A Reporter’s Unpleasant Duty: Attending Executions at HM Prison Gloucester

GJ25Feb1933

Gloucester reporter E. Kendall Pearson, pictured in the Gloucester Journal, 23 Feb 1933. (British Newspaper Archive)

In June 1935, preparations were being made at Gloucester Prison to carry out the execution of Arthur Franklin, who had murdered his former lover, Gladys Nott, at Hanham Woods, near Bristol. This prompted a former Gloucester journalist, Edward Kendall Pearson (known as E. Kendall Pearson), to write in The Citizen about his experiences attending executions in the 1890s. His recollections appeared in the column ‘Gloucester Day By Day: Views and Gossip For the Tea Table’, on 24 June 1935, the day before Franklin was executed.

The earliest execution Pearson had witnessed on behalf of The Citizen newspaper had taken place ‘on a grey March morning, 42 years ago’. [Albert Manning was hanged on 16 March 1893, for murdering his former lover at Kingswood, near Bristol.] This execution, Pearson said, attracted unusual public attention because the accused ‘feigned madness with so much cleverness as to puzzle the experts in lunacy who had him under observation’. Also, after the event, a London newspaper reported that the man was hanged ‘in sight of his open grave’. This led to a question being raised in the House of Commons. During the trial, Manning had been a ‘hunched-over dwarfish figure’. After being sentenced, his mother visited him in the condemned cell, and from then on, he started to talk and behave rationally. Pearson was amazed, when standing near the gallows on the morning of the execution, to see approaching his doom ‘not a dwarfish, hunched-over figure, but a much taller man than the occupant of the dock had seemed to be’.

Regarding the open grave story, the prison governor, Major Knox, had been furious at the statement, and invited several journalists, including Pearson, to replicate the walk from the condemned cell to the gallows taken by Manning, to prove that he could not have seen his grave. Pearson described ‘walking in the steps of the condemned man, from near the cell, down a flight of winding stairs, like a belfry, into the open yard and  right up to the gallows’.

In the same year, Pearson attended another execution, ‘rendered all the more sensational by the prisoner addressing some farewell words to the reporters as he came in sight of the scaffold’. [Frederick Wyndham, who shot and killed his father, was hanged 21 Dec 1893.] He was reported to have said, ‘I wish you all goodbye. I should have liked to have killed that whore [his father’s mistress] before I die’.

The attendance of newspaper reporters at executions came to an end at Gloucester Prison in 1912, when a special execution chamber was built on the end wall of A Wing, which was too small to admit anyone other than the prisoner, the executioner, and a few officials. Pearson noted that the execution of Franklin would take place in this chamber, ‘a room adjoining the condemned cell, on the same floor as the Prison Chapel’.

Pearson’s recollections prompted a former colleague of his, Paul Francillon, to continue the subject in his column in the Gloucester Journal, ‘St John’s Lane and It’s Memories: Glancing Back Over the Years’, which appeared on 29 June 1935. Pearson had made no mention of his personal feelings about attending executions, but Francillon indicated that his friend had found this to be a particularly unpleasant duty. Regarding his time working at The Citizen, Francillon said that he had never had to do this task, so had no ‘gruesome memories’ of executions in Gloucester Gaol, unlike his friend Kendall Pearson. His [Francillon’s] nerves might have better stood the ordeal of attendance in pursuit of professional duty, as Pearson found it ‘utterly repugnant’. Francillon was glad that he had never been instructed to attend an execution, because, he asserted, he would have ‘mutinied’ rather than being ‘the unwitting instrument of ministering to a morbid public taste which happily now belongs to a past age of journalism’.

Francillon recalled that there used to be a fierce competition to be the first paper with the news of the actual executions in the times of which he wrote, 40 or 50 years ago. He remembered the speed with which Pearson got his copy in and ‘the feverish haste with which it was composed and sent to the press, and the despatch of a big issue by a convenient express train to sell on Bristol streets in competition with the Bristol papers, which we did not count half so go-ahead as the lively little Citizen’. Francillon recalled that he had his own work to do in forwarding the production of these ‘Execution Specials’, so although he never witnessed an actual hanging, he had a share of responsibility in passing through what he still regarded as ‘a not very delectable side of journalism’.

When he and Pearson started work at St John’s Lane, there were still many people to whom public executions had been a familiar scene. The attendance of reporters when executioners were withdrawn from public into the gaol [in 1868] marked a transition stage in which reporters acted by proxy for the public. Now it was an ‘almost extinct’ practice for reporters to attend. Instead the newspapers had to rely on documentation – the registration of death and the inquest certificates – for information.

In Francillon’s early days, the public had ‘an avid appetite for the ghastly details’ of an execution. Execution specials in The Citizen usually brought the total day’s issue to a new high record of circulation. Old time publicity was not confined to newspapers. Itinerant vendors sold copies of ‘last dying speeches’, etc, to morbid crowds waiting outside gaols for the black flag to be raised over the gaol gateway. Today [1935], the black flag, the tolling gaol bell and ‘the last dying speech and confession’ were all things of the past.

Looking back at Kendall Pearson’s report on the execution of Albert Manning, which  appeared in The Citizen on 16 March 1893, it is clear that Francillon was correct in his assertion that his colleague did not enjoy this part of his job. After giving all the details of the crime and the trial, he wrote, under the sub-title, ‘THE SCENE AT THE SCAFFOLD. MANNINGS LAST MOMENTS’:

Of all the duties which the reporter whose lot in a county town is called upon to perform in the interests of the paper which he represents and the public, none, perhaps, are more irksome or unpleasant than his attendance at an execution. The “ordeal” must be faced and the Pressman must leave his feelings – if he has any – at home, and proceed to the spot where the unhappy criminal is to end his day, with mind intent on one thing only, and that the absorption of all those impressions of the scene which are necessary to the compilation of a faithful and accurate description of what the public are anxiously waiting to know.

Pearson went on to describe how he arrived at the prison gatehouse with two other local reporters, was taken to his place near the gallows to watch the execution, then ushered forwards to peer down into the pit where the body was hanging, fingers still twitching. An unpleasant duty indeed.

 

Edward Kendall Pearson was on the staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 43 years. He joined the newspaper group in 1891, and worked as chief reporter for both newspapers for 33 years, before becoming news editor of The Citizen. He retired in 1932, but continued to contribute to the column ‘Gloucester Day-By-Day’ in The Citizen, as ‘E.K.P.’ He died on 26 May 1946.

Paul Francillon joined the newspaper group at St John’s Lane in 1886. The group published the Gloucester Journal, The Citizen, the Gloucestershire Chronicle and the Gloucester Standard. He was on the editorial staff of The Citizen and the Gloucester Journal for 59 years. By the end of the 19th century, he was the leader writer for The Citizen, and by the time he went into semi-retirement in 1838, he was the Deputy Editor. He continued to write leaders and columns until his death, on 25 April 1945.

Sources

Newspapers all accessed on British Newspaper Archive, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk, 21-24 May 2018):

Gloucester Journal, 25 Feb 1933, 29 June 1935

The Citizen, 16 March 1893, 24 June 1935, 30 April 1945 (report on Francillon’s funeral)

Gloucestershire Echo, 27 May 1946 (obituary of E.K. Pearson)

Further Reading (aka Shameless Plugs):

Hanged at Gloucester, by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011)

A History of Gloucester Prison, 1791-1950, by Jill Evans (Glos Crime History Books, 2017)

 

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