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PETER FROST reminds us that half a century ago Britain was still hanging criminals

Exactly half a century ago, at 8am on August 13 1964, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were hanged — Evans at Strangeways, Manchester, Allen at Walton Prison, Liverpool. The two were the last men to hang in Britain.

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The following year the death penalty was abolished.

On the morning of the executions anti-capital punishment protesters filled the streets around both prisons. As the prison clocks chimed eight the official hangmen pulled the levers to open the traps and Evans and Allen dropped until the rope noose halted their fall by neatly breaking their necks.

Evans, aged just 24, was in fact John Robson Walby, born at Maryport, Cumberland. Early in life he was sent to a mental colony in Cockermouth. He had many attempts at enlisting in the forces but each time he was discharged as mentally and physically unfit.

He even changed his name but with no success. Under both names he had various convictions for petty crimes.

Peter Anthony Allen was just 21 and born at Wallasey. He married a cinema usherette when they were both in their teens. He seems a little brighter than Evans, who came to lodge with Allen and his wife in Preston. The two men carried out petty crimes together.

There seems little doubt about the facts of the case. Allen and Evans had stolen a car and driven to see John West, a driver for a local laundry. They believed West would have some money from his rounds.

At 3am a neighbour was awoken by a noise in West’s house. He saw a car disappearing down the street. He took the number.

The neighbour called the police, who found West dead from severe head injuries and a stab wound to the chest. In the house the police found a raincoat. A medallion engraved “G.O. Evans” was in the pocket. There were other clues too, just as incriminating.

Witnesses identified Evans and Allen and linked them both to the stolen black 1959 Ford Prefect and to the murder scene at West’s house.

The executions of Evans and Allen would be the last in England. Informed opinion was growing against what many saw as judicial murder.

Others believed that some jurors would always be reluctant to bring in a guilty verdict, however convincing the evidence, if the sentence would be fatal and so irreversible.

Many Tory backwoodsmen would continue campaigning to get hanging back on the statute book until the ’80s. Thatcher argued for yet another vote in the commons in ’79 for instance. Some Tories and their close cousins in Ukip are campaigning still.

Nor should we forget Thatcher and the Conservative students’ strident call for Nelson Mandela and his comrades to be hung high as terrorists.

Thatcher and her attorney general Michael Havers, constantly called for the rope for what they described as Irish terrorists, large numbers of whom were later proved innocent.

While the ’60s debate in public and in Parliament went on, several high-profile cases whipped up the popularity of capital punishment with ordinary people. Most opinion polls indicated a large majority in favour of keeping the ultimate punishment.

Multiple murders of children by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between 1963 and ’65 made headlines as the Moors Murders and hardened opinions in favour of the death penalty.

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In August 1966, when three policemen were shot dead at Shepherds Bush in west London, women screamed at Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins to “Bring back the rope!” when he visited the crime scene.

Still, many campaigners against capital punishment thought the battle had been won. In fact there had been no other hangings in 1964 and only two in the whole of 1963.

Most of the media and even the police and the judiciary were expecting Tory home secretary Henry Brooke to reprieve Evans and Allen but it never came.

Brooke was a dyed in the wool Tory hanger and flogger from a high Tory family and he wanted to keep the death penalty as long as possible. Even he softened his position slightly as the debate raged on.

Much of Britain had already given up hanging. 

Scotland’s last hanging was in 1963, Wales had its last execution in 1958, Northern Ireland in 1961.

In November 1965, Parliament suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for a period of five years and in December 1969 the House of Commons permanently abolished capital punishment.

The case of Ruth Ellis

The last woman to hang in Britain was Ruth Ellis. Ruth had been a victim all her life, driven to prostitution and alcoholism by a series of abusive relationships.

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On Easter Sunday 1955 she shot her spoiled, bullying playboy lover David Blakely dead outside the Magdala public house in Hampstead.

Just 10 days before, the charming Blakely had punched her in the stomach to induce a miscarriage. We can only imagine the physical and mental turmoil she must have been in.

What she needed was serious medical and psychiatric treatment. Instead Albert Pierrepoint, the official hangman, put a noose round her neck at Holloway Prison and condemned her to eternal damnation.

The case of Timothy Evans

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Timothy Evans, a 24-year-old illiterate van driver, was found guilty of the murder of his baby daughter Geraldine. Police believed he had also murdered his wife Beryl but one guilty verdict was enough to hang him. The murders occurred at 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill.

The main witness, who lived in the same house, was impeccable. John Reginald Halliday Christie was ex-army and had even been a special constable. His evidence sent Evans to his death in 1950. Justice had clearly been done.

Then in 1953 a new tenant at 10 Rillington Place started to decorate his flat. What he found horrified a nation. Boarded up in cupboards, under floors and buried in the garden were no less than six women’s bodies.

Christie admitted he was a rapist, an abortionist and that he had killed the women, at least two of them when he was still a policeman. He also admitted killing Evan’s wife Beryl.

Christie was hanged on July 15 1953, on the same Pentonville Prison gallows as Evans had been three years earlier.

At first the government tried a white-wash to protect the police’s handling of the Evans case. Finally Evans was granted a posthumous pardon in 1966.

It didn’t help Tim Evans much but it did add another convincing argument against the death penalty.

Let Him Have It, Chris

Derek William Bentley was just 20 when he was hanged early in 1953.

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Bentley had severe learning difficulties and other mental health issues. He was hanged for the murder of a police officer on the roof of a warehouse in south London.

Bentley didn’t kill the officer, indeed he was in the firm hands of the police on the roof when the murder was actually committed. Sixteen-year-old Christopher Craig pulled the trigger. He was too young to hang.

Just before the killing Bentley shouted out: “Let him have it, Chris.” Was this an appeal for his friend to give up the gun or to fire that fatal shot? We shall never know.

Bentley was convicted as a party to the murder under a legal principle known as joint enterprise that make people equally guilty, whichever one actually carries out an illegal act.

The Bentley case led to a 45-year-long campaign to win him a  posthumous pardon. It was granted in 1998.

This feature appeared in the Morning Star 13 August 2014

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