Wandsworth prison, London.

Wandsworth prison opened in November 1851, being originally called The Surrey House of Correction. Like Pentonville prison, it was built on the "Panopticon" design to enable the "separate system" to be used for 700 prisoners in individual cells, each with toilet facilities. It was designed by D.R. Hill and constructed on a 26 acre site at a cost of £140, 319 11s 4d. The main part of the prison, having four wings radiating from the centre, was for male prisoners with a smaller separate building for females.  Two further wings were added in 1856 to give the arrangement shown here.  From 1870, conditions at Wandsworth deteriorated and the toilets were removed from the cells to make room for extra prisoners and the practice of "slopping out" introduced which was to remain in force until 1996.

With the closure of Horsemonger Lane Gaol, its execution duties were transferred to Wandsworth in 1878 and an execution shed was constructed in one of the yards. There was only one condemned cell at Wandsworth at this time, which sometimes necessitated the use of a hospital wing cell when there was more than one prisoner under sentence of death.  It is thought that Kate Webster was held there.

In total, 135 prisoners were to be put to death here from 1878 to 1961, comprising of 134 men and one woman. The eighteen 19th century executions were all for murder. A further 117 men were hanged there in the 20th century comprising of 105 murderers, 10 spies (one in World War I and nine in World War II), and two traitors, John Amery and William Joyce, after the end of World War II hostilities.

The gallows at Wandsworth.
We are fortunate to have this photograph of what was known at the time as "The Cold Meat Shed." This was the first execution chamber at Wandsworth and contained the gallows transferred from Horsemonger Lane Gaol on its closure in 1878.  This execution shed was cited near the coal yard at the end of A Wing.  The beams were 11’ above the trapdoors which opened into a 12’ deep brick lined “pit” dug into the ground.  This facility was to remain in use up to 1911. Together with one of the original white painted uprights, you can see the lever, open trapdoors and one of the plank bridges (boards) laid across the drop for the warders to stand on whilst supporting the prisoner. During 1911, a new facility was constructed between E Wing and F Wing adjacent to the condemned cell.  It was a two story building with the platform and beam on the first floor and a gate on the ground floor for removal of the body. The first execution on this gallows was that of Frederick Thomas on the 15th of November 1911.  The final execution suite, using three cells, one above the other in E wing, was constructed in 1937.  This facility had two condemned cells, back to back, mirror imaged, with three ordinary cells knocked into one, plus a bathroom and visitation area.  The first condemned cell was separated from the execution room by a lobby.  Prisoner access to the condemned cells was via an external metal staircase, so that those under sentence of death would not go into the main prison where they could be seen by other prisoners.

Alfred Richards was the first to be hanged here, on the 12th of July 1938. As at Pentonville, the top floor contained the beam with three floor traps through which hung down chains for attachment of the ropes.  The beam was fitted with three chain adjusting blocks, with the centre one for use for single executions and the outer two for double ones. The first floor contained the 9 feet long by 5 feet wide trapdoors and the operating lever. Two other ropes hung down for the warders to hold onto as they stood on the plank bridges over the drop to support the condemned man. There were also handrails on the wall for use by the warders in double executions.  The ground floor cell was the "drop room" and had a gate to the yard through which the body was brought out to be taken to the mortuary. When Sid Dernley assisted at an execution there in the 40’s, he recalled how clean and tidy it the execution room was, even the wooden floor being varnished. The gallows was last tested in January 1993 and dismantled on the 24th of May 1993. It was tested every six months because the death penalty remained a theoretical possibility for treason, piracy with violence and mutiny in the Armed Forces. Today, the former Condemned Cell B is a rest room for staff.

Here are photos of the incredibly accurate and detailed 1/6 scale model of the last gallows at Wandsworth, built by Paul Gilmartin of PJG Design, who has kindly made them available to me. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7.  These show the gallows, with the ladder leading up to the beam above with the chain blocks.  The room ready for an execution, a prisoner on the trap and hanging (the hangman, assistant and supporting officers have been omitted for clarity). Finally there is a view of the operating mechanism from the underside of the trapdoors.

Hangmen at Wandsworth.
William Marwood carried out the first four executions between 1878 and 1882. Bartholomew Binns hanged the next man and then James Berry dealt with six men between 1885 and 1891. James Billington hanged a further nine men from 1895 to 1901 before handing it over to his sons, William and John, who each carried out four executions. Henry Pierrepoint hanged six men at Wandsworth, his brother Tom 27 men, and his son Albert, no fewer than 48 up to 1955. John Ellis dealt with eight men and Robert Baxter nine. Alfred Allen hanged one man in 1936, Thomas Phillips executed two men in 1939/1940 and Steve Wade (Albert Pierrepoint's most trusted assistant) one in 1953. The last four hangings were carried out by Harry Allen.

Executions at Wandsworth.
Wandsworth initially only took condemned prisoners from Surrey, but with the ending of executions at Lewes after 1914, also took those condemned in Sussex and later those from Kent when the execution facility at Maidstone was closed down in 1930. As at Pentonville, the number of executions per year in the 20th century fluctuated considerably. There were none at all in 1908, 1913/14, 1919/20, 1926/27, 1929 and 1931-1933. However, the War years of 1939-1945 were very busy with no fewer than 37 hangings in the seven full years between January 1939 and December 1945. A further 31 executions took place in the following 17 years.

The first execution at Wandsworth was that of 31 year old Thomas Smithers on the 8th of October 1878. Smithers was hanged by William Marwood for the murder of his girlfriend, Amy Judge at Battersea on the 22nd of July of that year. His execution was followed by that of Kate Webster in 1879 for the brutal murder of her mistress. Click here for full details of this famous case. She was the only woman to be executed at Wandsworth.

Spies and traitors.
One man was hanged at Wandsworth during World War I for spying under the Treachery Act of 1914. He was Robert Rosenthal on the 15th of July 1915. Rosenthal had been reporting British ship movements to the German Admiralty. The 11 other men convicted of spying during World War I were all sentenced to death by firing squad and shot at the Tower of London. They were housed at Wandsworth until the day before their execution when they were transferred to the Tower.

Soon after the beginning of World War II, the government, in an effort to deal with an expected influx of German spies, introduced The Treachery Act of 1940 which stated that : "If, with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty's forces, or to endanger life, shall be guilty of felony and shall on conviction suffer death."

Under this Act, nine men were hanged at Wandsworth, in addition to John Amery and William Joyce who were hanged for treason, see below. (A further five spies were executed at Pentonville and one shot at the Tower of London.)  For detailed accounts of these men, visit my friend Stephen Stratford's website www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/treachery.htm. 

In his autobiography, Albert Pierrepoint recalls how one of these spies gave him and the warders a serious fight in the condemned cell. He refers to this man as Otto Schmidt but in fact it was Karel Richter whom he executed on the 10th of December 1941. Richter, a large and powerful man, threw himself head first against the cell wall when he realised that the time had come and then, when he had recovered somewhat, fought with Pierrepoint, Harry Allen and the warders until Pierrepoint managed to get his hands strapped behind him and began to lead the procession out to the gallows. Richter's arms were so strong that he managed to burst the leather strap and had to be further restrained. Just as Pierrepoint had finished the preparations on the gallows and was in the act of pushing the lever, Richter jumped and loosened the noose causing it to catch under his top lip instead of remaining under his jaw. However, his neck was still broken by the force of the 6’ 7” drop.

In addition to the spies, two men were to hang for treason at Wandsworth. They were tried and convicted under the Treason Act of 1351.
John Amery was the son of a cabinet minister and the brother of Julian Amery. He went to Berlin in 1942 where he made speeches and radio broadcasts and also visited prisoner of war camps, exhorting Allied prisoners to fight for the Germans on the Russian front. With the fall of Italy, 33 year old Amery was arrested in Milan in July 1945 and flown back to Britain to face treason charges. He came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 26th of November 1945 and pleaded guilty, his whole trial lasting just eight minutes. He was then transferred to Wandsworth to await his appointment with Albert Pierrepoint on Wednesday, the 19th of December 1945.  Harry Critchell was the assistant.

William Joyce, nicknamed "Lord Haw Haw" because of his posh accent and trademark "Germany calling" at the start of his radio propaganda broadcasts from Germany, held a British passport and as such, this made him guilty of treason for these broadcasts during the war. Joyce was actually an American citizen, although he had claimed to be Irish, who had joined the British Fascist Party in 1936, moving to Germany in 1939, before the outbreak of war. He was tried at the Old Bailey and convicted on the 19th of September 1945. His defence argued that as an American citizen he owed no allegiance to the Crown and thus was not guilty of treason. The prosecution argument was that as a British passport holder he did owe this allegiance. His appeal was dismissed on the 1st of November 1945 and he was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Alexander Reilly, at 9.00 a.m. on Thursday, the 3rd of January 1946. The following day the last execution for treason in the U.K. took place at Pentonville, that of Theodore Schurch.

Thirty eight year old Polish born George Chapman, whose real name was Severin Klosowski, poisoned three of his girlfriends. His first victim was Isabella Mary Spink in 1897, his next, Elizabeth Taylor in 1901 and his final one, Maude Eliza Marsh in October 1902. The doctor who examined Maude noticed distinct similarities between the symptoms of her illness and that of another woman he had treated and suspected poisoning. Dr. Stoker was proved right by the autopsy which found that Maude had been given a lethal dose of tartar emetic, an antimony based poison. When Chapman grew tired of a girlfriend, he found poisoning the easy way out and in each case he ended the relationship this way. However in Maude's case, the autopsy evidence led to his arrest and the exhumation of his other two ex-girlfriends. He came to trial at the Old Bailey in March 1907 and his defence was a) lack of motive and b) no witnesses to him actually administering poison. The jury, however, found three identical deaths too much of a coincidence and convicted him after just 10 minutes deliberation. He collapsed in the dock and was in a similar state when William Billington executed him three weeks later, on Tuesday, April 7th, 1903.

The first murder conviction where finger print evidence played a significant part was that of the Stratton brothers in 1905.  20 year old Albert Ernest and 22 year old Alfred Stratton were found guilty of the robbery murders of an elderly couple, Thomas and Ann Farrow, at their paint shop in Deptford High Street in London on the 27th of March 1905.  In the course of robbing the shop the Strattons had battered the owners to death. Albert had left a bloody fingerprint on the cash box.  The pair were tried at the Old Bailey on the 5th and 6th of May before Mr. Justice Channell who in his summing up told the jury not to rely on the fingerprint evidence alone.  The jury did convict the pair and they were returned to Wandsworth to await execution on the 23rd of May and as it was a double execution, John Billington was given two assistants, Henry Pierrepoint and John Ellis.  Albert Stratton weighed 172 lbs and was given a drop of 6’ 6” whilst his lighter brother Alfred was given a drop of 7’ 6” as he weighed 147 lbs.  In Albert’s case the drop was sufficient to cause fracture dislocation of the neck but in Alfred’s case, although there was dislocation of the neck there was also evidence of asphyxia.  Both men had been given considerably longer drops for their weights (1 foot 8 inches and 1 foot 10 inches respectively) than specified in the official 1892 table of drops but even so it was not sufficient to break Alfred’s neck cleanly.

On the 31st of May 1928, while Frederick Guy Browne was being hanged at Pentonville, his accomplice William Henry Kennedy was suffering an identical fate at Wandsworth. They were both executed for the brutal murder of police constable, George Gutteridge. Kennedy was arrested in Liverpool five days after the crime, for an unrelated car theft, and tried to shoot the arresting officer. Kennedy admitted being with Browne but insisted that Browne had murdered constable Gutteridge. The jury found them both guilty under the doctrine of common purpose and as was becoming the norm, they were executed at the same moment in separate prisons rather than side by side. Kennedy was hanged by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Robert Wilson and received a drop of 7’ 1”.

Gordon Frederick Cummings was a 28 year old airman who murdered four women in London during the space of one week in February 1942. They were Evelyn Hamilton, Margaret Lowe, Doris Jouannet and Evelyn Oatley, all of who were in their late 30's or early 40's and all of whom he strangled. He also mutilated three of these women. He was about to add a fifth killing to his tally when he was surprised in the act of strangling Margaret Hawyood, and fled the scene leaving his gas mask with his name, rank and number in it. He was soon arrested and his fingerprints matched those at the murder scenes. He came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 27th of April, and was convicted the following day for the murder of Evelyn Oatley (the only one he was actually tried for) after the jury had been out for just 35 minutes. He was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Harry Kirk, on Thursday, the 25th of June 1942. On the morning of execution, he wrote to his wife asking her forgiveness and saying, “Although I don’t know, I think I must be guilty – the evidence is overwhelming.”  Other than a hatred of women and prostitutes in particular, his motives for this killing spree seem unclear. Where a person was charged with several murders, it was normal to only proceed with one case at their trial so that if they were acquitted of that charge they could be re-arrested and tried for one of the other murders. As the death sentence was mandatory for an individual murder, they could only be hanged once, irrespective of how many people they had killed.

John George Haigh, the infamous "Acid bath" murderer, was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, again assisted by Harry Kirk, on Wednesday, the 10th of August 1949. Pierrepoint obviously considered Haigh as a special case and used his calf leather wrist strap to pinion him before giving him a drop of 7’ 4”.  Thirty nine year old Haigh possessed a great deal of natural charm and passed himself off as an engineer. He battered or shot three men and three women to death between 1944 and 1949, all for financial gain, disposing of the bodies by dissolving them in sulphuric acid which quite quickly reduced them to a liquid sludge that he could pour down the drain. His victims were William Donald McSwann and later his parents, William and Amy McSwann. They were followed by Dr. Archibald Henderson and his wife, Rosalie, and finally by Mrs. Olive Durand-Deacon for whose murder he was to hang. Mrs. Durand-Deacon lived, like Haigh, at the Onslow Court Hotel in South Kensington London and he interested her in a factory he claimed to own in Leopold Road, Crawley in Sussex, which he told her was going to make cosmetics. He persuaded her to go with him to look at the factory, which was little more than a store room and when he got her there, shot her in the neck. He had previously equipped the building with a carboy of acid, a 40-gallon drum and rubber gloves and apron. He took Mrs. Durand-Deacon's jewellery and other valuables, including her fur coat which he had cleaned to remove the bloodstains prior to sale and then put her body into the acid to dissolve. One of the other residents at the Onslow Court, who was a friend of Mrs. Durand-Deacon, was greatly concerned by her disappearance and asked Haigh to go with her to Chelsea police station to report her missing. The police became suspicious of Haigh and obtained a search warrant for his factory, where they were to discover a revolver and the acid drum together with some human remains. These included some bone remains, Mrs. Durand-Deacon's false teeth and her gallstone. When they arrested Haigh and put this evidence to him, he told them, "Mrs. Durand-Deacon no longer exists. I have destroyed her with acid. You can't prove a murder without a body." He went on to admit to eight other killings of which only five could be substantiated. He was tried at Lewes Assizes before Mr. Justice Humphreys in July 1949 and put forward a defence of insanity and claimed that he was also a vampire and had drank a glass of the blood of each of his victims. This made sensational headlines in the newspapers. However, the jury were less impressed and took just 17 minutes to find him guilty.  A detailed account of this case is here.

Derek Bentley was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on Wednesday, the 28th of January 1953 for his part in an armed robbery at a Croydon factory which resulted in the shooting dead of P.C. Sidney Miles. This case aroused much controversy at the time and became a cause célèbre to the anti-capital punishment lobby. Derek Bentley was finally granted a well deserved posthumous pardon in 1998. Click here for full details of this famous case.
Only one other teenager was to hang at Wandsworth, Francis "Flossy" Forsyth, who was executed by Harry Allen, assisted by Royston Rickard, on the 10th of November 1960. Forsyth was one of a gang of four youths who had beaten and kicked to death 23 year old Allan Jee, on the night of Saturday, the 25th of June 1960 in Hounslow, Middlesex. A witness saw them running from the scene of this motiveless and vicious attack and was able to give accurate descriptions of them. A friend of Forsyth reported to the police that Forsyth had been boasting about the killing and gave them the names of all four. One of the youths was only 17 and one was convicted of non-capital murder (as defined by the Homicide Act of 1957), but Forsyth and Norman James Harris were convicted of capital murder at their Old Bailey trial in September 1960. Harris was hanged at Pentonville by Robert Stewart at the same time Forsyth was being executed at Wandsworth.

One of the first capital cases that I remember as a boy was that of Guenther Fritz Podola in 1959. I suppose it was his, to a child's view of the world, odd sounding name that caught my attention. Podola had been born in Berlin in 1929 and came to Britain at the Spring of 1959, after deportation from Canada where he had been convicted of theft and burglary. In July 1959, he was again engaged in burglary in London's South Kensington. He tried to blackmail his victim, a Mrs. Schiffman, by claiming to have embarrassing photos and tape recordings of her. As she knew she had nothing to hide, she reported the phone call to the police who tapped her line and when Podola rang again, were able to trace the call to a nearby call box where the police found him moments later. He got away from the detectives and was chased and caught near a block of flats in Onslow Square. While the one policeman went to fetch the car, Podola produced a gun and shot the other policeman, Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy. Purdy had taken Podola's address book when he arrested him, and it was discovered by his widow when Purdy's belongings were returned to her. This pointed the police towards the Claremont House Hotel in Kensington where Podola was staying in room 15. Armed police assembled outside the room and at the signal, forced the door. Podola, who was probably listening at the door, was hit on the head by it as it flew open. He was hospitalised for 4 days as a result and claimed to have no memory of his arrest or the shooting of D.S. Purdy. He was tried at the Old Bailey and the jury rejected his defence of memory loss. Even though it could be proved that he had shot Purdy, if he genuinely couldn't recall doing so and was not mentally fit to stand trial, he would have had to have been acquitted. He was hanged by Harry Allen on the 5th of November 1959 at 9.45 a.m., the last person to be hanged for the murder of a police officer in Britain.  For a detailed account of this case, click here.

The final murderer to stand on Wandsworth's gallows was 49 year old Hendrick Neimasz on Friday, the 8th of September 1961. Neimasz had been convicted at Lewes Assizes of the murder of Mr. and Mrs. Hubert Buxton, whom he had murdered in their home on the night of the 12th of May 1961. Neimasz had been having an affair with Alice Buxton, who wanted him to leave his wife for her - something he refused to do. Sadly, he resolved the problem by killing them. He was hanged by Harry Allen, assisted by Samuel Plant, and was given a drop of 6’ 2”.

Wandsworth is a Category B prison and continues as the main prison for Surrey and South London to the present day, holding some 1,300+ men, most at the start of their sentences before they are dispersed to other prisons.

Back to Contents page Horsemonger Lane Gaol.