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Reliving the days when you couldn't beat a good hanging

Author Roy Ingleton
Author Roy Ingleton

A good hanging was the main subject of conversation for days afterwards in the coffee houses and drinking dens around the County Town in the 19th century.

There may not be much discussion about hangings in Caffe Nero, Maidstone, today, but the spot where dozens of men, women and boys were publicly executed is only a short distance away.

According to Roy Ingleton, author of a new book, Kent Murder and Mayhem, people were hanged on Penenden Heath for such trifling crimes as the theft of a silk kerchief or other items valued at just 5p.

Public executions, which were abolished in 1868, were meant to be a deterrent for others – watching some poor soul struggle and kick at the end of a rope.

But, Mr Ingleton, a former Kent Police Superintendent, said: “The public on the whole regarded a hanging as an enjoyable form of free public entertainment.”

Executions took place on Penenden Heath until 1830 when Maidstone Prison opened in County Road and they were moved to outside the prison walls.

The last hanging on the heath was carried out by William Calcraft, the official executioner for 45 years, who hanged three farm workers on Christmas Eve 1830 for arson.

Town centre hangings were even more accessible. About 6,000 people gathered outside the prison on August 1, 1831, when 14-year-old John Any Bird Bell was hanged for the murder of Richard Faulkner Taylor, 13, after robbing him of nine shillings, an allowance given by the parish of Aylesford for his disabled father.

At his execution he called out to the mostly female crowd watching: “Pray for a poor boy”.

Kent Murder and Mayhem is published by Pen and Sword Books Limited, and costs £12.99. For details visit www.pen-and-sword.co.uk

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