Botched hangings in the mid-Victorian century were not at all uncommon, and generally resulted in terrible agony during the condemned man’s last moments.

When poacher William Collier, 35, was due to be hanged outside Stafford Prison on Tuesday, August 7th, 1866, the rope did not arrive until 8.30 p.m. the night before.

By that time prison officers had become so agitated that they made a new one from what remained of the rope used in the last execution, five months previously. They made a bad job of it, but for some reason it was the one that hangman George Smith decided to use.

When Smith pulled the lever the makeshift rope slipped off the beam and Collier fell with a sickening thud into the pit. A cry went up from the crowd, “The rope’s broken!” There was dismay, said the Times report, both on and below the scaffold.

The unfortunate Collier was staggering round in the pit in a daze, semi-conscious, with blood-red marks around his neck, and the hangman wondering what to do next. The officiating Roman Catholic priest buried his head in his surplice, exclaiming, “God help me!”

Amid the confusion one prison officer had an idea – he ran off to fetch the new rope. The execution ritual was carried out again, and this time Collier was hanged successfully, although everyone on the scaffold was booed and hissed by the crowd of 2,000, because even an execution audience didn’t like watching a botched job.

Collier was hanged for the murder of Thomas Smith, who besides being a gamekeeper was the son of the local lord of the manor. Smith was shot, then beaten to death with the gunstock.

Collier, a well-known poacher, was the obvious suspect, and the murder weapon was found hidden in a drainpipe near his home At his trial the defence suggested that the murder was committed by gypsies passing through and they had planted the gun. The gun was clearly Collier’s, however. Its ramrod was also found near his home, and a witness told the court he had sold the weapon to the poacher.