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Home > Crime and Punishment in Durham > The History of Durham Prison
 

The History of Durham Prison

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Until 1816 executions were held at the site of what used to be Dryburn Hospital (to the north of Durham City) and you can still see a small metal notice to mark the spot where these were carried out. Capital punishment in Durham, as in other places, was a spectator event with many people travelling from all over the county to see the guilty being hanged. It also seems that you didn't have to have any experience to become an executioner! In 1780 Bartholomew Pendleton, who had been appointed as executioner because his cousin was a Canon at Durham Cathedral, got his attempt to hang a criminal so badly wrong that he decapitated his victim instead of hanging them! He wasn't paid as a result but he learnt from his mistake. For future executions he used a very short rope. However, this meant that instead of dying quickly and painlessly, the criminal hung squirming, choking for life on the rope for up to 20 or 30 minutes. It was so horrendous that families and friends would rush to pull down of the legs of the hanging criminal to help break their necks and end their suffering by killing them more quickly. Some criminals even paid people to do it for them! The last person said to have been executed here was Ann Crampton who had been found guilty of 'cutting and maiming'. It is held that she punished her unfaithful husband by cutting off his penis whilst he was asleep! However, this is not confirmed by the records.

 

A 19th century image of Durham Assize Court.

A 19th century image of Durham Assize Court. Taken from Mackenzie and Ross, An historical, topographical and descriptive view of the county palatine of Durham. 1834. (DUL ref: LL 942.81 DUR/COU/MAC)

 

The last execution carried out in public was that of Matthew Atkinson on 16 Match 1865, killed for murdering his wife at Spen near Winlaton. The rope snapped when Atkinson was first hanged and he was brought round and was able to talk with people nearby. After 30 minutes a new rope was found. Atkinson wasn't so lucky with the second attempt. When public hangings were abolished in 1868, the gallows were set up in the prison exercise yard. In 1890 a special execution shed was built as a temporary measure before an entire block was built which contained two cells for prisoners and self-contained facilities.

The last execution at Durham was in December 1958 when 18 year old Brian Chandler was hanged for battering 83 year old Martha Dodd of Darlington to death. Recent modernisation of the prison meant some of the graves of executed criminals were disturbed. Their bodies were removed and cremated.

 

A Rowlandson engraving of an execution at Newgate, clearly showing the carnival aspect of the event. Taken from ?????

A Rowlandson engraving of an execution at Newgate, clearly showing the carnival aspect of the event. Taken from The Lesson of the Scaffold by David R Cooper. (DUL ref: 343.23 COO)

 

 

The first execution at Durham Prison took place on 17 August 1816, three years before the new prison opened, when John Greig was publicly hung for the murder of Elizabeth Stonehouse on gallows specially built outside the courthouse for each hanging. Once the prison was open, the prisoner was brought from the prison through a passage and out through a window to the gallows set up over the main entrance (you can still see the holes in the walls where the posts for the gallows went!). Across the street, houses rented out their balconies to the rich who paid handsomely for a better view of the hanging.

 

 

Photograph showing a house opposite Durham Assize Court with a balcony.

Photograph showing a house opposite Durham Assize Court with a balcony. Image courtesy of John Cavanagh.

 

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