British Executions

John MacDonald

Age: 21

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 30 Sep 1902

Crime Location: Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, London

Execution Place: Pentonville

Method: hanging

Executioner: William Billington


John MacDonald was convicted of the murder of John Groves 35 and sentenced to death.

He stabbed him in Wentworth Street, Spitalfields, London on Thursday 28 August 1902.

John MacDonald was a hawker and was also known as Scotty.

John Groves was also known as John Grove and 'Soldier'.

They had both been staying at a Salvation Army Shelter in Middlesex Street in late July 1902 when someone stole 5s from John MacDonald as he slept, a 'dollar'.

John MacDonald blamed Henry Groves and on 21 August was seen sharpening his knife in Old Castle Street and saying that he was going to stab Henry Groves.

A week later John MacDonald saw Henry Groves in a crockery shop in Old Castle Street and they started arguing. They then went out into Old Castle Street and then turned into Wentworth Street where they started to fight.

John MacDonald had set upon John Groves three times in the fight and already once or twice thrown him to the ground and a man had  broken the fight up a couple of times, but John MacDonald continued in his efforts and pulled out his knife and stabbed Henry Groves in the neck.

The man that had been trying to break up the fight then jumped on John MacDonald and held him down until the police arrived.

Henry Groves managed to stagger 50 yards down the street before he died.

At the trial, John MacDonald's defence said that John MacDonald had only taken the knife out in the heat of the fight and without premeditation and said that if he had meant to stab John Groves that he would have done it earlier.

However, the prosecution noted that John MacDonald had been seen sharpening his knife from as early as 21 August and was heard to have said to a man, 'i'll chip Soldier for the dollar he took' sometime between 21 and 28 August and was also heard to repeat that at 7pm on 28 August and again to another man at 7.30pm. It was further heard that he had asked two or three men that had been standing in the street if they had seen 'Soldier', who came up just after that.

It was also heard that when John MacDonald took his knife out after he was separated from John Groves in the fight for the third time that it was already open.

It was also noted that the expressions that he had used in the fight demonstrated his intention, it being said that he had said some form or variant of:

  • 'I will shove it in your heart'.
  • 'Groves, I will put this into your heart'.
  • 'If I can't beat you one way I will another'.
  • 'If I cannot beat you one way I'll put this through your heart'.
  • 'If I can't beat you one way I will the other, with a bit of steel'.

The police report noted that it was not unnatural that there was some variation in the evidence as to the exact words used, but said that there could be no doubt that he used words showing his intention to kill.

It was noted that the crime was much worse because it was clear that John Groves, who was much the older man, had wished and tried to avoid the fight, and that after they had previously been separated John Groves had said to John MacDonald, 'You will be sorry for it in the morning'.

It was also noted that there had been a definite interval in time between the third time that they had been separated and when John MacDonald had taken out his knife.

John MacDonald had said that he had been drinking all afternoon and that he did not recall the fight. However, the police report stated that it was clear that although he had had some drink, that he was not drunk. It was also noted that he had tried to escape and that when his knife was handed over to a constable that he had said, 'I did it with that knife and I did it intentionally'.

In the favour of John MacDonald the police report stated that he was evidently an excitable man, given to using violent language, which had not been regarded as serious, and that he had tried to take his own life the year earlier. It was additionally noted that John Groves might have used bad language in the affray, although he was otherwise peaceable enough, and finally that it was possible that if John MacDonald had got the better of John Groves that he might not have used his knife.

However, John MacDonald was convicted and executed at Pentonville Prison on the morning of 30 September 1902.

see National Archives - HO 144/672/100350, CRIM 1/75/7

see Portsmouth Evening News - Wednesday 01 October 1902

see Dundee Courier - Saturday 30 August 1902