Steve Canavan’s column - February 7, 2013

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The real hangman’s tale

A NIGHT at the theatre (it used to be rock concerts but at my age, what with my varicose veins, it’s easier on the legs to sit in a comfy seat and quaff red wine) got me thinking afresh about a figure I used to be fascinated with.

Albert Pierrepoint is infamous, especially if you grow up in Greater Manchester like I did.

Pierrepoint, for the uninitiated, ran a pub in Oldham but all the time he was serving pints of mild and selling bags of cheese and onion crisps, killed people.

Britain’s official executioner between 1941 and 1956, he is reckoned to have hanged between 400 and 600 men and women before quitting after a row over an unpaid hotel bill.

He had been to Strangeways to hang a prisoner when it started snowing heavily. He couldn’t get back to the pub in Oldham, so was forced to stay in a hotel. His employers, the Home Office, wouldn’t foot the bill so he resigned.

Pierrepoint resigned in protest, though some reckon the real reason for quitting was that his conscience was troubled by his part-time job, especially with more and more folk in the 50s beginning to question capital punishment and whether it was inhumane.

The play I saw on the subject, by the way, is called ‘Pierrepoint – The Hangman’s Tale’ and is on at the Dukes, a lovely little theatre in Lancaster, until the back end of this month. It is superb and I recommend you see it. If you do, it won’t half get you thinking about the days when capital punishment was the routine sentence for someone who had killed, and Pierrepoint is a fascinating part of the debate.

I am completely against capital punishment. No matter how horrific the crime, I just feel that if we adopt an eye for an eye approach and hang people, we as a society are sending out the message that killing is OK. It makes us as bad and as barbaric as the person who has committed the initial crime.

It can also lead to horrific mistakes – many people have been hanged then posthumously pardoned when it emerged they weren’t guilty after all.

Pierrepoint was an astonishing person because for the 15 years he hanged people, it didn’t bother him.

To him it was just a job, like decorating, so much so that he didn’t tell his wife what he did. She found out from someone else, years into their marriage. It led to, or so the play suggests, a strained and unhappy relationship for the remainder of their lives.

Publican by day, Pierrepoint was called by the government as and when he was needed to carry out hangings.

It didn’t seem to have any emotional effect on him. In one famous instance he had to hang a man who was a regular in his pub. The pair had sung Danny Boy one evening before closing time; in fact the same night the man went on to murder his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

But Pierrepoint carried out this hanging with his usual efficiency and lack of emotion.

For Pierrepoint it was all about the science. Height and weight of the person; length of rope needed for the drop; noose to the right, not to the left, of the Adam’s apple so death would be swift, caused by a small bone breaking, and not by strangulation. He was proud of his work.

His father and uncle were hangmen before him. At the age of 11, set an essay at school about future job ambitions, Pierrepoint wrote ‘I would like to be the official executioner’.

In truth Pierrepoint quite liked the celebrity, which began when the press found out his name after he flew to Germany to hang Nazi war criminals.

Pierrepoint hanged the likes of Ruth Ellis (the last women to be hanged in Britain) and Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans. Bentley and Evans were completely innocent of their crimes and were posthumously pardoned when the police’s mistakes came to light. Bit late then though. It’s one of the downside of killing a criminal rather than sending him or her to prison.

The last hangings in Britain were in 1964. There have been regular debates and discussions since, normally in the heat of the moment following particularly vile murders, about the possibility of bringing back capital punishment.

Thankfully those debates have not surfaced for a while. It is a gruesome and out-of-date notion to take an eye for an eye, like burning heretics and hanging witches, and we have surely progressed as a society since then.

Former MP deserves no sympathy

CHRIS Huhne, the disgraced MP, got exactly what he deserves. Two things stood out in the story which emerged following his admittance, albeit 10 years too late, that his ex-wife took three penalty points for him.

Firstly, the text messages to and from his son. How sad to see a father-son relationship in complete public meltdown. His teenage son now has a hell of a job on his hands to keep his own life on track in the next few years – through no fault of his own, the lad has been through a complete nightmare (not least watching his dad, run off with another woman).

Secondly, the fact that just a few months after avoiding the three points back in 2003, Huhne was banned anyway after being caught by police driving while using a mobile phone – rendering his desperation to cover up the speeding offence meaningless and pointless.

For a decade of lying, and for screwing up his son’s live, it’s hard to feel even a grain of sympathy for the man.

As tidy as a bright new pin

FINAL lot of quirky sayings this week, starting with a selection provided by Clifford Chambers who remembers his gran –born and bred in County Durham – coming out with these.

A sparrow eats more than they do (to describe someone with a poor appetite), she’s got legs like a sparrow (skinny with knobbly knees).

I’m frozen off to the knicker ends (freezing cold), it’s stottin down outside (throwing it down with rain), he’s got about as much strength as baking powder drink, they’ve got as many brains as a shallot, he can eat one potato more than a pig (eats too much). Lovely stuff.

Thank you to Jim and Rita Walmsley, from Wrea Green, for a lovely letter.

Some of the old phrases they recall... dirty as a farmer’s clog, hot as hell, giddy as a
 kipper, nice as ninepence, neat as a pin (my gran used to say something similar ‘we’ve got visitors coming, I want this house as tidy as a bright new pin’), poor as a barn crow, fat as butter.

Isabella Stafford, from Pilling, came up with February fill dyke, black or white (in other words it will either rain or snow), an east wind and a wise man go to bed at night, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good, an apple pie without some cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze.

Sheila Helliwell got in touch with a nice one: ‘She’s so tight she’d cut a currant in half’.

To finish, though, a final offering from my gran, who loved sweet food: “Balanced diet? What a load of codswallop. A balanced diet is a cake in each hand”.