Albert Pierrepoint’s notebook showing a misspelt Udham Singh’s entry at the bottom of the page.


by AMIT ROY A MACABRE but important piece of British Indian history comes up for auction on June 5 – the leather-bound personal notebook of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain’s most prolific executioner, who hanged Udham Singh at Pentonville Prison in London on July 31, 1940. There have many mentions of Singh this year since April 13, 1919 marked the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in which up to a thousand people were shot dead in Amritsar on the orders of Brig-Gen Reginald Dyer. His actions were endorsed by the military governor of the Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, who was shot dead by Singh at a public meeting in Caxton Hall in Westminster on March 13, 1940. On April 1, 1940, Singh was formally charged with murder and remanded in custody at Brixton prison where he was force fed after going on a 42-day hunger strike. He also insisted on giving his name as “Ram Mohammad Singh Azad” to emphasise India’s religious plurality. He was tried at the Old Bailey where the judge, Mr Justice Atkinson, sentenced him to death and issued a ruling that the prisoner’s final speech, justifying the killing as retaliation for the massacre, should not be reported by the press. “I am not afraid to die,” Singh shouted as he was dragged away. “I am proud to die, to have to free my native land and I hope that when I am gone, I hope that in my place will come thousands of my countrymen to drive you dirty dogs out; to free my country.” Pierrepoint is reckoned to have hanged 600 people during a 25-year-career but it was his participation in Singh’s execution that earned him promotion from assistant to senior hangman. In his execution ledger, Pierrepoint, who learned the trade from his father, Henry, and his uncle, Thomas, kept notes on condemned prisoners. He misspelt Udham’s name as “Udhan” but the other details are correct – the Indian’s age is given as 37, height as 5ft 8in and weight as 158lbs. The “drop” required to achieve the quickest death was worked out as 7ft Iin. There are conflicting reports that Singh’s execution was botched because Stanley William Cross, the senior hangman, “went to pieces” before the hanging and made an error with his calculations. Some reports say Pierrepoint corrected the mistake and that the execution proceeded “satisfactorily”. Either way, Cross was removed as a hangman, while Pierrepoint soon became Britain’s number one executioner and something of a celebrity. Along with the execution ledger, several other items belonging to Pierrepoint are also being auctioned and estimated to fetch £20,000-£25,000. The items, which belong to an anonymous collector in the northeast, include the plaster cast of Pierrepoint’s face and hands, photographs and documents, and his watch chain. The sale is due to take place at Boldon Auction Galleries in Tyne and Wear, north-east England, where Giles Hodges, valuer and auctioneer, explained the historic significance of the Pierrepoint collection: “This is the most fascinatingset of items I have ever sold. “It was a real eye-opener when it came in and I won’t see anything like it again. It provides a remarkable insight into the role of the executioner and I suppose that someone had to do the job.” As for most of the names in the ledger, Hodges commented: “It’s a mid-century who’s who of murderers, traitors, war criminals and spies.” There are a handful of other Indian names on the list – Jan Mahamed, 30, in Liverpool, on June 8, 1938; Ajit Singh, 28, in Cardiff, on May 7, 1952; and Mahmood Hussein Mattan, 28, in Cardiff on September 3, 1952. Pierrepoint also hanged Ruth Ellis, in Holloway prison on July 13, 1955. She was the last woman to be executed in Britain, with the death penalty finally being abolished in 1969. Singh’s remains were repatriated from the grounds of Pentonville to India in 1974 and given a ceremonial funeral in Punjab, where he is worshipped as a hero. A patriotic feature film is currently being made about him, directed by Shoojit Sircar and starring Vicky Kaushal in the lead role. Pierrepoint, who died in 1992, aged 87, wrote in his autobiography in 1974 that hanging “is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. “All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.”