Thomas William Jesshope – executed in 1910

Thomas William Jesshope was born in 1876 in Marylebone, London.  He was son of a coachman, also Thomas William Jesshope and  Ellen Maria Stevens. He married Lily Agnes Mitcham in 1904.  In the 1901 Census he is described as a Merchant Seaman.

In 1910 he came to trial at the Old Bailey for murder of a colleague, John Healey.   The Judge was  A. T. Lawrence, his defense lawyer was Temple Martin. Thomas had been employed as a fireman at the Camberwell Empire Music Hall for about a year usually working an overnight period of duty.  On 25 March 1910 he had appeared at work noticeably drunk and been warned by William Nutt, the stage manager.  Nutt  reported this matter to his manager on the following morning.  It was not the first time Thomas had been drunk at work, on an earlier occasion he had been dismissed by the same employer for mild drunkenness, but had been re-employed because he had a wife and children.  William Nutt told the Court that Jesshope was generally a good employee.

Percy Ford, the Manager of the theatre, then took the stand.  He described how, having received the complaint about Thomas he had dismissed him that evening and subsequently employed a new fireman.  Later that evening the chief attendant at the theatre had noticed a disturbance outside the building caused by Jesshope shouting.

The victim was John Healey, employed as a carpenter and general assistant and  who was not officially involved in the dismissal of Thomas.  His role is not clear, but he appears to have been caught up in a confrontation with Thomas who was hanging around the theatre later that evening.   There was a suggestion that Jesshope and Healey had not got on very well while they were working together and it was suggested during the trial that he had told Thomas to leave the stage shortly before he was sent home.  Thomas William appears to have felt paranoid and wronged by his colleague.

On the evening of 28th March Thomas reappeared at the theatre and stabbed Healey.  Thomas made no attempt to run away, indeed when a member of the theatre staff said that Healey was dead, Jesshope replied “Yes, I know he is. I meant it.”  He was still there when a police sergeant, Thomas Curtis, arrived and subsequently took him the police station.  The sergeant described his behaviour as “perfectly cool and collected; he did not seem to take very much notice of what was going on.”  The police surgeon described the fatal injury as a stab in the ribs entering the heart and leading to death.  A police doctor who examined Jesshope noted “there was nothing in his appearance suggesting insanity. I did not examine him for anything of that kind; my examination was as to whether he was sober and for marks of violence. He was quiet and not excited… he was simply sitting there quietly as though he had not participated in a crime. I am not prepared to say whether he realised his position or not.”  Jesshope was arrested and charged with murder.

At the trial Thomas William gave evidence on his own behalf.  He described himself as married with two young children.    He explained that he had been a merchant seaman until in 1903 he joined the London Fire Brigade where he had served until 1907, when he  left with a good record.  He had never been in any “trouble with the police.”  However, he did describe how some ten years earlier he had found himself in a “padded room” in Marylebone Infirmary and during the following year had been ill.  In later evidence some doubt was thrown on this part of his story although it was supported by various members of his family.  He also noted that he had an accident at work in 1906.  In January of 1907 while working at Dulwich Fire Station he had become  ill, stating he had been unconscious for a period of weeks.  He appears to have had surgery for abscesses and been seriously ill for some months.  Afterwards he had “never been the same man” and lost his job with the Fire Brigade, he also found that drink had a much greater effect on him.  He explained that he had previously been drunk at work after the death of one of his children and his wife’s miscarriage. (This is correct, since the birth records show that he son Thomas Charles Frederick Jesshope was born and died in 1908).  He described that on 26 March he had been ordered off the stage by John Healey, but could not understand why he was later sacked.  He claimed to have little memory of the murder until he was at the police station.  He added that since his illness he had been very troubled and had slept badly, admitting that in the days before the murder he had been drinking and not  eating well.  He also noted that he had little money saved.  Under further cross-examination he repeated his record of poor health and in a slightly rambling narrative linked John Healey to his dismissal implying that Healey had acted without authority.

His wife, Lillie Jesshope gave evidence on behalf of her husband.  She supported his narrative about his health problems, and also emphasised that drink affected him badly.  She also believed that he was sometimes confused, linking it to a history of fits in his mother.  She also explained that, on the evening of his dismissal she had a miscarriage and that had deeply upset her husband.  She ended her evidence by saying “He is a very good husband and a good father.”

His uncle, Ernest Jesshope, told the Court that his 23-year-old son “ was taken to a lunatic asylum the beginning of last September. He has not suffered from fits. He was sent to Pentonville for six weeks’ hard labour and when he came away from there he was quite insane and since then he has been in the asylum.”  Thomas William’s father also gave evidence that his wife has been prone to fits.  Ellen Maria, his mother,confirms this “I have suffered from fits. It is about four years ago since I had the last fit and it is about 16 or 18 years since I had the doctor last. I have no warning when these fits are coming off; I simply go off. After the fit, is over recollections gradually come to me. They leave me very weak and low. My mother suffered for 40 years with fits. I had a sister who suffered from trance fits; her illness was slow decline. I had another sister who died when a child in convulsions.”

A doctor, William Keates, then gave extensive evidence about epilepsy and the possibility that this affliction had rendered the accused insane “an attack of impulsive insanity”.  There was some debate about this area and Dr Keates touched on the effects of emotional stress and alcohol suggesting “the septic illness from which prisoner suffered would affect his brain for the rest of his life. It would be a bad form of the hereditary nervous instability. In a case of this kind where you have constant drinking the man would be liable at any moment to have a fit of homicidal or suicidal mania”.  However, a second doctor, Charles Pinel Gallie, the police doctor, took a slightly firmer view stating “I should be very sorry to say that sane people do not give way to such impulses. You believe somebody has done you wrong, you harbour the feeling, and you intend to do an injury to him, and when an opportunity occurs you do it; that is this case. There is no emotional insanity in that.”  The discussion about epilepsy is not a totally unsympathetic one, although the link with crime and insanity is certainly not in keeping with modern medical views of epilepsy.  However, it does embody the general concept that mental illness was often seen as a mitigating factor in crime.

The defence of insanity due to inherited epilepsy did not work.  Thomas William Jesshope was found guilty and sentenced to death.  He was hung in Wandsworth Prison on 25th May 1910; his executioner was Henry Pierrepoint. (It is a grim statistic that in a nine-year career starting in 1905 as Britain’s principle executioner Henry carried out 105 executions; he was eventually sacked for turning up drunk and having a fight with his assistant).

The trial gives a very clear picture of the stress of illness, poverty, loss of children and mental health problems that many people of the time suffered; it also illustrates the loyalty within families as those close to him attempt to explain his behaviour.  A modern court would certainly have been more sympathetic to a man so clearly troubled.

His wife wrote to the king, George V, on 18 May, day before the scheduled execution asking for clemency for her husband.  She noted his naval service, his duties as a London fireman, his health problems and his two very young daughters but clearly the plea failed.   An earlier petition to the Home Secretary had also failed.  In 1910 his widow re-married to a porter called Sidney Thomas Carter.  She was a widow with two daughters who had lost her husband in the most terrible way.  Her re-marriage does suggest an emotional resilience in the face of great adversity.

Jesshope death

A detailed court report on the Trial can be found at

An informative site on the history of capital punishment is

Thomas William Jesshope is related to my great great-grandfather, John Stevens; his mother was Jane Jesshope.


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