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Joseph Chrimes hanged for murder

In the spring of 1959 UK newspapers followed the Old Bailey trial of Joseph Chrimes with great interest. 30 year-old Joseph and his 18 year-old accomplice Ronald Hedley Pritchard stood accused of the murder of 60 year-old widow Norah Summerfield during a burglary at her home in Hillingdon, Middlesex on new year's eve 31 December 1958. Mrs. Summerfield had died from blows to the head made by a tyre lever. Initially Joseph and Ronald accused each other of the murder, but the murder charge against young Pritchard was later dropped due to lack of evidence, and Pritchard was then called as a witness for the prosecution. On 4 March 1959 the jury found Joseph Chrimes to be guilty of the murder. His subsequent appeal on 10 April was dismissed, and in accordance with the law of the time, he was sentenced to death.

Joseph was originally from Wigan, Lancashire, England, although at the time of the offence he was lodging in Hayes, Middlesex and his occupation was "stainer". He was not married. He had no children.

From newspaper coverage of Pritchard's evidence: Pritchard said on New Year's Eve Chrimes said he would like to go to the bungalow to "look it over", to see if it was worth breaking in to. Joe forced the back door and Mrs. Summerfield came out. Pritchard said "She did not see us" and she went back. She came out again and saw us and told us to get out of the garden. I went to go. Then Chrimes grabbed hold of her and hit her on the head. He pushed and dragged her into a lean-to where he started hitting her again. When asked "What did you do?", Pritchard replied quietly "I did nothing. She was dead."

During and after the trial, the newspapers reported aspects of Joseph's character which help us to understand a little more about him. When arrested and asked if he wanted Legal Aid, Joseph is reported as saying that "It wouldn't make any difference". During the trial he is reported as saying "I don't care what the jury believes. I'll still be found guilty and hanged". According to the newspapers, Joseph was resigned to his fate because of his upbringing, reported with these words: "He was born unwanted, raised as an orphan by charity organisations and institutions - a man without a chance, satisfied to be a drifter and cafe loafer". This may well be an over-dramatisation, but we do know that Joseph's father died when he was just two years old, leaving his mother with three infants.

In a twist to the story, Joseph appears to have had very few visitors whilst he was in prison but his brother John did visit him prior to the trial. Ronald Pritchard's parents also visited Joseph after the trial, and they reported that Joseph's brother John had "changed his name and disappeared". There is no report of Joseph being visited by any other members of his family.

Joseph Chrimes was hanged on Tuesday 28 April 1959 at Pentonville Prison, London, the executioner being Harry Allen, "Britain's Last Hangman".
*Joseph Chrimes was still alive after being removed from the rope, and was resuspended until he was dead. After having to resuspend Joseph Chrimes, the regulations changed to require the body to be left on the rope for at least 45 minutes.

Joseph's execution was one of six carried out in the UK in 1959. The death penalty for murder in the UK was suspended in 1964 and abolished in 1969.
It is remarkable, given the lengthy trials and numerous appeals procedures which we are familiar with today, that the time span from Joseph's crime to his execution was just four months.

Revised October 2018
*Revised May 2022 with contribution from Nick Short, referencing crime author Steve Fielding.

References: UKPressOnline and The British Newspaper Archive

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