Dying in Private: Execution in the North East 1868-1878 part 1

Extract from the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map of Durham showing the County Gaol, 1857. (Image courtesy of Durham County Record Office, ref. Durham Sheet xxvii.1.19) Click on image to enlarge. To the bottom right of the image you can see the 'South East' area of the jail where prisoners were executed.
Extract from the 1st edition of the Ordnance Survey map of Durham showing the County Gaol, 1857. (Image courtesy of Durham County Record Office, ref. Durham Sheet xxvii.1.19) 
To the bottom right of the image, between the South and East wing you can see the area of the jail where prisoners, Dolan and McConville were executed in 1869

Last week I was lucky enough to be accepted to do a talk at the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies’ one day conference at Durham University. The conference itself was entitled Victorian Culture and the Origin of Disciplines. In studying executions, I always say that conference papers are the closest I’ll get to experiential learning. Spending 20 minutes on a stage in front of a critical assembly of my peers is as close a feeling to pronouncing my last dying words as I hope to ever get.

The conference took place in the resplendent Durham Castle’s – Senate Room. I thought it was worth noting that there was a certain irony in the location of the talk, as 13 years ago when I applied to do a BA in History and Politics, Durham was my first choice – based almost entirely on the fantastical notion that I would live in lodgings at Durham Castle and change from a little North London Mockney urchin into a lauded man about town – a sort of Latter Day Pip with the Student Loans Body my mysterious and malevolent benefactor. Luckily for myself, and the wider world, the powers that be at Durham had the sagacity to reject my application and I settled for Sheffield, where the brilliant Dr Robert (Bob) Shoemaker satiated my love of crime and punishment. So, I felt strangely privileged to be there just 13 short years after I’d originally planned to.

As not many people outside academia attend these events, I thought I would post my talk as the subject of the next two weeks blogs. For any early PhD’ers who have never given a talk, having now done a few, my tips for success are.

1). Use a speech calculator to gauge the length – no-one likes talks that go over.

2). Don’t trust the speech calculator – read it to yourself, whilst timing. Several times!

3). Write, wait and then redraft. I had signed off the paper in my head until I read it again two days before and noticed I had made a glaring error – I should note this paper is now completely error free!

One of the sites of the gallows at Durham Prison, after execution was moved inside the prison walls in 1868 courtesy of capitalpunishmentuk.org
One of the sites of the gallows at Durham Prison, after execution was moved inside the prison walls in 1868 courtesy of capitalpunishmentuk.org

Dying in Private and the Death of Public Discipline: Execution in the North East, 1868-1878

On Tuesday 30th July, 1878, at 7:55 am, just 10 minutes walk from where we are sat today, 51-year-old sailor Robert Vest was marched from his cell in Durham Prison to the permanent scaffold “erected in the south-east area”[1] of that same facility. Charged with the alcohol-induced murder of Sea Pilot, John Wallace, Vest was now walking his final steps. By 8 am, the dread sentence of the law had been executed and a black flag was “run up the pole at the prison gates” to signify to the “50 or 60 persons” stood outside, that Vest had suffered the full extent of the law.[2] In one shift of a lever the executioner, William Marwood, had answered in the most brutal fashion the age-old question of “what shall we do with the drunken sailor?”

Vest was executed in private under the terms of the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act, which removed executions to behind the prison walls. He was also the first man to be executed in the North East following the nationalisation of the prisons, earlier that same year. Executed in the presence of roughly ten people, all officials of either Church or State, Vest’s death was the symbolic apogee of a punishment that had undergone a fundamental transformation from being an expressly public act of justice and discipline, to one intentionally hidden from sight. His death, along with the 16 others executed in the North-East, in the decade between 1868 and 1878, therefore stands as a fascinating case study of the first serious legislative attempt to make a discipline of discipline itself.

In one respect, Vest’s execution stands as a triumph of progress and professionalisation. The result of a move away from a brutal past, in which thousands crowded in public spaces to watch a felon swing, to an age where executions were swift, silent and sedate. In this vein, as one historian put it, the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act belongs in a “special category of measures…that contributed to the progress of civilization in England.”[3] Historians such as Vic Gatrell have begun the critical work to debunk this simplistic narrative of progress, but what is remarkable in all these studies is the absence of any detailed analysis of the practical reality of execution itself after the 1868 act. Even in works critical of its motives, the Act has become a symbolic endpoint; a metaphorical Mount Olympus from which to look down at our once brutal past from.

This paper seeks to fill this gap and question the predominating narrative of progress by analysing execution in the North East in the ten years between its privatisation in 1868 and its ultimate bureaucratic, homogenisation under the 1878 Nationalisation of prisons. It will seek to show that the co-opting of the privatisation of execution into a simple narrative of ‘progress’, ‘modernity and ‘civilising’, in which it was a logical legislative stepping stone on the road to abolition is misleading at best and scandalous at worst. Arguing instead that the early years of privatisation, in the North East, at least, were marked by a desire to regain control of a spectacle that had been, all too frequently, dangerously undermined. In its application, the 1868 Act served to hide the continual botching of executions, mask the voice and agency of the condemned and, more importantly, led to a dramatic increase in the incidence of execution in the North East.

The findings in this paper are drawn from my wider research and as such any reference to the North East should be understood as only being a sample of North East locations, taken from the Northern Assize Circuit, namely (Berwick, Durham, Newcastle and Morpeth). Also, reports of executions are drawn from the a selection of the provincial press, particularly the Newcastle Courant.

In order to assess the nature and importance of the changing execution, we must first understand its antecedents and it is to this I shall now turn.

Given the widely accepted notion that execution, in the c18th and early c19th century, was “at the centre of English justice”[4], what is truly remarkable is the amateurish nature of its application. Hangmen, who were often undertaking the role as one of several other jobs, frequently botched executions. In Newcastle, until the mid c19th, the common hangman was known as the Whipper and Hougher and amongst his many roles, he was responsible for “the hanging of felons, scourging the poor and clearing the streets of swine.”[5] This lack of professionalism and isolated social status, was not exclusive to the North East, or indeed England. In many European cities, hangmen were“forced to live outside the city walls or near an already unclean location within the city.”[6] As Historian Joel Harrington put it, “Even the staunchest advocates of the death penalty rarely commended the man whose duty it was to carry out this grim task; by some strange logic the act itself was justified and defended, while the actor was degraded and ostracized.”[7]

Sometimes executions were even undertaken by fellow convicts. In one astonishing case in 1792, namely the triple hanging of William Winter, Eleanor and Jane Clark at Newcastle’s Westgate, the trio were hung by a fellow convict, William Gardner; Gardner having been offered a transmutation of his death sentence to transportation to New South Wales, if he agreed to take on the dread role. An offer he swiftly accepted. [8]

The relative inexperience of hangmen was only one unpredictable element of many in the execution spectacle. A recalcitrant or unrepentant prisoner could also dramatically undermine the spectacle and authority of the state. In 1752, Owen MacDonald was processed through the centre of Newcastle to be hung on the Town Moor, in front of what the Newcastle Courant described as an “extraordinary concourse of people.”[9] His behaviour from the time of his sentencing until his final moments had been reported as admirably contrite but at the gallows this changed dramatically; the paper describing how MacDonald endeavoured to “throw the executioner from of (sic) the ladder.”[10] Far from causing public opprobrium MacDonald’s actions garnered widespread sympathy, the Courant noting that his “unhappy end was pitied by everyone.”[11] The criminal turned folk hero. Similar stories of unrepentant behaviour, ropes snapping and crowds turning on the authorities responsible, are scattered throughout this period.

CNCS Discipline Talk.005

In an age in which the scaffold was often described as the stage for the ultimate state theatre, the plays that unfolded on it were, too frequently, farce.

In the years preceding 1868 there were two notable attempts to make a discipline of discipline; Namely, the ending of pre-execution processions and the introduction of the ‘drop’ (a collapsible trap door that, theoretically, provided a more hidden and swift form of execution). In 1783, executions in London ceased at Tyburn ending the ceremonial procession across London from Newgate Jail to Tyburn, modern-day Marble Arch. Felons were, instead, hung on a portable ‘drop’ scaffold outside the jail, where they were incarcerated.

View of an execution Newgate Jail Image Courtesy of http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/Summer11/prisons/#execution
View of an execution Newgate Jail Image Courtesy of http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/Summer11/prisons/#execution

However, neither the drop nor pre-execution processions were adopted simultaneously or indeed universally across the country. Nowhere was this disparity more apparent than in the North East. Durham was relatively pioneering, adopting both in 1816, following the building of a new jail. However, In Newcastle, despite the addition of a new prison in the late 1820s, Mark Sherwood was being hung on a rudimentary scaffold on the Town Moor as late as 1844. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1850 that a prisoner was hung without procession and by ‘the drop’ method at Newcastle’s Carliol Jail, similarly Morpeth didn’t transition until 1846.[12]

Even in spite of these adjustments, problems ensued. At the 1819 execution of John King, at Durham Crown Court, the behaviour of the crowd after his death was reported to have descended to levels that ‘would have disgraced the uncivilized tribes of Ethiopia.’ Streets were taken over by ‘parties of drunken men’ with ‘innumerable battles’ fought across the town.[13]
CNCS Discipline Talk.006

Similarly, at the final public execution in the North East, that of Matthew Atkinson at Durham in 1865, his send off was so spectacularly botched[14] by the hangman, Thomas Askern, that the MP for Carlisle, Sir Wilfred Lawson, raised it with the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. Indeed, so angered were the crowd that the hangman vowed never to return to hang in the North East, a promise he stuck to.

CNCS Discipline Talk.008

Despite, numerous attempts to bring a decorum and professionalism to the practice of state-sanctioned death; the authorities failings were still all too plain to see. The problem was not just the process. It was the public.

The result of executions like this was the passing of The Capital Punishment Amendment Act in 1868, legislating that from henceforth executions would take place out of sight behind the prison walls. It was the first time in its history that a change to the staging of execution had been applied nationwide. A once public symbol of justice was to now become a hidden horror.

As the novelist and establisher of the forerunners of the modern Police Force, Henry Fielding, had put it over 100 years earlier.

CNCS Discipline Talk.009

In the debates surrounding the enactment of private execution, considerable attention was paid to the need for outside witnesses to be admitted to the event, chiefly to mitigate against a widespread perception that people of high standing and wealth would somehow escape punishment, once removed from public sight.[16] Indicative of this was the 1777 execution at Tyburn of the Reverend William Dodd, a cause celebre of c18th society, which occasioned “a great many gossip stories about his being alive.”[17] This view was not just a relic of the eighteenth century and London society, writing on the subject in 1822 a letter in the Newcastle Magazine detailed the correspondents belief after much private investigation that, “ there was something more than old wives stories in the report.”[18]

CNCS Discipline Talk.010

The presence of select members of the public and the press, it was believed, would “provide assurance that the execution had been properly conducted.”[19] Given the prominence of these fears in the debates surrounding the legislation’s passage, it seems remarkable how ambiguous the provisions of the 1868 Act actually are, particularly regarding outside admission. All admittance to the execution itself falls under clause 3 of the Act, which makes no official mention of the newspapers.

 The sheriff charged with the execution, and the gaoler, chaplain, and surgeon of the prison, and such other officers of the prison as the sheriff requires, shall be present at the execution.Any justice of the peace for the county, borough, or other jurisdiction to which the prison belongs, and such relatives of the prisoner or other persons as it seems to the Sheriff or the visiting justices of the prison proper to admit within the prison for the purpose, may also be present at the execution.[20]

 The key here is ‘proper’. Whom the Sheriff deemed ‘proper’ was far removed from whom the public and the press believed should be there to witness.

In the case of the North East, with no express legal requirement or even a direct obligation for representatives of the press or public to be present, the Sheriff’s increasingly sought to limit access to the spectacle across the decade; A decision that raised the hackles of both.

It is to the application of this Act, in the North East of England, that we will turn next week.


[1] Newcastle Courant 2nd August 1878 p.5

[2] Newcastle Courant 2nd August 1878 p.5

[3] McGowen, “Civilizing Punishment,” 257.

[4] Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, Rogues, Thieves And the Rule of Law: The Problem Of Law Enforcement In North-East England, 1718-1820 (Routledge, 2005), 138.

[5] citing a Common Council meeting held 25th December 1705 recorded in The Common Council Books of Newcastle Upon Tyne 1699-1718 Barry Redfern, Shadow of the Gallows: Crime and Criminal Justice in and Around Newcastle Upon Tyne in the Eighteenth Century (Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2003), 29.

[6] Joel F. Harrington, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death in the Sixteenth Century (Vintage, 2014), 15.

[7] Gerald D. Robin, “The Executioner: His Place in English Society,” The British Journal of Sociology 15, no. 3 (September 1964): 234,

[8] Winter’s Gibbet Papers p.23

[9] Newcastle Courant 30th September, 1752 p.3

[10] Newcastle Courant 30th September, 1752 p.3

[11] Newcastle Courant 30th September, 1752 p.3

[12] David Bentley, Capital Punishment in Northern England 1750-1900 (Createspace Independent Pub, 2008).

[13] Durham County Advertiser August 21, 1819, 2.

[14] “At a signal from the Under-Sheriff the chaplain retired, and the drop fell. The rope, however, snapped close to the noose. The excitement among the multitude who had assembled to witness the execution was intense. The prisoner fell a distance of about 15ft, and it was thought that, if not killed, he must at all events be considerably injured from the fall.”[14]

[15] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c (A. Miller, 1751), 193.

[16] Seán McConville, English Local Prisons, 1860-1900: Next Only to Death (Psychology Press, 1995), 410.

[17] ONESIMUS, “Was Dr. Dodd Restored to Life After He Was Hanged?,” ed. W. A. Mitchell, The Newcastle Magazine 1, no. 1 (January 1822): 18.

[18] ONESIMUS, “Was Dr. Dodd Restored to Life After He Was Hanged?,” ed. W. A. Mitchell, The Newcastle Magazine 1, no. 1 (January 1822): 18.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868,” Text, accessed October 28, 2014, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/31-32/24/section/7.

Distraction 1: Hangmen – National Theatre Live


I was lucky enough last week to catch the widely lauded National Theatre production of Hangmen. Shown on a live feed at the Tyneside Cinema, as part of NT Live’s season, it was a brilliant production. Set over the eve and aftermath of the ending of execution in England, the action is set in the pub of the country’s final hangman.

In a standout cast, particular mention should go to Johnny Flynn, the fresh-faced former folk singer who seems to be appearing in increasingly high-profile acting roles. It’s hard to like a man who is successful at two very difficult things and good-looking to boot, but his performance was beguiling. Special thanks to my father who saw an advert for it at a cinema in Cornwall and tipped me off (all the more remarkable as the local cinemas in Cornwall are about 18 months behind the rest of the country). The NTLive theatre website informs me that it will be returning on the 22nd March, unfortunately not at the brilliant Tyneside, but at the Gateshead Vue cinema. Still well worth catching.

Distraction 2:  Johnny Flynn

Given the high praise for Johnny Flynn, I thought it only fair to put up one of his songs, for which he is perhaps better known. I was a big fan of his years ago and saw him live in Edinburgh when I lived there many moons back, but a plethora of posh public school boys soon washed over the folk scene and meant that similar sort of stuff was on every advert known to man and so I beat a hasty retreat and went back to the safety of the Blues and Nirvana. Having dug a track out for the purpose of the blog, though, I’ve rekindled my love of his music, this is a particular favourite. Enjoy.





2 thoughts on “Dying in Private: Execution in the North East 1868-1878 part 1

  1. Pingback: Suffering on the Scaffold: Execution and the Engine of Death. | lastdyingwords

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