Thomas Wells – Britain’s first private execution.


The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act came into law at the beginning of June 1868 and stipulated that all executions had henceforth to be carried out within prisons.  The first to be so was that of 18 year old Thomas Wells at Maidstone.  Although the law had changed the location it had not changed the method of execution nor had it laid down any specific protocols for carrying out private executions.  It was still up to the sheriff, under sheriff and the governor of the prison to determine the actual details. 


Thomas Wells was employed as a porter and carriage cleaner at Dover Priory railway station and had a gun concealed at work, apparently to shoot birds.

On the 1st of may 1868, the station master, Mr. Edward Walsh (also given as Walshe) summoned Wells to his office and reprimanded him in front of the Area Superintendent, Henry Cox, saying that he was dissatisfied with the quality of his work and general attitude.

Wells was offered two alternatives, either that he make a full apology for his actions and promise never to repeat them or be dismissed. He was given ten minutes to consider this offer. Instead of making an apology he went and got his gun and just before 11am returned to the office and shot Mr. Walsh in the head. He was captured minutes later hiding in an empty carriage and was arrested by Inspector Stephens and a constable.


Committal and trial.

He appeared at the magistrates court on Saturday the 2nd of May and was committed for trial at the Kent Summer Assizes to be held on Thursday the 23rd of July 1868 before Mr. Justice Willis.  Serjeant Sleigh, assisted by a Mr. Straight prosecuted while Wells was defended by a Mr. Ribton and a Mr. Biron.  His defence was one of insanity due to the effects of a serious accident he had had whilst at work at the station when he was nearly crushed by a train which had changed his personality.  Wells’ parents were called to testify to this.  However the jury did not accept it and took just five minutes to convict him.  He was therefore sentenced to death and returned to the condemned cell at Maidstone to await execution which was set for the 13th of August 1868.  While in the condemned cell he wrote a letter of apology to Mr Walsh’s widow and according to the prison chaplain seemed to show genuine remorse.  Some ten days before execution he was visited by his father and the two had a sad and emotional meeting.  There was to be no reprieve and the night before his execution Wells was moved to a cell a few paces from the gallows.



The gallows was the same “New Drop” pattern one that had been used for the execution of Frances Kidder earlier in the year and was re-used with some modifications, principally the platform was now level with the paving slabs of the courtyard, set over a four foot deep pit that had been excavated beneath it.  However the trap doors were still released from below.  The courtyard was some 30 feet square and entirely surrounded by high walls on three sides and a cell block on the fourth.

Although the proceedings were now hidden from the general public, they were hardly private. Major Bannister, the governor of Maidstone, the chaplain, the Rev. W. Frazer, Mr. Furley, the Under Sheriff of Kent, together with several warders, three members of the public and sixteen newspaper reporters witnessed the hanging.

As usual for Maidstone, William Calcraft was to be the hangman and was assisted by George Smith of Dudley on this novel occasion. Wells was led to the gallows at 10.30 and had to be supported on the trapdoors by two warders. In his final moments Wells began singing a hymn he had learned in prison.

“Happy soul, thy days are ended,

All thy mourning days below,

Go, by angel friends attended,

To the sight of Jesus, go”

At the end of the verse Calcraft drew the bolt and the drop fell with a dull thud. Wells, like so many of Calcraft's victims, died a slow and painful death over the ensuing two minutes, visibly struggling against the pinioning straps.  A black flag was unfurled above the prison a few moments later.  As required by the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act a certificate of execution signed by the governor, the under sheriff and the chaplain was posted on the prison gates and a formal inquest was held at 2.30 that afternoon by Mr. Dudlow, the coroner and a jury of 12 local men.  They returned a verdict that “the deceased, Thomas Wells had been duly executed according to law.”

Britain’s first private execution was widely reported in the press.  The Times newspaper noted afterwards that there had been no protests over the move from public to private hangings, at least not from its readers.  It is not known whether the ordinary folk of Maidstone actually shared the paper’s lofty opinion, as theirs were not canvassed.  However the town was reported as quiet and normal that morning, in stark comparison with the rowdy crowds that had attended public hangings.



It would seem that Thomas Wells had what today we would call anger management problems.  He had at various times displayed temper tantrums and had inflicted nasty burns on his younger brother after a minor argument.


A strange coincidence.

Frances Kidder was hanged for the murder of her step daughter on April 2nd 1868 and on the following day Richard Bishop murdered Alfred Cartwright at Sydenham.  He was hanged at Maidstone on the 30th of April.  The following day Wells committed his crime.  It is not known whether Bishop and Wells were aware of the preceding executions or not.


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