On the evening of NOVEMBER 26th, 1916, Alfred Williams, a Canadian soldier, was enjoying a drink at the Sussex Stores public house in London’s Covent Garden with his girlfriend Margaret Harding. As they left the pub around closing time, another customer noticed that they were closely followed by two young men.

When they stepped out into Upper St. Martin’s Lane, there was a scuffle and Williams was knifed by one of the men, William James Robinson, a 26-year-old ex-soldier. Williams died from his wounds while being taken to hospital, and Robinson and his companion John Henry Gray were subsequently arrested and charged with murder.

At their trial in March 1917, the prosecution alleged that they had seen another man hand Williams a bundle of banknotes, and it was for this that they attacked him.

Their defence was mistaken identity, but both were positively identified by Margaret Harding, who said they had walked up to her and her boyfriend, and Robinson had picked a fight. The defendants were also identified by another of the pub’s customers, and Robinson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Gray was convicted of manslaughter and given a three-year prison sentence.

When the case went to appeal, Robinson’s conviction was upheld and Gray’s was quashed.

In the condemned cell Robinson had written to his girlfriend, and the letter put the rope around his neck: “Although I tell you now that I am guilty of the crime,” he wrote, “I am quite satisfied with my sentence. I want to impress upon you and everybody else that it was not done for robbery but it was simply unfortunate. I took him for somebody else I had a row with the previous day and I had no intention of killing. I do not look for sympathy, for I do not deserve it.”

Giving judgment, Lord Reading said that if it had been proved that the two had acted in concert, both would have been guilty of murder. “It is not necessary,” he said, “that a man, to be guilty of murder, should actually have taken part in a physical act in connection with the crime. If he has participated in the crime, that is to say, if he is a confederate, he is guilty, although he has had no hand in striking the fatal blow. Equally it must be borne in mind that the mere fact of standing by when the act is committed is not sufficient.”

At his execution on April 17th, 1917, Robinson swayed on the scaffold as if about to faint, but in his memoirs the hangman John Ellis wrote: “I’m convinced his sudden loss of balance was caused entirely by the effects of his war wounds, which left him with one leg about four inches shorter than the other. Luckily, a warder standing beside him sized up the situation and caught hold of the toppling figure. He steadied the prisoner with a grip on his sleeve while I sprang at the lever and released the trap-doors.

“I believe that after his legs were strapped together by my assistant and I took away the support I was giving him, Robinson tried to stand by himself, and in my view he lost his balance in trying to get his shorter leg more firmly fixed on the floor.”