HMP Lancaster is a Grade 1 listed building and is Europe’s oldest
working prison dating back to 1196. It has a capacity of 240 prisoners
and is a Category C training prison. It is due to close in March 2011. Parts of the Castle are open to the public,
including the Crown Court - it is well worth the visit.
In the late 18th century the Castle began
to be converted into the prison you can see today. The first phase commenced in
1788 with the erection of the Gaoler’s House, followed by the female prison in
1792 and in 1794 the new male prison.
A new and larger Female Penitentiary,
designed by Joseph Gandy, which was finished in 1821 and was based on Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” principle of wings radiating out from
a central point where the staff could keep watch. There were 48 single
occupancy cells, as at this time it was considered essential for each prisoner
to have their own cell. Additionally a two storey debtor’s prison was
constructed. Imprisonment was used much more for debt at that time than
as an ordinary criminal sanction. The prison was taken over by the Home
Office in 1877. In 1916 LancasterCastle was
temporarily closed as a convict prison and used for German prisoners of
war. It reopened as a normal prison in 1954.
It has been said that more prisoners were sentenced to death at Lancaster
Assizes than at any other court outside London, Lancaster becoming
known as “The Hanging Town” in consequence.
The gallows at Lancaster.
From 1800 - 1865 executions were carried
out at "The Hanging Corner”, a small round tower on the east side of the
building. (Click here
On the ground floor of the tower is the "Drop Room" which contains
relics of the many executions, and can be visited today. It is quite
eerie standing in this room looking at the exhibits and listening to what
happened within it. The French windows have also survived and one can
look out to the bank opposite where the crowd, often 5,000 – 6,000 strong,
would have assembled to watch.
The prisoners were brought into the Drop Room from the condemned cells to be
pinioned and say their final prayers before being led forward through the
inward opening French windows straight onto the balcony style gallows.
The gallows would have been erected the previous afternoon and consisted of two
uprights that were seated into holes cut into the flagstones of the
courtyard. A heavy cross beam ran between the uprights with a platform
containing the trap doors beneath it at the level of the bottom of the French
windows, the platform being draped in a black cloth to hide the legs of the
prisoners. High railings surrounded the drop area and the spectators were
allowed up to these, within a few feet of the gallows. Many more crowded
onto the opposite bank to get a good view of the proceedings. All the
public executions used the short drop method of course, so death seldom came
without a struggle. After the bodies had hung for an hour they was taken
off the rope and taken in through the small lower window that can be seen in
After 1868 the law required all executions
to be in private and these took place in the Chapel yard up again the chapel
steps. A purpose - built execution shed was erected circa 1900 in the yard
immediately behind the wall of the Hanging Corner, and I am told that this
still existed when the prison re-opened. It is possible that the gallows may
have still been in existence in this shed until the late 1950’s.
Executions at Lancaster.
Between 1800 and 1865, a total of 213
people were executed at LancasterCastle (also said elsewhere to be 235, due I think, to the inclusion of 32
executions at Liverpool and a further 6 at Manchester, all within the county of Lancashire.) Six men were hanged in private between 1875 and 1910. Prior to
1800, all Lancashire executions had taken place on Gallows Hill, on the moors outside Lancaster’s
southern gate, in what is now Williamson's Park. It was here that the
hangings of nine of the ten Pendle Witches were carried out in 1612 (the other
one was hanged at York). They were convicted of witchcraft on the basis of having
caused the deaths of seventeen people in and around the Forest of Pendle.
As in most other county towns at the time, the condemned were taken to the
gallows in a cart, seated on their coffin and “turned off” from the back of the
Prior to 1834 there as many as twenty felonies, not just murder, that typically
resulted in execution. Of the 213 hangings between 1800 and 1865 only 43
(20%) were for murder. 44 people suffered for burglary, others for
highway robbery, uttering, arson and sheep and horse theft.
The first hangings at the Castle took place
after the Lent Assizes of 1800, when six men were to die on Saturday the 19th
of April of that year. They were Messrs. John Brady, John Burns and James
Weldon for robbing the mail all three of whom were afterwards hanged in chains
at Ashton and Samuel Bradford, George McDonald and Paul Hargreaves
for the crime of uttering (passing forged bank notes). Saturday was the
normal execution day at Lancaster, to be sure of attracting the largest audience for the purpose of
maximum deterrence, presumably. This was the only hanging day that
year. However 1801 saw the biggest mass hanging, which took place on
Saturday the 12th of September, when eight men were launched into eternity
simultaneously, three of them being brothers who had been convicted of
burglary. Ten further executions were carried out in this year.
The highest single year total was 1817,
with no fewer than 20 hangings.
On the 19th
April 1817, nine men were “turned off”
together for various crimes, up to and including highway robbery. A
further multiple execution took place later that year, when on 8th of September
1817, four men were to hang. They were James Ashcroft senior, his brother
David, his son, also James and his son in law William Holden. All four
had been convicted of murder and robbery at a house in Manchester.
The execution caused much excitement as many people believed that they were
innocent. There was to be another family execution in 1827 when George
Heyworth and his two sons, William and Roger, were hanged together for highway
Nine women were to suffer at Lancaster. They
were Hannah Eastwood who was hanged on Saturday the 2nd of May 1801 for forging £1 notes at Manchester. She was
the first woman to be executed in the county since 1772 and was executed
alongside three men who were also convicted of forging bank notes. Mary Jackson
was hanged for stealing in a dwelling house in 1806 and Mary Chandler for the
same offence two years later. Hannah Smith was put to death for the crime
of riot in 1812, together with seven men. Susanna Holroyd
suffered for the murder of her husband in 1816 (her body being afterwards
dissected). Margaret Dowd was hanged for uttering in 1818 and Rachael
Bradley for murdering her child in 1827.
22 year old Jane Scott was hanged on the 22nd of March 1828 for poisoning her parents in Preston. She had also poisoned her own children and her sister’s
child. She was so weak at the
end that she was wheeled to the gallows in a modified office chair and
supported by two warders until the drop fell. The special chair is still
on display. For a detailed account of this case click here.The last woman to be hanged at Lancaster was 29
year old Mary Holden, on the 19th of March 1834, for the
murder of her 40 year old husband, Roger with arsenic at Hurst Green on 24th February 1834.
After 1835, Lancaster’s role as
an Assize town was reduced to serve just the northern areas of the
county. Liverpool was allowed its own Assizes, with those condemned there being
hanged at Kirkdale prison. From 1864, Manchester also
became an Assize town with its executions being carried out at Salford and later Strangeways
prisons. Lancaster executions diminished sharply as a result of this and also the huge
reduction in the number of capital crimes on the Statute Book from 1838
onwards. There were no further executions at Lancaster until
In 1862, Walker Moore who had murdered his
wife at Colne, managed to commit suicide on the
morning of execution, the 30th of August. He had previously told the
court that there was no rope in existence that would hang him. On that
morning he asked permission to use the toilet and managed to drown himself in
the large cistern that served several cubicles. The waiting crowds
outside the prison were greatly disappointed at being robbed of their
The last public execution at Lancaster took
place on March
the 25th 1865, when Stephen Burke was put
to death by William Calcraft for the murder of his wife at Preston.
After that, there were only to be six more
executions, all in private.
William Marwood officiated at the first of
these, on Monday
the 16th of August 1875. This was the
double hanging of 36 year old William M’Cullough who
had murdered his lodger, William Watson and 24 year old Mark Fiddler who had
killed his wife. This was to be the only double hanging in private.
On Monday the 11th of February 1879, Marwood was to hang another wife murderer – this time it was 40
year old William McGuiness.
24, shot his girlfriend, Annie Kelly for which he was sentenced to death.
In Lancaster’s condemned cell he was gripped by the terror of his situation, and
according to James Berry, became “seriously ill”. On the morning of
the 1st of August 1887, Sowery
had to be dragged to the gallows crying and screaming. Here he kicked Berry in the leg
with such force that Berry was permanently scarred by it. However his execution
proceeded as normal.
On Friday the 9th of February 1886, Joseph Bains was hanged by James Berry
for the murder of his wife at Barrow.
After a gap of 24 years, 31 year old Thomas
Rawcliffe became the last person to be executed
within the Castle. He too was hanged for the murder of his wife, 27 year
old Louisa, whom he had strangled at on the evening of the 6th of September 1910. He called a policeman into his house, confessing to him and
showing him his wife’s body. Rawcliffe was
tried at Lancaster before Mister Justice Avory and it
transpired that he had sustained a serious head injury as a child which may
have accounted for his violent streak. The jury made a recommendation to
mercy with their verdict, but this was rejected and on Tuesday the 15th of
November John Ellis, assisted by William Willis, carried out his sentence.
Lancashire employed its own hangman, as did most counties in 1700’s and early
1800’s drawn from the inmate population. The only one of these about whom any
information remains was Edward Barlow, a Welsh “gentleman” known as “Old Ned”.. Barlow died in the Castle on the 9th of December 1812, according to Castle records, having been imprisoned there for
stealing a horse. Horse theft was a capital crime itself at the time, but
executing Barlow was a problem for the authorities as hangmen were difficult to
obtain. So they commuted his sentence to 10 years imprisonment on condition
that he continued to carry out executions and floggings. He is estimated to
have carried out 71 hangings here between 1782 and 1812 It is unclear who succeeded Barlow, it may have been
the hangman from neighbouring Yorkshire. Samuel Haywood was active here in the 1830’s and it is probable
that he officiated at the triple hanging of murderers William Worrall, Ashton
Worrall and Moses Fernley on the 14th of March 1831. On
the scaffold William Worral deliberately kicked off
his shoes. This was thought to be a form of message to his mother who had
apparently told him that he would never die with his shoes off unless his
behaviour improved (an allusion to being hanged). Haywood carried out as many
as 18 executions here up to the 26th of March 1835, when he
hanged John Orell for the murder of his eight year
William Calcraft’s first execution at Lancaster was that
of wife murderer, Richard Pedder on the 27th of August 1853. The rope he used for this hanging is still on display in the “Drop
Room”, although sadly deteriorated. (clickhere to see
photo). As with the rest of the country, Calcraft was succeeded in turn
by Marwood, Berry, and Ellis.