British Methods of Execution

The death penalty was abolished in England in 1969, but previous to that it had a long and bloody history of capital punishment which dated back to ancient times. Lots of different methods of execution have been used over the centuries, from beheading, to drowning, shooting and burning at the stake. However hanging was the predominant method of execution during the 19th century.

Other previously popular methods included:


Usually for those of noble birth, executions by beheading often took place at the Tower of London or Tower Hill. If you were unlucky the executioner used a blunt axe, which is why Anne Bolyen requested to be executed by sword. The last prisoner beheaded was Simon Lord Lovatt in 1747 for treason.

The punishment of hanging followed by post-mortem beheading for traitors remained into the 19th Century.

Above: Duke of Monmouth’s execution on Tower Hill, 1685. Source

Hanging Drawing & Quartering:
Reserved for men who had committed treason (women were burnt at the stake for reasons of ‘modesty’). The last man to suffer this punishment was James O’Coigle who was executed in 1798 for plotting against the King. The sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering was passed well into the 19th century, but it was usually commuted to take out the disemboweling part of the sentence to either hanging, or hanging followed by beheading.

Above: The execution of High the Younger Despenser in 1740s who was executed by Hanging, drawing and quartering for treason. Source

Burning at the stake:

This punishment was frequently used for women condemned for treason as well as for heretics. In later years the female prisoner was usually strangled before the fires were lit, and then the body was burned until it was ashes. The last woman burnt at the stake was Catherine Murphy outside Newgate Prison in 1789 who was executed for coining (forgery) which was at that time classed as treason.

Above: Thomas Cranmer’s execution by burning in 1556. Source

Shooting by firing squad:

This was usually a military punishment and continued into the 20th century.


There were various methods of execution by hanging.

The ‘New drop’ was used from 1760 and consisted of a raised platform with steps leading up to it and a trapdoor through which the culprit would drop and be left hanging. Designs varied, but the drop was usually about 18 inches, which wasn’t long enough to break the culprit’s neck and meant the convicted man or woman died slowly by strangulation.

The ‘Long Drop’ was introduced in 1872 as a more humane method of execution, where the length of the drop was calculated to break the culprit’s neck and kill almost instantly.

This is an excerpt from my book: Launched into Eternity: A brief history of 19th Century capital punishment as reported by the press, which is available on Amazon.

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