Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

091: “Coloured men sentenced to death” 1899-1905

Britain’s National Archives (Kew, near London) has miles of folders and files. One “Executions: Coloured Men Sentenced to Death” is reference HO144/803/134036. It is a slim file probably gathered at the Home Office in late 1905. In September 2009 I used it for a talk at London University.
Tracing the “Negroes and other foreigners” in local newspapers uncovered other details. Thomas Thompson, a West Indian was sentenced to death in Durham in July 1899 for the murder of his wife Emily and lodger Isaac Phillips in West Hartlepool. The behaviour of the dead couple had been “grossly provocative” and Thompson, aged 46 and long settled in England, had his death sentence changed to life imprisonment. The Home Office file noted that nowhere had his colour been taken into account (and that Phillips was a “coloured man”) and the jury had recommended mercy. A pencil note added an older case, involving Charles Arthur in 1888, “might be worth looking at if this question arises again”.
Arthur murdered the captain of the Dovenby Hall sailing from San Francisco to Liverpool in 1888. 34 years old, from Barbados, Arthur had been severely provoked and the jury had recommended mercy which was accepted.
The next name in the file is William Augustus Lacey, a “negro from the West Indies” sentenced in August 1900 to be hanged for cutting his wife’s throat with a razor in Pontypridd (South Wales) and tried in Swansea. Lacey, a Jamaican aged 29 was a coal miner at the Great Western Colliery. His wife’s behaviour was provocative but not as great as Thompson, the jury made no recommendation for mercy and Lacey was hanged. A man named Evans had gathered a petition and said that he knew of no “negro ever having been reprieved in this country”. Evans was wrong: as we know from Thompson and Arthur.
The third man was Ping Lun who shot another Chinese man in Liverpool in May 1904. The authorities seemed to accept the suggestion that Chinese people had different beliefs to Britons, but he went to the gallows as similar behaviour by a drunken Englishman would not lead to a reprieve. [Ping Lun has been detailed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography]
The fourth “coloured man” was an Algerian, Ferat Ben Ali who had been found guilty of killing another Algerian in June 1905. A group of carpet sellers travelled around Kent, and the leader was murdered (probably for the cash he held) near Tenterden. The file noted his country of origin valued life in a different way to Britain but “he knew very well what the English law is” and so was executed at Maidstone on 1 August 1905.
One question I asked in London in 2009 was – how did the Home Office officials know where to look? The numbers of executions was 13 annually (for seven of every eight capital sentences were commuted to life imprisonment) so departmental memory could explain this knowledge (hence the pencil note about Arthur back in 1888). Or was there a list? If there was a list then we would have evidence of a government department treating “coloured men” differently to others.
Departmental memory (and Mr Evans) were faulty, however, for Thomas Allen, an African who murdered a Swansea publican in 1889 was sentenced to death at Cardiff and went to the gallows despite a 4,000 signature petition which included the mayor (see page 088 of this site).
I was unaware of the “Zulu” Allen when preparing my paper in 2009, and because he is not mentioned in the Home Office file I now tend to conclude that the British Home Office had no effective system of noting the ethnicity of men accused of murder. What stimulated the Home Office to open their file in 1905 is uncertain.

For Lacey, see www.murderuk.com/one_off_William_Lacey.html and also John J. Eddelston A Century of Welsh Murders and Executions, History Press, 2008.

This page repeats some details already noted on page 038.

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Two other men who died on the gallows were ‘a Basuto’ named Pasha Liffey who raped and murdered a miner’s wife in Larkhill, Glasgow and was hanged in November 1905, and ‘coloured seaman’ Charles Patterson aged 37 who murdered Lilian Charlton, his landlady/girlfriend, in Moss Side, Manchester¬†on 29 June 1907. As with the execution date of Ben Ali,¬†some brief details emerged from the Hangman’s Record of ca 1920, on line at the John Johnson Collection in Oxford.