On Easter Sunday 1955 a shooting outside a pub in Hampstead started a controversy that is still being argued about 60 years later. PETER FROST investigates
This Easter, just like every Easter, Londoners and visitors to the capital will take themselves to Hampstead Heath for a quick thrill on the fun fair or simply a peaceful stroll.
After the heath what could be more natural than an evening drink in one of Hampstead’s popular pubs.
One of the nearest is the Magdala in South Hill Park just off the heath. This Easter the Magdala is closed, promising to reopen any day now.
By contrast 60 years ago, on Easter Sunday evening, the bar of the Magdala was busy with the usual mixture of locals and thirsty walkers back from the heath.
Chief subject of barroom gossip was the still fresh scandal involving a local murder.
Ms Styllou Christofi (below), who had lived a few houses from the pub, had been hanged for the murder of her daughter-in-law at her home just a few months before.
Christofi had been the last woman hanged in England but events that evening outside this Hampstead pub would rewrite those particular pages of legal and political history for ever.
Drinking in the pub was David Blakely, an up-and-coming racing driver who had just had a try-out for the year’s Le Mans 24-hour race, and his friend Clive Gunnell.
At about 10.30pm a taxi pulled up in Tanza Road a quarter of a mile from the pub. A young woman got out. Ruth Ellis was looking for her boyfriend. She thought he would be at the flat of his friends Anthony and Carole Findlater but as she arrived she saw his car drive away.
Ellis guessed where he might be and these thoughts were confirmed after a short walk to the Magdala pub. Parked outside was Blakely’s car.
As Blakely and Gunnell emerged from the pub, she stepped out of a newsagent’s doorway and said: “Hello, David.” He ignored her.
As Blakely fumbled for his car keys, Ellis took a revolver from her handbag and fired five shots.
The first shot missed and Blakely sought shelter behind his car. Ellis’s second shot felled him and she then stood over him and fired three more bullets at point-blank range.
The gun then seems to have jammed before Ellis finally got off her sixth and final shot. This one ricocheted off the road and hit the thumb of passerby Gladys Yule.
Ellis, in a state of shock, asked Blakely’s friend Gunnell: “Will you call the police, Clive?”
Off-duty policeman Alan Thompson took the still-smoking gun from her and put it in his coat pocket as he made the arrest.
She told Thompson: “I am guilty, I’m a little confused,” and at Hampstead police station she made a detailed confession and was charged with murder.
Today, investigators would have probed deeper. Where did she get the gun? Had her other lover Desmond Cussens provided the weapon and encouraged the shooting out of jealousy? Was Ellis suffering from post-miscarriage depression? Had Blakely’s violent abuse provoked the killing?
Today the answers to these and other questions might result, depending on the judge, in a much more humane outcome — help and support rather than the noose. Sadly our jails still house female victims of domestic abuse who had the temerity to fight back.
But these were harsher, simpler times. Sixty years ago it didn’t take long for the legal process to bring Ellis to trial, find her guilty and pronounce the death penalty.
Thousands protested at the sentence but home secretary Major Lloyd George, a Liberal and Conservative MP (and you thought Cameron and Clegg invented that nonsense), refused to reprieve Ellis. Like all his Cabinet, he was a keen supporter of hanging.
Just before 9am on Wednesday July 13 1955 the official hangman Albert Pierrepoint walked Ellis from her cell to the gallows in Holloway Prison.
Hundreds joined the protest outside the prison on the morning of the execution.
They waited one minute, expecting a reprieve but it never came. Ellis went to her death. She was just 28.
Ellis would be the last woman to be hanged in Britain and her case, as much as any other, would lead to the huge public outcry that would finally abolish capital punishment a decade later.
Sadly it took many tragic, wasted judicial deaths and a good few miscarriages of justice, including Ellis’s, to persuade the Establishment to finally see sense.
Ruth Ellis – A short and tragic life
Ruth Neilson was born in Rhyl in October 1926. She spent her childhood in Basingstoke. In 1941, at the height of the Blitz, her family moved to London.
At 17 Neilson became pregnant. The father was a married Canadian soldier who soon disappeared. She gave birth to a son, Andy.
Various factory and clerical jobs were soon replaced by better money as a nightclub hostess, nude model and occasional prostitute.
She worked at the Court Club in Mayfair where she became close friends with Diana Dors. Club manager Morris Conley demanded sexual favours in return for a job. Early in 1950, Neilson became pregnant and had her first backstreet abortion.
On November 8 1950, aged 24, she married 41-year-old divorced dentist and Court Club regular George Ellis. He was a violent jealous alcoholic. She left him several times but usually came back.
In 1951, while four months pregnant, she appeared in a Diana Dors film Lady Godiva Rides Again. A co-starlet was Joan Collins — neither young actress got a credit. Ruth is the girl in the dark swimsuit.
When daughter Georgina was born, George denied paternity and they separated.
By 1953, Ellis was managing a nightclub popular with racing drivers. She met Blakely (below), three years her junior, through racing driver Mike Hawthorn.
Blakely seemed a well-mannered, posh ex-public schoolboy. He was, in fact, a hard-drinking spoilt brat.
Within weeks he moved into Ellis’s flat above the club. Ellis became pregnant for the fourth time. Again a backstreet abortion solved the problem.
She started to sleep with rich businessman and ex-RAF pilot Desmond Cussens. When Ellis was sacked as manager of the club, she moved in with Cussens.
The relationship with Blakely also continued and became increasingly violent and embittered as Ellis and Blakely both continued liaisons with other people.
Blakely proposed marriage and she agreed, but another pregnancy ended with a miscarriage when an angry Blakely punched her in the stomach.
In different ways their two lives both ended on the pavement outside the Magdala on Easter Sunday 60 years ago.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 4 April 2015.