The history of judicial hanging in Britain 1735 - 1964.

Contents – please click on the blue hyper links below to navigate round this page.

Introduction
A brief look at execution statistics
Last executions in the UK.
Abolition
Equipment
The gallows, pinioning straps, hood, & noose
Execution methods
The “Short Drop
Surviving the gallows
The “Long Drop”
Drop tables
Setting the drop
After the drop fell
Trace the progress of hanging from 1735 - 1955
A 1750's hanging at Tyburn
A multiple hanging at Newgate in the 1820's
An 1850's hanging
An early long drop hanging in 1879

The report of the Aberdare Committee
An early 20th century hanging.

A 1950's hanging
Crimes and the death sentence
Capital crimes
The role of the judges
The sentence of death.
(Listen to the death sentence being pronounced)
The Privy Council and the “Hanging Cabinet”
The Home Office
Places of execution

The condemned cell
The roles of the various officials
The sheriff

The prison doctor
The prison governor and prison officers
The chaplain or Ordinary
The hangman and his assistants
The paperwork of executions

Please note! As this page contains images of real executions which some may find disturbing they must be accessed manually by clicking on the links.

Introduction.
In Britain, death by hanging was the principal form of execution from Anglo-Saxon times until capital punishment was abolished in 1964.
Up to May 1868 all hangings were carried out in public and attracted large crowds who were at least supposed to be deterred by the spectacle, but who more probably went for the morbid excitement and the carnival atmosphere that usually surrounded such events. The modern expression Gala Day is derived from the Anglo-Saxon gallows day.  After hangings retreated inside prisons, large crowds would still often gather outside the gates to see the posting of the death notice or to protest the execution.

Execution statistics.
In the 230 year the period from 1735 to 1964 there were some 10,935 civilian executions in England and Wales alone, comprising 10,378 men and 557 women.  In 273 of the early cases, it is not possible to be totally certain from surviving records whether a death sentence was actually carried out or not. 32 of the 375 women executed between 1735 and 1799 were burnt at the stake.

Country

England & Wales

Scotland

Ireland

Northern Ireland

Channel Islands & Isle of Man

Period

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

Male

Female

1735 -1799

6,069

375

209

26

-

-

-

-

-

-

1800 - 1899

3,365

172

275

15

529*

26*

-

-

13

1

1900 - 1964

748

15

33

1

46

2

16

0

2

0

* 1827 – 1899 figures for all of Ireland

78 executions (all male) were carried out for offences under the jurisdiction of the High Court of Admiralty at Execution Dock between 1735 and 1830 and are included above. 

Last executions in the UK.
On the26th of May 1868, Michael Barrett, a Fenian, (what would now be called an I.R.A. terrorist) became the last man to be publicly hanged in England, before a huge crowd outside Newgate prison, for causing an explosion at Clerkenwell in London which killed Sarah Ann Hodgkinson and six other innocent people. Three days later on the 29th of May 1868. Parliament passed the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act, ending public hanging.  Frances Kidder was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain, when she was executed at Maidstone at midday on Thursday, the 2nd of April 1868. Strangely the last fully public hanging in the British Isles did not take place until the 11th of August 1875, when Joseph Phillip Le Brun was executed for murder on the island of Jersey. The provisions of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 did not apply there.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to suffer the death penalty in Britain on the 13th of July 1955.  Wales had its last execution on the 6th of May 1958, when Vivian Teed was hanged for the murder of William Williams at Swansea. The last hanging in Northern Ireland was that of Robert McGladdery on the 20th of December 1961 at Belfast for the murder of Pearle Gamble.  21 year old Henry Burnett was the last person hanged in Scotland in the newly refurbished Condemned Suite at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on the 15th of August 1963 for the murder of Thomas Guyan.  The last hangings of all in Britain were two carried out simultaneously at 8.00 a.m. on August the 13th, 1964 at Liverpool's Walton prison and Strangeways prison in Manchester, when Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans were executed for the murder of John West.

Abolition.
On the 9th of November 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for a period of five years.  On the 16th of December 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed its decision that capital punishment for murder should be permanently abolished. On a free vote, the House voted by 343 to 185, a majority of 158, that the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, should not expire. Thus, the death penalty for murder was formally abolished.  For a detailed discussion of abolition click here.

The gallows.
(Visit the
Gallows Gallery for pictures of British gallows up to the beginning of the 20th century)
A tree was the earliest form of gallows with prisoners being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder or the tail of a cart.  Two trees with a beam between them formed the gallows (see
picture) for 33 year old Mary Blandy's execution at Oxford on April the 6th, 1752. For a detailed account of her case, click here.
In other places more conventional gallows were built, having either a single upright with a projecting beam cross braced to it or two uprights and a cross beam where more than one person could be hanged at a time. Both types still required the use of a ladder or a cart to get the criminal suspended. Many of these gallows were not permanent and were dismantled after each execution. In some cases, the gallows was erected near to the scene of the crime so that the local inhabitants could see justice done.
In 1571, the famous "Triple Tree" was set up at Tyburn (see
picture) to replace previous smaller structures and was, at least once, used for the hanging of 24 prisoners simultaneously. This was on the 23rd of June 1649 when 23 men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery, having been conveyed there in eight carts. Another mass execution took place on March 18th, 1740 when the famous pickpocket and thief, Jenny Diver, was hanged before a huge crowd, together with 19 other criminals. Tyburn’s "Triple Tree" gallows remained in use until the end of 1759 and consisted of three tall (approx. 12 foot high) uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form to provide a triple gallows under which three carts could be backed at a time. The structure was removed, as it had become a cause of traffic congestion, and was replaced by a portable gallows. At the end of 1783 executions were transferred to Newgate prison (where now stands the Old Bailey courts in London). For a history of Newgate prison click here.
On Monday 21st of April 1760 a new design gallows was used to execute the Earl of Ferrers at Tyburn.  It comprised a scaffold covered in black baize reached by a short flight of stairs. Two uprights rose from the scaffold, topped with a cross beam.  Directly under the beam there was a small box like structure, some three feet square and 18 inches high, which was designed to sink down into the scaffold and thus leave the criminal suspended. This was the forerunner of the "New Drop" gallows.

The "New Drop" gallows.
The 9th of December 1783 saw the first executions on Newgate's "New Drop" gallows, when nine men and one woman were hanged simultaneously by Edward Dennis and William Brunskill for a variety of offences.
See picture. The gallows was on wheels and was brought out specially for each hanging by a team of horses. It was a large box like structure with two uprights supporting two parallel beams from which a maximum of a dozen criminals could be hanged at once. The prisoners stood on a platform, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide, released by moving a lever or "pin" acting on a drawbar under the drop. They now fell roughly to knee level. The "New Drop" had 96 customers between February and December of 1785, with 20 men being hanged on the 2nd of February of that year. Newgate’s first "New Drop" is shown in its original form in this picture. By the mid 1820's, as hangings became less frequent, the double beam gallows was replaced with a single beam pattern which could still accommodate six prisoners at a time. (see picture).

The "New Drop" pattern was copied by the county gaols and soon became universal, as executions were moved from their previous sites on the outskirts of towns to the actual prison. The gallows was normally big enough to accommodate two or three prisoners side by side and was erected for each execution. The platform was between 3 and 5 feet high and shielded by either wooden boards or black cloth drapes to conceal the legs and lower body of the prisoner in their final struggles. The trapdoors were released either from underneath by withdrawing bolts or latterly from on top of the platform by pulling a lever. In some parts of the country, the gallows had far more steps up to the platform (as in Dorchester and Nottingham). The “New Drop” was typically erected directly outside of, or on top of the gatehouse roof of county gaols, thus sparing the prisoner the long and uncomfortable ride to the place of execution in a cart.  It was also more secure and much easier to police.  Some prisons used a balcony type gallows (as at York after 1868 -see picture) Kilmainham in Dublin and Lancaster from 1800 to 1868 where the prisoner was brought directly onto the platform through first floor French windows of the “Drop Room”.

After the passing of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868, all executions had to take place within the walls of county prisons. The existing gallows was generally used, set up in the prison yard rather than in public, e.g. at Durham, Lewis and Gloucester.  Some of these still required the prisoner to ascend steps up to the platform, which could be problematic.
Prisons that had more frequent hangings mostly had execution sheds built in one of their exercise yards to house the gallows, e.g. Newgate, see
picture, Wandsworth, see picture of interior, Armley (Leeds), Warwick and Strangeways (Manchester). The shed stood apart from the main buildings and necessitated a fairly lengthy walk from the condemned cell. In some cases the gallows were set up in the prison van’s shed, e.g. at Exeter and Kirkdale (Liverpool). The trapdoors were typically installed over a brick lined pit. With the coming of the long drop the pit was deepened to about 12 - 13 feet, as drops of up to 10 feet were not unusual in William Marwood's time.  Having the gallows in a separate building spared the other prisoners from the sound of the trap falling and made it easier for the staff to deal with the execution and removal of the body afterwards.
The gallows beam at Newgate was wide enough to accommodate four prisoners side by side, as was needed for the execution of the "Lennie Mutineers" on the 23rd of April 1876. In 1881, a new gallows was built for Newgate, consisting of two stout uprights with a cross beam. Normally only one iron band was fitted to the cross beam in the centre and from it six links of circular chain dangled, to which the rope was attached, by a metal hook worked into the free end in Calcraft’s time. Additional iron bands could be added for multiple hangings. On each of the uprights, was a pulley for raising the trapdoors which were operated by a lever on the platform and fell against three bales of cotton in an attempt to muffle the noise. All the woodwork was painted a dull buff colour.

Prior to 1884, each county was responsible for providing the gallows for carrying out the death sentences passed in that county, and therefore all sorts of designs were in use, many of them being less than satisfactory. In 1885, the Prison Commission of the Home Office commissioned Major Alten Beamish of the Royal Engineers to design a standard gallows for use throughout the country. This consisted of two uprights with a cross beam in 8 inch section oak. The beam was long enough to execute up to four prisoners side by side and at Newgate was set over a 12 feet long by 4 feet wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trapdoors were made from 1 ½ inch thick oak and were released by a metal lever on the platform.  The gallows now stood permanently in an execution chamber and was not dismantled after each execution as it was neither visible nor subject to weather damage. This was a great improvement over some of the designs then in use and considerably speeded up the process. The beam had one or more iron bands attached to it from which hung lengths of chain for attachment of the rope using "D" shackles. This made the setting of the drop more accurate. (See drawing of the interior of a Victorian execution shed being tidied up after a hanging. The small trapdoor on the left of the picture is for access to the pit below to examine and remove the body.) The gallows in the execution shed at Wandsworth prison around 1900 (see picture), is one of the very few to have been actually photographed - you can see the lever, open trap and one of the plank bridge laid across the drop for the warders to stand on whilst holding the prisoner.
In the thoughtful way of the Home Office, at least some of these gallows had the Royal Coat of Arms displayed on the beam which must have been a great comfort to the condemned!
As a result of the recommendations of the Aberdare Committee, the single beam was replaced by two beams of 8 inch x 3 inch section oak, running parallel to each other about two inches apart. Straddling the centre of the beams, was a cast iron bracket drilled with holes offset at half inch centres through which a metal pin was inserted and to which a length of chain was attached. (See
picture) This allowed very much more accurate adjustment of the drop. This mechanism was further refined to allow the drop to be set to within a quarter of an inch. The beams were 8 feet above the trapdoors and were generally set into the wall at each end, there being no uprights.
An official memo dated 1950 gave dimensions of 7 feet 6 inches by 4 feet 6 inches for the trap doors at Winchester prison and it was also noted that 23 prisons had execution facilities.  The trapdoors were reduced in length as multiple hangings were no longer favoured and normally consisted of two leaves each of 4 to 8 feet in length and each 2’ to 2’ 6” wide.  The trap door area was delineated by a 3 inch wide white line round all four sides.  This came about in 1929 after an accident had occurred at Swansea prison at the execution of Trevor Edwards on the 11th of December 1928.  The hangman was Robert Baxter and his assistant was Alfred Allen.  Baxter thought Allen was clear of the trap when he operated it but this was not the case and Allen fell through it. 
The trapdoor nearest the lever is conventionally hinged whilst the other has extended hinges that run under the first leaf and are held on top of an iron drawbar which has three slots. The trap was operated by a lever on top of the platform which moved the drawbar. When the slots in the drawbar lined up with the ends of the extended hinges of the opposing door, the hinge ends were no longer supported and thus cause the trap to open allowing the prisoner to drop through into the cell below. The doors were caught by rubber lined catches to stop them bouncing back and hitting the criminal. It was normal for the hangman to make a chalk T on the trap so that the prisoner's feet could be correctly positioned exactly over the centre of the two leaves. The view from the underside of the trap, showing the operating mechanism, is shown in this
drawing.

In the period after World War I (1918 on) there was a move to reduce the number of "hanging prisons" and in those where executions were to continue, purpose built condemned suites were constructed within a wing of the prison on three floors. (Click here for a list of 20th century "hanging prisons") One or two condemned cells were created on the first floor within 15 -20 feet of the execution room. On the ground floor was a cell into which the trap doors opened and in the three London prisons an autopsy room immediately adjacent to it. The 2nd floor room contained the gallows beams, their ends set into the walls, where the drop could be set in safety, without the need for stepladders.  The rope was suspended from a chain, attached to an adjustment mechanism bolted to the beams and hung down through a hatch into the execution room below.  Two other ropes were also attached to the beams, one on each side of the noose, for the officers supporting the prisoner to hold onto with their free hand.
Pentonville, Wandsworth and Holloway in London all used this arrangement as did Durham, Strangeways and Walton prisons. This pattern remained standard, with minor improvements up to abolition.  Typically what the prisoner saw was the noose, the trapdoors, the lever and the rope hanging through the ceiling hatch.
Britain's last working gallows, at Wandsworth prison, was dismantled in 1994 and was sent to the Prison Service Museum in Rugby. It is now on display at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. It was last used on the 8th of September 1961 and was kept in full working order up to 1992, being tested every six months.  The trap doors measure 9 feet long x 5 feet wide overall.  An execution box is also on display.
Here are photos of the incredibly accurate and detailed 1/6 scale model of the last gallows at Wandsworth, built by Paul Gilmartin of PJG Design, who has kindly made them available to me. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.  These show the gallows, with the ladder leading up to the beam above with the chain blocks.  The room ready for an execution, a prisoner on the trap and hanging (the hangman, assistant and supporting officers have been omitted for clarity). Finally there is a view of the operating mechanism from the underside of the trapdoors.

Pinioning.
In England, the prisoner's hands were typically pinioned in front of them until 1892. In the days of public hangings, the prisoner's wrists were tied with a cord and often a second cord passed round the body and arms at the elbows. This was done to allow them to pray on the gallows, however, this made it easier for them to resist and fight at the end so pinioning the wrists at the sides to a leather body belt became normal by the 1850's - an idea invented by William Calcraft and which remained in use up to the 1890’s. James Billington introduced the idea of pinioning the prisoner's wrists behind their back using a double buckle leather strap, and this became the standard method until abolition. It also significantly reduced the time taken in the pinioning operation.
From 1856 on the legs of all prisoners were bound, usually at the ankles, after the problems that William Calcraft encountered with the hanging of William Bousfield at Newgate on the 31st of March of that year. Previously, the legs had been left free in short drop hangings, although it had been normal to tie the legs of female prisoners to prevent their skirts billowing up and exposing their underwear! In the 20th century male prisoner’s legs were strapped above the ankles with a simple leather strap and female prisoners either the same if they wore a long dress, or above the knees if they were wearing a short skirt/dress.  The principal reasons for strapping the legs were to prevent the person moving on the trap and to prevent them trying to bridge the trap when the doors fell. 

The Noose.
Calcraft and his predecessors used a simple halter style noose, consisting of a loop worked into one end of a piece of hemp rope, with the other end passed through it.
This was improved on by passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet instead of just a loop of rope, which made it more free running. One of James Berry’s nooses is pictured here.  Following the failure of a rope supplied by the hangman in 1878, the Prison Commission of the Home Office decided that it would provide future execution ropes which were required to be returned to it afterwards to avoid them being sold as souvenirs.  A contract was duly entered into with John Edgington & Co of the Old Kent Road in London to manufacture and supply the ropes. These became known as “Government ropes” and were formed from a 12’ 6” (3.8m) length of 3/4" diameter four strand white Italian hemp. (see
picture). Early versions had no covering and a plain ¼” thick leather washer to hold the noose in place. From the 1920’s, the noose itself had a Chamois leather covering sewn over the rope which was intended to reduce the marking of the skin and a plain rubber washer to hold it in place. The ends of the rope, where they were spliced together, had Gutta Percha coverings (Gutta Percha is a natural waxy resin and was used as the filling for golf balls). The Gutta Percha tended to splinter when cold and had to be heated with a candle to soften it and avoid cuts to the prisoner’s neck. In 1942, the plain rubber washer was replaced with an internally star shaped one which gripped the rope better. The Gutta Percha covering the rope over the attachment eye to the chain was omitted in 1952. In 1955 it was omitted from the noose end and replaced with vulcanised rubber. The rope was stretched before use, by dropping a sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner through the trap and leaving it suspended overnight. This reduced its diameter to about 5/8 inch. The purpose of this was to remove any tendency of the rope to stretch during the actual hanging which would reduce the force applied to the prisoner's neck. Hemp has always been the preferred material as it is both soft and strong with a smooth surface. Marwood and Berry, having positioned the noose, allowed the free rope to loop down behind the prisoner's back. Marwood had an unfortunate incident through this practice, at the hanging of James Burton at Durham in 1883. As Burton fell through the trap, the rope became entangled in his arm thus shortening the intended drop. Marwood had to haul the unfortunate man back onto the platform to free the entanglement and then pushed Burton back down into the pit where he died by strangulation. James Billington used a similar rope to Berry but coiled it up and tied it with a piece of pack thread to leave the noose at chest level to avoid the prisoner being caught up in it or himself tripping over it as at it lay on the trapdoors. This idea was also found to speed up the process and remained in use to the end.
The positioning of the eyelet of the noose under the angle of the jaw is very important as it is vital that the head is thrown backwards by the rope so that the force is transmitted into the neck vertebrae rather than being thrown forward and the force taken on the throat which tends to cause strangulation. It is also crucial that the noose is put on the right way round so that it rotates in the correct direction with the eyelet ending up under the jaw. See
picture.  All the necessary equipment was included in the execution box sent to county prisons from Pentonville in the 20th century. (see picture of contents). The rope is for the block and tackle and is not the hanging rope, which is pictured here.

The hood.
Over the last 250 years or so it has been customary to cover the prisoner’s face so that their final agonies would not be seen.  In Tyburn and Newgate days the "hood" was actually a nightcap supplied by the prisoner themselves, if they could afford it.  When they had finished their prayers, the hangman simply pulled it down over their face. In some cases, women might choose a bonnet with a veil instead and in other cases the prisoner possessed or chose neither. From the early 1800’s a white hood was used and the earliest verifiable record of this was for the execution of three men for High Treason in Derby in 1817. From around 1850, a white linen hood was provided by the authorities which was similar to a small pillowcase and was applied as part of the execution process. See photo  As the nightcaps had generally been white this became the traditional colour for British hoods, whereas in many other countries they are black.
Typically the prisoner was hooded only at the last moment before the noose was put round their neck and adjusted. Although they had been able to see the gallows, the trap, the executioner and officials, and the noose dangling before them, this was found to be better than hooding them earlier and trying to lead them to the gallows as they were more frightened by not knowing what was happening. Both ideas have been tried but hooding immediately prior to the noose was normal.

The "Short Drop" method.
Hanging using little or no drop was effectively universal up to 1872. The prisoner could be suspended by a variety of means, from the back of a cart or a ladder or later by some form of trap door mechanism. Where a person was dragged off the tail of the cart they usually got only a few inches of actual drop.  It was not unusual for the relatives and friends of prisoners to hang on their legs to shorten their suffering.  With the standardisation on the “New Drop” gallows in the early part of the 19th century the condemned fell 12-18 inches and this was found to give a slightly quicker death than was normal using the cart.  However death was still typically by strangulation and the prisoner could struggle in agony for several minutes after the drop fell.  After the “New Drop” was introduced the hangman sometimes had to pull down on the prisoner’s legs.  The last woman to suffer execution by the short drop was Mary Ann Barry at Gloucester on Monday, the 12th of January, 1874.  She was hanged by Robert Anderson and struggled for some three minutes after the drop fell. Probably the last short drop hanging in Britain was that of John Henry Johnson at Armley prison Leeds for the murder of Amos Waite, on the 3rd of April 1877, when he was executed by Thomas Askern. Firstly the rope broke and Johnson had to be recovered from the pit and was hanged again 10 minutes later.  The Yorkshire Post newspaper reported that Johnson struggled for four minutes.  24 year old James Williams was executed at Stafford by George Incher on the 22nd of February 1881, for the murder of his girlfriend.  He was given a drop of four feet and reportedly died without a struggle.  It is not known whether this drop had been calculated or whether Williams was just fortunate.

Surviving the gallows.
There are several recorded instances of revival in this country during the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the most famous is that of John Smith, hanged at Tyburn on Christmas Eve 1705. Having been turned off the back of the cart, he dangled for 15 minutes until the crowd began to shout "reprieve," whereupon he was cut down and taken to a nearby house where he soon recovered.
He was asked what it had felt like to be hanged and this is what he told his rescuers:
"When I was turned off I was, for some time, sensible of very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down."
Sixteen year old William Duell was hanged, along with four others, at Tyburn on the 24th of November 1740. He had been convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Griffin and was therefore to be anatomised after execution. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall, where it was noticed that he was showing signs of life. He was revived and returned to Newgate later that day. The authorities decided to reprieve him and his sentence was commuted to transportation.  There are several other instances where people, including at least two women, survived their hanging.

The "Long drop" or measured drop method of hanging.
It would appear that the concept of using a longer drop than the two feet or so that Calcraft used had its origins in Ireland in the 1850's.  The Rev. Dr. Samuel Haughton (who gave evidence to the Aberdare Committee) reported on the Irish practice in 1866.  Drops of up to 14 feet 6 inches had been used, as was noted by Haughton in the execution of Patrick Kilkenny on the 20th of July 1865 at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.  Haughton realised that a broken neck is what hanging should try to aim at, and he was the first person to try and develop a formula for achieving this result.  He published his findings in an article entitled “On Hanging, considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view", in The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, vol. xxxii, of, 1866.  He came to the conclusion that one should “divide the weight of the patient in pounds into 2240, and the quotient will give the length of the long drop in feet."  It is noteworthy too that America was using longer drops than Britain.  From the photos of the execution of the Lincoln conspirators in 1865, I would estimate a drop of around five feet.
It is assumed that William Marwood had read about Haughton’s theories and in 1872 he introduced the "long drop" to England.  This was for the execution of Frederick Horry at Lincoln prison on the 1st of April of that year.  Unfortunately the drop he used at this execution is not recorded but was sufficient to provide Horry with an apparently pain free death. The first woman to be executed by the new method was Frances Stewart who was hanged for the murder of her grandson by Marwood on Monday the 29th of June 1874. During the five years from 1872 to 1877 both the short and long drop methods were in use with only Marwood using the latter.  Fortunately Marwood carried out the bulk of UK executions from mid 1874 onwards.

The long drop method was designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a pre-determined distance and then be brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope. At the end of the drop, the body is still accelerating under the force of gravity but the head is constrained by the noose. If the brass eyelet is positioned under the left angle of the jaw it throws the head backwards, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck, ideally between the C2 & C3 vertebrae, crushing or severing the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death.  In medical terms this is known as hyperflexion of the neck.  The Phrenic nerve which controls the diaphragm emerges between the C3 and C4 vertebrae and thus if the fracture occurs above C4 the person's breathing immediately ceases.
It is only in the last six inches or so of the drop that the physical damage to the neck and vertebrae occur as the rope constricts the neck and the force is applied to the vertebrae.  The duration of this part of the process is between 0.02 and 0.03 of a second depending upon the length of drop given.  Generally the diameter of the noose is found to have reduced some five to seven inches after the drop.
The accurately measured and worked out drop removed most of the prisoner's physical suffering and made the whole process far less traumatic for the officials.
The drops given by Marwood were usually between 4 and 10 feet, depending on the weight and strength of the prisoner.  In the late 19th century, there was a considerable amount of experimentation to determine the exact amount of drop and James Berry, who succeeded Marwood, had several unfortunate experiences.  The hanging of Robert Goodale at Norwich on the 30th of November 1885, resulted in complete decapitation by the force of the drop.  Moses Shrimpton was very nearly decapitated at Worcester in 1885.  Where the drop was inadequate, the prisoner still died of asphyxia and after Goodale, James Berry reduced the drops in two or three subsequent hangings each failing to break the prisoner’s neck.

Drop tables.
In 1886, Lord Aberdare was commissioned to report into hanging in Britain after various unfortunate incidents.  Part of his remit was to devise a standard table of drops.  The Committee’s provisional table provided a length of drop to produce a final "striking" force of approximately 1,260 foot pounds of force which combined with the positioning of the noose caused fracture and dislocation of the neck, usually at the 2nd and 3rd or 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae. This is the classic "hangman's fracture". The length of the drop was worked out by the formula 1,260 ft/lbs divided by the body weight of the prisoner in pounds = drop in feet. For prisoners under 8 stone (112lbs) in weight a reduction in striking force to 1120 foot pounds was recommended. 
After further consideration and experimentation the Home Office issued another table of drops in 1892 which were considerably shorter than Aberdare’s provisional ones and resulted in a force of 840 ft/lbs being developed. This was done presumably to avoid the decapitation and near decapitations that had occurred with old table (see above). However there are a number of properly documented instances of substantially longer drops being given during this period. 
It will be seen that the drops specified in the 1913 table are longer than those in the 1892 one, as in some cases, the prisoner’s spinal cord had not been severed by the shorter fall. The official execution report on Alfred Stratton, who was hanged at Wandsworth in 1905, records evidence of asphyxia and states that the neck was not broken.  This was not unusual at the time. Thus a revised table was issued in 1913, designed to produce a striking force of 1000 ft/lbs. The Home Office issued a rule restricting all drops to between 5 feet and 8 feet 6 inches as this had been found to be an adequate range. The drop was worked out and set to the nearest inch (see below) to ensure the desired outcome. From around 1939 it became customary to add a further nine inches to the drop calculated from the 1913 table, which would result in a force of around 1100 ft/lbs.

1892 table

1913 table

Weight of prisoner

Drop in feet & inches

Ft/lbs energy developed

Weight of prisoner

Drop in feet & inches

Ft/lbs energy developed

 

105 & under

8’ 0”

840

-

-

 

 

110

7’ 10”

862

-

-

 

 

115

7’ 3”

834

118 & under

8’ 6”

1003

 

120

7’ 0”

840

120

8’ 4”

1000

 

125

6’ 9”

844

125

8’ 0”

1000

 

130

6’ 5”

834

130

7’ 8”

996

 

135

6’ 2”

833

135

7’ 5”

1001

 

140

6’ 0”

840

140

7’ 2”

1003

 

145

5’ 9”

834

145

6’ 11”

1003

 

150

5’ 7”

838

150

6’ 8”

999

 

155

5’ 5”

840

155

6’ 5”

995

 

160

5’ 3”

853

160

6’ 3”

1000

 

165

5’ 1”

839

165

6’ 1”

1004

 

170

4’ 11”

836

170

5’ 10”

992

 

175

4’ 9”

831

175

5’ 8”

991

 

180

4’ 8”

839

180

5’ 7”

1005

 

185

4’ 7”

848

185

5’ 5”

1002

 

190

4’5”

839

190

5’ 3”

998

 

195

4’ 4”

844

195

5’ 2”

1008

 

200 & over

4’ 2”

833

200 & over

5’ 0”

1000

 

The weight is that of the clothed prisoner in pounds, the day before execution.
Note 1 pound is 0.454 Kg, 1 foot is 30.5 cm and an inch is 2.5cm.

Setting the drop.
It was necessary to know the prisoner’s height and weight accurately and to this end they were weighed and measured by the prison staff and this information passed to the hangman.
The length of drop was determined from the drop table based upon the person’s weight in their clothes, combined with the hangman’s experience and his direct observation of the prisoner.
A line was painted on the noose end of the rope marking the point where the internal circumference was 18 inches (457mm) which in the 1890’s was deemed to be equivalent to the circumference of the neck plus the distance from the eyelet to the top of the head after the drop. The 18 inch figure allowed for the subsequent constriction of the neck.  Presumably this was increased where the person had a very thick neck.  From the painted line the hangman measured along the rope and tied a piece of thread at the calculated drop distance.  The rope was then attached to the D shackle at the end of the chain hanging down from the beam.  The chain was adjusted so that the thread mark was at the same height as the top of the prisoner’s head.  A sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner was now attached to the noose and dropped through the trap and left hanging over night to remove any stretch from the rope.  The following morning it was removed, the trap doors re-set and the rope re-adjusted to get the thread mark back to the correct height.

The Home Office issued the following instructions to executioners for the correct setting up of the drop. (There were minor revisions to these instructions over the year, the last in the late 1950’s)
"Obtain a rope from Execution Box B making sure that the Gutta Percha covering the splice at each end is un-cracked by previous use.
Find the required drop from the Official Table of Drops making allowance for age and physique.
At the noose end of the rope measure thirteen inches (allowance for the neck) from the centre of the brass eye, mark this by tying round the rope a piece of pack-thread from Execution Box B.
From this mark measure along the rope the exact drop required (this must be to the nearest quarter inch), mark again by a piece of pack-thread tied to the rope.
Fasten the rope by pin and tackle to the chain suspended from the beams above, and, using the adjusting bracket above so adjust the rope that the mark showing the drop is exactly in accordance with the height of the condemned man.
Take a piece of copper wire from Execution Box B, secure one end over the shackle on the end of the chain, and bend up the other end to coincide with the mark showing the drop.
Put on the trap the sandbag, making sure it is filled with sand of an equivalent weight to the condemned man.
Put the noose around the neck of the sandbag and drop the bag in the presence of the governor.
The bag is left hanging until two hours before the time of execution the next morning. At this time examine the mark on the rope and copper wire to see how much the rope has stretched. Any stretch must be made good by adjusting the drop.
Lift the sandbag, pull up the trapdoor by means of chains and pulley blocks, set the operating lever and put in the three-quarter safety pin which goes through the lever brackets to prevent the lever being accidentally moved.
Coil the rope ready and tie the coil with pack-thread leaving the noose suspended at the height of the condemned man's chest. All is now ready."

After the drop fell.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, once the person was suspended they were left hanging for one hour. This was to ensure total death (see surviving the gallows above) and in the days of public hangings to provide a continuing spectacle for the crowd. At the end of the hour the pinioning straps were removed and a rope was placed around the person’s body, under the arms and they were drawn up to enable the removal of the noose and hood.  The body was then undressed, washed if necessary and lowered onto a stretcher or trolley for inquest.  In London, at least, it was normal in the 20th century for there to be an autopsy which typically took place in the room adjacent to the drop. The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required the prison doctor to certify death and the sheriff and the governor to sign a form stating that the execution had been carried out, a copy of which was displayed outside the prison gates.
The 1947 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that the practice of leaving the body on the rope for an hour be discontinued and that the person be removed once the prison doctor had certified death which normally took place some 20 minutes after the drop had fallen. It is not precisely clear when this practice started but it is thought to be in the later 1950’s.  However in 1959 this was revised to require the body to hang for 45 minutes after Joseph Chrimes showed signs of life after being taken down after his heart had apparently stopped, at Pentonville on the 28th of April 1959.  It was also the practice, certainly as late as 1961, to determine the amount by which the prisoner’s neck had been stretched by measuring the distance from their heels to the top of the platform and comparing this with the drop given The two figures were then written onto the LCP4 form.

Gibbeting.
Prior to 1834, where the courts wished to make a particular example of a criminal, e.g. a highwayman, mail robber or murderer, they could order the additional punishment of gibbeting (also known as hanging in chains). After the hanging, the prisoner would be stripped and their body dipped into molten pitch or tar and then, when it had cooled, be re-dressed and placed into an iron cage that surrounded the head, torso and upper legs. The cage was riveted together and then suspended from either the original gallows or a purpose built gibbet. The body was left as a grim reminder to local people and could stay on the gibbet for a year or more until it rotted away or was eaten by birds, etc.  Gibbets were typically erected either in prominent places such as crossroads or hill tops at or near the site of the crime. One of the earliest recorded instances of gibbeting took place in August 1381. Gibbeting and hanging in chains became increasingly used in the 17th and 18th centuries. The first recorded hanging in chains in Scotland was in March 1637 when a man called McGregor, who was a robber and murderer, was ordered to stay on "the gallowlee till his corpse rot". Gibbeting was formally legalised in Britain by the Murder Act of 1752 and was regularly used up to 1834.
William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832, for the murder of a policeman during a riot. His gibbet was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet 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 hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace. Twenty one year old James Cook became the last man to suffer this fate when he was gibbeted at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832 for the murder of John Paas.  From the prisoner’s point of view although their death would be no worse, being gibbeted was a major additional punishment as it was widely believed that one could not go to heaven without a body at this time.

Dissection.
The 1751 "Act for the better preventing the horrid Crime of Murder", usually known as the "Murder Act", mandated the dissection of the bodies of executed murderers (including females ones) or gibbeting for male murderers in particularly heinous cases. It came into force on the 1st of June 1752 and seventeen year old Thomas Wilford, who had stabbed to death his wife of just one week, was the first to suffer dissection under this Act on the 22nd of June 1752, having been first hanged at Tyburn. The words of his sentence were as follows : "Thomas Wilford, you stand convicted of the horrid and unnatural crime of murdering Sarah, your wife. This Court doth adjudge that you be taken back to the place from whence you came, and there to be fed on bread and water till Wednesday next, when you are to be taken to the common place of execution, and there hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your body is to be publicly dissected and anatomised, agreeable to an Act of Parliament in that case made and provided; and may God Almighty have mercy on your soul."
Fights often broke out beneath the gallows between the dissectionists and the prisoners’ relatives over custody of the body. In London, from 1752 to 1809, the bodies were taken to Surgeon's Hall in the Old Bailey where they were publicly anatomised in the lecture theatre, often before a large number of spectators. Women were not exempted from this and the remains of the infamous murderer Elizabeth Brownrigg, who had been hanged at Tyburn on the 14th of September 1767, were kept on display in Surgeon's Hall for many years after her execution. The skeleton of Mary Bateman, “the Yorkshire Witch” hanged at York in 1807, is still preserved. Click here for more details on this case. A drawing of a dissection at London’s Surgeon Hall is shown here.

Burial.
From 1752 the bodies of executed murderers were not returned to their relatives for burial.  Murder was considered to be a specially heinous crime and the government did not want the bodies of murderers to have a full funeral, be buried in consecrated ground or to "lay in state". Nor I suspect did they really want families to know what had really happened to their loved ones once executions became private.

On balance it was probably the sensible decision not to release the bodies.  Many families would have felt a great sense of shame about one their number being executed for committing murder, many would have also been too poor to afford a funeral and perhaps a few would have sought to profit from the situation by selling the body or involving the press in some way. Also, particularly where a full autopsy had been carried out (in 20th century London executions) the body would hardly have been a pretty sight.

Up to 1832, except in a case of murderer where the court had ordered dissection or gibbeting (see above), it was usual for the criminal's body to be claimed by friends or relatives for burial.  This burial could take place in consecrated ground. In earlier times (pre 1752) it was not unusual for murderers to be buried under the gallows on which they had suffered.

Dissection was removed from the statute book on the 1st of August 1832, by the Anatomy Act. The same act directed that the bodies of all executed criminals belonged to the Crown and were now to be buried in the prison grounds in unmarked graves, often several to a grave to save space. Typically the person was placed into a cheap pine coffin, or even a sack and covered with quicklime which was thought to hasten the process of decomposition of the body.  This practice was later abandoned, as the quicklime was found to have a preserving effect.  The Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 required that a formal inquest be held after an execution and that the prisoner be buried within the grounds of the prison unless directed otherwise by the sheriff of the county.  This practice continued up to abolition.  After the inquest the body was placed into the coffin which had large holes bored in the sides and ends.  The burial normally took place at lunchtime and was carried out by prison officers and overseen by the chaplain who conducted a simple burial service.  The position of the grave was recorded in the Burial Register for the prison. Prisons in major cities soon had quite large graveyard areas. Where prisons were demolished for redevelopment the bodies were removed and buried elsewhere, normally in consecrated ground. 

Trace the progress of execution by hanging in Britain in the typical examples below and also by looking at the cases of those executed and the histories of prisons in which their hangings took place.

A typical execution in the mid 1750's at Tyburn.
Criminals were tried and then sentenced to death in groups at the Old Bailey Sessions before being returned to Newgate prison to await their fate. A few weeks later after the Recorder’s Report had been considered by the King and Privy Council, there would be a “hanging day” when all those sentenced to death for crimes other than murder and not reprieved would be executed. The execution process began at around 7 o'clock in the morning when the condemned men and women would be led in fetters (handcuffs and leg-irons) into the Press Yard in Newgate. Here the blacksmith would remove the fetters and the Yeoman of the Halter would tie the criminals' hands in front of them (so that they were able to pray when they reached Tyburn) and place the rope (or halter, as it was known) round their necks, coiling the free end round their bodies. They might typically be seven men, not one convicted of murder or rape, but of crimes such as highway robbery, theft or burglary and uttering, and perhaps one woman convicted of privately stealing, highway robbery or theft from a dwelling house. When the pinioning was completed, they were placed in open horse drawn carts sitting on their coffins and the procession consisting of the Under Sheriff, the Ordinary (Newgate's prison chaplain), the hangman and his assistants, and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn about two miles away. The streets would be lined with crowds, especially if the criminals were particularly notorious, and there would often be insults and more solid objects hurled at them and their escorts on the way. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre's Church and two public houses along the way where the criminals were customarily given a drink. If the prisoner was wealthy, they might be permitted to be driven to Tyburn in a morning coach, as happened with Earl Ferrers and Jenny Diver, thus sparing them from the insults of the crowds. It was normal for better off criminals to wear their best clothes for their execution.
On arrival at Tyburn, often some three hours later, the condemned were greeted by a large unruly crowd who had come to watch the spectacle - it was considered an excellent day out. The carts were each backed under one of the three beams of the gallows and the prisoners were positioned at the tail of the cart and tied up to the beam with only a small amount of slack left in the rope. The Ordinary would pray with them and when he had finished, the hangman pulled white night caps over their faces.
When everything was ready, the horses were whipped away leaving the prisoners suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop and thus many of them would writhe in agony for some moments. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners' relatives might pull on the prisoners' legs to hasten their end. After half an hour or so, the bodies were cut down and claimed by friends and relatives or in the case of murderers, sent for dissection at Surgeons' Hall. For more detail on execution at Tyburn, go to Being hanged at Tyburn or read about the case of
Jenny Diver who was hanged there with 19 others on the 18th of March 1741.

Multiple executions at Newgate in 1820.
In 1820, there were 42 hangings at Newgate, all carried out by James Foxen. Not one of these was for murder. Twelve were for "uttering" forged notes, 12 for robbery or burglary, and five for highway robbery. At this time, murderers, rapists, arsonists, forgers, coiners and highwaymen were virtually always executed and were seldom offered a conditional pardon of transportation. The largest multiple execution in this year was that of eight men on the 11th of December and the smallest was of three men on the 24th of October. Sarah Price was the only woman to suffer in 1820, alongside six men, for "uttering" forged bank notes or coins on the 5th of December.
On the eve of a hanging, the gallows was brought out by a team of horses and placed in front of the Debtor's Door of Newgate. Large crowds gathered around it and it was guarded by soldiers with pikes. Wealthy people could pay as much as £10 for a seat in a window overlooking the gallows at the hanging of a notorious criminal. At around 7.30 a.m., the condemned prisoners were led from their cells into the Press Yard where the Sheriff and the Ordinary (prison chaplain) would meet them. The hangman and his assistant bound their wrists in front of them with cord and also placed a cord round their body and arms at the elbows. The bell of St. Sepulchre’s church began tolling at 7.45 a.m.  The prisoners were led across the Yard to the Lodge and then out through the Debtor's Door where they climbed the steps up to the platform. There would be shouts of "hats off" in the crowd. This was not out of respect for those about to die, but rather because the people further back demanded those at the front remove their hats so as not to obscure their view.
Once assembled on the drop, the hangman would put the nooses round their necks while they prayed with the Ordinary and when they had finished he placed the white hoods over them. Female prisoners would have their dress bound around their legs for the sake of decency but the men's legs were left free. When the prayers had finished, the Under Sheriff gave the signal and Foxen moved the lever which was connected to a drawbar under the trap and caused it to fall with a loud crash, the prisoners dropping 12-18 inches and usually writhing and struggling for some seconds before relaxing and becoming still. If their bodies continued to struggle, Foxen unseen by the crowd within the box below the drop, would grasp their legs and swing on them so adding his weight to theirs and thus ending their sufferings sooner. The dangling bodies were left to hang for an hour.
Execution Broadsides were sold among the crowd, purporting to give the last confessions of the condemned. These were like tabloid newspapers of the day and were often total fabrication. As they were printed prior to the execution, they could be unused if a reprieve was granted after printing, not an uncommon occurrence at this time. They would show a stylised wood cut picture of the hanging and details of the crime and the confession of the criminal. Click the link for further information on
Newgate prison.

A typical execution in the 1850's at Lancaster Castle.
By this time, executions were conducted with more ceremony so as to produce a grim and solemn reminder of the punishment for the most serious crimes (almost all those hanged by now were murderers).
The gallows at Lancaster was of the balcony pattern and was erected for each hanging outside the French windows on the first floor of what was known as the "Hanging corner". Across on the bank of what was originally the Castle moat would be anything up to 6,000 people who had come to watch, including organised school parties! Between 1799 and 1865, a total of 215 people were executed here. 131 of these hangings were carried out by Lancaster's own hangman, "Old Ned" Barlow.
A little before 8 o'clock the prison bell would start tolling and the criminal would be led up from the cells into the "Drop Room" (preparation room) where the Governor, the Sheriff, the chaplain, the hangman (usually Calcraft at this time) and several warders would be waiting for him. Calcraft pinioned the prisoner’s wrists and allowed him a few moments to pray with the chaplain before the window was opened to reveal the gallows onto which he would now be led by the warders.
Once on the drop, Calcraft placed a white hood over the condemned's head and a simple noose around the neck (one of Calcraft's nooses is on show within the castle (see
picture.) The warders, standing on boards positioned across the drop, held the prisoner whilst Calcraft went downstairs and withdraw the bolt to release the trapdoors. Calcraft used very short drops so the prisoner could take several minutes to go limp. It would have been reported in the press that they "died hard".
A black flag was hoisted over the Castle and the body left to hang for a full hour before being taken down and bought in through a first floor window beneath the trap for burial within the prison grounds. In some cases, a plaster cast would be made of the criminal's head for use in phrenological experiments. Some of these still survive. Here is a picture of the death mask of William Corder who was hanged at Bury St. Edmonds in Suffolk on May 18th, 1827 for the murder of Maria Marten.
Stephen Burke became the last person to suffer in public at Lancaster, on March the 25th, 1865, when he was hanged for the murder of his wife.

Execution by the “long drop” at Wandsworth in 1879.
Kate Webster became the first and only woman to be executed at Wandsworth prison in London.  She was hanged by William Marwood on the morning of Tuesday, the 29th of July 1879. At 8.45 a.m., the prison bell started to toll and a few minutes before 9.00 a.m. the Under Sheriff, the prison governor, Captain Colville, the prison doctor, two male warders and Marwood formed up outside her cell. Inside Kate was being ministered to by Father McEnrey and attended by two female wardresses. The governor entered her cell and told her that it was time and she was led out between the two male warders, accompanied by Father McEnrey, across the yard to the purpose built execution shed, which was nicknamed the "Cold Meat Shed". As Kate entered the shed, she would have been able to see the large white painted gallows with the rope dangling in front of her with its simple noose laying on the trapdoors. Marwood stopped her on the chalk mark on the double trapdoors and placed a leather body belt round her waist to which he secured her wrists, while probably one of the warders would have strapped her ankles with a leather strap. She was not pinioned in her cell, as became the normal practice later. She was supported on the trap by the two male warders standing on plank bridges, set across it. This had been the normal practice for some years, in case the prisoner fainted or struggled at the last moment. Marwood placed the white hood over her head and adjusted the noose, leaving the free rope running down her back. Her last words were, "Lord, have mercy upon me". He quickly stepped to the side and pulled the lever, Kate plummeting down some 8 feet into the brick lined pit below. Kate's body was left to hang for the usual hour before being taken down and prepared for burial. It is probable that two newspaper reporters would have been allowed to attend - it was usual at this time for the press to be admitted. They would have been expected to report that the execution had been carried out "expeditiously". The whole process would have taken around two to three minutes in those days and was considered vastly more humane than Calcraft's executions.
The black flag was hoisted on the flag pole above the main gate, where a small crowd of people had gathered and the prison bell tolled. They would have seen and heard nothing and yet these rather pointless gatherings continued outside prisons during executions until abolition. Later in the day, her body was buried in an unmarked grave in one of the exercise yards. Click here for a detailed account of Kate’s story

A typical execution in the early 1900's at Durham.
The press were still generally permitted to attend male executions up to around the beginning of World War I in most prisons. Thus we have the report of the hanging of Abel Atherton at Durham on the 8th of December 1909. Henry Pierrepoint was the executioner. At 7.50 a.m. that Wednesday morning, the Under Sheriff entered the prison with three newspaper reporters who 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 him. (Pierrepoint was unusual in this - all other 20th century hangmen put the hood on first followed by the noose.) As the nearby Assize Courts clock began striking the hour 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 prison bell began tolling (from which comes the expression "for whom the bell tolls") and the execution shed was locked up leaving Atherton suspended on the rope for the customary hour. The official notice of the execution was posted on the prison gate and an inquest carried out later in the morning. Click here for a history of Durham prison.

A typical execution in the 1950's in a British county prison.
Executions were normally carried out at 9 a.m. in London and 8 a.m. in the rest of the country and followed a standard set of rules laid down by the Home Office. A small number of people were required by law to be present, notably the Governor of the prison, the Sheriff or Under Sheriff of the county, the prison doctor, the prison chaplain or a priest of the prisoner’s religion, two or more warders plus, of course, the hangman and his assistant.
Not all prisons had a permanent gallows beam so, where required, this would be sent by train from Pentonville prison in London and erected in the execution room. An execution box containing two ropes (one new and one used), a white hood, pinioning straps, etc. was also sent.
The prisoner was weighed and their height measured the day before the execution and the hangman would secretly view the person to enable him to calculate the correct drop from their weight and physical appearance.
The length of the drop was carefully set and the gallows tested, whilst the prisoner was out of their cell, using a bag of sand, of approximately the same weight as them, which would be left on the rope overnight to remove any stretch. Around 7 a.m., the executioners would re-set the trapdoors and make a final adjustment to the length of the drop. The rope was coiled up and secured with a piece of thread so that the noose dangled at chest level to prevent the inmate falling over it.
The prisoner was given his or her own clothes to wear and would be attended by a priest and if necessary, the prison doctor. If the condemned person appeared to need it, the doctor would give them a glass of brandy to help them cope but they were not given tranquillisers.
Just before the appointed hour the execution team formed up outside the condemned cell and, on the signal from the Governor, the hangman entered the cell and strapped the prisoner's hands behind their back with a leather strap. The hangman went straight to the gallows and the prisoner followed, supported by a warder on each side. They typically went through a second door in the condemned cell which was normally hidden by a wardrobe and straight into the execution room. The prisoner was led onto the trapdoors which had a "T" chalked on them to position their feet exactly over the middle of the trap. In case they fainted at the last moment, they were supported by the two prison officers standing on boards across the trap and holding onto ropes attached to the gallows beam with their free hands. The hangman pulled the white hood over the prisoner's head and positioned the noose round the neck whilst the assistant strapped their ankles. As soon as all was ready, the hangman removed the safety pin from the base of the operating lever and pushed it to release the trapdoors. The prisoner dropped through the trap and would be left hanging motionless in the cell below, unconscious, and with their neck broken. The whole process would have occupied about the same length of time as it has taken you to read this paragraph - somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds. (
Click here to see a photo of a man about to be hanged - this is what you would have seen had you been in the execution chamber, as the officials stood at the back just inside the door). Everything was done to make the execution as speedy and humane as possible so as to spare both the prisoner and the staff, who had to witness it, from any unnecessary distress. Once the signal had been given by the governor to enter the condemned cell, the hangman was in total charge of the proceedings and did not have to wait for a further signal from the governor before the releasing the trap, thus the prisoner did not to have to wait a moment longer than was necessary, hooded and noosed.

When the prisoner was suspended, the prison doctor listened to their chest with a stethoscope and would expect to hear an unusual rhythm and progressively weakening heartbeat for a few minutes. When he was satisfied that the person was dead, the execution cell was locked up for an hour before the executioners returned to remove the body and prepare it for the autopsy. Up to 1961, the executioners had to measure how much the neck had been stretched by the hanging. It was often 1- 2 inches, 25-50 mm. . An execution report (Form LPC4) was prepared which recorded this detail together with drop given and other details of the prisoner.  Click here to see one. The body would show marks of suspension, elongation of the neck and occasionally traces of urine and faeces and semen.
There was usually a crowd outside the prison on the morning of a hanging and a notice of execution was posted on the main gate of the prison once death had been certified. (See photo). The autopsy would be carried out after the body was removed from the rope and the formal inquest usually took place later that morning. Click here to see the autopsy report of Ruth Ellis. This is the inquest report on her  "Thirteenth July 1955 at H. M. Prison, Holloway N7": Ruth Ellis, Female, 28 years, a Club Manageress of Egerton Gardens, Kensington, London - Cause of Death - "Injuries to the central nervous system consequent upon judicial hanging." Her death was registered on the14th of July 1955 (the day after the execution) on the basis of a Certificate issued by J. Milner Helme, the then Coroner for the City of London, following an Inquest held by him on the 13th of July 1955. Her death was registered in the Registration District of Islington, Sub-district of Tufnell as entry No. 25 for the September Quarter 1955. After the autopsy and inquest, the prisoner was buried within the walls of the prison, usually at lunchtime on the day of execution.

Capital crimes.
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were no fewer than 222 capital crimes, including such terrible offences as impersonating a Chelsea pensioner and damaging London Bridge! One reason why the number of capital crimes was so high was due to the way that particular offences were broken down into specific crimes. For instance stealing in a shop, a dwelling house, a warehouse and a brothel was each a separate offence. Similarly with arson, burning down a house was distinguished from burning a hayrick.  It should be noted that in practice, there were only about seventeen general offences for which a death sentence was generally carried out in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These included murder, attempted murder, arson, rape, sodomy, forgery, uttering (passing forged or counterfeit monies or bills) coining, robbery, highway robbery (in many cases, this was the offence of street robbery, that we would now call mugging), housebreaking, robbery in a dwelling house, returning from transportation, cutting and maiming (grievous bodily harm) and horse, cattle or sheep stealing. For all the other capital offences, transportation to America or Australia was generally substituted for execution.

From the 1820’s, the number of capital crimes began to be rapidly reduced and were down to sixteen by 1837.  Post 1837 only five people were to hang for a crime other than murder, they had been convicted of attempted murder.  The Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1861 reduced the number of capital crimes to four, viz., murder, High Treason, arson in a Royal Dockyard, and piracy.  In reality all executions from September 1861 were for murder, except in time of war.  This situation continued until 1957 when the Homicide Act of that year divided murder into two offences - capital and non-capital.

The role of the judges.
The judiciary were sent out on the six Court Circuits in England and the Great Sessions in Wales and presided over the Sessions of the Old Bailey for those persons sent there for trial from the City of London and the County of Middlesex.  Where a person was convicted of a capital crime (see above) it was their duty to pass sentence of death.  They were not given any alternative in sentencing but they could make recommendations to the King and Privy Council or after 1837 to the Home Office if they felt a reprieve was justified for a particular individual.  In earlier times, they often did so leading to the very high reprieve rate prior to 1837.  When they were out on the circuits they had the power to stay an execution to ensure the person was not hanged if they might be pregnant or if there was some reason to expect a reprieve.
You may have heard the term “Hanging Judges” but this is really rather misplaced - the law simply did not allow judges the option of passing a lesser sentence. We have never had discretionary death sentences in British law.  It is possible that some judges were less likely to recommend a reprieve than others but that is about all.  However they never had the final say – it was always left to others.

The sentence of death.
For crimes for which the death sentence was mandatory e.g. for the huge number of capital crimes prior to 1838 and for persons found guilty of murder up from 1861 to 1957, the prisoner would be asked if they had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced upon them. A woman might "plead her belly," i.e. that she was pregnant and up to 1827, men could demand "benefit of clergy" which was a wonderful excuse cooked up by the church to ensure that clerics could not be executed for most offences. However, if neither of these excuses were available, the judge (or his chaplain) would place the "black cap" a nine inch square of black silk, on his head and proceed to pronounce sentence. Click here for a picture of a judge wearing the "black cap".
Up to 1948 the judge would say "(full name of prisoner) you will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul". Listen to these unique words here. A slight modification was made in 1902, removing the words “the prison in which you were last confined” and substituting “lawful prison”.  Around 1947 the judiciary decided that the sentence be modified by the substitution of the words "suffer death by hanging" for "be hanged by the neck until dead" and this sentence continued to be used for those convicted of capital murder up to 1956.  Here is the modified version being pronounced. One can hardly imagine what the prisoner must have felt hearing these dread words.
The wording was further modified after 1957 to substitute “suffer death in the manner authorized by law” and the reference to burial was removed. Note that the sentence did not change with the ending of public execution or the introduction of the measured drop. The requirement  for burial within the precincts of the prison was introduced by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1861.  Prior to that the bodies of non murderers could be returned to their families for burial.
The Murder Act of 1752 specified that execution take place two days after sentence, unless the third day was a Sunday in which case it would be held over until the Monday. From 1834, a minimum of two Sundays had to elapse before the sentence was carried out, and from 1868 onwards, three Sundays. From 1902, this was reinforced by the Home Office, which suggested Tuesday as the day for execution. In some cases, 20th century prisoners spent longer in the condemned cell due awaiting their appeal hearing, but many condemned chose not to appeal and their execution was frequently carried out within the three week period.

The role of the King and Privy Council.
Once a death sentence had been passed the trial judge had to notify the Privy Council by letter.  In this letter he was able to make his private recommendations as to whether the person should hang or not.  The King presided over what were known as “hanging cabinets” where together with members of the Privy Council, the fate of each condemned person was decided.  They could be offered a conditional pardon (reprieve) on condition of transportation to America or Australia as an alternative to execution.  In London & Middlesex the Recorder of the Old Bailey made his report to the Privy Council in person at the end of each Sessions.

The Home Office takes over.
When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837 it was not considered acceptable for a 19 year old girl to preside over “hanging cabinets” and so the duty was delegated to the Home Secretary who administered the Royal Prerogative of Mercy on her behalf. This situation continued until abolition. The trial judge continued to submit his report on each capital case and this was considered by Home Office officials and was available to the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary was advised by his permanent officials but was allowed to read the case papers for himself and had the final say.  It is notable that reprieves were very rare in cases of murder by poisoning or shooting.  If there was to be no reprieve the Home Secretary would endorse the prisoner’s file with the words “The law must take it course”.  There was no formal death warrant issued post 1837, the judge’s sentence being deemed sufficient.  Where there was no reprieve the prison governor had to communicate the news to the prisoner verbally.  In the 20th century, 1,485 death sentences were passed in England and Wales of which 755 were carried out. The ratio of death sentences to executions was therefore 1.95:1. Those who were reprieved had their sentences commuted to "life in prison" although this normally did not mean that they served the rest of their lives behind bars. In reality few served more than 12 years in practice but were subject to supervision upon release for the rest of their lives. 
The Home Office exercised increasing control over the conduct of executions after the passing of The Prison Act of 1877 and regularly circulated instructions to prison governors on all aspects of the subject.  The Prison Commissioners were responsible for providing the execution equipment from 1891 on for maintaining the list of approved executioners from which the Sheriff of the county was able to choose and assistants whom the governor could appoint.
Where there was a question as to the prisoner’s sanity the Home Secretary was required by the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884. to order a medical examination of the person by two qualified medical practitioners and this was frequently done in the 20th century and could include the taking of an electro-encephalograph if necessary.

Places of execution.
Please click here for a full listing of execution sites and prisons.  Here is a list of 20th century the places of execution used in the 20th century

The Condemned Cell/Condemned Suite.
Once a person had been sentenced to death they were housed in the condemned cell of the County prison they had been previously remanded to. Here is a drawing of the condemned cell in Newgate prison in the late 1800's. One can see that it comprises two standard cells knocked into one and has fairly minimal facilities. The average time a prisoner would have spent here was three weeks, and they would have been looked after round the clock by teams of two or three warders. In some prisons the Victorian condemned cell would be the largest and most comfortable call and often the only one with a fireplace.
From around 1917 till the early 1930’s those prisons which were still to have executions had condemned suites constructed.  At the same time a number of county prisons lost their execution chambers as modern transport facilities rendered in unnecessary for every county to have an execution facility.  Just 16 prisons in England and Wales retained a condemned suite up to abolition. 
The drawing of the later 20th century condemned suite at Holloway shows the arrangement of the prisoner's living quarters, visitor's area and proximity to the gallows. (
Click here)  The living area was normally two or three standard cells knocked into one and was usually no more than 15 feet from the gallows itself. Having the condemned cell on the first floor obviated the need for the pinioned prisoner to climb steps to the gallows. The wardrobe concealed the door to the execution chamber and was pushed out of the way by a warder at the last moment. Not all British prisons had the condemned cell in such close proximity to the gallows, however. Oxford for instance required the prisoner to walk some distance down a corridor to it.
The warders did their best to look after the prisoner during their time in the condemned cell and would play cards and games such as dominos with them to pass the time.  Condemned inmates were allowed cigarettes or tobacco and even a small ration of beer.  They were also allowed reading materials although any reference to their case was removed from newspapers. 

The role of the sheriff of the county.
Each county had a High Sheriff who was appointed for a year and who had the responsibility, amongst other things of carrying out the punishments ordered by the courts.  In capital cases it was the sheriff’s responsibility to organise the execution and appoint the hangman, although this was usually delegated to an Under Sheriff.  He had to be present at the execution and also had to pay the hangman and later the assistant(s) and then claim the money back through “sheriff’s cravings” from the Home Office.  The sheriff would proceed with the foregoing, irrespective of the fact that there may be a reprieve, even at the last minute.
The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required that the High Sheriff or the Under Sheriff be present at the execution.  From 1891 the sheriff appointed the hangman from the Home Office list.  Prior to that the hangman for London was generally used, i.e. James Berry, William Marwood and William Calcraft.  Before Calcraft some counties still had their own hangman.  The sheriff had the authority to admit witnesses and newspaper reporters to executions after they became private in 1868.  This practice had ceased in most places by the early 1900’s and entirely by 1934.  After the execution it was the sheriff’s duty to notify the Home Secretary that the execution had taken place.

The role of the prison doctor.
The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required that the prison doctor be present at the hanging and examine the body of the prisoner after execution to determine death had occurred and then sign a certificate to that effect.  He would look after the prisoner’s physical wellbeing up to the time of execution and could also have a say on the length of drop to be given to a particular prisoner. He could prescribe them a special diet in the condemned cell and also a glass of brandy immediately before the hanging.

The role of the prison governor and prison officers.
The governor of the prison had responsibility for the security of the prisoner between sentence and execution and for preventing their suicide as far as possible by ensuring that there were adequate officers to look after them.  It was normally the governor’s painful duty to tell the person that there had not been a reprieve and thus the execution was to take place on such and such a day.  The governor appointed the assistant executioner(s) and had to be present at the hanging. Not all governors found this an easy task, the governor of Bristol Gaol fainted during the execution of 17 year old Sarah Thomas on the 20th of April 1849.  The governor was also responsible for ensuring that the apparatus for the execution was set up in an appropriate place and that the execution was carried out in an efficient and humane manner.  He would appoint two or more prison officers to accompany the prisoner to the gallows and support them on the trap.  In the 20th century, at least, the governor would send a report (Form LCP4) to the Home Office as to the conduct of the executioner and his assistant(s).  This report had also to be signed by the prison doctor.
On the 30th of July 1847, Mary Ann Milner committed suicide in the condemned cell at Lincoln Castle which led to a near riot when the public found out that they had been deprived of their entertainment.  Thus from hereon teams of two or three warders were required to guard the prisoner in three eight hour shifts round the clock.  Among their other duties they had to record anything of relevance the prisoner said and pass this information to the governor to forward to the Home Office.  They received an extra payment for assisting at executions and for helping with subsequent burial. Holloway prison, being an all female establishment, would request two male officers from neighbouring Pentonville prison to escort a condemned woman to the gallows.

The role of the chaplain or Ordinary at Newgate.
Certainly by the 16th century it was normal for the church to play a part in executions. It was the practice, least from the 18th century, that when a person was sentenced to death, the judge would finish the sentence with the words, "May the Lord have mercy upon your soul" to which the chaplain would add "Amen".
Whereas the prison doctor looked after the prisoner’s physical health it was for the chaplain to look after their spiritual health and prepare them to meet their Maker.  Confession and repentance was seen as vitally important for their spiritual well being in the next world, as they could still go to Heaven if they genuinely repented.  The prison chaplain, or in the case of Newgate, the Ordinary as the chaplain was known, would spend time ministering to the person’s spiritual needs in the condemned cell and trying to extract a confession. Sometimes the chaplain would make persistent efforts to obtain a confession right up to the last moment.  The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment confirmed that there was no requirement for the chaplain to divulge any confession he might hear to the Home Office but that he should inform the Home Office of anything the prisoner said to him that might lead to a reprieve.
In the centre of the chapel in Newgate was the Condemned Pew, a large black painted enclosure with seats for the prisoners, just in front of the pulpit. On the Sunday preceding their execution, prisoners under sentence of death had to endure the "Condemned Sermon" and hear the burial service read to them. Wealthy visitors could come and attend this service. Several Lords were present at the service held in 1840 for Francis Courvoisier, a Swiss valet, who had murdered his employer, Lord William Russell. It is unclear when this practice died out.
Religious tracts were often sent to prisoners by well meaning people in the 19th century.
Old drawings of 19th and early 20th century executions often show a robed chaplain reading from a prayer book. They would read the words of the burial service during the procession to the gallows and continue to pray with the prisoner(s) until the drop fell.
In the 20th century, the prisoner could request a minister of their own religion to visit them in the condemned cell and pray with them and also to be present at the execution.  The priest’s were often the only words spoken during a modern private British hanging. The executioner and officials typically said nothing at all on the gallows and the prisoner was not invited to speak.
Up till the 1950's, the Anglican church largely supported capital punishment and saw a role for themselves in the administration of it.  It was not unusual for the prisoner to take up religion in their last weeks on this earth and it is probable that many prisoners valued the support of a priest through their ordeal, as someone who was "on their side".
Charlotte Bryant was said to be much comforted by the ministrations of Father Barney during her period in Exeter's condemned cell in 1936. Some prisoners asked for a cross to be placed in the execution chamber where they could see it. Mrs. Stylou Christofi asked for one when she was hanged at Holloway in 1954 and this was still present the following year when Ruth Ellis was executed, along with the one she had requested.

The role of the hangman and his assistants.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the hangman was often a condemned criminal themselves who had been reprieved on condition that they executed the others condemned at that assize.  Thus the names of very few provincial hangmen are known for this period. 
Prior to the resignation of James Berry in 1892, anyone could apply to a prison governor to carry out at an execution.  Thus, for instance, William Marwood simply applied to the governor of Lincoln Gaol to hang Frederick Horry.  Prior to Marwood there was very little science applied to hanging and it was really a question of the hangman having the stomach for the job rather than any specific skill.  When Berry resigned the Home Office decided that would be hangmen should attend for interviews with prison governors.  Several were interviewed at London’s Millbank prison to be Berry’s successor.  The Aberdare Committee had recommended that there be a qualified assistant at every execution who could take over if required.  This didn’t really get implemented until after Berry had departed.
Up to 1888 the hangman supplied his own rope and pinioning straps and after the execution was also allowed to take the prisoner’s clothes and retain the rope.  In notorious murder cases these items could be sold for a considerable sum to Madame Tussauds wax works or to morbid members of the public.

From 1892 proper training was given to applicants, firstly at Newgate and then later at Pentonville prison.  This lasted a week and taught the correct procedures for working out the drop and conducting a hanging.  At the same time the officials were also able to assess the applicant’s personality and their motives for wanting the job.  Once qualified they would be added to the official list and work initially in the role of assistant until they had amassed sufficient experience to take over as principal.  Not all assistants ever did graduate to principals however, perhaps they had no wish to. 
Those who did were solely responsible for setting up the drop, pinioning the prisoner and carrying out the hanging.  They were required to be at the prison by 4.00 p.m. on the day prior to the execution.  Once there they would arrange to take a look at the prisoner to assess their physical features and obtain their weight and height from the prison doctor to enable them to calculate the drop.  The assistant’s duties were to help the hangman set up the equipment and the drop and to strap the prisoner’s legs. The hangmen did everything else and was in full charge from the moment he entered the condemned cell.  After the execution the hangman and assistant were responsible for taking the body down and preparing it for autopsy.  Having tidied the gallows and packed the rest of the equipment back into the execution boxes they were then free to leave the prison.  They had to sign the Official Secrets Act and were not allowed to divulge any details of the execution to the public or the press. For more details on the individual hangmen click here.

The paperwork and administration.
When a person was sentenced to death post 1868 a written copy of the sentence, signed by the Clerk if the Court was sent to the prison, along with the prisoner, as the warrant to admit the prisoner and place them in the condemned cell. This document gave no date for the execution. It should be noted that there was no other formal death warrant issued post 1837.  If there was no appeal or the appeal was dismissed the High Sheriff of the county wrote to the governor of the prison setting out the time and date of the execution.  The sheriff also wrote a letter of appointment to the chosen hangman. A “Memorandum of Instructions for Carrying out an Execution” was sent to the prison for each hanging.  (Click here to see the final version) The day before the execution a notice (Document No. 278) was posted on the prison gate giving the name of the prisoner and the time of the execution.  After the execution Documents No. 279 and 280, respectively the Certificate of Surgeon and the Declaration of Sheriff were posted on the gate.  The first simply certified death (Click here to see one) and the second, signed by the sheriff or under sheriff, the governor and the chaplain declared that “Judgement of Death was this day executed on (prisoner’s name) in Her Majesty’s Prison of (named) in our presence.”  Click here to see one.  After the formal inquest a Coroner’s Order for Burial (Part B) was issued allowing for the prisoner to be buried.  An LPC4 form was completed by the governor and sent to the Prison Commissioners. Click here to see one.

For a detailed account of the processes and physiology of judicial hanging go to The process of judicial hanging

Back to Contents page British Hangmen Earlier hangmen Timeline of capital punishment in Britain.