The grisly tale of County Durham's last public execution

Roll back a couple of hundred years and there wasn’t a great deal to do during your leisure time.

By Tony Gillan
Sunday, 31st May 2020, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 1st June 2020, 11:54 am

Executions as public entertainment

If you weren’t working, resting or worshipping, there was little to keep you occupied.

People might go for a walk once a day, not too far from home. But that was about it, if you can imagine such a thing.

This balcony in Old Elvet, Durham, was built in 1816 so spectators could have e better view of public executions. The house is now party of Durham University's sociology department.

This partly explains the popularity of public executions back then.

Such events were supposed to serve as a judicial example to the masses and deter other potential miscreants. The reality was that it provided a day out for people who wanted to whoop it up for a while.

Charles Dickens was one of those who watched in horror the “tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight” before writing to The Times in 1849.

He said: “I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution could be imagined by no man.”

Public executions were held outside Durham Crown Court until 1865

Yet most execution watchers seemed to treat them as we would now consider a free open-air concert on a bank holiday.

Amateur executioners in County Durham

Killjoys had put paid to drawing and quartering by the 19th century, but a good hanging could still draw the crowds.

Hordes would travel from miles around, some on foot, some by train, to see a public execution. Most court cases and subsequent hangings from round here were sent over to Durham in them days, so a few from Sunderland will have made their way to the gallows in Durham City for a spot of fun and banter.

It might seem weird to us, but County Durham's last public execution, the horrific "double" hanging of Matthew Atkinson in 1865, was enjoyed by the watching crowd.

Until 1816 these were carried out where the University of North Durham Hospital now stands. No experience or training was necessary to become an executioner.

In 1780, Bartholomew Pendleton got the job because his cousin was a canon at Durham Cathedral. His inexperience saw his first punter being accidentally decapitated instead of hanged. This must have been awful as it meant that Bartholomew wasn’t paid.

He overcame this by using a shorter rope. No more heads came off, although the condemned could take up to 30 minutes to die in agony. But at least Barty got paid.

The last person to have been executed there was one Ann Crampton in 1816, convicted of “cutting and maiming”. We won’t elaborate on what she cut and maimed, suffice to say that Mr Crampton had little sympathy for his wife’s plight.

A Monkwearmouth man is first to be hanged on the new gallows

Executions then moved to the ‘”new drop” where Durham County Court, built in 1811, still stands. You can still see in the court’s brickwork where the gallows were pegged.

A balcony which still stands above the first floor of a house (now part of Durham University’s sociology department) on New Elvet opposite, was purportedly built to get a better view of the first hanging at the new site, on August 17, 1816.

There will have been a few Mackems in the crowd that day as it was a local boy who topped the bill. John Grieg, a barber from Monkwearmouth, had shot dead Elizabeth Stonehouse who wouldn’t stop taunting him about his illegitimate child.

The owner of the new balcony was said to have sold tickets. Disappointingly for the bumper crowd, the execution went smoothly.

But all this fun and frivolity came to an end by the mid 19th century.

In 1865 the last publicly execution in this county, County Durham as Sunderland was part of then, was held, and it did not go at all smoothly.

In fact it was so gruesome as to help put paid to the practice altogether. Afterwards you could have a bit of privacy while being terminated, which made your expiry all the more tolerable.

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The last public execution in County Durham is about to go horribly wrong

The unfortunate subject at the centre of the occasion was a miner called Matthew Atkinson, who became an ex-Atkinson on Thursday, March 16, 1865. Eventually.

A contemporary written account of his execution goes into morbidly fascinating and quite unnecessary detail about his trial and execution.

He had been convicted of murdering his wife Ellen in a trial that began on March 3. The foreman of the jury was also called Atkinson, but not a relative. It took the jury just 44 minutes to reach their verdict.

Nevertheless, there is little evidence that Atkinson, 43, from Spen in what is now Gateshead, was anything other than a rotter. The court heard that Ellen’s murder on December 17, 1864 took up to an hour. He beat her to death after coming home to find that the fire was out.

In mitigation he pointed out to the court that he was drunk and that it had been a bit chilly that day. The defence also attempted to reduce the charge to manslaughter, talking up Atkinson’s supposed good character and his wife’s bad one.

It did him no good. He was convicted of “beating his wife in the most unmerciful manner for a full hour” and sentenced to death.

Second time ‘lucky’ for Matthew Atkinson

Before the usual baying mob, an incompetent executioner called Askern put the noose round Atkinson’s neck and pulled the bolt. But the rope “snapped like a piece of packthread”, reports say, and the prisoner fell 15 feet onto the court steps.

The crowd cheered and there was great excitement, partly because no one in the crowd knew exactly what had happened, or if Mr Atkinson was still of this world.

Twenty minutes later Mr Askern had another go.

Atkinson, now in excruciating pain, “his neck being circled by a dark mark” after the first botched job and the fall having done him no favours either, was now put in a noose that was too tight to be humane, not that humanity topped the agenda at this point, with a rope that was too thick and too stiff.

According to the report: “The consequence was that when the drop fell, the unhappy criminal strugled (sic) frightfully for several seconds before the gallows did its horrible mission.”

Note the gloriously redundant use of the word “unhappy” there. Still, a double hanging meant the crowd on the balcony were getting their money’s worth.

Parliamentary reform

Even though public hangings in County Durham only took place every couple of years or so, a bit like the Ryder Cup, it was beginning to be felt that grisly executions like that of Matthew Atkinson, should not be a form of mass entertainment.

The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 was passed and the fun was over. The act meant no more taking the little ones to enjoy the hangings.

Executions were thenceforth conducted in private, such as that of the serial killer and tea-spoiler Mary Ann Cotton inside Durham Gaol in 1873. The balcony would have been a sell-out for that one.

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