The first modern prison opened in London in 1816 - the new Millbank prison. It had separate cells for 860 prisoners and proved satisfactory, to the authorities at least, thus commencing a programme of prison building to deal with the rapid increase in prisoner numbers occasioned by the ending of capital punishment for many crimes and a steady reduction in the use of transportation.
Two Acts of
Parliament were passed allowing for the building of Pentonville prison for the
detention of convicts sentenced to imprisonment or awaiting transportation.
Construction started on
Prisoners under sentence of death were not housed at Pentonville until the closure of Newgate in 1902 when it took over responsibility for executions for
The gallows at Pentonville.
Pentonville's execution facility originally consisted of a purpose built shed adjoining B Wing. Execution sheds became the norm in most British prisons, after the abolition of public hanging in 1868, and typically had the trapdoors installed over a 12 feet deep brick lined pit, as drops of up to 10 feet could be given. They were often used as a garage for the prison van when not required for executions.
At the end of the 1920's, to save the prisoner having to walk the 25 yards to the gallows, a new execution facility was provided within the prison, comprising a stack of three rooms in the middle of A wing. The top most room contained the beam from which up to three 4" link chains could be suspended, for attachment of the rope(s) which hung down through floor hatches. The beam and the adjusters for the chain can be seen in the picture. The first floor room, painted a pale green, contained the lever and trapdoors and the ground floor room acted as the "pit" into which the prisoner dropped. Adjacent to this room was an autopsy room where post mortems were carried out.
Albert Pierrepoint described the trap in 1931 as having two leaves, each some 8 feet 6 inches long by 2 feet 6 inches wide, with rubber backed spring clips to catch them when they were released. Also on the first floor were the two condemned cells separated from the execution chamber by an ante room. It was just 20 feet from the condemned cells to the gallows.
teaching prison for hangmen.
People who successfully applied to be added to the Home Office list of executioners attended a one week course at Pentonville where they were taught how to calculate and set the drop, pinion the prisoner and carry out an execution with speed and efficiency using a dummy in place of the prisoner. Albert Pierrepoint described this training in some detail in his autobiography. The prison engineer was responsible for training new recruits and after they had had their medical and interview with the governor, he took them straight to the execution chamber where he showed them round and explained the equipment. On the second morning, Albert and another trainee met "Old Bill" who was the dummy used in place of a prisoner. They practised hooding and noosing "Old Bill," getting the eyelet of the noose in the right place and learning the system of humane hanging. This is "draw on the white cap, adjust the noose, whip out the safety pin, push the lever, drop." They repeated the process over and over until they became proficient and fast. The next task was to learn to calculate the correct drop from the Home Office tables. They were taught how to set the drop for differing weights of prisoners by adjusting the length of the chain (the British rope was a standard length) and shown how to carry out double executions. These involved getting the prisoner in Condemned Cell 1 onto the drop and prepared before the prisoner in Condemned Cell 2 is led out. Lots of other factors were discussed, e.g. what to do with a prisoner who had earlier attempted suicide by cutting their throat (not uncommon) or with a person who only had one leg or arm. At the end of the week, they were given a final test, consisting of a full dummy execution. The last training course was run in the week commencing Monday 25th April 1960, for Samuel Plant and John Underhill, both of whom were successful and remained on the list of assistant executioners until abolition.
Execution boxes and the gallows beam, where required, were sent from Pentonville to those prisons that did not have permanent facilities. The boxes contained two nooses, pinioning straps and white hood plus other ancillary equipment.
Hangmen at Pentonville.
The first seven executions were carried out by William Billington with John Billington doing the next one, before handing it over to Henry Pierrepoint who officiated at the next seven. John Ellis carried out the next six, interrupted by Tom Pierrepoint with the next two, before resuming for a further 17. William Willis hanged Frederick Bywaters as Ellis was busy at Holloway with Edith Thompson. After Ellis resigned, the baton was handed on to Robert Baxter for the next 24 executions.
Tom Pierrepoint did a further four hangings, two in 1937, one in 1941 and one in 1943 (Charles Koopman), while Alfred Allen carried out his sole execution here, that of Frederick Murphy in August 1937. Stanley Cross was to hang the first three spies at Pentonville (see below). After that, Albert Pierrepoint took over and with the exception of the one execution carried out by his uncle, had a virtual monopoly until 1954. He executed 42 men between 1941 and 1954 and carried out his first hanging as "No. 1" at Pentonville when he executed Antonio Mancini on Friday, the 31st of October 1941.
Executions at Pentonville.
One hundred and twenty men were to be hanged at Pentonville between 1902 and 1961, an average of two per year. Of these, 105 suffered for civilian murders, seven for Prisoner of War murders, one for treason and seven for spying during wartime. Pentonville carried out, by a margin of three, the most 20th century British executions. Its total represents 14.7% of 20th century English and Welsh hangings for murder. The distribution of executions is quite patchy. The war years were particularly busy with 25 executions between July 1940 and December 1945. In other years, e.g. 1906 - 1908, 1914 & 1915 and 1938 - 1939, there were none.
a selection of some of the more interesting cases:
John Macdonald became the first to be hanged at Pentonville, on the 30th of September 1902 for the murder of Henry Groves, whom he had stabbed to death in a dispute over 5 shillings (25p). He was executed by William Billington.
the most famous cases to end at Pentonville was that of 48 year old Dr. Hawley
Harvey Crippen, who had murdered his domineering wife, American born Cora Turner
(stage name Belle Elmore). The murder took place at Crippen's
house at 39 Hilldrop Crescent in London on or about
the 1st of February 1910. The marriage was not a happy one and she belittled
him at every turn. Eventually Crippen, who was having an affair with his
secretary, Ethel Le Neve, unable to stand her
behaviour any longer, poisoned her with Hyoscine and
then dismembered the body and buried it in the cellar. After being interviewed
by the police over the disappearance of Belle, Crippen and Ethel Le Neve decided to leave the country. They went first to
Antwerp in Belgium where they boarded the steamship SS Montrose bound for
Canada. Ethel shared Crippen's cabin and masqueraded
as his son. Captain Kendall, the skipper of the Montrose, recognised Crippen
from a newspaper photograph and sent a ship to shore telegraph from the
Montrose to its owners who alerted Scotland Yard. This was the first time a
ship to shore telegraph had been used in a criminal case.
Inspector Drew of the Yard took a passage on the faster steamship, the SS Laurentic, and was able to catch up with the Montrose in Canadian waters. He boarded the Montrose from the pilot's launch on July 31st, 1911 and arrested Crippen and Le Neve. This drama on the high seas filled the newspapers of the time and together with the sinister sounding name of the prime suspect, made it the "crime of the century" during that summer in the press. Crippen came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 18th of October before Lord Alverstone, the then Lord Chief Justice. The trial ended on the 22nd of October with the jury taking less than 30 minutes to convict Crippen who was inevitably sentenced to death. A clandestine photo of him in the dock was taken and this has appeared in many books, (it was then and still is, illegal to photograph a prisoner in the dock).
Crippen was returned to Pentonville to await his appointment with the hangman. His last request, which was allowed, was to have a photo of Ethel Le Neve in his top pocket when he was hanged at 9.00 a.m. on the dark and foggy morning of Wednesday, the 23rd of November 1911 by John Ellis. He was 5' 4" tall and weighed 136 lbs. so Ellis gave him a drop of 7' 9" inches. In his memoirs, Ellis recalls that Crippen smiled as he walked towards him. A large crowd had gathered outside the prison to see the execution notice posted.
Ethel Le Neve was charged with being an accessory to the murder but was acquitted at her trial.
Henry Sedden (also given as Seddon) was a 40 year old
poisoner who was hanged by John Ellis on the 18th of April 1912 for the murder
of Eliza Mary Barrow. Again, John Ellis was the executioner. Sedden was 5' 3" tall and also weighed 136 lbs and was
given a drop of 7' 1". Approaching the gallows in the execution shed in
the prison yard, Sedden was somewhat unnerved by the
site of the noose and the sudden sounding of a loud horn of a tourist coach
passing the prison. Ellis was afraid he was going to faint and got the
execution over as quickly as he could - in just 25 seconds, a record at that time.
Sedden had persuaded the wealthy Mrs. Barrow to sign over her several properties to him in return for an annuity for the rest of her life. Obviously the longer Mrs. Barrow then lived the more it would cost Sedden. She was only 50 at the time so potentially could have lived for many more years. The prosecution at his Old Bailey trial in March 1912 contended that Sedden had administered arsenic to her for this reason. The jury took an hour to find him guilty although he maintained his innocence until the end.
Casement is unusual in that he was hanged for treason. His execution took place
on Thursday, the 3rd of August 1916 and was again carried out by John Ellis.
Casement was Irish by birth but held a British passport. Soon after the
outbreak of World War I, he moved from
Private Theodore William John Schurch was the other man hanged at Pentonville for treason on the 4th of January 1946. Schurch, had been found guilty of treason by a General Court Martial convened at the Duke of York's Regiment Head Quarters in Chelsea London in September 1945.
the youngest men to suffer at Pentonville was Henry Julius Jacoby who was just
18. He was hanged by Ellis on Wednesday, the 7th of June 1922 for the murder of
66 year old Lady Alice White for whom he had battered to death in her hotel
room in the course of trying to rob her. Jacoby worked as pantry boy in the
hotel and quickly confessed to the murder. He was tried at the Old Bailey on
the 28th of April 1922, the jury making a recommendation to mercy, as they were
not convinced that the lad had intended to kill but rather that he did so in
panic when Lady White woke to find him in her bedroom and screamed. Ellis
recalls that Jacoby seemed completely unconcerned about his impending fate and
was playing a makeshift game of cricket with one of the warders in the exercise
yard on the afternoon before, when Ellis went too have a look at him. After
Ellis had pinioned his wrists in the condemned cell, Jacoby made a point of
thanking the governor and waiting prison officers for their kindness to him in
Pentonville. He went on to the execution shed and was described by Ellis as the
calmest person there. Jacoby was one of four teenage boys to be hanged here.
The others were 18 year old Arthur Henry Bishop on Friday, the14th of August
1925, 19 year old John Frederick Stockwell on Wednesday, the14th of November
1934 and 19 year old William Henry Turner on Wednesday, the 24th of March 1943.
Forty (33.3%) of the men who were executed were under 25 at the time of their
Things did not always go so smoothly as in the Jacoby case. John Ellis, assisted by Albert Lumb, hanged two murderers on
On the 9th of January 1923, Frederick Edward Bywaters was led to the gallows by William Willis for stabbing to death his lover's husband, Percy Thomson. To the very last, he protested Edith Thompson 's innocence. At the same moment, less than a mile away, she was being hanged at Holloway for her part in the crime. Click here for more details of this famous case which became a cause celebré.
double execution was to take place on the 31st of May 1928 when Frederick Guy
Browne was hanged at Pentonville while his accomplice William Henry Kennedy was
being executed at Wandsworth prison. Browne and Kennedy both had criminal
records and in the early hours of the 27th of September 1927, were driving
together in a stolen car in Essex. Police constable George Gutteridge
spotted them and signalled them to stop. Gutteridge
questioned them and was not satisfied with the answers they were giving him. He
took out his pocket book to record the events and as he did so, Browne fired
two shots at him from the driver's seat. These shots did not kill the constable
who staggered backwards and fell in the road. Browne got out of the car telling
Kennedy, "I'll finish the bugger" and standing over PC Gutteridge, fired a shot into each of his eyes. Browne and
Kennedy drove off to London leaving PC Gutteridge
dead in the road still holding his pencil. It was a crime that appalled the
nation at the time and made headline news. The police questioned all those
known to carry guns and in due course got to Browne, who was arrested in
January 1928, still in possession of the revolver that had been used to murder
PC Gutteridge. Kennedy was arrested in
Double executions, where the prisoners stood side by side on the same gallows, were becoming less frequent in the
World War II, Pentonville prison was closed to ordinary prisoners but continued
to house condemned inmates. Six spies were hanged at Pentonville under the provisions
of Section 1 of the Treachery Act 1940. They were Carl Meier, José Waldburg, Charles Albert Van Der Kieboom, Oswald John Job, Pierre Richard Charles Neukermans and Joseph Jan Vanhove.
José Waldburg was German while Carl Meier and Charles Van Der Kieboom were Dutchmen, all of whom had landed on the
Job was born to German parents in
Pierre Richard Charles Neukermans was a Belgian who had been recruited by German intelligence. He obtained legal access to Britain as a refugee but was sending information on ship movements between Britain and the Belgian Congo to the S.S. officer who had helped him "escape" from Nazi occupied Belgium. He was tried in April/May 1944 and had his appeal dismissed on the 8th of June. He was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the 23rd of June 1944.
Jan Vanhove was also
Unusually, five young prisoners of war were hanged at Pentonville on
Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Steve Wade and Harry Allen, carried out the executions. It is unclear from surviving records whether there were two double hangings and a single or whether there were five single executions. They started at 9 am., and the notices of execution were posted on the prison gate at 10.30 am., so the former scenario seems more likely. These executions were carried out under military jurisdiction, with Lieut-Col. F. Forbes, the Deputy Provost Marshal for London District taking the place of the under-sheriff and signing the notice of execution. Army chaplains took the place of the prison chaplain.
A further two men were to be hanged for a similar offence the following month after trial by court martial at
execution facilities at county prisons closed some counties, e.g.
Twenty eight year old Neville George Clevelly Heath murdered two women, his girlfriend Margery Gardner, aged 32, and 21 year old Doreen Marshall, both in the summer of 1946. Heath had previous convictions and had been court-martialled three times while serving in the forces during the war. Margery Gardner enjoyed masochistic sex and Heath was a sadist so there was an obvious bond. They acted out their fantasies in the Pembridge Court Hotel in London's Notting Hill Gate where Heath tied Margery up and whipped her with a diamond weave pattern leather whip. He had also bitten her breasts and inserted an object into her vagina causing heavy bleeding, all before suffocating her, probably to stifle her screams on the evening of Friday, the 21st of June. Her body was discovered in Room 4 of the hotel by staff the following morning. Heath had left the hotel and went to stay with his fiancée, Yvonne Symonds, in Worthing in Sussex. Heath told Yvonne about the murder in the hotel and said that Margery had gone to the hotel with a man named Jack and that he had let them use his room. He also said that he had seen the body, although he did not tell her that he had been in any way involved in the killing. After leaving her, he wrote a letter to Scotland Yard telling them the same story. Passing himself off as Group Captain Rupert Brooke, he met his second victim, Doreen Marshall, at a dance in Bournemouth at the beginning of July 1946. He invited her to dinner at his hotel and later murdered her. Again, her breasts were savagely bitten and a sharp object had been thrust into her vagina. He hid her naked body in bushes and covered it over with her clothes. The hotel manager asked him to contact the police who were looking for Yvonne (as a missing person) and he went voluntarily to Bournemouth police station for an interview, where the sharp eyed detective noticed his strong resemblance to the photograph of Neville Heath wanted in connection with Margery Gardner's murder. He was duly arrested and charged with her murder and later with Yvonne Symond's murder as well. He was tried at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Morris on the 24th of September 1946 and put forward a defence of insanity which was rejected. Three weeks later, on Wednesday, the 16th of October, he kept his 9.00 a.m. appointment with Albert Pierrepoint. His last request was for a large whiskey.
John Evans and John Reginald Halliday Christie.
To the Old Bailey jury on that January afternoon in 1950, it must have seemed like an open and shut case of a rather pathetic little man who had murdered his baby daughter, Geraldine (the crime for which they were trying him), and who had apparently confessed to the killing of his wife as well. There appeared to be a strong prosecution case and he was duly found guilty and sentenced to death, his execution taking place on Thursday, the 9th of March 1950. It was one of those cases which would have faded almost instantly from the public memory were it not to be for the gruesome discovery of more bodies at Evan's erstwhile home, 10 Rillington Place, three years later.
had sublet their rooms at Rillington Place from John Christie, an insignificant
little man, bald and bespectacled, who was nicknamed "Reggie no dick"
by local children. He had a criminal record stretching back some years.
Christie murdered at least seven women. His victims were Ruth Fuerst in 1943, Muriel Eady in
1944, Beryl Evans (Timothy's wife) in 1949, Ethel Christie (Christie's own
wife) in 1952, Kathleen Maloney in 1953, Rita Nelson and Hectorina
MacLennan, also in 1953. Most of these women he had lured to the house and then
had gassed and strangled them. It is thought he indulged in sex acts with them
after he had rendered them unconscious, before burying or hiding their bodies
around the house and garden. In early 1953, with the house somewhat crowded
with dead bodies, Christie decided to move and sublet the property to a Mr. and
Mrs. Reilly who quickly noticed a foul smell in the kitchen. When the owner
investigated it, he discovered three of the women's bodies hidden in an alcove
off the kitchen which had been wallpapered over. As one can imagine, this
discovery made headline news. Christie had left his lodgings and was wandering
the streets before being apprehended on London's embankment on March 31st,
1953. Under questioning, Christie admitted to the murders of everyone except
Geraldine Evans and seemed to be working on the theory of "the more the
merrier," probably in the hope of being found guilty but insane. Christie
would not, however, admit to killing the baby despite repeated questioning and
only admitted killing its mother after sometime in custody. He came to trial at
the Old Bailey on June 22nd, 1953 before Mr. Justice Finnemore
and his counsel offered the expected defence of insanity. The jury took just
under an hour and a half to reject this and reach a guilty verdict after a
three day trial. Three weeks later, Christie stood under the same beam as Evans
had done and at 9.00 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, the 15th of July 1953,
was also to be hanged by Albert Pierrepoint as Evans had been. The Home Office
allowed for the re-burial of Timothy Evans' body in consecrated ground at St.
Patrick’s Cemetary in
Britain’s last double (side by side) hanging took place at Pentonville on Thursday, the 17th of June 1954, when 22 year old Kenneth Gilbert and 24 year old Ian Grant were executed by Albert Pierrepoint (assisted by Royston Rickard, Harry Smith and Joe Broadbent) for the murder of 55 year old George Smart in the course of a robbery. George Smart was the hotel night porter at Aban Court Hotel in Kensington and on the night of Tuesday, the 9th of March, caught these two young men breaking into the hotel. They attacked him and then tied him up and gagged him, ultimately causing his death by asphyxia. They blamed each other at the trial and assured the jury that they had not intended to kill Mr. Smart. The jury were not impressed with this argument and neither was Lord Goddard when he dismissed their subsequent appeal. They had stolen just £2 and a quantity of cigarettes – hardly worth dying for! Double hangings were outlawed by the Homicide Act of 1957.
one year old Edwin Albert Arthur Bush became the last man to hang at Pentonville