John Wilson Vickers.


Twenty two year old John Wilson Vickers became the first person executed in England and Wales since August 1955, and the first under the new Homicide Act which became law on March the 21st of 1957. Section 5 of this Act made murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft a capital crime.  Click here for photo of Vickers.


Vickers, originally from Penrith in Cumbria, had been a small time thief since the age of 11 and was known to the police.  At the time of the offence he was living in lodgings in Carlisle.


72 year old Miss Jane Duckett, whom Vickers thought was deaf, owned and ran a small grocery shop in Tait Street, Carlisle and Vickers decided to rob her.  Around 2 am. on Monday April the 15th 1957, she heard the sounds of someone on her premises and wearing only her nightdress went downstairs to investigate.  He hid behind the stairs but Jane saw him and ran at him.  She put up a fight in the course of which he punched and kicked her to death.  In his panic he left the shop empty handed.  Neighbours reported that the shop had not opened and the milk had not been taken in.  Police forced an entry and found Jane’s body at the bottom of the cellar steps.

Vickers was arrested within three days and the scratches on his face appeared to support the story that Jane had defended herself.


He was tried at Carlisle on the 23rd of May 1957 before Mr. Justice Hinchcliffe.  In court Mr. D. J. Brabin, representing Vickers, told the jury that there had been no intent to kill Jane, only to rob her, and that as he hadn't taken anything the charge should be reduced to non-capital murder.  The prosecution, led by Mr. Jack di V. Nahum QC, argued that “Surely if a man of 22 kicks and punches an old lady of 72 he intends to cause her grievous bodily harm. If you are satisfied that Vickers did this, then he murdered her during the commission of a theft.”  The jury preferred this argument.  Vickers was thus convicted and sentenced “to suffer death in the manner authorized by law” as the death sentence read under the new Act.  Note there was no mention of the method of execution or burial of the body within the prison, although nothing had actually changed to either.


Vickers appealed on the grounds that there was no malice aforethought in the killing. The three Lords of Appeal decided that this point of law needed to be clarified and adjourned the case so that it could be heard by the full panel of five Law Lords.  The appeal was unanimously dismissed. There followed an attempt to take the case to the House of Lords, which was vetoed by the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller.  Despite efforts by Labour parliamentary groups, led by Sidney Silverman M.P. and religious groups. the Home Secretary, R. A. Butler, denied a reprieve.
Vickers was duly hanged at 9.00 am. on Tuesday, the 23rd of July 1957 by Harry Allen, assisted by Harry Smith.  This would be the first hanging in Britain since the 12th of August 1955, when Alec Wilkinson  was executed at Armley prison in Leeds.  A crowd estimated at 6,000 stood silently outside Durham prison on that morning.
This was Harry Allen’s first job as No. 1.  As he was leaving the prison he was attacked by the well known anti death penalty campaigner, Violet van de Elst, and his bowler hat was damaged.


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