The abolition of hanging in
The abolition of capital punishment was a
major priority of the incoming Labour government of
Harold Wilson in 1964 and its first Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. On
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 death penalty remained theoretically available in
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
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
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
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
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 final move towards
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
Two years later the bodies of more women were discovered in the same house,
In January 1953, 19 year old Derek Bentley (Click here for details of his case) went to the gallows in
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
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.
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
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
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.
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