Durham prison.

Durham Gaol 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 three 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 four at Dryburn in public. Fifty five men were hanged here in the 20th century. Of these 95, only five 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. Richard Metcalfe was the last person to die at Dryburn, having been found guilty of murdering his son in law.  He was executed on the 12th of August 1805 and it would be eleven years before the next hanging at Durham.

From August 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 hangings. 
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. See photo of the yard with the outline of the drop clearly visible.
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. Exeter.

In 1925 a new Condemned Suite was constructed at the end of D wing, later renamed E Wing. 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 three 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.  Here is a drawing of the condemned suite and a photograph of E Wing looking towards the door to the exercise yard.  The photo is of the corridor, the first door on the left went into the small corridor between the condemned cell and the gallows, the door on the far left is the door to the gallows used by the Governor and official witnesses, the door at the end of the corridor leads out of the wing ,hardly visible in the right corner is the door to the bathroom used by condemned prisoners.  The execution chamber is pictured here.  This diagram and unique photos were supplied by and are copyright of Aaron Bougourd and may not be reproduced without his written permission. 
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). 

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 Cotton’s) 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 law in murderer cases. 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 two 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 did not actually commit 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 10 minutes or so later. Askern was not selected again by the Sheriff of Co. Durham and was replaced by Calcraft. Thomas Askern was the hangman for Yorkshire, and had carried out all five public hangings at Durham between 1859 and 1865.

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 was hanged here at 8.00 a.m. on the morning of Monday, the 24th of March 1873, struggling for three minutes after the drop fell. Click here for a detailed account of her case.

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 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 three 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.

An unusual case reached its grim conclusion on the 16th of May 1882 when Marwood hanged 37 year old Thomas Fury for the stabbing to death of a prostitute named Maria Fitzsimmons.  The crime had taken place in Sunderland on the 19th of February 1869, some 13 years earlier and by the time Fury was executed was a decidedly “cold case”.  However in 1879 one Henry Charles Cort was sentenced to 15 years in prison for robbery and attempted murder and sent to Pentonville prison to serve out his time.  Doing a long stretch in prison did not appeal to Cort who made a written statement confessing that he was actually Thomas Fury and that he had stabbed Maria when she tried to rob him.  He initially pleaded guilty at his trial at Durham before Mr. Justice Watkin Williams but on the judge’s advice withdrew this plea. The trial lasted a whole day and the defense argued that if he had indeed killed Maria then he was only guilty of manslaughter.  The jury rejected this and he was convicted of murder.  Less than three weeks later Fury, showing not the slightest sign of fear, was hanged in the prison yard with a drop reported at eight feet which caused “instant death”.  Fury effectively used the law as a form of suicide.

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 three 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.  Here is the Illustrated Police News take on the hanging.

The press were still permitted to attend executions up to 1934 (in some counties), and thus we have the benefits of their reports 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.
At 7.50 a.m. that Wednesday morning, the Under Sheriff entered the prison with three newspaper reporters. They 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 his head. (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 six days later.  He was tried at Durham on the 15th of November and it took the jury only five 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, had arrived the previous night and were accommodated with lodgings in the prison. They 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.  While the Cathedral bell was striking the hour the little procession started on its way to the place of execution.  Leading it was the chaplain reading the service for the dead. The intervening distance 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.  Deans was escorted by two warders, but walked firmly and without their assistance, followed by Ellis and Brown, 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, Ellis applied the noose while his assistant adjusted the ankle straps then Ellis produced the sugar loaf white cap and having drawn it over Deans head. He sprang to the side and 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 (photo) 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 aforethought 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 (photo) 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 one and a half hours of deliberation, and he was sentenced to death on the 29th of October by Mr. Justice Ashworth.

As HMP Durham, Durham remains in operation to this day and as a Category B prison.

With special thanks to Aaron Bougourd for his help with this article and allowing me to reproduce his photos.

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