The Last People to Received the Death Penalty in Britain
The robbery threesome and the escort.
You might be forgiven for think that Britain has gone soft on criminals, by the fact we don’t have a death penalty. In some cases, this is completely true. The Moors Murderers would be an example where the death penalty would have been welcomed. The law was suspended whilst the pair were held on remand. They missed the hangman’s noose by months.
Harold Shipman is someone who deserved the death penalty, although he took his own life. With the introduction of the whole life order, the UK’s equivalent of life without parole, we have the balance right.
The death penalty was suspended in 1965 with the introduction of The Murder Act, it was completely abolished in 1969. It remained an option until 1998. The last woman to be hung in the UK was Ruth Ellis in 1955. The last people to be hung in Britain were Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans on 13th August 1964.
The murder of John Alan West
John West was a 53-year-old laundry van driver who was a confirmed bachelor. He was killed in his home during a failed robbery. When Gwynne Evans and his friend Peter Allen were arrested for the crime, both blamed each other. Despite this, they were both found guilty and hung on 13th August 1964.
When Evans came to lodge, with his friend Allen and his wife, they soon started towards a life of crime. Evans no stranger to crime, had been a career criminal. They started by removing the lead from the sides of houses and finished with murder.
During one robbery they stole a van and attempted to hide the theft by covering the license plates. When they were stopped the dirty plates led to a fine of £10, quite a substantial amount in those times. To pay for the fines the pair decided to rob West.
They decided to go for a drive, taking with them Allen’s wife and children. Whilst they were asleep, Evans went to knock on West’s door. It was thought West was homosexual and Evans had been flirting with him to gain entry. Either way, Evans was invited into the house and offered refreshments. He then asked West for £100 for sex and went into the bedroom where he removed his raincoat, placing it on the chair. It is unclear what happened then, but a neighbour was alerted at 3 am by a noise in the house. She looked out of the window and spotted a van fleeing the scene. She called the police who discovered the body of West. He had died from severe head injuries and a stab wound to the chest.
A search of the house revealed a raincoat in the bedroom, which wasn’t the correct fit for West. Within it was a medallion inscribed with the letters G.O Evans and an address in Liverpool. At the address in Liverpool, they met a 17-year-old who said she had met a Ginger Owen whilst staying with her brother in law. The police went to visit this man, who was none other than Allen. Ginger Owen was a well-known alias for Evans.
When the police entered the house, Evans was not there so they took Allen in for questioning. Evans was later picked up, where he incriminated himself by admitting he knew that a knife had been involved in the attack. The two turned on each other, each blaming the other for the murder. Allen’s wife would also play a key role in the evidence towards the couple as she had been in the car during the murder. She stated that both men had admitted to an equal role in the murder. It was later discovered that Evans was more than a lodger to Mrs Allen. She was keen that both her lover and husband took equal responsibility for the crime.
It took the jury three hours to find both men guilty and sentenced them to be hung. The men were both executed on the same day, in two different prisons. In a strange twist, medical records have since been found that establish Evans had a serious psychological problem. Had the defence used this, he would have escaped the hangman’s noose.
The murder of David Blakely
In contrast, the last woman to be hanged in the UK was in 1955. Ruth Ellis was an escort and nightclub hostess, who was convicted of murdering her lover David Blakely. Blakely was a racing car driver and engaged to another woman when he died. He was one of many relationships Ellis had.
Born Ruth Hornby, Ellis had fallen pregnant by a Canadian soldier, she had the pregnancy illegally terminated. She then met and married George Ellis, falling pregnant again. George refused to believe the daughter was his, thinking Ruth had been unfaithful, the marriage soon ended. Ellis gained a job in a nightclub known as Little Club. It was particularly popular with the racing world. It was in this club she met racing car driver David Blakely. They started a passionate, but volatile relationship. Blakely moved in with Ellis almost immediately, despite being engaged to another woman.
The relationship was not stable, Blakely was a heavy drinker and Ellis spent much of her time with other men. During one argument, Ellis suffered a miscarriage after Blakely punched her in the stomach. Ellis started seeing another man, whilst still seeing Blakely. During Easter weekend, Ellis had failed to contact Blakely and suspecting him of seeing another woman. In a pique of jealousy, she drove to the pub where she knew he was. She waited for him to leave and shot him, emptying up to four bullets into him.
The noise caused people to come out of the pub. One of these was off duty policeman, Alan Thompson, who arrested her. She was taken to the Hampstead police station where she made a full confession and was charged with murder. Whilst waiting for trial she was examined by several doctors who all confirmed that she was sane, with no evidence of mental health problems.
During the trial, she pleaded not guilty, so that the jury could hear her side of the story. She always knew she would be found guilty. Despite many people asking her to seek clemency in her sentence, she was hung on 13th July 1955. She was described as one of the calmest people ever to face execution. She stated when asked, that she would not ask for a reprieve as she was ‘a life for a life person.’ Possibly, no one would have heard of her name, had she not been the last woman hung in the UK.
With the absence of the death penalty in the UK. Killers such as the Moors Murderers, Rose West and Levi Bellfield have been permitted to live out their lives, although in confinement. Ian Brady talks in his book about the cruelty of being locked up for the rest of his life. He welcomed death. For him, the greater punishment was the absence of the death penalty. This is a factor that should be taken into account for those for and against capital punishment.
The permanent ban on the death penalty came into the UK through the European government. In August 2011, a survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that 65% of people wanted the death penalty reinstated. Whether the UK will consider reinstating the death penalty now it is not part of the EU remains to be seen.