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
Hanging first introduced as a method of execution in Anglo-Saxon Britain.
Fitz Osbert became the first to hang at Tyburn
John is reputed to have ordered the hanging of 28 young men and boys at NottinghamCastle. They were the sons of rebel
Welsh chieftains whom he had taken hostage.
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
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 This statute is repealed by Edward VI.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.
1612. The “Pendle
Witches” (eight women and two men) are hanged at Lancaster on the 20th August.
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.
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.
"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.
Shoplifting Act defined shoplifting to the value of five shillings (25
pence) as a capital crime.
Abolition of literacy test for Benefit of Clergy.
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.
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.
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.
Horne becomes the last person to be burned at the stake for witchcraft at Dornoch in Scotland.
Witchcraft ceases to be a capital crime in Scotland, by repeal of the Statute of James I of 1604.
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.The
bodies of murderers were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground.
Murder Act, as the 1751 Act became known, came into force on the 1st of
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.
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.
as an alternative punishment is temporarily ended by the American War of
considerably as a result.
Austin becomes the last person to be hanged at Tyburn on the 7th of
November for highway robbery.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
Treason Act of 1814 removed the disembowelling and quartering requirements
from the male punishment for High Treason.
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)
hanging for stealing in a shop (shoplifting) William Reading at Newgate on
the 27th of November.
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.
last of the Black Acts were repealed.
against the Person Act of 1828 re-classified the crime of Petty Treason to
hanging for forgery - Thomas Maynard at Newgate on the 31st of December.
This crime was reclassified as non capital in 1836.
hangings at Execution Dock, Wapping - George Davis and William Watts
executed for piracy on the 16th of December. 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. (See Execution Dock)
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.
Anatomy Act came 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.
Cook was the last man to be hanged in chains (gibbet irons) for murder at Leicester on the 10th of August.
Punishment of Death, etc. Act 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes to
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, 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.
in chains or gibbet irons after death was abolished.
executions for sodomy.James Pratt
and John Smith hanged at Newgate on the 27th of November.
Murder Act of 1752 was repealed.A
period of 14 – 27 days between sentence and execution then became normal.
Prisoner’s Counsel Act required a proper defence counsel for those charged
with serious crimes.
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
Recorder's Report was abolished and Old Bailey judges could commute the
sentence of death on non murderers.
Piracy Act imposes the death penalty for offences of piracy involving
"assault with intent to murder."It was last used in 1860, although five 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 Peelthe 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.
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.
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
Pinioning the legs of male prisoners was introduced in the wake of the
problems encountered by Calcraft at the hanging of William Bousfield on the 31st of May 1856.
Home Secretary takes over the power of reprieve/commutation of death
sentences from the judiciary and Privy Council.
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.
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.
Royal Commission on Capital Punishment sat.One of its recommendations was the
ending of public hangings.
fully public hanging in Scotland
- that of Joseph Bell at Perth
on the 22nd of March.
public hanging of a woman - Francis Kidder
at Maidstone for murder on the 2nd of
reading of The Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill by parliament on the
11th of May.
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.
fully public hanging in England
- Michael Barrett at Newgate on the 26th of May for the Fenian bombing at Clerkenwell which killed seven
Parliament passes the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act on the 29th of
May, ending public hanging 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.
nominally private hanging, that of 18 year old Thomas Wells executed at Maidstone 13th of August for murder. Full details of
this case are here.
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 are here
Debtors Act of 1869 abolishes imprisonment for debt.
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.
fully public hanging in the British Isles took place on the island of Jersey when Joseph Phillip Le Brun was executed by William Marwood on the 11th of
August for murder.
Prison Act brings prisons under the control of the Home Office.
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.
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 HenrykNeimasz becoming the last on the 8th of September of
use of plank bridges to allow warders to support the prisoner on the drop
was introduced in the wake of the problems with the execution of James
Burton at Durham.
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.
committee set up under the chairmanship of Lord Aberdare to examine
execution procedures which reported in 1888. Click here for
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
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.
Home Office official table of drops issued.
requiring tolling of prison bell during executions amended to only toll
after the hanging had been carried out.
of the flying of a black flag over the prison after an execution.
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
1902. On the
30th of September John MacDonald becomes the first of 120 men to be hanged
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.
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.)
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.
Court of Criminal Appeal comes into being in England and Wales.
Appeal courts were set up in Scotland in 1927 and Northern Ireland
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.
execution of persons under 16 years of age outlawed by the Children's Act
of this year.
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
Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 passed. 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).
death sentence passed on a juvenile on the 18th November – 16 year old
Harold Wilkins for murder. He was reprieved.
Children and Young Persons Act prohibits the death sentence for persons
under 18 at the time of the crime.
Infanticide Act of 1922 was amended to remove the death penalty for women
who killed their babies in the first year of life.
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.
Joyce - better known as "Lord Haw Haw"
hanged for High Treason on the 3rd of January. This was the last execution
for this offence.
Schurch became the last person to be hanged on
the 4th of January for offences committed under the Treachery Act of 1940.
House of Commons voted in April to suspend capital punishment for five
years but this was overturned by the House of Lords.
Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.Click here
for details. Some of its recommendations were included in the 1957
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 night porter at the AbanCourtHotel in Kensington, London.
1955. Ruth Ellis
becomes the last woman to hang on the 13th of July. (see Ruth Ellis)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 on the
13th of August.Details of this
case are here.
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
(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
1969. On the
16th & 18th of December the House of Commons and House of Lords
respectively confirmed abolition of capital punishment for murder.
in Royal Dockyards ceased to be a capital offence, or in fact any specific
Barlow (along with Australian Brian Chambers) was 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.
Gregory becomes the second and to date, last Briton to hang for drug
trafficking on the 21st of July, also in Malaysia.
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 16th of
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, M
P’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
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
but the Royal Prerogative was observed.