Today (June 9) in London History – the Last Triple Hanging at Newgate

The last triple hanging at Newgate took place on June 9, 1896. This Today in London History episode tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Vivid memory from over half a century ago. I was canoeing on the Wisconsin River. The western reaches of the Wisconsin River. It’s a good-sized river there, a river that means business. A whole lot bigger than the Thames.

Went round a bend and oh my god. We were at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. It was meeting the Mississippi. The mighty Mississippi. Imagine a dolphin meeting a blue whale. And I instantly understood that I was seeing what Father Marquette was seeing on June 17th, 1673. The Frenchman was of course the first European to encounter and explore the northern regions of the Mississippi River. It was an all changed, changed utterly moment. The Wisconsin River is big there but it’s a minnow compared to the Mississippi. And those are the northern regions of the Mississippi. It’s the difference between a river that drains the land of the gathering waters – Wisconsin in other words, it’s an Ojibway word and that’s what it means – the land of the gathering waters – the difference between a river that drains a region and a river that drains a continent.

And if you think about it, that’s what major historical events are like. They change everything. Change the way we see the world. All changed, changed utterly. Think the French Revolution and the Jewish carpenter’s son in Bethlehem and Columbus’s voyage and the American and Chinese Revolutions and Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Stalingrad and the Black Death and the invention of the steam engine and the worldwide web, etc. 

Those are the Mount Everests – the Blue Whales – of history. And then there are the foothills. They’re less well known. They’re not world-changing. But in a curious way they can tease us out of thought in a way the major peaks don’t.

And that’s what we’ve got on this day in London History. June 9th, 1896.

It’s a London execution. Well, three executions. Its claim to fame is it’s the last triple hanging at Newgate Prison. The intriguing thing is it almost raises more questions than it answers. Over the centuries thousands of people were executed in London. Simultaneous multiple executions were par for the course. Tyburn Tree – the gallows – could turn them off in sixes. Translation: it had six nooses hanging from the crossbar. 

So what is it about the execution of Henry Fowler, Albert Milsom and William Seaman that’s brought it forward, out of the chorus line, so to speak? And not just their execution, their crime as well. 

I don’t have many definitive answers for you. But there’s certainly food for thought in this case. So what can we learn from it? I think the first thing to note is there was a lot of press coverage of Henry Fowler’s and Albert Milsom’s crime. And their trial and eventual execution. It was all over the newspapers. Why? My hunch is that five-letter word that bedevils this country: class.

Henry Fowler and Albert Milsom were convicted of robbing and murdering Henry Smith, an 80-year-old widower. The two murderers –Henry Fowler and Albert Milsom – were both in their early 30s. They were both described as labourers. And of no fixed abode. Their elderly victim was wealthy. He lived in a detached house in Muswell-Hill. The grounds of the house were big enough that the old man employed a gardener, who in fact found his body when he reported for work on the morning of February 14th. The victim also employed a number of servants, though they weren’t live-in. The victim had taken some security measures. The grounds his house stood in were walled. And he’d fixed man traps and alarms about the grounds. We learn as well that there’d been several recent burglaries in the area, as well as an attempted murder. Clearly what that points to is that toward the end of the nineteenth century the well-to-do in some parts of London at any rate were preyed upon and were manifestly nervous about crime, about intrusions.

In the event, poor Henry Smith’s defensive measures were breached. Fowler and Milsom got into his house by forcing one of the back doors. Henry Smith’s body was found on the kitchen floor. So that’s presumably where he confronted his assailants. There’d been a violent struggle. They’d fastened his arms with a cord and then beaten him badly about the head with a jemmy – a chisel. He was said to have been horribly mutilated and died from those wounds. He had a safe in his bedroom. That had been opened and cleaned out. Other rooms in the house had been ransacked. As breaking and entering goes, it was a botched job. Fowler and Milsom left a lantern. Their footprints were all over the place.  

And for what? Fowler and Milsom bought new clothes and new boots. Paid for them with gold pieces. 

What also jumps out at you is that when they were arrested – in Bath as it happens – they had loaded revolvers with them. Gun control in this country was still in the future. 

There was no honour amongst thieves. Trying to save his own skin, Milsom turned Queen’s evidence. He confessed that he and Fowler had committed the burglary and robbery but he said he had had no part in the murder. That Fowler alone was responsible for it. He was in hopes that that would see him through, get his sentence commuted. It didn’t. The execution itself was fully reported. Important to remember that it wasn’t a public execution. That practice had stopped 30 years previously because of the coarsening and brutalising effect public executions had on the spectators. In other respects, though – well, the landmarks are pretty much all there. The judge donning the black cap to pronounce the death sentence. The bell of the prison beginning to toll at quarter to nine. By which time a huge crowd had gathered outside Newgate Prison. Shortly afterwards the officials, accompanied by the hangman and his assistants, proceeded to the cells in which the men were confined. The condemned men were pinioned. They were wearing the clothes in which they were tried. There was then a procession to the scaffold, which was situated under a shed in a yard of the prison. They were positioned on the drop under the beam from which were suspended the ropes made of hemp and silk. 

On the stroke of nine o’clock the executioner withdrew the bolt and the drop fell. The execution was over less than four minutes after the first man was pinioned. Outside, a black flag was run up the prison flag pole. That was the sign that the execution had been carried out. The crowd raised a cheer when the black flag made its appearance. After hanging for an hour, the bodies were cut down and placed in black coffins in the execution shed. The jury, after being sworn, were taken to view the bodies. On their way, the jurymen had to pass through the corridor in which were buried the bodies of persons previously executed in the gaol. The jurymen couldn’t help but notice that men were already at work digging the grave which was to receive the three culprits.

A question that immediately springs to mind here is, what happened to those graves when Newgate Prison was demolished just eight years later and replaced with the Central Criminal Court that stands there today? 

Finally, what about our mystery guest? The third condemned man, 41-year-old William Seaman. Remarkably enough, given that surname, he was a diver. He was an East ender. He was convicted of the murder of John Goodman Levy in Mile End. We’re told that during their detention, the three were given the ministrations of men of the cloth. Milsom was said to have paid close attention to the clergymen’s exhortations but Fowler and Seaman preserved an indifferent attitude throughout. We also learn that their last night on earth was not a tranquil time for the three of them. Restless and disturbed was how one report described it. Hardly surprising, that. For his part, though, Fowler apparently ate a hearty breakfast. 

Two more notable points about the case. When the death sentence was pronounced Fowler had lunged at Milsom and attempted to strangle him. And that’s why, on the scaffold, Seaman was positioned between the two others. A choreography of death designed to forestall violence. Well, some violence. Seaman said it was the first time in his life he was a peacemaker. Poignant that word time – Seaman was out of time. His first time as a peacemaker was also his last time.

Final point. I’m an opponent of capital punishment. And I certainly would have been in favour of putting an end to public executions. And while I don’t have any time at all for criminals – especially criminals who commit serious crimes – I am aware, perhaps a trifle wistfully – that taking the ugly business of state murder inside, out of the public eye, denied the condemned a last chance – perhaps the only chance – to be a star, to be the centre of attention, to display bravura and courage and perhaps contempt for officialdom, for the people who were going to take their lives. Taking that away from them does, perhaps, introduce just the slightest trace of marbling, of ambiguity, of complexity into the decision to end public executions. 

There’s nothing simple is there, about this business of living and dying. 

Ok, Today in London. The recommendation. I’ve previously mentioned the new Bow Street Police Museum and the Central Criminal Court and the upcoming public executions exhibition at the Museum of London. So let’s head off in an entirely different direction.

My recommendation – especially this time of the year – make your way to Strand on the Green. It’s just over the river from Kew. It’s been described as the last remaining true village in London. It straggles along beside the Thames for a few hundred yards. The Thames is a different river up there. It feels like a smaller, country river. Strand on the Green has three wonderful riverside pubs. I’d say get thee to Strand on the Green on a fine June day, sit outside one of those pubs, and take it easy, enjoy, chill. You will. It’ll be good for what ails you. 

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 this. 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 agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *