallows, e.g. Newgate in its later years - see picture and in Exeter where the shed also doubled as the garage for the prison van. In other prisons a gallows was erected in the prison yard for each hanging, over a brick lined pit.

Prior to 1884 each county was responsible for providing it's own gallows for carrying out the death sentences passed in that county. This led to all sorts of designs being used. Every county jail had a gallows within a decade of the 1868 Act requiring hangings to be carried out in private.
In 1885 the Home Office commissioned Lieutenant Colonel Alton Beamish to design a standard gallows for use throughout the Country. This consisted of two uprights with a cross beam in 8 inch section oak. The beam was long enough to execute three prisoners side by side and was set over a 12 foot wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trap doors were made from three inch thick oak and were released by a metal lever set into the floor of the execution chamber. This was a great improvement over some of the designs outlined above and considerably speeded up the process. The beam had one or more iron bands attached to it from which hung lengths of chain for attachment of the rope using "D" shackles. This made the setting of the drop more accurate. The first person to die on the new style "stepfree" gallows was Matthew William Chadwick in 1890 at Kirkdale Prison in Liverpool. (See
drawing of Victorian gallows being tidied up after a hanging. The small trap door on the left of the picture is for access to the cell below to examine and remove the body.) This pattern remained in use in most prisons until after the second World War. The gallows in the execution shed at Wandsworth prison (around 1900) is one of the very few to have been actually photographed - you can see the lever, open trap and the board laid across the drop for the warders to stand on whilst holding the prisoner. (see picture).
In the thoughtful way of the Home Office, at least some of these gallows had the Royal Coat of Arms displayed on the beam which must have been a great comfort to the condemned!
Later the single beam was replaced by two parallel beams of about 8" x 3" section Oak from the centre of which rose two heavy gauge metal brackets each drilled with holes offset at 1/2" centres through which a metal pin was inserted and to which a length of chain was attached. (See
picture) This allowed very accurate adjustment of the drop. The beam was 8 feet above the trap doors and was generally set into the wall at each end - there being no uprights.
The trap doors were reduced in length as multiple hangings were no longer favoured and consisted of two leaves each of 4 feet long by 2 feet wide. The one nearest the lever being conventionally hinged whilst the other has extended hinges that run under the first leaf and are held on top of an iron drawbar which has three slots. The trap is operated by a lever on top of the platform which moves the drawbar. When the slots in the drawbar line up with the ends of the extended hinges of the opposing door the hinge ends are no longer supported and thus open the trap causing the prisoner to drop through into cell below. The doors are caught by spring catches to stop them bouncing back and hitting the criminal. It was normal for the hangman to make a chalk T on the trap so that the prisoner's feet could be correctly positioned exactly over the centre of the two leaves.(View from the underside of the trap - see
picture).
Britain's last working gallows at Wandsworth prison was removed on July 31st, 1992 and is at the Prison Service Museum in Rugby. It was last used on September 8th 1961 and was apparently tested every six months and kept in full working order up to 1992. The rope is suspended from a chain, itself suspended from an adjustment mechanism on the beams above the ceiling, accessed through a removable panel.

The Noose.

Calcraft and his predecessors used a simple noose consisting of a loop worked into one end of the rope with the other end passed through it.
This was improved on by James Berry in the 1890's by passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet instead of just a loop of rope, which made it more free running. It was usually made from a 13 foot length of 3/4" diameter Italian silk hemp rope, often bound with Chamois leather to avoid marking the skin. (
picture). It was stretched before use by dropping a sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner through the trap and leaving it suspended overnight. This reduced the diameter of the rope to about 5/8 inch. The purpose of this is to reduce any tendency of the rope to stretch during the actual hanging so reducing the force applied to the prisoner's neck. Hemp has always been the preferred material as it is both soft and strong with a smooth surface.
The positioning of the eyelet under the angle of the jaw is very important as it is vital that the head is thrown backwards by the rope so that the force is transmitted into the neck vertebrae rather than being thrown forward and the force taken on the throat which tends to cause strangulation. It is also crucial that the noose is put on the right way round so that it rotates in the correct direction with the eyelet ending up under the jaw. See
picture.

The hood.

Over the last 300 years it has been customary to hood the prisoner with a white hood. Nobody is entirely sure why white was the chosen colour. In Tyburn and Newgate days the hood was normally an ordinary nightcap rather than a purpose made execution hood and as these were generally white, presumably this became the traditional colour. From about 1850 a white cotton hood was provided, which was similar to a small pillow case. This was included in the execution box sent to county prisons from Pentonville in the 20th century. (see picture of contents)
Typically the prisoner was hooded only at the last moment before the noose wass put round their neck and adjusted. Although they had been able to see the gallows, the trap, the executioner and officials and the noose dangling before them but this was found to be better than hooding them earlier and trying to lead them to the gallows as they were more frightened by not knowing what was happening. Both ideas have been tried but hooding immediately prior to the noose became normal.

Pinioning.

In England the prisoner's hands were typically pinioned in front of them until the end of the 1800's. However this made it easier for them to resist and fight on the gallows so pinioning the wrists at the sides to a leather body belt or later strapping them behind the back became normal.
Again with the advent of the long drop the prisoner's legs were normally pinioned with a cord or strap around the ankles to prevent them getting their feet onto the sides of the trap when the doors fell. Previously the legs had been left free in short drop hangings at Tyburn and Newgate, although it was normal to tie the legs of female prisoners to prevent their skirts billowing up and exposing their underwear..
As women's skirts got shorter in the 20th century an extra strap was placed round the lower thighs again to prevent their skirts billowing up.
Where a prisoner was in a state of collapse at the end they were sometimes tied to a chair and both they and the chair sent through the trap as happened to Jane Scott who was hanged on March 22nd 1828 at Lancaster Castle for the murder of her father and mother.

The Condemned Cell.

The drawing of the 20th century condemned cell block at Holloway shows the arrangement of the prisoner's living quarters, visitor's area and proximity to the gallows. (see drawing)
The living area was normally two or three standard cells knocked into one and was usually no more than 15 feet from the gallows itself. Having the condemned cell on the first floor obviated the need for the pinioned prisoner to climb steps to the gallows. The wardrobe concealed the door to the execution chamber and was slid back at the last moment. Not all British prisons had the condemned cell in such close proximity to the gallows however. Oxford for instance required the prisoner to walk some distance down a corridor from his cell to the gallows.

Places of execution.

Prior to 1868 almost anywhere could be used as a place of execution and it was not abnormal for the court to order that the hanging be carried out as near as possible to where the crime was committed, presumably so that "justice could be seen to be done" as there was very little media in those days. However most executions were carried out in recognised places. In London, Tyburn and Newgate are the most well known execution sites although other places such as Kennington Common (near Camberwell), Smithfield and Putney Common were often used for public hangings and burnings. Tyburn was first recorded as a place of execution in 1196 and continued until 1783 when traffic congestion forced the move to Newgate. Pirates were hanged at "Execution Dock" in Wapping (on the north bank of the river Thames) and their bodies were left on the shoreline gallows until three tides had washed over them. What the advantage of this was is unclear - perhaps the water cleansed their souls? (see picture)
Outside London hangings would take place in front of or on the roof of the County prison in the early 1800's or in earlier times, at a large open space such as Penningden Heath near Maidstone in Kent which was about a mile from the prison. At Aylesbury the iron balcony on the upper floor of County Hall was used as there was a suitable open space in front of it. At the Surrey County Prison in Horsemonger Lane the gallows was erected on the roof above the main gates.
After the passing of the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act of 1868 all executions had to take place with in the walls of county prisons. 20th century hangings were carried out in the following prisons :

Prison

Total hanged

Prison

Total hanged

London - Pentonville

105

Lancaster

1

London - Wandsworth

98

Leicester

7

London - Holloway

5 (female)

Lewis

6

Manchester - (Strangeways)

71

Lincoln

18

Leeds - Armley

66

Maidstone

11

Durham

54

Newcastle

8

Liverpool - Walton

52

Newgate

9

Birmingham - Winson Green

34

Northampton

3

Bedford

8

Norwich

11

Bodmin

2

Nottingham

8

Bristol

13

Oxford

8

Cambridge

2

Reading

3

Cardiff

19

Ruthin

1

Carnarvon

1

Shepton Mallet

5

Chelmsford

9

Shrewsbury

8

Derby

4

St. Albans

1

Devizes

1

Stafford

8

Dorchester

1

Swansea

9

Exeter

11

Warwick

4

Gloucester

7

Wakefield

10

Hereford

1

Winchester

14

Hull

10

Worcester

4

Ipswich

3

Usk

4

Knutsford

4

 

 

As will be seen some counties had very few executions in the 65 years of the 20th century in which executions were carried out.


A typical execution in the 1750's at Tyburn.

Around seven o'clock the prisoners would be led in fetters (handcuffs and leg-irons) into the Press Yard in Newgate prison where the blacksmith would remove the fetters and the Yeoman of the Halter would tie the criminals' hands in front and place the rope (or halter) round their necks, coiling the free end round their bodies. They might be typically seven men, one convicted of murder, one for rape and five for theft or burglary and perhaps one woman convicted of theft). When they were all ready they were placed in open horse drawn carts sitting on their coffins and the procession consisting of the Sheriff, the Ordinary (Newgate's prison chaplain) the hangman and his assistants and a troop of soldiers started out for Tyburn, a mile and a half away. The streets would be lined with crowds especially if the criminals were particularly notorious and there would often be insults and more solid objects hurled at them and their escorts on the way. A stop was made at St. Sepulchre's Church where the criminals were customarily given a drink. If the prisoner was wealthy they might be permitted to be driven to Tyburn in a morning coach, as happened with Earl Ferrers and Jenny Diver, thus sparing them from the insults of the crowds along the way.
On arrival at Tyburn, often some two hours later, the criminals were greeted by a large unruly crowd who had come to watch the spectacle - it was considered an excellent day out. The carts were each backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and the prisoners were positioned at the tail of the cart and tied up to the beam with only a small amount of slack left in the rope. The Ordinary would pray with them and when he had finished the hangman pulled white night caps over their faces.
When everything was ready the horses were whipped the away leaving the prisoners suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop and thus most of them would writhe in agony, kicking and squirming as they slowly strangled. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners' relatives might pull on the prisoners' legs to hasten their end. After half an hour or so the bodies were cut down and claimed by friends and relatives or sent for dissection at Surgeons' Hall.
The majority of those who suffered at Tyburn were convicted of quite minor offences such as theft.

Public execution at Newgate in the 1820's.
In 1820 there were 43 executions in London, approximately 10 each for murder and forgery and the remaining 23 for robbery or theft. The murders and forgers were automatically sentenced to death upon conviction bit many of the rest were second or third time offenders.
On the eve of a hanging the gallows would be brought out by a team of horses and placed in front of the Debtor's Door of Newgate. Large crowds would gather around it and it would be guarded by soldiers with pikes. Wealthy people could pay as much as £10 for a seat in a window over looking the gallows at the hanging of a notorious criminal. At around 7.30 a.m. the condemned prisoners were led from their cells into the Press Yard where the Sheriff and the Ordinary (prison chaplain) would meet them. The hangman's assistant would bind their wrists in front of them and place the white nightcaps on their heads. Their leg irons would be removed by the prison blacksmith. The prisoners would now be led along the Yard to the Lodge and then out through the Debtor's Door where they would climb the steps up to the gallows. There would be shouts of "hats off" in the crowd. This was not out of respect for those about to die but rather because the people further back demanded those at the front remove their hats so as not to obscure their view. Once assembled on the trap the hangman would put the nooses round their necks while they prayed with the Ordinary. When the prayers had finished the executioner and his assistant went down into the box like structure below the platform and the hangman released the bolts holding the trap. The trap fell with a crash, the prisoners falling 12 - 18 inches usually writhing and struggling for some seconds before relaxing and becoming still. If their bodies continued to struggle the hangman would grasp them by their legs and swing on them so adding his weight to theirs and thus ending their sufferings sooner. The dangling bodies would be left hanging for an hour before being either returned to their relatives or sent for dissection.

A typical execution in the 1850's at Lancaster Castle.
By this time executions were conducted with more ceremony so as to produce a grim and solemn reminder of the punishment for the most serious crimes (almost all those hanged were murderers).
The gallows at Lancaster was of the balcony pattern and was erected for each hanging outside a second floor French window. Across on the bank of what was originally the Castle moat would be anything up to six thousand people who had come to watch, including organised school parties!
A little before eight o'clock the criminal would be led up from the cells into a preparation room where the Governor, the Sheriff, the chaplain, the hangman (usually Calcraft at this time), his assistant and several warders would be waiting for him. Calcraft pinioned the prisoners' wrists and he was allowed a few moments to pray with the chaplain before the window was opened to reveal the gallows onto which he would now be led by the assistant and the warders.
Once on the drop Calcraft placed a white hood over the condemned's head and a simple noose around the neck (one of Calcraft's nooses is on show within the castle (see
picture.) The warders (standing on boards positioned across the drop) held the prisoner whilst Calcraft went down stairs and withdraw the bolt to release the trap doors. Calcraft used very short drops and the prisoner often took several minutes to die. It would have been reported in the press that they "died hard".
A black flag was hoisted over the Castle and the body left to hang for a full hour (to ensure that it could not be revived) before being taken down and bought in through a first floor window beneath the trap for burial within the prison grounds. In some cases a plaster cast would be made of the criminal's head for use in phrenological experiments.

A typical execution in the 1950's in a British county prison.
Executions were carried out at 9 a.m. in London and 8 a.m. in the rest of the Country and followed a standard set of rules laid down by the Home Office. A small number of people were present notably the Governor of the prison, the Sheriff or under-Sheriff of the county, the prison doctor, a priest, two or more warders and the hangman and his assistant.
Not all prisons had a permanent gallows so where required this would be sent by train from Pentonville prison in London and erected in the execution room. An execution box containing two ropes (1 new and 1 used), a white hood, pinioning straps, etc. was also sent.
The prisoner was weighed every day and the day before the execution the hangman would secretly view the prisoner to enable him to calculate the correct drop from the weight and physical appearance of the person.
The length of the drop was carefully set and the gallows tested, whilst the prisoner was out of their cell, using a bag of sand, of approximately the same weight as them, which would be left on the rope overnight to remove any stretch. Around 7 a.m. the executioners would re-set the trap doors and make a final adjustment to the length of the drop. The rope was coiled up and secured with a piece of thread so that the noose dangled at chest level to prevent the inmate falling over it.
The prisoner was given his or her own clothes to wear and would be attended by a priest and if necessary the prison doctor. If the condemned person appeared to need it, the doctor would give them a glass of brandy to help them cope but they were not given tranquillisers.
Just before the appointed hour the execution team formed up outside the condemned cell and, on the signal from the Governor, the hangman entered the cell and strapped the prisoner's hands behind his back with a leather strap, before leading him forward through a second door (normally hidden by a wardrobe) into the execution cell and straight onto the trap doors which had a "T" chalked on them to position the person's feet exactly over the middle of the trap. The prisoner would be supported by two prison officers standing on boards across the trap. The hangman pulled a white cotton hood over the person's head and positioned the noose round the neck whilst the assistant strapped their ankles. The noose was adjusted so that the eyelet was tight under the angle of the left jaw, held in place by a rubber washer slid down the rope. As soon as all was ready, the hangman removed the safety pin from the base of the operating lever and pushed it to release the trap doors. The prisoner dropped through the trap and would be left hanging motionless in the cell below, unconscious, and with his or her neck broken. The whole process would have occupied about the same length of time as it has taken you to read this paragraph - somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds. (
Click here to see a photo of a man about to be hanged - this is what you would have seen had you been in the execution chamber as the officials stood at the back just inside the door.)
The prison doctor listened to the person's chest and would expect to hear a weak heartbeat for a few minutes. When he was satisfied that the person was dead the execution cell was locked up for an hour before the executioners returned to remove the body and prepare it for the autopsy and inquest that was required by law following a hanging. Up to the early 50's the executioners had to measure how much the neck had been stretched by the hanging. It was often 1 - 2 inches, 25 - 50 mm.
The body would show marks of suspension, elongation of the neck and occasionally traces of urine and faeces. An autopsy would be carried out on the body together with a formal inquest usually took place during the morning. This is the inquest report on Ruth Ellis - "Thirteenth July 1955 at H.M.Prison, Holloway N7": Ruth Ellis, Female, 28 years, a Club Manageress of Egerton Gardens, Kensington, London - Cause of Death - "Injuries to the central nervous system consequent upon judicial hanging." Her death was registered on 14th July 1955 (the day after the execution) on the basis of a Certificate issued by J.Milner Helme, the then Coroner for the City of London, following an Inquest held by him on 13th July 1955. Her death was registered in the Registration District of Islington, Sub-district of Tufnell as entry No. 25 for the September Quarter 1955.
Click here to see the autopsy report of Ruth Ellis. After the autopsy and inquest the prisoner was buried within the walls of the prison in an unmarked grave, usually at lunchtime on the day of execution.
Everything was done to make the execution as speedy and humane as possible so as to spare both the prisoner and the staff, who had to witness it, from any unnecessary distress. Once the signal had been given by the governor to enter the condemned cell the hangman was in total charge of the proceedings and did not have to wait for a further signal from the governor before the releasing the trap, thus the prisoner did not to have to wait a moment longer than was necessary, hooded and noosed.

After the execution.
In Britain the body of the executed prisoner belonged to the Crown and as such was not usually returned to relatives. It was also felt that criminals should not be buried in consecrated ground. Where the courts wished to make a particular example of a criminal (e.g. a highwayman, pirate or murderer) they could order the additional punishment of gibbeting. After the hanging the prisoner would be stripped and their body dipped into molten pitch or tar and then when it was cooled be placed into an iron cage that surrounded the head, torso and upper legs. The cage was riveted together and then suspended from either the original gallows or a purpose built gibbet. The body was then left as a grim reminder to local people and could stay on the gibbet for a year or so until it rotted away or was eaten by birds etc. Gibbets were typically erected either in prominent places such as cross roads or hill tops or at or near the site of the crime. One of the earliest recorded instances of gibbeting took place in August 1381. Gibbeting and hanging in chains became increasingly used in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first recorded hanging in chains in Scotland was in March 1637 when a man called Macgregor who was a robber and murderer, was ordered to stay on "the gallowlee till his corpse rot". Hanging in chains was formally legalized in Britain by an Act of 1752 and was commonly used. Hanging in chains and gibbeting were finally abolished in 1834 after James Cook was hanged and gibbeted for murder.
Dissection of the hanged body by schools of anatomy was also a common post mortem punishment from the 1700's onward. Little was known about anatomy and medical schools were very keen to get their hands on dead bodies that they could dissect. Fights often broke out beneath the gallows between the dissectionists and the prisoners relatives over custody of the body. In London, from 1752 to 1809, the bodies were taken to Surgeon's Hall in the Old Bailey where they were publicly anatomised in the theatre, often before a large number of spectators. Dissection was removed from the statute book in 1834 and after that it was normal for executed bodies to be buried in the prison grounds in unmarked graves, often several to a grave to save space. Typically the person was placed into a cheap pine coffin, or even a sack, and covered with quicklime which was thought to hasten the process of decomposition of the body. This practice was later abandoned as the quicklime actually had a preserving effect.

The role of the Church.
Certainly by the sixteenth century it was normal for the church to play a part in executions. It was the practice at least from the eighteenth century that when a person was sentenced to death, the judge would finish the sentence with the words "May the Lord have mercy upon your soul" to which the chaplain would add "Amen".
Confession and repentance by the condemned was seen as very important for their spiritual well being in the next world and the prison chaplain, or in the case of Newgate, the Ordinary, as the chaplain was known, would spend time ministering to their spiritual needs in the condemned cell and trying to extract a confession. The Ordinary would also pray with the prisoner(s) on the gallows and this practice was quite usual in other parts of the country too. In the centre of the chapel in Newgate was the Condemned Pew, a large black painted enclosure with seats for the prisoners, just in front of the pulpit. On the Sunday preceding a planned execution the condemned prisoners had to endure the "Condemned Sermon" and hear the burial service read to them. Wealthy visitors could come and attend this service. Prior to the execution of Courviosier in 1840 several Lords were present at it. It is unclear when this practice died out.
Religious tracts were often given to prisoners by well meaning people in the nineteenth century. Sometimes the chaplain would make persistent efforts to obtain a confession right up to the last moment.
In the twentieth century the prisoner could request a minister of their own religion to visit them in the condemned cell and pray with them and also to be present at the execution. It was normal for the priest to read the words of the burial service as they were brought to the gallows. This were often the only words spoken during a British hanging. The executioner and officials typically saying nothing at all and the prisoner not being invited to speak.
Old drawings of nineteenth and early twentieth century executions normally show a robed minister present and reading from a prayer book.
Up till the 1950's the Church largely supported capital punishment and saw a role for themselves in the administration of it. It was not unusual for the prisoner to take up religion in their last few weeks on this earth and it is probable that many prisoners valued the support of a priest through their ordeal, as someone who was "on their side". Charlotte Bryant was much comforted by the ministrations of Father Barney during her period in Exeter's condemned cell in 1936. Some prisoners asked for a cross to be placed in the execution chamber where they could see it. Mrs. Stylou Christofi asked for one when she was hanged at Holloway in 1954 and this was still present the following year when Ruth Ellis was executed, along with the one she had requested.

Surviving the gallows.
There are several recorded instances of revival in this Country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the most famous is that of John Smith, hanged at Tyburn on Christmas Eve 1705. Having been turned off the back of the cart, he dangled for fifteen minutes until the crowd began to shout "reprieve" whereupon he was cut down and taken to a nearby house where he soon recovered.
He was asked what it had felt like to be hanged and this is what he told his rescuers:
"When I was turned off I was, for some time, sensible of very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down."
There are many other instances where people survived their hangings.

Children and juveniles.
In the 18th and 19th centuries children and young people were also subjected to the death penalty particularly for murder and arson but up to the 1830's also for theft and burglary.
On the 16th October 1771 Mary Jones (aged 18) was hanged at Tyburn for stealing 4 pieces of muslin valued at £5. 10s. At Dorchester Assizes in March 1794, fifteen year old Elizabeth Marsh was convicted of the murder of her grandfather. She was condemned and hanged in public two days later. The youngest child hanging ever recorded was that of Michael Hammond, aged 7, who with his sister, aged 11, was hanged at Lynn in 1808 for an unspecified felony (probably burglary or arson). In 1831 a boy of nine was hanged at Chelmsford for arson. Children, like adults could be sentenced to death for a very large number of offences up to 1861 although it was not unusual for younger children to have their sentences commuted to transportation for the less serious crimes as even in the 18th century there was public disquiet about hanging children. Hangings were decreasing rapidly through the mid 1800's as the number of capital crimes reduced and public attitudes changed. In 1833 a boy of 9 was sentenced to death for house breaking but was reprieved after public agitation at Maidstone in Kent. 17 year old Sarah Thomas was hanged at Bristol on the 20th April 1849 for the murder of her mistress. She was hysterical at the end and even Calcraft was noticeably upset by her execution. Constance Kent who confessed to murdering her brother when she was 16 had her death sentence commuted to life in prison in 1865 due to her age at the time of her crime. The first private hanging in Britain was that of eighteen year old Thomas Wells who was hanged by William Calcraft at Maidstone Prison on the 13th August 1868 for shooting his boss, the station master, at Dover Priory railway station. Wells was hanged in the former timber yard in the prison, out of site of the cell blocks and nearby houses. Like so many of Calcraft's victims he died a slow and painful death. 19 year old Richard Davis was hanged for the murder of his father at Crewe on the 2nd of April 1890. His 16 year old brother George was also convicted of the murder but reprieved due to his age.
The Children's Act of 1908 stipulated for the first time a minimum age for execution which was 16 years. This was raised to 18 years by the Children and Young Persons Act in 1933. There is no record of anyone under the age of 18 being hanged in the 20th century although quite a few 18/19 year old males were executed.

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