In 1810, the legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly delivered an impassioned speech to the House of Commons in which he declared that there was "no country on the face of the earth in which there have been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England." The criminal justice system of 19th century Britain is often referred to as the "Bloody Code". At its height, the law included some 220 different offences that were punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". In 1688 there had only been 50 offences on the statute book punishable by death, but by 1776 that number had almost quadrupled.
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Thousands of the unfortunate souls who fell foul of this system can be found within our collection of England & Wales Crime, Prisons and Punishment records. While exploring the various sets within the collection you will notice that an incredibly high proportion of entries have 'death' listed as their sentence, many of whom appear to have committed seemingly trivial offences. Hanging was the official method of execution chosen by the authorities and specially trained, official government hangmen were employed to conduct this unpleasant work.
One of the most infamous hangmen of the period was William Calcraft. Calcraft was perhaps the most active and longest serving executioner in British history. It is believed that he may have personally dispatched as many as 450 felons over the course of his 45 year career.
Calcraft was born in Baddow near Chelmsford in 1800 and initially trained as a cobbler. He went on to work as a night-watchman and supplemented his meager earning by selling meat pies outside of the walls of Newgate prison. While selling pies, Calcraft had a chance encounter with the official Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex, John Foxton, that would change his life forever.
Foxton had been impressed by the young Calcraft and got him a job flogging young offenders for ten shillings a week (roughly £43 today). One day, an emergency led to Calcraft being drafted in to assist Foxton with the double hanging of housebreaker Thomas Lister and highwayman George Wingfield at Lincoln Castle. Calcraft proved that he was more than capable of performing the unpleasant task and was chosen as Foxton's replacement on his death in 1829. His first job as London’s official executioner was the hanging of the murderess, Ester Hibner at Newgate on the 13th of April 1829. During his first year in the role Calcraft conducted no less than 31 executions and was mentored by the infamous hangman, Thomas “Old Tom” Cheshire.
Calcraft’s services were in great demand throughout England although many began to view him as incompetent due to his controversial use of the short-drop hanging method; strangling the condemned to death rather than the traditional method of aiming to break the neck. This method resulted in a slow and painful death and Calcraft became well known for dramatically pulling on the legs of his victims or climbing on their shoulders in an effort hurry the process along. This method was found to be distasteful disliked by the officials and public alike, Calcraft received numerous death threats.
Calcraft's botched execution of William Bousfield was a well-known example of his short-drop method. Calcraft fled the gallows after the trapdoor was released, leaving Bousfield dangling. Bousfield was still very much alive and managed to steady himself by resting his feet on the platform. Calcrafts’ assistant attempted to push his feet off as Calcraft hid from the mob of spectators in fear of his life. This carried on for a number of minutes until the overseeing Chaplin forced Calcraft to return and complete his duty. Calcraft began swinging from Bousfield's legs and the force of his weight killed him by strangulation.
Public hangings were still in fashion when Calcraft began his career and he became remarkably famous. He became somewhat of a celebrity and regularly featured in Newspaper reports. It has even been speculated that his executions could draw in crowds of more than 30,000 spectators at a time. Calcraft conducted both the last public and first private executions in British history.
Frances Kidder was the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain. 25 year-old Kidder was executed by Calcraft in front of Maidstone Gaol at 12 noon on 2 April 1868. It was alleged that she had drowned her 11-year-old stepdaughter in a ditch and the jury returned their verdict in only 12 minutes. Around 2,000 people, including Kidder's husband, were reported to have witnessed the execution. Calcraft is alleged to have found this particular execution particularly traumatic owing to Kidder’s youth, good looks as well the hysterical fear she displayed at the gallows. She was unable to stand and had to be held up by two wardens.
Most of Calcraft's early work came from London and the South East as the Midlands and Northern England had their own resident executioners. With the advent of the railway system in the mid nineteenth century Calcraft was soon able to operate all over Britain and apparently loved travelling.
Marie and Frederick Manning may have been Calcraft's most infamous victims. Marie was Swiss domestic servant who was hanged with her husband outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol, on 13 November 1849, after she and her husband were convicted of the murder of her lover, Patrick O'Connor, in the case that became known as "The Bermondsey Horror." It was the first time a husband and wife had been executed together in England since 1700. Charles Dickens attended the execution, and in a letter written to The Times on the same day wrote, "I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun."
After reluctantly being forced to retire from office because of old age in 1874, Calcraft received a pension of 25 shillings a week from the City of London and was succeeded as hangman by William Marwood. Although as a younger man Calcraft had been considered to be "genial", with a love of breeding rabbits, in his later years he was described as "surly and sinister-looking, with long hair and beard, in scruffy black attire and a fob chain.
Calcraft died at Poole Street in Hoxton, on 13 December 1879.