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 4 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.
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.
135 prisoners were to be put to death here from 1878 to 1961, comprising of 134
men and one woman. The seventeen 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
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 bridge 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 1937Alfred 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 planks 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 "pit or drop room" and had a
gate to the yard through which the body was brought out. When Sid Dernley
assisted at an execution there in the 40’s, he recalled how clean and tidy it
all was, even the wooden floor being varnished. The gallows was last tested in
January 1993 and dismantled on the 24th of May1993.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 execution chamber 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.
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
Wandsworth took condemned prisoners from Surrey in the first instance 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 . 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.
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. Kate was the
only woman to be executed at Wandsworth.
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.
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."
this Act, nine men were hanged at Wandsworth. (A further seven 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.
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 Karl 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 drop.
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.
Joyce, nicknamed "Lord Haw Haw" because of his posh accent and
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 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 seven 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.
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.This took place 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 considerable 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”.
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 another offence. As the death
sentence was mandatory for an individual murder, they could only be hanged
once, irrespective of how many people they had killed.
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 OnslowCourtHotel 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.
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 celebré 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.
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 , the last person to be hanged for the murder of a police
officer in Britain.For a detailed account of this case, click here.
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”.
continues as the main prison for Surrey and South London to the present day and with the prison
population at record levels, holds some 1,300+ men, most at the start of their
sentences before they are dispersed to other prisons.
A new book on Surrey Executions.
A complete history of Surrey executions
from 1800 to 1899 entitled “Surrey Executions” written and researched by Martin
Baggoley was published by Amberley Publishing in 2011.This book is now available from Abe Books at http://www.abebooks.co.uk/This is an interesting and well written book
with a lot more details on individual cases than I have space for on this page.