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History of capital punishment in UK

Capital punishment in the United Kingdom was used from the creation of the state in 1707 until the practice was abolished in the 20th century. The last executions in the United Kingdom, by hanging, took place in 1964, prior to capital punishment being abolished for murder (in 1965 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland). Although not applied since, the death penalty was abolished in all circumstances in 1998. In 2004 the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights became binding on the United Kingdom, prohibiting the restoration of the death penalty for as long as the UK is a party to the Convention

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Hanging has been the principal form of execution in Britain since the 5th Century, although other methods such as drowning, burial alive, hurling from cliffs, beheading, boiling alive, burning at the stake and shooting have been used at various times

At the beginning of the 19th century you could still be hanged in Britain for offences such as stealing a sheep or shooting a rabbit. Even children as young as seven were sent to the gallows.

Background

Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that “[there is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England.” Known as the “Bloody Code“, at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including “being in the company of Gypsies for one month”, “strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age” and “blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime”. Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century, a notable example being the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching

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Whilst executions for murder, burglary and robbery were common, the death sentences for minor offenders were often not carried out. A sentence of death could be commuted or respited (permanently postponed) for reasons such as benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy of the offender or performance of military or naval duty. Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were carried out

32 of the 375 women executed between 1735 and 1799 were burnt at the stake.

Between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales. Ten German agents were executed during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, and 16 spies were executed during the Second World War under the Treachery Act 1940

Execution by firing squad in the United Kingdom 

Pte. Thomas Highgate was the first British soldier to be convicted of desertion and executed by firing squad during the First World War. In October 1916 Pte. Harry Farr was shot for cowardice, which was later suspected to be acoustic shock. Particularly since the 1960s, there has been some controversy concerning the 346 British and Imperial troops — including 25 Canadians, 22 Irish and 5 New Zealanders — who were shot for desertion, murder, cowardice and other offences during the war, some of whom are now thought to have been suffering from combat stress reaction or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“shell-shock”, as it was then known). This led to organisations such as the Shot at Dawn Campaign being set up in later years to try to uncover just why these soldiers were executed. The Shot at Dawn Memorial was erected to honour these soldiers.

Last executions (Hanging)

England and in the United Kingdom: on 13 August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, were executed for the murder of John Alan West on 7 April that year.

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Evans (left), Allen (right)

Scotland: Henry John Burnett, 21, on 15 August 1963 in Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan. on the morning of 15 August 1963 the 21-year old was executed on the UK’s newest gallows (built in 1962 to Home Office approved specifications) as a crowd of 200 people gathered outside the jail. Shortly after the execution, Burnett’s body was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of the prison, as was customary

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Northern Ireland: Robert McGladdery, 25, on 20 December 1961 in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast. He was convicted of the murder of Pearl Gamble, aged 19, whom he had battered, strangled and stabbed to death on 28 January 1961, and left her body at Upper Damolly, near Newry,County Down. It transpired the murderer and victim were distant cousins. McGladdery pleaded his innocence but was found guilty and sentenced to death on 16 October 1961. The evening before his execution he allegedly made a full confession of the murder.

Wales: Vivian Teed, 24, in Swansea on 6 May 1958, for the murder of William Williams, sub-postmaster of Fforestfach Post Office.

Last woman in UK: In 1955, 12 July: Ruth Ellis, aged 28, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. She was the 15th and youngest woman hanged in the 20th century.

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On Easter Sunday 1955, Ellis shot Blakely dead outside the Magdala public house in Hampstead, and immediately gave herself up to the police. At her trial, she took full responsibility for the murder and her courtesy and composure, both in court and in the cells, was noted in the press. She was hanged at Holloway Prison, London, by Albert Pierrepoint.

The case attracted controversy as the anti-hanging debate was gathering momentum and she might have won a reprieve had she taken advice to tone down her look. The picture of the attractive blonde murderess remains one of the iconic images of 1950s London.

Thirty seconds before 9 am on Wednesday 13 July, the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, and his assistant, Royston Rickard, entered the condemned cell and escorted Ruth 15 feet (4.6 m) to the execution room next door. She had been weighed at 103 pounds (47 kg) the previous day and a drop of 8 ft 4in was set. Pierrepoint carried out the execution in just 12 seconds and her body was left hanging for an hour.

Last death sentences ordered but not acted upon

Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom: Liam Holden in 1973 in Northern Ireland, for the capital murder of a British soldier during the Troubles. Holden was removed from the death cell in May 1973. In 2012 his conviction was quashed on appeal.

Liam Holden, now aged 58, was convicted and sentenced to hang for the murder of Private Frank Bell, an 18-year-old who had been a member of the regiment for just six weeks when he was shot in the head on patrol in West Belfast 40 years ago. Mr Holden says he confessed under duress after being held by members of the Parachute Regiment for nearly six hours who subjected him to water torture, hooded him and had a gun put to his head. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by then Northern Ireland Secretary William Whitelaw and he served 17 years behind bars before being released on licence in 1989. The death penalty for murder was abolished in Northern Ireland in 1973, four years after the rest of the UK.

England: David Chapman, who was sentenced to hang in November 1965 for the murder of a swimming pool nightwatchman in Scarborough. He was released from prison in 1979 and later died in a car accident.

Scotland: Patrick McCarron in 1964 for shooting his wife. He hanged himself in prison in 1970.

Wales: Edgar Black, who was reprieved on 6 November 1963. He had shot his wife’s lover in Cardiff.

Public support for reintroduction of capital punishment

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Since the death penalty’s abolition in 1965, there have been continued public and media calls for its reintroduction, particularly prompted by high-profile murder cases.

At the same time, there have been a number of miscarriages of justice since 1965 where someone convicted of murder has later had their conviction quashed on appeal and been released from prison, strengthening the argument of those who oppose the death penalty’s reintroduction. These include the Birmingham Six (cleared in 1991 of planting an IRA bomb which killed 21 people in 1974), the Guildford Four (cleared in 1989 of murdering five people in another 1974 IRA bombing), Stephen Downing (a Derbyshire man who was freed in 2001 after serving 27 years for the murder of a woman in a churchyard) and Barry George (who was freed in 2007 when his conviction for the 1999 murder of TV presenter Jill Dando was quashed on appeal).

Perhaps the first high-profile murder case which sparked widespread calls for a return of the death penalty was the Moors Murders trial in 1966, the year after the death penalty’s abolition, in which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of two children and a teenager in the Manchester area (they later confessed to a further two murders). Later in 1966, the murder of three policemen in West London also attracted widespread public support for the death penalty’s return. Other subsequent high-profile cases to have sparked widespread media and public calls for the death penalty’s return include “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe, convicted in 1981 of murdering 13 women and attacking seven others in the north of England, Roy Whiting, who murdered a seven-year-old girl in West Sussex in 2000, and Ian Huntley, a Cambridgeshire school caretaker who killed two 10-year-old girls in 2002

A November 2009 television survey showed that 70% favoured reinstating the death penalty for at least one of the following crimes: armed robbery, rape, crimes related to paedophilia, terrorism, adult murder, child murder, child rape, treason, child abuse, or kidnapping. However, respondents only favoured capital punishment for adult murder, the polling question asked by other organisations such as Gallup, by small majorities or pluralities: overall, 51% favoured the death penalty for adult murder, while 56% in Wales did, 55% in Scotland, and only 49% in England.

In August 2011, the Internet blogger Paul Staines—who writes a political blog as Guido Fawkes and heads the Restore Justice Campaign—launched an e-petition on the Downing Street website calling for the restoration of the death penalty for those convicted of the murder of children and police officers. The petition was one of several in support or opposition of capital punishment to be published by the government with the launch of its e-petitions website. Petitions attracting 100,000 signatures would prompt a parliamentary debate on a particular topic, but not necessarily lead to any Parliamentary Bills being put forward. When the petition closed on 4 February 2012 it had received 26,351 signatures in support of restoring capital punishment, but a counter-petition calling to retain the ban on capital punishment received 33,455 signatures during the same time period.

Also in August 2011, a representative survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that 65% of Britons support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Great Britain, while 28% oppose this course of action. Men and respondents aged over 35 are more likely to endorse the change

Notable executions in the United Kingdom (Last 100 years)

  • 1914, 8 September: Private Thomas Highgate was executed by firing squad, the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I.

  • 1915, 13 August: George Joseph Smith was hanged in Maidstone Prison for the pattern of serial killings known as the “Brides in the Bath Murders”.

  • 1916, 3 August: Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville for treason, based on his attempt to smuggle German weapons into Ireland in support of the unsuccessful Irish Easter Rising.

  • 1920, 2 November: Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers was shot for mutiny in India, the last member of the British Armed Forces to be executed for mutiny.

  • 1923, 9 January: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, in London’s Holloway and Pentonville Prisons respectively, for the murder of Thompson’s husband. The case was controversial because, although the two lovers had discussed the possible elimination of her husband in advance, Thompson did not directly participate in the murder for which she was hanged.

  • 1931, 3 January: Victor Betts for murder committed during the course of a robbery. The case had established that a person need not be present when a crime is committed to be regarded as an accessory after the fact.

  • 1940, 31 July: Udham Singh, an Indian independence activist, at Pentonville Prison. He had assassinated the Indian administrator Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

  • 1941, 15 August: Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was executed by firing squad, the last execution in the Tower of London.

  • 1946, 3 January: William Joyce, better known as “Lord Haw-Haw“, for treason in London’s Wandsworth Prison. He was an American citizen, but was convicted of treason because, as the holder of a British passport (albeit fraudulently obtained), he was held to have owed allegiance to the British sovereign. Theodore Schurch, hanged for treachery the next day, was the last person to be executed for an offence other than murder; he was executed at Pentonville. As a member of the armed forces he had been tried by court-martial.

  • 1947, 27 February: Walter Rowland in Manchester for the murder of Olive Balchin despite maintaining his innocence. While he had been awaiting execution, another man confessed to the crime. A Home Office report dismissed the latter’s confession as a fake, but in 1951 he attacked another woman and was found guilty but insane.

  • 1949, 12 January: Margaret Allen, aged 43, for killing a 70-year-old woman in the course of a robbery, the first woman to be hanged in Britain for 12 years.

  • 1949, 10 August: John George Haigh, the “acid-bath murderer”, at Wandsworth.

  • 1950, 9 March: Timothy Evans at Pentonville for the murder of his baby daughter Geraldine at 10 Rillington Place, North West London. He initially claimed to have killed his wife, but later withdrew the claim. A fellow inhabitant at the same address, John Christie, later found to be a sexual serial killer, gave key evidence against Evans. Christie was executed in 1953 for the murder of his own wife. Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966. In 2004 the Court of Appeal refused to consider overturning the conviction due to the costs and resources that would be involved. See John Christie (murderer).

  • 1950, 28 March: George Kelly at Liverpool for murder, but had his conviction quashed posthumously by the Court of Appeal in June 2003.

  • 1952, 25 April: Edward Devlin and Alfred Burns, for killing a woman during a robbery in Liverpool. They claimed that they had been doing a different burglary in Manchester, and others involved in the crime supported this. A Home Office report rejected this evidence. Huge crowds gathered outside Liverpool’s Walton Prison as they were executed.

  • 1952, 3 September: Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali seaman, in Cardiff for murder. The Court of Appeal quashed his conviction posthumously in 1998[56] after hearing that crucial evidence implicating another Somali was withheld at his trial.

  • 1953, 28 January: Derek Bentley at Wandsworth Prison as an accomplice to the murder of a police officer by his 16-year-old friend Christopher Craig. Craig, a minor, was not executed and instead served 10 years. Bentley was granted a posthumous pardon on 29 July 1993, and the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on 30 July 1998.

  • 1953, 15 July: John Reginald Halliday Christie at Pentonville for the murder of his wife Ethel. Christie was a serial killer and had murdered at least six other women (see also entry on Timothy Evans above).

  • 1954, 13 December: Styllou Christofi, aged 53, penultimate woman executed in Britain.

  • 1955, 12 July: Ruth Ellis, aged 28, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. She was the 15th and youngest woman hanged in the 20th century.

  • 1958, 6 May: Vivian Teed, 24, in Swansea, the last person to be executed in Wales.

  • 1958, 11 July: Peter Manuel, aged 31, second to last person to be hanged in HM Prison Barlinnie and the third to last to be hanged in Scotland.

  • 1959, 9 October: Francis Joseph Huchet, 31, in St Helier, Jersey, the last person to be executed in the Channel Islands.

  • 1959, 5 November: Guenther Podola, the last person to be hanged for the murder of a policeman.

  • 1960, 10 November: Francis Forsyth, the last 18-year-old to be executed in Britain.

  • 1960, 22 December: Anthony Miller, 19, in Glasgow‘s Barlinnie Prison, the last teenager to be executed in Britain.

  • 1961, 20 December: Robert McGladdery, 25, in Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, the last person to be executed in Northern Ireland, for the murder of Pearl Gamble in Newry.

  • 1962, 4 April: James Hanratty at Bedford after a controversial rape-murder trial. In 2002 Hanratty’s body was exhumed and the Court of Appeal upheld his conviction after Hanratty’s DNA was linked to crime scene samples.

  • 1963, 15 August: Henry Burnett, aged 21, at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan, the last hanging in Scotland.

  • 1964, 13 August: Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester for the murder of John Alan West, the last people executed in Britain

Albert Pierrepoint – Hangman

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Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) was a long-serving hangman in England. He executed at least 400 people, about half of them war criminals, including William Joyce (one of the men dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw“), and John Amery, whom he considered the bravest man he had ever hanged.

Pierrepoint was often dubbed the Official Executioner, despite there being no such job or title. The office of executioner had traditionally been performed by the local sheriff, who increasingly delegated the task to a person of suitable character, employed and paid only when required. Pierrepoint continued to work for years in a grocery near Bradford after qualifying as an Assistant Executioner in 1932 and a Chief Executioner in 1941, in the steps of his father and uncle.

Following his retirement in 1956, the Home Office acknowledged Pierrepoint as the most efficient executioner in British history. He subsequently became a publican in Lancashire and wrote his memoirs, in which he sensationally concluded that capital punishment was not a deterrent.

There is no official tally of his hangings, which some have estimated at more than 600; the most commonly accepted figure is 435.

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Pierrepoint allegedly became an opponent of capital punishment. The reason for this seems to be a combination of the experiences of his father, his uncle, and himself, whereupon reprieves were granted in accordance with political expediency or public fancy, and had little to do with the merits of the case in question. He had also hanged a slight acquaintance, James Corbitt, on 28 November 1950; Corbitt was a regular in his pub, and had sung “Danny Boy” as a duet with Pierrepoint on the night he murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy because she would not give up a second boyfriend. This incident, in particular, made Pierrepoint feel that hanging was no deterrent, particularly when most of the people he was executing had killed in the heat of the moment rather than with premeditation or in furtherance of a robbery.

Pierrepoint kept his opinions to himself on the topic until his 1974 autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, in which he wrote:

It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.

However, Pierrepoint’s opinion with regard to capital punishment remains controversial and the subject of debate, mostly due to a 1976 interview with BBC Radio Merseyside, in which the former executioner expresses his uncertainty towards the sentence, and reminds the interviewer that, when the autobiography was originally written, “things were going steady.” In addition, he states “Oh, I could go again”, when describing his reaction to particularly vile murder cases.

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