This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine
As 9am approached on 13 July 1955, crowds of people began to line the streets outside Holloway prison. Some stared solemnly at the prison walls. Others prayed. Most fell silent. Inside the prison gates, Ruth Ellis received communion and drank a glass of brandy. Then, as the clock ticked round to the appointed hour, she was led to the execution chamber.
According to the News Chronicle, Ellis “looked on a crucifix for a few seconds before she died”. She was, stated the Daily Mirror, “the calmest woman who ever went to the gallows”. That equanimity wasn’t shared by thousands of people in the country at large. On that grim July morning, Ellis became the last woman to be executed in Britain – and the furore surrounding her fate would resonate for years.
By the time Ellis died, her case had already become a cause celebre. It dominated newspaper front pages, inspired hundreds of Britons to pen letters begging for clemency, and led to a dramatic 11th‑hour appeal for a reprieve.
The Ellis case gave the nation a considerable emotional jolt – and that’s because a huge number of Britons could personally identify with the 28-year-old wife and mother. Labour MP Sydney Silverman, a campaigner for the abolition of the death sentence, encapsulated this sentiment when he wrote in The Star: “She seems to most people a normal human – all too human – being, weak, foolish, hyper-sensitive.”
Under great emotional distress, Ellis “found relief in one passionate, compulsive act of desperation”, which, Silverman added, exemplified “essential human pathos”. The “compulsive act of desperation” to which Silverman referred was the murder of her boyfriend, David Blakely.
Ellis and Blakely were locked in a dysfunctional relationship and by April 1955, Ellis had reached breaking point. On Easter Sunday – distraught at Blakely’s refusal to speak to her – she walked into the Magdala pub in Hampstead, where Blakely was drinking. She was accompanied by Desmond Cussen, a man with whom she had had a brief relationship – and who, fatefully, had given her a gun. Ellis proceeded to use that gun to shoot Blakely twice as he left the pub, before standing over him and shooting him twice more as he lay on the ground. She asked for the police to be called and was arrested by an off-duty policeman who had also been drinking in the Magdala.
Police investigations into the killing soon established that Ellis and Blakely’s relationship had been violent. A report in the Home Office file on the case explains that “Blakely sometimes struck Mrs Ellis” and that she had been to hospital after receiving “multiple bruises” from him. Ellis had a miscarriage shortly before the murder, which she believed was caused by Blakely punching her in the stomach. The prosecution did not dispute that Blakely had treated Ellis “disgracefully”, or that this had left her emotionally disturbed. But, crucially, during Ellis’s trial, neither of these facts was deemed sufficient
to reduce the verdict from murder to manslaughter – and the mandatory sentence for murder was death.
Famously, in response to prosecution counsel Christmas Humphreys’ question about what she intended to do when she fired at Blakely, Ellis replied: “It is obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.” Yet even without such a bald admission, it would have been extremely difficult for Ellis to secure a verdict other than murder. The law did not recognise Ellis’s experiences of physical and emotional abuse as relevant to her defence – a stark example of how far the legal system failed to accommodate women’s experiences of gendered inequality.
That Ellis would receive a guilty verdict was, then, seemingly inevitable. What turned this case into a cause célèbre was the fact that she went to the gallows. Women were rarely executed in Britain: 90 per cent of those sentenced to death in the 20th century were reprieved. Blakely’s mistreatment of Ellis and her emotional distress seemed to offer good grounds for commuting her sentence, and many people assumed that this would happen. When it didn’t, thousands of Britons were appalled. Among them would have been readers of the Daily Herald which rated her chance of reprieve as “good – much better than evens in cold betting terms”. Such optimism was, no doubt, inspired by the case of Sarah Lloyd, who had murdered her 87-year-old neighbour by hitting her with a spade and pouring boiling water over her. Lloyd was sentenced to death but she did not hang. Her sentence was commuted on 7 July 1955, and there hadn’t even been a petition to save her. The same leniency would not be extended to Ellis.
The Daily Herald reported how it was “a moment of tense emotion” when the governor of Holloway, Dr Charity Taylor, had to inform Ellis in her death cell that no reprieve had been granted. The Herald argued that Ellis would not have been executed in the United States or Germany, and lamented the “savage contradiction to all that is reasonable and gentle in the British character” that the retention of hanging entailed.
The press was not uniformly opposed to Ellis’s execution, but even stories written in support of the home secretary’s decision not to reprieve her highlighted problems with the death penalty. The News Chronicle agreed that Ellis could not receive “special leniency” simply because she was “a woman and an alcoholic”. However, it recommended suspending capital punishment for an experimental period to gauge whether hanging needed to be retained.
So why did Ellis fail to earn a reprieve? Research into the archival case files suggests that the premeditated nature of the murder and the fact that it was committed with a gun counted against her. Ellis’s perceived sexual immorality was also a strong factor in the decision not to commute her sentence. She was not married to David Blakely and a “lenient view” could not be taken when “she was associating with, and receiving money from, another man” (a reference to Desmond Cussen). Failure to meet standards of conventional morality in relation to marriage and monogamy proved fatal for Ruth Ellis.
But, as the press would soon make abundantly clear, the justice system’s unforgiving interpretation of Blakely’s murder was hugely out of step with public opinion. No sooner had the sentence been announced than petitions were being gathered “all over Britain”, according to the Daily Express. The Manchester Guardian explained that these contained “several thousand signatures” and that batches of letters calling for a reprieve were being delivered to the home secretary.
Many of these letters survive in the Home Office files on Ruth Ellis in the National Archives and are an invaluable source of information on the public sentiment about the case. There are more than 600 letters, postcards and telegrams from the public in the Home Office files. Ninety per cent of them call for a reprieve.
Ruth Ellis was the mother of two young children, which was a concern for many letter writers, one of whom highlighted the “lifetime of tragic memory and death” in store for the children if she hanged. Motherhood was an extremely important social identity for women in the 1950s and was the basis from which they could make claims about their citizenship. Several correspondents identified themselves as “a wife and mother myself”.
This personal identification with Ellis was key to the empathy that her case provoked. For many, the circumstances of her crime resonated with contemporary cultural understandings of motherhood and romantic love. Blakely’s murder was widely described as a ‘crime of passion’, and there was a perception that the emotional intensity of Ellis’s love for her boyfriend should be understood as mitigation for her crime. Writing to the home secretary, many members of the public referred to their own unhappy relationships and disappointments in love, with one woman explaining that she “found herself in the same boat as Mrs Ellis”.
Much of the public sympathy for Ellis was fuelled by the violence to which she was subjected at Blakely’s hands. The Woman’s Sunday Mirror ran a ghost-written, serialised life story of Ellis over four weeks. In the instalment published the Sunday before her execution, Ruth explained how she gave Blakely money for cigarettes, food and drink and how he would attack her when he was drunk. She detailed how “he would smack my face and punch me”. On one occasion he “lost all control. His fist struck me between the eyes and I fell to the floor. Savagely he beat me as I lay there.”
Letters from the public argued that Blakely’s brutality had not sufficiently been taken into account at her sentencing. One female correspondent stated: “Only a woman understands that has been in the same position like myself and millions of others beaten by our husbands.”
As for Blakely, he was dubbed a “cad”, “vampire” and “parasite”. His behaviour was judged to have violated mid-20th-century ideals of romantic love which demanded that, as well as providing fulfilment, partners should be co-operative and companionate.
Hanging the wrong man
What made Ellis’s execution more controversial still was that it occurred at a time when the very morality of putting people to death was increasingly being questioned – and when the justice system stood accused of overseeing two high-profile miscarriages of justice.
Nineteen-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953, despite concerns that he bore little responsibility for the murder of a police officer committed by his younger friend.
That same year, John Christie also went to the gallows, following the discovery of multiple bodies at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill. Christie was guilty. But what made his case so controversial was that, three years earlier, Timothy Evans, a resident of 10 Rillington Place, had been executed for the murder of his wife and baby. Throughout his trial, Evans maintained that John Christie was responsible. It seemed clear that an innocent man had hanged.
These cases propelled the issue of capital punishment firmly into the national consciousness. This was no dry, technical subject debated behind closed doors by men in suits, but one that grabbed the public’s imagination, impacting upon people on an emotional level. The death of Ruth Ellis supercharged that impact.
In the wake of Ellis’s execution, the publisher Victor Gollancz and writer Arthur Koestler launched the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. This sought to both highlight injustice and engage public emotions. In their 1961 book, Hanged by the Neck, Koestler and Cecil Rolph contended that “emotions or inherent feelings can sometimes be a sure guide to what is right”. In doing so, they countered the argument, advanced by Hugh Klare, secretary of penal reform and abolitionist group the Howard League, that “rational penal policy ought not to be affected by sentiment”.
Within two years of Ellis’s death, this heightened public sentiment was reflected in law. The Homicide Act 1957 limited the death penalty by restricting it to certain types of murder. It was a rather compromised piece of legislation but it set the tone for what was to follow in 1965, when Harold Wilson’s Labour government passed the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act. The last hangings in Great Britain had taken place a year earlier.
Such changes are not brought about by one person’s case. But, for all that, Ruth Ellis remains a highly significant figure – both in shining a light on the long road to abolition and reflecting capital punishment’s impact on Britons’ emotional lives in the 1950s.
Timeline: the death of capital punishment
1868 The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act ends public hanging
1923 Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters are executed for the murder of Edith’s husband amid doubts about her culpability and rumours that her hanging was botched
1930 A report from the Select Committee on Capital Punishment recommends an experimental five-year period of abolition, but this is not debated in parliament
1948 Capital punishment is suspended between February and November during debates on a Criminal Justice Bill. But a Criminal Justice Act passes without an abolition clause
1949 A Royal Commission on Capital Punishment examines whether eligibility for the death penalty should be limited or modified. It doesn’t report until 1953
1953 Derek Bentley is hanged in January amid public concerns about justice in his case. John Christie is executed in July that same year, raising doubts about the guilt of Timothy Evans, who was hanged in 1950
1957 The Homicide Act is passed, limiting capital punishment to certain types of murder, widening the provocation defence and introducing the diminished responsibility defence
1964 On 13 August, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans are hanged – the last judicial execution to take place in Britain
1965 The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act ends capital punishment for murder, initially for five years, and is made permanent in 1969
1998 Capital punishment is abolished for treason and piracy with violence
Lizzie Seal is a reader in criminology at the University of Sussex. Her books include Capital Punishment in 20th-Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (Routledge, 2014)
The three-part documentary series The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story will be broadcast this week on BBC Four, beginning at 9pm on Tuesday 13 March.