The Last Hangman in Britain

Article by Ashley Smith. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Jack Barnes.

The debate surrounding the death penalty in the UK has never really gone away, even since it was eventually abolished in 1969 in Great Britain (and in 1973 in Northern Ireland). The arguments for and against remain as polarised as ever, as illustrated when the highly controversial issue was revisited in August 2011 with the introduction of epetitions in the UK, where the general public could sign online petitions for certain legislation to be introduced to Westminster to be debated by MPs.

However, the last time the issue was actually debated in Parliament was in 1998 during the passage of the Human Rights Act, where the motion was rejected by 158 votes. The epetition, launched by Paul Staines in 2011, failed to reach the 100,000 threshold for it to be debated and a rival epetition which was launched to retain the ban actually received more signatures. Regardless of this, the majority of polls indicate that there is still huge support for the death penalty. The figures have been largely exaggerated but a YouGov poll conducted in September 2010 found that 51% directly wanted the death penalty re-instated, whilst the latest polls in 2011 show that 65% now supported it, marking a sharp increase in public support for it.

A death sentence is passed in court, 1912.

It is, however, fair to say that the death penalty has seen its fair share of controversies since it was used from the creation of the British state in 1707. During the “Bloody Codes” era in the 18th century, a staggering 220 crimes were punishable by death, including “being in the company of Gypsies for one month”. Between 1770 and 1830, 7,000 executions were carried out from 35,000 death sentences that were handed out. In the 20th century, between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales, far less than you would expect, but a number of controversial cases highlighted the problems with the issue of capital punishment again.

The case of the hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955 was pivotal in strengthening public support for the abolition of the death penalty, where there are still inadequacies in the evidence provided in the case surrounding her conviction for the murder of her lover, David Blakely. As late as 2007, there was a petition published asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to grant Ellis a pardon in the light of new evidence that the Old Bailey jury in 1955 was not asked to consider.

Her hangman was a man named Albert Pierrepoint, notoriously known as ‘Britain’s Last Hangman’, which is not factually accurate as executions in the UK persisted until 1964, where Harry Allen took charge of the last hanging at Strangeways Prison. But what is largely ignored on the issue of the death penalty is the stories behind the people whose job it was to take the responsibility of the executions, and these deserved to be explored in more detail.

Pierrepoint was enigmatic in the fact that even at 11 years old he wrote “When I leave school I should like to be the Official Executioner” in a school exercise. But Pierrepoint was familiar with executions from an early age, with his Father and Uncle both being official hangmen in the early part of the 20th century. Over the course of his ‘career’ he is estimated to have executed at least 433 men and 17 women, although the figures are largely disputed, with many sources citing that he could have executed up to 600 people. He even still holds the record for the ‘fastest hanging’ which took him a total of seven seconds elapsed from the time at which point Pierrepoint entered the Condemned Cell of James Inglis.

But how would you go about becoming an executioner? Surely, it would be a job that required not only a strong stomach, but being psychologically sound enough to be able to kill somebody and then switch off when not ‘working’. Previously secret documents released from deep within the British justice system reveal that men were selected largely through informal approaches and were deemed “competent to carry out the duties”, whatever that entails. Many people were rejected on the grounds that some of the motivations of the candidates were questionable, but not with Albert Pierrepoint, a man who was sent to Nuremberg due to his professionalism, with the task of executing 200 Nazi war criminals, once hanging 13 criminals before lunchtime.

Pierrepoint was a man who took immense pride in his work, believing that it was his responsibility to be humane to the condemned by ensuring that death occurred swiftly, with him quoted as saying “As long as I can give in the last moment of these people, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment, that’s my job and I come away satisfied”. Certainly, they were not in it for the money, usually being paid a modest 10 guineas plus a third class railway fare per execution, where Pierrepoint referred to his executioner job just as ‘t’other job’.

A remarkable fact about Pierrepoint is that by the end of his life, he allegedly became an opponent of capital punishment, seen where he wrote in his autobiography “…executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people”. Regardless of his personal opinions, Pierrepoint preferred to remain neutral and refused to let this get in the way of the job in the hand, having to execute Timothy Evans in 1950 when later evidence showed that it was actually his neighbour who had committed the murder, leading to his pardoning in 1966. When asked about this, Pierrepoint claimed that “You mustn’t get involved in whatever crime they’ve committed”. Over the span of his career, he had hanged Nazi war criminals, spies and was even ‘sentenced to death’ himself by the IRA for his execution of a terrorist in Dublin in 1944. He famously executed the notorious John Reginald Christie, ‘the Monster of Rillington Place’, where he boasted that he had hanged him “in less time than it took the ash to fall off a cigar I had left half-smoked in my room at Pentonville”, again illustrating his Yorkshire charm.

Although Pierrepoint’s popular story does not reflect the stories of all executioners, it is an interesting insight nonetheless into the unknown and often ignored aspect in the debate regarding capital punishment. The debate will rage on for a long time about the feasibility and morality of the death penalty in the ‘modern age’, but what is often forgotten is that at the end of harmless debate, these are the people who have to make the actual executions and have to live with it on their consciences. It seemed to not have affected Albert Pierrepoint, but after all, he was one of a kind.

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