Capital punishment in Britain: The hangman's story

In a 24-year career, Albert Pierrepoint executed 435 people including Ruth Ellis and Lord Haw-Haw. But he later became a fierce opponent of the death penalty. As a film of his life opens, Cahal Milmo reports on a man immortalised by death

Friday 07 April 2006 00:00 BST

Moments before the white hood of a condemned man was placed over his head, John Amery, a Second World War traitor, turned to his besuited executioner holding the noose and said: "I've always wanted to meet you Mr Pierrepoint. But not, of course, under these circumstances."

In the sangfroid of his final seconds, the fascist collaborator was expressing an enduring public fascination with Albert Pierrepoint, a Lancashire publican and, for 24 years, the Chief Executioner of the United Kingdom.

By the end of his career as the nation's principal hangman, Pierrepoint had established a reputation as Britain's most respected and prolific executioner - the last in a dynasty of state-sanctioned killers begun by his father and uncle.

With an authority that only a man of his experience could wield, he also became an eloquent - if tardy - opponent of the ultimate sanction he dispensed with such proficiency. His record for escorting a prisoner to the gallows trapdoor and dropping them to their death was just seven seconds.

Amery, the son of a senior civil servant who was sentenced to death for his pro-Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was Pierrepoint's 102nd executee, six days before Christmas in 1945. By the time Pierrepoint resigned in 1956, he had dispatched a further 333 souls, making a total of 435 executions, which included 16 women and 200 Nazi war criminals.

It is the largest number of executions carried out by a Briton and a record which continues to play on the popular imagination, all the more so since it was Pierrepoint who pulled the noose over the heads of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, Derek Bentley, Lord Haw-Haw and John George Haigh, the so-called acid bath murderer, to name but four.

Pierrepoint, a British film about the dutiful hangman, played by Timothy Spall, and evoking the tea-stained hues of his era, opens nationwide at cinemas today.

The film adds to the list of documentaries and books that attest to the extraordinary life led by a man who ran an Oldham pub - called, famously, Help the Poor Struggler - and held sing-along sessions with his regulars when his services were not required by the Home Office.

But with an average frequency of one missive a month, a grey envelope bearing the letterhead of the prisons commission would arrive at Pierrepoint's home. Inside would be a letter asking as to his availability to carry out a hanging, naming the jail and the date where the execution was to be conducted.

It was a task which the tall, dapper Pierrepoint, always dressed in a double-breasted suit and his short-back-and-sides hairstyle carefully slicked into place, performed with professional pride and something akin to a priestly duty of care to people whose last sight would be his hands pulling the cotton hood over their faces.

In his autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, published in 1974, the hangman wrote: "A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who, the church says, still merits some mercy.

"The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain."

When he appeared before a Royal Commission on capital punishment in 1949, Pierrepoint said he refused to speak publicly about his duties, describing it as something "sacred" to him. By all accounts, here was a man who took no pleasure from his role or confessed to a frisson of power as he pulled the trapdoor lever.

There was no such thing as gallows humour with Albert Pierrepoint. His execution teams were prohibited from cracking any jokes about the killer or his or her corpse.

He placed himself in charge of cutting down the noose, undressing the body and tying a shroud around the waist to await the routine post-mortem. For each hanging, Pierrepoint received £15, equivalent to about £400 today.

The payment, which ultimately provided the grounds for the executioner's resignation, was not enough for him to give up his "day job" - first as a grocery deliveryman and then as a landlord with his beloved wife, Anne.

He therefore led an ordinary existence punctuated by the extraordinary task of bringing death, initially in an anonymity so complete that he did not discuss his job even with Anne and later with a measure of celebrity that at first appalled him and then turned him into a minor tourist attraction.

Pierrepoint was both the son and nephew of a chief executioner. His father, Henry, carried out 107 executions before he was dismissed from his post in 1910 after arriving drunk at Chelmsford Prison to carry out a hanging. His uncle, Tom, worked as a hangman for 37 years and dispatched 294 souls before his retirement in 1946.

At the tender age of 11, Albert already seemed to know his destiny. In a school essay on what he wanted to do when he grew up, he wrote: "When I leave school, I should like to be Chief Executioner."

After a week of training at Pentonville Prison, using weighted sacks as dummies, Albert Pierrepoint became an assistant executioner in 1932, aged 27, and learned his trade alongside his uncle. His apprenticeship was to perfect the "British art" of hanging - considered by its proponents to be quicker and more humane than the electric chair or the guillotine.

An executioner's skill was to calculate the correct length of rope required to kill the condemned man or woman instantly as the noose jerked tight at the end of the "drop", breaking the neck. If the rope was too long, the criminal would be decapitated; too short and they would slowly strangle.

Although the Home Office provided a table of heights and weights and the corresponding noose length, it was up to the hangman to fine tune the equation by clandestinely sizing the prisoner the night before the execution, often through a secret window in the condemned cell.

When Albert was made Chief Executioner in 1941, his first hanging was of Antonio "Babe" Mancini, a club owner and gangster, who startled the execution party by saying "cheerio" as the hood was placed over his head.

Such was Pierrepoint's efficiency, he came to the attention of the British Army and Field Marshal Montgomery when an executioner was needed after the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. The Yorkshire-born hangman was flown secretly into Germany to hang 200 Nazi war criminals, including Josef Kramer, the commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and Irma Grese, a sadistic SS guard at Belsen and Auschwitz who went to her death smiling.

Ironically, Pierrepoint's secret wartime service ended his anonymity when British newspapers were given his name in 1946 by a War Office eager to publicise the professional diligence with which it was executing the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

The hangman privately told friends he was "appalled" at the attention of the media. But his status as the steady arm at the sharp end of the British state's death penalty was rapidly gaining him public renown and, increasingly, opprobrium. After his retirement as an executioner, the Help the Poor Struggler and a subsequent pub he owned in Preston became an occasional stopping point for coach parties hoping for a chat and a photograph with the hangman.

Steve Fielding, author of Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners, said: "He took pride in what he did. For him, it was not something odd. It was another trade to be carried out with decorum and sensitivity.

"He did not enjoy being in the public eye because he felt he was doing the will of the courts. But I think he ultimately came to accept he was a sort of celebrity.

Despite never changing his view that he was merely a cypher for the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868, Pierrepoint carried out three of the most notorious hangings of the post-war era. First, he hung Timothy Evans, an educationally sub-normal father who was found guilty of murdering his daughter in 1950. Evans was innocent - the killing had been carried out by his landlord, the serial killer John Christie, who Pierrepoint also hanged.

Later, the hangman was barracked and spat at by anti-death penalty crowds as he arrived to execute Ruth Ellis in 1955 and, two years earlier, Derek Bentley, the teenager sentenced to death for the shooting of a policeman by his accomplice, who was too young to face the gallows.

Within a year of the execution of Ellis, the executioner wrote to the Home Office requesting that his name be removed from the list of hangmen. The prosaic reason was a dispute over his payment for an abortive hanging at Strangeways Prison in Manchester.

True to his character, Pierrepoint never commented on whether he personally believed the death sentence had been merited by any of his "subjects", including James Corbitt, a regular in his pub with whom he had sung a rendition of "Danny Boy" on the night Corbitt murdered his girlfriend.

Pierrepoint recalled how he had settled his friend at the moment of the execution by calling him by his nickname of Tish.

Speculation persists as to whether it was this execution, among so many, that finally persuaded the executioner that his work had done nothing to improve humanity. But that was precisely the conclusion he eventually reached.

Pierrepoint wrote in his autobiography: " All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any ... capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge."

They were words written long after Pierrepoint's resignation as Chief Executioner in 1956 and the abolition of capital punishment in 1964. Here was a philosopher executioner who only professed his own verdict long after it no longer mattered.

In the executioner's own words...

Albert Pierrepoint gave this account of the execution of Derek Bentley, 19, at Wandsworth Prison in 1953.

Bentley, who had a mental age of 11, was hanged for the murder of PC Sidney Miles. He was not holding the gun, which was wielded instead by Christopher Craig, who at 16 was ineligible for the death sentence. Bentley was later given a posthumous pardon.

When you go to hang a boy of 19 years old, it does not matter that he is tall and broad-shouldered, for at nine o'clock on the morning he is to die, he still looks only a boy.

And so did Derek Bentley when the sickly green door of the condemned cell was abruptly whisked open for me on January 28 1953. He sat at his prison table, watching the doorway.

I believe that, because we were all dressed so normally, in everyday lounge suits, young Derek Bentley thought then at that moment, we had come with his reprieve. His face glowed with an instant of eagerness.

Then he saw the yellow leather strap in my right hand, and his eyes fixed upon it. The sight of this wiped all the hope from his expression. He stood up very slowly and clumsily.

We expected trouble with Bentley. We knew he was physically very strong and a little simple-minded. He had been so sure he wouldn't hang.

I must say my own thoughts were not concerned with any private sympathies for Bentley. I was occupied with the thought that he was six feet tall, a weightlifter and boxer with a brain younger than his body.

Bentley had jumped at the sudden opening of the door. I am sure he had still not properly weighed up the situation. He moved his shoulders wonderingly, but did not say anything. I whispered, "Just follow me, lad" and added soothingly, "It's all right, Derek - just follow me."

He started to move and his body caught the edge of the table. He appeared not to feel this, although the table shook. I put the white cap over his head, and noose with it, and heard the familiar click of belt and buckle. The controversy from that instant became purposeless, for Derek Bentley was dead.

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