Ann Lawrence
The UK’s penultimate female public hanging - 1867.


Strangely the last two women to be publicly hanged in Britain both died in front of Maidstone Gaol some sixteen months apart, each for the murder of a child.


Twenty nine year old Ann Lawrence was separated from her husband, Stephen, by whom she had a four year old son, Jeremiah, known as Jesse. Mother and son were living with Ann’s boyfriend, Walter Highams, in their terraced cottage at No. 2 Ebury Cottages in Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

In the early hours of Saturday the 14th of April 1866 Ann killed Jesse and attempted to murder Walter.  John Allen was passing the cottage on his way to work when he was startled by the door opening and a blood stained woman running out shouting “murder” and “go for a policeman – I’ll give myself up.”  Mr. Allen did as he was bid and went to fetch the constable.  He sent another neighbour, Edmund Cavey, back to the cottage to find out what had happened.  Mr. Cavey arrived at the cottage to find Ann still attacking Walter Highams.  Mr. Cavey went for to get some more help and with two other men was able to rescue Walter from Ann.  Walter staggered next door where his neighbours looked after him and treated his wounds until he could be taken to hospital where he had two fingers amputated. In the meantime constables Henley and May arrived and took charge of the situation.  They took Ann back into the cottage and she told them that Walter had killed her child.  The police soon made the grim discovery of the little boy, lying on his bed in an upstairs room with his throat deeply cut and the razor still in the wound.  Ann began screaming “I want my child” and the policeman told her that he was dead.  She persisted and told them that her child was alive and well, as indeed it was when they went back upstairs and discovered a nine month old baby. 

Initially she told the constables that Walter had killed Jeremiah, who was his stepson and that this had caused her to attack him with a billhook (a small chopper with a hooked blade that is used for chopping firewood).  She claimed that she acted in self defence as she thought Walter intended to kill her too. 

Superintendent Embery arrived on the scene at about six thirty that morning and began questioning Ann about the events.  She still persisted in the story that Walter had murdered Jeremiah and that she had attacked and had intended to kill him. Embery decided to arrest Ann and take her to Tunbridge Wells for further questioning.  Enough evidence was unearthed to be able to charge her with both the murder of Jeremiah and the attempted murder of Walter.


Ann came to trial at Maidstone on the 20th of December, her case occupying two days.  She was arraigned before Sir W. F. Channell on two counts, murder and attempted murder but the latter was not proceeded with.  She pleaded not guilty to the charge of Jeremiah’s murder.
The prosecution case was opened by Mr. Sergeant Parry Q. C. and Ann was skilfully defended by Mr. Ribton and Mr. Ormerod who probed every avenue to try to get an acquittal for her.

The court heard evidence from Walter Highams, who described the frenzied attack on himself but had not witnessed the actual murder as he was asleep at the time.  Evidence was given by the two constables and the neighbours. Dr. Richard Davy, the House Surgeon at Tunbridge Wells Infirmary, who had examined the body of Jeremiah and afterwards the clothes Ann was wearing at the time of arrest, explained to the jury that the pattern of blood stains he had found on the dress was consistent with what he would expect from slitting the throat of a child and the severance of the main arteries.  The jury deliberated for three hours before reaching a guilty verdict.  Before Ann was sentenced to death she was asked, as was customary, if she had anything to say and she said that she wished to make a statement.  Once again she affirmed her innocence of the murder and told the court that her conscience was clear.  The judge then passed sentence on her and she was taken back to Maidstone Gaol to await execution. 


Another murderer was also convicted at this Assize, twenty year old James Fletcher, a Derbyshire miner, who had battered to death prison warder James Boyle with a hammer in Chatham prison part way through serving a seven year sentence. Although Ann and James had been convicted of separate offences they were to hang together, which was still normal practice and remained so up to 1875 when Elizabeth Pearson was hanged at Durham alongside two men convicted of unrelated murders.  Up to the end of 1903 female prisoners were hanged with co-defendants of either sex, but the practice ceased after this.


Ann was to be the first woman to hang at Maidstone Gaol. The last female execution in Kent having taken place over sixty years earlier when Elizabeth Barber suffered for the murder of John Daly at the old execution site at Penenden Heath on the 25th of March 1805. As was now usual, where a woman had been sentenced to death, a petition had been got up by well meaning local people to save her but the Home Secretary was unmoved by this and had to take into account the violence of the crimes.


Death warrants were received for both prisoners on Saturday the 5th of January and these were read to them by the Governor of Maidstone prison, Major Bannister.  Ann told the governor that she hoped her execution would be carried out. 

The scaffold was erected outside the main gate in County Road during Wednesday. The structure comprised a platform supported by heavy beams, containing the trapdoors, and surrounded by a railing. In the centre there was a simple gallows consisting of two uprights and a cross beam with two iron chains for attachment of the ropes. The drop was reached by a short flight of steps and the lower portion beneath the platform was draped with black cloth to prevent the crowd seeing the legs and lower body of the suspended prisoners. This gallows was to be used the following year for the execution of Francis Kidder.


It is recorded that Ann slept well on the Wednesday night prior to her execution and ate a good breakfast.  She particularly asked that her baby not be given to Walter after her death and arrangements were made for it to go into Maidstone workhouse at Coxheath.

William Calcraft arrived at the prison around eleven o’clock on the Thursday the 10th of January 1867 and made his preparations. Both Ann and James Fletcher were given the sacrament in the prison chapel during the morning by the Reverend W. Fraser and then taken to reception cells which were close to the gallows.  Calcraft pinioned their wrists in these cells before they were led out just before noon.  James was brought out first and when Calcraft had him positioned on the trap he was hooded and noosed.  Ann was led onto the gallows, accompanied by a warder and knelt for some time in prayer before being led onto the trap besides James.  A white cotton hood was drawn down over her head and the halter style noose adjusted around her neck.  Although she appeared faint she was able to retain a considerable degree of composure until the end and could be heard repeatedly saying “Jesus, have mercy” whilst the final preparations were made.  As the drop fell a woman in the crowd let out a shriek. James died quite easily for the time and did not appear to struggle for long but Ann showed signs of life for several minutes according to newspaper reports.  As usual broadsides were sold among the crowd at the execution. 

Ann’s husband, Stephen Lawrence had tried to gain admittance to the prison and had to forcibly removed by the police.  It is not known whether he joined the crowd to watch his estranged wife die.  It was estimated that some four to five thousand, including a large number of women, had assembled in County Road to do so.


On the Sunday before her execution Ann had asked to see the governor, Major Bannister, to whom she gave a full confession and accepted responsibility for the murder. She told him that she could not remember how she had done it because she was so enraged at the time.  She told him again that she hoped that she would not reprieved and that she wanted her death. She also apologised for having tried to incriminate Walter Highams. 


Her motives began to unfold and she related that the main reason for both crimes was jealousy over Walter’s affairs with other women and her wish to avenge herself on him for them. 

Ann had been working as servant when she first met Walter, who after his wife had left him in 1864, had invited Ann to live with him.  She decided to leave her husband, Stephen Lawrence for Walter soon after Jeremiah was born.  The couple often rowed and it was usually over Walter’s other relationship.  Prior to Ann going to live with him he had been having an affair with a young woman, one Miss Eaglington in the nearby village of Town Malling whom he had got pregnant.  He continued to see her after the relationship with Ann had started and a second pregnancy ensued.  This led to a physical fight between Ann and Miss Eaglington in January 1866.  Four days before the murder Walter had sent Ann up to London to buy produce for his fruit and vegetable shop in Tunbridge.  Thinking that she would be away over night he again went to see Miss Eaglington but Ann returned on the Wednesday evening and found out where he had gone which led to a major row the following day, culminating with Ann hitting Walter on the head. On the Friday Walter took Jeremiah out with him delivering and the child had a fall and got his clothes dirty.  This led to further friction between them. Ann thus went to bed that night consumed with jealousy and rage and sadly poor Jeremiah was the principal victim.

It would seem that Ann was genuinely sorry for what he she had done and that her execution bought her closure, rather than having to live in prison for twenty or more years with her conscience.


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