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A history of capital punishment: 50 years since last hanging took place in the UK

The final executions – two men in separate gallows at 8am on 13 August 1964.

Updated, 13 August 8am

THE UK SAW its last capital punishment 50 years ago today.

On 13 August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen (21) and Gwynne Owen Evans (24) were hanged for the murder of 53-year-old laundry van driver John Alan West a few months previous.

The 8am executions were the last to take place in the UK. The men were hanged in separate prisons – one in Manchester, the other Liverpool – but the two gallow traps were opened at the same time.

The men did not know their names would go down in history books. In fact, neither did the judiciary. Other people were sentenced to death after 13 August 1964 but all were reprieved.

Technically, capital punishment was still legal under military law until 1998 but hanging was abolished with a vote by MPs in 1969.

BBC News reported at the time:

MPs have voted by a big majority for the permanent abolition of the death penalty for murder.A great cheer went up in the Commons as the final result was announced shortly before midnight. The voting was 343 in favour, 185 against, a majority of 158, to permanently end hanging in Britain.

Press Association Images has dusted off its archives to take a look back at the history of capital punishment in the UK.


Crime - Assassination - Spencer Perceval - London Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

The assassination of the Right Hon. Spencer Perceval – in the lobby leading to the House of Commons, while on his way to take part in a debate on the Orders in Council passed by Portland’s ministry, Perceval was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham.

Bellingham, who had been trying unsuccessfully to obtain government compensation for debts incurred while he was in Russia, gave himself up immediately. He was tried at the Old Bailey and condemned to death: he was executed on 18 May 1812. Perceval was buried in the family vault in St. Luke’s, Charlton, on 19 May 1812.


British Crime - Murder - Dr Crippen - Liverpool - 1910 Source: PA

A crowd surges forward to get a glimpse of Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen and Miss Ethel Le Neve as they arrive, under arrest, at Liverpool in August 1910.

Crippen was hanged for the murder of his wife Cora Henrietta Crippen, who he claimed had returned to America after a party in their house in January 1910. He then moved his lover, Le Neve, into the home where she was said to have started wearing the deceased’s clothing and jewellery.

Cora’s remains were eventually found buried under the brick floor of the basement of their family home.


British Crime - Murder - The Brides In The Bath  Case - Weymouth - 1910 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Henry Williams (George Joseph Smith) and his new wife Beatrice “Bessie” Mundy.
George Joseph Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer, was executed at Maidstone Gaol in Kent on 13 August 1915 for the murders of Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Elizabeth Lofty.

All three women were found dead in their bathtubs after marrying Williams, or whatever name he was using at the time. The case was one of the first to use similarities between murders to prove deliberation. It is also significant in the history of forensic pathology and detection.


Mono Print Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Edith Thompson was 28 years old when she was executed. A passage to explain why from the Watford Observer:

It is late evening on 3rd October, 1922, and Percy Thompson and his wife, Edith, are walking home from Ilford railway station, having been to the theatre in London’s West End. The streets are dark, lit only by the occasional gas lamp. Suddenly, a man emerges from the shadows and Percy Thompson falls to the ground. The man disappears into the darkness, leaving Mrs Thompson screaming that her husband has cut his head. A doctor is called and declares Mr Thompson has died of a haemorrhage. He was right, but it wasn’t discovered until an examination in the mortuary revealed he had been stabbed three times so severely death was instantaneous.

That man was Thompson’s lover, 20-year-old Freddie Bywaters.

Bywaters Court Case Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Despite there being no proof of her culpability in the murder, both Thompson and Bywaters were sentenced to death by prosecutors.


Casement trial Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

The photo above depicts the trial of Sir Roger Casement on Bow Street in 1916. He was executed for treason at Pentonville Prison the same year. His remains were disinterred in 1965 and buried in Ireland after requests from Dublin.


Politics - Fascist - William Joyce Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

William Joyce (24 April 1906 – 3 January 1946), the man generally associated with the nickname Lord Haw-Haw, was a fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster to the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He was controversially executed for treason by the British as a result of his wartime act

Politics - Fascist - William Joyce Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) on a stretcher, he was shot in the thigh when arrested, being carried into a British 2nd Army hospital.


Mono Print Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

This photo shows John George Haigh, a 39-year-old company director making his 5th appearance at Horsham magistrates court on 1 April 1949 for the opening hearing on a charge of murdering wealthy widow Mrs Oliver Durand-Deacon, 69. Evidence from 34 witnesses was heard by 12 magistrates.

Haigh became known as the Acid Bath Murderer who killed for profit. He was eventually prosecuted for six murders – however, he says that he killed nine people. Their bodies were destroyed in acid baths.

He was hanged on 10 August 1949.

UK Crime - Murder - John George Haigh - Execution - London - 1949 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

A crowd gathered outside the gates of Wandsworth prison to read the notices posted following his hanging.

British Crime - Murder - The Acid Bath Murders - John George Haigh Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images


Derek Bentley filer Source: PNR

Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953 following a strong campaign to have him pardoned.

Four-five years later, he would receive that pardon, much much too late.

He had initially been sentenced to death over the death of Pc Sidney Mills. The policeman died during a bungled break-in at a property in Surrey.

According to BBC News:

The court was told his co-defendant, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot but because he was still a juvenile in the eyes of the law he escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

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Mono Print Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images


Mono Print Source: Topham Picturepoint/Press Association Images

Another execution and another pardon arriving too late.

Timothy Evans was convicted of killing his wife Beryl Thorley and their baby Geraldine in 1950 and hanged in the same year.

Confused stories given to police by Evans, who had known intellectual difficulties, were used to prosecute and hang him. However, three years later a number of women’s bodies were discovered at the house where Evans and Thorley had lived. The murderer was fellow resident John Christie, who himself was hanged in 1953.

British Crime - Murder - 10 Rillington Place - London - 1953 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

It is understood that Christie abused the bodies of the women after they died and then left them around the house. The thigh bone of one of his victims was used to prop up a fence – a piece of evidence not noticed by police when they first visited the property.

Two inquiries in the 1960s led to a royal pardon for Evans following a strong campaign by his sister and journalist Ludovic Kennedy.

The case was used extensively as an example of why the death penalty should have been abolished in the UK.


Mono Print Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be sentenced to the death penalty in the UK.

She was executed for killing racing driver David Blakely. But the prosecution made a lot of the population uneasy, with large protests organised outside courtrooms and prisons. Thousands others signed petitions to ask for the death penalty not to be applied.

The former model shot the 25-year-old outside a pub. It has been said that their relationship with abusive with reports that he beat her up in fiercely jealous rows. There were also reports of a miscarriage following a punch in the stomach.

Here’s her story.

Source: PatheNewsreels/YouTube


British Crime - Murder - The A6 Murder - Ilford - 1961 Source: PA

James Hanratty, 25, was hanged on 4 April 1962 for the A6 murder in Bedfordshire in which scientist Michael Gregsten was shot dead and his mistress, Valerie Storie, shot five times and left paralysed.

The case did not close until this century when Hanratty’s guilt was confirmed.

His family and some opponents of capital punishment continued the campaign until 2002 when his body was exhumed and DNA testing confirmed he was the culprit.

First published 10 August

Poll: Do you agree with the death penalty?

Column: A view to a kill – Why lawyers and judges should witness executions

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