Friday 29 January 2021

Capital Punishment at Boldon

A collection of documents and correspondence (handwritten and typed) between The Governor of H.M. Prison Durham, the Secretary of State at the Home Office, Whitehall, Ernest Gilmour Harvey the Under Sheriff of Northumberland, Thomas Dalrymple Straker-Smith the High Sheriff of Northumberland and Thomas William Pierrepoint relating to the execution of a North East man William Parker in 1938. 
Estimate £150 - £200. 
Antique, Interiors and General Sale 10th February 2021

  • One document “Memorandum of Conditions to which any person acting as Executioner is required to conform”, paragraph starred in pencil “7.  His remuneration will be £     for the performance of the duty required of him, to which will be added £   if his conduct and behaviour have been satisfactory.  The latter part of the fee will not be payable until a fortnight after the execution has taken place.”

  • One document from H.M. Prison to the High Sheriff confirming that the prisoner has been received into custody under sentence of death and to forward enclosures such as Enclosure No. 5 - List of Candidates reported as competent for the office of executioner.  This has Thomas W. Pierrepoint’s name and address at the top of the list along with the following remarks “Has satisfactorily conducted executions, has assisted at executions, and has been practically trained at Pentonville Prison.”

  • A letter dated 14th June 1938, from the Undersheriff of Northumberland to the Secretary of State, Home Office. Titled Northumberland Summer Assize “At these Assizes a prisoner is to be tried on the capital charge…… furnish me with an up-to-date list of persons recommended by the Home Office as Executioners, and also to have any Regulations governing executions.”

  • A letter dated 17th June 1938, from the Undersheriff of Northumberland to W. F. Hamilton, Esq.  Titled Northumberland Summer Assizes, 1938 Rex v William Parker.  Invoice of £15. 3. 2 for expenses.

  • A letter dated 17th June 1938, from the Prison Commission, Home Office to the Undersheriff of Northumberland enclosing the following: Two documents relating to the Criminal Appeal Act 1907 from the Home Office, Whitehall 30th April 1908.  One signed in ink The Under-Sheriff for Northumberland and the other under scored in pencil “the Sheriff should fix a date for the execution, which will allow the interval of not less than 14 and more than 18 clear days to elapse between the determination of the Appeal or Application and the date of the execution.  The day may be any week day other than Monday.”

  • A letter dated 17th June 1938, from the Governor H.M. Prison Durham to the Undersheriff of Northumberland confirming that William Parker has been received into custody.

  • A letter dated 18th June 1938, from the Undersheriff of Northumberland to Thomas Pierrepoint asking Pierrepoint to officiate in the execution on the 5th July 1938 and confirming receipt of the Telegram.

  • A letter dated 18th June 1938, from the Undersheriff of Northumberland to the Governor H.M. Prison Durham confirming Thomas Pierrepoint would officiate in the execution and the possibility of an appeal.

  • 45 further documents handwritten and typed between the Governor of H.M. Prison Durham, Under Sherriff, High Sheriff, Home Office and Thomas Pierrepoint between 18th June 1938 and 23rd July 1938 detailing the appeal against conviction, the cancellation of the execution on the 5th July, the fixing of another date for execution, the dismissal of appeal and confirmation of the date of execution being 26th July 1938. 

    Examples include:
  •     A Post Office Telegram from Bradford to Newcastle Upon Tyne dated 9th July 1938 from Thomas Pierrepoint to the Under Sheriff of Northumberland “will officiate Tuesday 26 July Certain = Pierrepoint”

  • Letter handwritten by Thomas Pierrepoint to the Under Sheriff of Northumberland 9th July 1938 acknowledging William Parker's appeal and if not successful that he was available to officiate Tuesday 26th July.  He also pointed out that "I am expecting being away on Monday the 11th and Tuesday the 12th July at Wandsworth, as I am engaged for execution and if you should send me a letter I will answer as soon as I get home Tuesday evening". 

  • A letter dated 12th July 1938 handwritten by Thomas Pierrepoint in Bradford, Yorkshire in response to a letter sent 11th July 1938 from the Under Sheriff stating "you have probably now seen in the newspapers that Parker's appeal has been dismissed so that unless he is reprieved by the Home Secretary his Execution will take place as arranged at 8am, on Tuesday 26th July."  It goes on to say, "In the event of a reprieve I will, of course, at once wire to you but I should imagine there is very little likelihood of a reprieve being granted".

  • A letter from the Under Sheriff of Northumberland dated 20th July 1938 to the Manager of the Royal County Hotel in Durham to reserve two bedrooms for Monday 25th July to enable both the Under Sheriff and the High Sheriff to attend the Prison at 6.15pm that evening to "make the usual tests" before the execution at 8am the following morning.  A confirmation note from the Manageress of the Royal County Hotel is included.

  • One document dated 21st July 1938, by both the Under Sheriff and High Sheriff of Northumberland “in pursuance of the powers vested in me by the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 …… with my authority to perform the duties and powers imposed ….. in connection with or in relation to the execution of William Parker in His Majesty’s prison at Durham on Tuesday the twenty sixth day of July One thousand nine hundred and thirty-eight”

  • One document relating to the above – crossed out amended and signed by E. G. Harvey Under Sheriff of Northumberland – relating to another execution, name indistinct.

  • Home Office letter, dated 27th July 1938 to the Under Sheriff of Northumberland acknowledging receipt of the Certificate of the Surgeon of H.M. Prison at Durham of the death of William Parker, the declaration of the Sheriff and other that judgment of Death was executed on William Parker and the Coroner's Inquisition. 

  • A letter dated 9th August 1938 from Ernest Gilmour Harvey to Thomas Pierrepoint enclosing five £1 notes in payment for the execution of William Parker and the accompanying form.

  • A handwritten letter dated 10th August 1938 from Thomas Pierrepoint to Ernest Gilmour Harvey (along with a typed receipt for £5) acknowledging the payment of five £1 notes being the balance of any fee in connection with the execution of William Parker 26th July in H.M. Prison, Durham.

Biography of Thomas William Pierrepoint

Thomas William Pierrepoint (1870-1954) came from a family of English executioners whose career spanned 40 years during time which he carried out 294 hangings.  203 of the hangings were civilians in England and Wales whilst the remainder were carried out abroad or on military personnel.  

He was the nephew of Albert Pierrepoint Britain's most famous hangman (who assisted Thomas in six of the executions) and interestingly executed approximately 600 people in a 25-year career.  We sold at Boldon Auction Galleries a Collection of items belonging to Albert Pierrepoint for £20,000 on 5th June 2019. 

Thomas Pierrepoint was a Yorkshireman influenced by his father and uncle, when asked at school to write about what job he would like when older, Pierrepoint said that "When I leave school I should like to be public executioner like my dad is, because it needs a steady man with good hands like my dad and my Uncle Tom and I shall be the same".

In 1940 his fitness for the job was questioned by a medical Officer, the Prison Commission asked for reports on his performance during executions but found no reason to take action even though on two occasions when reporting to prison Thomas Pierrepoint had “smelled strongly of drink”.  He never officially retired from service rather his name was removed from the Home Office list of executioners and invitations to conduct executions stopped.


The Legal Process of Execution

The Home Secretary at the Home Office over saw all executions carried out from 1837 to abolition in 1969, increasing in control after the passing of The Prison Act in 1877.

Prison Commissioners were responsible for maintaining a list of approved executioners from which the High Sheriff and Under Sheriff of the county was able to choose.  The executioner’s assistants were appointed by the Governor of the Prison. 

The Sheriff had to be present at the execution, pay the hangman and then claim back the money through “Sheriff’s cravings” from the Home Office.  After the execution, the Sheriff would notify the Home Office in writing.

The Governor of the prison was responsible for ensuring that the execution was carried out in a timely and humane manner.  He would then send a report to the Home Office as to the conduct of the executioners and assistant.

From 1892 proper training was given to all potential hangmen at Newgate Prison then Pentonville where Thomas Pierrepoint was trained.  This lasted a week in which the trainees were taught the correct procedures for working out the drop and conducting a hanging.  Officials assessed the applicant’s personality and motives for wanting to do the job.  Once qualified they were added to the official Home Office list and would work as an assistant until sufficient experience had been acquired. 

In 1902 the Home Office issued its last update of rules for carrying out hangings: “For the sake of uniformity it is recommended that the Execution should take place in the week following the third Sunday after the day on which the sentence was passed, on any weekday but Monday, and at 8am.”  “The person or persons engaged to carry out the execution should be required to report themselves at the Prison no later than 4pm on the afternoon preceding the completed execution.  Approved by the Secretary of State.”

The High Sheriff then wrote to the Governor of the prison setting the time and date for the execution and to the hangman securing his services from the Home Office list provided.  A notice was posted on the prison gate the day before the execution and duly afterwards confirming the execution had taken place.  Finally, the Governor sent a LPC4 form to the Home Office signing everything off.


Details from the Auction at Boldon Auction Galleries on the 5th June 2019
A collection of items belonging to Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) Britain’s most famous hangman who executed approximately 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956.  The collection includes his notebook which lists the executions carried out with details to determine how to achieve the quickest death and his father Henry’s notebook, the plaster cast of Albert Pierrepoint’s face and hands, photographs and documents, watch chain and cigar holder.

Henry Pierrepoint’s execution book (1 November 1901 – 14 July 1910), includes personal details of those hanged including the prisoner’s name, age, height, weight and drop, site of execution and remarks detailing the physical frame of the prisoners and calibre of their necks; “very heavy body, ordinary neck, wirey, very thin neck, little flabby”.  18cm x 11cm

Albert Pierrepoint’s leather-bound execution ledger, embossed with his name “A. Pierrepoint”, (29 December 1932 - 27 July 1955) includes personal details of those hanged with additional notes such as “the German, Dutch and Belgium spies, French Canadian, USA, IRA, British Soldier” etc.  15cm x 24cm

An amber and ivory cigar holder, with leather silver velvet lined case, 8cm long, belonged to Henry A. Pierrepoint.  (Albert’s father and British hangman).

A silver watch chain worn by Albert Pierrepoint, Henry Pierrepoint (his father) and Thomas Pierrepoint (his Uncle) at hundreds of executions between 1900 and 1956.  42cm long          

Sold £20,000 5th June 2019

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