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A Hanging in Wandsworth

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During my early Fleet Street years, in the 195o’s, we hacks were chillingly familiar with the grim ritual of hanging. I still remember with a shudder having to wait outside Wandsworth or some other prison as, inside, a condemned man was led by the chaplain from his cell to the waiting gallows. At the prison gates, as the execution hour approached, usually nine o’clock in the morning, one would see, trying desperately to comfort one another, a small group of the prisoner’s sobbing family.

Always there too, dressed in black, would be Mrs Violet van der Elst, the wealthy campaigner against capital punishment, kneeling on the cobbles and praying for the soul of the condemned. Finally, maybe twenty minutes later, the prison gate, or rather a small door set into it, would open and a warder would emerge and put up a small framed notice declaring that so-and-so had been ‘judicially executed’. It was signed, if I remember rightly, by the Prison Governor and the Coroner.

At this, Mrs van der Elst would say a few quiet words of comfort to the bereft family and then slip away in her chauffeur-driven car. At the time most people thought her mad to crusade so passionately for an end to the death sentence. And yet, within ten years, the last hanging in Britain had taken place, and her heroic efforts were finally vindicated. Never again, thank God, did I have to attend one of those dreadful rituals, ever conscious that they might well be hanging an innocent person, as we now know happened all too often. Neither would I be required, as I once was, to sit up through the long night with a condemned man’s family, as the kitchen clock ticked the hours and minutes away.

Not all prisons boasted what was known grimly as a ‘hanging shed’, but Wandsworth did, and so today the remains of most of the 135 victims of its gallows lie in unmarked graves within its fortress-like walls. Mostly convicted murderers, they also included wartime traitors like William Joyce

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During my early Fleet Street years, in the 195o’s, we hacks were chillingly familiar with the grim ritual of hanging. I still remember with a shudder having to wait outside Wandsworth or some other prison as, inside, a condemned man was led by the chaplain from his cell to the waiting gallows. At the prison gates, as the execution hour approached, usually nine o’clock in the morning, one would see, trying desperately to comfort one another, a small group of the prisoner’s sobbing family.

Always there too, dressed in black, would be Mrs Violet van der Elst, the wealthy campaigner against capital punishment, kneeling on the cobbles and praying for the soul of the condemned. Finally, maybe twenty minutes later, the prison gate, or rather a small door set into it, would open and a warder would emerge and put up a small framed notice declaring that so-and-so had been ‘judicially executed’. It was signed, if I remember rightly, by the Prison Governor and the Coroner. At this, Mrs van der Elst would say a few quiet words of comfort to the bereft family and then slip away in her chauffeur-driven car. At the time most people thought her mad to crusade so passionately for an end to the death sentence. And yet, within ten years, the last hanging in Britain had taken place, and her heroic efforts were finally vindicated. Never again, thank God, did I have to attend one of those dreadful rituals, ever conscious that they might well be hanging an innocent person, as we now know happened all too often. Neither would I be required, as I once was, to sit up through the long night with a condemned man’s family, as the kitchen clock ticked the hours and minutes away. Not all prisons boasted what was known grimly as a ‘hanging shed’, but Wandsworth did, and so today the remains of most of the 135 victims of its gallows lie in unmarked graves within its fortress-like walls. Mostly convicted murderers, they also included wartime traitors like William Joyce, better known as Lord Haw-Haw, whose body was later exhumed and reburied in Ireland. One reason most bodies we re not returned to their families was, apparently, as the report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment put it, because ‘hanging elongates the neck’. Another horrifying detail that emerged from that enquiry was the number of individuals who applied each year for the post of public hangman. I don’t, after all this time, remember precisely how many, but it was clear that there were an alarming number of individuals around who fancied killing but preferred to do so legally – and be paid for it. All these disturbing memories of half a century ago were brought back to me recently when I heard about a little-known, privately published book, Wandsworth Prison: A History, written by one of its senior staff, Stewart McLoughlin, and bearing the official imprint of the prison itself. It is not on sale in conventional bookshops, but I eventually found a copy at the small Wandsworth Museum in Garratt Lane. It was with some hesitation that I began to turn its pages, knowing what grim memories it might trigger, for I had had to ‘cover’ at least five hangings there. These included that of Derek Bentley, a mentally subnormal 1 9- year-old who never killed anyone. I had been present in Croydon on the night his companion, Christopher Craig, shot dead a policeman during a raid on a warehouse. Craig himself escaped the gallows because he was then only 16. The book carries photographs, among many others, of the interior of the ‘hanging shed’, with staff demonstrating their positions during an execution, portraits of several hangmen and murderers, and a wooden box showing ‘execution equipment’, including the rope itself. The caption to the latter explains that ‘all execution equipment from the 1920s was held in store at Wandsworth and dispatched to other prisons when needed’. Other pictures show Francis Forsyth, an 18-year-old, hanged for murder as recently as November 1960, and also Mrs van der Elst herself outside the prison gates as long ago as 1935. A grisly appendix lists the names of all those, including three women, hanged at Wandsworth between 1878 and 1961, with the date of their execution. Though executions were abolished in this country, they continued to flourish elsewhere. During my professional travels as a journalist I met the public executioners of both Zanzibar and Algiers, while on arriving in New York as a foreign correspondent in 1959 I was informed by our bureau chief that I would have to witness the execution in California of Caryl Chessman. Happily, however, I was spared the horror of this by being sent instead to revolutionary Cuba to report on dramatic events there. Though this history of Wandsworth Prison (which covers its 150-year span) could have been more thoroughly proofread, it is nevertheless a salutary reminder of prison life, and death, not so very long ago.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Peter Hopkirk 2004


About the contributor

Peter Hopkirk spent over 3 0 years in Fleet Street as a reporter and foreign correspondent before turning full-time author, writing six books on the Great Game and Central Asia.

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