Today (June 17) in London History – the last “double hanging” in Britain

The last “double hanging” in the United Kingdom took place on June 17, 1954. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Three lives cut short. And for what.

£2 in cash and £5 worth of cigarettes – that’s what. But be careful here. That paltry amount is a slippery slope. Does it somehow make it more palatable if it had been £2 million in cash and £5 million in merchandise? How much is a human life worth? I don’t think you want to paint yourself into a corner where you say “well, it was worth it – it was £7 million pounds.”

Here’s what went down. On the night of March 9th, 1954, two porters, Kenneth Gilbert, aged 21, and Ian Arthur Grant, aged 24, got into the Aban Court Hotel in Harrington Court Gardens in South Kensington. Gilbert had previously worked at the hotel. He knew they could enter the hotel by a coal cellar. They went up into the servery. The night porter, George Frederick Smart, aged 55, heard them. He went to investigate.When he surprised the two young men they set about him with their fists. They bound his hands and ankles and put a crepe bandage into his mouth gagged him. The gag slipped so they put a serviette in his mouth on top of the other one. Struggling to move, George Smith banged his face against the floor. His nose bled into his mouth. Because of the serviettes he couldn’t expel the blood from his mouth. He suffocated.

The story was in the newspapers the next day. Gilbert and Grant showed the story to an acquaintance and told him they had done a job the evening before and got some cigarettes. And done a man in. They’d put the cigarettes in a railway luggage office. They told their acquaintance he could have them. They gave him the ticket. The acquaintance took the ticket to the police. The two were arrested. They were charged with murder. They were tried. They were found guilty. The jury deliberated for 20 minutes. 

They were sentenced to death. 

We learn from the newspapers that the two young men were both of Harwood Road, Fulham. I haven’t drilled down deeper into the story but I suspect they grew up on Harwood Road. Were friends from the time they were little kids.

Their appeals were dismissed.

Counsel for the prosecution said, “a violent act spoke for itself. There was a preconceived intention to overcome Smart and to use violence. The felony on which they embarked was to steal in a dwelling house and they knew that there would be a watchman there upon whom they planned to use violence if he offered resistance. As that violence resulted in the death of this unhappy man, that was murder. The appeal must be dismissed.” It was.

The juggernaut of the law rolled on.

On June 16, 1954 the Times reported, under the terse headline, NO REPRIEVE

“The Home Secretary has decided that in the case of Kenneth Gilbert, aged 21, and Ian Arthur Grant, aged 24, sentenced to death for the murder of George Frederick Smart, aged 55, a night porter, there are no sufficient grounds to justify him in recommending any interference with the due course of law. The men are due to be executed at Pentonville prison tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow” was this day in London history, June 17th, 1954. The next day, June 18th, in the News in Brief column of the Times, we read: “Kenneth Gilbert, aged 21, and Ian Arthur Grant, aged 24, sentenced to death for the murder of a South Kensington hotel night porter, were executed at Pentonville Prison yesterday.” One paragraph. 29 words.

Many years later, the juggernaut of the law had second thoughts. The Crown prosecutor said, “oops, we made a mistake, those two men should not have been executed.”  That was all well and good but it was too late for those two young men. And their families. 

Anything else. Yes. The judge in the case was Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice. He was a strong believer in capital punishment. He lived close to the Aban Court Hotel. His house had been burgled the previous year. 

That’s one petit four.

The other one is the execution of Kenneth Gilbert and Ian Grant was the last side-by-side double hanging in Britain. 

Double hangings were outlawed by the Homicide Act of 1957. 

The Pentonville gallows – Pentonville is still a major London prison – has the distinction of being the busiest 20th-century British gallows. 120 men were hanged at Pentonville between 1902 and 1960 – that’s an average of two per year.

Indeed, Pentonville was a teaching prison for hangmen. People who successfully applied to be added to the Home Office list of executioners attended a one-week course at Pentonville where they were taught how to calculate and set the drop, pinion the prisoner and carry out an execution with speed and efficiency. They practised on a dummy in place of the prisoner.

For what it’s worth, Gilbert’s and Grant’s executioner was the biggest name on the marquee. The most famous hangman of the 20th century. Albert Pierrepont. Albert Pierrepont executed 435 men and women over the course of his 25-year career. Each execution earned him £10. They gave him a pay rise to £15 toward the end of his career. 

This podcast began with two entries in the ledger – £2 in cash and £5 worth of cigarettes. The thought of ending it with two more entries in that ledger – £10 and £15 paid to the hangman – makes me nauseous.

I refuse to end it that way. Instead,

here are two short paragraphs from George Orwell’s essay, A Hanging. These two paragraphs are like a pure white bird taking wing.

And a Today in London recommendation, maybe go into a beautiful Christopher Wren Church. Perhaps St. James’ Piccadilly. And sit quietly in a pew for a few minutes. Healing. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. 

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: whether you’re an employer or a consumer, you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that happy note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good Londoning to you. See ya tomorrow.

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