The history of judicial hanging in Britain.

Contents.

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

1820's hanging at Newgate
1850's hanging
An early long drop hanging in 1879
1900'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.
They do not load automatically.

For a detailed account of the processes and physiology of judicial hanging click here

Introduction.

In Britain, hanging was the principal form of execution from Anglo-Saxon times until the death penalty was abolished in 1964. (see Timeline of capital punishment in Britain). There were hundreds of executions a year in the 16th and 17th 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. Some 2,169 people, including 146 women, were hanged at Tyburn between 1715 and 1783. It is estimated that 90% of the men were aged under 30. John Austin was the last person to be executed at Tyburn, when he was hanged for highway robbery on the 7th of November 1783. After that, executions for the City of London and County of Middlesex were carried out outside Newgate prison.
3,518 people (3,351 men and 167 women) were hanged in
England and Wales between 1800 and 1899. This excludes John Lee, whose hanging was attempted 3 times, but was reprieved after the last unsuccessful attempt. A further 273 men and 17 women were hanged in Scotland over the same period, 14 in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man (including one woman there) and 36 men under the jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty, giving a total of 4,398 (including 185 women). The figures for Ireland are less reliable and can only be safely dated from 1827–1899, during which time 529 men and 26 women were hanged. Prior to that, the remaining information is very sketchy.
A total of 865 people were executed in the British Isles (excluding Southern Ireland) in the 20th century, comprising: 712 men and 14 women, who were hanged for murder in England, 36 men and one woman in Wales, 34 in Scottish prisons (including one female,
Susan Newell), 16 men in Northern Ireland and two on the Channel Island of Jersey. Four men were executed for treason, 28 for spying (12 shot & 16 hanged), 6 American servicemen were hanged for rape and 12 executed for murder at Shepton Mallet (2 shot for the murder of other soldiers and 10 hanged). The average number of executions was 13.2 a year for the whole country in the 20th century.

Hangings were carried out in public until 1868, the last being on the 26th of 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 18 year old Thomas Wells, who was hanged by William Calcraft at Maidstone prison on August the 13th, 1868. A few witnesses, including reporters were generally admitted up to about 1910, with the last witnessed hanging taking place in 1934. 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 the 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 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 19th century when there was a general trend to abolition or to use more humane methods of execution than the forms of hanging used at that time.

Of the 3,518 people who were hanged during the 19th century in England and Wales, only 1,353 suffered for murder. In 1800, 129 people were to hang, rising to a peak for the century, of 219 the following year. The execution rate averaged 81.9 per annum for the first 30 years of the century. In 1820, there were 103 executions (of which only 9 were for murder) with 46 in 1825 and 74 in 1829. The number of executions began to decline as transportation became the frequently used alternative and the number of capital crimes reduced dramatically in the 1830's. In 1838, there were just 6 executions in the whole of England and Wales, 5 for murder and 1 for attempted murder. After that, they seldom exceeded 15 a year and it was often far fewer, except in times of war. The average was 7.8 per annum through the years 1840-1899, with a total of 775 executions. The highest annual number of executions was 22, recorded in 1863, 1876 and 1877. After 1840, only 2 people were to suffer for attempted murder, Sarah Chesham at Chelmsford on the 25th of March 1851 for trying to poison her husband and Martin Doyle at Chester (see below). The population of England and Wales was rising through the 1800's - from approximately 9.0 million in 1800, to just over 15 million in 1837 and 24.5 million by 1877 and hundreds of people were being sentenced to death each year up to 1839 (the first year with under a hundred people being condemned to die). Most of these had their sentences commuted to transportation.
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were an amazing 222 capital crimes, including such terrible offences as impersonating a
Chelsea pensioner and damaging London Bridge. One reason why the number of capital crimes is so high is due to the way types of crime were broken down into specific offences.  For instance stealing in a shop, a dwelling house, a warehouse, a brothel were each a separate offence.  Similarly with arson, burning down a house was distinguished from burning a hayrick.  It should be noted that in practice, there were only about 17 offences for which a death sentence was generally carried out in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These included murder, attempted murder, arson, rape, sodomy, forgery, uttering (passing forged or counterfeit monies or bills) coining, robbery, highway robbery (in many cases, this was the offence of street robbery, that we would now call mugging), housebreaking, robbery in a dwelling house, returning from transportation, cutting and maiming (grievous bodily harm) and horse, cattle or sheep stealing. For all the other offences, transportation to America or Australia was normally substituted for execution. From the 1820’s, imprisonment began to replace transportation for the more minor offences.
By 1861, the number of capital crimes had been reduced to just 4 (high treason, murder, piracy and arson in Royal Dockyards) by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of that year. The last hanging in the 19th century, for a crime other than murder, was on
the 27th of August 1861 when Martin Doyle suffered at Chester for attempted murder. Doyle was hanged after Royal Assent was given to the 1861 Act, however, this was legal as the crime was committed before the Act came into force
These changes were brought about through the efforts of people such as Sir Robert Peel, Charles Dickens and John Howard, together with a growing tide of public opinion educated by the emergence of the press. Dickens and the Quaker movement 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 and 6 other innocent people.

The sentence of death.
The death sentence was mandatory for persons found guilty of murder up to 1957 and of capital murder from 1957-1964. 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. A woman might "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 9 inch square of black silk, 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 1948, 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". Note that the sentence did not change with the ending of public execution or the introduction of the long drop. The Murder Act of 1752 specified that execution take place two days after sentence, unless the third day was a Sunday in which case it would be held over until the Monday. From 1834, a minimum of two Sundays had to elapse before the sentence was carried out, and from 1868 onwards, 3 Sundays. From 1902, this was reinforced and the Home Office suggested Tuesday as the day for execution. In some cases, 20th century prisoners spent longer in the condemned cell due awaiting the hearing of an appeal, but many condemned chose not to appeal and their execution was frequently carried out within the 3 weeks.
In the 20th century, 1,485 death sentences were passed in England and Wales of which 755 were carried out. The rest were reprieved under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, as exercised by the Home Secretary on behalf of the Monarch. Their sentences were thus commuted to "life in prison" although this normally did not mean that they served the rest of their lives behind bars. The ratio of death sentences to executions was therefore 1.95:1.

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 prisoners being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder or the tail of a cart.
Two trees with a beam between them formed the gallows (see
picture) for 33 year old Mary Blandy's execution at Oxford on April the 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, click here.
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 24 prisoners simultaneously. This was on the 23rd of June 1649 when 23 men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery, having been conveyed there in 8 carts. Another mass execution took place on March 18th, 1740 when the famous pickpocket 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 3 tall (approx. 12 foot high) uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form to provide a triple gallows under which 3 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. Executions were transferred to Newgate prison (where now stands the Old Bailey in London). For more on the history of Newgate click here.
The first executions on Newgate's "New Drop" took place on
the 9th of December 1783, when 9 men and a woman were hanged simultaneously by Edward Dennis and William Brunskill for a variety of offences. See picture. The design of the new gallows was based upon the one used to execute the Earl of Ferrers at Tyburn in 1760. It was on wheels and was brought out specially for each hanging by a team of horses. It had two parallel beams from which a maximum of a dozen criminals could be hanged at once. The prisoners stood on a platform, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide, released by moving a lever or "pin" acting on a drawbar under the drop. They now fell some 12-18 inches, roughly to knee level. The "New Drop" 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 original form - see picture). At a typical Newgate hanging on the 17th of February 1818, 4 people were executed by Jeremy Botting, these being Mary Ann Jones, Charlotte Newman and William Hatchman for forgery, and John Attel for burglary. By the mid 1820's, as hangings became less frequent, the double beam gallows was replaced with a single beam pattern which could still accommodate 6 prisoners at a time. (see picture). The "New Drop" was copied by other prisons and was used at Maidstone, Hertford and York. It was normally big enough to accommodate 3 prisoners side by side. The platform was usually about 5 feet high and shielded by either wooden boards or black cloth drapes to conceal the legs and lower body of the usually struggling prisoner. In some parts of the country, the gallows had far more steps up to the platform (as in Dorchester, Bristol and Nottingham). Other prisons used a balcony type gallows (as at York after 1868 -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 trapdoors set over a brick lined pit in the yard (e.g. Gloucester and Durham). The trapdoors were released either from underneath by withdrawing bolts or latterly from the platform by pulling a lever.

After the passing of the Capital Punishment within Prisons Act of 1868, all executions had to take place within the walls of county prisons. The existing gallows was generally used, set up in the prison yard rather than in public. Prisons that regularly carried out hangings mostly had execution sheds built in one of their exercise yards, e.g. Newgate, see picture, Wandsworth, see picture of interior, Durham, Armley (Leeds), Kirkdale (Liverpool) Warwick and Strangeways in Manchester. The shed stood apart from the main buildings and necessitated a fairly lengthy walk from the condemned cell. The trapdoors were typically installed over a 12 feet deep brick lined pit, as drops of up to 10 feet were not unusual in William Marwood's time. The gallows beam at Newgate was wide enough to accommodate 4 prisoners side by side, (as was needed for the execution of the "Lennie Mutineers" on the 23rd of April 1876). In 1881, a new gallows was built for Newgate, consisting of two stout uprights with a cross beam. Normally only one iron band was fitted to the cross beam in the centre and from it 6 links of circular chain dangled, to which the rope was attached. Additional iron bands could be added for multiple hangings. On each of the uprights, was a pulley for raising the trapdoors which were operated by a lever on the platform and fell against 3 bales of cotton in an attempt to muffle the noise. All the woodwork was painted a dull buff colour.
Smaller prisons, with fewer executions, usually erected their gallows in the open air in one of the yards. This was the case at Gloucester and Maidstone.

Prior to 1884, each county was responsible for providing the gallows for carrying out the death sentences passed in that county, and therefore all sorts of designs were in use. 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 3 prisoners side by side and was set over a 12 foot long by 4-foot wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trapdoors were made from 3-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 then in use 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 trapdoor 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 (see picture), is one of the very few to have been actually photographed - you can see the lever, open trap and one of the boards laid across the drop for the warders to stand on whilst holding the prisoner.
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!
In the early 20th century, the Victorian pattern single beam was replaced by two beams of about 8" x 3" section oak, running parallel to each other about 2 inches apart. From the centre of the beams, 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 much more accurate adjustment of the drop. This mechanism was further refined to allow the drop to be set to within a quarter of an inch. The beams were 8 feet above the trapdoors and were generally set into the wall at each end - there being no uprights.
The trapdoors were reduced in length as multiple hangings were no longer favoured and normally consisted of two leaves each of 4-8 feet in length and 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 3 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 the cell below. The doors are caught by rubber lined 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. The view from the underside of the trap, showing the operating mechanism, is shown in this
drawing.

During the early 1900's, there was a move to reduce the number of "hanging prisons" and in those where executions were to continue, purpose built condemned suites were constructed within the prison itself, having a condemned cell(s) and an execution room with a cell below for the drop and often an autopsy room immediately adjacent to it. Pentonville, Wandsworth and Holloway in London all used this arrangement as did Durham, Strangeways and Walton prisons. This pattern remained standard, with minor improvements up to abolition.
Britain's last working gallows, at Wandsworth prison, was dismantled in 1994 and was sent to the Prison Service Museum in Rugby, being now housed in the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. It was last used on the 8th of September 1961 and was tested every 6 months and kept in full working order up to 1992. The rope is suspended from a chain, attached to an adjustment mechanism bolted to the beams above the ceiling. This mechanism was accessed from the room above where the drop could be set in safety, without the need for stepladders.

The Noose.
Calcraft and his predecessors used a simple halter style noose, consisting of a loop worked into one end of the rope with the other end passed through it.
This was improved on 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. Following the report of the Aberdare Committee in 1888, it was decided that execution ropes would be supplied by the Prison Commission of the Home Office and not by the hangman himself.  A contract was duly entered into with John Edgington & Co of the Old Kent Road in London to manufacture and supply the ropes.  The execution rope was formed from a 13 foot length of 3/4" diameter Italian hemp rope, bound with Chamois leather to avoid marking the skin, in later years. (see
picture). Early versions had no covering and a simple leather washer to hold the noose in place. From the 1920’s, the noose itself had a leather covering sewn over the rope and a plain rubber washer to hold it in place. The ends of the rope where they were spliced together had a Gutta Percha covering (Gutta Percha is a natural waxy resin). The Gutta Percha tended to splinter when cold and had to be heated with a candle to soften it and avoid cuts to the prisoner’s neck.  In 1942, the plain rubber washer was replaced with an internally star shaped one which gripped the rope better. The Gutta Percha covering the rope over the attachment eye to the chain was omitted in 1952 and in 1955, it was omitted from the noose end and replaced with vulcanised rubber. 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 was to reduce any tendency of the rope to stretch during the actual hanging which would reduce 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. Marwood and Berry, having positioned the noose, allowed the free rope to loop down behind the prisoner's back. Marwood had an unfortunate incident through this practice, at the hanging of James Burton at Durham in 1883. As Burton fell through the trap, the rope became entangled in his arm thus shortening the intended drop. Marwood had to haul the unfortunate man back onto the platform to free the entanglement and then pushed Burton back down into the pit where he was left to die by strangulation.
James Billington used a similar rope to Berry but coiled it up and tied it with a piece of pack thread to leave the noose at chest level to avoid the prisoner being caught up in it or himself tripping over it as at it lay on the trapdoors. This idea was also found to speed up the process and remained in use to the end.
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 an ordinary nightcap rather than a purpose made execution hood, and as these were generally white, presumably this became the traditional colour. It would seem that the nightcap was optional and provided by the prisoner to hide their face from the crowd. When the prisoner had finished praying, the hangman simply pulled it down over their face. In some cases, women might choose a bonnet with a veil instead and in other cases the prisoner possessed or chose neither. From around 1850, a white linen hood was provided by the authorities which was similar to a small pillowcase and was applied as part of the execution process. 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 was 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, 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 1892. In the days of public hangings at Tyburn and Newgate, the prisoner's wrists were tied with a cord and often a second cord passed round the body and arms at the elbows. This was done to allow them to pray on the gallows, however, this made it easier for them to resist and fight at the end so pinioning the wrists at the sides to a leather body belt became normal in the 1850's - an idea invented by Calcraft and used by Marwood and Berry. Billington introduced the idea of pinioning the prisoner's wrists behind their back using a double buckle leather strap, and this became the standard method until abolition. It also significantly reduced the time taken in the pinioning operation.
With the advent of the long drop, the prisoner's legs were normally pinioned with a leather 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!

The "Long drop" method of hanging.
In 1872, William Marwood introduced the "long drop" to Britain for the execution of Frederick Horry at Lincoln prison, as a scientifically worked out way of giving the prisoner a humane death. The concept was invented by doctors in Ireland and Marwood had read about their theory. Longer drops were in use elsewhere by the 1850's, but the short drop had been universal in Britain prior to this time and continued to be used until 1877 when Thomas Askern hanged John Henry Johnson at Armley prison Leeds, on the 3rd of April.
The long drop method was designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a pre-determined distance and then be brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope. At the end of the drop, the body is still accelerating under the force of gravity but the head is constrained by the noose which delivers a massive blow to the back and one side of the neck, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death. The later use of the brass eyelet in the noose tended to break the neck with more certainty. Due to its position under the angle of the left jaw, the head is snapped backward with such force that the posterior aspect of the foramen magnum cuts the spinal cord superior to the top vertebra and just a little inferior to the brain stem.
The accurately measured and worked out drop removed most of the prisoner's physical suffering and made the whole process far less traumatic for the officials who now had to witness it in the confines of the execution cell instead of in the open air.
The drop given in the 19th century was usually between 4 and 10 feet, depending on the weight and strength of the prisoner. The weight used to calculate the correct drop is that of the prisoner's body. Up to 1892, the length of drop was calculated to provide a final "striking" force of approximately 1,260 lbs. force which combined with the positioning of the eyelet caused fracture and dislocation of the neck, usually at the 2nd and 3rd or 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae. This is the classic "hangman's fracture". The length of the drop was worked out by the formula 1,260 foot pounds divided by the body weight of the prisoner in pounds = drop in feet. Between 1892 and 1913, a shorter length of drop was used, probably to avoid the decapitation and near decapitations that had occurred with the old table.  After 1913, other factors were also taken into account and the drop was calculated to give a final "striking" force of around 1,000 lbs. The Home Office issued a rule restricting all drops to between 5 and 8 feet as this had been found to be an adequate range. The American Military manual also specifies a similar range for prisoners of between 120 and 200 lbs. body weight. In
Britain, the drop was worked out and set to the nearest quarter of an inch (see below) to ensure the desired outcome.

In the late 19th century, there was a considerable amount of experimentation to determine the exact amount of drop and James Berry, who succeeded Marwood, had an unfortunate experience when hanging a murderer called Robert Goodale on the 30th of November 1885, who was decapitated by the force of the drop and of Moses Shrimpton who very nearly was. Where the drop was inadequate, the prisoner still strangled to death.
In 1887, Lord Aberdare was commissioned to report into hanging in
Britain after these incidents and the unsuccessful attempt to hang John Lee on the 23rd of February 1885, because the trap would not open (he was reprieved after 3 attempts to execute him.) The Aberdare Committee heard a lot of medical evidence and one witness, Dr. Marshall, described a hanging in 1886 as follows.
"I descended immediately into the pit where I found the pulse beating at the rate of 80 to the minute, the wretched man struggling desperately to get his hands and arms free. I came to this conclusion from the intense muscular action in the arms, fore arms and hands, contractions, not continuous but spasmodic, not repeated with any regularity but renewed in different directions and with desperation. From these signs I did not anticipate a placid expression on the face and I regret to say my fears were correct. On removing the white cap about 1 1/2 minutes after the fall I found the eyes starting from the sockets and the tongue protruded, the face exhibiting unmistakable evidence of intense agony."
It is notable that there were quite few problems with early lethal injections before the learning curve was surmounted.
In 1892, the Home Office issued executioners with a table of drops, which was revised in 1913 – see below.

Drop tables.
The weight of the prisoner in pounds is the weight recorded when they were weighed, clothed, the day before execution.
Note 1 pound is 0.454 Kg, 1 foot is 30.5 cm and an inch is 2.5 cm.

1892 table

1913 table

Weight of prisoner lbs.

Drop in feet & inches

Weight of prisoner lbs.

Drop in feet & inches

105 & under

8’ 0”

-

-

110

7’ 10”

-

-

115

7’ 3”

118 & under

8’ 6”

120

7’ 0”

120

8’ 4”

125

6’ 9”

125

8’ 0”

130

6’ 5”

130

7’ 8”

135

6’ 2”

135

7’ 5”

140

6’ 0”

140

7’ 2”

145

5’ 9”

145

6’ 11”

150

5’ 7”

150

6’ 8”

155

5’ 5”

155

6’ 5”

160

5’ 3”

160

6’ 3”

165

5’ 1”

165

6’ 1”

170

4’ 11”

170

5’ 10”

175

4’ 9”

175

5’ 8”

180

4’ 8”

180

5’ 7”

185

4’ 7”

185

5’ 5”

190

4’5”

190

5’ 3”

195

4’ 4”

195

5’ 2”

200 & over

4’ 2”

200 & over

5’ 0”

After 1913, where there were special reasons such as the prisoner having a diseased or weak neck, the Governor and Prison Medical Officer were to advise the executioner on the length of drop to be used.
It will be seen that the drops specified in the 1913 table are longer than those in the 1892 one, as in some cases, the prisoner’s neck had not been broken by the shorter fall. The official execution report on Alfred Stratton, who was hanged at Wandsworth in 1905, records evidence of asphyxia and states that the neck was not broken.  This was not unusual.

Setting the drop.
The Home Office issued the following instructions to executioners in the 1930’s for the correct setting up of the drop.
"Obtain a rope from Execution Box B making sure that the Gutta Percha covering the splice at each end is un-cracked by previous use.
Find the required drop from the Official Table of Drops making allowance for age and physique.
At the noose end of the rope measure thirteen inches (allowance for the neck) from the centre of the brass eye, mark this by tying round the rope a piece of pack-thread from Execution Box B.
From this mark measure along the rope the exact drop required (this must be to the nearest quarter inch), mark again by a piece of pack-thread tied to the rope.
Fasten the rope by pin and tackle to the chain suspended from the beams above, and, using the adjusting bracket above so adjust the rope that the mark showing the drop is exactly in accordance with the weight of the condemned man.
Take a piece of copper wire from Execution Box B, secure one end over the shackle on the end of the chain, and bend up the other end to coincide with the mark showing the drop.
Put on the trap the sandbag, making sure it is filled with sand of an equivalent weight to the condemned man.
Put the noose around the neck of the sandbag and drop the bag in the presence of the governor.
The bag is left hanging until two hours before the time of execution the next morning. At this time examine the mark on the rope and copper wire to see how much the rope has stretched. Any stretch must be made good by adjusting the drop.
Lift the sandbag, pull up the trapdoor by means of chains and pulley blocks, set the operating lever and put in the three-quarter safety pin which goes through the lever brackets to prevent the lever being accidentally moved.
Coil the rope ready and tie the coil with pack-thread leaving the noose suspended at the height of the condemned man's chest. All is now ready."

The Condemned Cell.
Here is a drawing of the condemned cell in Newgate prison in the late 1800's. One can see that it comprises two standard cells knocked into one and has fairly minimal facilities. The average time a prisoner would have spent here was 3 weeks, and they would have been looked after round the clock by teams of two or three warders.
The drawing of the later 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 pushed out of the way by a warder 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 to it.

Places of execution.
Prior to 1800, almost anywhere could be used as a place of execution and it was not unknown 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" by the local people, as there was very little media in those days. However, most executions were carried out in recognised places, often on market days in the county towns, so as to draw the biggest audience. In London, Tyburn and Newgate are the most well known execution sites although other places such as Smithfield and Putney Common were also used for public hangings and burnings. Tyburn was first recorded as a place of execution in 1196 and continued until 1783 when traffic congestion and complaints form nearby residents forced the move to Newgate. Between the 9th of  December 1783 and the 13th of  November 1799, no fewer than 540 men and 20 women were to die in front of Newgate. A total of 1,118 men and 49 women were put to death at Newgate between December 1783 and its closure in May 1902. Of these, 606 were executed between 1800 and 1902. Between 1800 and 1830, 26 men were hanged at "Execution Dock" in Wapping (on the north bank of the river Thames), mostly for murder or piracy, after conviction in the High Court of the Admiralty. The gallows was erected on the shoreline at low tide and the Marshall of the Admiralty attended the execution bearing his silver oar, the symbol of his authority. (see picture) After execution their bodies were chained to stakes on the shoreline until 3 tides had washed over them. What the advantage of this was is unclear - perhaps the water cleansed their souls?

Outside London, hangings would take place at large open spaces such as Penenden Heath, near Maidstone in Kent, which was about a mile from the prison. This site was last used in 1830. Similarly Kennington Common (near Camberwell), was the principal place of execution for the county of Surrey. The same was true in most other towns up to the early 1800's. Executions prior to then were generally carried out outside the town on a prominent piece of open ground, often at a major crossroads. At Lancaster up to 1800, criminals were hanged at Gallows Hill, on the moor close to Williamson Park. Winchester too had a Gallows Hill, York had its Tyburn at Knavesmire, on what is now the York racecourse, and used up to 1800. Stafford used a site called Gibbet Wood for its hangings up to 1801. Durham executions took place in the grounds of what is now Dryburn Hospital. It is unclear whether Dryburn is a corruption of Tyburn.
From the early 1800's, as the number of executions began to decline, hangings were moved to county prisons and the gallows was brought out from the prison and erected, when required, in front of it or on the flat roof of the gatehouse. 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, a similar arrangement being used at Killmainham gaol in Dublin. At the Surrey County Prison in Horsemonger Lane, the gallows was erected on the roof above the main gates, as was also the case at Stafford prior to 1817, when Ann Statham became the last prisoner to be hanged on top of the Lodge gateway there. Twenty eight year old Ann was to suffer for the murder of her infant daughter, but as she knelt in prayer on the platform, the scaffold gave way. Ann, the chaplain and other officials fell onto the roof below. The scaffold was repaired to allow the execution to take place, but a new portable gallows was used subsequently.  Gloucester, Shrewsbury and Hertford and many other prisons used the flat roof over the main entrance.
Other prisons erected the gallows outside the main gate where it could be easily protected by soldiers and pike-men. York, Maidstone, and Dorchester, for example, continued with this until the end of public hangings in 1868. Both Durham and Nottingham executions were carried out on the steps of the neighbouring courthouse. At
Lincoln Castle, the roof of the Cobb Hall tower was used from 1817–1859.

20th century hangings were carried out in the following prisons :

Prison

Total hanged

Last execution

Prison

Total hanged

Last execution

London - Pentonville

120 (includes 6 spies & 2 traitors)

06/07/61

Lancaster

1

15/11/10

London - Wandsworth

117 (includes 10 spies & 2 traitors)

08/09/61

Leicester

8

17/11/53

London - Holloway

5 (female)

13/07/55

Lewes

4

11/08/14

Manchester - (Strangeways)

71

13/08/64

Lincoln

17

27/01/61

Leeds - Armley

68

29/06/61

Maidstone

11

08/04/30

Durham

55

17/12/58

Newcastle

8

26/11/19

Liverpool - Walton

54

13/08/64

London - Newgate

9

06/05/02

Birmingham - Winson Green

35

20/11/62

Northampton

3

10/11/14

Bedford

7

04/04/62

Norwich

11

19/07/51

Bodmin

2

20/07/09

Nottingham

8

10/04/28

Bristol

13

17/12/63

Oxford

8

12/08/52

Cambridge

2

04/11/13

Reading

3

04/02/13

Cardiff

20

03/09/52

Ruthin

1

17/02/03

Carnarvon

1

15/02/10

Shepton Mallet

4 (plus 18 US military executions)

02/03/26
(Last civilian)

Chelmsford

9

04/11/14

Shrewsbury

8

09/02/61

Derby

4

16/0707

St. Albans

2

23/12/14

Devizes

1

17/11/03

Stafford

8

10/03/14

Dorchester

2

24/06/41

Swansea

9

06/05/58

Exeter

11

06/04/43

Usk

4

23/03/22

Gloucester

7

07/06/39

Wakefield

10

29/12/15

Hereford

1

15/12/03

Warwick

4

15/12/08

Hull

10

19/12/34

Winchester

16

17/12/63

Ipswich

3

27/11/24

Worcester

4

03/12/19

Knutsford

4

19/03/12

 

 

 

As will be seen, some prisons had very few hangings in the 65 years of the 20th century in which executions were carried out, and from around 1920 the number of prisons carrying out executions was greatly reduced.

Trace the progress of execution by hanging in Britain in the typical examples below and also by looking at the cases of those executed and the prisons in which their hangings took place.

A typical execution in the mid 1750's at Tyburn.
Criminals were tried and then sentenced to death in groups at the Old Bailey Sessions before being returned to Newgate prison to await their fate. A few weeks later after the Recorder’s Report had been considered by the King and Privy Council, there would be a “hanging day” when all those sentenced to death for crimes other than murder and not reprieved would be executed. The execution process began at around 7 o'clock in the morning when the condemned men and women would be led in fetters (handcuffs and leg-irons) into the Press Yard in Newgate. Here the blacksmith would remove the fetters and the Yeoman of the Halter would tie the criminals' hands in front of them (so that they were able to pray when they reached Tyburn) and place the rope (or halter, as it was known) round their necks, coiling the free end round their bodies. They might typically be 7 men, not one convicted of murder or rape, but of crimes such as highway robbery, theft or burglary and uttering, and perhaps one woman convicted of privately stealing, highway robbery or theft from a dwelling house. When the pinioning was completed, they were placed in open horse drawn carts sitting on their coffins and the procession consisting of the Under Sheriff, the Ordinary (Newgate's prison chaplain), the hangman and his assistants, and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn about two miles 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 often made at St. Sepulchre's Church and two public houses along the way 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. It was normal for better off criminals to wear their best clothes for their execution.
On arrival at Tyburn, often some 3 hours later, the condemned 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 3 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 the white night caps over their faces.
When everything was ready, the horses were whipped away leaving the prisoners suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop and thus many of them would writhe in agony for some moments. 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 in the case of murderers, sent for dissection at Surgeons' Hall. For more detail on execution at Tyburn, read about the case of
Jenny Diver who was hanged there with 19 others on the 18th of March 1741.

Multiple executions at Newgate in 1820.
In 1820, there were 42 hangings at Newgate, all carried out by James Foxen. Not one of these was for murder. Twelve were for "uttering" forged notes, 12 for robbery or burglary, and 5 for highway robbery. At this time, murderers, rapists, arsonists, forgers, coiners and highwaymen were virtually always executed and were seldom offered transportation. Five of those executed in 1820 were the Cato Street conspirators who were hanged and then beheaded for high treason (the disembowelling and quartering part of their sentence having been remitted and the drawing reduced to drawing them round the Press Yard on a sledge prior to the execution). The largest multiple execution in 1820 was that of 8 men on the 11th of December and the smallest was of 3 men on the 24th of October. Sarah Price was the only woman to suffer in 1820, alongside 6 men, for "uttering" forged bank notes or coins on the 5th of December.
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 overlooking 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. Their leg irons would be removed by the prison blacksmith and the hangman and his assistant would bind their wrists in front of them with cord and also place a cord round their body and arms at the elbows. White nightcaps were placed on their heads. The prisoners would now be led across 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 drop, the hangman would put the nooses round their necks while they prayed with the Ordinary. Female prisoners might have their dress bound around their legs for the sake of decency but the men's legs were left free. When the prayers had finished, the Under Sheriff gave the signal and the hangman moved the lever which was connected to a drawbar under the trap and caused it to fall with a loud crash, the prisoners dropping 12-18 inches and usually writhing and struggling for some seconds before relaxing and becoming still. If their bodies continued to struggle, the hangman unseen by the crowd within the box below the drop, would grasp 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, in the case of murderers, sent for dissection.
Execution Broadsides were often sold among the crowd, purporting to give the last confessions of the condemned. These were like tabloid newspapers of the day and were often total fabrication. As they were printed prior to the execution, they were quite often unused if a reprieve was granted after printing, not an uncommon occurrence at that time. They would show a stylised wood cut picture of the hanging and had details of the crime. Ordinary newspapers were very few in number at this time and relatively very expensive so were only read by the wealthy.
See also the history of executions at
Newgate prison.

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 by now were murderers).
The gallows at Lancaster was of the balcony pattern and was erected for each hanging outside the French windows on the first floor of what was known as the "Hanging corner". Across on the bank of what was originally the Castle moat would be anything up to 6,000 people who had come to watch, including organised school parties! Between 1799 and 1865, a total of 215 people were executed here. 131 of these hangings were carried out by Lancaster's own hangman, "Old Ned" Barlow.
A little before 8 o'clock the prison bell would start tolling and the criminal would be led up from the cells into the "Drop Room" (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 prisoner’s 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 downstairs and withdraw the bolt to release the trapdoors. 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. Some of these still survive. Here is a picture of the death mask of William Corder who was hanged at
Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk on May 18th, 1827 for the murder of Maria Marten.
Stephen Burke became the last person to suffer in public at
Lancaster, on March the 25th, 1865, when he was hanged for the murder of his wife.

Execution by the “long drop” in 1879.
Kate Webster became the first and only woman to be executed at Wandsworth prison in London.  She was hanged by William Marwood using his newly introduced “long drop” method. The first execution by this method was that of Frederick William Horry on the 1st of April 1872 at Lincoln. When William Calcraft retired in 1874, Marwood took over and became Britain’s principal executioner.
Kate Webster’s execution was, as usual by this time, took place 3 clear Sundays after sentence and was set for the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July 1879. At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell. Inside Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female warderesses. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed, which was nicknamed the "Cold Meat Shed". Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling and made it easier too for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards. As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. The idea of coiling up the rope to bring the noose to chest level came later, as did the brass eyelet in the noose. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while his assistant (probably one of the warders) strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later. She was supported on the trap by the two warders standing on planks, set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years, in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, "Lord, have mercy upon me". He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick lined pit below. Marwood used significantly longer drops than later were found to be necessary. Kate's body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. It is probable that two newspaper reporters would have been allowed to attend - it was usual at this time for the press to be admitted. They would have been expected to report that the execution had been carried out "expeditiously". The whole process would have taken around two minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft's executions.
The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition. Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards.

A typical execution in the early 1900's at Durham.
The press were still generally permitted to attend executions up to around the beginning of World War One in most prisons. Thus we have the report of the hanging of Abel Atherton at Durham on the 8th of December 1909. Henry Pierrepoint was the executioner. At 7.50 a.m. that Wednesday morning, the Under Sheriff entered the prison with 3 newspaper reporters who were stationed in front of the execution shed. Atherton was brought to the doctor's room by two warders where his hands were pinioned and then led forward to the gallows in a procession consisting of the Chief Warder, the Chaplain, Atherton, held by a warder on either side, Pierrepoint and his assistant, William Willis, the Principal Warder, the governor, the prison surgeon and finally another warder. All but the Chaplain entered the shed and once Atherton was on the drop, Willis dropped to his knees behind him to pinion his legs while Pierrepoint placed the noose over his head and adjusted it before pulling the white hood over him. (Pierrepoint was unusual in this - all other 20th century hangmen put the hood on first followed by the noose.) The prison bell was tolling (from which comes the expression "for whom the bell tolls") and the nearby Assize Courts clock striking the hour. Pierrepoint released the trap giving Atherton a drop of 7 feet 3 inches. The execution was over before the clock finished striking and the press men who looked down into the pit reported that Atherton's death was instantaneous and that he was hanging perfectly still. The execution shed was locked up and Atherton was left on the rope for the customary hour. The official notice of the execution was posted on the prison gate and an autopsy carried out later in the morning. Click here for a history of Durham prison. 

A typical execution in the 1950's in a British county prison.
Executions were normally 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 plus, of course, the hangman and his assistant.
Not all prisons had a permanent gallows beam 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 person to enable him to calculate the correct drop from their weight and physical appearance.
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 trapdoors 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. The hangman went straight to the gallows and the prisoner followed, supported by a warder on each side. They went through a second door in the Condemned Cell which was normally hidden by a wardrobe and straight into the execution room. The prisoner was led onto the trapdoors which had a "T" chalked on them to position their feet exactly over the middle of the trap. In case they fainted at the last moment, the condemned was supported by the two prison officers standing on boards across the trap and holding onto ropes attached to the gallows beam with their free hands. The hangman pulled a white cotton hood over the prisoner'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 trapdoors. 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). 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.

Once the prisoner was suspended, the prison doctor listened to their chest with a stethoscope and would expect to hear a progressively weakening 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. Up to 1949, the executioners had to measure how much the neck had been stretched by the hanging. It was often 1- 2 inches, 25-50 mm. Also at this time, the practice of leaving the body suspended for an hour ceased and it was taken down after the prison doctor had certified death– usually about 20 minutes.  The body would show marks of suspension, elongation of the neck and occasionally traces of urine and faeces. 

There was often a crowd outside the prison on the morning of a hanging and a notice of execution was posted on the main gate of the prison once death had been certified. (See photo). The autopsy would be carried out after the body was removed from the rope and the formal inquest usually took place later that morning. Click here to see the autopsy report of Ruth Ellis. This is the inquest report on her - "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 the14th of 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 the 13th of  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. 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.

After the execution.
Henry VIII passed a law in 1540 allowing surgeons 4 bodies of executed criminals each per year. Little was known about anatomy and medical schools were very keen to get their hands on dead bodies that they could dissect.
Up to 1832, except in a case of murder where the court had ordered dissection or gibbeting (see below), it was normal for the criminal's body to be claimed by friends or relatives for burial. After 1834, it was held that the body of the executed prisoner belonged to the Crown and it was no longer returned to the relatives. It was also felt that murderers should not be buried in consecrated ground. Prior to 1834, 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 or hanging in chains. After the hanging, the prisoner would be stripped and their body dipped into molten pitch or tar and then, when it had 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 crossroads or hill tops 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 17th and 18th 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 legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752 and was regularly used. Hanging in chains and gibbeting were abolished in 1834. William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832, for the murder of a policeman during a riot. His gibbet was erected at Jarrow Slake (the place of the crime) and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling's body was then hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace. Twenty one year old James Cook became the last man to suffer this fate when he was gibbeted at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832 for the murder of John Paas.
The 1752 "Act for the better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder", usually known as the "Murder Act", mandated the dissection of the bodies of executed murderers (including females ones) or hanging in chains (gibbeting).  Gibbeting was reserved for male murderers and for highway robbers of Mail coaches. Seventeen year old Thomas Wilford, who had stabbed to death his wife of just one week, was the first to suffer under this Act on the 22nd of June 1752, having been first hanged at Tyburn. The words of his sentence were as follows : "Thomas Wilford, you stand convicted of the horrid and unnatural crime of murdering Sarah, your wife. This Court doth adjudge that you be taken back to the place from whence you came, and there to be fed on bread and water till Wednesday next, when you are to be taken to the common place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your body is to be publicly dissected and anatomised, agreeable to an Act of Parliament in that case made and provided; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul."
The "Murder Act" also specified that two days should elapse between sentence and execution unless the third day should be a Sunday in which case the execution should take place on the Monday. Judges normally sentenced murderers on a Friday to allow them this extra day. 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. Women were not exempted from this and the remains of the infamous murderer Elizabeth Brownrigg, who had been hanged at Tyburn on the 14th of September 1767, were kept on display in Surgeon's Hall for many years after her execution. The skeleton of Mary Bateman, “the Yorkshire Witch” hanged at York in 1807, is still preserved. Click here for more details on this case.
Dissection was removed from the statute book on the 1st of August 1832, by the Anatomy Act. The time between sentence and execution was extended in 1834 to allow the passing of "three clear Sundays". The same act directed that the bodies of executed criminals were now 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 was found to have a preserving effect. Prisons in major cities soon had quite large graveyard areas.

The role of the Church.
Certainly by the 16 century it was normal for the church to play a part in executions. It was the practice, at least from the 18th 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 their execution, prisoners under sentence of death had to endure the "Condemned Sermon" and hear the burial service read to them. Wealthy visitors could come and attend this service. Several Lords were present at the service held in 1840 for Francis Courvoisier, a Swiss valet, who had murdered his employer, Lord William Russell. It is unclear when this practice died out.
Religious tracts were often given to prisoners by well meaning people in the 19th century. Sometimes the chaplain would make persistent efforts to obtain a confession right up to the last moment.
In the 20th 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. Old drawings of 19th and early 20th century executions normally show a robed minister reading from a prayer book. It was normal for the priest to read the words of the burial service as they were brought to the gallows. These were often the only words spoken during a modern private British hanging. The executioner and officials typically said nothing at all on the gallows and the prisoner was not invited to speak.
Up till the 1950's, the Anglican 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 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 said to be 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 17th and 18th 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 15 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."
Sixteen year old William Duell was hanged, along with 4 others, at Tyburn on the 24th of November 1740. He had been convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Griffin and was therefore to be anatomised after execution. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall, where it was noticed that he was showing signs of life. He was revived and returned to Newgate later that day. The authorities decided to reprieve him and his sentence was commuted to transportation. There are many other instances where people, including at least two women, survived their hanging.

Children and juveniles.
Possibly the youngest children ever executed in Britain were Michael Hammond and his sister, Ann, whose ages were given as 7 and 11 respectively in a book published in 1907. Previously, no claims as to their precise ages had been made, although they were referred to as being “under age,” without specifying what this term actually meant, and as “the Boy and the Girl” as they were both small. They were reportedly hanged at (Kings) Lynn on Wednesday, the 28th of September 1708 for theft. The local press did not, however, consider the executions of two children newsworthy! A painting of the two being taken in the cart to the gallows appears in Paul Richard’s book ”King’s Lynn”. It was reported that there was violent thunder and lightning after the execution and that their hangman, Anthony Smyth, died within a fortnight of it.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, young people were subjected to the death penalty, particularly for murder, arson, highway robbery and property crimes. Court records often did not give the age of defendants sentenced to death and in some cases, executions of adults and minors did not appear in the newspapers of the day so it is not easy to trace the executions of children in the 18th century. Here are some reliable examples :
Eighteenth century.
William Jennings, aged 12, was hanged at Tyburn on Monday, the 12th of March 1716, having been convicted of housebreaking at the February Sessions.
Sixteen year old Thomas Smith was hanged at Tyburn on Wednesday, the 25th of April 1716, also for housebreaking. Edward Elton was hanged there the following year for the same offence.
Four juveniles were hanged at Tyburn on Monday, the 20th of May 1717. They were 18 year old Martha Pillow who had been convicted of stealing in a shop, 17 year old Thomas Price and 18 year old Joseph Cornbach for housebreaking and 17 year old Christopher Ward for burglary.
15 year old James Booty (age also given as 12) suffered at Tyburn on Monday, the 21st of May 1722 for the rape of a 5 year old girl.
15 year old Elizabeth Morton was hanged at Nottingham on the 8th of April 1763 for the murder of two of her employer’s children.
18 year old Sarah Shenston suffered at Shrewsbury on Thursday, the 22nd of March 1792 for the murder of her bastard child.
At Dorchester Assizes in March 1794, 15 year old Elizabeth Marsh was convicted of the murder of her grandfather. She was hanged in public two days later, on Monday, the 17th of March.
Nineteenth century - public hangings.
Children, like adults, continued to be sentenced to death for a very large number of felonies up to 1834 although it was normal for younger children to have their sentences commuted for the less serious crimes as there was public disquiet about hanging children and there is little actual evidence of anyone under 14 years old being hanged in the 19th century, despite what you might read in some books to the contrary. As stated earlier, executions were decreasing rapidly, both for adults and young offenders after 1834, as the number of capital crimes reduced and public attitudes changed.
The following are confirmed cases of the execution of young people in the 19th century:
16 year old Ann Mead was hanged at Hertford on Thursday, the 31st of July 1800 for poisoning a 16 month old boy with arsenic.
David Duffield was hanged at Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire on the 6th of April 1801 for murder and was afterwards hanged in chains at Taverspite. He was the last juvenile to suffer this fate in the 19th century.
Mary Voce was hanged at Nottingham on Tuesday, the 16th of March 1802 for poisoning her child. In some reports she is said to have been born in 1788, which would make her only 14.
On the 6th of May 1806, 15 year old Peter Atkinson suffered at York Castle for cutting and maiming Elizabeth Stockton.
In 1817, the famous prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, recorded her visit to Newgate prison where she went to comfort a young woman called Eliza (Elizabeth) Fricker (age given as 30 in her trial). Eliza had been condemned for burglary. Fry found "also six men waiting to be hanged and seven young children." One of the men had also been sentenced for burglary, two for robbery and three for forgery. Mrs. Fry was attacked for being a sentimentalist by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon, who stated that "if hanging was abolished for theft, the property of Englishmen would be left wholly without protection." Eliza was duly hanged outside Newgate on Wednesday, the 5th of March 1817, together with the 6 men. The other children were not executed and were presumably transported instead.
On the 22nd of March 1819, 16 year old Hannah Bocking became the youngest girl to be executed in the 19th century when she was publicly hanged at Derby for the murder, by poisoning, of Jane Grant.
15 year old Edward Cassidy was hanged for robbery at Newgate in November of the same year.  Three teenage boys were executed together for highway robbery outside Newgate in 1821, their ages being 16, 17 and 19.
17 year old William Thompson was hanged at Newgate for highway robbery on the 25th of September 1821 and 16 year old Benjamin Glover was hanged in Somerset on the 1st of May 1822 for stealing in a dwelling house.
16 year old Giles East was executed at Surrey’s Horsemonger Lane prison on the 20th of January 1823 for raping a little girl.
Charles Melford, aged 17, suffered for housebreaking on the 12th of March 1828 at Newgate.
James Cook, aged 16, was hanged at Chelmsford's Springfield Prison on the 27th of March 1829 for arson, having set fire to the premises of William Green, the farmer for whom he worked as a cow hand.
A boy of just 9 was reputed to have been hanged at Chelmsford for arson in 1831, but it is probable that William Jennings was actually 19.
14 year old John Any Bird Bell who was hanged on the 1st of August 1831 at Maidstone in Kent for the murder of 13 year old Richard Taylor. John and his 11 year old brother, James, killed Richard Taylor for the sum of nine shillings (45p) which he was collecting from the Parish on behalf of his disabled father. They were tried on Friday, the 29th of July and because the second day after sentence would have been a Sunday, John was hanged on the Monday using the "New Drop" scaffold, erected outside Maidstone prison. Bell was probably the youngest person to be hanged in the 19th century. In 1833, a boy of 9 was sentenced to death at Maidstone Assizes for housebreaking but was reprieved after public agitation. (Click here for a history of
Maidstone prison).
Five 17 year olds were hanged in public between 1836 and 1868, including Sarah Thomas, who suffered at
Bristol on the 20th of April 1849 for the murder of her mistress. She was hysterical at the end and even Calcraft was noticeably upset by her execution. Sarah was the last of 9 teenage girls hanged between 1800 and 1849. 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.
Private hangings.
At least thirteen 17-19 year olds were hanged between 1868 and 1899, although no one of a younger age. The first private hanging in
Britain was that of 18 year old Thomas Wells, who was hanged by William Calcraft at Maidstone Prison on the 13th of August 1868 for shooting his boss, the station master, at Dover Priory railway station. Wells was hanged in the former prison timber yard, out of site of the cell blocks and nearby houses. Like so many of Calcraft's victims he died a slow and painful death.
17 year-old Joseph Morley was executed on
the 21st of November 1887, for the murder of a young married woman, at Chelmsford prison.
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.
Twentieth century.
The Children's Act of 1908 stipulated for the first time a minimum age for execution of 16 years, however 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. The last juvenile to receive the death sentence was 16 year old Harold Wilkins.  He was condemned at Stafford Assizes on
November the 18th, 1932 for the sexually motivated murder of Ethel Corey, but reprieved on the grounds of his age.  The law was changed the following year by the Children and Young Persons Act in 1933 which raised the minimum age to 18 years.
Francis Forsyth, aged 18, became the last teenager to be executed in
England, when he was hanged for murder at Wandsworth on the 10th of November 1960. The last teenage execution in Britain took place at Scotland’s Barlinnie Prison on the 29th of December 1960 when Anthony Miller, aged 19, was hanged for the murder of John Crimin.
Some books convey the impression that large numbers of children were hanged for minor crimes such as theft during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the records do not support this view.

For a detailed account of the processes and physiology of judicial hanging click here

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