Although public executions were a common event outside Kirkdale gaol after it opened in 1819 until they were stopped in 1864, there were very few in the centre of Liverpool. This was because capital crimes were tried in Lancaster, with any necessary executions taking place there.
There were occasional exceptions though. In 1715 several Jacobite rebels were hanged and in 1788 the Town Council decided that a deterrent had to provided after two men were found guilty of an armed robbery in Richmond Row.
On 23rd December 1787 at about 7am four men got into the household of Mrs Graham whilst armed with pistols and knives. While one kept watch the other three set about tying the occupants to their beds. They then ransacked the house taking 18 guineas in cash, money bills, silver cutlery and two pocket pistols before escaping. Understandably very shaken, the occupants of the house were still able to give a description of the robbers build and clothing, as well as ascertain that they had Irish accents.
The following week an anonymous letter arrived at the office of the Mayor, Thomas Earle, stating that the men would be heading for Ireland and were currently lodging in Bristol. This led two of them being apprehended on 7th January in a boarding house in possession of bills belonging to Mrs Graham, while silver was found in their packages which had already been loaded onto a ship. One of the assailants was arrested whilst in bed but the other tried to escape, only to be caught by the officer’s dog who grabbed the prisoner by the leg.
The two captured men, Patrick Byrne and Silvester Dowling were tried at Lancaster on 19th March and sentenced to death. Normally they would have been hanged in the grounds of Lancaster Castle, but the Liverpool authorities were determined to send out a clear deterrent to others and a gallows was erected at the bottom of Water Street and The Strand. A crowd of between 15,000 and 20,000 attended, most of them described as ‘chiefly of the lower rank’ in the press, who also appeared pleasantly surprised that ‘they were orderly and peaceable in their behaviour.’
Williamson’s Advertiser reported of the hanging itself:
‘A little after ten o’clock the prisoners, attended by the Under-Sheriff, a clergyman and other officers were brought by a passage erected for the purpose from the gaol to the platform, which were hung with black for the occasion, and after a few minutes spent in devotion they were launched into Eternity to make their appearance before the Throne of that JUST yet MERCIFUL GOD who we sincerely hope will accept their pertinence and sufferings as atonement for their guilt. It is our moral ardent that this public example may affect the end for which it is designed, by deferring the guilty from a perseverance in the commission of such crimes.’
Although Downing and Byrne paid the ultimate price for their crime two other accomplices, Harry Neale and an unnamed male, remained at large and were never brought to justice.
This turned out to be the last public hanging in the city centre, as any further locals found guilty of capital crimes were hanged at Lancaster. After the opening of Kirkdale gaol in 1819, public executions became commonplace, many of them attended by crowds of 50,000+ with railway companies running special trains from other parts of Lancashire for people to witness the spectacle.