Pentonville for its first 60 years did not carry out executions. With the closure of Newgate Prison in 1902, the gallows used there were removed to Pentonville which became the main hanging prison for North London. Even during the Second World War period (1940-45) when Pentonville was evacuated for a period after extensive bomb damage, it still retained its hanging function, and executions took place throughout that period.
The first execution took place on 30 September 1902 and the last on 6 July 1961. During that period there were 105 executions for murder, all sentenced by the CCC or Chelmsford Quarter Sessions. All were from London or Essex except 3 where the offence was committed at sea on board ship, and one in Rotteburg Germany (it is assumed it was a serving soldier).
In addition there were 15 other executions for Treason, Treachery and Military Law. Three of these were British Subjects (the most famously known being Roger Casement), eight were German, two were Dutch, and two Belgian. Roger Casement was the only one to be executed in the 1st World War (3 August 1916), all the others were between December 1940 and January 1946.
It is believed that the execution chamber was housed in A Wing. A paper by Governor Burnett setting out the arrangements for an execution in 1960 would appear to confirm that belief, as does a plan of the prison for the 1950s. It was not however the original siting, as a diagram of the prison from the 1920s indicates the gallows were originally erected in a building standing on its own at the far end and on the southside of B Wing. This would have made it very adjacent to the burial ground which has always been and remains in the north east corner of the prison. There the unmarked graves of all those executed remain today, each recorded precisely in a register. That is critical as requests are made and exceeded to on occasions, for bodies to be exhumed. The details in respect to burial were very precise.
INSTRUCTIONS TO BE OBSERVED IN BURYING THE BODIES OF
All the clothing, with the exception of the shirt or similar garment, will be removed from the body, which will be placed in a coffin made of fi" wood, deal or pine.
The sides and ends of the coffin will be well perforated with large holes.
Lime will not be used.
The original size of the plot of ground will be 9ft by 4ft, and the grave will be from 8 to 1Oft in depth.
When the coffin has been covered with 1 foot of earth, charcoal to the depth of three inches will be thrown into the grave, which will then be filled in. The top coffin will be not less than 4 feet below the ground surface.
Arrangements will be made for the grave sites to be re¬used in sequence, in such wise that no grave shall be used over again until 7 years have elapsed. When a grave is reopened the charcoal and the foot of earth above the last coffin will not be disturbed.
A register of graves will be kept, containing the name of each convict buried, the date of burial, the site of the grave, and the position of the coffin in the grave.
Each burial had to be formally reported to Headquarters, the Reports were normally brief and to the point. They contained only the grave number, depth of the grave, and the direction the body was laid.
Exhumations are only carried out when a formal licence is issued by the Home Office and personally signed by the Home Secretary. There are strict instructions as to procedure, who has to be present, and the due care and decency required as well as discretion and absence of publicity. As each grave, separated by the prescribed layer of charcoal, can contain up to 3 bodies, exhumation is neither a simple nor desirable task. This is illustrated in a memo from the Governor to Headquarters.
`The exhumation proved a difficult operation but was completed successfully according to plan. It commenced at 3.30 p.m.. on 9/11/65, and ended at 4 a.m.. on 10/11/65.
I enclose a note from the Senior Forman of Works giving particulars of the staff who carried out the operation. In the later stages actually there were twelve staff in attendance including Mr Cheeseman of Head Office, the Medical Officer, Roman Catholic Priest and myself.
Overtime at the approved rates is being paid to the five Trade Assistants and Engineer. I cannot speak too highly of the manner in which this unpleasant task was carried out, and would like to recommend that some special bonus should be paid to the Works Staff responsible.
I would also strongly recommend that on a future occasion the exhumation should be carried out during the day, which would obviate the extra work through the night and the prison being kept open. I am convinced that on this occasion we could have completed the work during yesterday with as little disturbance, using the screens devised together with the other measures taken.
Everybody appears to have heard of Albert Pierrepoint. It would appear that there were in fact several Pierrepoints who were hangmen. In fact the first executioner at Pentonville was William Billington and he was assisted by a Henry Pierrepoint. Pierrepoint did not take over the role until August 1905, and in 1909 was assisted by a Thomas W Pierrepoint, assumed to be a brother. The executioner in the 1930s was an R D Baxter, and it was not until 1940 that Albert Pierrepoint appeared on the scene, he then officiated at the majority of the executions up until 1954.
What is probably not known generally is that anybody applying for the position of executioner had both to be first selected, undertake a weeks course in the duties, and then sit and pass a written examination. Pentonville was used as centre for such training and details of the course and the examination are still preserved in the archive papers. An appointment to position of executioner not only had to be approved by the Governor, but also by the High Sheriffs. Once appointed they carried out their duties to a very exacting set of instructions both in terms of his specific duties, as well as his general conduct. The terms and conditions in 1948 included:
Any person engaged as an Executioner will report himself at the prison not later than 4 o'clock on the afternoon preceding the execution.
He is required to remain in the prison from the time of his arrival until the completion of the execution and until permission is given to him to leave. He will be provided with lodging and maintenance.
He must avoid attracting attention, and his conduct and general behaviour must be respectable and discreet at all times.
His remuneration will be £1/11/6d for the performance of the duty required, to which will be added £1/11/6d 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.
Records will be kept of his conduct and efficiency on each occasion of his being employed and available to any Governor who may wish to engage him.
The name of any person who does not give satisfaction or whose conduct is in anyway objectionable, so as to cast discredit on himself, will be removed from the list.
At every execution the Governor and the Medical Officer had to complete a formal report on the conduct of the Executioner and on the performance of his duties. It is of note that `performance pay' is clearly not a new concept.
Any execution dominated the life of the establishment and disrupted normal procedures for 2 days. The prison was run very tightly on the day prior to the event with all activities cancelled except for exercise, applications and adjudications. All staff leave was cancelled and everyone was expected to be on duty. On the day of an execution all staff were on duty at 6.30 a.m.., but had a breakfast break period. At 8.15 all prisoners on A Wing were moved to either B Wing or Reception. The kitchen staff and party were double locked in the kitchen. All escorts had to be out of the prison by 8.30 a.m.. when all movement ceased and the prison in a lock down state. The Main Gate was frozen from 8.45 to 9.15 and a Principal Officer took charge of the forecourt.
At 10 o'clock prisoners from A Wing would return and exercise commence. The Coroner's Inquest would be formally held at the prison at 11 a.m.. The funeral and burial would proceed at 12.30 with the route to and around the burial area screened off. By 2.15 p.m.. the prison would gradually return to normal.
As all executions have been reported in the press and are available and it is an area of ongoing requests for information, a list of all executions at Pentonville is tabulated for information. (See link to side)