The last public hangings

By Gerald Hinks

It was positively the final performance of Duncan Livingstone. And the bagpipe man had never had such a large or receptive audience.

The crowds came in their hundreds to Rochester on the crisp winter’s morning. Many were wearing their Sunday best. They chattered expectantly. And the occasion had a civic seal with the presence of the mayor and the town clerk. The date was 3 February, 1820.

The scene was the cattle market on Rochester Common, where housewives now jostle around stalls looking for bargains every Friday.

And the stage was a wooden platform overshadowed by a gallows. This was Rochester’s last public hanging. The star of the grisly show was a familiar Medway Town’s character. Duncan Livingstone made a living by dressing up in Scottish costume and playing the bagpipes in the streets. He was usually accompanied by a little boy who collected money for him in a tin mug.

When the boy was found brutally murdered there was one obvious suspect. Livingstone was a drunkard who was known to have a violent temper when under the influence. A reward of £100 was offered for his capture.

Within a few days a Chatham carter gave a lift to a scarecrow of a man who had run from the woods on to the road near Gad’s Hill, Higham. The carter recognised his emaciated passenger as Livingstone. And when he reached his destination, Gravesend, he handed the bagpipe man over to the authorities.

The carter received his £100 reward but it did him no good. He took to drink and was killed when he was drunk. He fell off his driving seat and was crushed under the wheels of his own wagon.

Livingstone was tried in Rochester Guildhall. The verdict was a formality. Livingstone admitted the murder. And according to witnesses repeatedly declared that he had been a great sinner, that he deserved to die, and that he had made his peace with God.

Livingstone’s execution was recorded for posterity by the Kentish Courier, which then was the only paper covering the city news. The first real local paper, Samuel Caddel’s Rochester Gazette, did not appear until a year after the execution.

The Courier’s reporter had an eye for macabre detail on that historic morning. He explained: ‘‘The conduct of the man from the period of his condemnation had been humble, contrite and becoming his awful situation.”

When the irons were knocked off the prisoner in Rochester jail at 10 o’clock on the execution day, people had already begun assembling in the cattle market. For the next hour Livingstone was attended by the Vicar of St Nicholas Church, the Rev F Barrow. The time had come for the administration of the last sacrament. “The culprit appeared duly impressed,” the Courier’s man reported with unconscious wryness.

As noon struck, Livingstone climbed into a wagon outside the jail. With him were the jailer and the executioner. He showed no signs of fear and had “a firm step and unaltered countenance”.

Livingstone was attended by a Calvinist minister, Mr Thomas Drew of the Zoar Chapel, Strood. Following the wagon was an open carriage carrying the mayor, Cllr S Nicholson; the town clerk, Mr J Prall; and the Rev Mr Barrow. Flanking the little procession was a group of police officers on horseback.

At the gallows Livingstone stood “with undaunted firmness” while the executioner put on the cap and adjusted the rope round his neck. Then Livingstone, an entertainer to the end, asked for permission to speak to the “vast multitude” who had come to watch. The mayor agreed.

And addressing the crowd as “comrades” Livingstone warned them to learn from his fate. Drunkenness, he said, had been the cause of his “untimely death”. The executioner pulled the cap down over Livingstone’s face and the chaplain prayed with him for a few minutes.

The crowd gasped as Livingstone cried out: “God bless you all! The Lord receive my spirit and grant that my sufferings may be soon over.”  A signal was given and then, wrote the Courier reporter, “the unfortunate malefactor was launched into eternity and appeared to experience little bodily suffering”. The body was taken down, put into a coffin, and at night was deposited in the burial ground of the parish under the castle wall.

The Courier reporter added the postscript: “The proceedings on this melancholy occasion were conducted with the greatest propriety and solemnity and reflect the highest credit on the mayor for the attention he has paid in providing every necessary means for the due execution of the law.”

Although this was the last public execution in Rochester, it was not the last in the Medway Towns.

In July 1834 Private Benjamin Gardiner of the 50th Regiment was hanged on Chatham Lines for the murder of a sergeant.  He was the last of the soldiers executed at their regimental headquarters as a warning to their comrades. The sergeant, Patrick Feeney, had been shot by Gardiner because he was friendly with the private’s wife.

As the hanging was started, a storm blew up and it was as dark as night. Some of the people watching thought that God was angry and ran to hide.

In the country as a whole the barbaric spectacles of public hangings continued for another 34 years. It was not until 1868 that the Government passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act which decreed that capital punishment would take place inside the walls of the prison in which the offender was confined.

The last public hanging was on 26 May, 1868. Michael Barrett was executed for his part in an attempt to blow up Clerkenwell Prison. Barrett was a Fenian and in December 1867 four innocent passers-by were killed and 40 injured in the explosion master-minded by Barrett. Three other people charged with the same offence were acquitted but Barrett was hanged before an estimated 2,000 crowd.

The first private hanging was carried out in Kent — two months later. Thomas Wells, a Dover railway porter, was hanged in Maidstone Prison for murdering the stationmaster at Dover Priory. Wells’s death was watched by the under-sheriff, governor, surgeon, chaplain and 16 representatives of the press.

It was almost another 100 years before hanging was abolished in this country. The last executions were on 13 August, 1964. Two young milkmen, Peter Anthony Allen, 21, and Gwynne Owen Evans, 24, were hanged for the murder of a middle-aged bachelor. They robbed him and battered and stabbed him to death. One was hanged in Manchester Prison and the other in Liverpool.

Editor’s note: This was written in the days when housewives went shopping — and Rochester Market was indeed busy enough for these shoppers to jostle.

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4 Responses to The last public hangings

  1. Becky says:

    There was a public hanging in Maidstone, believed to be the last one there on the green. My Grandad told me it was an ancestor who was accused of setting a bale of hay alight. After his hanging the actual person who committed the crime stepped forward out of guilt and admitted his sins? There is a plaque there in the innocent persons honour? I found the story also in a readers digest book about 10 years ago. Can we highlight this story? I can not remember my ancestors name.

  2. Mrs Sheila Toplis says:

    My great grandmother was Emma Prall and she lived with her parents at Seal in Kent. She is supposed to have worked at Knole House in the Linen Room. I wonder if she was related to the Town Clerk who witnessed public executions. She married Edward Paige.

  3. debs says:

    Duncan Livingstone was hanged for sodomy not murder, he raped a boy he employed called Thomas Pointer, Thomas Pointer gave evidence against him at Rochester Court as did another boy who witnessed the rape by the name of Spooner, case is well documented in the nation newspaper archive for 1820

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