Personal Column: My uncle, the executioner

Sixty years ago this week, Albert Pierrepoint was smuggled into Germany to hang war criminals. Later, he executed Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain. He was one of the kindest men Nicola Rossi has known
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The Independent Online

Sixty years ago on Tuesday, an unassuming Yorkshireman was smuggled into Germany. His job: to execute 13 war criminals from Belsen and Auschwitz including Josef Kramer, commander of Bergen Belsen. He dealt with them at half-hour intervals, the men two at a time, the women individually. He took them to a dignified and calm death in stark contrast to the immense suffering they had inflicted on countless others. That man was Albert Pierrepoint, and years later he would execute Ruth Ellis. But to me he was Uncle Albert, one of the kindest men I have ever known.

Albert was not my real uncle, but one of those close family friends who became an honorary family member along with his wife, my Auntie Anne. In the 1950s my parents were regular customers at the pub that Albert and Anne ran in Manchester, called the Help the Poor Struggler. Hangmen didn't get paid very well, and then only per capita, so Albert had to have a day job to make a living. He was a good publican, warm, friendly and liable to burst into song. He particularly loved serenading passing women. Anne would smile, I would cringe, and Sixties icon Diana Dors, who once met him, said she hated it. He could be the life and soul of the party, although he wouldn't get many points for political correctness.

I got to know Albert and Anne when they retired to Southport on the north-west coast, where my parents had an ice cream shop. When I was born, they asked if I could go to their house to play, as they had no children of their own. So it was that one afternoon a week for the first 18 years of my life my dad would drop me off at their bungalow on his way to the flying club. As a child I didn't know Albert had been Britain's most prolific state executioner. It's not the kind of thing you say to a four-year-old. When I found out, I would still have loved him, even if he hadn't by then condemned the death penalty outright.

Albert followed his uncle, Tom, and his father, Henry, into the profession. Growing up, Tom and Henry were the only people Albert knew that ever left Yorkshire. Albert didn't want to spend his life working in the mill. He wanted to see more of the world, but he grew up at a time when there weren't many options. He saw an opportunity and applied for the position of executioner while working as a delivery driver. After a rigorous recruitment process, which included "dummy" hangings, he got the job.

Albert and Anne were among the most decent and straightforward people I have ever met. One of my earliest memories was learning their phone number, which I was to call any time, day or night, if I was in trouble. They were traditional in their tastes. The bungalow was immaculate. The bathroom smelled of Imperial Leather and Old Spice (like Albert) and had a new-fangled electric shower I could use when I'd been in the paddling pool. There was a pristine front room, usually unheated, only to be used on special occasions.

When Albert ran me home in his Ford Cortina at the end of the day, wearing his white leather driving gloves, we'd drop Auntie Anne off at bingo and then we'd sit and chat to my mother. In the summer he would bring roses cut from his garden with the thorns carefully removed, and he'd let me pick the best tomatoes I've ever tasted from his greenhouse. My mother would pour him a Stewart crystal tumbler of whisky and then they'd talk.

That was when the stories came out. About the other Albert, who had hanged Ruth Ellis, sentenced to death for murdering her boyfriend. He was often asked what Ruth Ellis's last words had been; he told my mum that she had said nothing. My mother said the death penalty was wrong for crimes of passion. There was no argument. By then Albert believed it was not right for anyone.

He resigned from his post as Number One Official Executioner in 1956 over an argument about money. Albert felt he was paid inadequately for the job he had done. And he was the best in the business. Hanging might sound barbaric, but done correctly using the British method, with the rope in exactly the right position and the drop calculated so that the neck breaks instantly, it was humane compared to the alternatives. Albert travelled around the world teaching other executioners his techniques. This saved many from a far more painful end.

In retirement, he had come to believe that his former occupation had achieved nothing except revenge. Having spent so much time with condemned men and women, his insight led him to conclude that the death penalty was not the deterrent it was cracked up to be. I also heard him say he felt that executing terrorists would only turn them into martyrs and make matters worse.

He had a clear mind, good judgement and bags of common sense. He rationalised what he had done, saying that he had been an instrument of the state, taking people to their death with respect and dignity. The way he saw it, what he did was no different to being a soldier - except he killed people that the courts had decided were delinquents, rather than someone whom politicians had decided were on the other side.

As for the war criminals, Albert was appalled at what they had done. In an old-fashioned way he was particularly disturbed by the women, scarcely able to believe the cruelty of the likes of the 22-year-old prison guard Irma Grese. When called to give evidence to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in 1950, Albert found it hard to speak about what he had done in front of a female transcriber. His wife never asked questions.

The German thing I pieced together later. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s I was surrounded by adults talking about the Second World War. I was in a mediocre play at junior school about the Pied Piper of Hamelin.I was talking to Albert about it and he seemed to know a lot about the story. He cheerfully explained that it was based on a legend set around the real German town of Hamelin. Now I realise that was the town where Albert went, in his professional capacity, carrying little other than his executioner's case, on 13 December, 1945.

When my mother died at only 54, Albert and Anne were at the funeral. That was the only time I saw him lost for words. All he could say was, "terrible".

Albert passed away in 1992 and Anne moved into a nursing home. The last time I saw her, not long before she died, she was a shadow of her former self. On the wall of her room was a framed black-and-white photo of Albert, dapper and handsome in his signature Trilby hat. The glass was cracked. She took the picture off the wall and held it out, gazing at me with clouded eyes. "Look what's happened to my Albert," Anne said, "I can't see him any more."