Early English hangmen


Very few records exist of hangmen outside London, prior to 1830.  Often this is because they were recruited from the ranks of the condemned themselves and reprieved on the condition of undertaking the executions of their fellow prisoners from a particular assize.  Where their names were known they were often not reported in newspapers.  If mentioned at all, they were likely to be referred to as the “common hangman” or “Jack Ketch” or the “London hangman”.  Hanging in those days was hardly rocket science and anyone with a strong stomach could perform the role.  Death was something much closer to ordinary people then, who didn’t live in the sanitised world that we do and would have been quite used to the sight of death and to killing animals for food.  Generally these men were ostracised by the public once they became hangmen and were not the minor celebrities that they became later.
With the lack of a transport system it was necessary to have a hangman for each county or small group of counties, it was only the coming of the railways that allowed executioners to travel between counties and later throughout the country.  Prior to 1840 the only means of getting around was either by horse or the stagecoach, neither of which covered many miles in a day.  It would seem that the fee in the 1820’s and 1830’s, at least for non prisoner hangmen was between £2 and £5 for the local man, but as much as £10 if the London hangman of the day had to officiate.  Assistants where used, got between 5 and 10 shillings (25p - 50p) and were selected by the hangman in some cases, rather than the prison authorities.


London’s hangmen.

Jack Ketch became the generic name for the hangman although the first person to get that name was actually called John Ketch and operated at Tyburn from September 1663.  It is thought that he worked for around 23 years up to 1686 when he was imprisoned for a while before being reinstated.  He, like all London hangmen, had to carry out beheadings up to 1747 and burnings as well as hangings. It is for two beheadings that he best remembered.  Lord William Russell was executed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 July 1683 for his part in the Rye House Plot against King Charles II.  Ketch struck Russell four blows with the axe before finally decapitating him.  As a result he had to issue a written “Apologie”, as it was titled.  Another seriously bungled beheading was that of James Scott, Duke of Monmouth on Tower Hill on 15 July 1685.  It took Ketch repeated blows to finally despatch the Duke. 


Pasha Rose succeeded Ketch. Rose was to be hanged at Tyburn for housebreaking and theft just four months later.  Ketch returned to office and continued up to his death in November 1686.  It is thought that he was succeeded by one Richard Pearse, of whom little is known and even less about who was the executioner between 1686 and 1714.


John Price was born in 1677 and appointed executioner in 1714.  He held the position for four years before also being hanged, on Saturday the 31st of May 1718 at Bunhill Fields for the murder of Elizabeth White, near the spot where he was executed.  He was afterwards hanged in chains at Stonebridge.


William Marvell took over the office having been a temporary replacement for Price, while the latter was in prison for debt.  On 24 February 1716 he beheaded Lord Derwentwater and Lord Kilmure on Tower Hill, making a rather better job that Jack Ketch had.  Marvell held the job until November 1717, when he was dismissed after getting into debt, but then presumably reappointed to replace Price. 


“Bailiff Banks” took over from Marvell held the post for a few year before handing over to Richard Arnett, probably in 1719. It is thought that he hanged John Price (above) and Marquis de Paleotti who had murdered his servant.  Very little else is known about Mr. Banks.


Richard Arnet.  Arnet was probably responsible for the executions of Jack Shepherd and Jonathan Wild at Tyburn and definitely carried out the burning of Catherine Hayes at Tyburn on Monday, the 9th of May 1726 for the Petty Treason murder of her husband.  Arnet died in August 1728.


John Hooper was a turnkey at Newgate who was appointed to take over from Arnet and was noted for his jokes, being dubbed the “Laughing Hangman”. He held the post until March 1735 when he was replaced by John Thrift. 


John Thrift reigned for nearly 18 years and had the gruesome task of hanging, drawing and quartering some of those involved in the Jacobite Rebellion between July and November 1745.  Thrift succumbed to illness and died on the 5th of May 1752. 


Thomas Turlis replaced him, working for nearly 20 years before dying in April 1771, while returning home after an execution at Kingston in Surrey.  His first job was to hang 12 people on Monday the 4th of February 1754.  His most notable executions were those of Earl Ferrers in 1760 and Elizabeth Brownrigg in 1767.


Edward Dennis was the official executioner for London and Middlesex from 1771 till his death on the 21st of November 1786 and carried out 201 hangings at Tyburn and Newgate, plus two burnings at Newgate.  Dennis hanged the Rev. Dr. William Dodd on the 27th of June 1777 for forgery.  On the 9th of December 1783 he and William Brunskill hanged nine men and one woman side by side on the "New Drop" at the first execution outside Newgate prison.  Dennis hanged 95 men and one woman between February and December of 1785, with 20 men being hanged on one day alone, Wednesday, the 2nd of February of that year.  Dennis was often assisted at these marathons by the man who was to become his successor, William Brunskill.  Edward Dennis was involved in the Gordon Riots in 1780.  He claimed that he had been recognised my the mob in Holborn and had been threatened with death if he did not help them pull down the house of a Mr. Edmund Boggis.  The Gentleman’s Magazine notes that he was pardoned so that he could hang the 19 others convicted of riot at various places around London.  (click here for more details)


William Brunskill was to hang an amazing 537 people outside Newgate as principal hangman.  His first job was carried out on the 22nd of November 1786, the day after Dennis died, when he hanged seven men for housebreaking and highway robbery.  Brunskill carried out the last execution by burning in Britain, that of coiner Catherine or Christian Murphy, outside Newgate in 1789. 
Brunskill was also the hangman for
Surrey and executed 68 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol between 1800, when it opened and 1814.  The largest group were the seven Despard Conspirators, whom Brunskill put to death at Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Surrey on Monday, the 21st of February 1803. The seven men were  Colonel Edward Despard, John Francis, John Wood, James Broughton, James Sedgewick, Arthur Wrutton and John McNamara all of whom had been convicted of High Treason. They were symbolically drawn around the prison yard before their execution and beheaded after death.  Brunskill was also the hangman for men condemned by the High Court of Admiralty for crimes committed at sea. He hanged Capt. John Sutherland on the 29th of June 1809 at Execution Dock in Wapping, for the murder of his 13 year old cabin boy, Richard Wilson. On May 12th 1812 Brunskill executed John Bellingham at Newgate for the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Percival. He was the only British prime minister to be assassinated.  Brunskill, by now aged 69, suffered a stroke in 1814 and was granted a pension of 15 shillings (75p) a week after he retired.


John Langley, who had been Brunskill’s assistant for nearly 25 years now took over and hanged 37 men and three women in his three years in office, including Eliza Fenning.  He died on the 27th of April 1817 and was succeeded in turn by his assistant, James Botting.


James Botting who was known as “Jemmy” hanged 25 men and two women during his two year tenure at Newgate and Maidstone.  He was the first London hangman to receive a proper salary - £1 a week. His most famous execution was that of the five Cato Street conspirators, comprising of Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, Richard Tidd, and William Davidson, who had formed a plan to overthrow the government.  They were hanged and then decapitated on the gallows at Newgate on the 1st of May 1820.  The rest of their sentence for treason of hanging, drawing and quartering being remitted. Botting was assisted by Thomas Cheshire for this high profile execution and an unnamed and secret person who actually cut off the traitor's heads.  Botting was by all accounts a dour and surly man who was generally loathed.  He died on the 1st of October 1837, 17 years after retiring on a pension of 10 shillings (50p) a week.


James Foxen (also given as Foxten) assumed the position in July 1820 having previously assisted Botting, and is thought to have hanged as many as 206 men and six women over the next 11 years at Newgate and Home Counties prisons. The most famous criminal to come his way was the banker and fraudster, Henry Fauntleroy, at Newgate on the 30th of November 1824. His final execution was the double hanging at Newgate of James Coleman and James Wheeler on the 21st of January 1829.  Foxton died on the 14th of February 1829 and was succeeded by Thomas Cheshire.


Thomas Cheshire was known as ”Old Cheese” and often assisted at hangings at Newgate and later at Bedford, Bury St. Edmunds, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Hertford, Huntingdon and Maidstone. He officiated as principal at 15 executions, including six outside Newgate. His last job at Newgate was a quadruple hanging on the 24th of March 1829, of three highway robbers and one man convicted of stealing in a dwelling house.  One of his most high profile cases was the execution of John Thurtell at Hertford on the 9th of January 1824.  Thurtell had been convicted of “The Elstree Murder”. Another high profile case that came his way was the “Red Barn” murderer William Corder, who he hanged at Bury St. Edmunds on the 11th of August 1828.  His last recorded execution was that of that of William Osborne at Cambridge on the 11th of April 1829. He was succeeded at Newgate by William Calcraft. (see English hangmen 1850 - 1964) and died in July 1830.


Provincial hangmen.



Edward Barlow, known as “Old Ned” was Lancashire’s hangman. It is assumed that Barlow carried out all of the 47 hangings at Lancaster between 1782 and 1799, plus a further 24 between 1800 and 1812.  Barlow had been condemned to death for horse theft but had his sentence commuted to 10 years imprisonment on condition that he lived in Lancaster Castle and continued to carry out hangings and floggings.  Edward Barlow died in 1812. I have had access to the journal of the Castle’s then Governor, John Higgin, in which he records on the 9th of December 1812 "Died in the castle this day Edward Barlow". There are several sources which show he was carrying out executions here as late as 1820, but these are patently incorrect.  It is unclear who succeeded Barlow, but in due course William Calcraft was to become a regular visitor to Lancaster. 



William “John” Curry from Thirsk was the hangman for Yorkshire between 1802 and 1835 and carried out at least 58 and as many as 117 hangings during his 33 year reign.  He was known as "Mutton Curry" as he had twice been convicted of sheep stealing, having had his death sentence commuted on each occasion.  On the second occasion, in April 1801, he was awaiting transportation when the post of hangman became vacant and he accepted it.  Curry found his job stressful and took to drinking a lot of gin to steel himself for the task.  A notable execution took place on the 20th of March 1809 when he hanged the “Yorkshire Witch” Mary Bateman for the murder of Rebecca Perigo, alongside Joseph Brown who had killed Elizabeth Fletcher.  The 16th of January 1813 was to be Curry’s busiest day with 14 men to hang.  The executions were carried out in two groups, one at 11a.m. and one at 2p.m. in what was to be York's biggest ever hanging.  A "vast concourse" of people assembled on St George’s Field to see this mass "launch into eternity" as hangings were then known.  The prisoners were Luddites who were trying to halt mechanisation of the textile industries of Yorkshire and Lancashire by violent means, as this was causing widespread unemployment and destitution.  Following an attempt to destroy Cartwright's textile mill at Rawfold near Brighouse in April 1812, over 100 men had been rounded up.  Sixty four were charged with a variety of offences and came before a special judicial commission at York Castle at the beginning of January 1813. Twenty four of them were convicted and 17 sentenced to hang. The remainder were transported. The first of these executions was carried out on Friday, the 8th of January when three men suffered for the murder of mill owner, William Horsfall, including the Luddite's leader in Yorkshire, George Mellor, the remainder of the group being dealt with just over a week later.

On the 14th of April, 1821 Curry was called upon to perform two executions.  First he hanged highwayman Michael Shaw at York Castle and then had to walk across town to execute William Brown for burglary at the City Gaol.  He was somewhat drunk by the time he got there and while waiting on the platform for the prisoner to appear, he began shaking the noose at spectators, calling out to them: "Some of you come up and I'll try it!"

When Brown appeared, Curry had to be assisted by a warder and one of the sheriff's officers. "The executioner, in a bungling manner and with great difficulty, being in a state of intoxication, placed the cap over the culprit's face and attempted several times to place the rope round his neck, but was unable." "He missed the unfortunate man's head with the noose every time that he tried. The cap was each time removed from the malefactor's face, who stared wildly around upon the spectators" the Times newspaper reported on the 24th of April.  The crowd were not amused by this and called out "Hang him, hang Jack Ketch".

On the 1st of September 1821 Curry had to hang seven men at one time.  The execution was reported by The Yorkshire Gazette as follows. "On Saturday last, a few minutes before 12 o'clock, the unfortunate men were conducted from their cells to the fatal drop. "After a short time spent in prayer they were launched into eternity. None of them seemed to suffer much.

"However, by an unaccountable neglect of the executioner (Curry) in not keeping sufficiently clear of the drop when the bolt was pulled out, he fell into the trap along with the malefactors."

Curry was retired in 1835 and died in March 1841.


James Coates, who was also a prisoner at York, having been sentenced to seven years transportation for larceny at the summer assizes of 1835, took over the vacant position.  Coates executed Charles Batty in 1836 and Thomas Williams the following year, both for attempted murder. He managed to escape from the prison on the 28th of November 1839 and was never heard of again. Reportedly one John Wilkinson was appointed in his place although he was never needed as there were no executions at York between 1836 and 1839.


Nathaniel Howard, another prisoner, took over the post in 1840 and hanged James Bradsley for the murder of his father on 11 April of that year, due to the unavailability of Calcraft, who was booked for an execution at Stafford on the same day. Howard went on to hang a further 17 men between then and the 9th of April 1853 when he bungled the hanging of murderer Henry Dobson so badly that, "when the drop fell and the rope tightened around his neck, the condemned man struggled violently" for which Howard was dismissed.  He was by this time old and in poor health and died on the 22nd of April .  Howard was the last prisoner hangman at York.
There were no executions at
York between April 1853 and 1856 and a new executioner had to be found to hang 28 year old William Dove for the murder of his wife on the 9th of August 1856, as Calcraft was at Dorchester that day for the execution of Elizabeth Brown.  The man chosen was Thomas Askern. (see English hangmen 1850 - 1964).



Samuel Burrows was Chester’s hangman and performed 58 executions there between 1802 and 1834.  He executed Edith Morrey on the 23rd of April 1813 for the murder of her husband. He had also hanged her boyfriend, John Lomas on the 24th of August 1812, for his part in the killing .

His last job was also his biggest one, the quadruple hanging at Chester on the 19th of April 1834 when he hanged Thomas Riley for cutting and maiming, John Carr and William Naylor for shooting with intent to murder, and James Mason for procuring an abortion.  He also worked at Shrewsbury and Hereford on occasions.  He was born on the 28th of June 1772 and died on the 20th of October 1835.


Leicestershire & the Midlands.

Samuel Haywood from Appleby Magna, Leicestershire, was an agricultural labourer and also a poacher. He was arrested in March 1817 and charged with being equipped for poaching and having snares and other instruments for the destruction of game, according to The Leicester Chronicle of 19th April 1817. He was tried on Friday the 18th of April 1817 and sentenced to two years in Leicester’s Bridewell (House of Correction). Whilst imprisoned he volunteered to flog another prisoner.  The governor offered Haywood the vacant position of hangman for Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. His earliest recorded execution was that of Thomas Wilcox at Nottingham on the 24th of March 1820.  He carried out a triple hanging at Nottingham in 1822 and a double at Lancaster in 1832.  He hanged Sarah Smith at Leicester on the 26th of March 1832, for the murder of Elizabeth Wood.  A few days later he was in action at Warwick for the execution of John Danks on the 9th of April and by 1835 was working as far afield as Gloucester.  He was also hired at Liverpool’s Kirkdale Goal where he carried out two executions in 1835/6, including his second female one, that of Elizabeth Rowland on the 9th of April 1836, for the murder of her husband.  On the 5th of April 1838 he hanged Ann Wycherly at Stafford for child murder. He carried out a triple hanging in Derby on the 31st of March 1843.  His final execution was that of John Platts at Derby on the 1st of April 1847.  Haywood died of influenza on the 11th of March 1848 at the age of 70 having executed at least 44 people, including three women.  It is possible that he carried out a further fourteen hangings but this cannot be confirmed.


The South West.

George Mitchell, about whom very little is known other than his work as an executioner, hanged 30 people in three South Western counties.  He was employed at Bodmin in Cornwall, Exeter in Devon, Bridgwater and Ilchester in Somerset between 1828 and 1845. Mitchell died in 1847.


A number of other hangmen carried out very small numbers of executions in provincial county towns during the early part of the 19th century but very little is known about them.


We would love to hear from you if you have any more information on Britain’s hangmen.  No information that we have unearthed tells us anything about who officiated at Aberdeen between 1821 and 1824. John Milne was the previous hangman at Aberdeen but is thought to have died in 1818 or 1819. Similarly there is no information for Perth between 1800 and 1817.  To contact me please click here.


With special thanks to Matthew Spicer for providing some of the information used in this article.


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