Harry Bernard Allen (5 November 1911 – 14 August 1992) was one of the United Kingdom’s last official executioners, officiating between 1941 and 1964. He was chief executioner at 29 executions and acted as assistant executioner at 53 others at prisons in London, Manchester and Leeds. He was for 14 years an assistant executioner, mostly to Albert Pierrepoint from 1941 to 1955. In October 1955 he was appointed a Chief Executioner alongside Pierrepoint, although did not execute anyone as a ‘Number One’ until July 1957. Pierrepoint had resigned in February 1956. Allen’s most controversial hanging came in April 1962, when James Hanratty was hanged for murder, despite efforts to clear his name. Allen also assisted in the execution of Derek Bentley in 1953, and he performed one of the last two executions in the UK, in 1964.
Born in Denaby Main, near Conisbrough in the West Riding of Yorkshire on 5 November 1911, Allen was brought up in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, and was educated at St Anne’s Roman Catholic School in Burlington Street, Ashton. His first job was in the Transport Department at Park Bridge Iron Works, before he became a bus driver with Ashton Corporation, a job he continued to hold after he became an assistant hangman in 1941.
Career as an executioner
Allen applied for a job in the Prison Service in the 1930s but was turned down. He successfully applied to be put on the Home Office list of executioners and was often employed as an assistant executioner to Tom Pierrepoint, the uncle of Albert Pierrepoint. As a preliminary step, he witnessed his first execution at the age of 29 on 26 November 1940 at Bedford prison, describing it as a “very good, clean job, not as gruesome as I expected”.
Allen became a publican in Farnworth, Lancashire in the 1940s, combining his role as executioner with running the pub, which he ran until the early 1950s when he took over another pub, the Junction Inn, on Higher Lane in Whitefield.
In 1945, five Nazi prisoners of war were hanged for murdering a fellow German soldier who had betrayed their escape plan. It seems to have been a crime and ultimate execution that made the deepest impression on Allen. He wrote, “It was a foul murder. They staged a mock trial, kicking the victim to death and dragging him by the neck to the toilet where they hung his lifeless body on a waste pipe. These five prisoners are the most callous men I have ever met so far but I blame the Nazi doctrine for that. It must be a terrible creed.” A 21-year-old, Erich Koening, was the first of the soldiers to be hanged at Pentonville Prison, swearing allegiance at the last to Nazi Germany.
On 28 January 1953 Allen assisted at the controversial execution of Derek Bentley, who was hanged for a murder committed by a friend and accomplice during an attempted robbery, and for which Bentley received a posthumous pardon 45 years later. Allen was also present at the execution of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, in 1955.
Following the resignation of Albert Pierrepoint and the death of Stephen Wade in 1956, Allen and Robert Leslie Stewart jointly became Chief Executioners. However, the Homicide Act 1957 reduced the number of condemned criminals by 75%, from an average of fifteen a year in the early 1950s to about four a year in the late 1950s. As Chief Executioner, on 11 July 1958 he hanged United States-born Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel at Barlinnie prison, Glasgow. On the same day, Allen’s first wife Marjorie left him.[ He also hanged Guenther Podola on 5 November 1959, a German-born petty thief, and the last man to be hanged in the UK for killing a police officer.
His most controversial case was that of James Hanratty, hanged on 4 April 1962 at Bedford prison for the “A6 murder” case. Efforts to clear Hanratty’s name continued until 2001, when DNA testing matched Hanratty to the crime scene.
Allen performed the last execution in Northern Ireland in December 1961, when he hanged Robert McGladdery at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast. He also performed the last hanging in Scotland, when Henry Burnett was hanged at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen, on 15 August 1963 for the murder of Thomas Guyan, and hanged Russell Pascoe – one of the third-last prisoners to be hanged in a British prison – at Bristol’s Horfield Prison on 17 December in the same year. He also performed one of the two final executions in the UK, when at 8am on 13 August 1964 Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged at Strangeways Prison in Manchester for the murder of John Alan West. This occurred simultaneously with the execution of Evans’ accomplice Peter Anthony Allen, who was hanged at Walton Gaol in Liverpool by Robert Leslie Stewart.
Allen always wore a bow tie during executions as a sign of respect. Of his job, Allen said, “I never felt a moment’s remorse and always slept peacefully on the nights before and after a hanging”.
Personal life and diaries
Allen’s first wife was Marjorie Clayton whom he married in 1933. She left him in 1958 and he later married Doris Dyke in 1963. In September 2008 a new book, Harry Allen: Britain’s Last Hangman, about the man and his executions was published. In October 2008 it was revealed that Allen had kept a diary which included a precise log of the prisoners and how they died. He recorded each prisoner’s age, weight, height and calculations for the length of rope needed to hang them. The diary and other belongings were sold at auction in Knutsford, Cheshire on behalf of his widow in November 2008 for £17,200.
Allen always publicly maintained that hanging was a “swift and humane business”. In his diaries he revealed that the execution of one prisoner, Peter Griffiths, who was convicted at Lancaster assizes of murdering a three year old child, June Anne Devaney, in the grounds of Queens Park Hospital in Blackburn on 15 May 1948, took 30 seconds, which would have been the time from Allen’s entering the condemned cell to the moment of the drop. Many other executions were faster than this, but death itself was always practically instant. Griffiths was 22 years old, 5 feet 10″ tall, weighed 148 lbs, and was given a drop of 7 feet 6 inches on 15 November 1948 at Walton gaol. Of another hanging he noted, “Very good job, but should have had another two or three inches – very strong.”
His granddaughter, Fiona Allen, is a comedienne and actress, who rose to fame on the comedy sketch show Smack the Pony. She said of him, “It´s as if I had two grandfathers. One was the sweet, lovely man who took me for walks on the beach, bought me sweets and toys and always had me laughing and giggling. The other one was the man employed to take lives for the Government. When I was a kid, everyone in the area knew what he did. I remember going round to my first boyfriend´s house for the first time and I tried to impress his dad by telling him I wanted to go on the stage. He looked up from his paper and said, ‘Going on the stage are you, lass? Well keep away from the trapdoor!'”.
Under the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, capital punishment in the UK for murder was suspended, before finally being abolished in 1969. Although the death penalty remained for other crimes such as treason and piracy with violence, no further executions took place in the UK, although a working gallows was kept in service and regularly tested at Wandsworth Prison until 1998. It was dismantled following the final abolition of the death penalty by the new Labour Government as a requirement of the UK adopting the European Charter of Human Rights.
Allen moved to Fleetwood with his second wife Doris in 1977, to escape the continued publicity, and worked there as a cashier at Fleetwood Pier. He died on 14 August 1992, just a month after Albert Pierrepoint, who had died on 10 July in Southport.