Hangman Harry’s tale is a matter of life and death

At that time, he was also a regular in the bar of his local bowling club, across the road from his home on Pharos Street.
At that time, he was also a regular in the bar of his local bowling club, across the road from his home on Pharos Street.
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At that time, he was also a regular in the bar of his local bowling club, across the road from his home on Pharos Street.

However – in the years before he and his family settled happily in the port – Harry Allen had found considerable fame as Britain’s official hangman.

Harry Allen and wife Doris relax at Fleetwood Pier, in January 1988

Harry Allen and wife Doris relax at Fleetwood Pier, in January 1988

With the 50th anniversary of the abolition of capital punishment fast approaching, Allen is suddenly very much back in the limelight – the central character in Martin McDonagh’s new play at London’s Royal Court Theatre, Hangmen, starring David Morrissey and Reece Shearsmith.

Further local links are provided by another of the protagonists, James Hennessy, alias murderer James Hanratty. Hanged by Allen in 1962, he had earlier been arrested at Blackpool’s Stevonia Café, on Central Drive.

Though born in Denaby Main, near Conisborough, Yorkshire, on November 5, 1911, Harry Bernard Allen spent his formative years across the Pennines in Ashton-under-Lyne.

After leaving St Anne’s Roman Catholic School, he initially worked as an apprentice engineer before becoming a bus driver, and then a long distance lorry driver.

Harry Allen and wife Doris relax at Fleetwood Pier, in January 1988

Harry Allen and wife Doris relax at Fleetwood Pier, in January 1988

With work proving increasingly scarce throughout the 1930s, he decided to apply to join the Prison Service.

Initially turned down, instead he was offered the post of executioner.

After a week of intensive training, Allen was placed on the list of approved executioners – subject to his attendance at an execution to test his nerve. His first execution saw him assist the legendary Thomas Pierrepoint, for which he was paid the princely sum of three guineas. In 1956, he succeeded Pierrepoint’s famous nephew, Albert, as the country’s chief hangman.

Albert Pierrepoint went on to become a pub landlord, latterly of the The Rose And Crown, in Much Hoole, near Preston.

Allen’s career, which spanned more than three decades, encompassed almost 100 executions.

In 1945, five German prisoners of war, held in a Scottish Camp, were hanged for murdering a fellow German soldier, Sgt Major Wolfgang Rosterg, whom they suspected of having betrayed their escape plan.

Eight years later, Allen assisted at the controversial execution of 19-year-old Derek Bentley, found guilty of murdering a policeman, shot by his 16-year-old accomplice, Christopher Craig, who was too young to be executed. After a long campaign, Bentley’s conviction was eventually quashed.

Allen was also present in 1955, when Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. He once described the three women he hanged as, “hard as men, perhaps even harder.”

Equally cold-blooded was Fritz Podola, who shot a policeman through the side of a telephone box, after he wrongly believed the officer was on his way to arrest him for other offences. This German-born petty thief was the last man to be hanged in the UK for killing a police officer.

No less notorious, was the execution of James Hanratty at Bedford Prison on April 4, 1962.

In a crime which shocked the nation, Hanratty, a petty criminal from London had, in August 1961, murdered scientist Michael Gregston, before raping and wounding his mistress, Valerie Storie in a lay-by just off the A6 in Bedfordshire.

Eventually arrested in Blackpool, Hanratty’s subsequent trial, lasting 21 days, was then the longest in English legal history. However, it took almost half a century before a DNA test proved beyond doubt he was the killer.

Throughout the course of Allen’s career, he occasionally inhabited a much more international landscape.

On a number of occasions, in 1956 and 1957, he travelled to Cyprus to execute members of EOKA, the Greek Cypriot terrorist movement which challenged British rule on the island. Further assignments would also see him travel to Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, the West Indies and Spain.

A lifelong supporter of the death penalty, Allen always retained a professional detachment about his job, believing responsibility for who should die was not his.

Rather his role was to make the execution as quick and as painless as possible.

As a mark of respect for the condemned man, he was always smartly-suited – complete with a black hand-knotted bow tie and bowler hat.

Allen also made history in August, 1964, when he dispatched convicted murderer, Gwynne Evans at Strangeways Jail, Manchester, while his accomplice, Peter Allen, was executed simultaneously at Walton Jail, Liverpool, by his assistant, Bob Stewart.

Barely meriting a mention in the newspapers, these would be the last executions ever carried out by the Government on British soil. Within a few months, a new Labour Government was elected with a mandate to abolish the death penalty. This they duly did, initially with a Private Members Bill, in November, 1965.

Allen married first, in 1933, Marjorie Clayton. The couple had two children, a son, Brian and daughter, Christina. His wife left him on the very day, 11 July, 1958, that he was at Barlinnie Jail in Scotland, hanging the American born Scottish serial killer, Peter Manuel.

Five years later, he wed former hairdresser, Doris Dyke. On returning from their honeymoon in the December of that year, he immediately travelled to HMP Horfield, Bristol, to carry out the execution of Russell Pascoe.

In common with the many of his predecessors, Allen spent many years in the licensing trade. Such was Allen’s fame, he even had his own statue in Madame Tussauds, in London.

However, tiring of the notoriety, the couple retired quietly to Fleetwood, in 1977. There, working alongside her husband, Doris became treasurer and president of the Marine Gardens Bowling Club.

Retiring in 1988, Harry Allen died, following a short illness, in Blackpool Victoria Hospital on August 14, 1992. His widow later put up for auction the detailed log he kept, together with various tools of his trade-stop watch, tape measure and a pair of pliers used for adding and removing lead weights to test sandbags prior to execution. Initially, attracting little interest, they eventually sold for £17,200.

In 2008, Stewart McLaughlin published a detailed biography entitled, Britain’s Last Hangman.

Currently finding fame in a totally different field is Allen’s grand-daughter, Fiona.

Born in Bury, this actress and comedienne is famously married to Michael Parkinson’s son. Michael.

She is perhaps best-known for being on the award winning Channel Four comedy series, Smack the Pony, and later as playing sales rep, Julia Stone, in Coronation Street