Thomas Macdonald - The UK’s first “modern hanging”.


Tuesday the 30th of December 1890 could be reasonably said to be the date of the first modern hanging in England and Wales.


34 year old Thomas Macdonald had been convicted of the murder of Miss Alice Holt, a young school teacher at the National schools in Bolton on the 10th of November 1890.

Miss Holt’s mother lived in a house on the main road between Bolton and Belmont Village and Alice stayed there on weekends and then returned to the school on Monday morning, remaining there until Friday.  It was her normal routine to leave her mother’s house around 7.30 a.m. and walk to the school via Darwen Road, Blackburn Road and then cut through Deakin’s Works, altogether some five miles, mostly through open country.  A young woman named Mary Collier recalled seeing her on the morning of Monday the 10th of November, as did Robert Scholes at around 8.30 a.m.  Scholes then saw Macdonald who was walking a little way behind Alice.  Macdonald was noted by two others following her.  There were no phones in 1890 and Alice’s disappearance was not noticed.  Her mother assumed that she was at work, her employer, Mr. Swales, assumed she must be ill and staying at home.

Alice’s umbrella and a parcel were discovered on the 13th of November by young man named Clement Talbot. Two days later Clement’s older brother made an in depth search of the area and found her body, hidden by leaves and bracken.

Dr. Robinson examined the remains and found that her skull had been fractured, her throat cut and the body bore evidence of various other injuries and defensive wounds.


On the day of the murder, Macdonald was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and when released was spotted near the murder scene.  He was questioned again after the body had been found and initially denied having killed Alice.  However he confessed to his aunt, Honor Bann, that he had committed a murder.  When she asked him who he had killed he told her “Lizzie Holt”.  He later gave himself up and made a statement at Bolton police station.

In this he confessed that he had caught up with Alice and stopped her, demanding to know why she was telling lies about him.  She told him to let go of her and hit him on the forehead with the handle of her umbrella.  At this point Macdonald claimed he lost his temper and killed Alice, before dragging her body into a ravine beside the road and trying to conceal it.


Macdonald was tried at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool on 12th of December 1890, before Mr. Justice Cave.  Macdonald’s counsel, Mr. Cottingham tried to claim that the case was one of manslaughter, on the grounds of provocation, but the accused told him “I am guilty, let it drop”.  The jury took the same view and Macdonald was sentenced to death and returned to Kirkdale prison to await execution.


As a result of the various recommendations of The Capital Sentences (Aberdare) Committee a new gallows was installed at Kirkdale.  The twin beams were eleven feet above the trapdoors which were level with the floor of the chamber.  Brackets were bolted to the beams and a pin passed through them and the appropriate link of a three foot long chain with a ring at the bottom end, allowing for setting the required drop accurately.  The trapdoors were set over a twelve foot deep brick lined pit, reached from above by a flight of steps.  The execution chamber was described as 24 feet x 18 feet with whitewashed walls and wooden boarded floor. The gallows stood along the back wall with the beam supported by two “massive” uprights.  It is assumed that Kirkdale was chosen because hangings there could be supervised by Dr. James Barr, who had given evidence and made detailed proposals to the Committee.  Dr. Barr considered himself to be the country’s leading expert on hanging and was highly regarded as such by the Home Office and the Prison Commission.


The Governor of Kirkdale, Major Knox, had Macdonald moved to a cell much nearer the gallows so as to avoid the 200 to 300 yard procession that had been the case previously.

Macdonald was brought from his cell to a reception ward at 7.55 a.m. Berry came to him and pinioned his wrists, using straps that he had previously laid out on a table.  From this ward to the execution chamber was a distance of just 12 yards, via an open passage way between two buildings.  Several newspaper reporters were permitted to witness the hanging.

Macdonald, accompanied by two warders and James Berry entered the execution chamber at 7.57 a.m. Following them came the Under Sheriff, Dr. Barr, the prison surgeon, and the Rev. Fr. Pennington.  Macdonald walked without assistance and once he was on the trapdoors, Berry pinioned his legs.  The rest of the preparations were completed expeditiously and Fr. Pennington continued to read the burial service to which the now hooded, Macdonald responded “Lord Jesus receive my soul”, “Oh, Lord receive me” “Oh, Lord have mercy upon me”.  With this Berry operated the trapdoors.  From the time Macdonald entered the chamber to the point where he was hanging unconscious had taken no more than a minute.

Dr. Barr went into the pit and felt Macdonald’s pulse.  It ceased within three minutes and it was clear that there had been fracture/dislocation of the cervical vertebrae.


Berry claimed that he had set a drop of eight feet, although this was contradicted by Dr. Barr at the formal inquest.  Barr gave a distance of nine feet two inches, as measured after the drop.  It is possible that there was more rope stretch than was typical later but equally possible that Berry had not set the drop correctly.

Macdonald stood five feet two and three quarter inches and weighed 124.5 lbs. A drop of nine feet, plus a typical two inches for rope and neck stretching, as measured afterwards, would have produced an energy of 1120 ft. lbs.  This would be exactly in accordance with the report submitted by Dr. Barr after the hanging of John Conway at Kirkdale on the 20th of August 1891 (TNA PRO HO 144/213/A48697F/6a, dated 29th August 1891) which read: “The Capital Sentences (Aberdare) Committee adopted my recommendation of a force of 1260 foot pounds. That force was based on observations of executions with the old form of rope and on the old scaffold. Part of the force was used up in stretching the rope, in tightening the knots, and in the spring of the beam. In my more recent table I reduced the maximum force to 1120 foot pounds, to be reduced to 1000 foot pounds in the case of heavy weights. More recently I stated in a letter to Mr Joseph (a Prison Commission clerk) that the force would have to be still further reduced, and in the case of Conway it was only 1040 foot pounds. When the new scaffold is used and my methods of stretching and measuring the rope adopted I think a force of 900 foot pounds will be sufficient.”

The drop was in accordance with the table of drops contained in the July 1890 handwritten “Proposed memorandum of instructions for any person acting as executioner” which it is thought was the first move towards a gradual reduction in drop length from the original table produced by the Committee. It most probably originated from Dr. Barr.


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