Could you have caught a train from Blackpool to see a public hanging in Lancaster? Yes you could. And you could have done that for nearly twenty years from 1846 until 1865. This came as a surprise because we think of trains as part of a modern world and public hangings as something from a more distant past. When the railway station was built in 1846 there were no sewers and so no flush toilets. There was no running water. The railway station would have had a public toilet which would have emptied into a cess pit. This would have been occasionally emptied by night soilmen. Basically these were men armed with a cart and a bucket and a shovel and one of their number would climb into the cess pit…
However that’s a whole other story.
Men and women were hanged in substantial numbers at Lancaster. Hangings were on a Saturday which maximised attendance and commercial opportunities. Hangings were an early tourist attraction. The people hanged were very rarely murderers. On 13 September 1806 three sodomites from Warrington were executed along with two others for different crimes. Two more of the Warrington sodomites were executed on Saturday 4 October 1806.
Would people have gone from Blackpool to see public hangings in Lancaster? Sadly they definitely would. Public executions were popular events, the portrayal of executions was a mainstay of entertainment for years, at Louis Toussauds. Machines on the piers portrayed the execution of Mary Queen of Scots for the modest fee of one penny. Mary was not only Elizabeth’s cousin but also her successor. Elizabeth was often unpopular and Catholics looked forward to her death. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots prevented a Catholic Succession and increased the bitterness of some Catholics. Half the remaining Catholics in England lived in Lancashire and a the Fylde was a Catholic stronghold.
Executions were free and entertaining social events and seeing a life end would give the audience a sense of the preciousness and the fragility of life. The central act of Christianity was an execution.
Blackpool’s first historian Thornber tells us of Leonard Warbreck from Layton acted as hangman after the unsuccessful Jacobite rising of 1745. The rebels reached as far as Derby and retreated without a battle. They occupied Lancaster and Preston for a time and Poulton people are said to have buried their valuables at Hounds Hill. There may have been local sympathy for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the possibililty of a Catholic Succession. Annoyingly William Thornber writes: “I shall not defile my paper with enumerating his crimes of wanton cruelty.” So one of the first people from the Blackpool area we know about was a hangman. A little later, again according to William Thornber, a man called Henry Hardicar from Little Poulton went to London to see the beheadings in London. He seems to have gone the 235 miles on foot. His comment was: “I saw the Lords heided.”
The “Lords” were William Boyd, Lord Kilmarnock and Arthur Elphinstone, Lord Balmerino who were executed 18 August 1746. They were almost the last persons to be beheaded in Britain. The very last was Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, on 9 April 1747. He was about 80 years old and just as he was about to be decapitated he was amused when about 20 onlookers died following the collapse of a scaffold built to enable people to view his execution. This is claimed to be the origin of: “laugh your head off.”
Until the beginning of the 19th Century hangmen were recruited from amongst the poorest, they were often criminals themselves. They supplemented their income by selling the hanged person’s clothes and by selling the rope as a souvenir. In earlier times when there were religious executions they might sell bits of the executed person which would then be venerated by believers. Stonyhurst College has the largest collection of relics, basically bits of dead Catholic Martyrs, in England. This is because a lot of Catholics were executed at Lancaster. In the ninteenth century a new generation of scientific humane hangmen developed techniques minimise suffering.
Lancaster fought ferociously for its exclusive right to execute Lancashire people. Not only the hangings but the holding of assizes in Lancaster were profitable. However Manchester and Liverpool gained the right to hold Assizes and hangings.
What makes a person decide to become a hangman? It is intriguing to try to put oneself into another person’s mind. The simplest explanation is that it was the money . Later hangmen were minor celebrities and commercialised aspects of their profession by selling their memoirs and managing pubs. A high proportion of hangmen came from the North West.
Throughout history executions have had a ritualistic element and this is true of modern hangings. Since public hangings ended executions were carried out in prisons. Hangmen took a pride in the swiftness and reliability of their work. The person to be hung wore a different uniform from the other prisoners, it was grey. The prisoner was constantly attended and an effort was made to keep them occupied. The actual execution spot was as close as possible to the condemned cell. In some cases it was actually attached to the condemned cell and connected by a door hidden by a wardrobe. The rope would be delivered to the prison the day before the hanging. Hangmen preferred a used rope because it was more elastic. There was a table based on the weight of the prisoner which was used to calculate the “drop.” Hangmen liked to observe the prisoner to make allowances for physique. Sometimes the hangman would observe the condemned man at exercise or in his cell. Sometimes the hangman was introduced to the condemned man although understandably his role was not explained. Condemned women wore canvas underwear at the hangings for reasons that will be explained later. The prison doctor would sedate the prisoner to ensure a quiet last night. On the morning of the execution the prison clocks would be stopped to pacify the other inmates. The hangman and his assistant would enter the condemned cell, pinion the prisoner, lead him to the scaffold, situate him on the trapdoor, put a hood over his head and smartly remove the pin that held the trapdoor in place. It was claimed that the whole process could be done in seconds. The prisoner would be left hanging for an hour and then removed and buried in the prison grounds.
The first is John Ellis, the Rochdale hangman, who hanged George Joseph Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer and Frederick Holt. Although he was conscientious and appeared to have nerves of steel he is said to have been disturbed by the hanging of Edith Thompson. Edith Thompson was hanged for the murder of her husband. Many people think that she was not guilty and that she was really hanged because of her behaviour. Her lover Frederick Bywaters was also hanged. Edith Thompson had to be carried to the scaffold in a chair and after the execution there was loss of blood caused by an haemeorrhage. It is possible that she was pregnant. Afterwards condemned women had to wear canvas underwear when hanged. John Ellis took to drink. This was an occupational hazard for hangmen. A hangman that John Ellis assisted is said to have tried to hang the clergyman instead of the condemned man. John Ellis was also upset by having to hang an eighteen year old boy.
He returned to his job as hairdresser. He had money troubles and increasingly took to drink. After attempting suicide (which absurdly was a crime at the time) he succeeded in cutting his throat in 1932.
The second gentleman is Albert Pierrepoint who hanged Neville Heath. He spent his honeymoon in Blackpool and went on to run pub in Southport.
Finally there is Henry Allen who hanged Louise Merrifield and James Hanratty. He later retired to Fleetwood where he gave change on the pier. Refreshingly he did not have regrets and said he never lost a moment’s sleep over his work.