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“Hounslow Heath was a sinister place in the olden days; a great wilderness of furze bushes and grassy mounds, interspersed with swamps, and tracks little known to honest men. For the Gentlemen of the Road it was the finest hunting ground in England.”

ARTHUR L HAYWARD - Book of Highwaymen

Hounslow Heath has a long and bloody history of murder and mayhem, of footpads and felons. Although the tracks leading westwards across the Heath from London were lined with gibbets hung with the rotting corpses of criminals as a deterrent the killings continued…

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One Saturday evening in November 1802 John Steele, a lavender distiller was returning home across the Heath from his lavender nursery in Feltham when he was stopped by three men. They beat him around the head with a cudgel and tied a belt around his neck to stop his cries for help. It did - permanently. A few days later soldiers from Hounslow Barracks found Mr Steele’s body in a ditch on the north side of the Staines road barely 600 yards from their barracks. His murder remained unsolved for four more years.

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Then in 1806 a man called Benjamin Hanfield was sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing a pair of shoes. On his way to Portsmouth in chains prior to shipping he tried to escape transportation by confessing that he had taken part in the robbery of John Steele - but not the murder. He said that two men, Owen Haggarty and John Holloway had suggested to him an easy ‘low toby’ - a slang term for a robbery on foot - against John Steele who would be crossing Hounslow Heath with “a good sum of money” on him. After fortifying themselves in the Bell Inn in Hounslow they went out onto the Heath and waited in the moonlight for Steele by the 11th milestone on the Staines Road. When Steele finally turned up they demanded his money. He handed over 27 shillings. Then they asked for his wallet but when he said that he didn’t have one and began to shout for help they silenced him with a blow across the back of his head.

After Hanfield’s confession Haggarty and Holloway were soon arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to be hanged at Newgate Prison on Monday 22nd February 1807. As usual the execution was going to take place in front of a blood thirsty crowd. By 7am 40,000 people had already gathered. Owen Haggerty was first to ascend the scaffold. His arms were pinioned, and he wore a white cap and a light olive shag greatcoat. After the executioner had placed the fatal noose around his neck, John Holloway, was brought up. As he climbed the scaffold he pleaded his innocence. “Innocent, innocent, innocent! Gentlemen, no verdict! No verdict! No verdict! Gentlemen, innocent! Innocent”. As soon as the rope was fixed round his neck he fell silent.

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The execution was timed for 8.15am and by eight o’clock not an inch of ground was unoccupied in view of the scaffold. The pressure of the crowd was such that people were already crying out to escape the crush which only increased the confusion. Several people fell to the ground and were trampled despite their piteous cries. Throughout the crowd there were continued shouts of “Murder! Murder!” In Green Arbour Lane two piemen selling their wares were knocked over and the surrounding crowd crushed as they fell over the piemen’s stools and baskets. A wheel fell off a passing cart loaded with spectators throwing the passengers to the ground. They were immediately trampled underfoot and on it went… an apprentice piano maker, a boy sailor, a mother nursing her baby, a woman ‘of ill repute’ and on and on. As Haggarty and Holloway fell through the trap to their own grisly deaths tens of others in the crowd were falling to theirs. It was only after their bodies were cut down and the gallows removed to the Old Bailey Yard that the marshals and constables were able to clear the street. There they discovered 31 men, women and children, all dead, and scores more seriously injured. The following day a coroner’s inquest sat in St Bartholomew’s Hospital to examine the horrendous events. The verdict was “That the several persons came by their death from compression and suffocation.”

Over the coming years, influenced no doubt by the appalling scenes at the Haggarty/Holloway fiasco, the appetite for public executions diminished. Finally, on the 29th of May 1868, the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act came into force ending public hanging as such and requiring all future executions to be carried out within prisons.

“It is emphatically one of those reforms which are hard to realise before they are made but which once made seem so simple and unobjectionable that they are treated almost as a matter of course.”

The Times August 4th 1868

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England’s last fully public hanging at Newgate was to be that of Michael Barrett, a Fenian. He was convicted of causing an explosion at the Clerkenwell House of Detention in London on the 13th of December 1867, in an attempt to free Richard O’Sullivan Burke, a Fenian Brotherhood member. Barrett was hanged by William Calcraft shortly after 8am on Tuesday, the 26th of May 1868, dying without a struggle. The Times celebrated the fact that this hanging would be the last such vulgar public display. Capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1965 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland and completely abolished in 1998.

– from Martyn Day