Timeline of capital punishment in Britain.

Hanging has been the principal form of execution in Britain since the 5th Century, although other methods such as drowning, burial alive, hurling from cliffs, beheading, boiling alive, burning at the stake and shooting have been used at various times.

  • 5th Century. Hanging first introduced as a method of execution in Anglo-Saxon Britain.
  • 1196. William Fitz Osbert became the first to hang at Tyburn (for sedition).
  • 1212. King John is reputed to have ordered the hanging of 28 young men and boys at Nottingham Castle. They were the sons of rebel Welsh chieftains whom he had taken hostage.
  • 1351. The Treason Act of Edward III defines high treason and petty treason in law.
  • 1533.  An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie was passed making sodomy (buggery) a capital crime.  This Act stayed in force until 1828 but buggery remained a capital crime until the Offences against the person Act of 1861 removed the death penalty.  The last executions for this offence occurred in 1835 when John Smith and James Pratt were hanged outside Newgate.
  • Circa 1540, during the reign of Henry VIII, there were 11 capital crimes defined : High treason, including counterfeiting coin, petty treason, murder, rape, piracy, arson of a dwelling house or barn with corn in it, highway robbery, embezzling ones master’s goods, horse theft, robbing churches and robbing a person in a dwelling house.
  • 1542. Witchcraft becomes a felony in England under a statute of Henry VIII.  As a felony it was punishable by hanging, rather than burning.
  • 1547. This statute is repealed by Edward VI.
  • 1563. Witchcraft again classed as a felony in England under a statute of Elizabeth I of 29th July.
  • 1566. First confirmed hanging for witchcraft - that of Agnes Waterhouse at Chelmsford.
  • 1571. The "Triple Tree" introduced on the 1st of June as a permanent gallows at Tyburn - for the execution of John Storey who was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.
  • 1682. The “Pendle Witches” (eight women and two men) are hanged at Lancaster on the 20th August.
  • 1649. King Charles 1st beheaded in Whitehall for treason on the 30th of January.  The only king to be executed in England.
  • 1649. 23 men and one woman executed at Tyburn on the 23rd of June for burglary and robbery requiring eight carts. This was almost certainly the largest number of ordinary criminals put to death in a single execution in Britain.
  • 1671. The Coventry Act made it a capital crime to lie in wait with intent to put out an eye, disable the tongue or slit the nose. It came into being after Sir John Coventry had been attacked in Covent Garden and had his nose slit.
  • 1682. The Bideford Witches, Temperance Lloyd, Susanna Edwards & Mary Trembles were hanged for witchcraft at Heavitree gallows Exeter on the 25th August. These were the last confirmed witchcraft executions in England. 
  • 1684. Alice Molland was probably hanged at Heavitree, Exeter for witchcraft, but this cannot be confirmed.
  • 1685. The "Bloody Assizes" began on the 26th August in the aftermath of the Monmouth Rebellion. Some 320 people were executed as a result. The men being mainly hanged, drawn and quartered. The first execution was that of 67 year old Lady Alice Lisle who was beheaded for treason at Winchester on the 2nd of September having been convicted of sheltering two traitors.
  • 1699. The Shoplifting Act defined shoplifting to the value of five shillings (25 pence) as a capital crime.
  • 1706. Abolition of literacy test for Benefit of Clergy.
  • 1712. Jane Wenham becomes the last woman to be condemned for witchcraft in England, at Hertford. She was reprieved.
  • 1713. An Act of Parliament of this year made stealing from a dwelling house in the value of 40 shillings (£2) a capital crime.
  • 1714. The Riot Act is passed, coming into force on the 1st of August 1715.  Rioting that caused serious damage to churches, houses, barns and stables was punishable by death.
  • 1718. The Transportation Act allowed the courts to sentence those who had been convicted of offences with benefit of clergy to be transported to America for a period of seven years. It also permitted those found guilty of capital crimes to be pardoned on condition of transportation for 14 years or life.  Transportation ceased in 1775 due to the American War of Independence and the number of executions rose sharply during the years from 1775 – 1786.
  • 1723. The Waltham Black Act passed in May made poaching game and damaging forests and parks capital offences. Over the next few years, the wide provisions of the Act increased the number of capital crimes from 30 to 150. These extended to such "appalling crimes" as blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime.
  • 1727. Janet Horne becomes the last person to be burned at the stake for witchcraft at Dornoch in Scotland.
  • 1736. Witchcraft ceases to be a capital crime in Scotland, by repeal of the Statute of James I of 1604.
  • 1751. Parliament passes an Act “for better preventing the horrid crime of murder” which specified that a person convicted of murder was to be kept in chains and fed on only bread and water and to be hanged within 48 hours, unless that would have been a Sunday in which case the execution was carried out on the following Monday. This Act mandated the dissection or gibbeting of the murderer's body after execution. Gibbeting was not applied to women prisoners.  They were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground.
  • 1752. The Murder Act, as the 1751 Act became known, came into force on the 1st of June.
  • 1752. On the 22nd of June, 17 year old murderer, Thomas Woolford, became the first person to be hanged (at Tyburn) and then dissected (anatomised) at Surgeon's Hall.
  • 1760. Lawrence Shirley the Fourth Earl of Ferrers is hanged at Tyburn on the 5th of May for the murder of a servant using the "New Drop" for the first time. (The only Peer of the Realm to hang for murder) The "Triple Tree" was removed from Tyburn and replaced with a portable gallows.
  • 1776. Transportation as an alternative punishment is temporarily ended by the American War of Independence.  Executions rise considerably as a result.
  • 1783. John Austin becomes the last person to be hanged at Tyburn on the 7th of November for highway robbery.
  • 1783. First hangings outside at Newgate (in the Old Bailey) take place on the 9th of December. Edward Dennis and William Brunskill hanged nine men and a woman at once on the "New Drop."  It was quite usual to hang prisoners in large batches at this time, men and women together. The largest number executed in one day was on the 2nd of February 1785 when 20 men were hanged in two batches for a variety of offences, none of them murder.
  • 1784. Mary Bailey becomes the last person to be burned at the stake for the Petty Treason murder of her husband at Winchester on the 8th of March.
  • 1788. Transportation resumes, this time to Australia and is used to commute the death sentence for many capital felonies. In the decade 1784 -1793, there were 434 hangings ordered by the London and Middlesex Sessions (which became the Old Bailey). In the next 10 years, this dropped to 165 and to 119 in the succeeding decade. Over 162,000 people were transported to Australia up to 1868.
  • 1789. The last burning at the stake in England took place at Newgate on the 18th of March when Catherine (given as Catharine in the indictment) Murphy, alias Bowman, was executed for coining (High Treason).  (see Burning at the stake)
  • 1790. Burning at the stake for women convicted of High Treason and Petty Treason was abolished by the Treason Act on the 5th of June and replaced by drawing to the place of execution and hanging.
  • 1804 -1813. Prisoners convicted of a first time felony (other than murder, treason, forgery and arson) frequently had their death sentences commuted to transportation and this practice carried on until 1867 by which time no one was hanged for a crime other than murder. The minimum time of transportation was two years, however, criminals could also be sentenced to 5, 7, 10, 14, 20 or 21 years or for life. Only about 5% of those sentenced to transportation actually ever returned to Britain. Transportation was formally abolished in 1887.
  • 1810. English and Welsh law listed 222 capital felonies at this time. This huge number is reached because English law subdivided many offences, e.g. there were at least seven offences of capital arson defined.
    In practice, there were only about 20 offences for which people were actually executed. Scottish law had just 16 capital offences, although these were only reduced to four in 1887.
  • 1814. The last hanging under the "Waltham Black Acts" took place on the 12th of August 1814 when William Potter was hanged at Chelmsford for the crime of cutting down an orchard. Even the judge petitioned for a reprieve!.
  • 1814. The Treason Act of 1814 removed the disembowelling and quartering requirements from the male punishment for High Treason.
  • 1820. The Cato Street conspirators became the last to suffer hanging followed by decapitation for treason outside Newgate on the 1st of May. (See hanged, drawn and quartered)
  • 1822. Last hanging for stealing in a shop (shoplifting) William Reading at Newgate.
  • 1823. The Judgment of Death Act of the 27th of November allowed judges the discretion to immediately reduce mandatory death sentences for crimes other than treason and murder to lesser punishments of imprisonment or transportation.  The death sentence was still recorded.
  • 1827. The last of the Black Acts were repealed.
  • The Offences against the Person Act of 1828 re-classified the crime of Petty Treason to ordinary murder.
  • 1829. Last hanging for forgery - Thomas Maynard at Newgate on the 31st of December. This crime was reclassified as non capital in 1836.
  • 1830. Last hangings at Execution Dock, Wapping - George Davis and William Watts executed for piracy on the 16th of December. (See Execution Dock)
    In all, 26 men were hanged at Execution Dock during the 19th century, mainly for murder and piracy, after conviction in the High Court of the Admiralty.
  • 1831. A boy of just nine was reputed to have been hanged at Chelmsford for arson. However, it is probable that William Jennings was in fact 19. There is little evidence of young children actually being hanged in the 19th century, although they were regularly sentenced to death up to 1836/7.
  • 1832. The Anatomy Act comes into force on the 1st of August, ending the dissection of murderers. At the same time, it was enacted that the bodies of those executed “shall be buried within the precincts of the prison in which they were last confined”, unless they had been ordered to be hanged in chains.
  • 1832. James Cook was the last man to be hanged in chains (gibbet irons) for murder at Leicester on the 10th of August.
  • 1832. The Punishment of Death, etc. Act 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes to around 60.
  • 1832-1837. Sir Robert Peel's government introduced various Bills to reduce the number of capital crimes. Shoplifting, sheep, cattle and horse stealing removed from the list in 1832, followed by sacrilege, letter stealing, returning from transportation (1834/5), forgery and coining (1836), arson, burglary and theft from a dwelling house (1837), rape (1841) and finally attempted murder in 1861.
    The last hangings for robbery took place at Shrewsbury on the 13th of August 1836 when Lawrence Curtis and Patrick and Edward Donnelly were executed. The last hanging for arson was that of Daniel Case at Ilchester in Somerset on the 31st of August 1836.
  • 1834. Hanging in chains or gibbet irons after death was abolished.
  • 1835. Last executions for sodomy.  James Pratt and John Smith hanged at Newgate.
  • 1836. The Murder Act of 1752 was repealed.  A period of 14 – 27 days between sentence and execution became normal.
  • 1836. The Prisoner’s Counsel Act required a proper defence counsel for those charged with serious crimes.
  • 1837. The Offences against the Person Act of 1837 removed the death penalty for the crimes of shooting at and cutting and maiming.  It was now only available for only 16 crimes.
  • 1837. The Recorder's Report was abolished and Old Bailey judges could commute the sentence of death on non murderers.
  • 1837. The Piracy Act imposes the death penalty for offences of piracy involving "assault with intent to murder."  It was last used in 1860, although 5 men were to be hanged at Newgate for murder and piracy on the 22nd of February 1864.
  • 1843. The M’Naghten Rules were introduced in the wake of the murder of Sir Robert Peel the Prime Minister’s private secretary by Daniel M’Naghten.  These rules gave the first proper legal definition of insanity.  M’Naghten was acquitted on the basis that he was suffering from delusions. For a detailed discussion of insanity and the M’Naghten Rules click here.
  • 1845. John Tawell, a Quaker, became the first man to be caught using the electric telegraph. He was hanged at Aylesbury on the 28th of March for the poisoning murder of Sarah Hart.
  • 1853. The Penal Servitude Act of 1853 introduced the modern concept of prison as a punishment in itself rather than merely as a place to hold people awaiting trial, execution or transportation. Section 9 of the Act provided for the freeing on licence of convicts after serving a suitable period of the sentence.
  • 1856. Pinioning the legs of male prisoners introduced in the wake of the problems encountered by Calcraft at the hanging of William Bousfield on the 31st of May 1856.
  • 1861. The Home Secretary takes over the power of reprieve/commutation of death sentences from the judiciary and Privy Council.
  • 1861. Criminal Law Consolidation Act reduced the number of capital crimes to four: Murder, High Treason, Arson in a Royal Dockyard, (this was a separate offence, not High Treason) and Piracy.
  • 1861. Last execution for attempted murder when Martin Doyle suffered at Chester on the 27th of August. Doyle was hanged after Royal Assent was given to the 1861 Act, however, his execution was legal as the offence was committed and the indictment signed before the Act came into force.
  • 1864-1866 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment sat.  One of its recommendations was the ending of public hangings.
  • 1868. Last fully public hanging in Scotland - that of Joseph Bell at Perth on the 22nd of March.
  • 1868. Last public hanging of a woman - Francis Kidder at Maidstone for murder on the 2nd of April.
  • 1868. Third reading of The Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill by parliament on the 11th of May.
  • 1868. Last nominally public hanging in Scotland. Robert Smith was executed outside Dumfries prison on the 12th of May. The authorities ensured that the public saw very little.
  • 1868. Last fully public hanging in England - Michael Barrett at Newgate on the 26th of May for the Fenian bombing at Clerkenwell which killed seven people.
  • 1868. Parliament passes the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act on the 29th of May, ending public hanging as such, and requiring executions to be carried out behind prison walls.  However the Act did allow the sheriff of the county in which the execution took place the discretion to admit newspaper reporters and other witnesses, including the victim’s relatives to the hanging. Members of the press, the murder victims family and other persons specifically invited by the Governor of the prison and the Sheriff of the county were permitted to witness executions.
  • 1868. First nominally private hanging, that of 18 year old Thomas Wells executed at Maidstone 13th of August for murder. Full details of this case here.
  • 1868. Alexander Mackay becomes the first person to be hanged in private at Newgate on the 8th of September for the murder of his employer’s wife. Full details of this case here
  • 1869. The Debtors Act of 1869 abolishes imprisonment for debt.
  • 1872. William Marwood introduces the "long drop" for the hanging of William Frederick Horry on the 1st of April 1872 at Lincoln. This method did not become universal until 1875 however.
  • 1875. Last fully public hanging in the British Isles when Joseph Phillip Le Brun was executed by William Marwood on the 11th of August for murder on the island of Jersey.
  • 1877. The Prison Act brings prisons under the control of the Home Office.
  • 1878. Horsemonger Lane (County Prison for Surrey) closes and its functions transferred to Wandsworth prison. 129 men and four women were executed at Horsemonger Lane between 1800 and 1877.
  • 1878. First hanging at Wandsworth - that of Thomas Smithers for murder on the 8th of October. In all, 134 men and one woman (Kate Webster) were executed at Wandsworth up to 1961 with Henryk Neimasz becoming the last on the 8th of September of that year.
  • 1883/4. The use of plank bridges to allow warders to support the prisoner on the drop, introduced in the wake of the problems with the execution of James Burton at Durham.
  • 1884. The Criminal Lunatics Act of 1884 required the Home Secretary to order a medical examination, by two qualified medical practitioners, of any prisoner under sentence of death, where there was reason to believe that the prisoner was insane.
  • 1886. A committee set up under the chairmanship of Lord Aberdare to examine execution procedures which reported in 1888. Click here for a summary.
  • 1888. The Home Office issued a ruling that three clear Sundays were now to elapse between sentence of death and execution and hangings were not to take place on a Monday.
  • 1889. On the 2nd of January, 17 year old Charles Dobel and 18 year old William Gower suffered at Maidstone for the murder of B. C. Lawrence who was the time-keeper at Gower’s workplace. Dobel was the last person under 18 at the time of the crime to suffer the death penalty.
  • 1892. First Home Office official table of drops issued.
  • 1901. Rule requiring tolling of prison bell during executions amended to only toll after the hanging had been carried out.
  • 1902. Ending of the flying of a black flag over the prison after an execution.
  • 1902. Closure of Newgate prison in London. Male executions transferred to Pentonville prison and female ones to Holloway prison. George Woolfe becomes the last to be hanged at Newgate on the 6th of May of that year for the murder of his girlfriend. A total of 1,120 men and 49 women were executed at Newgate (including three women were burnt at the stake for coining) over the 119 year period from the 7th of November 1783 (after the move from Tyburn) to May.
  • 1902. On the 30th of September John MacDonald becomes the first of 120 men to be hanged at London's Pentonville prison. Two men were hanged for treason (Roger Casement and Theodore Schurch) and six men were hanged for espionage (spying) during World War II. All other executions were for murder.
  • 1902. Holloway prison converted to become London's first female only prison.
  • 1903. On the 3rd of February Annie Walters and Amelia Sach, the "Finchley Baby Farmers" became the first of five women to be hanged at Holloway. (see Baby farmers) (The others were Edith Thompson, Styllou Christofi and Ruth Ellis.)
  • 1905. The first use of fingerprint evidence in a murder trial, that of Albert and Alfred Stratton at the Old Bailey on the 5th and 6th of May of that year.
  • 1907. The Court of Criminal Appeal comes into being in England and Wales. Appeal courts were set up in Scotland in 1927 and Northern Ireland in 1930.
  • 1914. Charles Fremd becomes the oldest man to be hanged in Britain in the 20th century. He was a 71 year old German born grocer who had murdered his wife at Leytonstone and was hanged by John Ellis at Chelmsford on the 4th of November.
  • 1908. The execution of persons under 16 years of age outlawed by the Children's Act of that year.
  • 1913. Second and final Home Office table of drops issued.
  • 1922. The Infanticide Act of 1922 made the killing of a newborn baby by its mother no longer a capital crime.
  • 1931. Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931. Pregnant women were no longer to be hanged after giving birth. (Mary Ann Cotton became the last to suffer at Durham Castle on the 24th of March 1873, her baby being taken from her before execution).
  • 1932. Last death sentence passed on a juvenile on the 18th November – 16 year old Harold Wilkins for murder. He was reprieved.
  • 1933. The Children and Young Persons Act prohibits the death sentence for persons under 18 at the time of the crime.
  • 1938. The Infanticide Act of 1922 was amended to remove the death penalty for women who killed their babies in the first year of life.
  • 1941. Josef Jacobs becomes the last of 11 men executed by firing squad at the Tower of London for espionage. He was shot on the 15th of August 1941.
  • 1946.  William Joyce - better known as "Lord Haw Haw" hanged for High Treason on the 3rd of January. This was the last execution for this offence.
  • 1946.  Theodore Schurch became the last person to be hanged on the 4th of January for offences committed under the Treachery Act of 1940.
  • 1948. The House of Commons voted in April to suspend capital punishment for five years but this was overturned by the House of Lords.
  • 1949-1953 Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.  Click here for details. Some of its recommendations were included in the 1957 Homicide Act.
  • 1953. Last hanging under military jurisdiction on the 10th of November when Private J.J. Itumo of 3rd (Kenya) KAR was executed having been convicted of murder in Malaya as it was then known.
  • 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 hanged for the murder of George Smart, the hotel night porter at Aban Court Hotel in Kensington, London.
  • 1955. Ruth Ellis becomes the last woman to hang on the 13th of July. (see Ruth Ellis)
  • 1956. Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill passed by Parliament on second reading in March. This was also overturned by the House of Lords.
  • 1957. As a half measure, Parliament passed the 1957 Homicide Act in March. This limited the death sentence to five categories of murder which became capital murder, (other homicides were now classified as non capital murder.)
    Capital murder was defined as:
    Murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft.
    Murder by shooting or explosion.
    Murder whilst resisting arrest or during an escape.
    Murder of a police or prison officer.
    Two murders committed on different occasions.
  • 1957. March. The defence of diminished responsibility is incorporated into English law by Section 2(1) of the Homicide Act 1957.
  • 1957. John Vickers becomes the first to be executed under the provisions of the new Act, at Durham prison on the 23rd of July.
  • 1960. Anthony Miller, aged 19, becomes the last teenager to be hanged in the UK, at Barlinnie Prison Glasgow on the 22nd of December for the murder of John Cremin.
  • 1963. The last hanging in Scotland, 21 year old Henry Burnett executed at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen on the 15th of August for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan.
  • 1964. Peter Anthony Allen (at Walton Prison Liverpool) and Gwynne Owen Evans - real name John Robson Walby, (at Strangeways Prison Manchester) become the last to be hanged. The executions taking place simultaneously at 8.00 a.m. on the 13th of August.
  • 1965. Last passing of the death sentence in England - on David Chapman at Leeds on the 1st of November. He was subsequently reprieved and his sentence commuted to life in prison.
  • 1965. Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act passed on the 8th of November which effectively abolished capital punishment but provided for another vote on it "within five years."  Treason, piracy with violence and arson in Royal Dockyards remained capital crimes.
  • 1969. On the 16th & 18th of December the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively confirmed abolition of capital punishment for murder.
  • 1971. Arson in Royal Dockyards ceased to be a capital offence, or in fact any specific offence.
  • 1986. Kevin Barlow (along with Australian Brian Chambers) were hanged in Malaysia's Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur on the 7th of July for drug trafficking, the first Briton to die for this offence.
  • 1989. Derek Gregory becomes the second and to date, last Briton to hang for drug trafficking on the 21st of July, also in Malaysia.
  • 1992. Anthony Teare became the last person to be sentenced to death in the British Isles on the 10th of July for a contract killing in the Isle of Man. The sentence wasn't commuted: the Manx Appeal Court ordered a retrial in 1994, by which time hanging had been removed from the Isle of Man Criminal Code. The new sentence was therefore life in prison.
  • 1994. The last House of Commons vote on the reintroduction of the death penalty was defeated by 403 to 159.
  • 1996. John Martin Scripps becomes the last Briton to hang for murder, in Singapore on the April 16th.
  • 1998. Death penalty abolished for crimes committed under military jurisdiction.
  • 1998. On a free vote during a debate on the Human Rights Bill on the 20th of May, MP’s decided by 294 to 136, a 158 majority, to adopt provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights outlawing capital punishment for murder except "in times of war or imminent threat of war." The Bill incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.
  • 1998. The Criminal Justice Bill of July 31st, removed High Treason and piracy with violence as capital crimes, thus effectively ending capital punishment.
  • 1999. On the 27th of January the Home Secretary (Jack Straw) formally signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights in Strasbourg, on behalf of the British government formally abolishing the death penalty in the UK. It had been still theoretically available for treason and piracy up to 1998 but it was extremely unlikely that even if anyone had been convicted of these crimes over the preceding 30 years, that they would have actually been executed. Successive Home Secretaries had always reprieved persons sentenced to death in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man where the death sentence for murder could still be passed and the Royal Prerogative was observed.

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