25th January 1791. Not for the squeamish!
William Calcraft was the most famous of 19th century hangmen being responsible for 450 executions. His trade of cobbler had been augmented by flogging juveniles at ten shillings a week, at Newgate Prison, London, before he met the City of London hangman John Foxton, whilst selling meat pies nearby.
Public hangings were a spectator sport for as The [London] Times reported of George Selwyn MP, who died today on 25th January 1791: ‘That one of his oddest fancies was a taste for witnessing executions’.(1)
In 1774 the Earl of Carlisle had written to Selwyn about an upcoming ‘event’, promising: ‘If you should happen to be with us I will take care to get you a good place at the execution: and though our Tyburn [London] may not have all the charms as where you were brought up and educated, yet it may be better than no Tyburn’.
Selwyn’s yearning for the macabre contrasted with his respectability as holder of the profitable sinecures of ‘Clerk of the Irons’ and ‘Surveyor of the Meltings’ at the Mint, where his deputies did the all work. Further sinecures included Registrar of Court of Chancery in Barbados and Paymaster of the Works which brought large salaries.
Public hangings was a great public spectacle for the masses, until 1868, a practice which both Charles Dickens and politician Robert Peel campaigned against in the early 19th century.
There was however great opposition to their abolition from traders, and publicans who petitioned parliament, as they opened at 3 am to cater for the crowds. One of the reasons cited for abolition was the appalling crowd behaviour which was described as ‘galas’.
Hangings required ‘Hangmen’ who acquired some celebrity status: the Rowley Regis hangman George Smith (1805-74 was known as ‘Throttler’ Smith. He wore a long white coat and top-hat at public hangings and was assisted by his son George at Stafford.
Becoming executioner for Staffordshire, Smith’s first job was as assistant at a double hanging of James Owen and George Thomas outside Stafford Gaol on 11th April 1840. His most famous execution was that of the Rugeley mass poisoner Dr.Palmer, when at least 30,000 saw his hanging outside Stafford Gaol on 14th June,1856.
Smith went on to hang a further fourteen men and one woman at Stafford, his last in 1866 being a poacher called Collier who had murdered a local squire. He also assisted the well-known William Calcraft at the first of the inside hangings in England in August 1868.
Calcraft (1800-1879), noted for his ‘short-drop’, was sworn as executioner for the City of London and Middlesex on 4th April 1829 at a Guinea a week plus a Guinea for each execution. He also had an allowance for the cat-of-nine-tails and birch rods. He also added to his income by selling off pieces of rope, depending on length, from 5 shillings to a pound (£), per inch.(2)
With the advent of the railways, Smith and Calcraft could operate further afield to ply a trade which tended to run in families. It was Calcraft who was responsible for executing the mass murderer Mary Ann Cotton, after he had travelled north to Durham City Gaol, on 24th March 1873.
(1) The Times reported also that, ‘George Selwyn, a necrophiliac, gay, transvestite, sat mute, loved and undisturbed in the House of Commons for 44 years’.
The eccentric Selwyn, apart from being an aficionado of hangings, was a celebrated wit and member of the notorious and immoral, Hellfire Club at Medmenham Abbey, Buckinghamshire.
(2) The ‘Bridport Dagger’ according to Albert Hyamson’s Dictionary of English Phrases 1922, meant a ‘hangman’s rope’, as hempen goods and nets were mainly made at Bridport in Dorset.
In Oakham,Dudley, near Birmingham, where Smith later moved to, there was a pub called the ‘Hangman’s Tree’.
Ref: Quality of Mercy: Justice, Punishment, University of British Columbia Press. Carolyn Strange, 1997.
Ref: Pic Ref: googleimages/en.wiki2.org/william_calcraft.
Ref: The BBC History Magazine Feb 2011 Volume 12, No.2 pp.53-4. re Selwyn.
Ref: Ref : Britain’s most notorious hangings Wade, Stephen 2009, Wharncliffe Local History