The Durham Martyrs

 The Durham Martyrs

 The time of the Tudor kings and queens was a difficult time for religious people. Henry VIII  broke away from the Catholic church and started what is now called the Protestant Church, or Church of England. Part of this involved taking away the wealth and closing down Finchale Priory which fell into ruins.

Mary I was Henry’s daughter from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon who was a Catholic. She tried to reverse her fathers changes and executed so many people for being Protestants that she earned the nickname “Bloody Mary”

When Bloody Mary died she was followed by her half-sister Elizabeth I who was a Protestant, and she started persecuting Catholics. Nobody was allowed to say the Catholic Mass in its traditional form, and anyone who tried to do so was charged with treason, the worst crime possible.

Three Durham priests, John Boste, George Swallowell and John Ingram continued to say the traditional Mass despite the dangers. They were hunted all over the country, often hiding in carefully hidden “priest holes” in the houses of sympathisers. At last, after many narrow escapes, John Boste was taken to Waterhouses, the house of William Claxton, near Durham, betrayed by a man called Eglesfield [or Ecclesfield],  on 5 July, 1593. The place is still visited by Catholic pilgrims. From Durham he was taken in chains to London, so that Queen Elizabeth could question him for herself. He was tortured on the rack in the Tower of London so brutally that he was permanently crippled, but remained “resolute, bold, joyful, and pleasant” and refused to give up his Catholic faith.

Eventually he was sent back to Durham for the July Assizes 1594 for a show-trial that confirmed his guilt and sentenced him to the most severe penalty the law could inflict. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Swallowell and Ingram suffered a similar fate.

John Ingram was executed at Gateshead. According to one account his executioner was “little more than a boy” and does not seem to have had very much experience as a hangman. The rope broke twice and on the third time Ingram begged to have the whole process speeded up. George Swallowell was executed in Darlington marketplace, and his boiled intestines were buried there.

John Boste was executed at Dryburn in Durham, opposite the site of the present-day Durham County Hall on 24th July 1594. Reading the account of his death it seems that the executioner was keen to get the whole thing done as quickly as possible. A gallows was set up with a ladder leaning against it . Boste recited the Angelus while climbing the ladder, then the execution was carried out with unusual speed and brutality. The noose was put around his neck and the ladder turned round so that he fell a short distance then remained dangling and kicking.

Almost immediately the executioner cut the rope and Boste fell upright on his feet. He is said to have remained standing as the remainder of the operation took place. He was castrated and his severed genitals thrown on a fire. His abdomen was slit open and his intestines spilled out. Finally the executioner stabbed Boste in the chest and cut out his heart. As the dying man lay on the ground the executioner cut off his head and showed it to the crowd with the traditional words of “Here is the head of a traitor!” Finally Boste’s body was cut into four pieces.

Local legend says that the place name “Dryburn” came about because Boste is supposed to have said that if he was truly innocent then the burn (a small stream nearby) would run dry. There is no record of this in the account written at the time and it may have been added later as evidence of a miraculous event needed to justify making Boste a saint.  An alternative explanation is that Dryburn sounds very much like Tyburn, the well-known name of the place of execution in London.

Boste was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Today a memorial commemorating the Durham Martyrs stands near the crossroads at the bottom of the new Dryburn housing estate.



Finchale Priory

Finchale Priory

According to a former employee (who wishes to remain anonymous “Strange things happen in the paybox. Things appear and disappear and often, at night, dark figures are seen moving around. Customers talk about things happening in the undercroft. There is also a story about a local farmer who dug up a runestone but it brought him so much bad luck that he eventually threw it into the river.”
Less than a mile away is the site of the Great Lumley Ghost Story Murder where a ghost allegedly appeared in a courtroom, which is now part of the Palace Green Library, and testified against two men who allegedly murdered her. The two men were later convicted and hanged.

When the Abbey was a camp site in the latter part of the 20th century lots of locals talked about unpleasant encounters with the spirit of a hunchbacked monk to whom they gave the unkind nickname Slew foot. These sightings seem to have been more common on the bank opposite the current ruins where people camped without permission in the woods.

A number of fishermen in the area believe that there is an undocumented part of Finchale Abbey outside of the National Trust fencing that was possibly an infirmary and/or mortuary chapel. One of them has even given us Google Earth coordinates of the spot where he believes the site to be. Unfortunately we cannot reveal these at present but…

Watch this site for further developments on this fascinating development.

Dun Cow – The Hangman’s Pub

Dun Cow – The Hangman’s Pub

his pub is probably the oldest in Durham. It was the scene of a nationally famous incident in August 1883 that is now all but forgotten in the city.


For about 160 years, from the early 19th century to the mid 1960’s the Dun Cow had strong connections to the gruesome practise of judicial execution by hanging. Prior to 1805 hangings too place in public at various locations between Durham and Framwellgate Moor, especially at Dryburn close to the site of University Hospital of North Durham. Here a Catholic priest was hanged, drawn and quartered for practising his religion in Tudor times. Other sites were the playing fields of St Leonard’s RC Comprehensive and Wharton Park. There is also a site called Gibbet Hill in Flass Vale close to the former County Hospital, where bodies were hanged in chains as a warning.

When the new prison in Old Elvet was opened hangings took place in public on the wall of the prison facing the Dun Cow, and the hangman enjoyed the hospitality of the inn until it was time to walk the short distance across the road to do his duty. It is clear from the records that the people of Durham regarded these executions as a fine entertainment and they drew considerable crowds.  For instance at midday on Monday 28th February 19-year-old Thomas Clark was hanged for the murder of 17-year-old Mary Ann Westhorpe at Hallgarth Mill near Sherburn before a crowd of about 15,000 people. Three doors up from the Dun Cow there is a white-painted balcony that was hired out so that people could get a good view.

The executioner was well paid for his services but often supplemented his payment by selling souvenirs, such as inch-long pieces of the rope used for the execution which were widely regarded as lucky charms. This was a practise that had been carried forward since at least Tudor times when body pieces from a hanged man fetched a high price as ingredients in black magic spells. The ultimate souvenir was the hand of an executed criminal that had been coated in tar prior to gibbeting. This was called a “hand of glory” because if a flame was applied to the fingertips they burnt like a candle and were believed to be particularly good as a source of light for secretive deeds like burglary.

Eventually the Dun Cow became the venue for bizarre parties on the evening before and after the execution, with the hangman telling his stories to an attentive audience and selling his inches of souvenir rope around a roaring coal fire. After the brutal hanging of infamous mass-murderer Mary Ann Cotton on 24th March 1873 executioner William Calcraft sold so many inches of rope that it was said that the pieces would have stretched from the Dun Cow to the Half Moon at the other end of Old Elvet, despite the fact that the rope he used was only about a metre long. Money for old rope indeed.

The brutality of Calcraft’s methods forced his retirement and the next hangman to stay at the Dun Cow was Britain’s most famous hangman, William Marwood. In contrast to his predecessor elderly Billy Marwood was a genuine humanitarian. He had witnessed a hanging as a young boy and it had shocked him so much that he was determined to make the process less painful.

 He developed the technique of “long drop” hanging (still used in many countries today) whereby the victim is subjected to a carefully calculated drop of between 1.5 to 2 metres which, in conjunction with a fast-running noose breaks the victim’s neck just below the base of the skull, destroying the lower part of the brainstem and causing instant brain death. In addition all of his hangings took place out of the sight of the public before a selected audience inside Durham prison.

Marwood’s humanitarianism did not prevent him from making a lot of money from his position however. He made frequent appearances at agricultural shows showing off his equipment. Madam Taussad’s Waxworks was tremendously popular and Marwood sold the clothes of his victims to cloth the waxwork figures that were usually displayed after the execution of a particularly notorious murderer. He was paid £10 per execution (a lot of money at the time) and clearly enjoyed the perk of free rail travel. Overall, it seems Marwood started off as a quiet unassuming man who eventually became overwhelmed by the fame and fortune that was thrust upon him. He enjoyed everything about the job except the actual process of killing, which he hated. There is evidence he began drinking heavily before executions.

 His parties at the Dun Cow came to an abrupt end however after the nationwide scandal following the infamous botched hanging of James Burton on Saturday August 4th 1883. Details vary according to the source but it seems that Burton stumbled just before the trap opened and bounced off the side of the pit as he descended. Looking down into the pit it was clear to Marwood that Burton was alive and struggling at the end of the rope. Marwood hauled the unfortunate man up by the rope and sat him on a chair while the trap was reset. Burton’s neck was broken and he was in tremendous pain. He moaned “God have mercy on me.” Marwood placed Burton on the trap still sitting on the chair with the rope around his neck and dropped him again. According to the results of an autopsy that took place the following morning Burton died of slow strangulation.

Click here to see the Illustrated Police News , 15 November 1883 with a picture of the botched hanging

Marwood had become famous (and made a lot of money) through his reputation of having been able to dispatch his 178 victims painlessly. The national newspapers, whose reporters had watched the execution had a field day over the unfortunate turn of events  and for two weeks the Dun Cow was the centre of national publicity  The Sunderland Echo alleged that Marwood was still too drunk to do his job properly that fateful morning after having taken too much Dun Cow hospitality. The 65-year-old hangman died two weeks later, devastated.

Within a very short time he was followed by his wife and having no children their property was auctioned off, including his dog. His fame continued to grow because of stories that the couple had been assassinated by the Irish terrorist group the Feenians in revenge for hanging some of their members. Another theory was that as he left the Dun Cow for his appointment with Burton he was tapped on the shoulder and cursed by a gypsy for some reason. 

Within a couple of years souvenir hunters chipped pieces off Marwood’s tombstone until it disappeared completely and had to be replaced. His fame lived on for years later in the children’s riddle

“If Pa killed Ma, who would kill Pa?     Marwood!

Strangely enough poor Jimmy Burton’s fame lasted even longer. Even today people talk about “going for a Burton” when they talk about a trip or fall, without knowing the origin of the phrase.

Eventually, after several other unfortunate incidents the conduct of the executioner was subjected to increasingly rigorous scrutiny. Around 1900 the overnight stays at the Dun Cow were stopped and the hangman and his assistant were required to report to the prison by 4 pm on the day before the hanging where they stayed until it was over. They were required to test the equipment rigorously and practise the execution over and over again. Eventually they became so efficient that the time between them entering the execution chamber and having the prisoner dead at the end of the rope was as little as 10 seconds. 

All this rehearsing was thirsty work and the hangman and his assistant were allowed a moderate supply of beer.  The condemned man was also allowed a quart of ale to steady his nerves if it was his last request on the eve of his execution.  All of this came from the Dun Cow, in a flagon, covered with a cloth.

The last hanging at Durham was the execution of army deserter, Brian Chandler, at 9.00 am on Wednesday 19th December 1958.  It was feared that this strapping six footer was not going to go to his fate quietly, but as it turned out he accepted his fate meekly, possibly as a result of the hospitable donation from the Dun Cow.

Jimmy Allens – in deep shit

Jimmy Allens – in deep shit

This pub has got to have one of the strangest histories of any in Britain. Today it is a favourite venue for the young people of Durham looking for a good time. Two hundred years it was hell on earth.


It was a dungeon.  Built in 1635, it was called the “Bridewell”, The “Lower Prison” or “The House of Correction”.   People as young as 13 were held until their future was decided. It was not unusual for a man who owed money to have his wife and children imprisoned there in the most appalling conditions until he had repaid his debts, and he was even charged for their food and rent while they were in there.


A prison inspector called Neild described them as the worst cells in the country.   They were infested with rats, bugs and insects.  One person in four who was held in, them died of disease.

  Click here to see the Debtors’ Petition written to King George III in 1794

A visitor in 1774 reported “The debtors have two damp unhealthy rooms measuring 10 ft. square and no sewers. At more than one of my visits I learnt that the dirt and ashes had lain there many months. The felons are put at night into dungeons, one 7 ft. square for three prisoners. Another – the great hole – is 16ft by 12 ft. and has only a little window.”

“In this I saw six prisoners chained to the floor. In that situation they had been there many months and were very sick. Commonside debtors in the low jail whom I saw eating boiled bread and water told me that it was the only nourishment some had lived on for nearly twelve months. At several of my visits there were boys, 13 and 15 years of age, confined with the most profligate and abandoned.”

Jimmy Allen was a professional musician, a piper, of the highest quality. In his youth he played before kings and nobility but his high spirits caused him lots of trouble. At the age of 70 he was convicted of stealing a horse, a hanging offence, but his sentence was commuted to imprisonment. He wrote several letters to the king during his seven years in the dungeon asking for a pardon, and ironically it arrived a few days after his death. Traditionally it is said that his ghost still plays the pipes in the pub but the current staff have never heard it.


Behind the upstairs bar there is a door leading to a place that the staff call “The Chapel” which is a little misleading because it was a mortuary chapel (a place where dead bodies were stored) rather than a place where people went to worship. It seems that the whole building remained in use as a mortuary even after it ceased to be a prison in the 1830’s. In the second half of the 20th century the building was used by the council to store dust-carts and local children used to dare each other to go in there.

Originally there was a tunnel connecting the House of Correction to a condemned cell in the Town Hall. If you ask the Town Hall staff nicely they will even show the door of the cell to you. A brick wall was built to divide the condemned cell in two and an entrance made leading into the smaller of the two Indoor Marketplace entrances. This was used as a ladies toilet until the 1980’s (the gents was underneath the horse statue in the marketplace) when it was converted into a shop and is now used as a tattoo shop.

The tunnel was plastered out and used as a bomb shelter during the Second World War. In the mid 1970’s the tunnel collapsed in the middle and is now mostly blocked up but the ends are still accessible from both Jimmy Allens and the tattoo shop. Durham Paranormal Research Group did some ghost walks involving the tunnel around 2000, when somebody from the pub had put a human skeleton (once belonging to a medical student) and customers were dared to walk along the tunnel and touch it. Unfortunately by 2010 the skeleton had disappeared. It is still possible to look into the dungeons from the remnants of the tunnel. They appear to be used to store furniture.

According to a former gas meter reader who worked in Durham the tunnel branched off to the larger prison which was at the Saddler Street / Owengate junction, and that some of the old houses in that region still have small dungeons complete with iron rings in the wall to hold chains, but this is not yet confirmed.

Finally, a lot of us have happy memories of hiring a rowing boat and walking down the steps of Brown’s Boathouse to collect it. Next time you do please remember that prisoners from Jimmy Allens would have walked down those steps into boats that would have carried them away for transportation to the Colonies, a fate so uncertain that some prisoners opted to be hanged instead.