The Final Executions At Newcastle Gaol

“No bell was tolled and no flag was exhibited. The prison bell did not even strike the hour of eight.”

Newcastle Evening Chronicle – Wednesday 26 November 1919

This blog was originally created for but is reproduced here with full permissions.

On the morning of Wednesday 26th November 1919, two men (Ambrose Quinn and Ernest Bernard Scott) were executed at Newcastle prison. They were to be the last two people to ever suffer that fate at the prison and although unconnected, their crimes and profiles bore many remarkable similarities.

Scott and Quinn were both 28 years of age at the time of their death and had served as a Fireman and a Mechanic in the Royal Air Force respectively. Both men were charged with the murder of their partners, in Scott’s case his sweetheart Rebecca Jane Quinn and in Ambrose’s case for the murder of his wife, Elizabeth Ann Quinn (although the victims shared a surname – another remarkablke coincidence, they were in no way related). The crimes were also remarkably similar and these details did not escape the presses attention.

“They occurred within two days of each other, were committed by men of the same age, both were due to jealousy, both took place in the open air. In both instances a razor was used, and was used in the same way….and in both cases there were witnesses, so that there was no doubt as to who committed the crime.”

Hawes Street, off Scotswood Road, where Ambrose Quinn murdered his wife Elizabeth Ann. These streets were later demolished as part of the 1960s redevelopment of the Cruddas Park area and creation of several high rise towers. Image from Ordnance Surv…
Black and white photograph of Cruddas Park flats (1965). Image courtesy of Newcastle Libraries

Although there were marked similarities between the two men and the crimes for which they were to suffer, their behaviour whilst awaiting their fates could not have been more markedly different. Numerous reports appeared in the local press detailing Scott’s unshakeable and seemingly unmoved countenance right up until his execution. Indeed, the Illustrated Police News carried a report and accompanying illustration (see below) of the crime, including the detail that whilst in prison Scott “spent his time singing, whistling and humming hymn tunes”. One prison officer told how he had come into contact with six men prior to their executions during his career, but had “never seen any one display such extraordinary calm” as Scott.

‘Murder Charge Against A Northumberland Miner’, Illustrated Police News 21st August 1919. These illustrations detailing Scott’s murder of his ‘sweetheart’, Rebecca Quinn, and subsequent imprisonment accompanied a report on his case.

Scott also wrote prolifically, whilst incarcerated, to family and friends and even several letters to the parents of Rebecca Quinn although numerous reports noted that they refused them. During visits from family members he was reported as frequently using gallows humour. The Blyth News, on detailing a visit Scott had from his brother, reported Scott as joking

“This is a good Government. They are very kind. Do you notice my new suit? But see how low it is round the neck. You know what that is for!”

As part of the research undertaken for this project we have been fortunate enough to track down some of these letters left to family members and they are available to view here.

In stark contrast, from the limited detail available we have, it would appear that Quinn was in considerable distress during his time in the prison. In one remarkable bit of information papers reported a meeting with Scott and his relatives in which he was claimed to have said (on hearing Quinn crying) “Do you hear him?; he has been at that for a fortnight. I have been constantly singing to cheer him up, but it’s no use!”

The jury that found Quinn guilty had also recommended him for mercy (a not uncommon practice) and it would appear that, despite caution from Quinn’s solicitor, there was a widespread belief that he would receive a reprieve. One report noted how the Lord Mayor of Newcastle (Walter Lee) even sent a personal telegram to the Home Office conveying the strength of sentiment publicly that Quinn would be reprieved. However, despite the efforts of petitioners, the Home Office eventually refused the request and the execution of both men was set for the morning of Wednesday 26th November. Scott was to be hanged at 8am and Quinn at 9.15am.

Double executions were a very rare occurrence in Newcastle. The last to have taken place was in 1901 when John Miller and John Robert Miller were hanged for the murder of John Ferguson and prior to that you would have to go back to the c18th. The hangman was John Ellis (in a curious twist, his very first execution as an assistant had been the Miller’s send off in 1901).

Reports noted that despite “miserable weather” a good-sized crowd was in attendance in the streets surrounding the prison from dawn onwards. There were also reports of gatherings on the nearby City Road bridge, with several horses and carriages reportedly having pulled up just prior to the hour of eight, the newspapers believed this was to try and get a glimpse of the black flag that had previously been raised following an execution (a practice that had in fact been curtailed by the House of Commons in 1902).

By the time of Quinn’s execution, the crowd had a younger composition, with one newspaper reporting that it believed it was in part made up of a number of children on their way to school (they were most likely to have been on their way to the Clergy Jubilee School which sat directly behind the prison).

Clergy Jubilee School in Carliol Square, 1968. The school, first opened in 1821 sat directly behind Newcastle Gaol. Like the gaol it was designed by John Dobson. The school was described by Hisrtorian Eneas Mackenzie as “a plain, unornamented. stone…

Ultimately, the waiting crowd for both executions were to be left disappointed as no visible signs of the execution were to be seen. One paper reported that “no bell was tolled and no flag was exhibited. The prison bell did not even strike the hour of eight.” The solemnity and secrecy with which this double execution took place was in marked contrast to the last public execution at the gaol, just over half a century prior. There was however a slight commotion minutes after Quinn’s execution, one newspaper recording that “three separate crashes of glass were heard. The crowd outside the prison came to the conclusion that some of the prisoners had broken their cell-windows by way of a demonstration, but enquiries showed that the noise was made by some workmen engaged within the prison.”

Both men were said to have met their fate with bravery and minimal fuss. Numerous reports noting that they made no final statements and submitted to the regulation pinioning (tying of wrists and ankles) with “no trouble.” At the inquest that followed their deaths the reports noted that Quinn was 5 feet 5 and weighed 137 llbs (however his military service record indicates he was actually 5 feet 2 1/8). His ‘drop’ was recorded as 7 feet 10 inches. Scott (5 ft 5 1/2ins and 151 llbs) was given a slightly shorter ‘drop’ of 7 feet 3 inches.

Following their executions both men were buried within the walls of the prison, in accordance with the law, but their resting place was to only be temporary. In 1925 when the Prison was closed the Home Office required the reinterment of all bodies buried within the prison grounds. This was to prove a far more taxing task than initially envisaged and only 12 of the fifteen bodies were ever recovered and reinterred at All Saint’s Cemetery, Jesmond. To find out more about the riddle of the missing bodies see here.  

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