Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Last Public Execution In Swansea

The last public execution at Swansea jail was that of Robert Coe, who was hung near the sand dunes outside the prison on Thursday 12th April 1866. From the report of The Cambrian we can see the debate over public executions had been brewing over time:

We are far from believing that any salutary effect is produced upon the minds of the spectators by the exhibition presented them by seeing a poor wretch deliberately and PUBLICILY strangled, and would gladly welcome the alteration in the law....by which the criminal should be executed within the precincts of the prison.

However they did not at any time question the justice of this execution stating that: 'if ever a murderer deserved death, surely such a man was Robert Coe.'
Coe was eighteen years old, born in the Midlands but working in Wales as a striker at a blacksmiths at Powell Dyffryn works. On September 2nd 1865 he murdered his friend and workmate, John Davies in Graig Dyffryn wood in Mountain Ash. In a subsequent confession, Coe said:

He (Davies) asked me on the way 'what do you want with the hatchet?' I answered 'to cut a walking stick.' When we had been in the wood about a quarter of an hour, and had gone some distance from the hedge, I struck him a blow from behind on the back part of the head with the pole of the hatchet. He fell backwards without speaking a word. I immediately gave several strokes on his neck with the edge of the hatchet until his head was severed from his body.'

John Davies' body was not discovered for several months after being hidden in the wood but there was suspicion in the close-knit town. George Davies (the father of the murdered man) made enquiries into his sons disappearance and in time Coe became implicated.
Davies and Coe had been seen drinking together in the Cefn Pennar Inn on the day of the wicked deed, and also talking together at a stile which led to Graig Dyffryn wood.
It was revealed Robert Coe had borrowed the hatchet from a chap called Swan, and he had never returned the item, (although it was later found at Swan's house with him ever knowing how it had been returned). Upon examination blood was found on the fibres of the wood.
Robert Coe was clear in his motive:

'I tied his legs with rope yarn and took money from his pocket which amounted to 33 shillings (£1.65). I had no other motive whatever for killing him but a desire for obtaining his money'.

At the time of his arrest and trial, Coe denied the murder and it was only later just prior to his execution that he confessed to the awful crime. The date of execution was set, 12th April 1866. Huge crowds poured into Swansea to witness the grim event, crowds of not hundreds but thousands it was reported.
From a newspaper at the time:

By the Wednesday evening it gave the appearance of some public rejoicing or festive sport taking place instead of the solemnity which should characterise the proceedings. A considerable number of them who arrived in our town to witness the sad sight were women with infants in their arms, fathers leading young boys, even cripples who could scarcely walk.

The scaffold was erected the night before the execution and was in the same spot as 2 Greek sailors, hung eight years before. However on this occasion events did not run as smooth. The Cambrian:

The usual collection of showmen set up their stalls and it was said that some drove their carts right up to the gallows and removed their wheels, which were then hidden so that the police could not move them on next morning. They then charged a fee to witness this execution from the carts.

A crowd of around 15,000 gathered at 7am outside the prison. Robert Coe was calm and controlled. He had spent most of the previous three weeks studying the scriptures, rediscovering the childhood faith he'd had but since lost. He walked at ease with Calcraft, the hangman, and other officials to the gallows. The Cambrian describes the grim procession:

As soon as the wretched man made his appearance upon the drop a subdued murmur was heard run through the crowd, with one or two shrieks or cries from the women....Four women armed with knives climbed the gallows platform as if to attack the condemned man, and they had to be forcibly removed by police. In the swaying crowds women and children were trampled underfoot and 120 injured.

The chaplain read the burial service together with texts and scriptures. He finished with The Lord's Prayer and as the words 'Thy Will Be Done' were spoken, the bolt was withdrawn and the Mountain Ash murderer Robert Coe plunged into eternity. He died immediately and without struggle.
Whether the scenes at this execution were pivotal in bringing an end to public hanging can never be known but they soon did end and Robert Coe has the miserable honour of being the last man to be publicly hanged at Swansea jail.

" The Hanging Of Bob Coe "

The Lower Dyffryn colliers
Had got their fortnight's pay
And two of them sat drinking
At the end of a summer's day.

Two friends who worked together
And often spent time so;
John Davies was the blacksmith,
His striker Bob Coe.

Full thirty shillings
Such hardy lads could win,
But that was the last of their spending
At Cefn Pennar Inn.

They'd both sailed to America
The valley gossip said,
But Coe skulked in the Rhondda
While Davies lay stark dead.

In the woods of Ynys Gwendraeth
His headless corpse was found
By John, the Ton Coch shepard,
All bloody on the ground.

And in Rhondda they remembered
Who'd been asking all the time
About news from Cynon valley,
And had their been a crime?

Had a body been discovered?
He always wished to know;
They remembered, they reported,
His conscience caught Bob Coe.

He made a full confession
That only simple greed
For the blacksmith's fortnight wages
Had brought him to the deed.

For thirty silver pieces
On the gallows he must stand,
The last to be hanged in public
In the history of our land.

That day the Cynon valley
Was still and silent quite,
They'd all gone down to Swansea
To see the dreadful sight.

As he uttered his repentance
His voice was clear and calm,
Before a crowd of thousands
At the gates of Cox's farm.

We still speak of that murder
A hundred years ago,
And the blood in Ynys Gwendraeth
And the hanging of Bob Coe.

Harri Webb

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