An undated sketch of Victorian hangman William Bamford.
An undated sketch of Victorian hangman William Bamford.

Hanging men ‘the best job in the country’

William Bamford executed 71 murderers, including three at Old Geelong Gaol, during his career as Victoria's hangman in the mid-to-late 19th century. He called it "the best job in the country", but the former solider and convict paid his own personal price for undertaking the role.

Bamford was born in Lancashire, England, in 1800, though the exact date isn't known. He spent his early life as a wool sorter before joining the military.

Little is known about his career as a soldier, but an unspecified crime during his service saw him transported to Tasmania in 1841, where he served time as a convict.

Prison was a setting Bamford would know well during his adult life. He arrived in Victoria in the early 1850s during the gold rush but found no fortune in the colony's soil. Instead, he found conflict with its law.

Vagrancy, drunkenness, larceny, fighting - Bamford had a talent for trouble. It was fitting then he found his vocation while inside the walls of Melbourne Gaol.

At the time Victoria's hangman was John 'Jack' Harris, who had been appointed the colony's first executioner.

In late April in 1857, Harris hung seven men in three days for the notorious Williamstown murder of penal administrator John Price, who had been beaten to death by a group of convicts.

Harris, however, disappeared soon after the executions. It is believed his life had been threatened by sympathisers of the doomed men.

Whether the death threats were carried out or Harris vanished under his own volition isn't known. But on November 6, when it came time to hang axe murderer John Mason in Melbourne, there was no one to perform the duty.

 

 

A sketch of William Bamford flogging a prisoner
A sketch of William Bamford flogging a prisoner

 

 

Bamford, imprisoned for an unknown offence at the time, didn't miss his opportunity. Perhaps merely seeing a chance to earn some drinking money, Bamford volunteered to perform the duty. The execution proceeded without incident.

The prisoner plunged and his neck broke. Justice was delivered and the condemned man didn't suffer. Bamford had performed the role competently and efficiently. That was enough. The job was his.

The station of hangman, however, didn't elevate his existence.

He remained a constant presence at courts and prison, haunting docks and cells in turn, and squandering the money he earned as hangman and chief flagellator - his other newly acquired role - on booze.

When he wasn't in prison Bamford could reliably be found squatting in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens or on the banks of the Yarra.

He seemed comfortable in the company of other rogues and outcasts, spectating society from the fringes - usually with a drink.

When word reached him he was needed for 'work', Bamford would seclude himself, sleep off whatever hungover throbbed in his body and clean himself up before presenting for duty at the required time.

For all his faults Bamford treated his hangman duties seriously. It was noted in his obituary that he followed a ritual for every execution.

After he had pinioned his man and rendered him helpless, he used to always to shake him by the hand and murmur a 'God Bless You' before he pulled the fatal bolt.

There was little doubt Bamford took pride in his work. After one execution he was observed to have leaned over the drop, contemplated the clean snap of the prisoner's neck and said: "The best job in the country. That makes 47."

 

An undated sketch of Victorian hangman William Bamford.
An undated sketch of Victorian hangman William Bamford.

 

Reducing men - even convicted murders - to a notch on his memory's chalkboard and admiring the lethal mix of rope and gravity could be seen as symptoms of a ghoulish character, but no better was expected of a hangman.

While it was acceptable at the time to have capital punishment, the human instrument of its enforcement didn't enjoy the same social tolerance. Bamford reportedly lost an eye in a brawl with another man who objected to his profession.

In the 16 years he served as hangman, Bamford only missed one execution - in Beechworth in May, 1867 - and only because Cobb & Co refused to transport him to the remote district on one of their coaches.

But such slights didn't deter Bamford. He possessed the necessary emotional callous to perform the job at the scaffolds and endure its social ramifications away from them.

One execution, however, proved an exception.

Bamford had travelled to Geelong Gaol on November 6, 1863, for the hanging of cop killer James Murphy. It wasn't until Bamford came face-to-face with the condemned man that he realised he was the same James Murphy he had been close friends with in Tasmania.

The surprise meeting jolted the emotion from the hardened executioner. Bamford broke down in tears at the scaffold in an unprecedented display of emotion.

The job, for all its grim realities, had never invaded his personal realm. While it was likely he was at least acquainted with some of the prisoners he had hanged in the past, Bamford had called none of them friend.

Mateship had been a rare blessing in his unsettled, trouble-plagued life.

Bamford, however, didn't withdraw from the execution. Perhaps he thought it was better he pulled the bolt on his old friend instead of a stranger.

Perhaps he felt a professional responsibility to perform the duty. Or maybe he just wanted the money to buy another drink. Whatever the motivation, it was he who plunged Murphy into the afterlife.

The last man Bamford hanged was named Oscar Wallace. The execution took place in Ballarat on August 11, 1873.

Less than a month later on September 9, Bamford died in Melbourne Hospital, believed to be aged 73, from heart problems.

The Herald carried a story on his passing and gave a less than flattering summation of his life.

The man's life would afford materials for a volume illustrating the vicissitudes of a life of idleness and crime, and exhibiting what human nature, unless governed by religion or principle is capable of being reduced to. Let us hope that even at the eleventh hour this unfortunate creature became in some degree sensible of his dignity and responsibility as an immortal creature.

Bamford was not married and had no children. Who, if any, mourned is passing will never be known.



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