FROM Ferryhill comes this picture with a request for more information from Joyce Malcolm. Joyce believes the conductress is Cissie Dring, who also came from Ferryhill, but who were Walters & Johnson who ran the bus company?

Joyce believes that the picture was taken in Old Elvet in Durham, because on the far right is one of our favourite pieces of ironwork in the North-East. It is, of course, “the hanging balcony” which is directly opposite the Durham courthouse.

The Northern Echo: THE HANGING BALCONY: Built, it is said, for the execution of John Greig in 1816

THE HANGING BALCONY: Built, it is said, for the execution of John Greig in 1816

The courthouse was built next to Durham jail in 1810, and it became the obvious place for executions. In fact, even to this day, you can see in the stonework above the main entrance to the court some marks where the “New Drop” was erected. The New Drop was a platform outside the first floor windows, and large crowds gathered around it to see the miscreant die.

The first to be executed on the New Drop was barber and hairdresser John Grieg, a 37-year-old father-of-six from Monkwearmouth. He had been found guilty of murdering Elizabeth Stonehouse, of Monkwearmouth – he had shot her in an attempt to stop her persistent taunts about his illegitimate child.

He was executed on August 17, 1816, with a “numerous populace” watching on – including those on the “hanging balcony”, which had been erected especially for the occasion. It is said that the property owner sold tickets to the balcony, which had the best view over to the New Drop.

Unfortunately for the spectators, the wretched Grieg was despatched without incident by executioner William “Mutton” Curry, of Thirsk.

"The execution was performed in a manner highly creditable,” said a Newcastle news sheet. “When the platform fell, the unfortunate man was seen to make but a single struggle on separation between his soul and body."

There were 13 executions at the New Drop between 1816 and 1869 when the law was changed to prevent a public spectacle.

Therefore, the last execution witnessed from the “hanging balcony” was Matthew Atkinson, from High Spen, Gateshead, on March 16, 1865. He had beaten his wife to death with a fire iron.

Crowds began gathering the day before his demise.

“The evening trains from all quarters brought heavy freights of men, women and even children, bent upon gloating over the brutalising spectacle,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times. “The arrivals were most numerous from the west district – Tudhoe, Spennymoor, Berryedge, Consett etc – where the locked our ironworkers seized the opportunity for what they deemed ‘a treat’.”

By next morning, the D&S estimated that there were more than 5,000 in the crowd – many of them women.

“Several houses command a view of the place of execution, and to the credit of many of them be it said the blinds in their houses were drawn down, and no brutal curiosity was manifested as to the awful proceedings without; others, however, showed an entirely opposite feeling, and windows were open and eager gazers looked in comfortable ease upon the surging crowd below,” said the D&S.

The executioner was Thomas Askern of York – he, like William “Mutton” Curry, had been in York jail but had agreed to become a hangman in return for his liberty. Askern was in prison for debt, whereas “Mutton” had been a convicted sheep stealer.

At 8am on March 16, 1865, Askern pulled the bolt to release the trapdoor beneath Atkinson.

“Suddenly comes a rattle and a crash; down flies the drop, and the poor wretch upon it – a strongly built man – dashes down with it. But instead of a pendant, writhing form dangling from the crossbeam, nothing is to be seen but a wildly springing rope with the severed ends blowing in the wind. The miserable wretch has broken the rope, and now lies under the scaffold!”

Atkinson had fallen about 15ft onto the court steps.

He was helped up, brushed himself down, and then started calmly chatting to the crowd about what was going to happen next.

The crowd at Durham booed Askern as if he were a pantomime villain as he fetched a second, stronger rope, placed it around Atkinson’s neck, and re-attached to the noose. Twenty-four minutes after his first botched attempt, he pulled back the bolt and opened the trapdoor for a second time.

“This time, however, the stout rope withstood the strain of the check, and the body of the agonised wretch in the throes of death swung heavily half visible in the orifice of the drop,” said the D&S. “To those outside, he appeared to suffer much, there were strong, convulsive shiverings running over his frame for some seconds after the drop fell.”

The D&S reporter was clearly sickened by what he had seen. The body, he said, was left dangling from the derrick for an hour “for the edification and improvement of the public”.

The reporter said: “Very few persons stayed to witness the body hanging its dreary hour in the wind. Almost immediately after the drop fell for a second time, the multitude, sick of the shocking spectacle they had seen, began to crowd the narrow avenues leading from the enclosure in front of the courts, and soon were in full retreat into the streets of the little city.”

Because of such sickness, from 1869 executions were carried out in the private of the prison yard, and the “hanging balcony” became just a curious relic on the front of a Durham house.

Anyway, can anyone tell us who busmen Walters & Johnson were?