Hangings and the Longest Riot in Prison History – 40 Years at Strangeways

by | Apr 4, 2018 | History, Manchester |

iNostalgia looks back on 40 years at Strangeways prison from the execution of Margaret Allen in 1949 to the riot of 1990.

The longest jail riot in British penal history started just after a Sunday morning sermon in Strangeways’ chapel.

About 300 inmates had filed into the service on April 1st 1990 and were listening intently to chaplain Noel Proctor.

Tensions were running high. Notes of protest and rebellion had been circulating among prisoners in the days leading up to the sermon.

The jail’s population had risen to 1,647 and there was a larger than usual number of unruly inmates.

Proctor sensed trouble and pleaded for peace and calm.

As the final hymn was announced, the powder keg blew. Prisoner Paul Taylor snatched the microphone and shouted: ‘Let’s take the prison.’

What followed were 25 days of protest against the Victorian jail’s conditions. Two people died and hundreds were injured.

The root of the problem was overcrowding. Strangeways was built in 1868 to hold 970 inmates. At the time of the riot, there were three inmates in cells designed for only one.

It did not take long for the riot to spread from the chapel to the gym and then the cells. Many prisoners took to the roofs.

Prison authorities played continuous pop music through loud speakers and cut off the electricity supply to wear the rioters down – but they did not shift.

Slates were torn down and hurled at prison officers. Fires were started in the chapel and gym and cells were wrecked.

The last five men to surrender were finally carried off the roof by a hydraulic cherry picker on April 25th.

The intervening period was captured in powerful pictures from the M.E.N. archive.

Damage from the riot can clearly be seen in the aerial view of the prison taken on April 13th. The roof next to the ventilation tower is missing slates along with the six radiating cell-block buildings.

The cost of repairs was estimated at £55 million as some roofs were almost stripped bare. Our photo shows exposed wooden beams next to negotiators trying to talk down protesters.

Defiant inmates climbed on to roofs in their protest over prison conditions, April 1990.

Riot police assemble in full kit at Strangeways prison, April 1990.

Police officers were brought into the jail in riot gear at the start of the protest. They were armed with truncheons unloaded at the prison gates.

Some of truncheons were clearly seized by prisoners as our close-up picture shows. Defiant images like these were beamed around the world at the height of the siege.

Truncheons are unloaded at Strangeways at the start of the 25-day riot, April 1990.

Throughout the 25-day occupation, fire-hoses were sprayed at inmates to dislodge them from their rooftop perches. Our image shows prisoners clambering back through a window after being drenched.

Fire hoses drench prisoners in a bid to force them off the roof, April 1990.

The riots triggered the Woolf Inquiry which recommended a series of prison reforms. Strangeways was repaired and modernised at a final cost of more than £80 million.

It was also renamed as Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester.

In marked contrast to the riot, there was a sense of eerie calm as people waited outside the prison gates in September 1953 for news of the execution of the so-called Blackpool poisoner, Louisa Merrifield.

A commentator at the time said there were no tears for Mrs. Merrifield, who murdered her employer after she became her housekeeper by giving her rat poison.

Merrifield was the last women to be executed at Strangeways.

Crowds await the execution notice of Blackpool poisoner Louisa Merrifield, September 1953.

Five years earlier, Margaret Allen was hung at the prison for battering her neighbour to death with a hammer when she called to borrow a cup of sugar.

Crowds gathered outside the jail on January 12th 1948 to see the execution notice pinned to prison door.

Allen, of Rawtenstall, confessed to police that she was in ‘one of her funny moods’ when neighbour Nancy Ellen Chadwick knocked on the door. She was hanged by executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

In all, 100 executions took place at Strangeways. The last was on August 13th 1964 when John Robson Walby (alias Gwynne Owen Evans) was hanged for the murder of van driver John Allen West.

Posting the execution notice for Margaret Allen at Strangeways prison, January 1949.

Finally, on a more peaceful and hopeful note, an image of the customary Christmas tree and crib at the centre of the prison wings in December 1969.

Our photo shows prisoners at rehearsals for the annual carol service held around the crib in the central hall.

Christmas tree and crib in the central hall of Strangeways prison, December 1969.

Many more memorable pictures of the past can be found in Clive Hardy’s brilliant book Around Manchester in the 1970s.