Tuesday 23 June 2020

Looking back - Ruth Ellis

On 13 July 1955 the execution took place of Ruth Ellis (RE). She was the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom.


RE's family moved to London in 1943 when she was 17. She met a Canadian soldier at a dance and their subsequent relationship resulted in a baby boy being born. The father, a married man, returned to Canada. RE entered the world of escorting and London nightclubs. Various relationships with men took place over a number of years.

RE got a job at the 'Camera Club' where she posed in the nude so that men could photograph her. Later, she moved on to become
a hostess at the 'Court Club'. In 1950 she met George Ellis who was 21 years older than her and an alcoholic. They married and had a baby girl (Georgina) but neither trusted the other and a divorce followed after about a year.

RE then met racing driver David Blakely (DB). She continued to work as a hostess and had further relationships including one with a former Lancaster bomber pilot Desmond Cussen (DC). RE went to live with DC but her relationship with DB continued and he was violent toward her. She suffered bruising and a miscarriage which she believed had been caused by DB hitting her in the stomach.


Those are the key points in RE's life up to the 10 April 1955 (Easter Sunday).

That evening she went out to find DB and took a loaded gun with her. He was found drinking with a friend in a public house in Hampstead. RE waited outside and when DB came out she shot him. A number of shots were fired and one missed DB but hit a passerby (Mrs Gladys Yule) causing minor injury. Another shot hit DB as he tried to run away. As he lay on the ground RE shot him at close range. He died before reaching hosiptal.

In a documentary (Fred Dinenage: Murder Casebook: Ruth Ellis) it was claimed that RE then turned the gun on to herself but it jammed.

She was arrested by an off duty police officer who happened to be at the pub. The Police officer heard her say that she was guilty but 'a little confused.'

In her statement to the Police, RE said that she took a gun hidden in her handbag. The gun had been given to her about 3 years previously by a man whose name she did not remember. 'It was security for money but I accepted it as a curiosity.' She went to on to say - 'When I put the gun in my bag I intended to find David and shoot him.' The statement continued:
    'I took a taxi to Tanza Road and as I arrived, David's car drove away from Findlater's address. I dismissed the taxi and walked back down the road to the nearest pub where I saw David's car outside. I waited outside until he came out with a friend I know as Clive, David went to his car to open it. I was a little way away from him. He turned and saw me and then turned way from me and I took the gun from my bag and I shot him. He turned round and ran a few steps round the car. I thought I had missed him so I fired again. He was still running and I fired a third shot. I don't remember firing any more but I must have done."

The 2003 Court of Appeal judgment (see link below) states that she had fired all six of the rounds that were in the gun and that four of them struck DB. This is somewhat odds with the view that she turned the gun on to herself but it jammed. I have not been able to find an explanation to resolve this point but it remains possible that she may have tried to shoot herself without realising that she had fired all the ammunition. We may never know.

It seems that no solicitor was present when RE was interviewed by the Police and she was unrepresented when she first appeared at the Magistrates' Court. Medical examinations took place but failed to find evidence of physical or mental illness.


Her trial began at the Old Bailey on 20 June 1955 before Mr Justice Havers and a jury. Her lawyers wished to play down her glamorous appearance but she appearedin court with coiffured blonde hair and was wearing a black suit and white silk blouse. The prosecution team was Christmas Humphreys QC, Mervyn Griffith Jones QC and Jean Southworth.  The defence team was Aubrey Melford Stevenson QC, Sebag Shaw QC and Peter Rawlinson. (Legal Hackette tells us that Jean Southworth was the 6th female to be appointed QC. In this article Bernard Richmond QC tells us that when he was in sixth form he went to the Old Bailey and watched Jean Southworth QC - 'she was a proper advocate, a real class act.').

RE wanted to plead guilty but was persuaded by the defence to plead not guilty. Although it was clear that she had killed DB, the defence thought that a defence of provocation might succeed. No defence of diminished responsbility existed in English law at the time.

In her defence she testified that “He (David) only hit me with his fist or hands" - “I bruise easily.” She also described her recent miscarriage: “A few weeks or days previously, I do not know which, David got very violent. I do not know whether that caused the miscarriage or not. He thumped me in the tummy.”

When the prosecuting counsel, Christmas Humphreys asked her, "Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do" she replied, "It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him." So the jury were presented with an admission to the shooting plus the all important admission of intent to kill.

Melford Stevenson QC made submissions regarding the defence of provocation. Mr. Justice Havers said he had given careful consideration to these but ruled that there was "insufficient material, even upon a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused, to support a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation."

Melford Stevenson said that in view of that ruling it would not be appropriate for him to say anything more to the jury.

The jury were then brought back into Court and in their presence Melford Stevenson said, "In view of the ruling which your Lordship has just pronounced I cannot now with propriety address the jury at all, because it would be impossible for me to do so without inviting them to disregard your Lordship's ruling."

Christmas Humphreys indicated that in the circumstances, he would not make a final speech to the jury either.

The Judge then summed up. After reviewing the evidence for the prosecution, his Lordship said: "You will remember that when Mr. Stevenson made his opening address to you he told you that he was going to invite you to reduce this charge of killing from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.

"The House of Lords has decided* that where the question arises whether what would otherwise be murder may be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation, if there is not sufficient material, even upon a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused, that a reasonable person could be driven by transport of passion and loss of control to use violence and a continuance of violence, it is the duty of a judge, as a matter of law, to direct the jury that the evidence does not support a verdict of manslaughter. I have been constrained to rule in this case that there is not sufficient material to reduce this killing from murder to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation."  “It is therefore not open to you to bring in a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.”

* Havers J was referring to the House of Lords decision in Holmes v DPP [1946] A.C. 588

Referring to the evidence for the defence, the Judge said: "This Court is not a court of morals, this is a criminal court and you should not allow your judgement to be swayed or your minds to be prejudiced in the least degree against the accused because according to her own admission she had committed adultery, or because she was having two persons at different times as lovers. Dismiss those matters wholly from your minds."

Mr. Justice Havers continued, "But I am bound to tell you this, that even if you accept every word of Mrs Ellis' evidence there does not seem to be anything in it which establishes any sort of defence to the charge of murder."  The jury then retired and not surprisingly found Ruth guilty after deliberating for only 23 minutes. It was hard to see how any other verdict was possible.

The macabre but time-honoured spectacle of passing the death sentence then followed. The imposition by the judge of the death penalty was mandatory. But there was the possibility of a repireve being granted by the Home Secretary ...

Public reaction:

There was widespread disquiet about the case with a petition for clemency from over 50,000 people. The Home Secretary - Gwilym Lloyd George - rejected it.

When I first wrote this post I commented that we did know the Home Secretary's reasoning. In capital cases that was generally the position. The Home Secretary's reasons were not published or presented to Parliament but my attention was drawn to a book by the late Fenton Bresler - "Reprieve" published by George G. Harrap and Co. Ltd in 1965. Chapter 22 of the book covers the Ruth Ellis case. Bresler was not especially sympathetic to Ellis. He wrote that her name would live in the history of capital punishment. "There was little to commend her" - "An ex-call-girl and drinking club manageress, she shot dead in the street her lover, an even more unpleasant young man called David Blakely."

When writing his book, Bresler interviewed Lloyd George who said that he was concerned with the safety of the public - "We cannot have people shooting off firearms in the street!" "As long as I was Home Secretary I was determined to ensure that people could use the streets without fear of a bullet." Bresler noted the "odd paradox" that had Ellis been a "more accurate shot she probably would not have been hanged. If a stray bullet had not caught Mrs Yule I am almost certain that Lord Tenby would have reprieved her." (Lloyd George became Viscount Tenby in 1957). Bresler ended his chapter on the Ruth Ellis case by writing - 'But is it so reprehensible to want to protect innocent passers-by from erratic marksmen settling private scores in public places?'

The day before her execution, RE made a statement to solicitor Victor Mishcon. She revealed that Cussen had supplied the gun and that he had driven her to the murder scene. This was contrary to the statement she had give earlier to the Police but it seems that the Police never asked Cussen about either the gun or his whereabouts on the evening of the shooting. He later left the UK to live in Australia where he died in 1991. His avoidance of justice is one of the remarkable features of this case. Of course, RE's execution removed any possibility of her ever giving evidence against him.

The Home Secretary refused a reprieve. Thus, on 13 July 1955 the executioner took her from the condemned cell. It is reported that she smiled at the executioner - Albert Pierrepoint. She was dropped a little over 8 feet. The body was buried within the grounds of Holloway Prison. In the 1970s she was reinterred in Amersham. (Similar action was eventually taken at other prisons).

The case strengthened public support for the abolition of the death penalty but public opinion was far from being overwhelmingly abolitionist. It took 10 more years before it was abolished for murder. Complete abolition (for treason and some military offences) only came with the Human Rights Act 1998 which entered into force on 1 October 2000.  45 executions took place in the UK in the years 1955 to 1965.

Reform and abolition:

In 1957 the Homicide Act came into law - see the Act in its original form.

This introduced several important reforms.

1. The common law doctrine of "constructive malice" was abolished - section 1.

"Where a person kills another in the course or furtherance of some other offence, the killing shall not amount to murder unless done with the same malice aforethought (express or implied) as is required for a killing to amount to murder when not done in the course or furtherance of another offence."

2. A partial defence of diminished responsibility was introduced into the law of England and Wales - section 2.

"Where a person kills or is a party to the killing of another, he shall not be convicted of murder if he was suffering from such abnormality of mind (whether arising from a condition of arrested or retarded development of mind or any inherent causes or induced by disease or injury) as substantially impaired his mental responsibility for his acts and omissions in doing or being a party to the killing."

This defence was redefined by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 - see the amended section 2.  A successful plea of diminished responsibility has the result that the defendant is convicted of manslaughter.

3. The common law defence to murder of provocation was modified by section 3

"Where on a charge of murder there is evidence on which the jury can find that the .person charged was provoked (whether by things done or by things said or by both together) to lose his self-control, the question whether the provocation was enough to make a reasonable man do as he did shall be left to be determined by the jury; and in determining that question the jury shall take into account everything both done and said according to the effect which, in their opinion, it would have on a reasonable man."

From 4 October 2010, this defence was replaced by a new defence of Loss of Control set out in section 54 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. A successful plea of loss of control has the result that the defendant is convicted of manslaughter. The common law defence of provocation was abolished.

4. A defence of suicide pact was also introduced - section 4. This was amended by the Suicide Act 1961 and continues to part of the law. The effect of this defence is to reduce a conviction to one of manslaughter.

5.  The Act did NOT abolish capital punishment but section 5 created a distinction between capital and non-capital murders. Section 5 defined five categories of capital murder including (a) any murder done in the course or furtherance of theft and (b) any murder by shooting or by causing an explosion. A further form of capital murder existed under section 6 - Penalty for repeated murders.

The death penalty for murder was finally abolished by the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965 and so the discreditable distinction between capital and non-capital murder was removed. After abolition, the mandatory life sentence applied to all convicted of murder and that remains the position today.

The death penalty was retained in the UK for certain offences including treason and a number of military offences. Complete abolition finally came with the Human Rights Act 1998.


Ellis had two young children.  Her son, Andy, killed himself in his 20s. Her daughter, Georgina, RE's child by George Ellis was adopted and died, aged 50, of cancer.

In 2003 the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) - Kay LJ, Silber and Leveson JJ - decided an appeal brought by the Criminal Cases Review Commission - Ruth Ellis v R [2003] EWCA. The appeal was dismissed. Kay LJ said - (para 89) - (My emphasis added)

'For the reasons that we have given we heard no new evidence and it follows from our earlier conclusions that we are satisfied that this appeal is without merit. Mrs Ellis was properly convicted of murder according to the law at the time when she committed her offence. If her crime were committed today, we think it likely that there would have been an issue of diminished responsibility for the jury to determine but we are in no position to judge what the jury's response to such an issue might be. As we have made clear, it is no part of our function to enter into the debate as to whether Mrs Ellis should have been spared execution.'

The Court of Appeal's judgment could have ended there but the judges went on to add paragraph 90 where they question whether considering an appeal so long after the event was a sensible use of the court's limited resources.

The Ellis appeal was not brought by mere busybodies but was brought by an official body purposely set up by Parliament to investigate miscarriages of justice and empowered to bring appropriate cases to the Court of Appeal. In my view the court's observation in paragraph 90 was unnecessary. If further resources are required then they ought to be made available. Here is the paragraph in full -

'We would wish to make one further observation. We have to question whether this exercise of considering an appeal so long after the event when Mrs Ellis herself had consciously and deliberately chosen not to appeal at the time is a sensible use of the limited resources of the Court of Appeal. On any view, Mrs Ellis had committed a serious criminal offence. This case is, therefore, quite different from a case like Hanratty [2002] 2 Cr App R 30 where the issue was whether a wholly innocent person had been convicted of murder. A wrong on that scale, if it had occurred, might even today be a matter for general public concern, but in this case there was no question that Mrs Ellis was other than the killer and the only issue was the precise crime of which she was guilty. If we had not been obliged to consider her case we would perhaps in the time available have dealt with 8 to 12 other cases, the majority of which would have involved people who were said to be wrongly in custody. The Court of Appeal's workload is an ever-increasing one and recent legislation will add substantially to that load. Parliament may wish to consider whether going back many years into history to re-examine a case of this kind is a use that ought to be made of the limited resources that are available. The exercise of the CCRC's discretion in deciding whether to refer cases is one that is a frequent source of challenge by way of Judicial Review and it may be that an express power to consider factors of this kind would enable the CCRC to take into account more readily the public interest in making its decision.'

Links of interest:

History Extra - Ruth Ellis

The Guardian 19 January 1999 - Ruth Ellis: the other confession

The Guardian 12 September 2003 - My sister Ruth

Deathpenaltyproject - Abolition of the Death Penalty in the UK: How it happened and why it still matters

University of Durham - Ruth Ellis and public contestation of the death penalty

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