Execution at Chester

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At what is now Barrel Well Hill and was once Gallows Hill in Boughton, stands the obelisk to George Marsh, an outspoken puritan preacher, from Bolton, who was burned at the stake (24 April 1555) on the north side of the road, after being questioned by the Bishop of Chester. The gallows which once stood here, close to the site of St Giles Cemetery is shown in both the Lavaux Map (1745) and earlier maps of Chester going back to that of Braun and Hogenberg (1581).

Chester's gallows were located at Boughton as shown here on the map by Braun and Hogenberg.

The Museum of Policing in Cheshire records that on May 9th 1801 "Thompson, Morgan and Clare" were the last felons to be executed at Gallows hill. Accoring to the Museum site, they were executed for burglary. However "Infamous Cheshire" records that while Thompson and Morgan were unpopular forgers who had "cheated and ruined the lives of a number of local people", John Clare had some sympathy because he had committed a relatively minor crime. At his trial, John Clare had shouted that "he would never hang" - technically he did hang, although he drowned first.

After 1801, condemned men (and women) were sent to Northgate Gaol for execution, and later, to the City Gaol. In 1868 public execution was abolished in the UK. In 1866, the County Gaol moved to Knutsford and further executions occurred there until 1912. However there was at least one private execution in Chester, that of James Banister 4th April, 1877. Others, as mentioned in various newspaper sources are listed below.

When Knutsford was commandeered by the military in 1914, condemned criminals were sent to Walton (Liverpool) or Strangeways (Manchester) for execution. The death penalty was finally, effectively abolished on 9th November 1964. Nevertheless, there remained a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth, London, until 1994, which was tested every six months until 1992. This gallows is now housed in the National Justice Museum in Nottingham.

This article does not contain an exhaustive list of executions at Chester but lists some of the more interesting cases. Larger lists of those who were executed at Chester can be found in the links.

Executions and the Amphitheatre?

It is likely that the Romans used the Amphitheatre for executions, but very little is known about these. Excavations at Leicester have led some to suggest that people may have been thrown to lions. Roman law sanctioned the execution of criminals and prisoners of war in the arena through the public spectacle of throwing them to wild beasts; defined by the Latin term "damnatio ad bestias". Otherwise, direct evidence for violent spectacles in Roman Britain is otherwise extraordinarily scarce, a rare exception being the puncture wound inflicted by a large carnivore on the pelvis of a male skeleton from Roman York. A stone block was discovered during excavation at the Amphitheatre and one theory holds that this was used as a tethering point, possibly for those being "thrown to the dogs".

Being a military base, some executions may have been brought about by military dicipline. The death penalty was a rarely used punishment for desertion, mutiny or insubordination. In cases where execution might be considered, factors such as the soldier's length of service, his rank, previous conduct, age, etc. were taken into account. Special consideration was given to young soldiers. Following a court-martial sentence for desertion or dereliction of duty, the soldier would be stoned, or beaten to death by cudgels, in front of the assembled troops, by his fellow soldiers.

Signage at the Amphitheatre suggests that Gildas (who could not have written left handed as shown) worked at Bangor on Dee - it is almost certainly wrong. The question as to whether the Amphitheatre was the site of the martyrdom of Julius and Aaron is also undecided - if they even existed.

Revolts by the troops in Britain were quite commonplace, usually setting up a brief "British Emperor". However it is not known whether there were significant punishments inflicted on legions which had chosen the "wrong side". Other executions could have been due to religious persecutions. One theory for the extra-mural location of St Johns is that it was built on a site near where early christians were martyred. Post holes of at least a relatively late Roman date have been found within the amphitheatre and there has been some conjecture that these were the location of the supports for a platform possibly used for punishments following a revolt or for religious persecution. They could also be the remains of an early post-roman structure on the site.

Executions at Gallows Hill

In the Middle-Ages, the legal position of Chester was somewhat peculiar, and the Gloverstone standing close to the entrance to Chester Castle which was an important boundary marker between the separate jurisdictions of the city and the county. In 1651, the Chester Castle was described as follows:

  • "At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a drawbridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come, and herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glover's Stone from which place the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton."

Another sources attests that petty criminals and "vagabonds" were handed over:

  • "at glovers stoune to such officer of the Cittie of Chester, in and from hence to whipp them through the the Cittie"
Gallows Hill is not so much a hill as a slope down to the River Dee. The obelisk is the monument to George Marsh.

This tradition was still extant in the 19th Century, when it was described by the prison reformer Howard (see: The State of the Prisons in Britain, 1775-1905). Further reference to the "Glover's Stone" in some kind of judicial/administrative context is found in the Diaries of Roger Whitley for October 1686. The citizens of the city of Chester therefore were charged with the excecution of the condemned of the county of Cheshire. Thus, from time immemorial it had been the unpleasant duty of the two Sheriffs of the City of Chester to execute all criminals condemned to death by the Palatine Courts, not only in the City but also in the County; although when the body of any criminal was ordered to be hanged in chains in any part of the County the gibbeting was carried out by the Sheriff of the County.

Just how this peculiar administration of executions came about is not entirely clear and indeed there are some conflicting theories (see the paper by R. Stuart Brown, linked below). The separation of the City and the County date back to at least the "Great Charter" of Henry VII (1506) which constituted the City as a county in its own right, but retained Chester Castle and a small neighbouring area as part of the Palatine County. Another possible start date in at the time of the Black Prince (1320). One possible reason is that the City authorities disliked the County sheriffs having any authority within the City.

The standard execution procedure at Chester was that a clergyman was appointed to accompany the condemned through the city to the "hanging-tree" at Boughton, which was close of the outer limits of the city administration. A spiritual counsellor was supposed to keep the convicted man or woman calm. They were also there to reassure the crowd that any repentance speech was genuine. The clergy had to attempt to bring about a final confession, being duty-bound to persuade the prisoner to atone for murder to cleanse their soul. That confessional was written down and then printed as an intended moral lesson. Due legal process had to be seen to attend to the prisoner’s spiritual needs and protect the well-being of provincial society.

George Marsh is executed by burning at Boughton.

Some early executions were:

1554: George Marsh burnt at Spital, Boughton. Marsh's execution is covered in detail elsewhere on this site, but was somwwhat botched, with the fire being too small and at one point almost running out of fuel. Mary I ordered hundreds of Protestants burnt at the stake during her reign (1553–58) in what would be known as the "Marian Persecutions" earning her the epithet of "Bloody" Mary;

1558: Sept. 8th. A woman burnt at Boughton for poisoning her husband. Buring at the stake was the traditional punishment for women convicted of treason. There were two types of treason: high treason, for crimes against the sovereign; and petty treason, for the murder of one's lawful superior, including that of a husband by his wife.

1589: John Taylor – Gaoler of Chester Castle. He had been found guilty of the murder of Mr. Hockenhaff, a Catholic prisoner in his custody for recusancy. Taylor would have been executed by the "short drop" method, where the prisoner was stood on a cart, a rope placed around their neck and the cart caused to move away. This did not break the neck and caused death by strangulation which could take several minutes.

1592: William Geaton – servant to the Bishop of Chester – his body hung on chains on Grappenhall Heath. His crime was the murder of James Findlove, s Scottish peddler. "Gibbeting" refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the bodies of criminals were hanged on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. Often this was done at or near the scene of the crime, which may have been some distance from the place of execution.

1602: Elizabeth Duncalfe who used the poison "Ratbane" in "oatcakes" in an attempt to poison her husband, John Caldwell. A neighbours child of 6 or 7 came into the house to collect some kindling for their own fire, and John Caldwell gave her some of the cake. She soon became unwell, went home, and there died. Others in the Caldwell house were taken ill, but by vomiting purged themselves of the poison, and their lives were saved, including John Caldwell. It was reported that 2 dogs and a cat ate some of the vomit, and they also died. Her accomplice, Jeffrey Bownde was pressed to death at Chester Castle when he refused to plead. Ratbane is most likely a reference to arsenic trioxide which is known to cause vomiting.

1602: Arnet servant to Mr Manley of Saltney Side hung for the murder of another servant. Hemingway records a list of those executed in Chester in his history of the city and of Arnet writes:

  • "1601, At Michaelmas fair, one Arnet, servant to Mr Manly of Saltney side, cruelly murdered one of bis fellows near unto his master's house, first by cutting bis throat with a knife and afterwards, missing his windpipe, he ripped up bis belly with the same knife so that bis bowels fell out, and leaving him for dead went home without taking any money from him as be first intended; the dying man notwithstanding came home wrapping bis bowels together in his shirt and lived until he had made known who killed him. The murderer was hanged in chains the year following near to the place where the deed was done."

1673: John Plessington - who shares a monument with George Marsh.

1750: Delaney and Johnson for a murder on the road to Parkgate to take ship for Ireland. They were found guilty, and hanged at Boughton on September 22nd. On the same day, the two bodies were hung up in chains near the Two Mills on the heath. Although it was said locally that the gibbet was made on an ash tree, the Sherrif’s accounts of 1750 show that for the allowance was made for timber and other ironwork for a "strong gibbet thirty six feet high", at a cost of £25 and 5 shillings. Also a charge of £5 5 shillings for "transporting the bodies several miles".

One of the provisions of the Murder Act of 1752 begins with the mandate that “in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried,” resulting in a strange period of posthumous punishment during which the bodies of murderers were to be hung in chains or dissected after execution. Following the passage of the Anatomy Act 1832, which was intended to curb the activity of "body snatchers", it was confirmed that not only were the convicted hung, but they were also disected - often in public.

1763: Mary Heald

Even into quite recent times Arsenic was remarkably easy to get hold of. In 2015, the author was able to buy a chunk of arsenic sulphide as a "mineral sample" in a gift shop in Caernafon.

A quaker from Tatton near Knutsford, was convicted of the murder of her husband, Samuel. She put arsenic in his "fleetings", a form of milk curds, and was committed to the castle at Chester, and then found guilty. She was "burnt to death" but strangled first. The Courant newspaper reported the events as follows:

  • "Chester, April 26th. In our last issue were mention'd the trial and condemnation of Mary Heald; as also, that the judges had been pleased to respite her execution until Saturday, the 23'd inst. Accordingly, soon after ten of the clock in the forenoon of that day, the sheriffs of Chester, with their attendants, came to Gloverstone [neutral ground between City and Castle, just outside the latter's main gate], where the gaoler of the Castle deliver'd to them the said Mary Heald; who, pursuant to sentence, was drawn from thence in a sledge, through the city to Spital Boughton; where after due time having been allowed for her private devotion, she was affixed to a stake, on the north side of the great road, almost opposite to the gallows: and having been first strangled, faggots, pitch barrels, and other combustibles, were properly placed all around her, and the fire being lighted up, her body was consumed to ashes. This unhappy woman behaved with much decency, and left an authentick written declaration, confessing her crime and expressing much penitence and contrition."

The Assembly Records note the expenses:

  • "Upon reading the petition of Sheriffs John Drake and Wm Dicas for 12 pounds,16 shillings and 8 pence expenses for the execution of Mary Heald, who was burned at Spittle Boughton on Saturday 23 April (1763) for the murder (by poisoning) of her husband, which exceeded those normally disbursed by the Sheriffs for the common execution of felons and malefactors, the Treasurer was orderedd to pay the same."

It seems strange to think that the first local newspaper was in circulation before the last "buring at the stake", but she was the last person to be burnt at Chester.

1766 saw whole cluster of hangings at Boughton: Peter Steers, for the murder of his wife, by poison; Edward Holt, for a burglary at Knutsford; Thomas Buckley, age 20, for a burglary at Chester; Thomas Hyde, aged 35, for horse stealing and James Buckley, aged 22, for a burglary in Mrs. Lloyd’s house in Newgate Street, Chester. The Steers case has some features of interest. First, he complained of illness and sought out the services of a surgeon and apothecary in Knutsford, which was some distance from his home while other medical services were available nearer his residence. He told the surgeon (Bellingham) his name was "Heald" (Mary Heald was a noted poisoner just four years earlier) and that he came from Mobberley. Either at the same time, or shortly thereafter, Steers obtained some arsenic from the surgeon. On 20th November he made some "fermaty" for his family and his wife ate only a little of hers as it tasted odd. She still died. Unfortunately Bellingham remembered him and gave evidence against Steers that he had used a false name, obtained arsenic and that his wife had died of it.

1767: William Bostock and Mary Newton

Bostock was a salt boiler from Middlewich, who on the death of his son, took his daughter in law, Sarah, as a housekeeper. Some time later she discovered she was pregnant, and it was then that Bostock was found guilty of poisoning. Sarah’s sister was a chief witness at his trial, and Bostock furiously stated that he would in the short time he had left would "contrive to do for thee". He was hanged at Boughton two days later, and his body given to the surgeons at the Infirmary for dissection.

Mary was a servant girl who lived with her employers, Mr And Mrs Torkington and their 2 year old son.Mary was convicted of poisoning Ann Torkington, who recovered, and their son, who did not, by putting arsenic in their posset. Mary claimed that John Torkington asked her to buy ‘two pennworth of arsenick’ which he then put into the possett. He told Mary that he would marry her once his wife was dead. John Torkington was also arrested after Mary, and taken to Chester Castle, but there is no record yet of what became of him. Mary was tried and sentenced to death, but on account of being heavily pregnant, the execution was postponed until a month and a day after the birth of the child. She was then hanged.

1771: John Chapman

The courtroom facts were that Chapman was a sailor. He was according to some versions convicted of homicide after a port brawl and in others for the robbery of a Martha Hewitt. Throughout the capital hearing he protested his innocence. It was rumoured that the trial evidence that convicted him was decidedly circumstantial. His fellow sailors thought him innocent and were angry at the death-sentence verdict. The following account appeared in the "Annual Register":

  • "The following is an account of John Chapman, who was executed here for robbing Martha Hewitt, of this county. At the hour appointed he was conducted to the place of execution by a greater number of constables than usual, as there was some suspicion of a rescue by the vast concourse of sailors (he being one of that profession) that accompanied him. On his setting out, a book was put into his hand by the hangman, which he no sooner received than he threw among his brother shipmates, as he termed them; and they immediately tore it to pieces. A clergyman then got into the cart, and exhorted him to behave with more decency, and to think of his sudden change; but instead of attending to this admonition, he got up in the cart, and (being pinioned) drove his head in the clergyman's belly, and tumbled him out of the cart. After this he flung himself out, and attempted to run into the midst of the sailors, but was prevented by the irons with which he was loaded. He was then seized and tied by ropes in the cart, and in that manner was tied to the fatal tree. At his arrival there he refused either to hear prayers or to pray himself; therefore two men, together with the hangman, attempted to lift him up, to fix the rope about his neck, in doing of which, he by some means got the hangman's thumb in his mouth, which he almost separated from the hand: he was at last tied up, but with great difficulty"

1774: Elizabeth Hyne

According to the Shrewsbury Chronicle:

  • "for the wilful Murder of new-born Male Baftard Child, which delivered herfelf of, and immediately cut its Throat."

Infanticide (as a crime) gained both popular and bureaucratic significance in Victorian Britain. By the mid-19th century, in the context of criminal lunacy and the insanity defence, killing one's own child(ren) attracted ferocious debate, as the role of women in society was defined by motherhood, and it was thought that any woman who murdered her own child was by definition insane and could not be held responsible for her actions. Several cases were subsequently highlighted during the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864–66, as a particular felony where an effective avoidance of the death penalty had informally begun.

Executions at Chester attracted much public interest. As well as broadsheets for each execution, there were press articles, pamphlets, ballads and even publications of poems implied to have been written by the convicted party.

1776: James Knight

James Knight was convicted of suspicion of stealing a cask of rum valued at £3, and was sentenced to 7 years transportation. With the development of colonies, transportation was introduced as an alternative punishment to execution, although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself. However, whilst awaiting his sentence at Chester Castle, there was a breakout – and he was re-captured and sentenced to death, and subsequently executed. Whether the outbreak of the Amercican Revolutionary war (which halted transportation for a few years) had any effect on the sentence is unknown.

1777: Samual Thorley

When the dismembered body of Ann Smith, an itinerant ballad singer was found in Howty Brook, which ran through Preisty Fields between Astbury and Congleton, suspicion soon fell upon a local, Samual Thorley. The body parts were recovered and re-assembled in a local barn and it became evident that it was incomplete. Thorley was not the brightest, and had shown a great deal of interest in the search for and finding of the various body parts, and was also a "butcher's follower" (one employed to hack up carcases). He also helped out on occasion as a gravedigger at Ashbury church. On the night of the murder he was seen with his usual bloody apron, and was also wet up to the waist, unusual especially in the cold November weather. He visited a Mrs Oakes, and gave her a piece of meat which he said was pork to cook, and Thorley cooked it himself the following day, although he did not eat it as it appeared to be off, it had made him violently ill. Mrs Oakes decided to keep the meat for boiling up for grease, although it was found to be human flesh by a surgeon called in by the local police. Thorley was arrested. There were sufficient doubts about his intelligence at the trial to set a test to see whether he was sufficiently compos mentis to stand trial. Thorley was set to count a score of nails and having succeeded in the task was thought to be a sufficiently competent candidate for the gallows.

At his trial Thorley was asked the question on every body’s lips, why? His reply was almost as chilling as the deed itself:

  • "I heard that human flesh tasted like young pig, I wished to find out if this was true."

He was hanged on April 10th 1777, and his body was gibbetted the following day at West Heath, Congleton. He is known as the Congleton Cannibal.

1784: Elizabeth Wood

She had baked a veal pie for her husband, James Simister, and had been shown to have bought arsenic recently. The body of James Simister was found to have contained a rough powder, which would be proved to be arsenic, according to early tests.

1778: Sarah Sant

Convicted for the murder of her bastard child, she was hanged on 12th September, 1778. Her mother Mary Sant was also tried on the charge of murder and was aquitted; she returned home and hanged herself in her house.

1789: Thomas Mate

Thomas Mate, aged 64 was beating his wife so severely that his wife, her face all bloody, begged her Handbridge neighbours to call for help. Two neighbours went to the Magistrate who immediately sent four constables to the house with a warrant to arrest Thomas Mate. The four had to break in the door, and proceeded to the upstairs room where Mate was. A gun was fired, and Constable John Parry fell to the floor, and within minutes was dead. He was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. On the scaffold he denounced his prosecutors, and blamed his wife for her infidelity, despite her being nearly seventy years of age. He was, according to the Chester Chronicle "a lamentable instance of human depravity".

1790: John Dean

John Dean had returned home very late from the public house, and began to shout at his wife. The lodger, Mary Bell, and the couple’s son began to try to calm the situation, but had to leap from a window to save them selves. Mary fetched Constable Thornley, who went to the house with assistance, and found the victim’s body seemed like ‘one big wound’. A surgeon was called for, but could do nothing to save her; she was found to be pregnant and tried a caesarean operation, but the baby was dead also. John Dean’s body was handed over for dissection after his execution, and his body also ordered to be hung in chains.

Gallows Hill, as its name suggests, was the Tyburn of Chester and the exact location may well be the small park near the house "Edgeley". A wealth of gory detail can be found in Roy Wilding's book 'Death in Chester'. The following tale about the gallows is found in Joseph Hemingway's History of the City of Chester - written in 1831:

  • "About the centre of this elegant group of buildings, thirty years ago, stood that memento mori to the passing traveller, vulgarly called the gallows, where many of our unfortunate fellow creatures have forfeited their lives to the violated laws of their country. A short time prior to this period, this terrific engine of death had its station exactly on the opposite side of the road, which, on account of its elevated situation, received the appellation of Gallows Hill, which, hy a precipitate descent, and without an inclosure, went down to the Dee. There is an incident connected with this place of execution worthy of recording. In May, 1801, as three malefactors, convicted of burglary at the spring assizes, were conveying to execution in a cart, one of them, named Clare, when opposite the gallows, and just when the vehicle was turning, gave a sudden spring, and threw himself upon the top of the precipice descending to the river, and jumped, rolled, and tumbled along till he was precipitated into it. The weight of his irons sunk him to the bottom, and before he could be brought up, life was entirely extinct. Although the unfortunate fellow thus evaded the letter of his sentence, in escaping being hanged by the neck till he was dead, yet the finisher of the law was unwilling to forego his official duty, and the dead body of the criminal was tied up after his breath had departed. The most afflictive part of the tragedy was, that the two poor men who were in a like condemnation, were kept in a state of awful suspense until the dead carcase of the drowned man was tied up beside them."

The Museum of Policing in Cheshire records that on May 9th 1801 "Thompson, Morgan and Clare" were indeed executed for burglary. However "Infamous Cheshire" records that while Thompson and Morgan were unpopular forgers who had "cheated and ruined the lives of a number of local people", John Clare had some sympathy because he had committed a relatively minor crime. At his trial, John Clare had shouted that "he would never hang" - technically he did hang, although he drowned first.

"Thompson, Morgan and Clare" was the last public execution at Gallows Hill.

A panoramic view of St Giles Cemetery at Boughton in Chester. This was sometimes the final resting place of those executed at nearby Gallows Hill.

Executions at Northgate

The original Northgate from a drawing by Randle Holme III. The City Treasurer's accounts for 1569 contain an entry which reads: "for making the north-gate bridge new, great joists, thick planks £4/3s/2p".

After 1801, condemned men (and women) were sent to Northgate Gaol for execution. Hemingway describes the older Northgate as follows:

  • This ancient gate adjoining which was a mean and ruinous gaol was an inconvenient and unseemly pile of building It consisted of a dark narrow passage under a pointed arch with a postern on the east side and the entrance to the prison Immediately under the gate way at the depth of some thirty feet from the level of the street was a horrible dungeon to which the only access of air was through pipes which communicated with the street In this frightful hole prisoners under sentence of death were confined itself a living death.

Very few executions took place at Northgate. On October 3rd 1801 Aaron Gee and Thomas Gibson were hung out of a temporary window on the south side of the old Northgate. It was a somewhat makeshift gallows, they were "propelled from the window about 5 feet and dropped near 40 inches", then proceeded to annoy the jaillor by rattling against his window and breaking the glass. Thereafter, executions moved to the City Gaol (where the Queen's School is).

In the early nineteenth century, much of the news of England's murders and executions was brought to the masses through penny and half-penny "broadsides". As one of the most popular forms of street literature, broadsides were the tabloid newspapers of their day, selling near the gallows on execution days. A single sheet of paper printed on one side, the broadside usually included an account of the crime, a woodcut illustration (often a scene depicting the execution), a description of the convict’s final hours and his last dying confession. The latter was often given in the form of a cautionary verse, emphasising the sorrow of the convict and warning readers of the dangers of drink and bad company. The broadsides were printed in advance of executions and so were often innaccurate. Many, if not all, of the gallows speeches and confessions reported were completely fictional, while some printers even reused entire texts, changing only the names. Woodcuts could be reused as the occasion demanded, and stock illustrations of the gallows even had a removable section designed to accommodate the required number of hanging bodies!

The only relic of the gaol which has been retained at Northgate is the "Bridge of Sighs". The bridge cost £20 ($30) to build in 1793, and was designed by Joeseph Turner. It originally went from the Prison to a nearby chapel (in St John's Hospital) and had iron railings to prevent the prisoners from escaping. During WWII the metal railings were removed to be melted down (like many others) as a source of metal (but were never used). It is described by Ronald Leigh in his memories recorded at the The Museum of Policing in Cheshire as follows:

  • Prisons unfortunately always seem to be necessary in any form of communal life and Chester seems to be no exception. No doubt the Romans had one but this is no longer apparent. However the site at the one at the Northgate is still on record. It forms part of the actual Northgate and the dungeons were in the sandstone rock of its foundations. The place of execution was also in the jail itself and prisoners before their execution were taken outside the walls to the church of Little St. John, which stood on or near the present site of the Blue Coat building. It was found that whilst taking this last walk, friends of such prisoners frequently staged attempts to free them. In order to foil such attempts by these footpads thieves and felons, the authorities in 1793 built the small bridge which can still be seen, less its protecting railway between the City walls in the west side of Northgate over the moat/canal to the Blue Coat school.

The name of the bridge is taken from the same-named bridge in Venice which passes over the Rio di Palazzo, and connects the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace. The one in Venice dates from 1600.

The City Gaol which replaced Northgate Gaol. The Infirmary in to the left.

Executions at City Gaol

The gaol is often said to be one of the first to install a 'drop', or mechanical gallows. The gallows originally stood high on the front of the building where they were used for the public hangings of Chester criminals. The grisly scenes of death attracted large, ghoulish crowds. There is an old saying in Chester: "Five days racing, one day hanging" which refers to the fact that executions often followed a Race Meeting and these meetings only swelled the crowds.

The City Gaol was erected in 1807. It ceased to be a gaol in 1871 and prisoners moved to the County Gaol at the Castle. The first execution here was on 6th May 1809 when George Glover and William Proudlove were hung for shooting at (and missing) an excise officer. The drop was used for the first time and the ropes broke, leaving the two still alive. New ropes were procured and the sentence carried out about 1 hour later. Apparently, the two condemned men remained remarkably calm during their wait for their repeat performance, and did not pretend innocence proven by "divine intervention" (the present author would have!). Contrary to popular belief, there is no actual provision in English law that if the rope breaks or the trap jams you get set free. However there were a very few cases where a sentence was commuted after a failed hanging - but none in Chester.

1810: John Done, Smith & Clark

John Done, was executed May 2nd for the murder of Betty Eckersly, a "woman of bad character" at Lymm. He denied the offence to his last moment. The body was to be delivered to Griffith Rowlands, Surgeon, for dissection. The Manchester Mercury, 8 May 1810 reported:

  • "... was taken in a cart, from the Castle, and about ten minutes past two o'clock was launched into eternity from the drop at the back of the new gaol, in that city."

He was followed by the executions of Smith & Clark (October 1st) for burglary & felony in the shop of Mr. Fletcher, a watchmaker of Eastgate Street. The conduct of Smith on the drop "was exceedingly unbending and audacious", and the night before his execution he played at cards with some of his companions. Not being murderers they were buried in St Martin's churchyard rather than being dissected.

1812: John Lomas

Hemingway appears to have published a tract about Dale, using his newspaper to advertise it in advance.

Edith Morrey was born Edith Coomer and married George Morrey, a farmer’s son on Tuesday the 18th of April 1797 at St. Chad’s Church in Wybunbury in southern Cheshire. She was then about nineteen years old and the daughter of a well to do farmer. Initially the marriage was happy and they settled in the Cheshire town of Nantwich. George opened a grocery store there and the couple made a reasonable living over the next four years. In early 1801 they returned to the village of Hankelow, near Audlem to take over George’s father’s farm when he retired. They were blessed with seven children, three boys and four girls, although one of the girls died in infancy. George tended the farm whilst Edith made cheese for sale locally and looked after the family. They had a maid, Hannah Evans who had been with them nearly a year and a twenty year old farmhand called John Lomas who had just joined them. At this time Edith was once again pregnant but was to have a miscarriage in February 1812. We have no means of knowing Edith’s emotional state at the time, so soon after a miscarriage, but it was quite possibly rather fragile. For whatever reason Edith quickly fell for John and they began having an affair. Over the next two months or so Edith started to think in terms of marrying this young man, some fifteen years her junior, however there was one obvious impediment, George. No doubt Edith was not prepared to give up her children and comfortable life style by simply running away with John, nor was she willing to face the social disgrace that this course of action entailed at the time. So another way had to be found to keep John’s affections and rid themselves of George. Edith determined that John should kill George and afterwards they could be together. On Saturday the 11th of April 1812 George had been to Witton Wakes, a major fair in Northwich and did not return home until midnight. Edith and Hannah Evans were still up at this time and George had supper before he and Edith retired to bed. Hannah went a little later after she had cleared away the supper. Hannah was soon awakened though, by the sounds of a commotion from inside the house. She and John Lomas ran to the house of a neighbour to raise the alarm. The pair then returned to the farm with a couple of neighbours, Thomas Timmis and John Moores. The two men found Edith sitting by the fireplace and then opened the door into George’s bedroom where they made a grim discovery. George was laying face down on the floor with an axe handle projecting from underneath him. He had several axe wounds and in addition had had his throat cut, so there was blood everywhere.

Edith and John stood trial on Friday August the 21st before Chief Justice Robert Dallas and Francis Burton, a more junior judge. They were both charged with Petty Treason rather than murder, as the deceased was the husband of one defendant and the master of the other. The jury returned a verdict of guilty against both prisoners after just a few minutes discussion. Judge Dallas then addressed both of them, suggesting that although he believed that John had actually carried out the killing it was Edith whose guilt was the greater for planning and organising the destruction of her husband. Asked if had anything further to say before he was sentenced John told the court that he deserved his execution and hoped to be quickly forgotten. On Edith’s behalf John Cross told the court that she was pregnant and thus could not be sentenced to death at this time.

John’s hanging took place on Monday the 24th of August 1812. He spent sometime with the chaplain, the Reverend William Fish, before being led out up to the roof for his appointment with Cheshire’s hangman, Samuel Burrows. A large crowd had gathered to witness the event and the usual broadsides were sold. John made a short speech from the gallows warning others not to follow his example. His body was dissected after death by Owen Titley at the Infirmary next door to the gaol.

Another broadsheet about execution in Chester. Philip McGowan was executed for robbery and Abraham Stones for robbing Mr Marsden, a gentleman of upwards of 70yrs of age near Cow Lane Bridge. On this occasion the apparatus for execution was removed from the east to the west of the city gaol

1812: Edith Morrey

Four months after John Lomas's execution Edith Morrey gave birth in Chester City Gaol to a healthy boy on 21 December 1812. Local newspapers reported that she hoped for a pardon so her seven children would not be orphaned. Samuel Burrows the Cheshire hangman was not minded to be merciful to a murderess. As instructed, he executed Edith at the spring Assizes of 1813 and sent her baby for adoption. The Times newspaper described how ‘ten thousand people’ assembled for her execution and "post‐mortem punishments", timetabled in tandem:

  • "On Friday morning at 12 o'clock this wretched woman was delivered by Mr Hudson, constable of Chester Castle into the hands of Messrs Thomas and Bennett, the City Sheriff for execution …; she got into the cart, and immediately laid down on one side, concealing her face with her handkerchief, which she had invariably done in public … She was very much convulsed for a few minutes when her pangs ceased in this world. After hanging the usual time, her body was delivered to the surgeons for dissection, and was open to public inspection during all Saturday."

In this case, Edith Morrey's body was hanged at Chester Gaol and then sent next door to Chester Infirmary. Owen Titley initially opened ‘her [Edith's] thorax and abdomen and removed her heart for preservation’ (he had done the same for Lomas). The penal surgeon was effectively checking that the prisoner was dead and had not survived the gallows. Then he sewed the body back up and sent it back to the Shire Hall courthouse. On the way it was accompanied by a huge parade of local people. Edith's body was brought inside the main entrance and placed on a portable dissection table. The public space was carefully chosen in the community both for its legal symbolism and for the practical reason that it could accommodate the large audience assembled to see the post‐mortem cuts. In the main hall, the body was left open for public consumption over the next twenty‐four hours. Local people filed past the criminal corpse in two orderly queues. The throughput of audience members was calculated by local newspaper reporters to be ‘four hundred and sixteen people per hour’ – on average seven spectators a minute – to ensure that ‘all ten thousand spectators’ had a chance to view the criminal corpse. They were permitted to look but not touch, and were directed to keep moving along Edith's cadaver, down two sides of the dissection table. The next day, the Shire Hall doors were closed, and the criminal corpse was moved back to Chester Infirmary to complete a full‐scale dissection conducted by Owen Titley.

1813: William Wilkinson, John Burgess, William Yarwood

All from Northwich in Cheshire, they were hanged together for the rape of Mary Porter at Runcorn in Cheshire. The crime was committed on the 15th of January 1813. One George Randles was on the shore line when he heard a woman scream “Murder” and “O Lord help me.” He went before a justice and made a deposition of what he had seen and heard. The trio were arrested and duly came to trial at the Shire Hall in the outer bailey of Chester Castle. They were loaded into a cart and arrived at the City Gaol around 12.20 pm. The New Drop gallows was erected on the flat roof of the gatehouse. At 1.10 pm. they ascended the scaffold, Wilkinson first. Samuel Burrows, Chester’s hangman applied the noose to him as he addressed the crowd. Burgess was next but he was reportedly quiet and reserved. Finally Yarwood joined them and exhorted the crowd not to mix with bad women. It seems, as is so often still the case, that they blamed the victim, Mary Porter, for their crime. The Rev. Mr. Willan prayed with the men for some time until Yarwood gave the signal by dropping a handkerchief and Samuel Burrows released the trap, launching them into eternity, as was the parlance of the time. As they were not murderers their bodies were returned to their families after hanging for an hour.

1823: Samuel Fallows

Fallows was executed on the 14 April 1823 for the murder of his girlfriend Betty Shawcross. She was found with her throat cut by a razor. It seems it was not that she had spurned him, but that he owed her money for the upkeep of the child they had between them.He had also made another woman, Mary Coup, pregnant, and had promised to marry her. He had, reported the Manchester Mercury, a "closeness of disposition in money matters", but reportedly offered the Constable of the Castle £1000 to aid his escape. He was hanged in an old blue coat, as he did not want the hangman (Burrows) to profit from his suit. His body was subjected to "Galvanic experiments" after it had been left for longer than the customary hour, in the Castle.

1824: Joseph Dale

Hemingway's tract about Dale. This was published after his execution rather than being one of the hasty broadsheets available on the day.

Dale was executed for his part in the death of William Wood on the road between Whaley Bridge and Disley in 1823. The spot is marked by a stone on which is inscribed: "WILLIAM WOOD EYAM DERBYSHIRE HERE MURDERED JULY 16TH A.D. 1823 PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD". No evidence appearing to identify the murderers was offered at the inquest and the Jury returned a verdict of wilful murder, against some person or persons unknown. However it then became clear that three young men had arrived in Macclesfield with enough money to buy three completely new sets of clothes and a considerable quantity of food and drink. They left their old clothes which were later found to be bloodstained. Eventually the police managed to arrest one of them, who committed suicide in custody. Dale was later caught at Liverpool, and claimed that while he was with the other two before and after, they were the murderers and he was in a public house when the murder was carried out.

19-year-old Joseph Dale, a man described in court as “a very peaceable, quite lad, always good tempered, and kind to his parents”, was executed according to the custom that he was handed over from the county jail to the city jail for execution. Early as was his removal from the County gaol to the city, many persons were there to witness his transit, and with as many as came within his reach he cordially shook hands, bidding them an affectionate farewell. He did not appear so badly in health as was generally expected. Dale always claimed innocence having met two others while travelling, Taylor and Platt, who he claimed were the actual murderers of a fourth man they met on the road. After hanging one hour, the body was cut down, and subsequently delivered to the surgeons for dissection. The case was extensively reported in the newspapers.

1834: Samuel Thorley

Samuel Thorley was a a gardener, and nursery and seedsman in Northwich and the great-nephew of the Congleton Cannibal of the same name. In 1833 he spent the early part of the year preparing for his marriage to Mary Pemberton, a 21 year-old servant girl from Leftwich and his sweetheart. There are variouis accounts of what happened but they evidently fell out over something (most likely her discovery of his illegitimate children) and he slit her throat almost severing her head. He then walked to Chester Castle and gave himself up, was tried, and hanged.

1841: Bartholomew Murray

Bartholomew Murray was found guilty of killing a retired farmer and his wife with an axe following a lengthy trial at Chester's court. Joseph Cooke and his wife Mary Cooke, described as an "aged couple", lived in Over Peover, near Knutsford. During one harvest Mr Cooke employed labourers to work the farm - one of which was Murray, who was reportedly only 18 at the time of the murder. The labourers worked in a meadow near the couple's home, and one witness told the court that while working, Murray had asked him: "Are these old people rich?," to which the worker replied yes. Following his work at the Cookes', Murray travelled in search of further work. Around a fortnight later he made his way back to Knutsford. One night later Joseph and Mary Cooke were murdered with an axe under mysterious circumstances.

A 15-year-old girl had been sleeping upstairs when the Cookes were murdered, and woke after hearing their screams. She then heard the murderer come into her room and watch her in bed, to make sure she had not woken. After staring at her he then left her room, satisfied that she had not been disturbed. Unsurprisingly, the girl couldn't go back to sleep due to the moans of the couple downstairs. Going downstairs, she saw before her the couple lying on the floor in their own blood - and an axe left on the table. Murray was connected to the murder when bits of burned paper were discovered later that day, implicating his name in the incident. A sudden improvement in Murray's finances following the murder sealed his fate in the eyes of the jury, who provided a swift guilty verdict. The 18-year-old was executed at Chester on April 24, 1841, to a crowd made up mostly of "respectably-attired females".

1843: James Ratcliffe

James Ratcliffe, who was around 58, was a tobacconist by trade and became an alcoholic. In an attempt to flee from her drunkard husband, his wife then moved away from Ratcliffe, with help from their son. Elizabeth, Ratcliffe's wife, took up residence in Stockport but did not tell her husband where she lived. Ratclliffe soon discovered the address, and waited outside the home of a neighbour until he saw his wife enter her property. He then feigned illness so that she would take him some water. When she did bring the water to him, he sprung up and stabbed her with a knife he had hidden in his sleeve. The woman's injuries were so severe that she died from them the next day. Ratcliffe was executed for the murder of his wife on September 2, 1843 in front of a crowd of 2000 people.

Broadsheet about the life and dearh of Mary Gallop. The section showing the actual hanging is must likely printed from a replacable block that could provide the correct number of bodies.

1844: Mary Gallop

Mary was a Sunday School teacher from Monk’s Coppenhall near Crewe, who’s father disapproved of the man she loved. Following an angry argument, she bought some arsenic and poisoned her father. Between October 21 and November 2, 1844 Mary Gallop bought numerous amounts of arsenic from someone named only as Thomas, with the alleged purpose of being used to destroy rats. Arsenic was a favourite of Victorian poisoners. Because the symptoms are similar to those of cholera, which was common at the time, arsenic poisoning often went undetected. By the 19th century, it had acquired the nickname "inheritance powder," perhaps because impatient heirs were known or suspected to use it to ensure or accelerate their inheritances. Arsenic was widely available and is reputed to have a slightly sweet taste meaning its presence could be disguised with sugar. The chemist James Marsh developed an improved test for it in 1836. So sensitive was the test that it could detect as little as one-fiftieth of a milligram of arsenic.

The Bishop of Chester wrote that Mary Gallop should be trasported and found work as a Sunday School teacher.

Reportedly, her father (Richard Gallop) was something of a bully, according to one theory resulting in his wife and the mother of Mary taking her own life. Upon the death pf her mother Maty herself apparently became the focus of her father's cruelty. A part of her defence at trial was that Mary's mother had been deemed 'insane' while she was pregnant with her. As insanity was thought to be hereditary it was believed that this could be a possible cause for the woman's actions.

The jury deliberated for five minutes, finding her guiltly but recommending clemency. A petition, an abridged version of which was published in The Welshman, was put forward and signed by the Bishop of Chester along with other members of the clergy. Among the reasons put forward for Gallop's sentence to be reconsidered were that it "does not appear to have been long premeditated" but "accidentally suggested to her mind" by someone in her company. The judge dismissed any calls for mercy and pronounced a death sentence.

She confessed before her execution to having tried once to poison her father by putting arsenic in a cake, which was unsuccessful, and then putting it with arrowroot, which her father himself mixed with milk and drank. She had to be carried to the gallows in a chair, as she was so distressed she was unable to walk, and as a result, the drop was too short, and she "died hard".

1856: William Jackson

As reported in the Wrexham Advertiser, William Jackson was executed at the City Gaol after:

  • "numbers of idlers were lounging in front of the prison, watching the erection of the terrible apparatus of death".

Jackson, who was staying at the Coach and Horses in Handbridge had been sent his sister's children (Mary Jane aged 7 and John aged 6) to look after, decided they would be better off dead and murdered them at "Holden's Field" off Eaton Road, hiding the bodies in a pit. His gravestone suggested the pit was located in Richard Roger’s orchard off the Old Wrexham Road. Afterwards he claimed to have picked some apples for his landlady. He confessed that:

  • "And many times did I eat my dinner with the same knife afterwards. I could not rest day nor night. I have been to the pit many times at 10 and 11 O'clock at night, and three or four times a-day"

One posssible candidate for the location of the orchard where the murders were committed was behind Greenbank Hall, on land which was owned shortly before by a John Roger, but perhaps fortunately the location is not known with certainty.

1861: Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle as illustrated in the Victorian newspapers.

The Aberdare Times reported that:

  • "..the fact that the extreme penalty of the law has not been carried into effect for many years in the case of a criminal convicted of the offence for which Doyle has suffered, the crowd was more than usually great."

They add that:

  • "The day was somewhat cloudy, but, notwithstanding the threatening aspect of the weather, the crowd was tremendous."

The Doyle case is interesting because he was executed for "intent to murder". The "Pembrokeshire Herald and General Advertiser" recounts in detail the story of Doyle's trial, at which the victim (Jane Brogine) appeared in order to testify against him despite her unwell state. It was reported that she did not seem fit to give evidence, with her face "seamed and scarred in the most dreadful manner", the sight of which invoked a "perfect thrill of horror" in the court. Brogine had apparently left her husband to live with Doyle and he had attacked her with a rock. Martin Doyle was the last person to be executed at Chester for attempted murder.

1863: Alice Holt

On Monday the 28th of December 1863 Alice Holt became the last woman to be executed at Chester. 27 year old widow, Alice Hewitt, was co-habiting with her boyfriend, George Holt in a two up, two down slum house in Great Egerton Street in Stockport in Cheshire. She had adopted his surname and called herself Mrs. Holt. Also in the house was Alice’s mother, 51 year old Mary Bailey and four lodgers, George Bailey (no relation to Mary), his wife, Ann and their two children. In the winter of 1862/3 Mary became ill with bronchitis and complained that “her daughter would not work and did not use her well.” In early 1863 Alice became pregnant by George Holt.

Alice, then 27, hit on the idea of insuring her mother’s life for £25. She realised that Mrs. Bailey would never pass a medical test, so she persuaded a friend to impersonate her for the medical. The scam worked, the insurance policy was accepted, and Alice and the woman lodger then went off to buy some arsenic. On March 27th, 1863, Mrs. Bailey died, the doctor certified natural causes, and the insurers paid up. However the lodger was heard to remark that she was not sure quite what the arsenic was for.. Having been buried, it was found that Mary Bailey had all the symptoms of arsenic poisoning - and after her body was disinterred it was found to have been 'saturated' with arsenic.

As reported in the Usk Observer Alice was hanged by William Calcraft in front of Chester City Gaol on Monday, December 28th, 1863, wearing a thin, print dress and chewing peppermints, which she had specially requested. A crowd, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000, a majority of whom were women had come to watch her hang. As she approached the gallows she partially collapsed and she had to be dragged on to the trap-door. Executioner Calcraft made the usual preparations but when he withdrew the bolt the trap doors stuck. Alice was by now wailing piteously. It took two further attempts before the trap doors finally opened. She dropped no more than two feet through them convulsing for two to three minutes before becoming still. Calcraft blamed the weather and the equipment.

Map from around 1870 showing the City Gaol.

Other Locations, Including the Castle

"Pressing" was used when someone would neither plead innocent nor guilty. Some guidebooks state that a woman named "Candy" was pressed to death at Chester Castle in 1601, a year in Elizabeth's reign which possibly featured the first performance of "Hamlet". This illustration is not the unfortunate Candy, who was hanged but a pressing of Margaret Clitherow, from York, in 1586. Candy's accompline refused to plead and he was pressed to death.

Chester Castle

"Criminals" also died at Chester Castle which is first mentioned as a jail in 1241. Later maps show the "Jayl" was located in the outer bailey.

It is generally supposed that he punishment of loading a prisoner who refused to plead with weights or "pressing" (often called "Peine forte et dure") and crushing them (to death if necessary) was introduced in the time of Edward III. However, T. A. Coward, in his "Picturesque Cheshire", suggests that the practice actually originated in the time of Edward II at Chester:

  • "Adam of the Woodhouses, having burnt the said houses and carried away his goods, was one of the stubborn men they gave him three morsels of bread one day, and three sups from the nearest puddle the next; but Adam lingered long on this sumptuous diet, so Edward II, then king, in order to accelerate the man’s decision, originated the idea of putting heavy weights upon the chest. Thus at Chester was instituted that barbarous punishment, if punishment it can be called, of pressing to death."

In 1601 a woman named Candy was hanged at Chester for conspiring to murder her husband, her accomplice was pressed to death for refusing to plead. In 1435 "pressing" seems to have been used simply as a means of execution. Peine forte et dure was abolished in the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1772, with the last known actual use of the practice having been in 1741. From 1772 refusing to plead was deemed to be equivalent to pleading guilty, but this was changed in 1827 to being deemed a plea of not guilty – which is now the case in all common law jurisdictions.

As of 1810, 222 capital penalties could result in a verdict of execution, but by 1861, only four offences carried the death penalty - murder, high treason, arson in a royal dockyard, and piracy. However, in practice, from 1836, only crimes of murder or attempted murder resulted in execution. Before then, murder was still the offence most likely to result in the death penalty - but that was closely followed by burglary. In England and Wales between 1800 and 1836, 497 people were put to death for murder, 467 for burglary, 314 for highway robbery, 217 for forgery and 162 for uttering (using forged money). There were also more people executed for horse theft (159) and sheep theft (138) than there were for far more horrific crime of rape (124). Some 48 people were killed by the state for 'sodomy', 30 for offences linked to rioting, 21 for high treason, and 10 for bestiality. The gallows at the castle was built at the point inside the gaol opposite the Shipgate, which would place it below St Mary on the Hill.

A plan of the castle showing the location of the "Jayl".

William Bates was executed at Chester Castle in 1848. The Monmouthshire Merlin recorded the case. Bates was a highwayman. One curious fact about the case Bates was arrested together with an accomplice named Walmsley - but Walmsley was released after intervention from the governor of Chester Castle - although it's not exactly clear why. Bates insisted that Walmsley was not innocent and that the pair were responsible for another highway attack (on a priest) for which two other men had been sentenced to transportation.

John Blagg was executed at Chester Castle in 1857. The case was reported as follows in the North Wales Chronicle:

  • "On Friday morning John Blagg, convicted at the late assizes at Chester for the murder of John Bebbington, game keeper to Alr. Corbett, of Tilstone, was executed at Chester Castle. Exertions were made to procure a reprieve on the ground that the evidence was only circumstantial but the Home Secretary, ia reply to the communications made to him, stated that he did not see any feature in the case to justify him in interfering with the course of the law. When the unhappy man was informed that all efforts to save his life had failed he became very much depressed, and the full extent of his awful position and the fate which awaited him seemed to come with great force upon him. The untiring efforts of the rev. chaplain to bring the unhappy man to a proper sense of Imposition were in a great measure crowned with success. During the past few days the convict paid marked attention to the exhortations of the rev. gentleman, joined in prayer with apparent earnestness, and passed much of his time, when left alone with his attendant, in reading passages of Scriputre selected for his perusal. Although he had at times disputed the truth of portions of the evidence adduced against him, he never denied his crime or attempted to account for himself at the time of its commission. His sorrowing wife saw him several times after his conviction. In his interview with her on Tuesday Blagg displayed much more feeling than he had done on former occasions. A few minutes before eight o'clock the convict was visited in the condemned cell by Mr. Dunstan, the governor, the rev. chaplain, and others, who remained with him a short time, when he went through the process of being pinioned by the executioner. The bell then commenced to toll, and the mournful procession having been formed, proceeded to the scaffold. There, in a few moments, the solemn preparations were completed, the rope was adjusted, and, the bolt being withdrawn, the drop fell, and, almost momentarily, the convict was dead. A large crowd of persons, composed of all classes assembled to witness the painful spectacle."

What the newspaper fails to mention is that executioner Calcroft had to kick a bolt repeatedly to open the drop while Blagg stood upon it "patiently". This seems to indicate that there was already a hanging-scaffold at the Castle prior to the County taking over its own executions. There the matter lay until over 30 years later when a Liverpool merchant, James Sawers, from Neston, paid a visit to New Orleans, and there received news of a startling confession made to the Rector of St Paul’s, New Orleans. It concerned the murder of John Bebbington. The story, from Henry Edwin Jones, was that Blagg had been getting ready to attend Chester market on the day before the murder and had loaned him a pair of boots. It was he, Jones, who confessed that he had murdered the gamekeeper.

Public executions in England were outlawed as the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 came into force. The act required all executions to take place within the walls of the prison where they were held, with their bodies buried within the grounds of the prison. Its enforcement came as a public call from reformers to put an end to execution as a spectacle, which they believed the national press was turning it into. There are few records of the actual facilities for hanging at the Castle in Chester, but there are cases reported in the press:

A painting of Napier House, the Agricola Tower, the Prison and St Mary on the Hill from Louise Rayner.
1866: Samuel Griffiths

Isaac Newport, a 65-year-old labourer living at Long Green, near Barrow outside of Chester, was found dead after having been drinking at the Railway Inn pub in Helsby. A court found Samuel Griffiths, who the man had been drinking with a short time before his death, guilty for his murder. Isaac had been discovered on the evening of February 26, 1866, lying dead in a ditch. The man's face was so disfigured that at first he wasn't recognisable, and it was only when his body was examined that it became apparent it was Isaac Newport. A Chester court found Samuel Griffiths guilty for the crime, after Isaac's property was found on his person. Griffiths was executed for the murder on April 23, 1866. The execution was carried out before a crowd of 2000 during race week at the City Gaol next to the Infirmary.

1877: James Bannister

James Bannister, age unknown, was executed at the County Gaol of Chester Castle after a gruesomely murdering his wife at their home on Russel Street, in Hyde. On December 15 1876, Bannister was heard by fellow lodgers speaking to his wife in friendly conversation during the evening while in bed. However, it seems a change of mood soon followed as Bannister was heard by his landlord - a Mr Grayson - at two o'clock in the morning shouting "Elijah!". On rushing to their room Mr Grayson found a grisly sight - Mrs. Bannister lying on the bed with her head crushed by a hatchet and her husband with his throat cut and a razor nearby, at least according to The Flintshire Observer. According to a variety of different newspaper sources it seems that Mrs Bannister died from her injuries a few days later, and Bannister was admitted to Manchester Infirmary in a 'dangerous condition'.

Following his recovery Bannister was tried and sentenced to death in Chester by Mr Justice Lush, in what would be the city's first private execution. During his time at Chester Castle Bannister appeared to show remorse for his actions and wrote a poem titled 'The Curse of Drink'. He was however hanged by William Marwood on the 2nd April 1877 in Chester. A rather gory detail is reported in the press:

  • "The proceesion left the condemned cell a few minutes before eight o'clock. The condemned man walked with remark- able firmness of nerve, and placed himself under the drop without faltering or uttering a word, and he died without a struggle. After the drop, which was a very long one, the cord was seen to have penetrated into the old wound caused by attempted suicide. "

The case was also reported in the The North Wales Chronicle and Advertiser for the Principality (7th April 1877).

1877: Henry Leigh
A plan of the Castle from 1874.

Henry Leigh, a labourer from Macclesfield, was found guilty of the planned murder of a young girl after he had overheard the girl's mother telling her to go to the mill where she worked and retrieve her wages. As the girl was returning from the mill, Leigh lured her away from the footpath towards the side of a canal. A few hours later Alice Ann Halton's body was found floating in the water - and her money was gone. The money was found in Leigh's possession and a jury found the man guilty of a "deliberate and brutal murder". Leigh was sentenced by Justice Bramwell and was executed at Chester on August 13, 1877. The Aberdare Times reported as follows:

  • "On Monday morning, at eight o'clock, Harry Leigh, weaver, of Macclesfield, was hanged within the precincts of Chester Castle, for the murder of Alice Ann Hatton, eight years of age at Sutton, near Macclesfield, on the 31st of March. It will be remembered that the child's corpse was found floating in the canal at Sutton. She had been sent by her mother to the mill for her wages, and it was clearly proved that on her way home she was met by the prisoner, who led her to the canal side and robbed her, then threw her into the water and, as he states in his confession, left her to drown. Since his condemnation he has been very penitent, and thoroughly resigned to his fate. The procession from the cell started a few minutes after eight o'clock, the prisoner walking very firmly, and placing himself nnder the drop without a tremor. Marwood adjusted the rope, stepped behind the culprit, pulled a lever, and the wretched man, who was given a drop of seven feet, died almost instantaneously."

The North Wales Chronicle adds some further detail: that he was described as "a dwarf" and "degraded by drink and vicious conduct". Apparently, he had previously tried to steal the girls wages by forging a note and sending a messenger with it to the mill, an attempt which failed. The newspaper also adds that while awaiting execution he attemped to strangle himself with a handkerchief. Executioner Marwood apparently lodged at the "Red Lion" in Bridge Street and on the night before the execution was persuaded - by buying him drinks - to entertain those present by recounting tales of previous executions.

1881: William Stanway

A native of Newcastle-under-Lyme, who earned a living as a broom maker and hawker, convicted at Chester Assizes of the murder of Ann Mellor at Macclesfield, where they lived with their nine year old daughter. Both were addicted to drink and frequently quarrelled, which usually ended with him giving her a beating. Shortly after Christmas 1880, they went out drinking one afternoon and later when they returned home, he beat her up. Stanway went out again that evening, leaving her in bed; when he returned he called for her to come and fix him some supper. She at first refused to come down but he eventually persuaded her. When she reached the foot of the stairs he stabbed her "in the chest" (although reports vary) with a red hot poker. He didn't call a doctor for two days, during which time she lay in extreme agony and by the time help arrived, she had died. His defence that the crime was not premeditated was rejected and he was hanged by William Marwood on the 21st February 1881 in Chester.

The Flintshire Observer informs us that:

  • "At eight o'clock on Monday morning, William Stamway, aged 31, was executed at Chester Castle for murdering Ann Mellor, at Macclesfield, by stabbing her in the abdomen with a red-hot poker. Reporters were not admitted to the execution. The condemned man had paid the utmost attention to his religious duties since his condemnation. When the time came he walked with a firm step to the gallows. The drop was eight feet six inches. Death was instantaneous. Some hundreds watched the hoisting of the black flag. The executioner was Marwood. Several petitions had been presented to the Home Secretary for a commutation of the sentence, on the ground that the prisoner did not premeditate murder, and that he was drunk when he committed the crime."

In fact, other reports show that there was a degree of premeditation: Merthyr Telegraph reported that:

  • "The prisoner had been drinking, and returned at night very drunk. He appears to have brutally beaten deceased, with whom he lived, and then to haw gone out to procure more liquor. On his return, finding the woman in bed, he told her to come down, and tlueatened if she did not he would bring a red-hot poker to her. She then came down- stairs into the kitchen, when he took the red-hot poker out of the fire and plunged it into her bowels, inflicting such terrible injuries that she died in great agony two days afterwards."
As well as broadsheets, pamphlets and other memorabilia of executions there were also ballads.
1883: Patrick Carey

Samuel Carlam and his common-law wife Mary Mohan, kept a lodging house at Smallwood, a village just outside Congleton, Cheshire. On 9th February they were found battered to death at the house, which had also been robbed. A hammer was found beside the bodies. The police soon learned that a tramp had been seen in the area carrying a large bundle shortly after the robbery was discovered. Police arrested Patrick Carey who was a father of four, and also known as John (or Jack) White. He was tried and convicted at Chester Assizes and sentenced to death. He was hanged by William Marwood in Chester on the 8th May 1883. As reported in the Weekly Mail on 12th May 1883:

  • "On Tuesday morning at eight o'clock Patrick Carey, alias Jack White, was hung at Chester Castle for murdering Thomas Earlam and Mary Moran at Smallwood. Marwood was the executioner. The drop waa 8ft 6in. Death was instantaneous. Reporters were not admitted. Father Pacincus, Roman Catholic chaplain, says the man told him be was not afraid he repeated prayers after him, and died imploring mercy from above. The drawing of the bolt could be heard outside the prison."

The Aberdare Times gives a fuller report:

  • "On Tuesday morning, at eight o'clock, Patrick Carey, alias John White, was executed at Chester Castle Prison, for the murder of Thomas Earlam, a lodging-house keeper at Smallwood, and Mary Moran, his housekeeper. Marwood who had arrived in Chester on the previous night from Lincoln, visited the Castle at an early hour in the morning, and inspected the scaffold on which the condemned man was to be hanged. There was a considerable crowd outside the prison walls from about half-past seven o'clock. At about ten minutea to eight the bell of St. Mary's Church, which adjoins the prison, tolled, and remained tolling until after the execution. The black fiag was hoisted over the gate of the prison one minute after eight o'clock. The condemned man went to bed at his usual hour on Monday night, and slept very soundly. He rose and dressed at five o'clock, and at half-past five was visited by Father Pacificus, Roman Catholic chaplain, who has been ministerially attending the prisoner since his condemnation. The rev. father celebrated mass in a cell, and Carey received the Eucharist. At a few minutes to eight o'clock Marwood and the officials appeared at the condemned cell, and Carey was pinioned and led to the scaffold. The condemned man did not betray any trepidation, but walked firmly to the scaffold. He submitted his hands to be pinioned and his head to be covered by the hangman with the greatest coolness. The bolt was immediately drawn, and the drop being 8 feet, death appeared to be instantaneous. Reporters were not admitted to witness the execution, but immediately afterwards Father Pacificus volunteered the following informa* tion to the representatives of the press :— "I have just to say that Carey was resigned to the will of God and to his fate. He hoped that the Lord would have mercy upon him. and pardon all his past sics and crimes. He acknowledged the jnstice of the law, ard that he deserved death. I cannot but speak very highly of him. He died really penitent. He was very grateful to the governor and the officers of the gaol for their kindness to him. He submitted quietly to the process of pinioning, and when I, fearing that he might be alarmed, endeavoured to comfort him, be said, 'Don't trouble yourself farther. I am not afraid.' He said prayers for the recommendation of his soul to God as far as the scaffold, and then he repeated every prayer I was suggesting to him. At the last moment he requested to be allowed to kiss the crucifix I had in my hands. He did so, and then I kissed him, and we parted. His last words were a prayer for mercy, and he then went down without a struggle." Three masses, beginning at seven o'clock, were offered up for Carey at the Franciscan Church at Chester, and there was also an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, which commenced about eight o'clock. An inquest was afterwards held at the Castle,"

In 1886 the scaffold was removed from Chester Castle and taken to Knutsford. Only eight executions took place there from 1886 to 1917 when the prison was handed over to the military.

Hoole Heath

Watkin, in his Roman Chester, identifies a "Gibbet Piece" in Hoole, which was probably not a place of execution, but a location where the bodies of executed criminals were put on display. He writes:

  • "The road, which is perfectly straight, is only shewn for about half a mile on the Ordnance Map, which makes its direct line terminate soon after "Salter's Lane" is passed, but we found its course plainly traceable across the fields into Tyre's (or Tyrer's) Lane (which leads down to some low meadows) and into the "Gibbet Piece" where executions (and I believe interments) took place in the last and beginning of the present century, a clump of trees marking the spot."

Abbey Gateway

There was also at least one beheading by the Abbey Gate: that of the Royalist Sir Timothy Fetherstonhaugh who liberally contributed money to the royal cause, raised troops at his own expense, and served in the field. At the Battle of Wigan Lane, Lancashire, 26 August 1651, he was taken prisoner, and imprisoned at Chester Castle (from where he wrote a farewell letter to his wife). After trial by court-martial at Chester for "corresponding with Charles Stuart or his Party" he was beheaded and/or shot (versions vary) outside the Abbey Gate, 22 October 1651, despite his plea that he had quarter for life given him.


The hanging shed at Chester was close to the Shipgate and so possibly under what was once the county offices.

Samuel Burrows

33-37 Clwyd Street, Ruthin was once a public house called the Red Lion, where an executioner almost met an untimely death. A man named John Connor was executed in Ruthin for highway robbery on 15th April 1822. The executioner was Samuel Burrows, the hangman for Chester. The evening before the execution he was staying in the Red Lion where his fellow patrons convinced him to demonstrate the process of hanging a person. Attaching his rope to the ceiling, he showed them how to tie the noose and put it around his own neck. A man named Henry Caddock kicked the stool from underneath the hangman and he would have strangled had Thomas Humphreys not swiftly cut the rope. Burrows performed 58 executions there between 1802 and 1834. He executed Edith Morrey on the 23rd of April 1813 for the murder of her husband. He had also hanged her boyfriend, John Lomas on the 24th of August 1812, for his part in the killing. His last job was also his biggest one, the quadruple hanging at Chester on the 19th of April 1834 when he hanged Thomas Riley for cutting and maiming, John Carr and William Naylor for shooting with intent to murder, and James Mason for procuring an abortion. He also worked at Shrewsbury and Hereford on occasions. He was born on the 28th of June 1772 and died on the 20th of October 1835.

William Calcraft

William Calcraft (11 October 1800 – 13 December 1879) was a 19th-century English hangman, one of the most prolific of British executioners. It is estimated in his 45-year career he carried out 450 executions. A cobbler by trade, Calcraft was initially recruited to flog juvenile offenders held in Newgate Prison. While selling meat pies on streets around the prison, Calcraft met the City of London's hangman, John Foxton. After Foxton's death in 1829 the government appointed Calcraft the official Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex. Following this, his executioner services were in great demand throughout England. Nevertheless, some considered Calcraft incompetent, in particular for his controversial use of the short-drop hanging method in which the condemned were slowly strangled to death. Because with Calcraft's methods the condemned took 10-20 minutes to die, to hasten death Calcraft would sometimes dramatically pull on legs or climb on shoulders in an effort to break a victim's neck. It has been speculated that Calcraft used these methods partly to entertain the crowds, sometimes numbering 30,000 spectators or more.

George Smith

Smith gravitated from petty criminal – he was once jailed for running naked through the streets – to England’s best-known hangmen. He hanged Mary Gallop at Chester Gaol on the 28th December 1844 for killing her father. George Smith was renowned for his long white coat and top hat which he wore at all his public hangings. George Smith hanged 20 men and 1 woman during his time as the Public hangman. After ceasing to be Public Hangman he hanged a further three men at Chester Gaol. These were then private hangings as by then the law was changed so that there were no further public hangings. George Smith’s most famous solo execution was that of the Rugeley poisoned, Dr. William Palmer for the murder of John Parsons Cook (and possibly many others), before a huge crowd outside the Stafford Gaol on the 14th June 1856.

William Marwood

William Marwood (1818 – 4 September 1883) was a hangman for the British government. He developed the technique of hanging known as the "long drop". At the age of 54 he persuaded the governor of Lincoln Castle Gaol to allow him to conduct an execution. The efficient way in which he conducted the hanging of William Frederick Horry without a hitch on 1 April 1872 assisted him in being appointed hangman by the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex in 1874, in succession to William Calcraft, at a retainer of £20 a year plus £10 per execution. Marwood developed the "long drop" technique of hanging, which ensured that the prisoner's neck was broken instantly at the end of the drop, resulting in the prisoner dying of asphyxia while unconscious. Instead of everyone falling the same standard distance, the person's height and weight were used to determine how much slack would be provided in the rope so that the distance dropped would be enough to ensure that the neck was broken, but not so much that the person was decapitated. This was considered more humane than the slow death by strangulation caused by the "short drop" method, which was particularly distressing to prison governors and staff who were required to witness executions at close quarters following the abolition of public executions by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868. Marwood was one of two executioners to give their name to the character of the hangman in the British Punch and Judy puppet show (Jack Ketch being the better known one).

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