Executions at Leicester Prison
There have been 23 executions carried out at Leicester Prison, between the years 1829 and 1953. The youngest person executed was John Swift, aged 19 in 1877, and the oldest was Thomas Bloxham, aged 62, in 1887. With the exception of the first four executions (carried out for offences of horse theft and highway robbery), all executions were carried out for offences of murder. All of those executed were male, with the exception of Sarah Smith in 1832 and there have been two triple executions, in 1829 and 1877, and two double executions, in 1903 and 1944.
Executions at Leicester Prison were originally carried out publicly, typically attracting many thousands of spectators. All of those executed were male, with the exception of Sarah Smith in 1832 and there have been two triple executions
On 20th April 1829, a triple execution was carried out in front of the newly opened prison when Charles Forrester aged 21, John Hinton aged 25 and William Varnam aged 24 were hanged for horse stealing. In reporting the incident, the Leicester Chronicle newspaper noted that after the executioner had pulled caps over the faces of the condemned men, “a short but painful suspense took place, owing to some difficulty in removing the bolt which causes the platform on which they stood, to fall”. It was also noted that about half of the huge crowd that had assembled to watch the event was women and children.
On 7th April 1830, John Watkins aged 28 was hanged for highway robbery. On 26th March 1832, a particularly large crowd attended the hanging of Sarah Smith, a 28 year old woman from Mountsorrel. She had killed Elizabeth Wood, a woman in her care, by adding arsenic to her tea. This was the only execution of a female to be carried out at Leicester Prison.
Also in 1832, a prisoner hanged at Leicester became one of the last two men in England to be gibbeted. James Cook aged 21 was a bookbinder, convicted of the murder of his creditor Paas, a manufacturer of brass instruments, in Leicester. He was executed on Friday 10th August 1832 in front of the prison. Following his execution it was noted: “The head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.”
His body was displayed on a purpose-built gallows, 33 ft high in Saffron Lane near the Aylestone Tollgate and, according to The Newgate Calendar, “thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.” Gibbeting was soon after abolished in England, in 1834.
William Hubbard aged 23 was hanged on 1st April 1846, for the murder of his wife at Leicester, having cut her throat with a butcher's knife. John Fowkes aged 45 was hanged on 19th March 1856 for the murder of his 20 year old nephew, John Acres Fowkes, at Snarestone.
The last public execution at Leicester Prison took place on July 25th 1856, when an estimated crowd of 25,000 gathered to watch the hanging of William (‘Peppermint Billy’) Brown, aged 33, for the murder of Edward Woodward, a 78 year old tollgate keeper of Thorpe Arnold and his ten year old grandson.
Following the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 public executions were abolished and all hangings thereafter were carried out inside the prison, behind closed doors.
There were eight executions at Leicester Prison during the twentieth century, between 1903 and 1953.
At 8 am on 21st July 1903, a double hanging took place in the prison's ‘execution shed’, when Thomas Porter aged 29 and Thomas Preston aged 24 were hanged for the murder of PC William Adiel Wilkinson of Sileby. Both men protested their innocence before the trapdoor fell, after which the gaol bell was tolled and a black flag was flown from the roof of the prison to signal to the public that justice had been served. The executioner was William Billington.
William Henry Palmer aged 51, a painter from Manchester, was hanged on 19th July 1911 for the murder of 72 year old Ann Harris at Walcote, near Lutterworth. The executioner was James Ellis.
Arnold Warren aged 32 was hanged on 12th November 1914 for the murder of his young son, James Warren. Thomas William Thorpe aged 61 was hanged on 23rd December 1941 for the murder of his wife, Nellie. This was the first execution at the prison for 27 years.
A further double hanging was carried out at the prison on 8th August 1944. William Alfred Cowle aged 31 was hanged for the murder of Norah Payne in the city's Springfield Road, alongside William Frederick George Meffen aged 52, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of his stepdaughter in Derby. Their execution was performed by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew Albert.
The last execution was that of Joseph Christopher Reynolds aged 31, convicted at Leicester Assizes for the murder of Janet Warner, and hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on November 17th, 1953.