Authors: Steven Fielding
he sentence of the Court upon you is, that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution and that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead; and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been confined before your execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Amen.’
his book mainly covers the period of 1901 to 1956, and deals with the lives and times of a unique family: a father, Henry Pierrepoint; a son, Albert, and an uncle, Thomas, who each, at one time, held the position of Hangman of England.
Henry Pierrepoint applied to become a hangman just three weeks after the death of Queen Victoria, whose reign of sixty-four years had seen numerous changes in the way law and order was applied and carried out. During her reign, a sentence of death was passed for a variety of crimes, including burglary, rape and attempted murder. Gradually sentence of death ceased for all crimes apart from wilful murder, although the sentence was still carried out in public. It is remarkable to think that in the late nineteenth century, one could travel by underground train in London to watch an execution carried out in front of the prison gates.
Public executions ended in 1868, although members of the press were still present to report in macabre detail what they had witnessed.
All the people executed during the period covered by this book were convicted of murder, except during the period
when Thomas Pierrepoint officiated; during the First World War one person was convicted of treason and hanged, and fifteen men were hanged as a result of the 1940 Treachery Act. Added to this are a number of American servicemen convicted of offences that were not deemed worthy of the death penalty in twentieth century Great Britain.
Furthermore, during Albert Pierrepoint’s time as Chief Executioner, over two hundred people were hanged for offences punishable by the death penalty under the rules of the War Crimes Commission. Albert also hanged the last men convicted of treason during the Second World War.
The Pierrepoints’ stock in trade was being skilled at conducting the final act in the penal life of a condemned man – the physical process of hanging him by his neck. The process changed little over the three generations involved, and the cold, unemotional tones of the 1953 Royal Commission Report description would have rung true to all three Pierrepoints.
Immediately a prisoner sentenced to death returns from court, he is placed in a cell for condemned prisoners and is watched day and night by two officers. Amenities such as cards, chess and dominoes are provided in the cell and the officers are encouraged to join the prisoner in these games. Newspapers and books are also provided. Food is supplied from the main prison kitchen, the prisoner being placed on hospital diet.
In most of the English prisons equipped for execution the execution chamber adjoins the condemned cell. The chamber itself is a small room and the trap occupies a large part of the floor. The trap is formed of two hinged leaves held in position from below by bolts, which are withdrawn when the lever is pulled, allowing the leaves to drop on their hinges. Above the
trap a rope of a standard length is attached to a strong chain, which is fitted to the overhead beam in such a way that it can be raised and lowered and secured at any desired height by means of a cotter slipped into one of the links and a bracket fixed on the beam. This enables the length of chain to be adjusted to make the drop accord with the height and weight of the prisoner.
The executioner and his assistant arrive at the prison on the afternoon before the execution. They are told the height and weight of the prisoner and are given an opportunity to see him from a position where they themselves cannot be seen. While the prisoner is out of the cell they test the apparatus to ensure that is working satisfactorily. For this purpose they use a sack of approximately the same weight as the prisoner, having ascertained the proper drop from a table which gives the length appropriate to a prisoner’s weight. Some adjustments in the length given in the table may be necessary to allow for other physical characteristics of the prisoner, such as age and build.
On the morning of the execution a final check of the equipment is carried out. The rope is coiled, fitted to the chain, and secured in position by a piece of pack thread which will be broken by the weight of the prisoner when he drops. Just before the time of the execution the executioner and his assistant join the Under Sheriff and the prison officials outside the door of the condemned cell. The Under Sheriff gives the signal: the executioner enters the cell and pinions the prisoner’s arms behind his back, and two officers lead him to the scaffold and place him directly across the division of the trap on a spot previously marked with chalk. The assistant executioner pinions the legs, while the executioner puts a white cap over his head and fits the noose round his neck with the knot drawn tight on
the left lower jaw, where it is held in position by a sliding ring. The executioner then pulls the lever. The medical officer carries out an immediate inspection to assure that life is extinct and the body is then left to hang for an hour before being taken down.
February 11th 1901
I wish to inform you that I should be very thankfull if you would accept me as one of the public executioner’s should at any time Mr Billington’s term expires as I have always had a desire for that appointment. I am 24 years of age, height 5ft 8½ inches. Should you require particulars of my character I shall be very glad to give you all the information you require. Hoping the application will be off no offence.
I am yours
Henry Albert Pierrepoint
No 53 Fielden St.
Off Oldham Road
t was this short note, sent to Home Secretary Sir Matthew Ridley in the early part of 1901, which set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the Pierrepoint family name becoming one of the most famous in modern British criminology, and being connected with capital punishment for the next half century.
Henry ‘Harry’ Albert Pierrepoint was born in 1878 at Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire. He was the fourth child, and second son, to Thomas and Ann Pierrepoint, who ran the King’s Head on 14 Main Street, at East Leake. Soon after Harry’s birth, Thomas found work looking after the horses at a Yorkshire quarry and the family uprooted from Nottinghamshire. The 1891 census shows they lived on Wolsley Street, Clayton, near Bradford; Thomas Pierrepoint and his eldest son, also named Thomas, were listed as being employed as quarrymen.
Harry was working at a worsted mill in Clayton, aged 13, when he read about the exploits of the well-known Bradford hangman James Berry, whose career as the country’s chief executioner had come to an end following a series of botched executions and run-ins with prison authorities. After reading about James Billington’s appointment to succeed Berry, Harry quickly decided it was what he wanted to do too – an ambition that stayed with him night and day, never leaving him. Other boys dreamt of becoming soldiers or engine drivers; Harry’s dream was to become an executioner. Over the next few years he hungrily lapped up newspaper accounts of Billington’s thrilling adventures across the country as he dashed by railway from one prison to another carrying out his official duties, executing the criminals whose exploits had been splashed across the weekly scandal sheets – names such
as the notorious Dr Cream (the Lambeth poisoner) and baby farmer Amelia Dyer.
Harry harboured a desire to travel, one more than likely stimulated by reading the hangman’s newspaper accounts. When his father found out he was unhappy working in the local mill, he arranged an apprenticeship for his son at one of Bradford’s largest butchers. Harry lasted three years as a butcher until, on reaching his 18th birthday, he decided to leave the business. He travelled across the Pennines to Manchester where his sister Mary was one of the managers of Robert Boyle and Sons, cabinet makers, at 316 Oldham Road, Manchester.
In 1898, while he was living briefly in Prestwich, Manchester, Harry met a local girl named Mary Buxton; after a brief courtship they married, and within a year they had their first child, a daughter. Then, in February 1901, Harry Pierrepoint composed his brief letter to the Home Secretary, offering his services as an executioner. He was a month short of his 23rd birthday when he applied for the post – not 24, as he himself claimed when applying for the job and when later he penned his memoirs in
Thomson Weekly News
. All census records from 1881, 1891 and 1901 confirm that Henry Albert Pierrepoint was born in March 1878; it’s more than likely that he had added a couple of years to his age to support his application and then kept up the pretence throughout the rest of his life.
Many years later, when he wrote his memoirs, Harry admitted that at the time of applying he felt the post of executioner was morally reprehensible, but this didn’t deter him in his quest. (Although the occupation would have been regarded as ‘unsavoury’ by many, it provided a working-class man with a relatively easy way of earning a
considerable amount of extra money.) He was at a loss as to whom to address his letter, until after some consideration he decided to post it to no less than the Home Secretary himself. To his great joy he received a letter almost by return, stating his request was being considered and that he would hear again in the near future. On 18 February 1901, the Home Secretary wrote to Governor Cruickshank at Manchester’s Strangeways Gaol:
Please send for H. A. Pierrepoint, whose letter is enclosed, and say whether he would make a satisfactory Assistant Executioner. If you think that he is, you might ascertain confidentially from the local police whether he bears a good character.
That his application was being taken seriously was soon proved when detectives called at the Manchester furniture store to make discreet enquiries about Harry. He received a positive reference from his employer and soon after another letter was received at his new home. This time it was marked confidential and came from the governor of Manchester’s Strangeways Gaol, inviting Harry to attend for interview at the prison.
Although Harry had long desired to become an executioner, it was an ambition that he had not shared with anyone. When he arrived at the prison gates, having told no one of his appointment, he was overcome with feelings of embarrassment and a sense of shame at what he was doing. ‘I dare not tell you my particular business,’ he told the guard, ‘but I shall show you this letter.’
His reticence in revealing the purpose of his visit caused an embarrassing episode for the young hangman-to-be. Approached by a principal warder, Harry was asked if he had come for a job in the prison service. Answering in the affirmative, he was taken to a nearby doctor’s room and put through a rigorous medical only to be told he had failed on account of his height. Downcast and disconsolate he trudged home. A day or so later the misunderstanding was cleared up and he received another letter inviting him to see the governor.