The abolition of hanging in Britain.

The abolition of capital punishment was a major priority of the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson when it came to office on the 15th of October 1964 and its first Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. On the 28th of October 1965, a Private Member's Bill to suspend the death penalty, sponsored by the left wing MP, Mr. Sydney Silverman, received Royal Assent. It was supported by the government and the Home Secretary. Thus on the 9th of November 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for a period of five years.
The last executions were two carried out simultaneously at 8.00 a.m. on the 13th of August 1964 in Walton and Strangeways prisons (in Liverpool and Manchester) when Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans (real name John Robson Walby) (see picture) were hanged for the murder of John West, a laundry man,
in the course of robbing him.

The last death sentence was passed, over a year later, on the 1st of November 1965, upon David Stephen Chapman, for a murder committed during the course of a robbery. He was automatically reprieved, as were the other 16 men sentenced in late 1964 and in 1965.
On the 16th of December 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed its decision that capital punishment for murder should be permanently abolished. On a free vote, the House voted by 343 to 185, a majority of 158, that the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, should not expire. Thus, the death penalty for murder was formally abolished.
The death penalty remained theoretically available in Northern Ireland until the passing of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Powers) Act 1973. Nobody was executed there after 1961, however.
Capital punishment has now been totally abolished for all civil crimes, having remained on the statute book for high treason and piracy. (There had been no executions for either of these crimes since 1946, when two men were hanged for treason.)
In October 1998, the government introduced an amendment to the Human Rights Bill that abolished the death penalty as a possible punishment for military offences under the Armed Forces Acts. There were five military wartime capital offences: serious misconduct in action, communicating with the enemy, aiding the enemy or furnishing supplies, obstructing operations or giving false air signals, mutiny to incitement to mutiny or failure to suppress a mutiny. The last execution under military law was in 1942.
On the 10th of December 1999, International Human Rights Day, the government ratified Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights thus totally abolishing capital punishment in Britain.

Historical background.
Capital punishment had first been abolished in the 11th century by William the Conqueror but was reinstated by his son William Rufus. Efforts to have the death penalty abolished had been going on since the late 1700's. In 1770, Sir William Meredith suggested that Parliament consider "more proportionate punishments." His proposal was rejected but it opened up the debate. With over a thousand people a year being sentenced to death (although only a small proportion actually executed), it was clearly a debate that was needed. Sir Samuel Romilly, 1757-1818, attempted to get parliament to de-capitalise minor crimes. On the 17th of January 1813, he introduced a Bill in the House of Commons "to repeal so much of the Act of King William as punishes with death the offence of stealing privately in a shop, warehouse or stable, goods of the value of 5s" (25p). This is what we call shoplifting now. This Bill was thrown out by the House of Lords.
After Romilly's death in 1818, Sir James Mackintosh, who supported Romilly's proposals for reducing the severity of the criminal law, took up the abolitionist's cause. On the 2nd of March 1819, he carried a motion against the government for a committee to consider capital punishment, by a majority of 19. In 1820, he introduced 6 bills embodying the recommendations of the committee, only three of which became law. Lord Eldon - the Lord Chancellor secured an amendment to keep the death penalty for stealing to the value of more than Ł10. On the 21st of May 1823, Mackintosh put forward a further 9 proposals to parliament for abolishing the punishment of death for less serious offences. He wanted to make forgery a non capital crime but this was opposed by Sir Robert Peel. However, it was declassified as a capital crime in 1832. This was important because a conviction for forgery generally did result in the execution of the culprit.
Over the first 68 years of the 19th century, other individuals and pressure groups were to lend their voices to the argument in favour of abolition with some success. Several, including author Charles Dickens and the Quaker movement campaigned for ending of public executions, which occurred in 1868. The public enjoyed these far more than was thought good for them. The Establishment has never been happy about the ordinary people enjoying overtly morbid pastimes such as watching a criminal struggling on the end of a rope! There is no doubt that public did enjoy a "good hanging" - there was general disappointment expressed if the criminal died too quickly, as happened with the hanging of William Palmer outside Stafford prison in 1856. Charles Dickens, writing in the Times, attacked the behaviour of the crowds at the execution of Frederick and Maria Manning in 1849. Progressively attitudes to public hanging had changed between 1800 and 1868. At the beginning of the century, hangings were attended by all classes of society and were considered an excellent day out. The rich would pay handsomely to get a good view of the event. By the end of the period, it is claimed that it was mostly the lower classes who were attending them.

In 1810, there were no less than 222 individually defined capital crimes and this was steadily reduced between 1813 and 1861. By 1861, it was reduced to just four by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of that year. In effect from here on there was really only one capital crime - murder - for which people would continue to be put to death in peacetime. In the period 1832-1834, Sir Robert Peel's government introduced various Bills to reduce the number of capital crimes. See Timeline of Capital punishment for dates and details of these reforms.

The Penal Servitude Act of 1853 introduced the modern concept of prison as a punishment in itself rather than merely as a place to hold people awaiting trial, execution or transportation. New prisons had been built all over the country to house people who would have previously been transported or hanged.

In 1908, the minimum age for execution was raised to 16 and to 18 in 1933.  It should be noted that the last person under the age of 18 to be executed was 17 year old Charles Dobel who was executed at Maidstone along with 18 year old William Gower on the 2nd of January 1889, for the murder of B C Lawrence.  All other under 18’s had been reprieved.
The Infanticide Act of 1922 made the killing of a baby by its mother no longer a capital crime. This was extended in 1938 to include the killing of a child of under one year. The Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 excepted pregnant women who were no longer to be hanged after giving birth.  In reality, no woman had been hanged for the crime of killing her new born baby for since 1849.  In 1925 The National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment formed and this continued to campaign for abolition up to the end.  Several then well known Left wing politicians were members of this, including prime minister to be, Harold Wilson. 

It would be wrong to leave out mention of one of the most tireless campaigners against capital punishment in the period from 1935 to 1960.  This was Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966) who was also known as “Sweet Violet” and less flatteringly as “VD Elsie”.  Although she came from a humble background she became very wealthy and would arrive outside prisons on the eve of an execution in her Rolls Royce.  Here she would play hymns through loudspeakers and distribute leaflets to the crowd.  She was considered as an annoyance by the authorities and an object of amusement and derision by the public.  It was not at all unusual for her to be fined for causing an obstruction or for some other minor public order offence.  Her first major demonstration took place outside Wandsworth on the 2nd of April 1935 at the hanging of Leonard Bristock.  As usual it was both a spectacular and futile gesture.  She got a hostile response from the crowd outside Strangeways just over a year later at the execution of Dr. Buck Ruxton.    She wrote a book entitled “On the Gallows” in 1937 which was an apologia for some recently hanged criminals both in Britain and in the USA.  It is unclear whether her campaigning really had any effect.  The public could tell the difference between cases such as Buck Ruxton and Neville Heath compared to Charlotte Bryant, for instance and were much more sympathetic to the latter.

The final move towards abolition.
Attitudes in Britain had been changed by World War II, class barriers came down and people felt sickened by the holocaust of Nazi Germany. In 1948, the United Nations issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this and the original European Convention on Human Rights was adopted by Britain in 1950.  In April 1948, the House of Commons voted in favour of a Bill introduced by Sidney Silverman to suspend the death penalty for five years.  The Labour Home Secretary, Lord James Chuter-Ede, announced that he would reprieve all murderers until the future of the Bill was resolved.  This resulted in 26 reprieves and no executions between March and October 1948, giving a total for the year of just eight.  The House of Lords rejected the Bill in late 1948, but it was decided to set up a Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers to examine all aspects of capital punishment.  Their report was published in 1953 and led to some slight modifications to various aspects of the system.  Some of these concerned improvements to the condemned cell and the prisoner’s regime in it.  One major recommendation was the compulsory psychiatric examination and electro-encephalograph of the brain of all persons accused and convicted of murder.  The Report also recommended improvements to the actual execution process.  Prisoners were to be removed from the rope once certified dead and no longer left hanging for an hour. In November 1955, Sidney Silverman introduced the Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill to the House of Commons and it was passed by the House of Commons in February, 1956. Once again, the Home Secretary, now Major Gwilym Lloyd George (later Lord Tenby), took it upon himself to reprieve all those condemned.  Forty nine people escaped the gallows and there were no executions between the 10th of August 1955 and the 23rd of July 1957 when John Vickers became the first person to hang under the provisions of the Homicide Act 1957.  (See Reprieve for a detailed examination of this Act and its consequences.)

The Press stimulated public interest in murder trials and the eventual fate of those convicted and sentenced to death, who became far less de-humanised as a result. Virtually every word of the more interesting murder trials used to be reported in the popular press in the 1940’s and 50’s whereas now hardly any detail of most trials is actually reported. As the execution date drew near, there would be much speculation as to whether a particular prisoner would be reprieved or not and in many cases petitions for a reprieve were got up.

Compared to now, the post war years were a time of relatively little serious crime and yet a surprisingly large number of murderers were hanged in the first 10 years after the 2nd World War, 151, including five women. There were also three cases in particular that caused great public concern.

Timothy Evans was hanged on the 9th March, 1950 for the murder of his daughter (he was also charged with murdering his wife but was not actually tried for it) in what seemed at the time like a simple case of domestic murder to which he had made an apparently voluntary confession.
Two years later the bodies of more women were discovered in the same house, No.10 Rillington Place. They had all been murdered by Evan's landlord, John Reginald Halliday Christie (who had given evidence against Evans at his trial). This case raised serious doubts as to whether an innocent man had been hanged.

In January 1953, 19 year old Derek Bentley (Click here for details of his case) went to the gallows in London's Wandsworth prison having been convicted of the murder of a policeman the previous year. The conviction may have been technically correct but it was seen as totally unjust by most people that a person should be hanged for a crime that even the police at the scene said he neither did nor could have committed as he was effectively under arrest at the time. The lad who fired the fatal shot, Christopher Craig, was under 18 at the time and therefore could not be hanged and actually served just 10 years in prison. This execution did more than any other to sway public opinion against capital punishment, one can only wonder what possessed the Home Secretary to take such a palpably stupid and unjust decision. One is left wondering if certain Home Office officials had a hidden agenda to end capital punishment and advised the Home Secretary to take this incredible decision knowing the likely outcome but also knowing that they would remain shielded from the consequences behind the Official Secrets Act.

The whole issue of capital punishment was raised again, two years later, when Ruth Ellis was sentenced to hang for murdering her boyfriend, David Blakely, in a fit of jealous rage when he would not see her.
As the law stood in 1955, she was quite correctly convicted of murder as her crime was decidedly pre-meditated, even if it was a "crime of passion."  However, she was an attractive 28 year old, blonde mother of two, who through her demeanour in court and because of the violence she had suffered at the hands of Blakely attracted enormous public sympathy (even though she almost certainly did not want to be reprieved). Ruth Ellis had the glamour that sells newspapers and they had a field day with her case, making the Home Secretary (Gwilym Lloyd George) out to be an unfeeling monster and furthering the cause of abolition. She went to the gallows in Holloway prison on July 13th 1955, the last woman to be hanged in this country. (
See Ruth Ellis for a full description of this famous case).

Each of these cases was decided in secret by the Home Office without any apparent regard to prevailing public opinion and served only to raise the level of debate about the whole issue of capital punishment.

  • Did society have the right to take life at all?
  • Was it necessary with a relatively low murder rate to put people to death?
  • Were innocent people being hanged?
  • Was hanging really the deterrent it had always been made out to be?
  • Was hanging, carried out in complete secrecy, as humane as the Government would have had us believe?
  • Was the whole reprieve system just a lottery that was incapable of distinguishing between degrees of wickedness?
  • Why were so few people hanged and so many reprieved? Were those people who were hanged guilty of much worse crimes than those who were reprieved?
  • Was the Home Secretary the right person to hold the power of life or death over capital cases?

It was difficult to find many satisfactory answers to these questions at that time.

Taking on board a little of the public's concern the Government introduced the Homicide Act 1957 which tried to distinguish between different categories of murder.

This act limited the death penalty to five categories of murder, viz.
Murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft.
Murder by shooting or causing explosions.
Murder in the course of or for the purpose of resisting, avoiding or preventing lawful arrest or effecting or assisting an escape from lawful custody.
Murder of a police officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him.
Murder by a prisoner of a prison officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him.
Additionally, it allowed for the execution of a person who committed a second separate murder on a different occasion from the first.

Regrettably, the Act probably made matters worse. (This has been shown to be true in secret Government papers released in 1995. The then Prime Minister commented to the Home Secretary that the law was unworkable and would inevitably lead to abolition). For instance, if you killed someone by hitting them on the head with a rock, you could not be executed but if you shot them, you could be. It also invented the idea of diminished responsibility where if you had a good enough lawyer you could get off with murder and be found guilty of manslaughter instead.

Successive governments had made executions and the decisions leading to them matters of complete secrecy, thus totally excluding the public. This has the tendency to make people wonder what the authorities have to hide and allows the Press to print any sensational story, however inaccurate, about condemned prisoners and their execution. The government can't of course challenge any story without having to say what really happened. One wonders if the public would have been much less concerned if they had been told the truth instead of lurid imaginary details by the papers. It also has the effect of focusing attention on the criminal rather than the crime.

Inevitably, criminals have a "human face" that the Press exploited as they were excluded from all other aspects of the case. These human interest stories, equally inevitably, attracted public sympathy, especially where the prisoner was young or attractive or both. Interviews with prisoner's families, who often understandably maintained that their loved ones were innocent, made good press as most people like human interest stories and tend to believe what they read in the papers.

It was argued by opponents of capital punishment, that hanging, when carried out at the rate of 11 or so a year on average, over the first 65 years of the 20th century, served no useful purpose as a deterrent to the most serious crimes, but was rather simply an act of cruelty inflicted on a few people, often for no particularly obvious reason in the minds of the general public.

Prior to the assent of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837, only the monarch had the power to decide whether a death sentence passed by their judges should be carried out, as all the people were, of course the subjects of the Monarch. Respective Kings and Queens were assisted in this decision process by the Privy Council and would grant reprieves where there were perceived to be mitigating circumstances, as recommended by the trial judge in his report. Victoria was just 19 when she became Queen and it was not considered "proper" for a teenage girl to have to make such decisions so the Home Office promptly appropriated the power and began to exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy on her behalf.

Under successive Home Secretaries, the system had become a seeming lottery where reprieves were granted for such reasons as the prisoner having only one leg or having earlier attempted suicide by cutting his throat, with the possibility of that wound might open up and cause an unpleasant mess, etc.
There seemed to be a general willingness on the part of the Home Office to reprieve murderers, who had been properly convicted and received the mandatory death sentence, on any possible grounds and only to allow the sentence to be carried out if absolutely no grounds for reprieve could be found. This led to about half of all death sentences being commuted to "life imprisonment" which usually meant a relatively short term in jail (10 to 12 years being normal). In this situation it is not difficult to understand why, in most cases, the relatives and friends of a condemned person campaigned so hard for a reprieve when they saw so many other people "getting away with murder." This also led to the perception of injustice by the public as it was impossible to tell why this person was reprieved and served a few years in prison whilst that person had to die, for an apparently similar crime.

Then there was the question of sanity. From 1843 the M'Naughten rules prohibited the execution of prisoners who were genuinely insane and did not understand the nature of their act or if they did, did not realise it was wrong. This sensible definition of insanity was progressively stretched by the courts and by the Home Office. From 1884 the Criminal Lunatics Act allowed for every condemned prisoner to be examined by prison psychiatrists where there were doubts as to their sanity.  The psychiatrists reported secretly, to the Home Secretary and if the prisoner was found to be not wholly sane, they were normally reprieved irrespective of the nature of the crime or their sanity at the time of committing it! Bear in mind that all of those reprieved on this basis, and there were many, had either not pleaded insanity at their trial or else had not had their plea accepted by the court. One is left to draw one's own conclusions.

Executions had become decidedly unpopular with the Governors and staff of the prisons in which they took place. This is hardly surprising as they had become a very rare event in most prisons and tended to upset the normal running of the whole place. Many county prisons had less than 10 executions in 65 years. Only Pentonville and Wandsworth in London, Walton in Liverpool, Strangeways in Manchester, Winson Green in Birmingham, Armley prison in Leeds and Durham had relatively frequent hangings.

By the 1950's and early 60's, a new breed of prison governor had emerged.  No longer the retired army officer who believed in harsh punishment and firm discipline but prison service professionals who believed in rehabilitation of offenders and found the supervising of condemned prisoners and their subsequent execution, a great strain and totally against their beliefs and training. It must have put great emotional stress on the officers who formed the death watch and had to stay with the prisoner for the whole of their 8 hour shift each day. No doubt they saw a completely different side of that person to the one portrayed in the press. And at the end could come the execution - how many of us would really like to stand in a small room just a few feet from a person we had spoken to every day for the last two or three months and watch them be hanged by the neck until dead?

The effects of abolition on the murder rate.
According to the Home Office Report (Murder 1957-1968) the murder rate in England and Wales steadily increased after the passing of the 1957 Act and further accelerated after suspension (effective abolition) of capital punishment in 1965. The graph below, produced from that report, shows the rates for murders that would have been classed as capital and non capital under the 1957 Act. It continued to increase and in the 21st century has reached over 900 a year by 2004.

Two cases in 1966 were to quickly re-ignite the debate over abolition and lead to a public demand for re-instatement.
On the 27th of April 1966, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady came to trial at Chester Assizes for the infamous "Moors murders." They escaped the death penalty as it had effectively been abolished just four weeks before their arrest. On the 6th of May 1966, they were both jailed for life, having been convicted of the murders of Lesley Ann Downey, aged 10, in 1964, and Edward Evans, aged 17, in 1965. Brady was also convicted of the murder of 12 year old John Kilbride. Hindley was found guilty of being an accessory to this. These murders were committed while capital punishment was still on the statute books. The second case, which shocked the nation, occurred on Friday the 12th August 1966 when three career criminals, Harry Roberts, John Witney and John Duddy brutally murdered three police officers who were trying to question them at the roadside in Braybrook Street, London. They were all convicted and given life sentences.

In conclusion, it might be said that actual or perceived mal-administration of the reprieve system by the Home Office, a changing attitude in society and a concerted campaign by the media and liberal pressure groups were the principal reasons for the abolition of the death penalty in Britain. It is interesting to note that there was never a referendum held to give the public a democratic say on the matter!

Back to Contents page. Timeline of hanging in Britain. The history of judicial hanging.
The Reprieve system examined.