The fifteenth, and the last woman hanged by the British judicial system
Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England went to the gallows at Holloway Prison on July 13, 1955, aged 28. She was executed by Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant, Royston Rickard. Her case is memorable due to the fact that she was hanged, rather than having a life sentence. She would most likely have been forgotten in a few weeks by most people if not for this. Born in the seaside town of Rhyl in 1926, Ruth was brought up in Manchester. When she was seventeen she fell in love with an American airman, who was killed in 1944. She later gave birth to his son. In 1950 she married a divorced dentist with two sons, 41-yearold George Ellis. Unfortunately, George was an alcoholic who became violent when drunk. Ruth a jealous and possessive woman was convinced he was having an affair. Consequently, the marriage deteriorated rapidly. When Ruth gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, in 1951, George refused to acknowledge paternity, and they separated shortly afterwards.
Needing to keep two small children, she dyed her hair blonde and became a club-manageress and call girl. Whilst working in London’s Carrolls Club, in 1953 she met handsome, sophisticated David Blakely who was three years her junior. He was a well-mannered former public school boy, but also a hard-drinking racing driver with expensive tastes. Within weeks he had moved into her flat above the club, despite already being engaged to another girl.
After having a miscarriage in 1953, Blakely offered to marry her. She refused, but could not get rid of him. In 1954 Ellis had an affair with Desmond Cussen who was a friend of Blakely. Whilst they knew of each other’s involvement, nevertheless, for almost a year, she managed to keep them both satisfied. However, Blakely was not happy with the arrangement and started to get jealous. The beatings began and at various times she received a black eye and broken ankle. Blakely then started seeing other women and came home one night with love-bites on his back. Ruth threw him out. Next day he returned, offering marriage once again. Ruth refused, but still, they stayed together.
Blakely’s affairs with other women continued, and, on 6th April he told Ruth that he had to visit a mechanic who was in the process of building him a racing car. Ruth was immediately suspicious and followed him to a Hampstead flat. She received no response to her knocking on the door but she did hear a woman’s laughter coming from inside. The following day she returned to Hampstead and kept watch. Her suspicions were confirmed when Blakely finally emerged with his arm around a pretty young girl.
On the evening of the 10th April Ruth returned to Hampstead, arriving near the Magdala public house. Blakely left the pub with his friends at 9.20pm, ignoring Ruth who he noticed was waiting outside. Taking out a loaded revolver from her handbag, Ruth fired a shot at Blakely. This first shot missed him, ricocheted off a wall and injured a passer-by. Ellis fired a second shot and this hit the target and he fell face down on the roadside. Ruth Ellis then walked over to where Blakely lay and fired four more bullets into him. An off duty policeman came from the pub and took the revolver from her. She offered no resistance to the police officer. David Blakely was pronounced dead upon arrival at hospital.
On Monday 20th June 1955, Ruth’s trial began in court number one at the Old Bailey before Mr. Justice Havers. Her plea was not guilty because she specifically wanted her story told. Taking just fourteen minutes the jury found Ruth Ellis guilty and she was sentenced to death.
There was a huge storm of protest about the sentence and petitions were sent to the Home Secretary. However, it was useless and at 9am on Wednesday 13th July 1955 prisoner 9656, Ruth Ellis was escorted to the gallows in Holloway Prison. She drank a glass of brandy and was led to the trap by executioner Albert Pierrepoint.
As was customary, her body was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison. In the early 1970s the prison underwent an extensive programme of rebuilding, during which the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed. All were reburied in Brookwood Cemetery with the exception of Ruth Ellis, who was reburied in Saint Mary Churchyard in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The headstone in the churchyard was inscribed Ruth Hornby 1926–1955. In 1982 Ruth’s son Andy destroyed the headstone shortly before he committed suicide. The grave is now overgrown with yew trees.
On the 8th February 2002 an appeal was lodged with the Court of appeal. It was claimed that Ruth had suffered postmiscarriage depression, that her defence team were negligent and that she was persuaded to commit the crime by Desmond Cussen. The appeal asked that the murder conviction be changed to that of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, claiming that the prosecution and Judges at the time of her trial had misinterpreted the law.
The appeal was heard on 16th September 2003. The appeal was rejected. The court stated that, as diminished responsibility had not been introduced as a defence to manslaughter until the 1957 homicide act, this element was not available to the Judge at the time, also that provocation would need to be proved, but, provocation could only be used if, she had been under duress immediately prior to the shooting, not at a much earlier time.