The Execution of William Bull

The Execution of William Bull

Monday Morning, 3rd April, 1871

The Bedford Times and Bedfordshire Independent, Tuesday 4th  April 1871, page 8 reported that ‘The scaffold, which is the same structure on which Wm. Worsley was hung [in 1868 and the last hanging in public], was erected in the south-west corner of the premises immediately inside the front gate, and in order to carry out to the fullest extent the spirit as well as the letter of the recent Act of Parliament, the Governor had taken the precaution to put up a large screen from wall to wall, so as to shut out any possibility of being overlooked from the vicinity of the property in Adelaide-square. The scaffold was undraped, and in its naked hideousness presented an appropriate accessory of the scene about to be enacted on its floor.

‘At a quarter to eight o’clock the prison bell began tolling, as did also the bell of Holy Trinity Church, in accordance with instructions issued by the Home Secretary to the effect that the bell of the nearest church should be tolled on such occasions. In five minutes more the officials of the prison were marshalled in procession, and bearing black wands, along the corridor leading to the front door of the gaol.

‘At five minutes to eight the Governor of the Prison, and Calcraft, the executioner, who had arrived in Bedford on Sunday evening, entered the condemned man’s cell. Bull was then led out, passively and quietly, to the landing outside the chapel door, and here he sat on a stool while the process of pinioning his arms was gone through by Calcraft. The convict’s cap was then taken off, and remained on the floor beside the seat.

‘The condemned man was then led by the executioner and by the Governor down the stone staircase leading into the front corridor, and now the procession to the scaffold commenced. The chief warder led the way, followed by four warders, two and two, with black wands. The chaplain, the Rev. J. J. Row, came next in order, clad in surplice, and repeating prayers audibly though with visible emotion. After him came the convict, supported on either side by a warder, and looking pale and careworn, though not presenting the wretchedly haggard aspect which was exhibited by Worsley at the last execution on his way to the gallows. The surgeon (Mr. Couchman), the under-sheriff (Mr. T. L. Hooper) and the governor of the prison (Mr. R. E. Roberts) followed abreast, and after them came the remaining officers of the prison, the rear being brought up by the representatives of the press, who were present on behalf of the public, and to whom every attention was shown by the Governor.

‘As the procession issued out of the front door the convict was noticed to be deeply moved, and tears coursed freely down his cheeks. His step was, however, firm, and he betrayed no other signs of weakness or emotion. Judging from his subsequent behaviour it was almost impossible to resist the conviction that the tears he shed on the way to the place of execution were those of penitence and not of mere physical or mental depression. When, however, he caught sight of the scaffold, his firmness gave way and he tottered a little but soon recovered his composure and went on.

‘On the procession entering into the area in which the engine of death was erected, four warders ascended the scaffold, taking up their positions severally at the corners. Two mats were placed on the ground at the foot of the steps ascending to the platform. On reaching this part, the convict knelt on one, with the chaplain beside him on the other. The chaplain then, in a voice faltering with emotion, but with intense devotional earnestness, recited a brief prayer.

‘The condemned man bowed his head with reverential lowliness during this terrible moment, and when the prayer was concluded he rose, with some firmness, and exclaimed audibly – “I feel thankful for all that’s been done for me. I feel pardoned! Tell my mother.” Thus his last words and his last thoughts on earth were about his mother, a touch of nature which the most revolting brutality cannot entirely efface from the human heart!

‘And now the convict, shaking hands with the Governor and with the Executioner, ascends the scaffold. His steps are still firm, but there is a woe-begone expression on his countenance, tenfold intensified within the short interval during which he was walking from the front entrance to the fatal scene. He is placed on the trap, and we noticed that he then gave a look upwards towards the sky as if to take a last glimpse of it before his death.

‘In a moment more the white cap is drawn over his face by Calcraft, who then adjusts the noose around his neck. The halter is then hooked onto the chain from the cross-beam, and the convict’s feet are pinioned. The bolt is then drawn, and William Bull, the murderer of Sarah Marshall, is in the act of strangulation! The fall seemed to have an instantaneous effect, the only motion, except that inseparable from the unwinding of the rope, being a slight muscular action in the hands, which as death was supervening, relaxed the firmness of their devotional grasp, and moved backwards and forwards convulsively. There was little or no oscillation of the legs, and manifestly death had quickly relieved him from his sufferings, if, indeed, he was conscious of any after the fall of the drop. The surgeon remained on the spot until life was extinct, and then the group around the scaffold retired into the prison.

Immediately upon the execution being completed, a black flag was hoisted in front of the Prison as an indication to the assembled crowd who lingered outside, that the last penalty of the law had been carried into effect. The representatives of the press were then taken into the Governor’s office, where Mr. Roberts placed in their hands the following:

Condemned Cell, Bedford Gaol,
5.46 p.m., 20th March, 1871

Statement Voluntarily made to the Governor in the presence of one of the Warders:

‘I got home that night about half-past ten, I am sure it had not gone eleven. I had had a little beer but was not drunk. I do not know if I had a fair trial. I did not take much notice of what took place. I was satisfied with the Counsel that defended me. I admit the justice of my sentence. I threw a stone at old Sally’s door and she opened the door and swore at me. I stood in the middle of the road at the time – it was said so. I could not see if Sally was in her night dress, there was no light in the house. She stood at the door for five minutes swearing at me. I cannot say she knew me. She kept swearing at me until I went into the house. As soon as I got in she called me a “hen roost robber.” She was then standing in the middle of the room; but I do not know if she was dressed or undressed. I was only two or three minutes in the house. After the stone was thrown she came out to the stile, a long sweeping broom in her hand. She struck at me with it, and the head of the broom came off near the stile. She picked it up and went into the house. I followed her, and she struck me one or two times. I never saw green that night, and it is so long ago now I do not know what to say; the last time she “hot” me I knocked her down with my hand; I was in a rage with her. She was lying on the bricks when I left the house and was swearing at me; she was not dead. I never meddled with the bed. Sally was not on the bed while I was in the house. I never used a stick, as was spoken about. I had no criminal action with her; all I did was to knock her down, and when she was down I “hot” her the second time.’’


William Bull was a Labourer, aged 21. Sarah Marshall, his victim, was 52. She is described as an “imbecile woman” in the press reports, and it was known that she was often tormented by youths in the village of Little Staughton, where both she and William Bull lived, – he with his mother. This particular incident took place on November 29th 1870.

There is a great deal of information in the press concerning the incident, and it was reported that “her throat had been violently pressed, (and that) her death was caused by suffocation.” Other details are given but her death was officially recorded as being “caused by strangulation” and it was clear that a violent struggle had taken place. This conflicts with the Statement given by William Bull. [The Bedford Times and Bedfordshire Independent, Tuesday, March 21, 1871 p.6].

Much detail was withheld until after the execution to avoid attracting too much public attention and the “morbid taste of a portion of the public which seeks its gratification” (in obtaining as much information as possible concerning the convict). A crowd of mainly women, estimated to be 700 gathered outside the prison in the early morning on the day of the execution, only dispersing after the flag was flown.

William Bull was spared the humiliation of a public hanging. It is hard to believe that anyone would wish to observe a public hanging but this was the case until the parliamentary decree which terminated public executions c. 1868. Not only was the execution observed by many in the past, but also commemorated in lace bobbins (and other objects no doubt) used by so many women throughout Bedfordshire in the 19th century. These were often made of ox bone and were engraved with the name of the deceased and date of execution. It would be interesting to know how many of these survive.

Samuel Cookson’s father Richard, being a warder at the prison, may well have been on duty at the time of this execution and participated in the proceedings. If so he must have been equally perturbed and affected as it appears were those involved and who witnessed the sad event.

(The image at the top is an ariel view of Bedford Prison, top right.  In close proximity is Hassett Street, marked with a cross, home of Richard Cookson and family)

Copyright: Brenda Fraser-Newstead

23 January 2020


The Bedford Times and Bedfordshire Independent, Tuesday April 4, 1871, p.8
The Bedford Times and Bedfordshire Independent, Tuesday March 21, 1871, p.6


Courtesy Maurice Nicholson (source unknown)