Hangman’s Hill and the Hangmen who Hanged Here 

11th Mar, 2024

For almost 1000 years, our Castle mound has loomed over the Oxford skyline, a monument to our Norman roots. However, the castle mound has another name; Hangman’s Hill, a much more disturbing label….

Guest post by Castle & Prison guide Melissa Parker

Hangman’s Hill

It is a common misconception that criminals were hanged at the top of the mound. Instead, ‘Hangman’s Hill’ refers to generations of bloodthirsty crowds who chose to sit up there, in order to enjoy superior views of the public executions happening in the courtyard. Hanging of course, being good family entertainment!

However, in the Victorian Era executions were moved within prison walls. The process became a lot more clinical, with the eventual addition of a condemned cell in A-wing, where the prisoner only had to walk two metres to the scaffold.

A history of executions

Before 1868, executions were a spectacle, designed to strike fear of authority into the crowds. Hangmen were often criminals themselves, offered a reprieve from their sentence in exchange for taking on the grisly task. The earliest were unskilled and often drunk, bungled executions were common, with the condemned dying slowly and painfully. The mood of the crowd was celebratory, almost carnivalesque, especially when attending the execution of particularly heinous criminals, broadsides (printed leaflets) would be available for purchase, describing the crime with inventive, gruesome drawings. Between 1750 and 1815 law reform created 200 new hangable offences, including stealing sheep and wrecking a fishpond!

The Victorian Era

Eventually Victorian sensibilities took over, and authorities became concerned over the conduct of execution crowds, in their rowdy bloodthirst they constituted a threat to public order, so executions were moved indoors in 1868, hidden from public view. The role of executioner became a profession, with the expectation that hangings would be conducted clinically and efficiently. William Marwood perfected the ‘long-drop’ method during his tenure as hangman 1874-1883, making executions quicker and cleaner. The length of rope would be calculated with regards to the weight of the prisoner, ensuring a clean break of the neck rather than a slow suffocation (or indeed decapitation, if the rope was too long). This is the method William utilised when he visited us in 1878 to hang the murderer Henry Rowles.


Hangman became a sought after profession; thousands of applications flooded in after the death of William Calcraft. Indeed by the 20th century the role had acquired almost celebrity status, Albert Pierrepoint, who followed in the footsteps of his hangman father and uncle, wrote an autobiography which was later turned into a movie starring Timothy Spall. Pierrepoint also welcomed curious visitors from far and wide to his pub ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, leading the punters in a nightly chorus of ‘Danny Boy’ just before closing.

In 1969 capital punishment was finally abolished in the UK, ending centuries of grisly tradition.


Gerald D. Robin, ‘The Executioner; His Place in English Society’ British Journal of Sociology, 15, pp. 234-53

Randall McGowan, ‘History, Culture and the Death Penalty: The British Debates, 1840-70’ Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques Vol. 29, No. 2, Interpreting the Death Penalty: Spectacles and Debates (Summer 2003) pp. 229-249

‘The Bloody Code’ National Justice 

Chris Osuh, ‘The Smiling Pub Landlord from Oldham who Killed 400 People’ Manchester Evening News 11 February 2019

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