Executions at Pentonville Prison: Looking back on capital punishment in Caledonian Road
- Credit: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES
Pentonville Prison: not a place you want to spend time in, if recent reports of its poor conditions are anything to go by. But in the 20th century, 121 inmates faced a far more daunting fate.
Drugs. Squalor. Gang activity. Suicides. Overcrowding. Rooftop protests.
At least one of these themes always seem to crop up whenever Pentonville Prison, in Caledonian Road, is in the news.
It’s safe to assume the majority of inmates at the 174-year-old prison have a rough time of it.
But it wasn’t always this way. Ask the 121 men who were executed there between 1902 and 1961.
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At 18, Henry Jacoby was one of the youngest. He was hanged in 1922 for the murder of 66-year-old Alice White, panicking in the course of trying to rob her.
The day before, he appeared completely relaxed about his fate, playing cricket in the exercise yard.
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And in the moments before he died, Jacoby made a point of thanking the governor and prison officers for the kindness shown to him at Pentonville.
“That was common,” prison execution historian Richard Clark says. “It was partly down to the difference between the way inmates were looked after by the courts and prisons.
“The prison governors, chaplain and medical staff would go and visit them personally. They would be allowed to do pretty much what they wanted in the lead-up to their execution, because of what was about to happen to them.”
Richard was speaking after a vigil for Roger Casement was held outside the prison walls on Wednesday.
It was held to mark the 100th anniversary of his execution for treason, after trying to enlist German military aid - during the First World War - for the Easter Rising that sought to gain Irish independence.
Peter Middleton, chairman of the London Easter 1916 Centenary Committee, says: “He had been a member of the British establishment but saw what was going on under British rule. It was fitting to have this vigil outside Pentonville.
“He was executed here because it was one of the few prisons where you could be executed. Also, it was within easy reach of central London for the trial.”
It was one of many executions that captivated public attention. It was common for people to gather outside the Pentonville gates before a hanging, Richard says.
“There has always been a morbid fascination with hanging. If you think about it, gathering outside the gates would be the closest people could get to an execution.
“There were no photos, and as the 20th century went on, media access became increasingly limited. In the 19th century, there would be whole columns dedicated to executions, with all the gruesome details.”
One of Pentonville’s most notorious executions was that of Timothy Evans. He was hanged in 1950, convicted of murdering his wife and daughter in Notting Hill.
But three years later, John Christie, his downstairs neighbour, was found to be a serial killer who murdered six other women in the same house. He later confessed to killing Mr Evans’s wife, though he would not confess to killing the child.
Mr Evans’s hanging was regarded as a serous miscarriage of justice, and Richard says: “It definitely played a part in the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, alongside the cases of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis.
“At the time, I was 15. I thought it was a good idea. But very soon after that, there were some seriously shocking cases: Myra Hindley and Ian Brady for one. Coincidence? It’s hard to say.”
See Richard Clark’s history of Pentonville Prison executions by visiting capitalpunishmentuk.org/penton.html