Expert hangman called in to advise on design of gallows

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The Independent Online

Documents released by the National Archives tell how an official was ordered to inspect the equipment at Winchester Prison after two condemned men hit their head or shoulder on one side of the pit as they were hanged. This could prevent their necks being broken.

The inspector discussed the design of the gallows with the famous executioner, John Ellis, who served as a hangman between 1901 and 1924. He praises Ellis' skill, saying "he must now carry out his work in a fraction of a second".

According to a subsequent Home Office report, Ellis expressed concerns that the trap doors of the gallows at Winchester Prison were too narrow and the walk from the cell to the gallows was too long. The pit was 1ft 10in narrower than the standard pit of 10ft 8in, such as the one at London's Pentonville Prison.

It continued: "I submit that the accidents in the two cases at Winchester were due to the opening being too narrow and I consider that a wider opening should be provided before another prisoner is hanged there." A new location for the gallows was found at Winchester prison in a wing near to the mortuary.

The unnamed Home Office official added: "Ellis considers the hinges and the arrangement of the draw bolt as clumsy and very noisy when compared with doors in Dublin, Belfast and Glasgow prisons. I gathered sufficient information to see that considerable improvements can be made."