By Richard Clark with © 1995, Capital Punishment UK. Reproduced here with the kind and generous permission of the author and copyright holder, Mr. Clark.
Like most of the older county prisons Maidstone prison stands close to the town centre in County Road, Maidstone. It is also close to the court, as before the days of motor vehicles, it was difficult to move prisoners over long distances between the court and the prison, with the ever present danger that they would escape or be rescued by their friends. Horse drawn prison vans were used from the mid 1800's for the purpose of transporting them.
The prison was built between 1811 and 1818 at a cost of £200,000, by Daniel Alexander, starting with the 4 storey Roundhouse that still dominates it. The lower floors of this originally formed the Keeper's House and there was a chapel on the top floor, so arranged that the inmates could see the chaplain without coming into contact with other prisoners, as required by the "separate system" of imprisonment then fashionable. The jail was initially to have 229 male and 68 female inmates with capacity for a further 128.
The prison became the normal place of execution for those condemned to death in the county of Kent from 1831. Previously, most executions had been carried out at Penenden Heath, a mile or so away and at the time, outside the town. Here the gallows stood at a crossroads and was used up to 1830. The prisoners were transported to it in horse drawn carts from which they were "turned off" before a "New Drop" style gallows with a trapdoor was introduced in the 1820's. The last executions at Penenden Heath were carried out by William Calcraft on Christmas Eve 1830 when he hanged 3 men together for arson.
Executions at Maidstone.
A total of 58 executions took place at Maidstone prison, 46 in 19th century (including 3 women) and 11 in 20th century. Twenty eight of these criminals were hanged in public, outside the main gate, between 1831 and 1868, the remaining 30 being executed within the walls of the prison.
Twenty four of those hanged were of young people (25 or under), the youngest being just 14. (See below). Forty nine men and 3 women were to suffer for murder. In addition, between 1831 and 1836, 2 men were put to death for rape, 2 for arson, 1 for sodomy and 1 young man for highway robbery, as these were all still capital crimes at this time. All executions after 1836 were for murder.
William Calcraft carried out all 33 hangings at the prison between 1831 and 1872. Twenty eight of them in public, including 4 double hangings, with the remaining 5 in private after 1868, including a triple hanging in 1872, when he executed 3 men at once for unrelated murders. Calcraft's lot must have been made much easier by the coming of the railway in the 1860's, saving him the long and uncomfortable journey by stagecoach. His reign was followed by William Marwood with 8 executions, James Berry who undertook 3, James Billington with 4, with his son, William, doing the next one before handing over to John Ellis for the next 3. Thomas Pierrepoint hanged two men here, and the last execution of all was performed by Robert Baxter in 1930 (see below).
The gallows at Maidstone.
Pre-1868, the "New Drop" was erected outside the main gate of the prison in County Road on the day before an execution. The structure comprised a platform supported by heavy beams, containing the trapdoors, and surrounded by a railing. In the centre there was a simple gallows consisting of two uprights and a cross beam with an iron hook for attachment of the noose. The drop was reached by a short flight of steps and the lower portion beneath the platform was draped with black cloth to prevent the crowd seeing the legs and lower body of the usually struggling prisoner. This gallows continued in use for private executions for a few more years until being replaced with the Home Office standard pattern in the mid 1880's.
Some of the cases that led to the gallows.
John Any Bird Bell
The youngest person to be executed at Maidstone was 14 year old John Any Bird Bell who was hanged on the 1st of August 1831 by William Calcraft in front of the prison, for the murder of 13 year old Richard Taylor in a wood in the parish of Chatham. John Bell and his 11 year old brother James, killed Richard Taylor for the sum of 9 shillings (45p) which he was collecting from the Parish on behalf of his disabled father. Bell was tried on Friday, the 29th, of July, his brother James being the principal witness for the prosecution. The jury did not even need to retire to find a guilty verdict, although they requested mercy for him in view of his age and lack of education. At this time, the law required that murderers be hanged two days after sentence unless this would mean that the execution would take place on a Sunday, which in this case it would have. So the tearful boy was led out to be hanged just after 11.00 a.m. on the Monday morning, using the "New Drop" scaffold erected for the first time outside the main gate of the prison. His execution was witnessed by some 5,000 people. His body was given to surgeons at Rochester for dissection.
In 1833, a boy of 9 was sentenced to death at the Kent Assizes for housebreaking but was reprieved after public agitation.
James Joy, Thomas Prior, George Millen
James Joy, aged 19, was hanged by William Calcraft on the 31st of March 1836 for arson - he set fire to a barn at Sturry. Beside him on the gallows was 18 year old Thomas Prior who was to suffer for highway robbery and attempted murder. Another young man to suffer at Maidstone was 17 year old George Millen, who was hanged by William Calcraft on the 29th of March 1849, for the murder of an 82 year old man during a robbery.
Robert Alexander Burton
It would seem a strange ambition to most people, wanting to be publicly hanged by the short drop method, but this was seemingly, the extraordinary ambition of 18 year old Robert Alexander Burton who achieved it on the 11th of April 1863. Burton had first become an apprentice and then had decided to try and join the forces. He managed to join the West Kent Militia in Maidstone, from which he deserted with his bounty money. He then worked for a shoemaker from whom he stole and for which he received a two months prison sentence. He then decided to commit a murder choosing as his victim his last employer, the shoemaker, who he blamed for his spell in prison. However, the shoemaker had moved and Burton could not locate him so he considered killing a woman who had refused to serve him alcohol in a Chatham pub, but feared she would put up too much of a fight. Little Thomas Houghton, aged 8, seemed a far safer bet and Burton lured him from outside his home to a nearby railway ventilation shaft where he cut his throat. He then gave himself up and led police to the crime scene. Burton came to trial at the Spring Assizes and pleaded guilty to the murder. He was advised to change his plea and a defence of insanity was mounted, but his mental state was not sufficient to warrant this under the M'Naughten Rules. He was thus convicted and sentenced to hang, for which he thanked the trial judge. He willingly, almost eagerly, accompanied Calcraft to the gallows 3 weeks later and was observed smiling as he was prepared. Unusually for the time, he died without a perceptible struggle.
Ann Lawrence and James Fletcher
Ann Lawrence was hanged alongside 20 year old James Fletcher on Thursday, the 10th of January 1867. He had battered Warder James Boyle to death with a hammer in Chatham prison, while 29 year old Ann had murdered her 4 year old son, Jeremiah, and attempted to kill her lover, Walter Highams, at Tunbridge Wells. The killing was apparently to avenge herself on Highams in a fit of jealous rage over their latest row.
Both Ann Lawrence and James Fletcher had been convicted at the Winter Assizes at the end of December 1866. They had separate trials for separate offences but it was decided to hang them together. Calcraft "launched them both into eternity" a few moments after noon on that Thursday. It is probable this double execution was carried out principally for reasons of administrative convenience and cost saving. It meant only having to erect the gallows once, pay one set of soldiers to guard it and pay Calcraft only one train fare. He may have also charged a lower fee to do two executions at the same time. The authorities did think like this and were always keen to save money on hangings.
A year later, 25 year old Frances Kidder made history by becoming the last woman to be publicly hanged in Britain, when she was executed in front of the prison at midday on Thursday, the 2nd of April 1868. She had murdered Louisa Kidder-Staples, her 11 year old stepdaughter. Frances was married to William Kidder, who had Louisa and a younger child by his previous relationship and whom Frances deeply resented. Only Louisa lived with them and Frances consistently abused her.
On the 24th of August 1867, Frances Kidder had taken Louisa to visit her parents in New Romney and also took one of her own children, Emma, with her. Frances' mother went out and while she was away, Frances drowned Louisa in a ditch, having to hold the struggling child under as the water was only just over 300mm deep. Her husband and father were immediately suspicious and called the local constable who arrested Frances and took her into custody while a search was mounted for Louisa. The child's body was soon found in a nearby stream. Frances claimed afterwards that they had fallen into the ditch together when they were frightened by passing horses.
As there was no Winter Assize in 1867, Frances Kidder was held on remand in Maidstone prison and came to trial on Thursday, the 12th of March 1868 at the Spring Assizes before Mr. Justice Byles. The prosecution brought in evidence of the abuses of Louisa and of previous threats to kill her. Frances clung to her defence of the two of them being frightened by the horse and of Louisa falling into the water, from where she claimed she had tried to rescue her. This was rejected by the jury, after just 12 minutes. She was therefore sentenced to death and returned to the condemned cell, her execution being set for exactly 3 weeks later.
In the condemned cell, Frances confessed the murder to the prison chaplain. She frequently became hysterical while awaiting her death and this behaviour continued until the moment she was hanged. Frances had to be helped up the steps onto the gallows and held on the trapdoors by two warders where she prayed intently while Calcraft made the final preparations, strapping her wrists in front of her and putting a leather strap around her body and arms at elbow level and another around her legs to hold her long skirt down. A white cotton hood was placed over her head and the noose adjusted around her neck. He released the trap and she struggled hard for two or three minutes afterwards. Some 2,000 people, a lot of them women, had come to watch her final moments although they could only see the top half of her body above the platform. Her body was left hanging for an hour before being taken down and buried in an unmarked grave within the prison.
Richard John Bishop
The last man to be hanged in public here was Richard John Bishop who suffered on Thursday, the 30th of April 1868. Bishop was a minor criminal whose wife kept a shop in Sydenham in Kent. He was involved in an altercation outside the shop on the night of the 3rd of April and when a neighbour, Alfred Cartwright, came out to ask them to keep the noise down, he hit him in the eye. The constable was called and arrested Bishop and he and Cartwright accompanied him to the police station. On the way, Bishop stabbed Cartwright to death and was immediately arrested for it. With the constable's overwhelming evidence against him, he was easily convicted. He seemed indifferent to his fate but, unlike Frances Kidder, died almost immediately when Calcraft drew the bolt and released the trapdoors from under him.
On the 29th May 1868, parliament passed the Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill ending public hangings and directing that all future executions take place within prisons. The first person to suffer under the new law, in Britain, was 18 year old Thomas Wells who was hanged by Calcraft on the 13th of August 1868 for shooting his boss, the station master, at Dover Priory railway station. Wells was employed as a carriage cleaner at the station and had taken his gun to work where the station master, Mr. Edward Walshe, caught him firing at birds. He was told to go to Walshe's office and offered two alternatives, either that he make a full apology for his actions and promise never to repeat them or be dismissed. He was given 10 minutes to consider this offer and declined to make an apology, instead deciding to shoot Mr. Walshe in the head.
Wells was captured minutes later and was sent for trial at the Summer Assizes of 1868. The jury took just 5 minutes to convict him of this senseless crime. His execution took place in the former timber yard within the prison grounds, out of site of the cell blocks and nearby houses, using the same gallows that had been used for public hangings. William Calcraft was to be assisted by George Smith of Dudley on this occasion. The gallows had been erected over a pit dug in the yard, under an iron roof near the perimeter wall to shield it from view.
Although the proceedings were now hidden from the general public, they were hardly private. Guests of the Sheriff and newspaper reporters were permitted to witness the event. Wells was led to the gallows at 10:30 and had to be supported on the trapdoors by two warders. When the drop fell, Wells, like so many of Calcraft's victims, died a slow and painful death over the ensuing 3 or 4 minutes, visibly struggling against the noose and the pinioning straps.
Yet another young man to die at Maidstone was Bandsman John Morgan, aged 19. On the 30th of March 1875, he was executed there for cutting the throat of fellow Bandsman, Joe Foulstone at Shorncliffe Barracks. He was hanged by William Marwood and was the first condemned prisoner at Maidstone to benefit from the "long drop" which hopefully gave him a less painful death than his predecessors on Maidstone's gallows.
In 1878, a local farmer, Capt. William Gillow, bought a new steam engine to speed up grain threshing on his farm at Woodnesborough, near Sandwich. The success of the machine meant that he was able to lay off several of his labourers. Among them was 28 year old Stephen Gambrill, who having had a lot to drink in several pubs in Sandwich, vowed to destroy the machine which he felt had deprived him of his livelihood. Capt. Gillow fearing trouble, had posted his son, Arthur, to guard the new engine and Arthur, of course, easily recognised Gambrill who, when confronted, set about Arthur and killed him. There was little real defence to the murder charge and thus Gambrill was quickly convicted. He was hanged by William Marwood on Monday, the 4th of February 1879, some 3 weeks after sentence.
Louisa Jane Taylor
Louisa Jane Taylor, an attractive 37 year old, was hanged by Marwood on the 2nd of January 1883 for the poisoning of 82 year old Mrs. Tregellis at Plumstead in Kent (now part of Greater London).
Louisa had been widowed in 1882 and had a small pension to survive on. To help make ends meet, she took a live-in job as a nurse to the wife of a friend of her former husband, William Tregellis. His wife, Mary Ann, was 82 and in poor health and so it was agreed that Louisa would share her room while William would move into the front room.
The Tregellis' soon started to notice things going missing from the house and also were dismayed that Mary Ann's health continued to deteriorate. Soon after Louisa's arrival, Mary began to have fits and attacks of vomiting. The family doctor repeatedly tried to get Louisa to retain a sample of the vomit for analysis but she had always conveniently forgotten to do so. Dr Smith was at the same time prescribing "sugar of lead" (lead acetate) to Louisa, which she claimed to be using to improve her complexion. It appears not to have occurred to Dr. Smith that Mary Ann Tregellis was being poisoned or that it was indeed he who was supplying the poison.
On October the 6th, 1882, William called the police to the house as his pension money had gone missing after Louisa took it from him, purportedly to give it to Mary Ann. She was later seen leaving the house by the Tregellis' landlady with the money in her hand. Dr. Smith was at the house when the police arrested Louisa and it finally dawned on him what had being going on.
The frail old woman was in a terrible state and her gums showed the tell tale sign of lead poisoning when he examined them - a dark blue line at their edge. He asked that Louisa be confronted with Mary Ann, who accused Louisa of poisoning her in front of the doctor and the police. It was too late to save Mary's life, however, and she died on October the 23rd, 1882. An autopsy revealed large quantities of lead in her system and Louisa, already in custody, was charged with the murder. She came to trial in December 1882.
Her motive for the killing may have been money but equally may have been the sadistic pleasure of watching Mary Ann die slowly from lead poisoning. Lead is a very inefficient poison requiring many administrations over a long period to kill its victim. It is and was then easily detected. The financial gain from killing Mary Ann could have been small at best as the Tregellis' were quite poor and lived only on William's pension. So one is left with the alternative motive, that she did it for pleasure and the ability to wield the power of life and death over another person. In any event, Louisa was the last woman to be executed at Maidstone.
George Joseph Smith
Perhaps the most notorious criminal to end his days here was The Brides in the Bath murderer, George Joseph Smith. Smith was not only a serial killer but also a serial marrier. He was a career criminal who had been in trouble with the law since childhood and had served several prison sentences during his 43 year life.
Smith was always able to attract the opposite sex and in 1898, married for the first time under the assumed name of Oliver Love, to Caroline Thornhill. He wrote false references for Thornhill to enable her to get jobs as a domestic servant in houses in London and Sussex, where he persuaded her to steal for him. When she was arrested and jailed for this, Smith left her and moved to London where he married for the second time to his landlady.
In 1900, after her release from prison, Thornhill spotted Oliver Love, as she knew him, in London and reported him to the police. He was arrested and given a two year sentence for receiving stolen property. He was duly released and travelled the country as a dealer in second-hand goods.
His next marriage was to Florence Wilson in 1908. He persuaded her to draw out her life savings and give them to him before he vanished from her life. In July 1908 he married yet again, this time to a lady called Edith Pegler in Bristol. The following year he married again to Sarah Freeman and was able to steal her savings.
In 1910, he met his first murder victim, Beatrice Mundy, in Bristol. He married the unsuspecting Beatrice in August of that year. Beatrice had a large sum of money tied up in a trust which could only be released upon her death. The trust had been set up to provide her with a monthly income. So Smith persuaded Beatrice to make a will in his favour, before he drowned her in the bath. Smith called the doctor who tried to save her but it was too late. It appeared to be just a tragic accident, although it aroused the suspicion of Beatrice's relatives. Smith got his money, some £2500 - a huge sum in those days and returned to Edith Pegler. Like so many murderers he didn't know when to stop while he was still ahead. He would have almost certainly got away with Beatrice's murder and her money. But he continued with his trail of marriages and murders.
His next victim was 26 year old Alice Burnham, whom he met in Southsea in Hampshire. He married her and took her on holiday to Blackpool on December the 10th, 1913, where they stayed in a guesthouse. Two days later, Alice was found drowned in the bath there. His next marriage came the following year, to Alice Reavil, whom Smith relieved of her savings and some furniture before abandoning her. He struck again in December of 1914 when he met, and of course married, 38 year old Margaret Lofty in Bath. Margaret had a life insurance policy for £700 (enough to buy a good house at the time) and this was a temptation too good to miss for Smith. He persuaded her to make a will in his favour and two days later Margaret was found drowned in the bath. After her death, Smith returned to the long suffering Edith Pegler, who as usual accepted him back.
Alice's death made headline news and the article was read by Joseph Crossley, the husband of the Blackpool landlady with whom Smith had stayed with Alice Burnham, and by Alice's father. Both reported their suspicions to the police, who arrested Smith and charged him with bigamy, while they delved further into the trail of suspicious drownings. He was to be charged with all 3 murders and came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 22nd of June 1915. The famous pathologist, Bernard Spilsbury, demonstrated to the court that the drownings could not have been accidental due to the victim falling asleep as they would not slide down the bath and under the water. They had to be pulled down by lifting up the knees with one hand while pushing the head down with the other. The lady who had volunteered to assist Spilsbury in this demonstration became almost immediately unconscious and had to be revived. The jury were convinced by this remarkable demonstration and the other evidence and took just 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict.
Smith was hanged by John Ellis, assisted by Edward Taylor, on Friday the 13th of August 1915, protesting his innocence until the end.
Sidney Fox - The last execution at Maidstone
The last execution at Maidstone was on Tuesday, the 8th of April 1930 when 31 year old Sidney Fox was hanged by Robert Baxter for the murder of his mother, Rosaline, in October 1929.
Fox had a criminal record for offences of theft and obtaining money and goods by deception for which he had served several prison sentences. His ever-loving mother was always there to greet him when he was released from these. It would seem that she was also prone to dishonesty and they took holidays together in hotels and left without paying the bill.
Rosaline had taken out a life insurance policy on her own life and Sidney had also taken out a short term policy on her. Both policies were set to expire on the 22nd of October 1929, while mother and son were enjoying one of their "free" holidays, this time at a hotel in Margate, Kent. At 11.40 p.m. on the evening of the 22nd, Sidney raised the fire alarm and hotel staff rushed to his mother's room which was full of smoke. They pulled Mrs. Fox out but she was dead, apparently from smoke inhalation.
Sidney, as usual, left the hotel without paying the bill and was arrested for this offence a few days later. The insurers were suspicious about his mother's death and reported their suspicions to the police who obtained a warrant to have her body exhumed. When it was carefully examined, the actual cause of death was found to be strangulation. It was also determined that the fire had been started deliberately. There was no obvious reason why Mrs. Fox could not easily have escaped from the room, had she been alive at the time.
Fox was tried at Lewes Assizes and returned to Maidstone to await his execution. He did not appeal his sentence.
After Fox's hanging, prisoners condemned to death in Kent were executed at Wandsworth prison in London. The number of "hanging prisons" (those carrying out executions) in England being progressively reduced at this time. The condemned suite and gallows were subsequently dismantled.
Maidstone prison (HMP Maidstone) continues in service as a prison to this day as a category "B" training prison, its 4 wings having providing accommodation for 580 prisoners.