Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Execution Day: Ruth Ellis 1926-1955 Last Woman Executed in UK

Ruth Ellis (9 October 1926–13 July 1955), née Neilson, was the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom. She was convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely, and hanged at Holloway Prison, London by Albert Pierrepoint.[2]


Ellis was born in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl, the third of six children in her childhood her family moved to Basingstoke. Her mother, Elisaberta (Bertha) Cothals, was a Belgian refugee; her father, Arthur Hornby, was a cellist from Manchester who had spent much of his time playing on Atlantic cruise liners. Arthur changed his surname to Neilson after the birth of Ruth's elder sister Muriel.

Ellis attended Fairfields Senior Girls' School in Basingstoke,[1] leaving when she was fourteen to work as a waitress. Shortly afterwards, in 1941 at the height of the Blitz, the Neilsons moved to London. In 1944, 17-year-old Ruth became pregnant by a married Canadian soldier and gave birth to a son, Clare Andrea Neilson,[1] known as "Andy".[3] The father sent money for about a year, then stopped. Ellis became a nightclub hostess via nude modelling work, which paid significantly more than the various factory and clerical jobs she had held since leaving school. Early in 1950, she became pregnant by one of her regular customers. She had this pregnancy terminated (illegally) in the third month and returned to work as soon as she could.

On 8 November 1950, she married 41-year-old George Ellis, a divorced dentist with two sons, at the registry office in Tonbridge, Kent.[4] He had been a customer at the Court Club in Duke St, London. He was a violent alcoholic, jealous and possessive, and the marriage deteriorated rapidly because he was convinced she was having an affair. Ellis left him several times but always returned. In 1951, she gave birth to daughter Georgina, but George refused to acknowledge paternity and they separated shortly afterwards. Ellis moved in with her parents, and went back to hostessing to make ends meet.

Earlier that year, while pregnant with Georgina, Ellis had appeared, uncredited, in Lady Godiva Rides Again. The film starred Dennis Price, Dana Wynter, and her friend Diana Dors.[5]

David Blakely

In 1953, Ellis became the manager of a nightclub. She also met David Blakely, three years her junior. He was a well-mannered former public school boy, but also a hard-drinking racing driver. Within weeks he moved into her flat above the club, despite being engaged to another woman. Ellis was also seeing Desmond Cussen, an ex-RAF pilot who had flown Lancaster bombers during World War Two. When she was sacked as manager of the The Little Club, she moved in with Cussen at Egerton Gardens, Knightsbridge, and became his mistress. She became pregnant for the fourth time in 1955 but miscarried, allegedly following a row with Blakely during which he punched her in the stomach.

On the night of Easter Sunday, 10 April 1955,[6] at around 9:30pm David Blakely and his friend Clive Gunnell emerged from the The Magdala[7] a four-story public house in South Hill Park, Hampstead. As Blakely left the pub, he passed Ellis waiting on the pavement when she stepped out of Henshaws Doorway, a newsagent next to The Magdala. He ignored her when she said "Hello, David," then shouted "David!"

As Blakely searched for the keys to his car.[8] Ruth took a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson Victory model revolver from her handbag and fired five shots at Blakely. The first shot missed and he started to run, pursued by Ellis round the car, where she fired a second, which caused him to collapse onto the pavement. She then stood over him and fired three more bullets into him. One bullet was fired less than half an inch from Blakely's back and left powder burns on his skin.

Ellis was seen to stand mesmerized over the body and witnesses reported hearing several distinct clicks as she tried to fire the revolver's sixth and final shot, before finally firing into the pavement. This bullet ricocheted off the wall of the pub and injured Gladys Kensington Yule, 53, in the base of her thumb, as she walked to the Magdala. Her husband took her to hospital in a taxi.

Ellis, in a state of shock, asked Gunnell, "Will you call the police, Clive?" She was arrested immediately by an off-duty policeman, (PC 389) Alan Thompson who took the still-smoking gun from her, put it in his coat pocket, and heard her say, "I am guilty, I'm a little confused". She was taken to Hampstead police station where she appeared to be calm and not obviously under the influence of drink or drugs. She made a detailed confession to the police and was charged with murder. Blakely was taken to hospital with multiple bullet wounds to the intestines, liver, lung, aorta and windpipe.


No solicitor was present during Ellis's interrogation or during the taking of her statement at Hampstead police station, although three police officers were present that night at 11.30 pm: Detective Inspector Gill, Detective Inspector Crawford and Detective Chief Inspector Davies. Ellis was still without legal representation when she made her first appearance at the magistrates' court on 11 April 1955 and held on remand.

She was twice examined by principal Medical Officer, M. R. Penry Williams, who failed to find evidence of mental illness and she undertook an electroencephalography examination on 3 May that failed to find any abnormality. While on remand in Holloway, she was examined by psychiatrist Dr. D. Whittaker for the defence, and by Dr. A. Dalzell on behalf of the Home Office. Neither found evidence of insanity.

Trial and execution

On Monday, 20 June 1955, Ellis appeared in the Number One Court at the Old Bailey, London, before Mr. Justice Havers. She was dressed in a black suit and white silk blouse with freshly bleached and coiffured blonde hair. Her lawyers had wanted her to play down her appearance, but she was determined to have her moment. To many in the courthouse, her fixation with being the brassy blonde was at least partially responsible for the poor impression she made when giving evidence.

“ It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.[9]"
-- Ruth Ellis, in the witness box at the Old Bailey, 20 June 1955.

This was her answer to the only question put to her by Christmas Humphreys, counsel for the Prosecution, who asked, "When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?"[9] The defending counsel, Aubrey Melford Stevenson supported by Sebag Shaw and Peter Rawlinson, would have advised Ellis of this before the trial began, because it is standard legal practice to do so. Her reply to Humphreys' question in open court guaranteed a guilty verdict and therefore the mandatory death sentence which followed. The jury took 14 minutes to convict her.[9] She received the sentence, and was taken to the condemned cell at Holloway.

In a 2010 television interview Mr Justice Havers’s grandson, actor Nigel Havers, said his grandfather had written to the Home Secretary recommending a reprieve as he regarded it as a crime passionelle, but received a curt refusal, which was still held by the family. It has been suggested that the final nail in her coffin was that an innocent passer-by had been injured.

Reluctantly, at midday on 12 July 1955, the day before her execution, Ellis, having dismissed Bickford, the solicitor chosen for her by her friend Desmond Cussen, made a statement to her original solicitor Victor Mishcon and his clerk, Leon Simmons. She revealed more evidence about the shooting and said that the gun had been provided by Cussen, and that he had driven her to the murder scene. Following their 90-minute interview in the condemned cell, Mishcon and Simmons went to the Home Office, where they spoke to a senior civil servant about Ellis's revelations. The authorities made no effort to follow this up and there was no reprieve.

In a final letter to David Blakely's parents from her prison cell, she wrote,

“ "I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him".[10] ”

Ever since Edith Thompson's execution in 1923, condemned female prisoners had been required to wear thick padded calico knickers, so just prior to the allotted time, Warder Evelyn Galilee, who had guarded Ellis for the previous three weeks, took her to the lavatory. Warder Galilee said, “I’m sorry Ruth but I’ve got to do this.” They had tapes back and front to pull. Ruth said “Is that all right?” and “Would you pull these tapes Evelyn, I’ll pull the others,” On re-entering the condemned cell, she took off her glasses, placed them on the table and said "I won't be needing these anymore."[11]

Thirty seconds before 9am on Wednesday 13 July, the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant, Royston Rickard, entered the condemned cell and escorted Ruth to the execution room next door.[12] Her autopsy report, by the pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson, was made public.[13]

The Bishop of Stepney, Joost de Blank, visited Ellis just before her death, and she told him: "It is quite clear to me that I was not the person who shot him. When I saw myself with the revolver I knew I was another person." These comments were made in a London evening paper of the time The Star.

Public reaction

The case caused widespread controversy at the time, evoking exceptionally intense press and public interest to the point that it was discussed by the Cabinet.[14]

On the day of her execution the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra wrote a column attacking the sentence, writing "The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beasts will have been denied her — pity and the hope of ultimate redemption." A petition to the Home Office asking for clemency was signed by 50,000 people, but the Conservative Home Secretary Major Gwilym Lloyd George rejected it.

The novelist Raymond Chandler, then living in Britain, wrote a scathing letter to the London Evening Standard, referring to what he described as "the medieval savagery of the law".[15]


The hanging helped strengthen public support for the abolition of the death penalty, which was halted in practice for murder in Britain ten years later (the last execution in the UK occurred during 1964). Reprieve was by then commonplace. According to one statistical account, between 1926 and 1954, 677 men and 60 women had been sentenced to death in England and Wales, but only 375 men and seven women had been executed.[16]

In the early 1970s, John Bickford, Ellis's solicitor, made a statement to Scotland Yard from his home in Malta. He was recalling what Desmond Cussen had told him in 1955: how Ellis lied at the trial and how he (Bickford) had hidden that information. After Bickford's confession a police investigation followed but no further action regarding Cussen was taken.

Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister at the time, made no reference to the Ruth Ellis case in his memoirs, nor is there anything in his papers. He accepted that the decision was the responsibility of the Home Secretary, but there are indications that he was troubled about it.[17]

Foreign newspapers observed that the concept of the crime passionnel seemed foreign to the British.

Family aftermath

Ellis's husband, George Ellis, descended into alcoholism and hanged himself in 1958. Her son, Andy, who was 11 at the time of his mother's hanging, suffered irreparable psychological damage and committed suicide in a bedsit in 1982. The trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, had sent money every year for Andy's upkeep, and Christmas Humphreys, the prosecution counsel at Ellis's trial, paid for his funeral.[3] Ellis's daughter, Georgina, who was three when her mother was executed, was adopted when her father hanged himself three years later. She died of cancer aged 50.[18]

Pardon campaign

The case continues to have a strong grip on the British imagination and in 2003 was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Court firmly rejected the appeal, although it made clear that it ruled only on the conviction based on the law as it stood in 1955, and not on whether she should have been executed.[19]

On 21 May 2005, The Daily Mirror published an exclusive story, claiming: "Hanged killer Ruth Ellis has been secretly denied a pardon by the government, documents reveal. The decision has been kept under wraps for fear of unleashing protests which could embarrass ministers."

In July 2007 a petition was published on the 10 Downing Street website asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to reconsider the Ruth Ellis case and grant her a pardon in light of new evidence that the Old Bailey jury in 1955 was not asked to consider. It expired on 4 July 2008.[20]

On 24 April 2010 a request to clear the name of Ruth Ellis was accepted on the Yahoo People's Policy, UK Elections 2010 web site.[1]


Ellis was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison, as was customary for executed prisoners. In the early 1970s the prison underwent an extensive programme of rebuilding, during which the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed for reburial elsewhere. Ellis's body was reburied at St Mary's Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The headstone in the churchyard was inscribed 'Ruth Hornby 1926–1955'. Her son, Andy, destroyed the headstone shortly before he committed suicide in 1982. Ellis's grave is now overgrown with yew trees.

The remains of the four other women executed at Holloway, Styllou Christofi, Edith Thompson, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were reburied in a single grave at Brookwood Cemetery.

Coincidentally, Styllou Christofi, who was executed in December 1954, lived at 11 South Hill Park in Hampstead[21], with her son and daughter-in-law, a few metres from The Magdala public house at number 2a, where David Blakely was shot four months later.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The first cinema portrayal of Ellis came with the release of the 1985 movie Dance with a Stranger (directed by Mike Newell), featuring Miranda Richardson as Ellis.

Both Ellis's story and the story of Albert Pierrepoint are retold in the stage play Follow Me, written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield and directed by Guy Masterson. It premièred at the Assembly Rooms as part of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In the film Pierrepoint (2006), Ellis was portrayed by Mary Stockley.

Diana Dors played a character resembling (though not based on) Ruth Ellis in the 1956 British film Yield to the Night, directed by J. Lee Thompson.[22][23] Coincidentally, Ruth Ellis appeared as an uncredited beauty queen in the 1951 film Lady Godiva Rides Again, also starring Diana Dors.


1.^ Dunn 2010.
2.^ For her date of birth, see GRO, December 1926, St. Asaph, Vol. 11b, p. 446, retrieved via FreeBMD.
3.^ Jakubait and Weller, 2005.
4.^ Ruth Ellis: The Last to Hang
5.^ Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) - Full cast and crew
6.^ Melford Stevenson « Searching for the Truth about Ruth Ellis By Monica Weller
7.^ "The Magdala" FancyaPint.com (Retrieved 13 February 2010)
8.^ David Cocksedge, on his website 'The Lady Died for Love' described Blakely's car as a green 'Vauxhall Vanguard', a make/model that does not exist. It is presumed that he could have been referring to either a Standard Vanguard or some other model of Vauxhall
9.^  Block, Brian P. and Hostettler, John. Hanging in the Balance. 1997, page 164
10.^ Ruth Ellis's letter to David Blakeley's parents from the condemned cell
11.^ Searching for the Truth about Ruth Ellis By Monica Weller
12.^ The condemned cell and execution chamber at Holloway Prison
13.^ Autopsy Report of Ruth Ellis
14.^ James, Robert Rhodes (1987), Anthony Eden, p.420, Papermac, ISBN 0333455037
15.^ Raymond Chandler, A Biography, Tom Hiney, 1997, p224
16.^ Block, Brian P. and Hostettler, John. Hanging in the Balance. 1997, page 165
17.^ James,Robert Rhodes(1987)"Anthony Eden,"p.420.Papermac,ISBN 0333455037.
18.^ "Judgement reserved in Ellis case". BBC News. 17 September 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/3116722.stm. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
19.^ Court of Appeal, 2003; section 89
20.^ Author May Prove Hanged Womans Innocence (from This Is Local London)
21.^ According to the 1954 Electoral Register for England
22.^ Leonard Maltin's 2004 Move & Video Guide
23.^ Film Forum Brit Noir summer 2009 schedule.


Dunn, Jane (2010). "Ruth Ellis," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Hancock, Robert (1963). Ruth Ellis: The Last Woman to Be Hanged. Orion; 3rd edition 2000. ISBN 0752834495
Jakubait, Muriel and Weller, Monica (2005). Ruth Ellis: My Sister's Secret life. Robinson Publishing. ISBN 1845291190
Mark, Laurence and Van Den Bergh, Tony (1990). Ruth Ellis: a Case of Diminished Responsibility?. Penguin. ISBN 0140129022

Ruth Ellis: Crime ArchiveRuth Ellis: My Sister's Secret LifeRuth Ellis: The Last Woman to be Hanged

No comments:

Post a Comment