Bus driver, licensee — and hangmen

Date published: 04 September 2008

THE recent showing of the film “The Last Hangman” on ITV1 has renewed interest in a public office which was last needed almost 50 years ago.

But during the first half of the 20th century, when the death sentence was routinely imposed for murder, a remarkable number of men from the Oldham area held the post of hangman in England.

MIKE PAVASOVIC takes a look back at them and the men they dispatched.
THE last hangman came from Oldham, but contrary to legend it was not Albert Pierrepoint. And in any case, there were two last hangmen.

England’s final executions, in August, 1964, were carried out by Robert Stewart of Chadderton and Harry Allen of Ashton.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen were sentenced to death for the murder of John Alan West in Workington.

Allen dispatched Evans at Strangeways while Stewart hanged Peter Allen at Walton Jail, Liverpool.

Robert Stewart was born in Edinburgh in 1918 and settled in Chadderton in 1945 after completing his wartime service with the RAF.

He assisted Stephen Wade and his close friend Albert Pierrepoint in 20 executions between 1951 and 1959 before becoming a principal himself, in 1958.

When Stewart died in Cape Town in April, 1988, his wife Marie discovered a notebook among his effects in which he had recorded brief facts about the executions he had carried out.

On the hanging of Alfred George Reynolds at Norwich Prison in June, 1951 — his first — Stewart wrote: “We thought he would be awkward but he behaved.

“He sang ‘Danny Boy’ twice. He had played the governor at crib and won two legs to one. Prize was a bottle of beer.

“His minister visited him at 10pm and said prayers. Reynolds requested AP (Pierrepoint) not to use the cap (a black hood placed over the condemned man’s head).

“Moore (a second prisoner) entered and placed his own head in the noose. It had to be removed and adjusted properly.”

Both men had murdered their fiancee. Dennis Moore had strangled Eileen Cullen while Reynolds shot Ellen Ludkin.

Elsewhere in his notes, Stewart revealed his thoughts on hanging and his job: “It does not worry me one bit. If someone commits murder they deserve to pay the price. My attitude is simple — get rid of them.”

Interestingly, all three hangmen are remembered as friendly genial types.

Harry Allen was born in Oaken Clough, Waterloo, in 1911, and attended St Anne’s RC School in Burlington Street, Ashton.

He originally worked in the transport department at Park Bridge Iron Works but later became a bus driver for Ashton Corporation — a post he held after becoming an assistant hangman in 1941.

After officiating at his first execution, probably that of John Smith at Wandsworth, he is reputed to have said: “I was very much relieved. It wasn’t half so gruesome as I expected.”

It is said he always wore a waistcoat, bowler hat and bow tie.

He later moved to Bolton, where he became a licensee, and then retired to Fleetwood where he died in August, 1992, only a few weeks after Pierrepoint.

When Albert Pierrepoint became a hangman he was following a tradition set by his father and grandfather. But he is also remembered as licensee of the Help the Poor Struggler pub, in Manchester Road, Hollinwood, between 1946 and 1967.

Pictures show him as a typical old-style landlord, round and avuncular, and his autobiography, “Executioner Pierrepoint”, depicts him as a humane man who had no desire to intensify the torment of the prisoners waiting to hang.

Incredible though it may seem, he managed to soothe Derek Bentley — convicted of the murder of PC Sidney Miles — in 1953.

It was feared that the backward but powerful Bentley (19) — who was eventually pardoned in 1998 — might struggle but after words from Pierrepoint he went quietly to the gallows.

In 1950, Pierrepoint hanged a man who was known to him. Oldham man James Corbitt, who was living in Portland Street, Ashton, killed his girlfriend in the Prince of Wales Hotel at the corner of Stamford Street and Warrington Street, Ashton.

Eliza Wood, from Knott Street, Oldham, was found strangled in her bed with the word “Whore” inked on her forehead.

Corbitt liked to sing in pubs and had done so at the Struggler, sometimes with Pierrepoint.

The two men had referred to each other as Tish and Tosh — names taken from a popular song — but Pierrepoint’s autobiography says they were acquaintances rather than the friends later portrayed in film.

Pierrepoint agreed to greet the condemned man as Tish to make the ordeal easier.

However, the situation did have a profound effect on Pierrepoint who wrote of how he undertook the task with gentle hands.

How could capital punishment be a deterrent when Corbitt — a man who knew the executioner — clearly planned the crime while knowing full well what the punishment would be?

::For many years after abolition there was a working gallows at Wandsworth Prison, just in case anyone was sentenced to death for high treason or piracy. These ceased to be capital crimes in 1998.