IT is a sobering thought that until the closing years of the 20th century, Britain’s courts were technically able to impose the death penalty for a number of offences, both civil and military.

Although the last judicial hangings took place in 1964 the death penalty, in theory, remained for a number of offences. In the last century, 865 people were executed in Britain - and only three posthumously pardoned.

In his book A Date with the Hangman: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain, crime historian Gary Dobbs takes a grim but fascinating look at some of those hangings, and executioners, and the crimes that led men and women to the gallows.

Among those featured are James Berry, a Bradford police constable who became a hangman in the 1880s and hanged 130 people over 10 years - his story is told in guided tours of the old cells at Bradford Police Museum - and Britain’s most famous executioner, Albert Pierrepoint of Clayton.

Albert was from a family of executioners known as ‘the hanging family’. As well as hanging serial killers John Christie and John Haigh, he was the executioner of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in the UK, and 200 war criminals in Germany.

His father Henry Pierrepoint held the office of Britain’s chief hangman in the first decade of the 20th century. When Henry’s career came to an end in 1910, after he was struck off for arriving drunk for an execution, his brother, Thomas, replaced him and spent 37 years in the role, responsible for 294 executions.

It was Albert who became the family’s most famous hangman. He was the man behind over 400 executions (some claim as many as 600), among them notorious traitor William (Lord Haw Haw) Joyce and high-profile killers. Albert hanged Derek Bentley - convicted, aged 19, of murdering a police officer in 1953, he was granted a posthumous pardon 40 years later, in 1993 and his murder conviction was quashed in 1998 - and Timothy Evans, convicted of killing his daughter but pardoned in 1966 when it was discovered the killer was John Christie. Their cases, along with that of Ruth Ellis - convicted of the murder of boyfriend David Blakely - were major factors in the abolition of capital punishment in the UK. When Pierrepoint was driven from the prison after hanging Ellis, on July 13, 1955, his car was mobbed by protestors calling him a murderer. He stepped down from his role as hangman a few weeks later.

In his 1974 autobiography Pierrepoint wrote: “It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown...Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing but revenge.”

Despite the gruesome subject matter, this is a fascinating, well researched book on the history of judicial punishment through the 20th century. It also traces the death penalty back to the fifth century, detailing various forms of capital punishment used throughout British history. Not for the faint-hearted!

* A Date with the Hangman, published by Pen and Sword, £19.99.