Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Execution of William Collier 1866

I came across a newspaper report in the Leek Post and Times of the birthday celebrations of a centenarian from Kingsley who informed the journalist that he had witnessed the last public hanging in Stafford in 1866 when he was a young man.

 IN 1866, the Kingsley farmer William Collier was living with his wife and family in a cottage. He had the reputation as a poacher supplementing his low income with game.  He had many mouths to fill as there were seven children. Collier’s activities were well known and this frequently led to conflict. The struggle between poachers and landowners in the 19th century was often a  violent one and it was to be the case with Collier and the 24 year old Thomas Smith a game keeper at Whiston Eaves. While poaching on land owned by Smith’s father a violent confrontation ensued. A shot was fired and the younger man fell to the ground and he was beaten to death by the stock of Collier’s gun. Although the poacher protested his innocence he was found guilty and sentenced to hang. Many local people made their way to Stafford to witness the execution scheduled to take place on the 7th August. The executioner was a Black Country man called George Smith who had a reputation for blundering .  Smith decided to use old rope for the hanging. The makeshift rope slipped off the beam and the poacher fell through into the pit underneath the scaffold with a loud sickening thud. A large crowd had gathered outside the scaffold, many were from Kingsley, as there was some sympathy for Collier .  As the condemned man fell  ; a cry went up that the rope had broke. The condemned man emerged from the pit dazed and blooded . The officials gathered around wondering what to do next. The priest officiating at the execution was heard to exclaim “God help me”. One of the prison guards ran off to find another rope which was soon acquired and the unfortunate Collier was strung up a second time. The crowd booed and yelled at Smith angered by his ineptitude.

19th century public hangings were notoriously rowdy affairs with the crowd often   engaged  in criminal activity.  Dickens railed against the antics of the mob after attending a public hanging in the 1850s “I was a witness of the execution at this morning. I believe  the  sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution “

Parliament legislated and two years after Collier’s execution ended the practice of public executions. The last man to die before a crowd was an Irish Republican called Barrett implicated in a prison break out that led to the death of many innocent bystanders following an explosion at Clerkenwell. In an odd instance of the old world clashing with the new many of the crowd  travelled  to the execution site at Newgate by the very modern underground train.

Execution techniques also improved in the following decade with the introduction of the “long drop” which broke the prisoner’s neck perfected by hangman William Marwood and first used on Burslem murderer William Horry in 1872.

The question of capital punishment occasionally returns to public debate, but it is worth recalling that 2014 sees the 50th anniversary of the last hanging in Britain when Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were executed at the same time at Liverpool and Manchester jails on the 13th August 1964 for the murder of John West a Cumbrian van driver following a botched robbery.