For the crime of wilful murder during 19th century Britain, the ultimate penalty was to be executed. The preferred method was hanging and a considerable number of working men and women ended their lives in this manner on the gallows, with Lancaster a prominent venue for these acts. In an age where violence against women was commonplace, it was no surprise that many women suffered death at the hands of violent partners. Drunkenness, mental illness and despair were often major factors.
Right up to 1868, hangings were public affairs which attracted a huge amount of interest. The “short drop” method of hanging, in which the victim took between 10 to 20 minutes to die from strangulation, was still in widespread use up to 1877. The announcement of a hanging at Lancaster Castle created great excitement with people travelling far and wide to witness these macabre events. Special trains were often provided to would be spectators, while others would walk considerable distances from Preston and elsewhere to attend. Among those who ended their lives on the gallows of Lancaster Castle were four men from Preston and the surrounding area,
Woman Shot Dead by her Husband
Richard Pedder was a boatman, 50 years of age who lived on the banks of the River Wyre in the village of Hambleton near Poulton le Fylde. The cottage he shared with his wife Elizabeth Pedder was situated about one hundred yards from the Shovels Inn in the village. Both Richard and Elizabeth were said to suffer from intemperate habits and quarrelled frequently. Richard had also been in frequent trouble for assaulting people and breaches of the peace and had become worse since losing his boat during the storm of 1852.
On the evening of Monday 18th April 1853, after drinking for several hours in the Shovels Inn, Richard Pedder returned home and found his wife in the garden of their cottage. He was then said to have took hold of a duck gun, pointed it through the kitchen window and shot his wife Elizabeth in the head killing her instantaneously. He then left the dead women, returned to the Shovels Inn, ordered some more beer, before announcing several times that, “He had killed their Bet”
Two men went to the home of Richard Pedder where they found the body of Elizabeth covered in blood. An alarm was raised in the village but in the meantime Richard returned to the cottage, sat down next to his deceased wife and began weeping. He then dragged the body into the house, placed her into a sitting position on the sofa and sat beside her until a number of villagers and P C Cooper arrived. Richard Pedder made no secret of what he had done and was taken to the lock up while the authorities were informed.
As he was being escorted to Stalmine Police station by Police Constable Henry Cooper and a number of other men, he was alleged to have said,
“I took good aim, I am a capital shot and I am happy I have done it.”. When asked why he had done it he simply replied, “I don’t know”
An Inquest held at the Shovels Inn before the Coroner and Jury returned a verdict of “Wilful murder” against Richard Pedder. He was committed to take his trial at the August Assizes in Lancaster.
As the death sentence was passed on Richard Pedder at Lancaster, many believed the prisoner was not responsible for his actions and a plea for clemency soon attracted 530 signatures, among them the Mayor of Lancaster. The Home Secretary Lord Palmerston however saw no reason for recommending a Royal pardon.
The date for Richard Pedder’s execution was set for Saturday August 27th 1853. On the day in question people began to congregate opposite the scaffold before 8.00 am and each train into Lancaster brought fresh arrivals for those eager to witness the execution. The Preston Chronicle newspaper reported how they had been reliably informed that the mills in the Lancaster district were to close early so workers could have the opportunity to watch this horrifying spectacle.
Before 12, o’ clock many thousands of people had assembled at the North East parade and in the church yard, a great number who were women with young children. The whole affair appeared to have a holiday type atmosphere attached to it. Thirty five of the County Police and a number of Borough Police were present in the vicinity of the scaffold.
Richard Pedder took his last breakfast at 8.00 am and was allowed to meet with his distressed brother for a short while. Half an hour prior to the execution time he was given the Sacrament before being pinioned in the Chapel then escorted to the scaffold. At three minutes to 12, o’ clock the door leading to the scaffold was opened and the prisoner passed through upon the platform, followed by the Chaplain, the Governor of the gaol, the Under Sheriff and Calcraft the executioner.
Stepping on to the scaffold, Richard Pedder was heard to say.
“Lord Jesus, receive my soul”, before Calcraft adjusted the rope around his neck. He was even assisted in this task by Pedder, who being a tall man, bent down his head to receive the rope. The executioner then drew a white cap over his head and face, while he and Pedder whispered a few sentences to each other. A few second after the bolt was drawn. As the drop fell, groans and shrieks were heard among the crowd as Richard Pedder’s body convulsed at the end of the rope.
After hanging for the usual time of one hour the body of Richard Pedder was cut down to await being interred within the castle precincts. He was the last person to be executed by the “short drop” method at Lancaster Castle. (PC Apr’ 23rd, Aug’ 20th & Sep’ 3rd 1853)
The last known “short drop” type execution was believed to have been carried out at Armley gaol, Leeds in 1877. After this date the more humane “long drop” method was adopted which brought instant death by breaking the victims neck, rather than the previous method of strangulation.
Husband Murders his Wife by Poisoning
During March 1857 an Inquest was held at the Royal Oak Inn, Chorley, before Mr Myers, the Coroner, on the body of 32 year old Ellen Hardman, the wife of Edward Hardman a shoemaker of “Botany Bay”. Ellen died in rather mysterious circumstances on March 5th 1857 and was interred at Brindle Parish Church several days later. Suspicions were raised that Edward Hardman had contributed to the death of his wife by administering poison to her. As a consequence an order was given to exhume the body of Ellen Hardman so her remains could be examined. In the meantime Edward Hardman was arrested and detained in custody.
Evidence submitted at the Inquest by Mr Henry Hugh Watson, analytical chemist of Bolton confirmed a presence of Antimony and Arsenic in the body of Ellen Hardman. Mr H Critchley, a druggist of Preston deposed that on March 2nd 1857, a person named Edward Hardman purchased from his shop half a pound of Arsenic. He gave his address and occupation as Bamber Bridge, Shoemaker. Later investigations revealed that no one of that name lived in Bamber Bridge.
Further evidence revealed that Edward Hardman was a member of several Burial Clubs and stood to gain financially from the death of his wife. He would receive £2 /10 shillings from Brindle Burial School Club, £3 from the Brindle Druids Club, £3 from a funeral club at John Bolton’s, £2/10 shillings from a club held at the Halfway House called the Sick List and £3 from a society called the Shepherds Club.
Sarah Crawshaw who lived next door to the deceased told the Inquest she went to see Ellen Hardman every day from the time she became ill to when she died. She personally saw her vomiting and purged several times in that period. The Inquest jury returned a verdict of Wilful murder and ordered Hardman to take his trail at the Lancaster Assizes.
At his subsequent trial at Lancaster CastleEdward Hardman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by hanging.
With the execution of Edward Hardman due to take place on August 29th 1857, work began on erecting the scaffold during the previous day at the North West side of Lancaster Castle, and was completed by midnight. Even at such a late hour a constant stream of curious spectators watched as the workmen prepared the scaffold ready for use the following day.
From early morning on the day of the execution great crowds of people began to arrive at the castle. Astonishingly some had walked considerable distances from as far away as Chorley, Clitheroe and East Lancashire, while special train loads of people had also arrived from Bolton, Preston and elsewhere. Several hundred persons had also reportedly travelled from the Chorley and surrounding area, where the scene of Hardman’s murder had taken place.
Long before noon when the execution was scheduled to take place, the North parade of the castle was crowded with hundreds of people lining the Church yard facing the gallows. Calcraft the hangman had arrived the night before from Chester after carrying out an execution there. As he went for an evening stroll around the castle area he was recognised and followed up Market St by an ever increasing crowd of curious onlookers. Feeling uneasy, Calcraft entered a public house and shook of his followers be ejecting through a rear door and making his way back to the castle.
The day preceding the execution Edward Hardman’s whole demeanour changed. He became particularly anxious about his clothing, fearing they should be taken by the hangman Calcraft. He even went so far as to pledge his clothes among the prison officers. Since his conviction he had received no family visits even though he had a brother and sister still alive. His only visitors had been his defence Attorney, Reverend Brown the Priest of Lancaster and the prison Chaplain, the Reverend Rowley. During these visits Hardman had apparently said, had it not been for his drunkenness and Sabbath breaking, he would not have been in his current position. He also expressed gratitude at the kind treatment he had received at the gaol. On his last evening he ate well and retired to bed about 10.00 pm but woke in the early hours to resume prayers.
As the time of execution drew near the estimated 8,000 crowd became tense. A good proportion was women and children who formed a dense mass across the Church yard. Shortly before mid day the prisoner was brought from his cell across the debtors yard clutching a crucifix and prayer book. He was handed over to Calcraft who commenced to pinion the man ready for the mournful procession to the gallows. As the prison officials and other dignitaries removed their hats, the castle bell tolled signalling the approach of the solemn procession and within minutes the convict, accompanied by Calcraft, walked on to the scaffold. Hardmans face turned ashen pale as his lips moved in continuous prayer. Calcraft drew the white cap over the unfortunate man’s face, adjusted the noose and left the scaffold.
Quickly the bolt was drawn and the drop fell. Despite a slight convulsive twitching of Edward Hardman’s pinioned arms, death came without a struggle. As groans of pity came from the crowd nearest the scaffold, many of the spectators appeared awe struck by what they had witnessed. After an hour the body of Edward Hardman was removed from the scaffold, to be interred in the section of the Church yard reserved for those who ended their days on the gallows. (PC Mar’ 28th, Apr’ 4th, Aug’15th, Aug 29th & Sep’ 5th 1857)
Woman Kicked and Punched to Death by Abusive Husband
One of the most distressing murders ever heard of in Lancashire during the second half of the 19th century occurred in Preston in 1865 and involved a man named Stephen Burke. A native of Ireland Burke was a 40 year old journeyman Tailor, who lived with his family in Brunswick St in the Avenham district of Preston. He had always been in regular employment since settling in Preston in the 1840’s. Sadly his life began to spiral out of control as he descended into frequent bouts of drunkenness. While in this state he would often ill treat and abuse his wife and children and find himself in trouble with the Police and Magistrates.
On the afternoon of Sunday January 29th 1865 Stephen Burke returned home in a drunken state and began abusing his wife, who then decided to take herself and young children to bed. Burke followed and the abuse continued intermittently until around midnight. He then awoke his 13 year old daughter Mary Ann and ordered her to fetch a wooden bedpost from another room so he could make a fire with it.
About 4.00 am in the morning the girl again awoke to find her father striking her mother about the head with the wooden bedpost. Terrified, the girl grabbed a shawl, ran out of the house and hid in a neighbouring lobby where she remained in the bitter cold and biting wind , the streets being covered in snow, for over three hours. About 07.30 in the morning Mary Ann Burke finally alerted a neighbour who summoned the Police. Mary Burke had suffered horrific injuries to the head and bled to death. Stephen Burke was arrested at home, seemingly oblivious as to what he had done.
This awful tragedy was further highlighted at the Coroner’s Inquest which took place days later, when the devastating impact of the effects of drunkenness was laid before the court. The house in which the Burke family lived in Brunswick St was described as a “drunkards home”, furnished with scarcely any household requisites. What items of furniture it did posses were of the most meagre and valueless description.
The front bedroom contained a small dirty bed on which the unfortunate woman, her husband and five children had slept. The only covering for the bed was an old dirty blanket. The back room contained a bedstead but with no bedding. It was believed Burke had disposed of the bedding for procuring drink
The jury recorded a verdict of guilty of wilful murder and further committed for trial at the Lancaster Assizes.
It was at Lancaster Castle that Burke received the death sentence.
While Stephen Burke languished in the death cell at Lancaster Castle awaiting execution, he wrote a long despairing letter to his brother Edward in Preston, parts of which read
Dear Brother Edward,
“I write this letter to you all and let me know how you are all getting on in Preston and how is my poor mother getting on since I got the sentence of death upon me. Dear Edward you will look after all my children to come and see me, as it is the last time I will see them in this world.
Little did I ever know I was to die such a disgraceful death as is going to take place and I hope the Lord will forgive my sins, as it is drink that has brought me to this sad end. I hope you will never drink as it is a curse to take it at all. Dear Edward, tell my mother not to come to see me as she would not go back alive.
I will never see my poor brother Joseph alive any more but I send my love and also to my poor sister Mary Ann and husband and little Edward. I send my love to them all and also my brother John and family, Miles and family. Dear brother James, I send my love to you all and I hope you will never drink anymore. See what drink has brought your brother Stephen to, the gallows, to a bad end. Dear brother William , I send my love to you also and you would have a blessing to take one of my sons, as they are left without father and mother in this world.
Dear son James, I send my love to you and I hope you will come to see the last of your poor father in this world. It will be next Saturday and I hope you will be a good son and look after your little brothers and sisters. No more at present from your affectionate brother until death and that will be very soon. Show this letter to my brothers and to my son James and God the father and God the Son and God the Holy Ghost pour his blessing upon you all.”
Several days later Burke’s eldest son, a lad of about 18, sought permission to remove his younger siblings from several workhouses in the Preston area, where they had been languishing since their mother’s murder. The six children, together with Stephen Burke’s five brothers, along with two of his brother’s wives, then all travelled to Lancaster Castle to visit the condemned man for the last time.
Stephen Burke wept uncontrollably as he met his family. He admitted to one that,
“I do not deny that I did it, but I have not got the slightest recollection of it.”
The youngest of Burke’s children who was about four months old, was allowed to be handed to him in the cell, whom he kissed and stroked affectionately. It was a heart rending scene, which it was reported even had a number of prison officers in tears.
From about 11.00 am on March 25th 1865, the day of the execution, there was a great increase in the crowd congregating in front of the gallows. There was also a general rush among the spectators to obtain a good viewing spot in the Church yard, from where a better view of the gallows could be had. Immediately beneath the gallows the concourse of interested spectators was great and was occupied principally by women of all ages with many children as well. The solemn toll of the Lancaster Castle bell was heard shortly before mid day.
Immediately afterwards the hangman Calcraft emerged from the gaol closely followed by the condemned man Burke. Also in close attendance was the Catholic Priest of Lancaster, the Reverend Brown who had been unremitting in his attention to the prisoner since the sentence was passed. Mr Brown was deeply engaged in prayer as was Stephen Burke, who was dressed in a pair of white trousers, which he had specially requested for the occasion from one of his brothers, along with a grey vest. He appeared to be suffering great mental anguish and as he was positioned under the scaffold beam he looked skywards.
About 7,000 people had arrived to witness this morbid spectacle with packed trains arriving in Lancaster throughout the morning. As frequently happened at public executions, many people had arrived on foot from surrounding villages, while many more were reported to have walked from Preston. Some who made the decision to walk from Preston and beyond set off the previous evening.
The place of execution was the North West corner of the castle and it was here the congregation gathered. The hangman Calcraft then placed the customary white cap over the unfortunate man’s head and the rope around his neck, tightening it under the chin, before retiring away from the scaffold. The hangman then drew the bolt and Burke fell with a thud, which met with an audible gasp from the onlookers.
Within the watching crowd were many persons who had known Stephen Burke for many years. Among them was his brother Edward whom the condemned man had requested to attend the hanging until it was all over. As Burke had been led to the scaffold his brother Edward cried out, “Oh brother, I am here”. As the drop fell, the distress was too much and he fainted and fell upon one of the gravestones in the Church yard. In another extremely sad twist, one of Burke’s children, a young girl of about 12 years of age who had made the journey to Lancaster from Preston with her uncle, lost her way as they made their way to the place of execution. . The child found herself wandering the streets until she was eventually recognised in Market St and taken care of.
The execution of Stephen Burke in 1865 was the last public hanging ever carried out at Lancaster Castle. The grotesque spectacle of public hanging in Britain finally ended in 1868.