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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