Walton prison, Liverpool.

Walton was Liverpool's second major prison and was built between 1850 and 1854 on the then fashionable Panopticon (radial) principle. It was designed by Messrs. Charles Peirce and J. Weightman and constructed in Hornby Road, Liverpool with an initial capacity for 1,000 inmates. It took both male and female prisoners, who had been sentenced at the Liverpool Assizes, and was one of the largest and most modern prisons in England in its day. The photo shows Walton in its present form with the 19th century tower still visible above the modern additions to the buildings.

In 1892 its predecessor, Kirkdale Gaol, closed altogether although most of its inmates had been transferred to Walton in 1890. Apparently, according to contemporary reports, they were simply marched along the road from one prison to the other.
Liverpool became an Assize town in 1835 and in 1854, its famous St. George's Hall opened becoming the venue for many famous trials.

The gallows at Walton.
Strangely for a few years, both Walton and Kirkdale prisons had execution sheds and it would seem shared the same gallows which was transported between them.
After the failure of the trapdoors to open at the hanging of John Lee at
Exeter in 1885, the Home Office commissioned Lieutenant Colonel Alton Beamish to design a standard gallows for use throughout the country. This consisted of two uprights with a cross beam in 8 inch section oak. The beam was long enough to execute three prisoners side by side and was set over a 12 foot long by 4 foot wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trapdoors were made from three inch thick oak and were released by a metal lever set into the floor of the execution chamber. This was a great improvement over some of the older designs and considerably speeded up the execution process.
The first person to die on the new style "step free" gallows was Matthew William Chadwick on the 15th of April 1890 at Kirkdale.
It is widely reported that 26 year old American born Florence Maybrick, who had been condemned for poisoning her husband, heard the gallows being erected and tested at Walton in 1889 and was greatly distressed by the sounds. However, she never got to see it as she was reprieved four days before her execution date. From 1892, the gallows remained at Walton and later a standard execution facility was constructed within I wing, containing the condemned cell and the gallows, which was to remain in use until 1964.

Hangmen at Walton.
James Berry carried out the first execution here (see Mrs. Berry below) and was then succeeded by the Billington family who between them accounted for the next 15 executions. Like the Pierrepoints, they were very much a "family firm." Henry Pierrepoint did the next two and was followed by John Ellis with 14 executions between 1910 and 1923. William Willis carried out the next two before handing over to the Pierrepoints who had by then a near monopoly of the situation, with Thomas and then his nephew Albert carrying out all the rest where the hangman is known, except for the last execution of all which was performed by Robert Leslie Stewart.

A selection of the cases that led to Walton's gallows.
Between 1887 and 1964, 60 men and two women suffered the death penalty within the walls of this prison, an average of 0.8 per annum. Six men and two women were executed here in the 19th century and 54 men in the 20th century. There were often periods without executions, there being none between August 1954 and August 1964 and none in 1905/1906.
There were to be eight double executions, which are examined below, the rest being individual hangings.

The first person to be hanged at Walton was 31 year old Elizabeth Berry who was executed on the 14th of March 1887 for the murder by poisoning of her 11 year old daughter for her life insurance of 10. She was also accused of murdering her husband, but this was not proceeded with. Mrs. Berry was hanged by Mr. Berry and as a further coincidence, they had actually met previously and danced together at a police ball in Manchester a few years earlier. He visited her in the condemned cell on the evening before her execution and assured her that her death would be quick and painless. In fact, she is reported to have fainted on the gallows the following morning and presumably did not feel anything. Click here for a detailed account of this case.

There were no more hangings at Walton for five years until Patrick Gibbons suffered for the murder of his mother on the morning of Wednesday, the 17th of August 1892. In the intervening years, three men had been executed at Kirkdale, the last being John Conway on the 20th of August 1891. This was to be Berry's last execution in Liverpool and was a wholly distressing affair in which Conway was nearly decapitated by the force of the drop, due according to Berry, to interference by the prison doctor in determining the length of it. Berry resigned the post of Britain's No. 1 hangman soon afterwards.

The only other woman to suffer at Walton was 53 year old Margaret Walber who was hanged by James Billington on the 2nd of April 1894 for the murder of her husband.

The following year saw the execution of William Miller, who was also hanged by James Billington, on the 4th of June of 1895. Miller had lodged with Edward Moyse who ran a bookstall in Mann Island, Liverpool and was thought to be wealthy. Edward shared his home at 26 Redcross Street with 15 year old John Needham who did chores for him. Miller broke into the house and battered Edward to death with the fire poker and then turned on young John. However, John survived the murderous attack and was able to raise the alarm. Just 8 was found in Edward's house. John was able to give the police a description of their attacker and had noted that the assailant had a nervous twitch. Miller was quickly arrested and a bloodstained shirt was found in his room. He claimed that the bloodstains had been caused by his work in a slaughterhouse, but this was easily disproved by its manager. Miller was taken to the hospital bedside of John Needham, who recognised him immediately and became hysterical at the sight of the twitch.

The first 20th century execution at Walton took place two days after Christmas, on the 27th of December 1900, when James Billington led 28 year old James Bergin to the gallows. Bergin had shot his girlfriend, Margaret Morrison, in a fit of jealous rage when she refused to see him in October 1900.

An extraordinary case opened at Liverpool's St George's Hall on the 12th of May 1903. It was the trial of three men for mutiny and murder on the high seas. The defendants were Gustav Rau, Otto Monson (both German) and Willem Schmidt (Dutch) who were accused of killing Alexander Shaw, the captain of the ship Veronica and six members of his crew. The murders were alleged to have taken place aboard the Veronica in December 1902 at sea off South America. They were only tried on the charge of murdering the captain, the other charges being held in reserve if they were acquitted of this one.
The killings came to light when five men, Rau, Monson, Schmidt, Henry Flohr and Moses Thomas were picked up by a British freighter, the SS Brunswick, off the coast of Brazil. They told their rescuers an incredible story. The Veronica had started its voyage to Montevideo with a crew of 12 men, of whom two had died in accidents at sea. They then had a fire on board and had abandoned ship, in one of the two life boats, losing contact with the remaining members of the crew in the second boat. One of the five rescued men, Moses Thomas, seemed afraid of the others and asked to be kept separate from them. It was also noticed that Gustav Rau had some of the captain's clothing which seemed odd to the Brunswick's captain. The Brunswick made its way home to England arriving at Liverpool in January 1903. Moses Thomas told its captain that the missing crew of the Veronica had really been murdered by the other four survivors, although they vehemently denied this, and stuck to the story of the fire accusing Thomas of inciting the mutiny and killing the rest of the crew. The captain of the Brunswick was deeply suspicious and handed all five over to the police when he docked in Liverpool. Henry Flohr decided to change his story and support Thomas' version of events. It seemed that the first mate, Alexander Macleod, was the first to be murdered by Schmidt and Rau who had quarrelled with him over his authoritarian management style. Macleod was battered to death and thrown overboard. Once they had murdered Macleod, they were then at serious risk, so it was decided to kill any other member of the crew who would not join them. Four other men were battered and thrown into the sea while Captain Shaw and another man were shot prior to being thrown overboard. A final man jumped over the side and was shot at in the water.
The trial was to last three days before Mr. Justice Lawrence and on the 14th of May, all three defendants were found guilty and were sentenced to hang. Otto Monsson was reprieved following the jury's recommendation to mercy and because of his age. Rau and Schmidt were taken back to Walton to await their fate. Just three weeks later, at 8.00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, the 2nd of June 1903, they were brought together for the final time, side by side, on the gallows and hanged by William Billington assisted by John Billington. This was the first double execution at Walton.

The second double hanging occurred just under a year later, when on Tuesday, the 31st of May 1904, William Kirwan and Ping Lun suffered side by side for two unrelated shooting murders. They had been tried on consecutive days by the same judge at Liverpool Assizes and were hanged by William Billington assisted by Henry Pierrepoint.

The third double hanging was that of John Thornley and Young Hill on Monday the 1st of December 1915. Their executions were described in detail by John Ellis in his autobiography. Twenty six year old John Thornley had cut the throat of his girlfriend, Frances Johnson, after she broke off their engagement. He stupidly left a note by her body admitting to the crime and his defence of insanity was not accepted by the jury. Thornley should have been hanged at Knutsford in Cheshire, the county where the crime had been committed but due to the army having taken over Knutsford gaol, it was decided to move him to Walton.
Young Hill was a Negro sailor who was working on a cargo ship the SS Antillian looking after the mules (a muleteer as his position was known). The Antillian had sailed from America to Avonmouth and was then making its way to Liverpool when on the night of the 26th of July 1915, Hill cut the throat of fellow crew member, James Crawford. Apparently, the motive for the killing was a disagreement of the cleanliness of some water in a bucket! (I never cease to be amazed at the petty reasons that some people will kill for.) Hill was immediately arrested when the Antillian docked and was tried at Liverpool Assizes on the 29th of October 1915. There was only one condemned cell at Walton and this was allocated to Hill. Thornley was accommodated in the hospital wing prior to being moved to a cell closer to the gallows on the eve of his execution. Ellis made the usual preparations on the Sunday evening, setting a drop of 7 feet for Thornley who weighed 11 stones and 6 feet 6 inches for Hill who was a stone heavier. Ellis pinioned Thornley first and then Hill before they were led to the gallows by two pairs of warders. Thornley was first on the trapdoors and was immediately hooded and noosed, a site which completely unnerved Hill who began to faint. Ellis was able to release the trap before Hill collapsed and they both plummeted down together. He recorded that this double execution took 82 seconds to complete. Ellis was assisted in this by George Brown and William Willis, it being normal by now to have two assistants at a double hanging.

Yet another double execution occurred on Tuesday, the 11th of May 1920, when Herbert Salisbury and William Willington were executed for two completely unrelated murders. Ellis, assisted by Robert Baxter, officiated at these. Salisbury had shot his girlfriend and pleaded guilty to doing so. He refused to appeal and told his solicitor that he wished to die. Willington had been convicted of the brutal murder of a seven year old girl. Double hangings were becoming rarer as they took longer to carry out, as will be seen from the previous paragraph, and meant that one prisoner had to stand fully prepared, hooded and noosed on the trap whilst the second person was brought in and prepared alongside them. This obviously caused unnecessary suffering to the first prisoner.

Strangely, there was to be one more double execution at Walton and it was to take place on the 25th of April 1952 after double hangings had ceased in most prisons. On this occasion, the executees were two young men, Edward Devlin (22) and Alfred Burns (21) who had been convicted of the murder of 54 year old Alice Rimmer. Devlin and Burns had allegedly broken into Alice's house in Liverpool in search of the considerable amount of money she was rumoured to keep on the premises. She had been savagely beaten about the head, in order to get her to disclose where the money was kept, and died from her injuries. Burns and Devlin were a couple of tearaways from Manchester with already significant criminal records and a reputation for being "hard." They were soon arrested and charged with the crime. Their defence was an alibi - that they were robbing a factory in their hometown on the night of the murder with another professional criminal, who appeared at their trial in February 1952 to corroborate it. This was not accepted by the jury and both were convicted. However, there was considerable public disquiet about the safety of their convictions and an appeal was made which was dismissed. After that, there was a review of the case undertaken by an eminent Q.C., at the behest of the Home Secretary, which was most unusual. All of this failed to save them however. So on the Friday morning, Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Syd Dernley, Robert Leslie Stewart, and Harry Smith, formed up outside the condemned men's cells. Syd Dernley described the scene in his book "The Hangman's Tale." A large crowd stood outside the prison on that Monday morning to see the execution notices posted on the main gate. Inside, Dernley records that both prisoners looked pale and terrified as they were prepared and brought to the gallows and a far cry from the hard image they liked to portray. Neither confessed while awaiting execution and the controversy surrounding the case still remains. It is unclear why three assistants were required unless Harry Smith was just there to observe the proceedings as part of his training.

Liverpool, being a major port and entry point into the U.K. had a large Chinese community. Lock Ah Tam, at 54, had been a successful and well respected man who ran the European branch of Jack Ah Tai organisation for Chinese dock workers, the Chinese Progress Club, and was superintendent of Chinese sailors for three steamship companies in Liverpool. He was married with three children and had a reputation as a peacemaker, being able to sort out conflicts between dockers. However, in February 1918 while having a drink in his club, he was attacked and hit over the head by a group of drunken Russian sailors. This blow to the head, although not at the time serious enough to warrant hospital treatment, was to alter Tam's personality completely - he began to drink heavily and have violent mood swings. His life deteriorated rapidly until on the night of the 2nd of December 1925, he shot dead his wife and his two daughters at their home after a party. After the killings, he rang the police and told them to come and arrest him. He came to trial at Chester Assizes in February 1926 and was defended by Britain's foremost counsel, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. The defence was one of insanity due to automatism caused by an epileptic seizure brought on by the blow to the head seven years earlier. This failed, as it could be shown that Tam did know what he had done and that it was wrong because he had telephoned the police immediately afterwards. The jury returned a guilty verdict after 12 minutes of deliberation and tears were seen running down the face of Mr. Justice McKinnon as he sentenced Tam to die. He was duly executed by William Willis, assisted by Henry Pollard, on the morning of Tuesday, the 23rd of March 1926.

A sad case came Albert Pierrepoint's way in 1948 when he was called upon to hang Peter Griffiths on the 19th of November of that year. Griffiths was a 22 year old ex-guardsman who after an evening of heavy drinking, had abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered three year old June Devaney who was a patient at Queen's Park Hospital in Blackburn. He had killed poor little June in the hospital grounds by swinging her by one leg and smashing her head against a wall. The police investigation fingerprinted nearly 47,000 men in Blackburn, the largest number ever to have been fingerprinted at that time. Included in this huge number were the prints of Griffiths which matched prints found on a bottle under June's bed at the hospital. He made a confession to the police when he was arrested.
He pleaded not guilty at his trial at Lancaster which lasted for three days in October 1948 before Mr. Justice Oliver. The forensic evidence against Griffiths was overwhelming and it took the jury just 23 minutes to convict him of this vile crime.

In March 1949, there was an armed hold up at the Cameo Cinema in Webster Road Liverpool which resulted in the deaths of its manager, Mr. Leonard Thomas and his assistant John Catterall, both of whom were shot by an intruder who fired a total of six shots at them.
The initial police investigation turned up nothing but in September 1949, they got a lead from an informer who named George Kelly, nicknamed the "Little Caesar of Lime Street" and Charles Connolly, as the murderers and whom he claimed to have heard planning the raid. Both names were already known to the police and the two were arrested. Connolly was the look out and Kelly did the shooting, it was claimed at their trial in Liverpool. However, the jury could not agree on a verdict so a second trial was ordered which took place in February 1950. This resulted in Connolly being freed from the murder charge at the direction of the judge and jailed for 10 years for his part in the robbery. The second jury convicted Kelly and he was returned to Walton to await execution. This was carried out by Albert Pierrepoint on Tuesday, the 28th of March 1950. However, the case has recently been reopened by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and has in February 2001 been referred back to the Court of Appeal. On the 10th of June 2003, the Court of Appeal found in favour of Kelly. He was cleared by three Appeal Court judges (Lord Justice Rix, Mr Justice Douglas Brown and Mr Justice Davis) after it was revealed that his defence team at the trial was never told that another man, Donald Johnson, had confessed to the murders. There remains a strong suspicion that Kelly was framed by the police as he had a criminal record already.

Yet another child murderer was to see the inside of Walton's condemned cell. Twenty five year old Norman Green was hanged on Wednesday, the 27th of July of 1955 for stabbing two young boys to death and attempting to stab a third. His first victim was seven year old William Mitchell who had been playing near the canal at Wigan when he was stabbed in the chest by a man who he described as having blonde, almost white hair. Fortunately, William survived. His next victim sadly didn't. He was 11 year old William Harmer, who suffered 11 stab wounds, all inflicted with a small penknife at Wigan on the 27th of August 1954. Green struck again on Easter Monday, the 11th of April 1955, when he killed 10 year old Norman Yates in the same way, also at Wigan. As before, witnesses reported that the man seen running away from the crime scene had almost white hair. Green was arrested and when confronted with the forensic evidence, admitted killing both boys and decided to plead insanity. This he did at his trial in Manchester in the summer of 1955 but after four hours of deliberation, the jury rejected his defence and found him guilty. He did not appeal but his defence petitioned the Home Office for a reprieve on the grounds of insanity. This was rejected and Green was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Robert Stewart, on the morning of Wednesday, the 27th of July 1955.

Walton was to achieve its place in the history books of crime and punishment in 1964 when one of the two final executions in Britain took place here on Thursday, the 13th of August 1964. It was not realised at the time that these would be the last hangings in Britain, and there was very little press interest in them as they were two young men being hanged for a sordid robbery murder. Double executions had long since ceased and thus the two prisoners were taken to separate prisons to await execution. Twenty one year old Peter Anthony Allen was delivered to Walton's condemned cell on the 7th of July 1964 after the conclusion of their trial at Manchester before Mr. Justice Ashworth. He and 24 year old Gwynne Owen Evans had been convicted of the murder of John West, a laundry man, in the course of robbing him in his home at Workington in April 1964. Poor Mr. West had been battered and stabbed to death by the intruders, one of whom had left his coat in the house, with a name tag in it G.O. Evans. Also found, was a piece of paper with a name and address in Liverpool. When police interviewed the person named, she gave them the full name and address of Evans who was then arrested. He in turn gave them the whereabouts of Allen who was also easily picked up. It transpired that Evans had worked with John West and had decided to go and see him to try and borrow some money from him. Allen had gone too and an argument had broken out during which they beat and stabbed Mr. West. Neither man would admit that he was the one who had struck the fatal knife blow but under the principle of "common purpose," it didn't matter in law as both would be deemed equally guilty if they had both intended to rob and kill or seriously injure Mr. West. Murder committed in the course of robbery was a capital crime under the 1957 Homicide Act.
Peter Allen was duly hanged by Robert Leslie Stewart, assisted by Harry Robinson, at Walton while his co-defendant, Evans (real name John Robson Walby), was hanged at the same moment at Strangeways prison in
Manchester. Thus ended capital punishment in Britain, the remaining few death sentences passed prior to November 9th, 1964 being commuted and the death penalty effectively abolished thereafter. Allen had reportedly injured himself by throwing himself against the protective glass during a last visit by his wife hours the previous afternoon, cutting his wrist. He is said to have cried "Jesus!" as he saw his noose dangling over the trap doors.

At the time of this execution, Walton had certified accommodation for 830 prisoners but often held far more. As HMP Liverpool, it continues in use as a prison to the present day.

Back to Contents page, The history of judicial hanging, English Hangmen 1850-1964
Pentonville & Wandsworth prisons in London, Stangeways prison, Manchester, Armley prison Leeds.