A History of Capital Punishment in Britain

By Tim Lambert

Hanging was the most common method of execution in England from Saxon times until the 20th century.

At first, the criminal stood on a ladder, which was pulled away, or on a cart, which was moved. From the 18th century, he stood on a trapdoor. Sometimes the hanged man broke his neck when he fell but until the 19th century, he was usually strangled by a rope. In the 18th century and the early 19th century hanging was the punishment for many crimes, not just murder (although in reality people convicted of lesser crimes were often reprieved).

In 1752 a law in England stated that the body of a person hanged for any crime would be handed over to surgeons to be dissected. To us, it would not seem like a severe punishment. However, to people of the time, the idea that after their death their bodies would be cut up was terrifying. It added an extra punishment to hanging.

During the early 19th century the number of crimes punishable by death was greatly reduced e.g. in 1829 a man named Thomas Maynard was the last person in Britain to be hanged for forgery. (Hanging as a punishment for forgery was abolished in 1836). After 1861 capital punishment was only retained for 4 crimes, murder, piracy, arson in the Royal Dockyards, and high treason.

The last woman hanged in public in Britain was Frances Kidder in 1868. The last man to be hanged in public was Michael Barrett also in 1868. The same year, 1868 public executions in Britain were abolished. Then in 1908 hanging was abolished for people under the age of 16. In 1933 the minimum age for hanging was raised to 18.

From the 1930s opposition to capital punishment was led by a wealthy woman named Violet Van der Elst. In 1937 she wrote a book called On the Gallows about the subject.

Furthermore, in the mid-20th century, public opinion in the UK gradually turned against capital punishment. An innocent man called Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950. (Evans was supposed to have murdered his wife and baby daughter. (In fact, it was later found out that a man named John Reginald Christie murdered them and several other women. Evans was pardoned in 1966). Another innocent man called Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953. (His conviction for murder was overturned in 1998).

The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis in 1955 and her case caused controversy. Ruth shot her lover David Blakely but she may not have been in her right mind at the time. Then in 1956, Diana Dors starred in an anti-capital punishment film called Yield To The Night.

In 1957 a compromise was reached on capital punishment. The Homicide Act abolished hanging for certain kinds of murder. It was still allowed for murder during a theft, by shooting, or explosion. Capital punishment was also kept for the murder of a police officer or prison officer while on duty. (The last man to be hanged for killing a policeman in the UK was Gunther Podola in 1959). A person who was convicted of more than one murder could also be hanged. The Homicide Act also allowed people to plead not guilty to murder but guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.

The last people to be hanged in the UK were two men, Peter Allen and Gwynne Jones who were hanged on the same day in 1964. In Britain, the death penalty for murder was abolished for an experimental period of 5 years in 1965. It was abolished permanently in 1969. Free votes were held on the restoration of capital punishment between 1979 and 1994 but each time was rejected.

However capital punishment could in theory still be used for other crimes. Capital punishment for arson in the Royal Dockyards was abolished in 1971. In 1998 it was abolished for treason and piracy with violence. (The last person hanged for treason in Britain was Theodore Schurch in 1946). In 1999 the British Home Secretary signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, formally ending capital punishment in the UK.

Amnesty International – death penalty