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


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.


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)



Quarrelling Radicals in Gloucester Prison, 1799-1801


John Binns as pictured in his autobiography, 1852

In the late 18th century, a number of political or ‘State’ prisoners were sent to Gloucester Prison, to be held on suspicion of intending to commit treasonous practices. After the events of the French Revolution, the British Government was very nervous of individuals or group that criticised the government or the monarch, and the habeus corpus was suspended in 1794, enabling the government to commit suspicious persons to prison without trial. Gloucester County Prison, with its individual cells, was regarded as an ideal location to house such prisoners.

Kid Wake could be regarded as being Gloucester’s first State prisoner, although he had been tried for committing an actual crime. In May 1796, he had been sentenced to five years’ hard labour, for shouting “No King, No War!” as George the Third’s carriage made its way to the opening of Parliament. Wake was kept in the penitentiary at Gloucester from 20 May 1796 to 7 May 1801. As part of his sentence, he was made to stand in the pillory in the middle of Gloucester for an hour on every market day, for the first three months of his term.

While Kid Wake was serving his sentence, another political prisoner, John Binns, arrived at Gloucester Prison. Unlike Wake, Binns had not been tried for committing any particular crime. He was a member of the London Corresponding Society, which had formed in 1792, with the aim of campaigning for parliamentary reform. The leaders of this society, and its most active members, were frequently arrested, interrogated and sometimes put on trial. John Binns had been held in a number of jails, including the Tower of London, several times before he was sent to Gloucester Prison in May 1799. This was the result of a committee report to parliament in which Binns was named as ‘a person particularly zealous in organising political associations, in opposition to the government’. Binns was detained on 16 March 1799 and held in Clerkenwell Prison in London until 9 May, when he was sent to Gloucester on the orders of the Duke of Portland, the Secretary of State.

John Binns published an autobiography in 1852, in which he gives some interesting details of the time he spent in Gloucester Prison. As he had not been tried and convicted for committing a crime, he was treated like a prisoner waiting for trial, but as a man of a higher social status than most of the inmates, he was given some special privileges. However, the governor was given strict instructions by the Duke of Portland not to allow him to mix with other prisoners. Therefore, Binns was given a dayroom for his sole use, where he spent most of time alone. At night, he was locked in an individual cell, the same as the other prisoners.

Binns recalled that he had been allowed the use of a yard, ‘abundantly large’ where he exercised for three or four hours a day. He was also given two plots of ground, on which he cultivated vegetables, for his own use. Soon after his arrival at the prison, he met with the board of visiting magistrates, several of whom offered to lend him books. He later met the Dean of Gloucester, who offered him the full use of his library. Binns had a microscope at the prison, but he was not allowed to read any newspaper, and the warders and officials were not permitted to talk to him about national or international events. While at Gloucester, Binns had two pets to keep him company: a cat which followed him wherever he went and a toad. He took the cat away with him when he left the prison, but released the toad.

After Binns had been at the prison for three months, he was joined by two more political prisoners. John Bone and Robert Keir were both members of the London Corresponding Society and were committed to Gloucester in August 1799, by the Duke of Portland, for ‘treasonable practices’. Bone and Keir were put into the same dayroom as Binns, then locked up in separate cells at night. The three men already knew each other, and Binns recalled that they got along well for the first few months, spending their days using books to learn French and mathematics, and exercising in the yard allocated to them. However, according to Binns, the other two became jealous of him and ‘conspired’ against him, leading to the three being split up.

In January 1800, the governor noted in his journal that the three State prisoners had been put into separate rooms for fighting. In his autobiography, Binns related what had been the cause of their quarrel. He stated that one morning, he and his companions were exercising in their yard, ‘whipping tops’, when Bone and Keir were summoned to appear before the Board of Magistrates, who were in the governor’s house. After about forty-five minutes they came back, and Binns was sent before the Board. He was told that Bone and Keir had made a complaint of a serious nature against him. They had claimed that for some time past, two or more evenings a week, after they had all been locked up in their cells, Binns, instead of being locked up, had been taken to the governor’s rooms, where he would spend the evening in company with the governor, his wife, and sometimes his niece, until the outer prison bell was rung, at which time he would be conveyed back to his cell and locked in.

Binns expressed great surprise at the charge, as neither of the two prisoners ‘had ever apprised me of their mean suspicions or petty jealousies, nor warned me that they had, or thought they had, cause of complaint against me.’ He denied their accusation and was then taken back to the yard. He described what happened next:

‘I no sooner found myself in the yard, on my return from the board, and within striking distance of my worthy compeers, than I began thrashing them soundly; while they, to do them justice, “ran and roared” lustily, until the turnkeys came and took them out of the yard into the prison.’

Binns stated that he never saw then in the jail again, but his memory of the incident may have dimmed over time, as according to the prison journals, they were in the same dayroom until October 1800, when Keir was separated from the others after Bone complained that Keir had prevented him from keeping their room clean.

Binns, Bone and Keir were all liberated from Gloucester Prison on 1 March 1801, along with all the other political prisoners in the kingdom who had been detained under the suspension of the habeus corpus. No doubt the officials and staff at Gloucester were happy to see their quarrelsome ‘guests’ take their leave.


Recollections of the Life of John Binns (1852)

Whiting, JRS, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975)





Buried at the crossroads: William Birt, 1791

William Birt was supposed to be the first person to be hanged on the gatehouse roof of the new Gloucester Prison, which opened in the summer of 1791. However, having been found guilty of murder and condemned to death at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1791, he decided not to wait for the executioner, and took his own life in the condemned cell.

The charge of murder against Birt was far from being a straightforward case. Birt was a carpenter, 26 years of age, who lived in Tewkesbury. He had been ‘walking out’ with Sarah Powell, who was a servant maid in the household of a Tewkesbury family. In the spring of 1791, Sarah had discovered that she was pregnant, and William had given her a powder to take, in the hope of inducing a miscarriage. Unfortunately, the powder caused the death of both mother and child.

Sarah Powell had lingered on for eleven days after taking the powder, and so she was able to tell her doctor who had given her the substance and why. After Sarah’s death, William Birt was committed to Tewkesbury Gaol at first, then was removed by habeus corpus to Gloucester, to await trial at the Assizes. This was in April 1791, before the new prison opened, so he was held in the old gaol in Gloucester Castle, where the conditions were terrible. In the last week of July, although the building works were not entirely completed, the new prison was judged to be fit for occupation, and the prisoners were moved from the crumbling old castle keep into their new quarters, where everyone had their own cell in which to sleep. Birt was held in the gaol section of the prison to await his trial, which took place on Friday, 12 August.

Newspaper reports on the trial were not sympathetic to Birt. They said that he had ‘deluded the Deceased under a Promise of Marriage’. When she told him she was pregnant, he gave her a small quantity of a powder, telling her it would do her no harm, but rather would do her good, as he had taken twice as much in the past. Back at her home, she had taken the powder with some sugar, after which she was ‘seized with violent vomitings’, and after lying in agony for eleven days, she died.

It was clear that William Birt had never intended that Sarah Powell should die, so it might have been thought that he would have faced a charge of manslaughter rather than murder. However, the judge explained that, ‘having recommended to her a Medicine to procure abortion, and death ensuing, he was considered as guilty of Murder’. According to a well known principle of English Law, the judge said, ‘where Death ensues in consequence of an illegal Act, Malice is implied, and the offence, with its consequences, is deemed Murder’. Abortion was an illegal act, so Birt was considered to be guilty of murder. The judge added that although Sarah Powell ‘might be an Accomplice with him in the guilty Design’, her account of how Birt had encouraged her to take the powder was enough to ‘fix the crime upon the Man’. The source of the powder had not been discovered, nor exactly what it contained, but the surgeon who attended Sarah Powell was sure it was poisonous and had caused her death.

Birt was said to have remained calm during the trial and when receiving the death sentence, but when he was taken from the Bar, ‘his Confidence forsook him, and he fainted away in the Pen, and as he was conducting away from the Court, he dropped down again in a Fit’. That evening, when he arrived back at the prison, Birt was conducted to a condemned cell to await his execution, which was to take place on the following Monday, 15 August. As he was taken to the cell, he was said to have ‘wrung his hands as in the utmost Misery and Despair’. Next morning, when his cell door was unlocked, he was found hanging and dead. The prison surgeon made a brief note of the incident in his journal: ’13 Aug 1791. William Birt meant to hang on 15 August but hanged himself in cell.’

A Coroner’s Inquest was held later that day. It was said that Birt’s body had been ‘quite cold’ when the cell door had been opened. He had twisted the sheet of his bed and fastened it to the bars of the window, then tied the other end in a running knot round his neck, before throwing himself from his bedstead. The inquest jury returned a verdict of felo de se. This translates roughly as ‘felon of himself’, and the verdict had great significance, as it meant that Birt’s body was ordered to undergo the traditional fate of suicides who were judged to have been of sound mind at the time they took their own lives, which was to be buried at a crossroads, without any Christian service. The Gloucester Journal of 18 August 1791 reported that on that same Saturday, Birt’s body “was buried in a cross road, near Tewkesbury’. The treatment of the bodies of those buried at crossroads varied, but they were supposed to be ‘desecrated’ in some way, such as having a stake put through their body. The newspapers gave no details of what had happened in Birt’s case.

The authorities were keen not to disclose the exact burial places of suicides, so no details were given of the site of Birt’s burial. However, Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, published in 1830, gives some useful information on the subject:

‘The corpse was sent by order of the coroner, to the parish officers at Tewkesbury, and buried in the cross-road at the entrance into the lane which leads to the Lodge, near the House of Industry’.

The House of Industry, later Tewkesbury Workhouse, was south of the town, on Gloucester Road. An examination of a map of Tewkesbury from 1835 shows that the most likely place of burial is in the area with the lane leading to the Lodge (now Lincoln Green Lane) on the left and a lane to the right just before the House of Industry (which now leads to the cemetery).



Detail from a map of Tewkesbury, from Samuel Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of England 1835. (via GENMAPS website). The ‘House’ is the House of Industry. The burial took place at the crossroads just below that.


The reason for burying suicides at crossroads has never been completely clear. The practice took place from at least medieval times, when crossroads were believed to be ‘otherworldly’, God-forsaken, places. (There is an interesting article about the subject here: www.oddlyhistorical.com/2015/09/27/crossroads-suicide-burials.) Whatever the reasons for the practice, it ceased with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act of 1823. However, taking one’s own life continued to be a criminal act until 1961.



Gloucester Journal, 11 April 1791, 18 August 1791

Bennett’s History of Tewkesbury, 1830, p.214, note (via archive.org)

Gloucestershire Archives:

Gaol Calendars, Easter 1791 (Q/SG1)

Gloucester County Gaol, Surgeon’s Journal, 13 Aug 1791 (Q/Gc32/1)

“A Profane Burial: Why the English Buried Suicides at Crossroads”, 27 Sept 2015, on http://www.oddlyhistorical.com. (Link in the main text above.)

Map of Tewkesbury 1835 from GENMAPS (http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genmaps/index.html)

© Jill Evans 2017







Poison in the Pepper Box: The Aftermath of the Tarring Case

Advert for rat poison, in Royal Society of Health Journal, 1814 (Uploaded from Flickr Commons)

Advert for rat poison, in Royal Society of Health Journal, 1814 (Uploaded from Flickr Commons)

In my last post, “A Tarring and Turfing in the Forest of Dean, 1877“, I related the tale of a grocer in Lydbrook who had tar poured over him by three women, who were all fined and ordered to pay costs and damages. One of the women, Sabrina Cole, was sent to Gloucester Prison, because her husband, George Cole, did not pay up. She did not spend long in the gaol because her sister paid her fine, but two weeks later she was back in court, accused of trying to murder her husband by poisoning him.

On 29 August, The Citizen reported that Sabrina Cole had appeared at Coleford Police Station, having been arrested in Woolwich, on a charge of attempting to murder her husband, George Cole, by administering poison. The case was heard in full at Littledean Police Court on Monday, 10 September. The Citizen reminded readers that Sabrina Cole was one of the three “nymphs of the Forest” who had tarred the grocer. Her husband had refused to pay her fine and she had been “marched off to prison at Gloucester.” It was alleged that in retaliation she mixed vermin powder with pepper and put it in his sandwiches.

George Cole was supposed to have given evidence against Sabrina a week earlier, but  he had failed to turn up in court, so the hearing was postponed while he was issued with a warrant to attend. Cole still did not  arrive at the start of the proceedings, so two policemen were sent to find him and eventually he was escorted to the courtroom. On his arrival, Cole said he no longer wanted to give evidence against his wife, but when he was threatened with being charged with perjury, he went ahead.

Cole stated that a week after the tarring incident, he had got up to go to work at the Trafalgar Colliery, and watched Sabrina make him a beef sandwich for his lunch. He saw her sprinkle some seasoning from the pepper box onto the meat. Shortly after eating his lunch at work, he started to feel numbness in his hands and shoulders, and he felt sleepy. On going home, he found his wife had gone and the house was locked up. He had to climb in through a window. After realising that Sabrina had apparently gone away, he took a train to Gloucester, where he asked at the ticket office about her and discovered that she had bought a ticket for Paddington, London. He then went to Gloucester Police Station and spoke to Deputy Chief Constable Chipp. He informed Chipp that Mrs Cole had taken some of his property with her, and also said something about her ordering their little boy to steal something from a shop stall. He was still feeling unwell, but he didn’t say anything about it to Mr Chipp.

After leaving the police station, Cole said he went to a public house and had a pint of beer. Soon afterwards, he started to feel very ill indeed, with pain in his stomach and bowels. He went to another bar and ordered a gin and peppermint, but this failed to ease his discomfort. He wondered whether he might have been poisoned. Two girls in the bar (one called Annie, who he knew, the other a “short, fat, ugly one”, who was a stranger to him) took him to a doctor’s surgery. The doctor gave him a draught, which helped temporarily, but by the time he got the train home, he was feeling terrible. He got off the train at Newnham, and spent the night at the King’s Arms, but couldn’t lie down to sleep.

When he returned to his house in Lydbrook, he looked in the pepper box, because some money had been kept in it, which he found was gone. He noticed some blue grains in amongst the pepper and showed it to a neighbour, who said, “Oh God! That is poison in there.” He then took the pepper box to the police station and asked P.C. French to issue a warrant for his wife’s arrest.

When George Cole was cross-examined by the counsel for the defence, it transpired that once Sabrina had been apprehended at Woolwich and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he had applied for his wife to be released on bail, saying the poisoning may have been an accident. He had also written to Sabrina, asking that they might make it up and live together again.

At this point, the hearing was postponed for another week.

At the next hearing, the County Analyst gave evidence of examining the contents of the pepper box. He found that a small quantity of strychnine, in the form of a few grains of rodent poison, was mixed amongst the pepper.

Mr Albert Pleydell Carter, the doctor who had seen George Cole at his Gloucester surgery, said he was sure Cole was tipsy when he was brought in by a prostitute. The doctor believed Cole had drunk some bad beer, and this had caused his discomfort.  Cole’s symptoms did not match those of strychnine poisoning, because he had been doubled up in pain, whereas someone who had taken strychnine would have muscle spasms and his back would be arching. Also, numbness of limbs and drowsiness were not signs of strychnine poisoning.

When P.C. French was questioned about Sabrina Cole’s arrest, he said that he had found out where she was because she had written a letter to him, giving her address. She had asked a friend to send on some clothes to her, but she hadn’t received them, and her letters had not been answered, so she wanted P.C. French to go and speak to the woman. She also said that she had found a good position in London and would not be returning to Lydbrook. When she was apprehended in Woolwich, Mrs Cole had looked very surprised on reading the warrant, and said she knew nothing about it. The police had been around various chemists in the area, including one at Ross-on-Wye which Sabrina sometimes visited, but there was no record of her buying rodent poison at any of them.

George Cole was cross-examined again. He stated that he had been alone in the house with the pepper box for about ten minutes, before he showed its contents to anyone else. He denied putting the poison into the box himself.

Questioned as to his conduct towards his wife, he said he had gone to Gloucester to fetch Sabrina when she was released from gaol, but denied that he had threatened her during their journey home, although at Ross-on-Wye he had warned her that if he caught her carrying on with other men, he would “warm her noddle.” It was true that he sometimes kept a hatchet under his bed, but this was because it cost 12 shillings and he needed it for his work. He hadn’t threatened her with it, and indeed he could do her more damage with his fists than with that. Asked about a former incident, he said that he had been “in drink” when he “used the poker to her”.

This last exchange led me to do a search further back in the newspapers for any former cases involving George and Sabrina Cole. The poker incident referred to was reported in the Gloucester Journal on 27 December 1873. George Cole had married Sabrina Davies in September 1872. Due to his violence towards her, Sabrina had left George several times, and in September 1873 she went to live with her mother at Longney. George followed her and begged her to come home. When she repeatedly refused, he hit her with a poker, which he had warmed in the fire first. George ran away and the police were called. He was arrested in a brothel in Gloucester. Sabrina was in hospital for weeks. George was tried in December  1873 and sentenced to 18 months hard labour, the judge describing him as a “merciless ruffian”. Other cases of a less serious nature took place in the years following.

After discussing all the evidence, the Littledean Bench dismissed the case. Sabrina Cole’s defence lawyer applied for George Cole to be made to enter into sureties for his good behaviour towards his wife, otherwise there might be “very serious consequences”. Mrs Cole was questioned by the magistrates. She said she was in bodily fear of her husband and she would not return to their home. Cole said he would leave the district to “relieve his wife”. He was called on to enter into sureties, then left the court.

So, what do I think really happened? George Cole was a violent and controlling man, and his wife had left him many times, but he had always persuaded her to go back to him. This time, he found that she had gone to London, so he went to the police in Gloucester and accused her of stealing his property and of forcing their son to commit a crime, in the hope that a warrant would be issued for her arrest. This didn’t happen and while he was in a bar, he drank some bad beer, which gave him a stomach ache. Sometime between then and his return to Lydbrook, he decided to accuse his wife of trying to poison him, in the hope that the police would find her and bring her home. Alone in his house, he found some rodent poison and put some in the pepper box, then showed it to his neighbours and the police. When Sabrina was arrested in London and brought back to the Forest of Dean, he tried to get the case dropped by refusing to give evidence against her, but he was forced to go ahead. Fortunately for Sabrina Cole, George didn’t know exactly what type of poison was in the vermin killer, and his symptoms did not match those of someone who had taken strychnine.

I don’t know whether Sabrina managed to get away from her husband for good, but George was still living in Lydbrook nine months later. In June 1878, he was charged at the Gloucestershire Quarter Sessions with uttering counterfeit coinage. He was sent to Gloucester Prison for twelve months, with hard labour.


All from the British Newspaper Archive:

The Citizen, 29 Aug and 18 Sep 1877; Gloucester Journal, 27 Dec 1873, 6, 15 and 22 Sep 1877; Gloucestershire Chronicle, 22 Sep 1877; Western Mail, 12 Sep 1877

© Jill Evans 2015

“Matron Wanted at the County Prison”: Gloucester, 1845-67

Gloucester County Prison held both male and female inmates from its opening in 1791 until the early 1900s, when it became an all-male establishment. In the first set of Prison Rules, published in 1790, there was no mention of a matron or any other female warders being appointed to supervise the women prisoners. However, a matron must have been taken on some time in the first ten years of the new prison’s existence, because on 11 December 1800, it was noted in the journal of the Visiting Justices that it had been discovered that Mrs Kent, the matron, had been smuggling soap out of the prison. Mrs Kent was dismissed by the magistrates at the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions. In 1808, revised Rules were published, and this time it was stipulated that a salaried Matron should be employed, who would be in charge of the female prisoners and supervise their work in the laundry, as well being responsible for the prison’s linen.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive.

Advertisement in Gloucester Journal, 27 July 1867, courtesy of British Newspaper Archive. (Image copyright of The British Library Board. All rights reserved.)

It became evident whilst researching the female staff at Gloucester Prison that as well as Mrs Kent, a number of matrons were dismissed for breaking the Rules in some way. In fact, between 1845 and 1867, three successive matrons either were sacked or resigned before they could be dismissed.

The first of these matrons was Mrs Susan Peel. In the Visiting Justices’ Journal, an entry dated 18 October 1845 noted that Mrs Peel had been dismissed by the Quarter Sessions, after it had been discovered that she had been getting female prisoners to make caps, shawls and collars, which were sent to London to be sold. The prisoners also had been making shirts for her, and other articles for two other female officers. On 1 November 1845, an advertisement appeared in the Gloucester Journal, for a person to fill the office of matron at the County Prison. It was stipulated that she must be able to write and keep a journal. Her salary would start at fifty pounds per annum.

Mrs Peel’s replacement was Mrs Mary Bedwell. This matron seems to have carried out her duties to the satisfaction of the officials, but ten years after her appointment, she was obliged to resign, due to an incident involving her under-matron. The goings-on at the prison were discussed in detail at the Easter meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in March 1855.  It transpired that a few months earlier, a female debtor had been brought to Gloucester Prison from Bristol, by a Sheriff’s Officer. They arrived at about nine o’clock in the evening, and the lodge-keeper took them to the under-matron, who was on duty that night. Unfortunately, the under-matron, named Wigmore, fell down drunk in front of the sheriff’s officer and several other people, and had to be taken to her apartment, while another officer took charge of the debtor.

When the matron heard of her subordinate’s behaviour, she decided to make light of it and told the governor that Wigmore had been “fresh” that night. The prison chaplain and surgeon also became acquainted with what had happened, but the Visiting Justices were not informed. Unfortunately, the matter was mentioned by the Sheriff’s Officer at the Bristol Council House, and word got back to the Gloucester Magistrates. At a subsequent inquiry, Wigmore said she had got caught in the rain while shopping and had taken a drop of gin to warm herself up and ward off a chill. As she was not accustomed to drinking spirits, she had felt the effects of the alcohol later on. Mrs Bedwell stated that she had just wanted to preserve the reputation of her subordinate, and to retain the services of an otherwise efficient officer. The inquiry resulted in Wigmore being suspended until the Quarter Sessions discussed the matter, and Mrs Bedwell resigned, saying she was suffering from an increasingly debilitating illness.

The Quarter Sessions confirmed the dismissal of Wigmore, and also censured the governor, chaplain and medical officer for not informing the Visiting Justices of what had occurred. There was also criticism of the lodge-keeper and of a male industrial officer named Coates, who, it now was revealed, had been in Wigmore’s apartment when she was taken there in a drunken state. Coates had stated at the inquiry that he had been returning something he had borrowed from her.

At the next meeting of the County Quarter Sessions, held in July 1855, a memorial from the former matron, Mary Bedwell, was read out to the magistrates. She requested that she might be awarded a retirement pension, “in consideration of the helpless debility to which she had been reduced by assiduously attending to her duties between nine and ten years in an artificially heated atmosphere, with frequent changes to cold draughts, and being now wholly without resources for the future.” The Chairman of the Quarter Sessions said that he could not recommend that any favourable notice be taken of the memorial, and the subject was dropped.

The next matron was Miss Ellen Gillett, who was appointed in March 1855. She had been the deputy superintendent of the female department of Brixton Prison before coming to Gloucester. Twelve years went by peacefully, but in July 1867, another notice appeared in the Gloucester Journal, advertising for a new matron at the prison. Her salary would be £75 per year, and she would have unfurnished apartments in the prison, with fuel and light.

At the next Quarter Sessions meeting, held in October 1867, it was revealed that a charge had been brought against Miss Gillett by the Inspector of Prisons, and she “had been called upon for an explanation of certain irregularities at the female prison.” Details were not given, except that the matter involved “the disposal of some articles”. Miss Gillett and the under-matron had resigned as a result. It was stated that although the charge against her had been the immediate cause of her resignation, the matron had been in a very nervous state for some time, due to over-attention to her duties and lack of relaxation time.

Miss Gillett was replaced by Mrs Renwick, who only stayed in the position of matron at Gloucester Prison for one year. She did not leave under a cloud, however, as her resignation was due to her moving to Brixton Prison as Deputy Superintendent. Her successor, Miss Mortimer, stayed for five years before resigning, then from 1873, Miss Marshall took on the position of matron. She stayed in the post for twenty years, then resigned and soon afterwards got married. Unlike the unfortunate Mrs Bedwell, Miss Marshall was awarded a pension.



Gloucester Journal, 1 Nov 1845; 10 Feb, 24 March, 7 July 1855; 27 July, 19 Oct 1867, 20 June 1868; 4 Jan, 18 Oct 1873; 7 Jan, 8 Apr 1893.

Gloucestershire Archives, Quarter Sessions, Gloucester County Prison, Visiting Justices Journals, 11 Dec 1800 (Q/Gc1/1) and 18 Oct 1845 (Q/Gc1/5).

J.R.S. Whiting, Prison Reform in Gloucestershire, 1776-1820 (Phillimore, 1975).

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

© Jill Evans 2015

A Family Business: Brothers Hanged Together in Gloucestershire, 1730-1830

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley's "Curiosities of Street Literature" (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

A Double Execution. Woodcut from Hindley’s “Curiosities of Street Literature” (1871), p.372. (Accessed via Google Books)

Recently I was looking through my lists of people who were hanged in Gloucestershire from 1730 on, and it struck me that there were a number of brothers who were found guilty of committing crimes together, and in consequence were executed together. A few other men who were hanged together shared a surname, and although press reports did not state whether or not they were brothers, it seems likely that they were.

22 August 1735, Nathaniel and Jonathan Willis were hanged at Over, near Gloucester, for committing highway robbery. I have been unable to find a newspaper report of their execution, so cannot confirm that they were siblings.

John and Abraham Wood were executed at Over, for highway robbery. A newspaper report described them as “two gipsies”, who had robbed Henry Lovel of 40 shillings in silver and 16 pence in halfpennies. Again, there was no confirmation that the pair were brothers.

The following have all been confirmed as being brothers:

26 March 1741, Thomas and Francis Cook were hanged at Over. They had been found guilty of “assaulting, beating and abusing in a barbarous manner Roger Rogers, a Carrier, on the Highway”, and taking from him 8s 6d and a pair of scissors, and from his horse, six Cheshire cheeses, a goose and several other things.

6 April 1757, Robert and Richard Colwell were hanged at Over, for housebreaking. At the scaffold, Robert Colwell, the elder sibling, confessed that he had committed the crime for which he had been condemned, and others besides, but he insisted that his brother was innocent. The only crime Richard could think to confess was that he had once stolen some potatoes. A  report on the execution, circulated to newspapers around the country, commented that Richard Colwell might be considered innocent of the crime for which he hanged, but when he and his brother were apprehended, he had swallowed a guinea, part of the loot from the robbery, which “came from him” after he was brought to gaol. He confessed to this and said he would have swallowed more if there had been time. “These are circumstances not much in his favour”, the reporter suggested.

30 July 1784, Henry and Thomas Dunsden were executed for murder. They were hanged at Over, then their bodies were hung in chains near Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, where their crime had been committed. The Dunsden brothers were notorious highwaymen, part of a gang operating in the area around Burford in Oxfordshire. There had been three brothers, Thomas, Richard and Henry (Tom, Dick and Harry), but Richard had disappeared some time before, possibly dying after having his arm hacked off by one of his siblings in order to escape from capture during a botched robbery. The downfall of Tom and Harry was the result of a drinking session at Capp’s Lodge public house, on the edge of Wychwood Forest. Stories vary as to what exactly happened, but the night ended with Henry Dunsden shooting a waiter, William Harding, who later died of his wounds. On the morning of their execution Henry acknowledged that his life of crime had led to his sorry end, but he stated that his brother was far less to blame, and tried to keep Tom’s spirits up to the last. As they were being tied up, Henry said to his brother, who was lame in one leg, “Come Tom, you have but one leg; but you have very little time to stand.” It is unclear why the Dunsden brothers were tried and executed in Gloucestershire, when their crime was committed in Oxfordshire.

2 May 1801, William and James Jones were hanged at Gloucester County Prison, for burglary. The brothers came from Eastleach Turville, two of the nine children of William and James Jones. They were tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in April 1801, and found guilty of breaking into a house in Eastleach Turville and stealing goods with a total value of five pounds. They were buried together in the graveyard of Eastleach Turville Parish Church on 6 May. William was 28 years old and James was 22. The burial register noted that they had been hanged at Gloucester for housebreaking.

24 April 1813, Thomas Edwards and Edward Edwards (also known as Edward Rees) were hanged at Gloucester Prison, along with their brother-in-law James Bailey, for a highway robbery near Northleach. They came from Monmouthshire and had been committing crimes together for years. Thomas Edwards had escaped from a prison hulk at Woolwich in September 1811, and Edward Edwards had deserted from the Glamorgan Militia in January 1812. The two brothers and Bailey had than got together again and continued with their “family business”. After their execution, their bodies were delivered to their friends for burial.

28 April 1827, Mark and John Dyer were hanged at Gloucester Prison for shooting at Thomas Mills. The Dyer brothers were part of the Wickwar Gang, who operated in the south of the county. A number of the gang had been tried at the Gloucestershire Assizes in August 1826, and Thomas Mills had “turned King’s Evidence” – giving evidence against his former colleagues in return for not being prosecuted himself. Two of the gang members were executed as a result, and one of them was Thomas Mills’ own brother, William. In an act of revenge, the Dyer brothers shot through a window at Thomas Mills, but missed him and wounded his wife. After their condemnation, Mark Dyer protested to the court and tried to blame his brother for the crime. When they returned to the prison, both of them told the chaplain that they had another brother who had been responsible for the shooting.

18 April 1829, Matthew and Henry Pinnell were hanged at Gloucester Prison for robbing James Kearsey on the highway, between Rodmarton and Tetbury. After their condemnation, Henry asked the judge to order his body to be delivered up to his mother for burial. The brothers were said to be well-built young men, and there were more women than men in the crowd who came to watch the execution. Some of the spectators asked to touch the bodies after they were dead, presumably in the belief that this would cure some affliction, such as a cancerous growth or a wen in the neck.

It is interesting that in all but one case, these brothers were executed for crimes of theft, in particular highway robbery. If they had been found guilty of committing such offences from the mid-1830s onwards, they would not have died together on the scaffold, but would have been transported (not necessarily to the same place) or imprisoned.


Newspapers: Stamford Mercury, 8 Sept 1737 and 26 March 1741, Oxford Journal, 9 April 1757, 5 June and 7 Aug 1784, Bath Chronicle, 16 April 1829. (All accessed via British Newspaper Archive.)

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

Betty Smith, Tales of Old Gloucestershire (Countryside Books, 1987), Chapter One, “The Highwaymen of Wychwood Forest”.

© Jill Evans 2015

An Atheist in Gloucester Gaol, 1842-3

At the Gloucestershire Assizes held in August 1842, George Jacob Holyoake, a socialist lecturer, was sentenced to six months in Gloucester Gaol for committing blasphemy, after saying at a lecture in Cheltenham that he did not believe in God. I wrote about his case in a previous post, which you can read by clicking here. In Holyoake’s own account of the trial, published in 1851 (The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England), he described his time in prison.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

George Jacob Holyoake, in later life.

Holyoake first entered Gloucester Gaol in June 1842, after being committed there by the Cheltenham magistrates to await trial, and remained there while he tried to organise bail. After his trial, Holyoake was returned to the Gaol and put in the “Fines” section (where most of the inmates were there in lieu of paying a fine or sureties). It is clear that the authorities were puzzled as to how to treat their new “guest”, who was not the usual sort of criminal. On his first morning, when everyone else went to prayers, Holyoake refused to go, and said if they wanted him to attend, they would have to carry him to the chapel. He also was disinclined to wear prison clothes, and said that if he must wear them, the guards would have to dress him every morning. He was left to wear his own clothes, and only attended chapel on Sundays, when a sermon was preached.

Holyoake had as little as possible to do with his fellow prisoners, although he spoke of a small gesture of kindness made to him when he first entered the prison to await trial. On going into the “general room” on his first morning:

“The prisoners surrounded me, exclaiming, ‘What are you in for?’ As I made no reply, another observed, ‘We always tells one another’. ‘Oh! blasphemy’ I replied. ‘What’s that?’ said one. ‘Aren’t you ‘ligious?’ said another…Seeing my loaf unbroken, and that I could not eat, ‘Here’, said four or five of them at once, ‘Will you have some of this tea, zir?’ – which was mint-tea, the reward of some extra work, and the nicest thing they had too offer.”

When Holyoake returned to the gaol as a convicted prisoner, he avoided the company of his fellow inmates, as he disliked having to listen to “recitals of depravity such as I had never heard before, and do not wish to hear again.”

Holyoake had some interesting comments to make on the officials he came into contact with at the gaol. The Governor at that time was Captain Mason, who held the post from 1836 to 1862. Holyoake wrote that Mason was:

“A type of gentleman, official and conventional, whose qualities were instructive. Bland, imperturbable, civil and firm, he was never weak and never rude…I watched his manners with pleasure – he governed the gaol like a drawing room, excepting that the desserts were not quite the same…Possibly he had nerves and sensibility, but these articles were not in common use. They were kept under lock and key, and never brought out in the routine of official duties. As blandly and courteously as he wished me good morning, he would have conducted me to the gallows had instruction to that effect reached him. He would have apologized for the inconvenience, but he would have hung me while I was still saying, ‘pray don’t mention it’.”

The Visiting Magistrates who supervised the running of the prison took a great interest in Holyoake, and some of them asked for interviews with him in order to question him about his beliefs and to try to persuade him to see the error of his ways. Gloucestershire’s Senior Magistrate then was Mr Bransby Cooper, who had formerly represented Gloucester in Parliament. Cooper had many conversations with Holyoake, who wrote of him (in The History of the Last Trial…) that he was:

“A man of venerable and commanding aspect, generous to a fault in matters of humanity, harsh to a fault in matters of religion…One minute he would growl at me like an unchained tiger – the next he would utter some word of real sympathy…He had the voice of Stentor, and though at first his savage roar shook me, at last I acquired an artistic liking for it, and his voice was so grand that I came to the conclusion that he had a natural right to be a brute.”

In a later work, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (published 1892), Holyoake described Cooper as, “A man of great stature, great tenderness, great humanity, and like Lord Byron, a man of tumultuous passion, with a voice like the Plymouth Sound.”

The Prison Chaplain was the Reverend Robert Cooper, who was the son of Mr Bransby Cooper. The Revd Cooper served in the role from 1822 to 1850. In Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, Holyoake wrote of the Chaplain that he:

“Had the kindly nature, but none of the force of character of his father. He was merely a regulation clergyman, who believed he had spiritual duties to discharge; but his piety was like cold water – it gave you the discomfort of dampness, and when dry again you were as you were before. Still I retain respect for him. He had none of that spite of piety I had hitherto experienced, and was only disagreeable as a matter of official duty.”

Of the Prison Surgeon, Mr Thomas Hickes, Holyoake had little to say, except in an article he published in the Oracle of Reason after his release (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial…). Holyoake’s health had suffered in part due to the poor prison diet and he had been frustrated by the surgeon’s refusal to order additional food for him, without first referring to the Governor. In the Oracle of Reason he wrote:

“I gladly admit, that his manner was always very kind, but I complain that his answers were always very indecisive. What he recommended he seldom prescribed and professed that he must consult the governor when he should have consulted only himself.”

In his article in the Oracle of Reason, Holyoake made observations on the conditions inside the gaol. His worst recollection was of the state of the reception cell in which he spent his first night, sitting on the edge of the bed:

“Those are happy who are ever preserved from the reception cells of Gloucester Gaol. Of the one in which I was put, the floor was filthy, the bed was filthier, and the window was filthier still, for in the window was – what I sicken to write – a rag full of human excrement. And of the bed, a prisoner assured me that when he lay in it the lice crept up his throat off the corners of the blanket which covered him.”

Holyoake wrote that the prison diet consisted of bread, gruel, and potatoes, with boiled rice substituted for potatoes twice a week. “After I had been in prison nine weeks I was, by the rules, allowed a small portion of salt beef on Thursdays and Sundays. The gruel was little remarkable for its delicate and little celebrated for its nutritious qualities, and known by the luxurious cognomen of ‘skilly’. The rice had a blue cast, a saline taste and a slimy look. The beef I could not often taste, seldom chew, and never digest.”

He also complained of the lack of exercise inside the prison walls:

“The yard in which I walked was so small, that I always became giddy, through the frequent turnings, before I became refreshed. The governor sometimes permitted the “Fines-Class” in which I was, to walk in his garden; but the occasions came seldom and lasted not long – and I was previously so enervated by confinement, that the unusual exercise thus taken, threw me into a slight fever.”

As for the Chapel, Holyoake described the building as “a cold place” and sympathised with the prisoners who, unlike himself, were not able to get out of attending prayers every morning:

“The prisoners are assembled every morning to hear prayers, on empty stomachs, after sixteen hours’ confinement in their night cells. On the ‘long prayer’ mornings, they are detained in chapel three-quarters of an hour, and the penitentiary men, on their return to their cells, find their gruel on the floor, gone cold in their absence.”

George Jacob Holyoake was released from Gloucester Gaol on 6 February 1843, having served his six months’ sentence. In a letter he wrote to the Cheltenham Free Press (reprinted in The History of the Last Trial...) he wrote:

“How my imprisonment is supposed to affect me toward religion I cannot tell. I only know that I have no change of sentiment to own…After this, I can only say, that I have greater difficulty than ever in believing that humanity is the associate of piety; and if Christianity has no expounders more attractive than those I have fallen in with, the day of my conversion is still distant.”

The Prison Chaplain’s attempt to present Holyoake with a bible on his release from the gaol failed.


G.J. Holyoake, The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism in England: A Fragment of Autobiography (1851). (Available as an e-book from Google Books and other sites)

G.J. Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life (1892). (Available on gerald-massey.org.uk/holyoake/b_autobiography.htm)

© Jill Evans 2015