I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A public house landlord in England doubled as the country's official executioner, a job that led to a strange coincidence.
The city of Oldham, Lancashire was a typical, gritty, northern English community whose prosperity, such as it was, rested on its cotton mills. In a part of Oldham called Hollinwood stood a public house with the odd name of Help the Poor Struggler. In 1946, a man named Albert Pierrepoint became landlord of the pub. The alehouse closed in the 1970s and was demolished in 1992.
Landlord and Customer Singing Duet
On Saturday nights, the clientele of the Help the Poor Struggler pub were more numerous and boisterous than during the rest of the week. Friday was pay day and Sunday was a day of rest, so if a couple more pints of ale than usual went down what was the harm? It could be slept off the next day.
Frequently, landlord Pierrepoint and customer James Corbitt would sing duets by the pub’s piano. The two singers didn’t know one another well and referred to each other as “Tish” and “Tosh.”
The Last Rendition of Danny Boy
Writing in the Oldham Advertiser Carl Marsden records that Tish and Tosh sang their regular duet of “Danny Boy” one Saturday night in 1950. Soon afterwards Corbitt left the pub to meet up with his girlfriend Eliza Woods. He was estranged from his wife and son at the time.
The two lovers went to a hotel and an argument broke out. Marsden writes that Corbitt “murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealous rage, strangling her and daubing the word ‘whore’ across her forehead in indelible ink.”
Corbitt’s son later said that his father had been thinking about killing Eliza Woods for a year. Premeditation seems to have been a factor.
Pierrepoint the Executioner
James Corbitt was charged with the murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death. In the normal course of events, the landlord would never have seen his customer and singing buddy again. But, Albert Pierrepoint had a part-time occupation in addition to running his pub; he was Britain’s Official Executioner.
Marcel Berlins writes that “He hated talking about it, and never boasted or told stories of his hanging achievements … Astonishingly, for many years he had not even told his wife Anne of his part-time job, making up excuses for his occasional overnight absences.”
In an interview with the BBC many years later, Albert Pierrepoint talked about Corbitt: “He really wasn’t known to me. Only as a customer, I never knew his name.” The night of the murder, Corbitt was in the Help the Poor Struggler, but he left earlier than usual. “In the Sunday press this man, I didn’t know then it was this man, had committed a murder . . .”
Although Pierrepoint’s role as the nation’s hangman was kept quiet by authorities, James Corbitt and probably most of the other regulars at the Help the Poor Struggler knew all about their host’s semi-secret identity. Jokes that Pierrepoint had a sign behind his bar reading “No hanging around” distressed him. There was no such sign.
Documentary about Albert Pierrepoint
Pierrepoint Meets his Singing Partner again
On November 28, 1950, Pierrepoint answered the summons from Britain’s Home Office to attend at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison to perform his grim task.
As far as Pierrepoint knew this was just another normal job in which he needed to size up his client to determine what length of rope was needed to bring about a quick and painless death. He looked through a secret observation point into the condemned man’s cell. That’s when, according to Carl Marsden, “he was stunned to recognize Corbitt as a regular and friend from his Struggler’s pub.”
James Corbitt’s Execution
In his memoir Executioner: Pierrepoint, the hangman wrote that when he entered the death cell the next morning he thought Corbitt was under great strain, “He was anxious to be remembered, and to be accepted.
“ ‘Hallo, Tosh,’ he said, not very confidently. ‘Hallo Tish,’ I said. ‘How are you?’ ”
In the BBC interview, Pierrepoint said Corbitt answered that he was “ ‘Fine. Fine.’ He wasn’t a bit of trouble.”
Corbitt knew that his singing partner was also the nation’s executioner before he committed his crime; Pierrepoint wrote that this had no deterrent effect as it hadn’t with any of the more than 430 other people he put to death.
“He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work. He killed the thing he loved.”
Pierrepoint insisted that those involved in his executions treated the condemned person with respect and dignity. As Marcel Berlins writes, “He was no monster; there is no evidence of any sadistic streak or other psychological quirk suggesting that he took pleasure from what he did. At no stage [did] he admit to enjoying his job.”
- For Albert Pierrepoint, hanging was the family business. His father, Henry Pierrepoint was the nation’s hangman from 1901 to 1910. His uncle Thomas Pierrepoint was also Britain’s official executioner from 1906 to 1946; hangings were so frequent then there was a need for more than one practitioner of the black art at a time.
- James Corbitt’s son, also called James, told The Telegraph in 2006 “My father probably deserved the hangman’s noose. They should bring back capital punishment for certain crimes.”
- One of Albert Pierrepoint’s “clients” was John Christie who had murdered eight women during the 1940s and early 1950s. As Pierrepoint pinioned Christie’s arms behind him, the condemned man complained that his nose itched. The executioner assured him “It won’t bother you for long.”
- “Oldham Drinkers Were Hanging on Albert’s every Word.” Carl Marsden, Oldham Advertiser, February 22, 2006.
- “The Secret Executioner.” Marcel Berlins, The Guardian, March 31,2006.
- “ ‘My Father Deserved to be Hanged by Pierrepoint.’ ” Adam Lusher and Alan Rimmer, The Telegraph, April 9, 2006.
- “Executioner: Pierrepoint.” Albert Pierrepoint, Verulem Publishing, June 2005.
- “Albert Pierrepoint.” Paul Coslett, BBC Liverpool, November 19, 2008.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Suzie from Carson City on April 20, 2016:
Fascinating story although a bit unnerving. I'm glad I took the time to view both videos. I found them interesting.
I must say one has to be a really particular sort of individual to have the responsibility of Executioner. Paula