Horsemonger Lane Gaol.

The Surrey County Gaol or New Gaol, as it was known, was built by George Gwilt as the main prison for the
county of Surrey, between 1791 and 1799 in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark, in what is now south London.  In those days, the county of Surrey extended right up to the boundary with the City of London.  It was to be one of the new “model prisons” coming into vogue at this time.  Due to its location on Horsemonger Lane, the prison was generally known as Horsemonger Lane Gaol. It was controlled by the sheriff of the county of Surrey, the court of quarter-sessions, and 12 visiting magistrates. Most of the inmate’s trials took place in the nearby Sessions House, also built by George Gwilt a few years earlier.

Horsemonger Lane remained Surrey’s principal prison and its hanging jail up to closure in 1878 as it no longer met the required standards, as laid down by the 1877 Prison Act.  As built, it had three wings for criminals and a fourth for debtors, with a capacity of around 300 inmates.  It remained a common gaol, i.e. one that imprisoned debtors and criminals up to 1856, the last common gaol in London. Demolition started in 1880, with part of the site being converted into a children’s playground in 1884 and was completed in 1892, with the old gatehouse being used by the London County Council as a Weights and Measures office for a time. The present Inner London Crown Court was opened on the site in January 1921.

Like most general prisons, Horsemonger Lane had a large number of people passing though its doors in any one year. It is recorded that during the course of 1837, there were 1,193 male and 107 female debtors incarcerated, together with 1,901 men and 605 women servings sentences for ordinary crimes. The largest number of inmates at any one time was 233 men and 62 women. The cost of all this was recorded as £3,316. 0 shillings and 2 pence for the year!

Executions at Horsemonger Lane.

Up to 1800, Surrey executions had been carried out at Guildford, Kingston and on Kennington Common using a cart to turn the condemned off from, prior to the opening of Horsemonger Lane. Over the 78 year period from 1800-1877, 131 people were hanged here, comprising of 127 men and four women. Of these, four men and one woman were executed in private post 1868.  118 of the executions took place between 1800 and 1836, after which there was a rapid decline in executions nationwide.  There was then a ten year gap before the next hanging in 1846.  After 1836, only murder and attempted murder actually attracted the death penalty and the late 1830’s and early 40’s saw very few executions nationally. Just ten murderers were made to climb up to the gatehouse roof between 1846 and 1867, in six single hangings and two double hangings. A new long drop gallows was built in 1874, presumably in an execution shed as was the fashion by then.  It was transferred to Wandsworth prison when Horsemonger Lane closed.


The first executions took place on Friday, the 4th of April 1800, when five men were hanged by William Brunskill, one each for coining, highway robbery and being at large and two for burglary. A total of 12 men were executed on three occasions during 1800.


The gallows for public executions was of the “New Drop” pattern erected on the flat roof of the main gatehouse in between the four lanthorns or skylights.  (Click here for a woodcut picture).  The largest number hanged at one time being seven, on two occasions, Monday, 21st of February 1803 and Monday, the 4th of April 1803.
The first of these executions was of Colonel Despard and his group for High Treason. Despard and his co-conspirators had been arrested on
the 16th of November 1802 at the Oakley Arms pub in Lambeth by a large body of police.  In all, some 40 people were arrested and they all appeared before magistrates at Union Hall police office the following day.  Their somewhat half baked conspiracy had been betrayed by one of the group, Thomas Windsor, who was the chief witness at their trial.

Those convicted of high treason were Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, 50, John Wood, 36, John Francis, 23, both privates in the army, Thomas Broughton, 26, a carpenter, James Sedgwick Wratton, 35, a shoemaker, Arthur Graham, 53, a slater, John Macnamara, Thomas Newman, Daniel Tyndale and William Lander.  All were charged with three counts of High Treason and tried before a Special Commission on Monday, the 7th of February 1803, for conspiring to capture and kill the King and overthrow the government. They had also planned to stop the mail coaches entering and leaving London and take over the Tower. Admiral Lord Nelson appeared in Despard’s defence and gave him an excellent character reference.  However, all ten were found guilty and were sentenced by Lord Ellenborough as follows : “You (the prisoners were named in turn) are to be taken from the place from whence you came, and from thence you are to be drawn on hurdles to the place of execution, where you are to be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces) your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King's disposal ; and may the Almighty God have mercy on your souls!" Newman, Tyndale and Lander were respited and the remaining seven executed.
As happened with the
Cato Street conspirators, 17 years later, the full rigours of their sentence were reduced to hanging until dead followed by decapitation.
The death warrants were read to the men on the Sunday evening, (20th of February 1803) and the execution took place on the Monday morning.  A block and bags of sawdust had been placed upon the gaol roof beside the gallows.  At 7.00 a.m., the men were brought out of their cells and had their iron fetters removed and replaced with rope bindings.  They were placed on hurdles and pulled round the yard by horses in a procession led by
the sheriff, Sir R. Ford, accompanied by the chaplain, Mr. Winkworth, and Mr Griffith, a Catholic priest. (Despard was Catholic). They were then taken back into the prison and up to the roof where Despard addressed the huge crowd from the gallows proclaiming his innocence, his fellow prisoners remaining silent. Brunskill prepared each of the men and at the signal from the Sheriff, the drop fell at 8.53 a.m.  They were left hanging for half an hour before being taken down and having their heads cut off by a masked man.  Despard was the first to be decapitated.  The severed heads were held aloft by the hangman with the cry of, “Behold the head of a traitor.”  Despard was buried near the north door of St Paul's Cathedral and the other 6 buried in one grave at a chapel, in London Road, St George's Fields.


April the 8th of 1806 saw the executions of a married couple, Sarah and Benjamin Herring who had been convicted of the high treason offence of coining and Richard Patch who had been convicted of the murder of Isaac Blight.  Once again a husband and wife being hanged bought out the crowds.


On the morning of Tuesday, the 4th of April 1809, Brunskill had a quadruple hanging to perform.  The prisoners were James Bartlett, who had been convicted of sodomy, highway robber Henry Edwards and John Biggs and Samuel Wood who were to hang for burglary. A large crowd had assembled to watch the execution and it is reported that “the unfortunate men met their fate with great fortitude and died acknowledging the justice of their punishment.” Biggs sarcastically observed to Brunskill, when he was pinioning him in the usual way, "I wish you had a better office."


Richard Valentine Thomas was hanged by William Brunskill on Monday, the 3rd of September 1810 for forging and uttering a cheque for the sum of £400 & 8 shillings on Messrs Smith, Paine and Smyth in London, purporting to be drawn by Messrs Diffell and Son.  This was a huge sum in its day and Thomas had the cheque cashed into large denomination notes, most of which were discovered and traced back to him.  Uttering and forgery were both offences which regularly resulted in execution at this time and were not de-capitalised until 1836.


Horsemonger Lane seemed to get it share of traitors.  On the 16th of March 1812, John Smith and William Cundel were to die for treason having been convicted of serving with the French during the Napoleonic Wars having been taken prisoner by them.  In accordance with the law they had been sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered but again the disembowelling and quartering were remitted.


George Chennel jnr. and Willian Chalcraft were imprisoned in Horsemonger Lane, awaiting their trial and subsequent execution for the murder of Chennel’s father George snr.  As was not unusual at this time, in the case of particularly heinous murder the trial judge ordered that they were hanged at or as near as possible to where the crime took place which was at Godalming in Surrey.  The execution was carried out on Friday the 14th of August 1818.


At around 9.00 a.m. on Monday, the 23rd of April 1827, Daniel Buckley and Jeremiah Andrews, both of whom had been convicted at the Surrey Assizes of the high treason offence of coining, were hanged by Thomas Foxen.  Prior to the execution, they were drawn across the yard on a hurdle with Foxen standing behind them with a drawn sword, to the foot of the staircase leading to the roof and then brought up onto it for their brief walk to the gallows. 


William Banks, a career criminal, was executed on the 11th of January 1830 for the crime of housebreaking, still a capital crime at this period.  Banks had been a member of the "Moulsey Gang" who were betrayed by a fellow criminal in July 1829 to save himself from a sentence of transportation for life. Banks had been convicted at the Surrey Assizes of breaking into the house of the Reverend William Warrington at Grove Cottage, West Moulsey, in Surrey, on the night of Wednesday, the 19th of November 1828.


One of the best known cases at Horsemonger Lane was that of Maria and Frederick Manning who were hanged there on the morning of Tuesday, the 13th of November 1849.  This led to angry outbursts in the Times newspaper from Charles Dickens deploring the behaviour of the crowd at public executions and helped lead to the abolition of public hanging.  Click here for the full details of this famous case.

William Godfrey Youngman was hanged by William Calcraft on Tuesday, the 4th of September 1860 for the murder of his girlfriend, Mary Streeter, in Walwoth Road, London for her life insurance.  Youngman greeted Calcraft and asked him to “strap my legs tight and be sure to shake hands with me before I go.”  Calcraft did as requested.


A public execution was witnessed by a Mr. Shephard Taylor on the 12th of January 1864, who recorded the event as follows:

“Saw Samuel Wright hanged on the roof of Horsemonger Lane Jail for the murder of a paramour. This man, a bricklayer, three years ago found and returned to me a silver watch which I had lost at a fete.  It was a remarkable case in the fact that the murder, the coroner's inquest, the magisterial investigation, the trial, and sentence all took place in a week.”

“The general public and all the newspapers without exception advocated clemency on the part of the Crown, but the Home Secretary was inexorable. The blinds were down in all the neighbouring streets and the military were called out in case of an attempted rescue. When the unfortunate man appeared on the scaffold, loud cries of “Take him, take him down” were heard in every direction, to which the unhappy man responded by repeated bows to the multitude, he still continued bowing and was actually bowing when the drop fell.”

The last public execution here was that of Louis Bordier on the 15th of October 1867.  He was hanged by William Calcraft for the murder of Mary Ann Snow at Walworth.

Margaret Waters became the first to die in private at Horsemonger Lane. She was a baby farmer who took in the babies of unmarried mothers for a fee and then killed them.  She was convicted of the murder of John Cowan but is thought to have murdered between 16 and 19 babies in the Brixton area.  Her case filled the papers in the summer of 1870 with graphic descriptions of how she had poisoned babies, wrapped their bodies in old rags and newspapers and dumped them on deserted streets. When she was arrested, nine babies in very poor health were discovered at her home and taken to the Lambeth Workhouse, the majority of them died soon afterwards.  She was tried at the Surrey Assizes on the one count of murder and hanged by William Calcraft on the 11th of October 1870.

The last two executions both took place in 1877.  The first was that of 23 year old Isaac Marks, a Jewish antiques dealer on the 2nd of January.  Marks had been convicted of shooting Frederick Bernard on the afternoon of the 24th of October 1876, outside a shop in Lambeth. Marks had been engaged to Caroline Bernard, Frederick’s daughter.  Mark’s house burnt down in 1876 and his prospective father-in-law offered to help him sort out the insurance claim.  Having done so, he presented Marks with the bill for his services which led to a major row. Marks laid in wait for Bernard and killed him coming out of the shop.  A defence of insanity was mounted but the jury refused to accept it and so young Mr. Marks got his date with William Marwood.

Thirty eight year old Caleb Smith murdered his common-law wife, Emma Elizabeth Osbourne, at their home in Croydon on the 14th of April 1877.  He and Emma had one of their regular drunken quarrels during which she slapped him across the face. In a rage, he pulled out his razor and cut her throat before turning the blade on himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He was tried for murder at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey) on the 24th of July, and offered a plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation. The jury did not accept this and found him guilty of murder, thus he was sentenced to hang. He was executed in private by William Marwood on the 14th of August 1877 in the execution shed at Horsemonger Lane, becoming the last person to be hanged there.  After this, Surrey executions took place at the newly opened Wandsworth prison.


Executioners at Horsemonger Lane.

William Brunskill carried out all of the first 68 hangings here up to April 1814.  He was succeeded by John Langley for the next six up to April 1817 and then by Jeremy Botting with six until 1819.  Thomas Foxen carried out the next 21 up to January 1829, before being replaced by William Calcraft who carried out the 25 public hangings and the first private one - baby farmer, Margaret Waters.  William Marwood officiated at the last four hangings between October 1874 and August 1877.


A new book on Surrey Executions.

A complete history of Surrey executions from 1800 to 1899 is available. “Surrey Executions” written and researched by Martin Baggoley and published by Amberley Publishing in 2011.  Price £12.99. Orders placed online at will be subject to a 10% discount on the cover price. Packaging and postage is free for UK customers.  This is an interesting and well written book with a lot more details on individual cases than I have space for on this website.

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