Bite-Size – A timeline of capital punishment in Britain

1671 – The Coventry Act. Lying in wait with the intention of disfiguring someone’s nose became a capital offence1699 – The Shoplifting Act. Theft of goods worth more than five shillings from a shop became a capital offence. James Appleton was hanged in 1722 for the theft of three wigs, and Benjamin Beckonfield was hanged in 1750 for stealing a hat1723 – The Waltham Blacks Act. Designed to combat a rise in poaching, this Act increased the number of capital offences from 30 to 1501782 […]

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1671 – The Coventry Act. Lying in wait with the intention of disfiguring someone’s nose became a capital offence

1699 – The Shoplifting Act. Theft of goods worth more than five shillings from a shop became a capital offence. James Appleton was hanged in 1722 for the theft of three wigs, and Benjamin Beckonfield was hanged in 1750 for stealing a hat

1723 – The Waltham Blacks Act. Designed to combat a rise in poaching, this Act increased the number of capital offences from 30 to 150

1782 – A fourteen year old girl was hanged. Her crime? Being found in the company of gypsies

1810 – Britain now had 222 capital crimes, including “adopting a disguise”

1816 – Four boys of between nine and thirteen years old were hanged for begging

1835 – The offences of sacrilege, stealing letters and early return from transportation were downgraded from capital offences

1861 – The Criminal Law Consolidation Act. This Act reduced the number of capital offences to just four, namely treason, mutiny, piracy and murder

1868 – Public executions are replaced with ones inside prisons. The last public hanging was of Michael Barrett on 26 May that year

1875 – The ‘long drop’ is introduced by William Marwood

1908 – Only those over the age of sixteen can be executed

1931 – Pregnant women cannot be hanged

1948 – The House of Commons approves a five year ban on capital punishment but this is overturned by the House of Lords

1955 – Ruth Ellis is the last woman to be hanged in Britain

1957 – The Homicide Act. Capital murder now has five categories – murder during a theft, murder by shooting or explosives, murder in the course of resisting arrest, murder of a prison officer or policeman, and two murders not committed at the same time

1964 – Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans are the last people to be hanged in Britain, for murder in the course of theft

1965 – The Abolition of the Death Penalty Bill Act. Capital punishment is suspended for a five year trial period

1969 – all capital punishment is abolished


When Executions Go Wrong

A gallows ticket to view the hanging of Jonathan Wild. (Google images)
A gallows ticket to view the hanging of Jonathan Wild. (Google images)

John Bibby was sentenced to death in 1814 for the crime of sheep stealing. On the day of execution, he ran up to the scaffold with cries of “I am the Duke of Wellington!” and, when the trapdoor opened he reportedly bounced upward shouting “What did I tell you?” until, following a struggle, he was subdued and finally hung.

William Duell was sentenced to death in 1740 for murdering one Sarah Griffin. Duell was hanged at Tyburn and taken to Surgeons Hall for dissection, Duell came back to life and within two hours was sitting up in a chair. He was returned to Newgate and his sentence later amended from death to transportation.

2nd Earl Robert Shirley Ferrers was tried by the House of Lords in Westminster Hall and found guilty of shooting his steward, Johnson. Ferrers was the first peer to be hanged rather than be decapitated, and his procession to Tyburn, with liveried servants and an escort of both cavalry and infantry, took three hours because so many people had gathered. Once on the scaffold, Ferrers inadvertently gave the five guineas to the assistant executioner, and Thomas Turlis, the hangman, wrestled his assistant to the floor to retrieve his money. Turlis had measured the drop incorrectly and Ferrers was only killed when the assistant pulled hard on his feet. Horace Walpole recorded that “He suffered a little by delay…but was dead in four minutes”

George Robert Fitzgerald, a soldier and duellist, was sentenced to death in Dublin in 1786 for the murder of Patrick McDonnel. When Fitzgerald was hung the rope broke and he dropped to the ground unharmed, announcing to the crowd “You see I am once more among you unexpectedly”. A new rope was found, and a new hangman – a convict who was offered a free pardon in exchange – successfully executed Fitzgerald.

Richard Arnett (1674-1728) was appointed as London’s hangman in 1719 after his predecessor, William Marvel was himself hanged. Arriving late for his first execution, Arnett was thrown into a pond by impatient onlookers which saw him needing treatment from a doctor and the condemned men returned to prison. The following year, needing to hang to people and somewhat the worse for drink, Arnett attempted to execute the Ordinary of Newgate, Reverened Villette, and a Catholic priest who was there to administer the last rites. Once this confusion had been resolved, the scaffold collapsed and the three officials fell ten feet to land on the two prisoners below – it was found Arnett had neglected to secure the bolt which held the scaffold together. In 1725, Arnett hanged Jonathan Wild but took so long to do so that Wild’s team of pickpockets were able to move through the crowd, depriving the spectators of their wallets and watches. The crowd threatened to repeat Arnett’s dunking in the pond if he didn’t get a move on.


Grim Reaper

12391373_194984424176981_7224693028162232753_nHarry Meadows was a resident of the Haslemere Home for the Elderly in Great Yarmouth when, in 1961 and aged 87, he decided to dress up as the Grim Reaper. With scythe in hand, Harry looked through a window at his fellow residents – three of whom promptly died, presumably from existing heart problems or shock.

Who is, or was, the Grim Reaper? The figure in black hooded robes carrying a scythe is a personification of death, and first appeared in the 1600s with the name ‘Grim Reaper’ traceable to 1847. The Grim Reaper appears in order to collect the souls of the recently deceased, in some folklore appearing when death is imminent thus enabling the individual to attempt to cheat death, as seen in ‘The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The personification of death long predates the creation of the Grim Reaper – the Greeks named death Thanatos, twin brother of Hypnos the God of Sleep, whose job was to guide the dead to Hades; the Valkyries of Norse mythology escorted the souls of those killed in battle; the Bible (Revelation 6:1-8) lists Death as one of the four horsemen and the Angel of Death appears across religions and cultures. The modern concept of the Grim Reaper is linked to plagues in the 15th and 17th Centuries as artists began to depict death as a skeleton, using his scythe to cut down swathes of the population and the Danse Macabre, plays performed to churchgoers as preparation for an inevitable death, featured skeletal figures who lead the victim away and which were captured by engravers like Notke and Holbein. The Grim Reaper also featured in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the guise of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and Brad Pitt played the role of Death in the 1998 film ‘Meet Joe Black’.


English witches

Mother Dickenson lived in the 17th Century and was tried as a witch and found guilty. She was burnt at the stake for, amongst other things, indulging in obscene rituals and transforming herself into a horse before riding off with young men. Whether the young men in question were willing participants or not is not recorded.

Joan Flower was born in the mid 16th Century, and was arrested for being a witch, along with her two daughters. The daughters both worked at Belvoir Castle, seat of the Earls of Rutland, at this time Francis Manners, the 6th earl. Her daughter Margaret was suspected of stealing items – including gloves belonging to the two young sons of Manners – from her employer and dismissed, upon which Joan threatened to get her revenge on the earl and countess. It was alleged that one glove was stuck with pins and the other buried in dung – within a week the elder of the two boys, Lord Henry Rosse, was dead from a fever, followed by his brother Lord Francis Rosse. Their stepsister suffered fits but recovered, and the earl and countess allegedly became sterile. Joan, her daughters, and three local women were accused of being witches and detained – while protesting her innocence Joan requested bread, telling her captors that if she were a witch it would kill her. Bread was provided, Joan took one bite, choked and died. The remaining co-accused were so unnerved by this that they incriminated each other and the trial of the Witches of Belvoir saw all five hung in Lincoln prison on 11 March 1619. The 6th earl died in 1632 and the absence of male heirs saw the title pass to his brother. He is buried in St. Mary the Virgin’s Church in Bottesford, Leicestershire, and his tomb includes the information that he had ‘two sonnes, both who dyed in their infancy by wicked practice and sorcerye’.

Jane Wenham was the last known convicted witch in England in 1712. An elderly lady when the charges were brought, Jane lived alone in poverty at the edge of Walkern in Kent. Regularly seen begging for scraps of food or a coin with which to buy something to eat, Jane was accused of causing harm to sheep and later members of the local population with curses and so forth. After being acquitted on the first occasion, Jane was later further accused and had to endure the humiliating process of being searched for ‘witches marks’ by four local women for a good hour. Nothing was found. She was pricked to see how she bled, another sign of a witch and eventually called to answer a second trial. Sir Henry Chauncy and his rather nasty son Arthur were responsible for gathering the evidence against this poor old lady, inflicting a number of ever more incredible tests on her, including pricking her with a pin to see if she bled.12196089_175712216104202_2164006467234796404_n

When they were satisfied that Jane was responsible for the deaths of livestock, and a small child, because living alone and being hungry causes that, she was referred for trial by Judge Sir John Powell. Powell was perhaps more sympathetic to her plight, and proceeded to dismiss the evidence, one piece at a time. My favourite bit has to be when a local woman claimed Jane could fly. Powell dryly responded “There’s no law against that!” before dismissing it. AT the end of the trial, he invited the jury to find her innocent. They refused. A number of them were locals who were wrapped up in the accusations and incredibly superstitious. They found her guilty; Powell had no choice but to order her execution, however he placed a stay on the death sentence and Wenham was removed to jail pending appeal.

The appeal was taken by a Mr Cowper to Queen Anne, his daughter Lady Sarah later recorded Jane’s death in a cottage on her land in 1729, where she had lived out her days for the seventeen years after she was found guilty and then pardoned by the Queen.



12189910_175717226103701_7598238169639763391_nSir Francis Dashwood (1708-81) is probably most famous for establishing the Hell-Fire Club, which, allegedly, counted among its members John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. At one meeting a prayer was said to the Devil, at which another member, John Wilkes, released a baboon which he had dressed as Satan himself complete with red clothing and horns. The baboon jumped onto the unfortunate Lord Sandwich’s back, at which he is alleged to have cried “Spare me, gracious Devil! Spare a wretch who was never your servant! I am but half a sinner”. Sandwich, as Secretary of State for the Northern Department, was later involved in prosecuting Wilkes, a radical MP, for obscene libel.

The Baboon was cleared of all charges.