Durham prison.

Durham prison was built at Elvet in 1810 to replace the earlier jail in the Great North Gate which was the cause of serious traffic congestion in its day. Bishop Shute Barrington pledged £2,000 towards the construction of the new building and on the 31st of July 1809, the foundation stones were laid by Sir Henry Vane Tempest. The building was started by a Mr. Sandys, who was dismissed before its completion. A new architect called Moneypenny took over, but died during its construction and the prison was finally completed by Ignatius Bonomi. Durham prison has some 600 cells and took its first batch of prisoners in 1819.

In total, 92 men and 3 women were hanged at Durham between 1800 and 1958. Ninety one of these executions took place at the prison or nearby courthouse (14 in public) and 4 at Dryburn in public. Fifty five men were hanged here in the 20th century. Of these 95, only 5 were to die for crimes other than murder.

Like most of the older jails, Durham Prison also reputedly has its ghost. In December 1947, an inmate stabbed a fellow prisoner to death with a table knife. A few days later another prisoner was put into this cell and was found the next morning crouched in the corner, in abject fear. He told the warders he had seen the murder re-enacted. Other prisoners objected to being locked up in this cell so it was converted into a storeroom.

The gallows at Durham.
Up to 1816, the place of execution at Durham was in the grounds of the present day Dryburn hospital. The name Dryburn may have come from the case of a man who was hanged there for being a Jesuit priest. The legend has it that after his death, the local stream (burn) mysteriously dried up and never flowed again, hence Dryburn. Alternatively, the name may be a corruption of Tyburn, the site of London's gallows at the time.
Ann Crampton was probably the last person to die at Dryburn, having been found guilty of "cutting and maiming."  Forty year old Ann suspected her husband was being unfaithful to her. So when he was asleep she cut off his penis! For this she was reputedly hanged on
Thursday, the 25th of August 1814, although this cannot be absolutely confirmed. Cutting off his manhood was seen as almost equivalent to cutting him off in the male dominated society of the time. Was Ann the original role model for Lorena Bobbitt, who hit the world headlines in the 1990's for committing the same offence?

After 1816, a "New Drop" style gallows was erected on the steps outside the new courthouse for each hanging. The holes for the beams supporting the platform can still be seen in the wall, filled with stone plugs. The courthouse is next door to the prison and the prisoner was brought back from the prison through an internal passage, now blocked off.  The condemned person came out through a window onto the platform of the gallows set over the main door.  (This was not an unusual arrangement as it was simpler and more secure than bringing the person out of the prison gates and then making them climb steps up to the gallows platform.  It was thus quite convenient and was an easy location to guard.  Across the street is a house with an iron balcony that was rented out to wealthy spectators to watch the hanging from.) 
After the abolition of public hangings, the gallows was set up in the condemned prisoner’s exercise yard.  The platform was level with the ground set over a brick lined pit. Later still, around 1890, an execution shed was built. This was standard practice at the time but still involved the prisoner in quite a long walk from the condemned cell on A Wing to the gallows.  Normally, the shed was used to house the prison van, which was also a common practice at other prisons, e.g.

In the 20th century, Durham was one of the few prisons to retain a permanent gallows. This was housed in a fairly standard pattern Home Office execution block at the end of D wing which was built in 1925. It had two condemned cells, one immediately adjacent to the gallows and one separated from the execution chamber by the corridor which led to the exercise yard.  The main condemned cell  was formed from 3 standard cells knocked into one and contained a toilet and washbasin.  There was a small lobby between the cell and the gallows room. A mortuary was available in the yard  adjoining the ground floor of the execution chamber.  Parts of the execution block still remain to this day, although the condemned cell has been removed and the pit covered over (this area is now used for storage).  This wing was later renamed E Wing. The execution chamber is pictured here.  This unique photo was supplied by and is copyright of Aaron Bougourd and may not be reproduced.

In the early 1990’s when the prison was being modernised, the graves of some of those executed were disturbed, including that of  Mary Ann Cotton.  A pair of female shoes belonging to her were found along with her bones. Several bodies (including Cottons) were removed and all were later cremated. All of the inmates hanged in the 20th century were buried alongside the prison hospital wall with only a broad arrow and the date of execution carved into the wall to mark the location of their grave. The original instructions regarding the burial of executed inmates stated that the only clothing an inmate should be buried in was a prison issue shirt.  The body was to be placed into a pine box and covered with quicklime and that holes were to be bored into the box before burial.

Some of Durham's famous cases.
The first execution outside the courthouse, took place on Saturday, the 17th of August 1816 when John Grieg was hanged for the murder of Elizabeth Stonehouse.

On April the 12th, 1819, 68 year old George Atcheson was hanged at the same location for the rape of 10 year old Isabella Ramshaw. The only other execution for rape here took place on March the 18th, 1822, when a miner called Henry Anderson suffered for raping Sarah Armstrong.

Nineteen year old Thomas Clark, a domestic servant at Hallgarth Mill, was convicted of the murder of 17 year old Mary Ann Westhorpe, the housemaid there on Sunday, the 8th of August 1830. On that day their employers, Stephen Oliver and his wife, had gone out and left some money locked in the house. Mary's body was found to have been severely beaten and her throat had been cut. The house had been ransacked and the money was missing. When questioned, Thomas claimed that he and Mary had been attacked in the house but that he had managed to escape. This story was not supported by the crime scene evidence and Thomas was arrested, coming to trial on Thursday, the 25th of February 1831 before Justice Littledale. There was great public interest in the case which was to hear the testimony of more than 40 witnesses over two days. It took the jury just 22 minutes to find Thomas guilty. He was sentenced to hang and afterwards for his body to be handed over to surgeons for dissection, as was still the practice with murderers. The execution took place at midday on the following Monday, (the 28th of February) in front of a crowd estimated at more than 15,000. On the gallows, Thomas is reported to have said "Gentlemen I die for another man's crimes. I am innocent."

In 1832, there were public protests over the conditions in the South Shields workhouse which were supported by strikes of the local miners. The authorities attempted to crackdown on these and sent in soldiers to quell the disturbances. They also tried to evict striking miners from their tied houses. One of the miners, William Jobling, was convicted of the murder of Nicholas Fairles, a local magistrate, near Jarrow Slake. A policeman was also killed in the disturbances. Jobling was hanged in the normal way amid tight security.  Fifty mounted Hussars and 50 infantrymen were positioned in front of the goal to protect the gallows.  To make a special example of him, his body was gibbeted after death, as a warning to the populace. Gibbeting was still a legal punishment at the time but was abolished 2 years later. After hanging for the customary hour, his body was taken off the rope, stripped naked and immersed in molten pitch (tar) to preserve it. It was then re-dressed in the original clothes and loaded into a cart and taken on a tour of the area before arriving at Jarrow Slake where the crime had been committed. Here it was placed into an iron gibbet cage. The cage and the scene being described thus," the body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth." The gibbet was a foot 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 suspended and left as a grim reminder of the consequences of crime.
Sadly, Jobling was not actually guilty of this murder. Before he died, Nicholas Fairles was able to identify his killer (a friend of Jobling's, one Ralph Armstrong). However, Armstrong was not able to be arrested and Jobling, who had been present and had done nothing to prevent the killing was therefore judged to be equally guilty.

At this time, however, large number of death sentences were commuted to transportation, even for very serious crimes. On the 9th of April 1836, two men who had been sentenced to death for rape and robbery, were offered a reprieve on condition of being transported for life to Australia.

The last public execution here occurred on the 16th of March 1865 when Matthew Atkinson was hanged by Thomas Askern for the murder of his wife at Spen, near Winlaton. When Askern drew the bolt, Atkinson plunged downwards and the rope broke. He had to be extracted from under the scaffold and a new rope found so that he could be hanged again 30 minutes or so later. Thomas Askern was the hangman of York, but also worked further afield and continued to visit Durham up to 1873.

After the Act of 1868, all executions had to take place within the prison walls and the first of these "private" executions at Durham was a double hanging that took place on March the 22nd, 1869, when 37 year old John Donlan suffered for the murder of Hugh Ward at Sunderland. Beside him on the drop, was 23 year old John M'Conville, who had been convicted of the murder of Philip Trainer at Darlington. William Calcraft officiated at this hanging.

Mary Ann Cotton has the dubious distinction of being Britain's worst female serial killer and her tally of killings remained unequalled by either sex until the 1980's. She is strongly suspected of 14 or 15 murders, either for gain or to enable her to marry or both, and 21 people who were close to her died over a 20 year period. These comprised of 10 children, 3 husbands, 5 stepchildren, her mother, a sister in law Margaret, and one lover.
She was born Mary Ann Robson in 1833 to a mining family, and her father was killed in an accident at the colliery when she was 8, leaving her and her mother in poverty. Mary bitterly resented this poverty and vowed that she would not live like this as an adult.
She married for the first time on
the 18th of July 1852, to 26 year old William Mowbray and moved with him to Cornwall, where Mary was to give birth to 4 children, all of whom died in their first year of life. All the deaths were officially recorded as being from "gastric fever," a common enough diagnosis at that time. In January 1865, William succumbed to the same "illness" and Mary collected £35 in life insurance.
Mary moved back north and took a job at Sunderland Royal Infirmary as a ward attendant. In this role, she had free access to the hospital's drug stocks.
While working at the Infirmary, she met and married a patient there, George Ward (also given as Wade). George too began to get symptoms of poisoning and was to remain married just 15 months, before he too died in 1866. Naturally, Mary had taken out a life insurance policy on him as well as benefiting under his will.
Her next marriage was to widower John Robinson, a foreman in the shipyard, who had 4 children by his previous marriage. Three of these children died of the, by now, inevitable "gastric fever" within a year. The marriage didn't last as John evicted Mary after he found out that she had helped herself to some of his possessions. He probably didn't realise at the time just what a good decision he had made. Mary then went to look after her elderly mother, Margaret, who not surprisingly did not survive the experience for long and soon died of gastric fever!

Mary Ann's next (bigamous) husband was to be widower Frederick Cotton whom she married in September 1870 and by whom she quickly became pregnant, with her sixth child. The new family moved to West Auckland and Mary took out life insurance policies on all of them, except herself. Predictably, death now entered the Cotton family, firstly Frederick's sister, Margaret, died followed by 39 year old Frederick himself in September 1871, soon after his 10 year old son Frederick, Jr., then by the couple’s new baby, Robert, and finally on the 12th of July 1872, Charles, Frederick's younger son by his former marriage. Mary was also seeing her erstwhile lover, Joseph Natrass, who died soon after moving in with her at the beginning of 1872. Young Charles Cotton was seen as an impediment to Mary's love life and she offered him to the local workhouse. They would not accept him on his own without her so clearly another means of removing him had to be found. Arsenic as usual provided the solution! The manager of the workhouse, who had interviewed Mary, became suspicious when he heard of the death of Charles and reported it to the police.
Mary Ann, who was now unencumbered by children and relationships, once more began an affair with the local excise officer, Mr. Quick-Manning by whom she as usual became pregnant, giving birth to Mary Edith Quick-Manning Cotton on
the 10th of January 1873 while in prison on remand. The little girl was adopted after Mary's execution.
So many deaths in one household looked increasingly suspicious and after the death of Robert, Dr. Kilburn ordered a post-mortem which discovered a large amount of arsenic in the child's body. Arsenic always tends to deposit itself in the fingernails and hair even when it has left the stomach. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning are in some ways similar to gastric fever (gastro-enteritis) and include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, fever, cramps, lethargy, convulsions and dizziness.
Mary Ann was arrested on
the 18th of July 1872 and remanded in custody by the magistrates to stand trial at the Spring Assizes of the following year. The police now sought permission to exhume the bodies of those who had been close to Mary Ann and called on the services of Professor Thomas Scattergood from Leeds University, a leading pathologist of his day, to examine them. Predictably, he found large amounts of arsenic in each one. It could not, however, be proved that Mary Ann had administered it.
Mary was to be charged only with the murder of her stepson, Charles Edward Cotton. This was standard practice at the time as the defendant would be sentenced to death for a single murder. If the first trial resulted in an acquittal, a second charge could be brought.
Mary Ann was tried before Mr. Justice Archibald at the Durham Assizes of March 1873, her trial opening on Monday, the 3rd. She pleaded not guilty and was represented by Mr Thomas Campbell Foster who put forward a defence that Robert had been poisoned accidentally by the arsenic contained in their green floral wallpaper which formed a poisonous dust when cleaned with soft soap. This was not as fanciful as it may sound today. Arsenic really was used in some wallpaper dyes at the time. The prosecution, led by Sir Charles Russell, however, were able to show that Mary had actually purchased arsenic and pointed out that at least 10 of her alleged victims had never been in the "arsenic room." The trial lasted 5 days and the jury brought in their verdict after about an hour's deliberation. Mr. Justice Archibald donned the black cap and passed sentence upon her, saying :
"In these words I shall address you, I would earnestly urge you to seek for your soul that only refuge which is left for you, in the mercy of God through the atonement of our Lord, Jesus Christ. It only remains for me to pass upon you the sentence of the law, which is that you will be taken from hence to the place from whence is that you came, and from thence to a place of execution, and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and your body to be afterwards buried within the precincts of the gaol. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul." On hearing her sentence Mary exclaimed, "Oh no! Oh no! She had to be carried from the dock in a state of collapse.
Extraordinarily, there was some public sympathy for Mary Ann and a petition was got up for a reprieve, possibly because of her baby. The Home Secretary declined this, however, so 5 days before her execution her new baby daughter was taken from her and placed with a childless couple for adoption.
On the Saturday before the execution the simple gallows, comprising two uprights and a crossbeam with a double leaf trap below, was erected over a brick lined pit in the condemned prisoner’s exercise  yard and hidden from direct view until Mary Ann and her escorts rounded a corner. Thomas Askern, assisted by William Calcraft, had been hired by the Under-Sheriff to carry out the execution. Both men were noted for their short drops.  There had been some discussion as to whether in view of the nature of her crimes, she should be hanged strapped to a chair.  The pit beneath the trapdoors was apparently widened to accommodate this, although in the event the chair was not used.
The execution was set for
8.00 a.m. on the morning of Monday, the 24th of March 1873 and Mary breakfasted on just a few sips of tea.  Throughout  her time in prison she had refused religious counsel but during her last  few hours, became most devout and contrite. She prayed with the 3 matrons who guarded her round the clock in the condemned cell and recalling her childhood Sunday school lessons, declared her favourite hymn to be "Rock of ages."
It is said that Mary made the warders wait to escort her to the gallows while she brushed her long black hair. When she was ready, she let the hangman pinion her wrists in front of her with a leather strap and place a further leather strap around her elbows and upper body.
Wearing a coarse black and white checked shawl, Mary walked resignedly to the gallows.  Once on the trapdoors, her legs were strapped and the white hood placed over her head, followed by the noose. Two warders supported her during this preparation. The trap was released from under her and she dropped about 18 inches (450mm). For a moment she hung still, presumably stunned by the impact of the drop. But then she began to struggle violently, her agonies lasting some 3 minutes before she dangled lifeless in the pit. Local newspaper reporters recorded the distressing scene. Following the post mortem, a plaster cast was taken of her face and she was buried in the western part of Durham prison at 2 p.m.  She is said to still haunt her old home in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Mary Ann seemed to have become addicted to murder by arsenic poisoning when she found how easy it was to do, how she could get away with it, and how each killing could earn her a small amount of life insurance or remove some inconvenient person in her life or both. It is often said that the first murder is the hardest - it gets easier the more one does. Today it would be much more difficult to get away with so many murders of this sort but in those days, public hygiene standards were low and child (and adult) mortality rates very high. By moving around, she was able to get different doctors to sign death certificates so that she was not immediately suspected. Communications were very limited - there were no telephones in 1873, so the doctors were unlikely to talk to each other and post-mortems were rarely carried out on deaths that appeared natural. Gastric fever was a common cause of natural death at this time.
Mary Ann seemed also to have a magnetic attraction for men - she was never without one!

No doubt to the relief of the prison officials, William Marwood took over from Askern and Calcraft after this and introduced the long drop method of hanging which (normally) removed the distressing duty of having to watch another human being strangle to death a few feet away. His first appointment at Durham was a triple hanging on the 5th of January 1874. His clients were Charles Dawson, who had murdered his girlfriend, Margaret Addison, at Darlington, Edward Gough, for the murder of James Partridge, at Marley Hill and William Thompson, for the murder of his wife, at Annfield Plain. These were the first of a dozen hangings carried out here by Marwood, including two triple executions and one double. At this time, it was normal to execute prisoners in groups after the Assize, for unrelated crimes, as it saved on the expense of erecting and guarding the gallows and travelling expenses for the hangman.

The only other woman to be hanged within Durham prison was 28 year old Elizabeth Pearson on Monday the 2nd of August 1875. She had been convicted at the Summer Assizes of that year of the wilful murder of her uncle, James Watson at Gainford, Durham. She was acting as a housekeeper for her uncle, after the death of his wife. She soon started stealing from him and decided to get rid of him, presumably in the hope of inheriting from him. To this end, she added a strychnine based rat poison to his medicine which had the desired effect. The death had all the classic signs of strychnine poisoning and James' son, Robert, was suspicious and obtained a post-mortem. Elizabeth began to empty the house of its contents, in the meantime, further casting suspicion on herself. James' stomach contents revealed large quantities of strychnine and iron cyanide.
At her trial,
Elizabeth's lawyer contended that she had no motive for killing her uncle and the poison must have been given to James by their lodger, who had since left. The jury were unimpressed with this and brought in a guilty verdict within an hour. Elizabeth was to be one of 3 people to be hanged that morning. With her on the gallows was William M'Hugh, who had been convicted of drowning Thomas Mooney and Michael Gillingham, who had murdered John Kileian. At just after 8.00 a.m., William Marwood launched them all into eternity together. Elizabeth was buried in an unmarked grave next to Mary Ann Cotton, from whose death two years earlier, she had apparently learned no lessons.

James Burton, aged 33, went to the gallows on the 6th of August 1883 for the murder of 18 year old Elizabeth Ann Sharpe at Tunstall in Sunderland. Burton had married Elizabeth, but the marriage had quickly fallen apart and she left him. In a fit of jealous rage, he had battered her to death. He was arrested and tried at the Summer Assizes of 1883 and was convicted after the jury had deliberated for just 23 minutes. In the condemned cell, he made a full confession to the crime. His execution was set for 3 weeks hence and the Under Sheriff had given the job of executing him to William Marwood. Burton's drop was set at 7 feet 10 inches, which should have been quite sufficient to produce a pain free death. Marwood did not coil up the free rope as some of his successors did, but instead allowed it to loop down behind the prisoner's back, to about waist level. As newspaper reporters were still permitted at executions, we are able to know the sad details in this case.
"The culprit walked firmly to the scaffold but on being placed in position looked up at the cross beam and on those assembled around the scaffold. Marwood the executioner at once placed the white cap over the culprit's face, fastened his legs and fixed the rope. Immediately the bolt was drawn it was obvious something had gone wrong, the body was swinging violently to and fro in the pit. Marwood seized hold of the rope and assisted by two warders, dragged the still living man out of the pit. When drawn up
Burton presented a shocking appearance." As Marwood went to pull the lever, Burton fainted and began to fall sideways, his pinioned arms catching in the loop of the rope hanging down his back, thus prevented him dropping properly. The noose had also slipped up over Burton's chin. Marwood and the warders now had to get the poor man back onto the platform to disentangle him and having done so, Marwood pushed him off the side of the trap. He swayed back and forth, struggling for a couple of minutes before unconsciousness supervened. His face was badly contorted and his neck very swollen when his body was viewed by the coroner's jury at the formal inquest the following day, and it was clear that he had strangled to death.

The press were still permitted to attend executions up to 1934 (in some counties), and thus we have the benefits of the report of two Durham hangings.
The first was carried out by Henry Pierrepoint and William Willis on
Wednesday, the 8th of December 1909. The criminal was of 29 year old, Abel Atherton, who had been convicted at Durham Assizes, before Mr. Justice Walton, of the murder by shooting of 33 year old Elizabeth Ann Patrick. He maintained throughout that the shooting was an accident and that he had not meant to kill Elizabeth.
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. (Henry Pierrepoint did do it in this order, unlike most other hangmen.) On the gallows, Atherton exclaimed "Yer hanging an innocent man."
The prison bell was tolling and the nearby Assize Courts clock striking the hour when 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.

The second is that of 44 year old Joseph Deans who had been convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, 48 year old Catherine Convery.  He had battered Catherine with an axe at Monkwearmouth in Sunderland, on the night of October 7th 1916, and she died of her wounds 6 days later.  He was tried at Durham on the 15th of November and it took the jury only 5 minutes to convict him.  When asked if he had anything to say before he was sentenced, he replied, “I killed the woman and I am pleased I killed her”.  He was transferred after the trial to the Condemned Cell in A Wing.  The following description of his execution comes from the Durham Chronicle of Friday December 22nd 1916.
”The morning broke the cold and cheerless for Deans last brief day on earth. He had retired to rest early on Tuesday evening and slept most soundly, having to be wakened in order to await the coming of the prison chaplain. Attired in the clothes that he wore for the trial Deans ate a hearty breakfast and afterwards listened very attentively to the ministrations of Rev D. Jacob who remained with him to the end. 
Outside the prison everything was quiet and peaceful and the only thing to indicate that a terrible tragedy was being enacted within the prison walls was a notice issued the previous day by the High Sheriff (Mr Hustler) and the Governor (Mr. Hellier), under the Capital Punishment Amendment Act. 1868 to the effect that the sentence of the law passed upon Joseph Deans, found guilty of murder would be carried into execution at 8am on Wednesday morning. Only a solitary pressman and a police sergeant were to be seen on the prison green, the public apparently taking no interest in the proceedings.  The only sound heard by them was the padded doors of the scaffold, and the noise they made could be distinctly heard in the calm of the morning outside.  The prison bell was tolled when all was over,  and notices signed by Dr. Gilbert the prison surgeon to certify that the man was dead,  and by the Governor and the Under Sheriff and the chaplain intimating that the sentence had been carried into execution were afterwards casually read by the passers by.
Meanwhile the arrangements had been completed for the carrying out of the sentence. John  Ellis the executioner and his assistant (George Brown) who had arrived the previous night and were accommodated with lodgings in the prison, made a final test of the arrangements and found all satisfactory. The prison chaplain arrived early then came the Under Sheriff, followed at quarter to eight o'clock by the prison surgeon and the Governor. In the doctors room the next scene was enacted, and there the condemned man met his executioner face to face for the first time.  Ellis speedily strapped the condemned mans hands behind his back and bared his neck,  and whilst the Cathedral bell was striking the hour the little procession started on its way to the place of execution.  In front came the chaplain reading the service for the dead, the intervening space between the doctors room and the van house was covered in a few seconds and what followed was also the work of a remarkably short space of time, walking across the van house over the drop to the west wall he then turned and faced the culprit Deans who was accompanied by two warders walked firmly and without assistance followed by Ellis and his assistant the rear being brought up by the Governor, prison surgeon and other officials. Deans entered the van house and took up his position on the drop indicated by a chalk mark, then he was given into the hands of the executioners and whilst Ellis arranged the noose his assistant adjusted the ankle straps then Ellis produced the sugar loaf white cap and having drawn it over Deans head he sprang aside gripped the lever and released the bolts, the heavily padded doors swung open and Deans was precipitated into the pit below.  The signal having been given a warder rang the bell announcing the fact that the grim tragedy was over. The execution was speedily carried out and death which was instantaneous, occurring just as the last stroke of eight rang out from the Cathedral clock, for an hour the corpse was allowed to hang and afterwards was drawn up and placed in a plain coffin. The Governor intimated privately that the execution had been most expeditiously carried out,  in fact he never remembered an occasion where the sad proceedings had been so short and satisfactory.”

On the evening of Thursday, the 29th of February 1940, a robbery took place at a shop in Cuxhoe County Durham. Two young men, 24 year old Vincent Ostler and 27 year old William Appleby, had broken into the Co-op store there in the early hours of the morning. A passing cyclist, Jesse Smith, noticed the light on (unusual in a shop at night in those days) and thought he saw a person inside. He decided to report this immediately to the police and Constables William Shiell and William Stafford went back with Smith to see what was going on. When they heard the police, the robbers made a break for it and were chased by Shiell. One of the men shot Shiell in the stomach and he remained conscious long enough to tell Stafford that there were two assailants and that one of them had said "let him have it" before the shot was fired. (Sound familiar? See the case of Derek Bentley.) Shiell was able to describe one of his attackers to colleagues before he died later the next day in hospital. Ostler and Appleby were arrested on the 4th of March, both blaming the other. Once again the words "let him have it" were to prove significant at their trial at Leeds before Mr. Justice Hilbery in May. It was shown that Ostler had fired the fatal shot but by saying "let him have it" which constable Shiell had insisted Appleby had said.  Appleby was held to have incited Ostler and was therefore equally guilty. Their appeals were dismissed and the law took its course on Thursday, the 11th of July 1940 when Thomas Pierrepoint hanged them side by side.


Most prisons seem to have their "oddball" cases and that of Patrick Turnage was certainly one. Turnage pleaded guilty to the murder of 78 year old Julia Beesley, at his 7 minute long trial at Durham on the 26th of October 1950. Julia Beesley was a prostitute and Turnage a merchant seaman who had come ashore for drink and sex on the 22nd of July 1950. After they had had sex, they quarrelled over her proposed charge for this service and he had strangled her. He was arrested the next day and confessed that he had killed Julia. However, the facts of the case pointed more to a conviction for manslaughter than murder, but Turnage refused to accept this and insisted on pleading guilty to murder so that he could be hanged rather than serve a potential 15 year sentence for manslaughter. Steve Wade granted him his wish on Thursday, the 14th of November 1950.

Twenty two year old John Vickers became the first person executed in England and Wales since August 1955, and the first under the Homicide Act of 1957, having been convicted of the murder of 72 year old Jane Duckett. Miss Duckett owned and ran a small grocery shop in Carlisle and Vickers decided to rob her. She heard the sounds of someone on her premises and put up a fight in the course of which he battered her to death. Section 5 of the Homicide Act made murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft a capital crime.
Vickers was soon arrested and tried at
Carlisle on the 23rd of May 1957. He was convicted and sentenced to death but appealed on the grounds that there was no malice a forethought in the killing. The appeal was dismissed and after an unsuccessful attempt to take the case to the House of Lords, he was hanged on Tuesday, the 23rd of July 1957 by  Harry Allen, assisted by  Harry Smith.

Private Brian Chandler was the last person to be executed at Durham. The 20 year old soldier was hanged on Wednesday, the 17th of December 1958 by  Robert Stewart, assisted by Tommy Cunliffe, for battering to death 83 year old Martha Dodd at Darlington in June of that year. Like Vickers before him, it had to be shown that he had stolen from Mrs. Dodd, to be guilty of capital murder under the provisions of the Homicide Act of 1957. The jury found that he had after only 1-1/2 hours of deliberation, and he was sentenced to death on the 29th of October by Mr. Justice Ashworth.

HMP Durham remains in service to this day and as a maximum security prison houses some our most dangerous criminals.

With special thanks to Aaron Bougourd for his help with this article.

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