public execution

Inside Wandsworth Gaol: A historian’s perspective on prison visiting

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As a academic historian who works on the history of crime (and most of that in London) when I was offered the chance to take a peek inside a working English prison I could hardly refuse. I run modules on crime and punishment at the University of Northampton and help students explore the changing nature of penal policy over 200 or more years from the late 1600s to the early 20th century.

So when the nice people at London Historians organised a behind-the-scenes visit to Wandsworth Prison Museum I was quick off the block and bagged one of the 10 places on offer.WPmain gates

Last Sunday I trekked across the capital to the imposing gates of Wandsworth Prison to meet up with the other lucky visitors and our guide, Stewart McLaughlin a serving Prison Officer and curator of the small prison museum.

We started in the museum which is about the size of a scout hut, and packed solid with neatly labelled exhibits. Stewart has gathered together an impressive collection of prison relics which he’s arranged chronologically so that it tells the story of Wandsworth from its early days (as the Surrey House of Correction) through the nationalisation of prisons (in 1878),to  its use as a military prison during the First World War, and on to the present day.

We ‘met’ famous inmates like Oscar Wilde and the man that killed Dr Martin Luther King (James Earl Ray), and some of those that ended their days inside on the end of a rope. Wandsworth was a hanging gaol and this is where George Chapman (aka Severin Klosowski – a ‘Ripper’ suspect), John Haigh and the wartime traitor William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were all executed. We saw Albert Pierrepoint’s execution rope and other memorabilia that reminded us that until 1961 murderers were still being ‘dropped’ at Wandsworth.

 

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the prison’s long history and Stewart has pieced it together with considerable skill (and limited resources!) This is an example of one man’s efforts to preserve and display history and one wonders what will happen when he decides to hang up his keys for good.

It is one thing to be allowed to peer into the past via an exhibition of the artefacts of penal history, it is quite another to be invited to walk through the  gates of a working prison. This is exactly what we all did next though, carefully moving under Stewart’s guidance from the reception area to the large open star that links the five man wings (A to F) together. This central boss used to allow officers (then warders) to see right down each wing and control the prisoners. Not quite a panopticon as Jeremy Bentham envisaged his ‘inspection house’ but effective all the same. We stood while Stewart explained the prison’s history and working structure and patiently answered a stream of questions.

As he did so the prison carried on all around us, with the sounds of cell doors clanging, keys (and more keys!) and male voices. All of this was permeated by the smells of a closed institution: Sunday (‘school’) dinner, laundry, stale air, but (surprisingly given all the media coverage of prisons) not a trace of drugs. This was a calm space as far I could see. Outside in the exercise yard men were chatting in the sunshine, no one paid this small group of visitors any attention, they just seemed to be getting on with life.

As we wandered through Stewart took us to the staff room in one wing. Quite an ordinary space with kettle, cups and tupperware lunch boxes. Well ‘ordinary’ except that this was one one of two condemned cells in Wandsworth and so suddenly we were left to imagine how some people may have struggled to relax while they waited to see if an appeal was successful or the executioner would lead them off to the gallows.

Outside, as we stared up at the razor wire that is intended to prevent modern prisoners emulating the Great Train robber Ronnie Biggs and scaling the high walls, our attention was brought to the concrete paths that cover the ground between the walls and the prison itself. Under here, we were told, lie the remains of those who were executed within the confines of the gaol. Since the abolition of hanging families have been able to exhume their loved ones and rebury them, but many don’t. As our guide pointed out most murderers kill people close to them and so the hanged are often the second deaths in a tragic set of events. Let sleeping dogs lie is often the most obvious reaction.

One young man whose remains were taken away to be cremated outside was John Amery, the son of Leo Amery the Conservative politician and (like Churchill) a noted opponent of appeasement. Unlike his father John Amery was attracted to the Nazi cause and became a fascist and follower of Hitler. He was hanged at Wandsworth in December 1945 for his treasonable activities during the war.

The final place we visited was the set of smaller wings that used to make up the women’s prison until the late 1800s. During the First World War this was utilised by the military as a detainment camp. Here the prison held squaddies that broke the rules or absconded as well as conscientious objectors and (following the Easter Rising in 1916) upwards of 200  Irish Republicans accused of ‘betraying’ their king and country.

And then – and I have to admit this was quite a relief – we were back to the reception house and, once we’d handed over our passes, the doors were opened and we exited into the afternoon sun. The walk across Wandsworth Common took me past couples of all ages, children playing, dogs running free, ice cream vendors and people sitting outside the nearby pub enjoying a pint with their friends. It was a sobering reminder of what everyone in that prison had given up – albeit not all voluntarily.

Wandsworth Prison museum is not open to the public but is open for academic visitors, researchers and local history groups. All you have to do is make an appointment and be curious (and brave) enough to cross the threshold.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, History, University of Northampton).

The ‘Female Blue Beard’?: Rumour and sensationalism in the case of Sarah Dazley

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This week is the 175 anniversary of the execution of Sarah Dazley at Bedford Gaol, the first and only woman to be hanged in public at the prison. Sarah’s crime was the murder of her second husband (William) and the suspected killing of her previous one (Simeon Mead) and their son Jonas. Dazley may well have been guilty but I rather suspect she was convicted for what she was seen to be rather than for any actual crime she carried out.  Sarah’s story also exposes a early newspaper industry that was far from particular about which ‘facts’ it reported as ‘truth’ and which it allowed to be aired for sensational effect.

Let’s start with what we think we know.

Sarah Reynolds was born in 1819 in Potton in Bedfordshire. Her farther died when she was very young and her mother had a series of relationships with other men following her husband’s death. This seems to be significant as it contributes to the backstory of Sarah’s life that the newspapers later presented to their readers.

When she was 19 Sarah married Simeon Read and they had a son (Jonah) who died within the year.  In October 1840 Simeon died after a short illness. Sarah remarried two years later, but her relationship with William Dazley was apparently fraught. It was suggested that he hit her and that she wasn’t inclined to put up with it (as many wives and partners did in the nineteenth century).

It seems that Simeon Mead had been just as abusive as Dazley was, and the newspapers later revealed a long history of violence against Sarah from both her partners. There were also dark rumours that Sarah had decided to take her revenge on William for his mistreatment of her.

So, when he fell ill and died in October 1842 suspicions began to circulate. When Sarah upped sticks and headed for London to escape from difficult questions a warrant was issued for her arrest and she was picked up and returned to Bedford to face the music.

Now this is where it all gets a little confused and where conjecture and rumour seem to trump facts. Both Jonas and William Dazley were exhumed so that their bodies could be examined for any signs of poisoning. Simeon’s corpse was far too decomposed to be able to be examined but clearly Sarah was suspected of poisoning him as well.

It was alleged at her trial that she’d bought arsenic and mixed it to make pills to use to poison William. On one occasion her step daughter (Ann Mead) had supposedly eaten one of the pills and Sarah had scolded her for it to prevent her taking any more. The Times thought that Jonas was a ‘daughter’ and repeatedly refereed to Sarah as ‘the Female Blue Beard’. A usually sober paper, the ‘thunderer’ was playing this case for every sensational twist it could get.

The papers reported that arsenic was found in the remains of William Dazley but this was also contradicted in some articles so clearly there was some doubt. Forensics was hardly an exact science in the 1840s and Sarah may well have been subjected to the prejudices that surrounded a young woman who had married twice (and was apparently on the verge of marrying again).

Quite simply Sarah Dazely was seen as a promiscuous woman who wanted to control her own life rather than let herself be controlled by men. Having lost her father at seven she’d grown up without that strong paternal figure that all young girls ‘needed’ (or so the rhetoric went). Both her husbands had abused her and while that was hardly unusual in Victorian Britain, her refusal to accept it also spoke to her combative nature.

Sarah was no passive victim, either of domestic abuse or the criminal justice system and a society that had condemned her. She strongly protested her innocence and refused to meekly accept her fate. It did her no good of course and she was hanged at Bedford on the 5 August 1843 in front of thousands of spectators.

The papers reported that 10,000 people watched her last moments:

the signal was given, and the moment the drop fell, and the unhappy wretch, after a few convulsive struggles, ceased to exist in this world’.

Well at least that’s what the papers say happened. Given that they also reported she’d been hanged for the murder of two husbands and her daughter (which was false of course) we might take their reportage with some skepticism at least. In fact nearly all reports of executions are the same: the crowd is quiet at the point the executioner ‘turns off’ the condemned; they ‘struggle’ briefly, ‘expire’, and are cut down. There is no description of the awful trauma that a body can experience in a hanging like this, almost as if no one dared to look upon the person dangling at the end of a rope.

Sarah Dazley fitted the image of the Victorian murderess: she used poison, refused to bow to male authority, and seemingly took control of her own sexuality. In other words she challenged the patriarchy and paid for it with her life.

Drew Gray (August, 2018)

References:

Judith Flanders, The Invention of Murder

Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser, Wednesday, August 9, 1843

The Morning Post , Monday, August 07, 1843