George Smith the hangman

George Smith was one of the most notorious hangmen of the mid-nineteenth century, famous for executing William Palmer, also known as the Rugeley Poisoner.  A petty criminal himself, in and out of prison, Smith was a labouring man from Dudley and the Staffordshire hangman for sixteen years.

Until the last public executions in 1868, such occasions were a spectacle attracting large crowds with an expectation of a certain display.  The execution of John Tawell in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, drew crowds from London forty-five miles away, taken there by train, as well as people from the local area.  By the evening, farm labourers in their smock frocks and Jim Crow hats were described as streaming in to get a full view of the culprit.[1] In 1818 in Godalming, Surrey, farm labourers swelled the crowd who came to see the procession and execution of Chennell and Chalcraft, convicted of the ‘atrocious’ crime of patricide and murder of George Chennell, the correspondent commenting ‘we never observed so many smock-frocks and white hats in our life time’.  Chalcraft, who was convicted of murdering his master and a fellow servant, also wore a ‘new smock-frock’ for his execution, whereas Chennell, guilty of patricide, wore a black jockey coat, striped waistcoat and grey cotton pantaloons.[2]

At the time of William Palmer’s execution in 1856, as hangman Smith was described as a ‘respectable-looking countryman, about fifty years of age, dressed in a clean smock frock, such as drovers or farm labourers wear’.[3]  The fame that this execution brought him allowed Smith to trade on his reputation, acting as a ‘higgler’ or informal trader to sell himself essentially. [4]   However, he became insolvent, appearing in court in Stafford in the same smock frock he wore when acting as executioner, for which he had been reimbursed one pound.[5]  He was liable for the debts of a public house near Dudley where he had allowed his name to be used over the door, perhaps to attract custom as he had become something of a local celebrity.  The landlord absconded though, leaving him liable for debts he knew nothing about.[6]

Palmer’s execution was also re-enacted for travelling exhibitions using a tailor’s dummy, the proprietor boasting he had secured the services of the ‘real hangman’ although as Smith was at the time in prison for insolvency, this was carried out by an imposter much to the indignation of Smith.[7]  It seems that after the execution and bankruptcy, he traded on his notoriety, attracting customers to the Griffin Inn, Halifax, where he was a waiter. People came from Rochdale on special trains to see him in his white smock frock, and ‘receive their beer at his hands’.  He then went onto another pub in Bradford with other engagements afterwards.  In a court case at the York Assizes about the profits of the inn, one witness stated that he would not dine with the hangman, ‘as he did not like sitting down with a man who wore a smock frock’, whereas he wouldn’t have minded if he had been dressed as a gentleman, even if he was an executioner. The smock was here denoting a dubious character, partaking in blatant profiteering.  Smith was also described as a ‘chawbacon’, that is a yokel or bumpkin, so after the initial novelty, regular customers were driven away apparently disgusted, leaving the inn with further financial problems.[8]

Smith appears to have continued to act as executioner, carrying out the hanging of George Gardner for murder in 1862 in Warwick, the so-called Studley Murderer.  He again wore a long white smock, Gardner in a ‘short white slop’, though forgetting at first to put a cap over Gardner’s face, so he had to wait and face the crowd.[9] He also wore his white smock frock to carry out the execution of Samuel Griffiths in front of Chester Gaol in 1866,[10] and Hale and Brough outside Stafford Gaol, where he was described as looking ‘like one accustomed to the pursuit of farming’.[11]  Perhaps it gave Smith the air of a clergyman in a surplice.[12]  Perhaps it was just a cheap overall which he otherwise would have worn anyway but although common wear for many men during this period, the smock became associated with him as his particular dress.  One photograph of him in his smock survives in the Staffordshire Collections.


[1] Cambridge Independent Press, 29 March 1845.

[2] Westmorland Gazette, 22 August 1818.

[3] Norfolk Chronicle, 21 June 1856.

[4] Western Mail, 5 January 1883.  Charles Moore was executed for murder at Stafford in 1853, the executioner described as a big man ‘rather conspicuously attired’ in a white smock frock, so likely to have been Smith, see Staffordshire Advertiser, 9 April 1853 and The Era, 17 April 1853.

[5] Lincolnshire Chronicle, 23 January 1857; Cumberland and Westmorland Advertiser, and Penrith Literary Chronicle, 24 June 1856; Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857, the pound later appearing on his bankruptcy schedule.

[6] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857.

[7] Worcester Journal, 17 January 1857 and Birmingham Journal, 3 January 1857.

[8] Westmorland Gazette, 25 July 1857, and Exeter Flying Post, 30 July 1857.

[9] Worcester Journal, 30 August 1862; see also Coventry Standard, 29 August 1862, where the prisoners dress is described as a white smock frock rather than a slop, showing the closeness of the definitions.

[10] Staffordshire Advertiser, 28 April 1866.

[11] Wellington Journal, 31 December 1864; the executioner of John Holden in Omagh was also an elderly man wearing a smock frock, see Morning Chronicle, 30 August 1860.

[12] Indeed, the surplice was compared to the smock frock, particularly the workmanship that went into both garments, see Bedfordshire Times and Independent, 24 September 1943, p. 8.

Carters and smocks

Carters were essential to nineteenth century life, being the people who helped transport goods and produce around the country.  This could be on a fairly local scale, acting as local carriers, but they were also employed to move goods around by horse-drawn carts at dock yards and similar working environments, as well as transport quantities of produce around farms, a role the tractor would eventually take over.


Carters at Liverpool Docks

They likewise could fulfil long-distance movement of goods, as haulage companies would today.  They were one of the occupations that became associated with wearing the smock frock in both rural and urban settings, carters and waggoners seen at hiring fairs, according to Thomas Hardy, in their smocks with a piece of whipcord twisted around their hats looking for work.  In the 1880s, looking back at earlier in the century, a gentleman remembered a driver in a smock frock waiting with his horses and waggons in Piccadilly, otherwise known as the start of ‘the road to Reading’, or the A4 today.  As the report remarked in 1884, ‘Few people nowadays ever think of that biscuit-making town as they saunter idly along Piccadilly’.

So strongly did the smock and the carter become connected that in processions and more formal occasions it was the dress that they chose to wear.  In 1846, for the Milborne Port Friendly Society procession, carters wore their smock frocks and straw hats decorated with red and green ribbons as they were in charge of a waggon parading the new church bells through the local streets.  Indeed, ‘Waggoner’s Frocks’ or ‘Carter’s Smock’ was a generalised name given to the garment in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for example, the Workwoman’s Guide of 1838, which included instructions about how to make one.  These jobs and the people who did them, were probably one of the most visible wearers of smocks to observers in urban areas. A waggoner’s smock survives in Lincolnshire, owned by G. Codling, a waggoner of Nettleham, Lincolnshire.  On each button is a picture of a wagon and the name ‘G. Codling’, so this may have been a way of promoting the business as much as any practical dress by the mid nineteenth century.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the role of the carter diminished as horse power became mechanised and like the smock frock itself, was superseded by new jobs.  Along with shepherds, it, however, remained one of the occupations most associated with wearing the smock frock.

The White of the Milkman

Obtaining fresh milk was somewhat problematic for Londoners in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.   The association with rusticity and the countryside was always there however, with milkmaids depicted in the illustrated Cries of London, for which there was a vogue around the turn of the nineteenth century.  They were the most beautiful and healthy criers, full of the joys of country air, with a bloom in their cheeks, especially when compared to the insipid pallor of those living in the city.  This famous image of one such milk maid was published as an engraving in 1793, drawn by Francis Wheatley.



It is probably something about the purity of the white of milk and the bleached whiteness of the smock frock that the garment came to be associated with milk men during the nineteenth century.  And purity wasn’t something that milk consumers could always rely on.  As detailed by a newspaper in 1856 under the witty title, ‘A New Milky Way’, consumers were informed that a new company had been set up to supply London with ‘pure’ milk, citing that they had begun to look upon the promise of pure milk as ‘pure humbug’.  With various food adulterating scandals current at this time, the newspaper welcomed milk that hadn’t been mixed with chalk and that didn’t leave a chalky sediment in a jug.  Their complaint was that they had previously been taken in by milkmen in smock frocks purporting to come directly from the country and evoking rural simplicity whilst selling an adulterated product.

Adulteration of milk was a common problem with up to a quarter of the supply found to be watered down or added to with chalk, to help whiten it, during the 1870s.  This interesting pamphlet, written in 1850, details the scale of the problems.

Many cows had tuberculosis (also known as consumption), which was highly contagious and was passed into their milk, then consumed by humans to whom, the author supposes, the fatal disease was passed on.  So although drinking milk was associated with being healthy and the purity of the countryside, consumers found it difficult to trust what they were buying.  At Tettenhall in the West Midlands in 1862, a fight broke out between a milkman and a woodcutter.  As the milkman was driving his cart through the street, the woodcutter called out “There goes milk-and-water” and other similar opprobrious epithets.  The milkman, suitably enraged, got down from his cart to exchange words and then blows, but not having the woodcutter’s axe, came off the worst, his smock frock saturated with blood. Both survived to face each other in court, perhaps the tale of one unhappy consumer.

Large dairies around the outskirts of London were also set up, such as the Kilburn Dairy dating from the 1830s, to bring milk production closer to the capital although these too were dogged by  allegations about their purity.


However, in Truro, Cornwall, in 1881, a letter writer to a newspaper expressed joy that the city was to have a ‘good and pure’ milk supply from the Tolgarrick Dairy, the milk cans brought in on a stylish cart by a man in ‘the whitest of smock frocks’ and a shiny hat.  Outside London, it was common for dairy men and cow men to wear smock frocks so it was a natural extension to continue to wear them when delivering milk.  A milkman in a white smock was noted in Reading in 1854, going off to milk his cows, when he was caught up in a chase to catch a robber.  For city dwelllers, concerned about purity of the product, the smock frock seemed to have added reassurance value for consumers, although this could also be used for advantage by unscrupulous dealers.

The smock frocked milkman seemed to have entered the common vocabulary though and in 1870, this was assured when the song ‘Polly Perkins of Paddington Green or the Broken Hearted Milkman’ was published, the front cover showing the love lorne swain in a smock frock.  The song remained popular for the next century, the smock frock not lasting quite so long.



Image Courtesy of the Alfred Concanen Collection, Ward Irish Music Archives, Milwaukee Irish Fest.