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The BBC's Sanchia Berg reports
"He was 'considerably the worse for drink'"
 real 28k

Sarah Dickinson reports
Albert Pierrepoint speaks to the BBC
 real 28k

Saturday, 24 February, 2001, 08:43 GMT
Hangman dropped for drinking
End of an era: Policeman guards Ruth Ellis execution
End of an era: Policeman guards Ruth Ellis execution
By the BBC's Sanchia Berg

The mystery of why one of Britain's most famous hangmen left his job has been solved - more than 90 years on.

Henry Pierrepoint, who had been chief executioner, gave up abruptly in 1910. His son Albert, chief executioner himself, said he never knew why his father "resigned".

But files recently released at the Public Record Office show that Henry Pierrepoint was sacked because he had arrived for an execution in Chelmsford in July 1910 "considerably the worse for drink".

According to the chief warder, as his officers were handing over the prisoner's details Pierrepoint suddenly "opened a volley of abuse" at his assistant, John Ellis. Both executioners had arrived the afternoon before the hanging,as usual.

Ellis later wrote: "He rushed at me and knocked me out off the chair I was sat on. I got up but was again knocked off. He was going for me again when warder Nash, who had heard the noise, came in, and attempted to stop him, but failed, and the blow struck me behind the ear."

Ellis claimed that he had advised Pierrepoint to drink less as it "gave the public the impression he had to drink to do his work".

Removed

Though one witness said the execution the following day was "carried out with the most extraordinary dispatch", Pierrepoint was nonetheless removed from the list of "approved executioners".

Home Office officials wrote that he should "never be employed again".

According to Steve Fielding, author of The Hangman's Record, several hangmen had to be sacked for arriving at executions drunk. One tried to hang a priest by mistake.

Pierrepoint did not give up easily though. As a hangman, he travelled all expenses paid around the country, a rarity at the time. His fee was 10 per hanging, a significant sum.

'Undermined'

The files show Henry Pierrepoint appealed directly to the home secretary.

He said Ellis had been trying to undermine him, because he wanted to be chief executioner. But it had no effect. Henry Pierrepoint spent the rest of his life in the gasworks - and writing his reminiscences for a weekly paper.

Henry's brother Tom remained an executioner. And his son Albert of course became the most famous British hangman of the 20th Century.

He executed an estimated 450 people, including Ruth Ellis, John Christie, and the commandant of Bergen Belsen.

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