Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Calcraft, William

CALCRAFT, WILLIAM (1800–1879), executioner, was born at Baddow, near Chelmsford, in 1800. He was a shoemaker by trade, but at one time was watchman at Reid's brewery in Liquorpond Street (now Clerkenwell Road), London, and afterwards butler to a gentleman at Greenwich. At a later period, while obtaining a hawker's precarious living, he accidentally made the acquaintance of Foxton, the hangman, which led to his employment at Newgate to flog juvenile offenders, at ten shillings a week. On an emergency during 1828 he was sent to Lincoln, where he put two men to death. John Foxton, who had been the executioner in the city of London for forty years, died on 14 Feb. 1829. Calcraft was appointed his successor, and sworn in on 4 April 1829. The emolument was a guinea a week and an extra guinea for every execution, besides half a crown for every man he flogged, and an allowance to provide cats or birch rods. For acting as executioner of Horsemonger Lane gaol, in Surrey, he received a retaining fee of five guineas, with the usual guinea when he had to officiate on the scaffold; he was also at liberty to engage himself in the country, where he demanded, and was paid, 10l. on each occasion. During his tenure of office the act of parliament was passed ordering criminals to be put to death privately. The last public execution in England took place in front of Newgate 26 May 1868. The first private execution under the new law was in Maidstone gaol, 3 Aug. 1868. Calcraft's last official act was the hanging of James Godwin, on 25 May 1874. Old age then obliged him to retire from office, and he was pensioned by the city of London on twenty-five shillings a week. He died at Poole Street, New North Road, Hoxton, on 13 Dec. 1879. He was of kindly disposition; was very fond of his children and his grandchildren, and took a great interest in his pigeons and other pet animals. ‘The Groans of the Gallows,’ or ‘The Life of W. Calcraft,’ 1846, which ran to numerous editions, ‘The Hangman's Letter to the Queen,’ 1861, ‘The Heroes of the Guillotine and Gallows, Askern, Smith, and Calcraft,’ three publications of little worth, and not countenanced by the executioner, contain very few facts relating to his history.

[Arthur Griffith's Chronicles of Newgate (1884), ii. 272–3, 411–15; Daily Telegraph, 17 Dec. 1879, p. 5; Life and Recollections of Calcraft, with portrait, London, 1880.]

G. C. B.