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One of the pleasures of researching the 'Billingtons' in Lancs." has been the diversity of the families, in particular the occupations they pursued.  Whilst some may boast 'Royal Bloodlines' or gentry in their family trees, I am delighted to find that the 'Billingtons' of Lancs. pursued careers that added spice to any Family History Book from "Paupers to Poets", we have them all, even Hangmen!

The "Billington Hangmen of Bolton"

(Extracts from "HANGMEN OF ENGLAND" by Brian Bailey)


"He did not pass in purple pomp"

Nor ride a moon white steed,

Three yards of chord and a sliding board,

Are all the gallows need

So with rope of shame the herald came

To do the secret deed.

Oscar Wilde 1898

This poem was written by Oscar Wilde who early in 1896 was a prisoner at Reading himself, the man who inspired him to write this poem was a trooper called Thomas Wooldridge in the Royal Horse Guards who had killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.

"The Hangman who on July 7th 1896 carried out the execution of Thomas Wooldridge was a 'barber' from Farnworth, Nr. Bolton called James Billington.

James Billington was of medium height and slight build, but very strong, he had held down various jobs in cotton mills as well as being a collier at one stage and according to one source a wrestler as well.   One of his hobbies was keeping racing dogs, another was long distrance walking for which he always wore clogs.   In time, James married and had children, he moved from Bolton to Farnworth and set up business as a hairdresser in Market Street.

James was obviously a man of many talents who had been noted for his singing in the public houses around Oldham and Middleton, at some stage he decided that the evil drink was no longer for him and signed a pledge which he kept for many years wearing the blue ribbon of the teetotaller."

The story of "James the Hangman" inspired me further to investigate the family known as "The Billington Hangmen from Bolton",

JAMES THE HANGMEN; was first found in the 1851 Census with parents James and Mary Billington.

THE HANGSMEN'S PARENTS:BOLTON: 1851...James Billington, 32 Yrs. Labourer b. Preston,Mary his wife 31 yrs born Bolton(nee Haslam),John 5 b. Preston,James 4 yrs b. Preston,Catherine 1 year b. Bolton

.  It seems the couple had lost a child William,(see note) in Bolton in 1841 after which they returned to Preston where son John was born in 1845- 1846 followed by James in 1847, they then returned to Bolton where daughter Catherine was born in 1850.

SON of James & Mary Nee Haslam above

JOHN (Born 1845/6)PRESTON

John was next found in 1861 with his parents and siblings:

1861: Lt Bolton, Back Goodwin St: Disk 2821: Page 124James Billington, 41yrs Barber b. Preston Wife Mary 41yrs b. Bolton,Ann 17yrs b. Preston.Factory Operative John 15yrs b. Preston, Factory OperativeJames 14 yrs b. Preston..Factory OperativeCatherine 11 yrs, b. BoltonMary 6 yrs b. BoltonJane 4 yrs b. BoltonThomas 1 yr b. Bolton

John First Married an Ann Sweetlove in 1869 in Bolton shown here in 1871 Census:

1871:Disk Area 3932

21 Smith Street: Page 335: John Billington, 25yrs, Self Acting Minder, b. Preston with wife Ann 22yrs, b. Bolton with daughter Mary 2yrs b. Bolton and Alice Pennington, widow, Visitor 23yrs b. Coppull

By 1881 they had moved to 111 Folds Rd ie:

1881:Dwelling: 111 Folds Road

Census Place: Little Bolton, Lancashire, England..Source: FHL Film 1341916 PRO Ref RG11 Piece 3833 Folio 143 Page 15Marr Age Sex Birthplace;

John BILLINGTON M 35 M Preston, Lancashire, EnglandRel: HeadOcc: HairdresserAnn BILLINGTON M 32 F Bolton, Lancashire, EnglandRel: Wife, Mary BILLINGTON 12 F Bolton, Lancashire, EnglandRel: DaurOcc: ScholarJohn BILLINGTON 9 M Bolton, Lancashire, EnglandRel: SonOcc: Scholar

However in 1889, Poor Ann deceased at the age of 40yrs, Death was Registered in the September 1/4 of 1899. By the December 1/4 of 1899, John had remarried again to a Maria Wood, seen here with new wife in 1891. The son John mentioned aged 19yrs is the son of John and Ann Sweetlove.

1891 Census:

111 Fold Rd: Page 223: John Billington 45 yrs Barber b.Preston, wife Maria 41yrs b. Glossop in Derbyshire, son John 19yrs b. Bolton.

JAMES THE HANGMAN.(born.1847-Preston)

(Some extractions taken  from 'HANGMEN OF ENGLAND' by Brian Bailey)

From an early age James their son  was keenly interested in executions and experimented with a 'dummy' on a home made scaffold in his backyard at Higher Market Street in Farnworth.  He started work as a youngster as a 'little piecer' and as an older teenager went on to work in one of Boltons Cotton Mills where he was named 'Jimmy Armhole", obviously in relation to his job in the textile industry!

James applied for the job as a 'hangman'  in his own right, shortly after the death of 'Marwood' another hangman,   there were 1400 applications for the job,   initially the job was given to a man called 'Binns',then replaced again soon after with  a 'James Berry a Yorkshireman,  who succeeded 'Binns. 

James Billington pursued his application with the prison authorities and was asked to outline his 'method' at York, he was appointed to carry out executions at York from 1884, even though James Berry the Yorkshireman, was still the favoured man by London and Middlesex. 

James' first execution was at Arnley Gaol in Leeds on the 26th August when he hanged a Joseph Laycock from Sheffield, a Hawker, for the murder of his wife and four children.  Laycock was to have said just before being hanged "You will not hurt me?" to which James Billington replied, "No, thaal nivver feel it, for thaal be out of existence i' two minutes."

James married Alice Pennington in 1872, sadly Alice died in 1890 aged only 40yrs. The couple had lost three children in infancy, one of them a girl called Polly whose school friends bought a little wreath with their pocket money and delivered it to the house to be placed on her coffin.  Billington himself received them at the door and instantly burst into tears, explaining to the teacher afterwards, "See, I'd sooner ha'lost five pound than ha' lost her' - a touching sentiment indeed.

James had already developed a chronic dread of newspaper reporters who went into his barbers shop for a haircut and then tried to extract information and coax him to tell stories, he grew to resent these intrusions so much so that as soon as he suspected his customer was a reporter he would down tools and depart leaving the customer half shaved or his hair cut only half finished and he would not return back into the shop until the customer had left.

A month before Billington went to Reading to execute a guardsman for murder, he was at Newgate to conduct a triple execution.   Two of the victims, Harry Fowler and Albert Milsom, had killed an old man at Muswell Hill in the course of burglary.  They blamed each other for the murder at their trial and Fowler made a violent attack on Milsom , even while the jury was considering its verdict.  The third man  was called, 'Seaman,' and had committed two murders at Whitechapel. 

For a triple hanging an assistant was required and the man chosen was 'Warbrick'.  Several warders were present in the execution chamber as the three men were prepared, to prevent any repetition of the violence in court, and when Billington glanced round quickly to make sure that all was ready before operating the trap doors, the figure of Warbrick, who was still pinioning one of the victims legs, was hidden by one of the warders, Billington pushed the lever and Warbrick shot head first through the trap door with the three murderers but had the presence of mind to cling on to the legs of the man he was nearest to and so saved himself from a nasty accident!  This was the last triple execution to be carried out at Newgate.

James was turning into quite a morose character who had so far abandoned his teetotalism as to retire from the hairdressing business to become the licensee of the Derby Arms in Bolton.  Whether this gave him any respite from the journalist is open to doubt, but he was a changed man if some reports are to be believed.  He said that being a hangman was like 'Livin in a bloody cage'.

 It is known so far that James also had a son Thomas born in 1873 in Bolton, a son William born in 1875 in Standish and a son born in 1880 in Kearsley called John, the family was found living in Kearsley in 1881 John working as a hairdresser and living not far away from son John.

In July of 1891 when James was 44 years old, he married again to a girl called ALICE FLETCHER, a local greengrocers daughter.  

In 1901, Thomas the eldest son of James, assisted his father in March of that year when he hanged Herbert Bennett at Norwich for the murder of his wife Mary Jane whose body was found on the beach at Gt. Yarmouth.,she was twenty-two. The couple had been separated for some time.

Patrick McKenna had murdered his wife in a fit of passion and was deeply repentant but a petition signed by over 22,000 local people did nothing to save him from the gallows and James Billington was engaged to execute him at Strangeways on 3rd December 1901. McKenna was an old acquaintance of James's, if not actually a friend, he had lived in Keston Street, Bolton where James Billingtons father had been in business as a barber during James youth.  His assistant was Henry Pierpoint for this hanging.   Henry played cards with James in their prison apartment the night before the execution and said to Henry "Ee, Harry, I wish I'd never ha 'come".  James however did his job the next day.       James was walking home obviously upset at the days events, on route to Trinity Railway Station a policeman stopped to talk and noticed that James did not look well and had a cold, at 2.15am on the morning of December,13th 1901, aged 54yrs. after receiving the last rites from the Rector of the Parish Church, James died leaving his wife with 5 children. James had executed 147 people.  Less than a month had passed, before Thos, Jame's eldest son, and sometimes assistant, died of pneumonia.

In 1881: James and wife Alice are living at 51 Market St, Kearsley with their children Thomas 8yrs, William 6yrs and John 1year.

JAMES IN 1891;

1891 Census:58 Manchester Rd, Farnworth: James Billington 44yrs, Barber, Hairdresser b. Preston. Widower, Son William 16yrs, App Blacksmith b. Standish, Son John 11yrs b . Farnworth, Daughter Alice 8 yrs b. Farnworth, Daughter Mary Ann 6yrs b. Farnworth, Son James 4 years b. Farnworth. Cousin Mary J Slater 13 yrs b. Farnworth,Note: Mary J Slater is daughter of Catherine Slater aged 29yrs in 1881 living at 25 Johns St. Kearsley, Catherine is the sister of James the Head.

Son of James the Hangman-THOMAS:-ASSISTANT HANGMAN:Born 1873-Bolton

Thomas had on many occassions assisted his brother and father in hangings, he helped out William during his fathers illness in the execution of the man responsible for the notorious 'Yarmouth' murder.  He also had the grim task along with William of executing an Uncle and a Nephew in Newcastle!

Thomas had not been a well boy for some time and was under the care of a Dr.Adam, he had suffered accutely from colds which finally developed into Pneumonia.   On Friday the 10th January, 1902, and only a month after the death of his father, Thomas died shortly after 5am, he was only 29years of age and already a widower at the time of his death which shocked his local community.

  Son of James the Hangman -WILLIAM: ASSISTANT HANGMAN & 'TOE RAG'! Born 1875-Standish

At the time of his fathers death, William lived with his stepmother at the Derby Arms, he sometimes would enlist the assistance of his younger brother John but early in May 1902 his stepmother Alice also died at the age of forty four, overcome by the death and loss of her her husband and step-son Thomas.  It was now the third death in the family within six months. The family had by then relinquished its connection the Derby Arms.

In 1899 when Edward Bell was sentenced to death at Lincoln, James the father was engaged to do the job, however William turned up instead saying that his father was too ill to come and that he had carried out executions before.  Nonplussed by this situation, the governor allowed William to execute Bell and when the Prison Commissioner took Billington to task over this matter, he apologised for telling the governor a lie but pleased that he had been afraid that if he had told the truth, "You would not let nme do it".  Shortly afterwards the Home Office had occasion to quiery the employment of William Billington as an assistant at an exection at Nottingham as he was not on the official list.  The governor reported that he twice tried to employ Thos Billington for the job,but his father did not know where Thomas was and had recommended William.  This brings us back to 'Warbrick' who appears to have been no more qualified that William Billington to take part in an execution when he had the unfortunate accident, for both men were placed on the list of approved executioners only in 1900.  William Warbrick was a Bolton Man whose name had formerly been Wilkinson which he changed when he discovered his parents were not married at the time of his birth.  He was well known to the Billington family but professional rivalry soon led him to bombard the Home Office with complaints that the Billingtons were preventing him from getting work.  He later in his smear campaign sent the HOme Office a local newspaper cutting reporting that William had been convicted of assault and Warbrick alleged he was perpetually drunk, this was not apparently believed and the Governor of Wandsworth reported that in his opinion, William was a more suitable man for the job than his father.

It was William Billington with Henry Pierrepoint as his assistant. who conducted the first execution at Pentonville Prison on 30th September, 1902.

'Billie' Billington as he was known, unlike his brother, was no teetotaller.  He was a regular drinker in the 'local'.

Williams career as a Hangman reached it climax in the month of April 1903, he executed George Chapman at Wandsworth, Henry Pierrpoint was again his assistant.  Early in July William hanged Samuel Dougal at Chelmsford for the murder of Camille Holland.  As Dougal was ready to drop, the chaplain Rev. Blakemore, waived William aside and demanded "Are you Guilty or Not Guilty? He repeated the question twice before Dougal said, "Guilty" through the white hood over his face, just as the trap fell.  Question were asked in the Commons about the behaviour of the chaplain and the Home Secretary took steps to prevent an recurrence of this incident.

William was engaged in Manchester and Durham during the first week of December 1903 but at the end of that week it was announced that he was thinking of retiring, two years after succeeding his father and elder brother because his absence from his hairdressing salon in Great Moor St, Bolton was having an adverse effect on the business. Williams resignation did not come as soon as he had threatened for the two brothers(Wm & John) were in action again at different prisons on the 17th August that year when William hanged John Kay at Leeds for the murder of his mistress, Jane Jirst, and John Billington hanged Samuel Holden at Birmingham for the murder of his mistress, Susan Humphries.

Soon after this, William seems to have not only resigned as an executioner, but relinquished his interest in the hairdressing business as well, leaving it in the hand of his brother and Henry pierpoint began to carry out executions with 'Ellis' as his assistant for a short time until Ellis. too, became a senior executioner in his own right.

On July 20th 1905, Will was charged with failing to maintain his wife and two children, they had been admitted to the Bolton Union Workhouse for a month in February.   There was a separation order for William for sixteen shillings a week, but not a penny of it did Wiliam pay.   ..Billington claimed that his wife was living with another man, however the officer said that she was in fact living with her sister in Burnley.  Billington then explained that he had been out of work for four months but had just got a job in Manchester and could now pay a small sum monthly. The Magistrate however sent Billington to jail for a month with hard labour.  Hardly a month had past before William was in court again charged once more with neglecting his wife and family..They had again spent some time in the Bolton workhouse and had received none of the money Billington promised to pay them.  The prisoner was described as a blacksmith and hairdresser.  He said he had done his best to get work since leaving prison in the August.  He had also signed the pledge and had not tasted drink since he came out of prison and offered to send his wife two pounds straight away, as well as her railway fare as he wanted her and his children to live with him again.  This was accepted by the Magistrate and the case was adjourned for two months.  Williams promises were empty ones however.  He sent a letter to his wife, it bore no stamp and contained no money.  The case was re-opened on the 8th February and it was stated that Mrs Billington and her children were still in the workhouse.  William was not in court and he was sentenced to another months imprisonment in his absence.

William died on the 2nd March 1952 in his early 60s.

Son of James the Hangman - JOHN:-ASSISTANT HANGMAN:Born 1880-Kearsley

John, like his father and older brother was a hairdresser by trade,he was a teetotaller and assistant organist at the local Spiritual Hall.  He assisted his brother and father in executions and in the December of 1903, carried out one himself at Liverpool, hanging Henry Starr for the murder of his wife at Blackpool.

This may have been Johns first execution as principal as his brother William on the same day was executing a couple named John Gallagher and Emily Swann at Leeds, Williams assistant at that time was a John Ellis who had assisted William once before at a double execution at Newcastle.

The hairdressing business which was established in Great Moor Street was not doing well and abandoned around 1904.

Like his brothers, John had been sickly for several weeks suffering from 'Dropsy', he had earlier moved from Bolton to Coppull around the middle of 1905 for the sake of his health, so it was an even bigger shock to everyone when at the tender age of 25 years after a very short illness that he to suddenly died leaving behind a wife and one young child.

Johns Obituary reads as follows:

The death occurred on Saturday of John Billington the Assistant Public Executioner, whose demise at his residence in Coppull, Chorley, at the early age of 25yrs will dobtless occassion some surprise.  He had for several weeks suffered from 'Dropsy' and for the benefit of his health removed from Bolton to Coppull some months ago, but the end came rather unexpectedly after a very short illness.  The deceased man occasionally assisted his elder brother William in the gruesome work, and has conduced executions himself in cases of emergency, he was, along with William, a Hairdresser by trade but their business in Great Moor St, was abamdoned about 12 months ago.  He leaves a wife and one young child. The body will be conveyed from Coppull to Bolton where the funeral will be tomorrow at Heaton Cemetry.

                                                                           Additional Notes:

Many misrepresentations have been made about the Hangmen.  I have the copy of a page out of a newspaper called the Evening News dated Wednesday April, 16th 1975 which shows a picture of gallows and in the inset a picture of William Billington's Head and partial shoulders.  Underneath this picture is an article with a picture of two men and woman who look to be in their 60s and the following is written.....I quote

"Even a Hangman has a gentle side to his nature.  In the case of Thomas Billington who lived in Bolton, it was an interest in canaries.  He is shown shortly before his death in 1934, visiting a collection of the birds at Waddicar's Garden in Bromley Crose.   The picture has been kept over the years by Mr Tom Stott, who is 80yrs old this year and lives at Crosby House, Higher Bridge Street in Bolton.   Billington the Hangman was the son of another Bolton Hangman named James who executed 147 people between 1884 and his death in 1901.  Thomas was his assistant for part of that time and probably attended his fathers last execution when he had to hang a friend.  My picture shows Billington and his wife left, and two friends from Westhoughton"

I also have the copy of the obituary for Thos.Billington assistant hangman dated Friday 10th January 1902 which reads as follows:

Following as at id does so closely upon the demise of his father, the death which took place shortly after 5 O clock this morning of Thomas Billington, son of the late Hangman, James Billiington, will be received with painful surprise.  The deceased was a widower  and 29yrs of age, had been far from well for some time.  Suffering acutely from colds, and had been under the care of a Dr. Adam...  The illness developed in Pneumonia.  Yesterday the doctor held out little hopes of his recovery and he succombed at the time stated the 'Derby Arms',Churchgate, which was kept by his mother and was for many years in the occupation of his father .  The deceased was the eldest son and had assisted along with his younger brother at many executions, notably in the Yarmouth Murder Case.  During his fathers illness, he also assisted his brother William in the grim work and took part int he executions of the Uncle and Newphew in Newcastle.  On the death of his father, William succeeded to the position of Hangman and the deceased continued to help his brother in the capacity of assistant but feeling the effects of his illness keenly when his father died, he never got over the trouble.  Throughout the town the news caused a painful sensation and much sympathy is felt for the family.                                           

Catherine Daughter of James & Mary Nee Haslam

Catherine Married a Thomas Slater in Bolton in 1872 and is seen here with her family in 1881

1881:Dwelling: 25 Johns Street....Census Place: Kearsley, Lancashire, England..Source: FHL Film 1341912 PRO Ref RG11 Piece 3817 Folio 8 Page 10

Catherine SLATER M 29 F Bolton, Lancashire, EnglandRel: Wife (Head)Occ: Wife Of Foreman AsphalterRichard SLATER 11 M Dublin, Ireland Rel: Son Occ: Scholar..William SLATER 5 M Carmore, East Indies Rel: Son Occ: Scholar,Mary Jane SLATER 3 F Farnworth, Lancashire, EnglandRel: Daur...Thomas SLATER 3 m M Farnworth, Lancashire, EnglandRel: Son

Mary b. abt 1855, Daughter of James & Mary Nee Haslam-No further Info

Jane b. abt 1857 Daughter of James & Mary Nee Haslam (M) Robert HALL in 1882 Bolton

Interestingly: There has always been speculation that Wm Billington the Blackburn Poet and the 'Hangmen' were related, It has just been discovered that Ann Billington the sister of the Poet, Married a John Haslam in 1856 in Blackburn. Maybe this is the link through the HASLAM family????