William Marwood

William Marwood

64, Foundry Street, Horncastle, Lincolnshire


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

William Marwood




Executioner, Shoe Dealer

Goulceby, Lincolnshire

Ellen Marwood





Northallerton, Yorkshire

Back from the morning service at the Wesleyan Methodist church, he is out tending his garden, making sure in particular that his tomato-plants are tickety-boo. His dog, Nero, yaps happily beside him. He himself is wheezing; he feels groggy; he has not felt well just recently. His smile is thin, slightly lop-sided. Sturdy, muscular, wide-shouldered, balding beneath his low felt cap, black coat from neck to knees, he rests on a bench and gazes indifferently at his upturned hands. Perhaps he is recalling the day they received that ruffian Peace, who had been the tattle of the country. The recent death-threats have not bothered him, any more than the surreptitious whistling of the Horncastle children. Under his breath, now: ?I never makes a botch of my work.? And never mind the national pun: if Pa killed Ma, who'd kill Pa? Marwood.

William Marwood was the public executioner, or at least the principal executioner. He was the first hangman not to be paid a salary, but a fee for each appointment. He was also the first always to conduct all his executions - all one hundred and seventy-six of them - within the confines of prison walls. (Public executions had only finally been discontinued in England in the 1860s.) He was the last to work at a time when every prison was allowed to construct its own gallows to a different design.

And he was the last of the major executioners not to write his memoirs for publication, either in a newspaper serial or a book. This might well have had something to do with extraordinary age at which he first took up the post - his first employment was on April 1st 1872, at the age of 54. His predecessor, another boot-and-shoe maker, William Calcraft, was 29 when he began his long and bungling career in 1829 (one of Marwood's most-quoted comments on the difference between himself and Calcraft was ?he hanged them; I execute them.?) His successor, a policeman called James Berry, was 32. Henry Pierrepoint and John Ellis were both 27, as indeed was Albert Pierrepoint, Henry's son.

Marwood was born in the village of Goulceby in 1818, the fifth of ten children born to William and Elizabeth Marwood. His father was also a shoe-maker - Marwood was briefly apprenticed to a miller before taking up his father's craft. But William Marwood the younger was not content to spend his life shoeing the citizens of nearby Horncastle, from his shop in Church Street, to which he had moved in his late twenties. He had, for instance, taken some serious mental time out to devise and to publicise a scheme which would abolish the National Debt. He was also a keen student of anatomy. He saw himself as the servant of the world; and this, doubtless, came from the devout Methodism he espoused - although he was also more than partial to drinking gin. Above all else, he loathed indolence, and compared himself favourably to those he despatched: 'Where there is guilt there is bad sleeping, but I am conscious that I try to live a blameless life. Detesting idleness, I pass my vacant time in business and work in my shoe-shop near the church day after day until such time as I am required elsewhere. It would have been better for those I executed if they had preferred industry to idleness.'

The amazing thing is the way in which he was appointed hangman largely through his own persistence. He had got it into his head that it would be a useful service, and he repeatedly badgered the governor of Lincoln prison, where there was a gallows, albeit seldom-used. He staged a dummy run, three years before Calcraft's retirement, to show off his techniques. This seems to have secured his reputation when Calcraft relinquished the post in 1874. He would also appear to have met Calcraft, since he is known to have possessed some of the rope Calcraft had used. One of the hangman's perks was to take possession of the dead person's clothes, and the ropes used to dispose of them. These could earn a tidy sum - by being exhibited, for instance at local fairs. It is likely that Marwood at least engaged Calcraft in discussion, as Berry would later beard Marwood. This may also have helped his cause.

As an executioner, however stern his demeanour, Marwood was greatly to be preferred to Calcraft. Calcraft's amiable manner was one thing - he is said to have had a stint as a butler - but his incompetence quite another. Until Marwood took up his post, execution at the end of a rope involved a risk of decapitation, and a likelihood of protracted strangulation. What Marwood knew - he is sometimes credited with its actual invention, although he was essentially the first practitioner of surgical theories already circulated - was that 'a long drop', providing the build of the victim was taken into consideration when calculating the length of that drop, would cause instantaneous death. Marwood is also credited with introducing the split trapdoor.

The Lincolnshire cobbler was the first man to treat his job as a profession - it was therefore somewhat ironic that he should have been the first to be paid at piece-rate. The question as to why any man in his senses would elect to be hangman is answered by the considerable fame the post attracted, not to mention the colossal bonus of free train journeys. Henry Pierrepoint, the early twentieth-century hangman, was frank about the perks of the post:

Perhaps the notion of seeing so many different towns had something to do with my desire, for I was very fond of travel.

It would have been the same for Marwood. The railway network enabled him to travel to his various appointments with ease, all expenses paid. After the quiet Lincolnshire life, it must have been an attractive prospect. Marwood's presence was required in Ireland, too. A letter survives from 1876 which indicates his professional authority; his command of the language may look a little faulty, but compulsory education was only introduced in 1875, and male illiteracy was still as high as 30% in rural areas when he was writing:

Pleas this is to inform you I shall arive at the Prison on Monday the 3rd day of April all well and bring all the things that is wanted for the Execution.

Sir, Pleas will you be so kind as to make some improvement in the Pitt in the Length of the Drop.

Pleas will you take out three feet Squair in the Senter of the Pitt and 3 feet Deep of this be don it will make a great improvement in the Execution you may depend on me to arive on Monday April the 3rd Day

Another letter, from 1879, is explicit about method:

Sir, in Replie to your Letter of this Day I will give you a Compleat Staitment for Executing a Prisoner -
1-Place Pinnion the Prisoner Round the Boadey and Arms Tight -
2 Place Bair The Neck -
3 Place Take The Prisoner to the Drop
4-Place - Place the Prisoner Beneath the Beam to stand Direct under the Rope from the Top of the Beam
5-Place Strap the Prisoners Leggs Tight
6 Place Putt on the Cap
7-Place Putt on the Rope Round the Neck Thite . Let the Cap be Free from the Rope to hide the Face angine Dow in Frunt
8-Place Executioner to go Direct Quick to the Leaver Let Down the Trap Doors Quick No - Greas to be Putt on the Rope

Marwood's efficient execution in 1872 at Lincoln of William Horry, a 28-year-old publican from Burslem, gave him the recommendations he needed to work elsewhere. He did not at first tell his second wife Ellen Andrews - his first wife Jessey had died in the 1860s, and he had re-married - the purpose of his trips. He told her he was off  'on legal business'. However, his fame was soon secure, and transformed his trade. Those in search of a new pair of heels were also shown some of the apparatus Marwood constantly sought to improve; his prices increased, too (there was a craze for buying bootlaces from him). His neighbours grew familiar with test runs, conducted with sacks of corn. The imposing words 'Crown Officer' appeared on a sign outside his shop. He had calling cards printed, reading 'Wm. Marwood Executioner'. No doubt they were eagerly snapped up by the various audiences he drew at Horncastle's horse fairs, and similar events further afield. At these he would show off the ropes, gimlets, straps and various mementoes of his trips, and much enjoyed discussing his late-found trade.

To be technical about his 'improvements', it was Marwood's re-positioning of the noose's knot under the left ear, as well as the increase of the drop to between seven and eight feet, which caused instantaneous unconsciousness (not death, although this followed in two minutes). His technique fractured the necks of the condemned men and women, where previously they would have strangled. He was assiduous in ensuring that his ropes and tackle were manufactured to his specifications, including a leather washer which helped the rope to run smoothly, and a metal ring to replace the slip-knot. It was Marwood, too, who introduced tables calculating the relationship between the victim's weight and the length of the drop.

William Marwood in the 1870s

Various myths naturally attach themselves to Marwood, who would of course have been something of a bogeyman to children (although he apparently supervised children's races at the local fair). The joke about drinking 'a long drop' is a bit too obvious to be credited to him. A little more likely is the exchange said to have taken place on a train. A man recognised him, and asked him whether they had met before. 'It would not have been at eight o'clock in the morning,' riposted Marwood.

Marwood did not entertain any sentimental thoughts about his victims. Unlike many of his successors, he did not regret any individual instances. 'I sleep as soundly as a child,' he said. This is in contrast to Berry, Albert Pierrepoint, and John Ellis, all of whom recanted (Ellis actually committed suicide). However, according to Berry, ?he keenly felt the odium with which his office was regarded by the public?. He also insisted to Berry, 'My position is not a pleasant one - no! it is not a pleasant one!' But Marwood's cool on the scaffold was demonstrated most particularly when a letter arrived about a prisoner he was in the process of hanging, in Glasgow. The governor signalled to Marwood to stop. It could have been a reprieve. It wasn't. Marwood carefully gave no sign to the man in his grip that anything unusual was taking place.

Marwood hanged political assassins (the Phoenix Park murderers - he travelled to Ireland disguised as a clergyman). He hanged a grandmother, Frances Stewart, who had killed her grandchild. One recorded bungle was in York in 1878, when a Vincent Walker took two minutes to be still. He hanged Kate Webster, a servant who had hacked her mistress with an axe. And, most famously, he hanged Charlie Peace in 1879.

Charlie Peace was as famous in England as Jesse James - who died two years later - was in the U.S.A. His life had all the ingredients of a melodrama - last-minute escapes, daring to attend the trial of two men accused of a murder he'd committed, an attachment to writing doggerel, a way with women, the chutzpah to ask policemen the way, a string of robberies, dexterity with a pistol, the murder of an arresting officer, and, above all, skill with the violin. He seems to have had one eye on posterity, having narrowly failed to convince his jury that his fatal shot was accidental. Accounts of how the condemned had borne themselves were popular items in the local and national press. Peace was anxious - like Charles I - lest his shivering on the cold morning of February 25th in Armley Gaol should make him seem afraid. He had had a persistent cough overnight. 'I wonder if Marwood could cure this cough of mine,' he remarked to his warders.

Marwood, as was his habit, greeted his client. Peace was concerned that he would be treated roughly. 'I hope you will not punish me. I hope you will do your work quickly,' said Peace. Marwood: 'You shall not suffer pain from my hand.' Peace: 'God bless you.' Now they knelt together and asked God's blessing - another of Marwood's routines. Then they shook hands. Marwood also allowed Peace a rather lengthy speech, before completing his task.

Marwood's last execution was in Durham on August 6th, 1883. He hanged a Sunderland bigamist, James Burton, who had killed his eighteen-year-old 'wife'. Only four weeks later, Marwood died himself, on September 4th, from inflammation of the lungs. Idle rumour had it that he had been poisoned by Irish sympathisers whilst sharing a few drinks in his Horncastle local, The Portland Arms - revenge for executing the Phoenix Park murderers. However, another account suggests that Burton's death was another rare example of a botched job, with the rope uncharacteristically slipping, and the condemned man having to be hauled up and 'dropped' a second time - and that this disaster was the finish of Marwood. His wife Ellen, something of a boozer, survived him only a month or so - long enough to sell his clothes to Madame Tussaud's, and the ropes to a lucky Mr. James Harrison of Dispey Road, Horncastle, who was not disposed to split his new collection. Since the second Mrs. Marwood left no children, all her disposable possessions were then auctioned - including Marwood's dog. They fetched a high price. His children from his first marriage profited: Marwood had done well out of his business, after a lifetime of relative poverty. He was said at his death to have owned several cottages. Curio-seekers chipped away his gravestone for fragments until there was nothing left of it at all.


Ellen Marwood was actually 64 at the time of the census, not 62. The address given by the enumerator is not the one usually associated with the Marwoods - 149, Foundry Street.


Lincolnshire Family History Society Magazine: Marwood's letter and obituary, vol 5 no 2 Jun 1994

Lincolnshire Life - The Lincolnshire hangman,vol 8 no 11 Jan 1969; vol 9 no 1 Mar 1969; vol 9 no 2 Apr 1969 p47; Alex Marwood (no relation): The gentleman executioner, vol 35 no 11 Feb 1996

Adam Hart-Davis and Paul Bader: The Book Of Victorian Heroes Sutton 2001

Albert Pierrepoint, Executioner: Pierrepoint Harrap 1974

James Berry, My Experiences as an Executioner, Lund & Co. 1892

John Ellis, Diary Of A Hangman Forum Press 1996

H.B. Irving, A Book Of Remarkable Criminals Cassell 1918

The Law Journal, 8 September 1883

St. Stephen's Review, 3 November 1883

Illustrated Police News, 15 November 1883

Anonymous: The Life And Career of Marwood the Executioner, G.Purkess, about 1890 (Police News edition)