Several days ago marked fifty years since the last execution in Britain. A recent survey suggested that 45% of Brits would want the death penalty brought back, and whilst I'm not sure I agree I decided to do a bit of research on capital punishment.
On 4 April 1829 shoemaker William Calcraft, aged 29, was sworn in as Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex following the death of John Foxton. He had previously been employed by Foxton to whip young offenders. He was paid a guinea a week, plus an extra guinea for each execution he carried out. His first execution was prior to his swearing in – he hanged Thomas Lister and George Wingfield on 27 March 1829. Calcraft carried out his last hanging on 25 May 1874; James Godwin (27), who had been convicted of killing his wife Louisa after an argument.He retired in 1874, and died five years later.
On 13 November 1849 Frederick and Marie Manning became the first married couple since 1700 to be hanged together. Convicted of killing Marie’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, in Bermondsey, south London, they were hanged at Horsemonger Lane Gaol.
On 2 April 1868: Frances Kidder, aged 25, was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain. She was executed at Maidstone Prison, and a crowd of 2,000, including her husband, watched her die. Frances was convicted of drowning 11-year-old Louisa Kidder Staples – her husband’s illegitimate daughter – in a dyke near New Romney. There was some sympathy, though, towards her – her husband was said to be a cruel man who, while Frances was in custody, started a relationship with her 17-year-old sister.
On 26 May of that year Fenian Michael Barrett became the last man to be executed in a public hanging. He caused an “atrocious” explosion in Clerkenwell that killed seven people, and was hanged outside Newgate Prison. The Daily News reported that he was hanged, “in the presence of one of the smallest crowds that has for a long time assembled in front of the Old Bailey to witness a public execution”.
Just three days later the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act scrapped public executions, and on the 13th August the first private hanging in the UK took place. 18-year-old Thomas Wells was hanged at Maidstone Prison for the murder by shooting of Mr Walsh, the master of Dover’s Priory Station, where Wells had been porter. It was the first private hanging within prison walls, with a black flag raised outside the wall to signify that the hanging had been carried out.
26 September 1932: Yorkshire-born Albert Pierrepoint was appointed, aged twenty seven as Assistant Executioner at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, although due to the relatively low number of hangings in Britain, the first execution he attended was in Dublin. Within ten years, he had been made the Official Executioner of Britain – a job he had wanted since he was 11 years old. Both his father and uncle had worked as executioners. Pierrepoint combined his executioner role with being a grocer and then pub landlord. He also became a macabre celebrity, telling his story to the press, despite the Home Office’s disapproval. He retired in 1956 to Southport, where he died in 1992.
13 July 1955: Ruth Ellis (29) became the last woman to be hanged in Britain, after her conviction for the murder of her lover, David Blakely. She was arrested at the scene of the crime, after shooting him dead.
However on the 13th August 1964, the last two executions in Britian took place. Gwynne Owen Evans (24) and Peter Allen (21), were executed – at the same time, but in different prisons – making them the last people to be executed in the UK. They had been convicted of the murder of van driver John Alan West, known as Jack, who had been killed in Cumbria on 7 April. Evans and Allen, both of whom had previous criminal records, had intended to rob him. Although they blamed each other for West’s death, they were both found guilty of murder.
On the 9th November 1965 the death penalty for murder was suspended for five years, as a result of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, and on the 16th December 1969 the death penalty for murder was formally abolished, following a House of Commons vote.