A brief history of capital punishment in Britain

Between the late 17th and early 19th century, Britain’s ‘Bloody Code’ made more than 200 crimes – many of them trivial – punishable by death. Writing for History Extra, criminologist and historian Lizzie Seal considers the various ways in which capital punishment has been enforced throughout British history and investigates the timeline to its abolition in 1965

"For those of noble birth who were condemned to die, execution by beheading (which was considered the least brutal method of execution) was used until the 18th century," says criminologist and historian Lizzie Seal. This illustration depicts the execution of Charles I in January 1649. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British forms of punishment

From as early as the Anglo-Saxon era, right up to 1965 when the death penalty was abolished, the main form of capital punishment in Britain was hanging. Initially, this involved placing a noose around the neck of the condemned and suspending them from the branch of a tree. Ladders and carts were used to hang people from wooden gallows, which entailed death by asphyxiation.

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In the late 13th century the act of hanging morphed into the highly ritualised practice of ‘drawing, hanging and quartering’ – the severest punishment reserved for those who had committed treason. In this process, ‘drawing’ referred to the dragging of the condemned to the place of execution. After they were hanged, their body was punished further by disembowelling, beheading, burning and ‘quartering’ – cutting off the limbs. The perpetrator’s head and limbs were often publicly displayed following the execution.

The execution of the Regicides of King Charles I, following the restoration of the monarchy, 19th October 1660. Parliamentary soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell are respectively hung, and hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Lithographed from a contemporary print. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The practice of being hung, drawn and quartered was generally reserved for those who had committed treason, says Seal. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Later, the ‘New Drop’ gallows – first used at London’s Newgate Prison in 1783 – could accommodate two or three prisoners at a time and were constructed on platforms with trapdoors through which the condemned fell. The innovation of the ‘long drop’ [a method of hanging which considered the weight of the condemned, the length of the drop and the placement of the knot] in the later 19th century caused death by breaking the condemned’s neck, which was deemed quicker and less painful than strangling.

Burning at the stake was another form of capital punishment, used in England from the 11th century for heresy and the 13th century for treason. It was also used specifically for women convicted of petty treason (the charge given for the murder of her husband or employer). Though hanging replaced burning as the method of capital punishment for treason in 1790, the burning of those suspected of witchcraft was practiced in Scotland until the 18th century.

Descriptive table of the execution of Bishop Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) and Father Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) preacher, reformer, condemned by Mary Tudor to die at the stake at Balliol College, Oxford, October 16, 1555. In the picture, the bishop-martyr and the preacher in the pulpit speak in Latin, the priest martyr, L. Willias and the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) are expressing themselves in English. Engraving from the "Book of Martyrs" by John Foxe, London 1563. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images).
Burning at the stake was used in England from the 11th century for heresy and from the 13th century for treason, says Seal. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

For other – perhaps luckier – souls and for those of noble birth who were condemned to die, execution by beheading (which was considered the least brutal method of execution) was used until the 18th century. Death by firing squad was also used as form of execution by the military.

An illustration of a group of supposed witches being beaten in front of King James VI and I, c1610. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The ‘Bloody Code’

Britain’s ‘Bloody Code’ was the name given to the legal system between the late-17th and early-19th century which made more than 200 offences – many of them petty – punishable by death. Statutes introduced between 1688 and 1815 covered primarily property offences, such as pickpocketing, cutting down trees and shoplifting.

Nevertheless, despite the ‘mushrooming’ of capital crimes, fewer people were actually executed in the 18th century than during the preceding two centuries. This paradox can be explained by the specificity of the capital statutes, which meant it was often possible to convict people of lesser crimes. For example, theft of goods above a certain value carried the death penalty, so the jury could circumvent this by underestimating the value of said goods.

Certain regions with more autonomy, including Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, were particularly reluctant to implement the Bloody Code and, by the 1830s, executions for crimes other than murder had become extremely rare.

British legal reformer and politician, Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818). "He succeeded in repealing the death penalty for some minor crimes and in ending the use of disembowelling convicted criminals while alive," says Seal. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British legal reformer and politician, Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818). “He succeeded in repealing the death penalty for some minor crimes and in ending the use of disembowelling convicted criminals while alive,” says Seal. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Vocal critics of the Bloody Code included early 19th-century MP Sir Samuel Romilly, who worked for its reform. A barrister by profession, he was appointed solicitor general [a senior law officer of the crown] and entered the House of Commons in 1806. He succeeded in repealing the death penalty for some minor crimes and in ending the use of disembowelling convicted criminals while alive. Later, liberal MP William Ewart brought bills which abolished hanging in chains (in 1834) and ended capital punishment for cattle stealing and other minor offences (in 1837).

In the 1840s, prominent figures including writers Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray highlighted what they believed to be the brutalising effects of public hanging. Far from encouraging solemnity, hangings were entertaining spectacles that whipped up the crowd’s passions, they argued – and the presence of the crowd was a potential source of unruliness. Dickens attended the executions of Maria and Frederick Manning at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, south London, in 1849. The pair had been convicted of the murder of a customs official named Patrick O’Connor, whom they had killed and buried under the kitchen floorboards at their London home. Their case was nicknamed by the press: “the Bermondsey Horror”. Dickens later wrote to The Times expressing his distaste for the “levity of the immense crowd” and the “thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind” who flocked there to watch the execution.

This engraving by William Hogarth shows the final instalment of a sequence of artworks called 'The Four Stages of Cruelty' (1751). In it, the fictional Tom Nero is being dissected for anatomical studies at Cutlerian theatre near Newgate prison after being hanged for murder. Nero looks like the Dead-Alive, as though he can see and smell his own executed body on the dissection table. The chief physician sits in the centre on a high-backed chair, resembling a high court judge. He is surrounded by various medical men, including penal surgeons, who did gallows work. The skeletons of dissected criminals were usually refused a Christian burial and so were displayed as specimens, as can be seen top left and top right. (Photo by Guildhall Library/Getty Images)

There was also an ongoing, more general campaign for the abolition of the death penalty on moral and humanitarian grounds. Many campaigners argued that the infliction of pain was interpreted as corrupting and uncivilised, and that the death penalty did not allow for the redemption of the criminal.

In 1861, the death penalty was abolished for all crimes except murder; high treason; piracy with violence; and arson in the royal dockyards. The ending of public execution in 1868 (by the Capital Punishment Act) further dampened abolitionism. But although anti-death penalty sentiment was not widespread, certain cases aroused public sympathy, especially those of women. Such cases included Florence Maybrick, who was reprieved from the gallows in 1889 amid doubts about the strength of evidence against her for poisoning her husband. Meanwhile, in 1899 a press campaign was launched on behalf of Mary Ann Ansell, who was accused of murdering her sister, which highlighted concerns about her mental soundness. Ansell was nevertheless hanged that year.

The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle, 1587. From ‘The Island Race’, a book written by Sir Winston Churchill and published in 1964 that covers the history of the British Isles from pre-Roman times to the Victorian era. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Capital punishment in the 20th century

From the first half of the 20th century, legislation further limited the application of capital punishment. The Infanticide Act of 1922 made the murder of a newborn baby by its mother a separate offence from murder and one which was not a capital crime. The death sentence for pregnant women was abolished in 1931. Both these changes brought the law into line with long-existing practice of not executing pregnant women or women convicted of infanticide, as did abolishing the death penalty for under-18s in 1933: no-one below this age had been executed in Britain since 1887.

Campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty once again gathered speed in the 1920s, in part galvanised by the execution of Edith Thompson in 1923. Thompson and her lover, Freddie Bywaters, were hanged for the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. The case was controversial because there was doubt surrounding the veracity of the evidence against Thompson (Bywaters had carried out the murder by stabbing Percy), and also because there were rumours that Edith’s hanging had been botched.

Grace Humiston was nicknamed 'Mrs Sherlock Holmes' by the American press. (Image courtesy of Brad Ricca)

Later that year (1923) the Howard League – a penal reform group that campaigned for humane prison conditions and for a reformatory approach to criminals – turned its attention to the abolition of the death penalty. The National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty joined the campaign in 1925. Then, in 1927 the Labour Party published its abolitionist ‘Manifesto on Capital Punishment’ under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald.

A few years later, in the 1930s, a wealthy businesswoman named Violet van der Elst became a well-known campaigner for abolition. She argued that capital punishment was uncivilised and harmful to society and that it was applied disproportionately to poor people. Her campaigns included organising the flight of aeroplanes trailing banners over the respective prison on the morning of an execution while she addressed crowds outside the prison gates through a loudhailer and leading them in prayer and song.

Violet Van Der Elst, one of Britain's most vehement campaigners against capital punishment. (Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Violet Van Der Elst, one of Britain’s most vehement campaigners against capital punishment. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Getty Images)

The first full parliamentary debate on capital punishment in the 20th century took place in 1929 and resulted in the establishment of a Select Committee on the issue. The committee reported its findings in 1930 and advocated an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty; however, the report was largely ignored, as the issue was deemed to be low on the political agenda as other social issues took priority.

Calls for post-war reform

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, capital punishment became an increasingly prominent political and social issue. The election of the Labour government in 1945 was highly significant, as a higher proportion of Labour MPs supported abolition than Conservatives. Sydney Silverman, Labour MP for Nelson and Colne, led the parliamentary campaign to end the death penalty and attempted (ultimately unsuccessfully) to get abolition included in the Criminal Justice Act of 1948. However, the Act did end penal servitude, hard labour and flogging, and established a reformist system for punishing and treating offenders.

During this period of increased attention to capital punishment, certain contentious cases generated public disquiet. The executions of John Christie and Derek Bentley in 1953, to name but two, were pivotal.

The English murderer John Reginald Halliday Christie (c1899–1953). His trial influenced legislation regarding the death penalty after he was found guilty of a murder for which a 25-year-old man had been hanged. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The English murderer John Reginald Halliday Christie (c1899–1953). His trial influenced legislation regarding the death penalty after he was found guilty of a murder for which a 25-year-old man had been hanged. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The first case concerns the murder of a woman and child: in 1950, Timothy Evans, a 25-year-old van driver originally from Merthyr Tydfil and living in London, was hanged for murdering his wife, Beryl, and their baby daughter, Geraldine. It remained a relatively low-profile case until 1953, when the remains of seven women were found at 10 Rillington Place, a multi-occupancy house in Notting Hill. The home, it transpired, had been shared concurrently by Evans and his family with a man named John Christie, whom Evans had insisted throughout his trial had been responsible for the murder of Beryl and Geraldine. Following Christie’s conviction and execution in 1953, it seemed indisputable that Evans had been innocent.

The second case concerns that of 19-year-old Derek Bentley, who was hanged in January 1953 for the murder of a police officer, Sidney Miles. In fact it was his friend Christopher Craig who had shot Miles during the pair’s bungled break-in in Croydon, Surrey, while Bentley was detained by another officer. However, Craig was only 16 years old at the time of the crime and was therefore ineligible for the death penalty. Doubts about the justice of Bentley’s execution were intensified by his reported low intelligence and his tender age of 19 years. Bentley was posthumously pardoned in 1998.

The Victorians' grisly fascination with murder. (Illustration by Ben Jones for BBC History Magazine)

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, is rightly remembered as having had an important influence upon views on the death penalty. Ellis was hanged in 1955 for the murder of her boyfriend, David Blakely, whom she shot outside a pub in Hampstead, London. Blakely had been violent and abusive towards Ellis and there was much public sympathy for the emotional strain that she had been under at the time. The murder was widely seen as a ‘crime of passion’ and therefore understandable, if not necessarily excusable.

Ruth Ellis and her friend Desmond Cussen, who supplied the gun with which she shot David Blakely. (Photo by Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo)

Until then women had almost always been reprieved from the death penalty, so there was widespread shock when Ellis was not. Her case attracted a huge amount of press attention and remains a highly-significant case connected to the abolition of the death penalty today, due to the emotional debate her case generated and its impact on British sentiment in the 1950s.

After being convicted of murdering her lover, Ruth Ellis (1926–55) became the last woman in Britain to be executed. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
After being convicted of murdering her lover, Ruth Ellis (1926–55) became the last woman in Britain to be executed. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Labour MP Sydney Silverman’s continued attempts to pass abolitionist legislation in 1956 foundered, but the following year the Homicide Act of 1957 restricted the death penalty’s application to certain types of murder, such as in the furtherance of theft or of a police officer. Up until this point, death had been the mandatory sentence for murder and could only be mitigated via reprieve – a political rather than legal decision. This change in legislation reduced hangings to three or four per year, but capital punishment still remained highly contested.

On 13 August 1964, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans became the last people to be hanged in Britain. They had murdered a taxi driver and doing so “in the furtherance of theft” made it a capital crime.

In 1965, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for an initial five-year period and was made permanent in 1969. The act had originally started as a private members’ bill introduced by Silverman and was sponsored by MPs from all three main parties, including Michael Foot and Shirley Williams from Labour; Conservative Chris Chataway and Liberal Jeremy Thorpe.

Capital punishment was in 1998 abolished for treason and piracy with violence, making Britain fully abolitionist, both in practice and in law, and enabling ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights.

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).

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This article was first published by History Extra in March 2018