- Capital punishment in the United Kingdom
Capital punishment in the United Kingdom was used from the creation of the state in 1707 until the practice was abolished in the 20th century. The last executions in the United Kingdom, by hanging, took place in 1964, prior to capital punishment being abolished for murder (in 1969 in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland). Although not applied since, the death penalty remained on the statute book for certain other offences until 1998.
- 1 Background
- 2 Reform
- 3 Abolition
- 4 Public support for reintroduction of capital punishment
- 5 Notable executions in the United Kingdom
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that "[there is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England." Known as the "Bloody Code", at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century, a notable example being the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching.
Whilst executions for murder, burglary and robbery were common, the death sentences for minor offenders were often not carried out. However, children were commonly executed for such minor crimes as stealing. A sentence of death could be commuted or respited (permanently postponed) for reasons such as benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy of the offender or performance of military or naval duty. Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7000 executions were carried out.
There were prisons, but they were mostly small, old and badly-run. Common punishments included transportation—sending the offender to America, Australia or Van Diemens Land (Tasmania), or execution—hundreds of offences carried the death penalty. By the 1830s people were having doubts about both these punishments. The answer was prison: lots of new prisons were built and old ones extended. The Victorians also had clear ideas about what these prisons should be like. They should be unpleasant places, so as to deter people from committing crimes. Once inside, prisoners had to be made to face up to their own faults, by keeping them in silence and making them do hard, boring work. Walking a treadwheel or picking oakum (separating strands of rope) were the most common forms of hard labour.
In 1808 Romilly had the death penalty removed for pickpockets and lesser offenders, starting a process of reform that continued over the next 50 years. The death penalty was mandatory (although it was frequently commuted by the government) until the Judgement of Death Act 1823 gave judges the power to commute the death penalty except for treason and murder. The Punishment of Death, etc. Act 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes by two-thirds. Gibbeting was abolished in 1832 and hanging in chains was abolished in 1834. In 1861, several acts of Parliament (24 & 25 Vict; c. 94 to c. 100) further reduced the number of civilian capital crimes to five: murder, treason, espionage, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence; there were other offences under military law. The death penalty remained mandatory for treason and murder unless commuted.
The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864-1866  concluded (with dissenting Commissioners) that there was not a case for abolition but recommended an end to public executions. This proposal was included in the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868. From then executions in Great Britain were carried out in prison. The practice of beheading and quartering executed traitors stopped in 1870.
Juveniles under 16 could no longer be executed from 1908 under the Children Act 1908. In 1922 a new offence of Infanticide was introduced to replace the charge of murder for mothers killing their children in the first year of life. In 1930 a parliamentary Select Committee recommended that capital punishment be suspended for a trial period of five years, but no action was taken. From 1931 pregnant women could no longer be hanged (following the birth of their child) although in practice since the 18th century their sentences had always been commuted, and in 1933 the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 18 under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The last known execution by the civilian courts of a person under 18 was that of Charles Dobel, 17, hanged at Maidstone together with his accomplice William Gower, 18, in January 1889.
In 1938 the issue of the abolition of capital punishment was brought before parliament. A clause within the Criminal Justice Bill called for an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty. When war broke out in 1939 the bill was postponed. It was revived after the war and to everyone's surprise was adopted by a majority in the House of Commons (245 to 222). In the House of Lords the abolition clause was defeated but the remainder of the bill was passed. Popular support for abolition was absent and the government decided that it would be inappropriate for it to assert its supremacy by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 over such an unpopular issue.
Instead, then Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, set up a new Royal Commission (the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949–1953) with instructions to determine "whether the liability to suffer capital punishment should be limited or modified". The Commission's report discussed a number of alternatives to execution by hanging (including the US methods of electrocution and gassing, and the then-theoretical lethal injection), but rejected them. It had more difficulty with the principle of capital punishment. Popular opinion believed that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to criminals, but the statistics within the report were inconclusive. Whilst the report recommended abolition from an ethical standpoint, it made no mention of possible miscarriages of justice. The public had by then expressed great dissatisfaction with the verdict in the case of Timothy Evans, who was tried and hanged for murdering his baby daughter in 1949. It later transpired in 1953 that John Christie had strangled at least six women in the same house; if the jury in Evans's trial had known this, Evans would probably not have been found guilty. There were other cases in the same period where doubts arose over convictions and subsequent hangings, such as the notorious case of Derek Bentley.
The commission concluded that unless there was overwhelming public support in favour of abolition, the death penalty should be retained.
Between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales. Ten German agents were executed during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, and 16 spies were executed during the Second World War under the Treachery Act 1940.
By 1957 a number of controversial cases highlighted the issue of capital punishment again. Campaigners for abolition were partially rewarded with the Homicide Act 1957. The Act brought in a distinction between capital and non-capital homicide. Only six categories of murder were now punishable by execution:
- in the course or furtherance of theft
- by shooting or causing an explosion
- while resisting arrest or during an escape
- of a police officer
- of a prison officer by a prisoner
- the second of two murders committed on different occasions (if both done in Great Britain).
The police and the government were of the opinion that the death penalty deterred offenders from carrying firearms and it was for this reason that such offences remained punishable by death.
In 1965 the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, who had committed himself to the cause of abolition for more than 20 years, introduced a private member's bill to suspend the death penalty, which was passed on a free vote in the House of Commons by 200 votes to 98. The bill was subsequently passed by the House of Lords by 204 votes to 104.
The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty in England, Wales and Scotland (but not in Northern Ireland) for murder for a period of five years, and substituted a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment; it further provided that if, before the expiry of the five-year suspension, each House of Parliament passed a resolution to make the effect of the Act permanent, then it would become permanent. In 1969 the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, proposed a motion to make the Act permanent, which was carried in the Commons on 16 December 1969, and a similar motion was carried in the Lords on 18 December. The death penalty for murder was abolished in Northern Ireland on 25 July 1973 under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.
Following the abolition of the death penalty for murder, the House of Commons held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death penalty. This motion was always defeated, but the death penalty still remained for other crimes:
- causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, ship, magazine or warehouse (until 1971);
- espionage (until 1981);
- piracy with violence (until 1998);
- treason (until 1998); and
- certain purely military offences under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, such as mutiny (until 1998). Prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for six offences:
- serious misconduct in action;
- assisting the enemy;
- obstructing operations;
- giving false air signals;
- mutiny or incitement to mutiny; and
- failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy.
However no executions were carried out in the United Kingdom for any of these offences, after the abolition of the death penalty for murder.
Nevertheless, there remained a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth, London, until 1994, which was tested every six months until 1992. This gallows is now housed in the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham.
England and in the United Kingdom: on 13 August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, were executed for the murder of John Alan West on 7 April that year.
Last death sentences
Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom: William Holden in 1973 in Northern Ireland, for the capital murder of a British soldier during the Troubles. Holden was removed from the death cell in May 1973.
England: David Chapman, who was sentenced to hang in November 1965 for the murder of a swimming pool nightwatchman in Scarborough. He was released from prison in 1979 and later died in a car accident.
Scotland: Patrick McCarron in 1964 for shooting his wife. He hanged himself in prison in 1970.
Wales: Edgar Black, who was reprieved on 6 November 1963. He had shot his wife's lover in Cardiff.
The Criminal Damage Act 1971 abolished the offence of arson in royal dockyards.
The Naval Discipline Act 1957 reduced the scope of capital espionage from "all spies for the enemy" to spies on naval ships or bases. Later, the Armed Forces Act 1981 abolished the death penalty for espionage. (The Official Secrets Act 1911 had created another offence of espionage which carried a maximum sentence of fourteen years.)
Beheading was abolished as a method of execution for treason in 1973. However hanging remained available until 1998 when, under a House of Lords amendment to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, proposed by Lord Archer of Sandwell, the death penalty was abolished for treason and piracy with violence, replacing it with a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment. These were the last civilian offences punishable by death.
On 20 May 1998 the House of Commons voted to ratify the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting capital punishment except "in time of war or imminent threat of war." The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (including in wartime) were removed when section 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force on 9 November 1998. On 10 October 2003, effective from 1 February 2004, the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol, which prohibits the death penalty under all circumstances, so that the UK may no longer legislate to restore the death penalty while it is subject to the Convention. It can only now restore it if it withdraws from the Council of Europe.
As a legacy from colonial times, several states in the West Indies still had the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the court of final appeal; although the death penalty has been retained in these states, the Privy Council would sometimes delay or deny executions. Some of these states severed links with the British court system in 2001 by transferring the responsibilities of the Privy Council to the Caribbean Court of Justice, to speed up executions.
In the Channel Islands, the last death sentence was passed in 1984; the last execution in the Channel Islands was in Jersey on 9 October 1959, when Francis Joseph Huchet was hanged for murder. The Human Rights (Amendment) (Jersey) Order 2006 amends the Human Rights (Jersey) Law 2000 to give effect to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights providing for the total abolition of the death penalty. Both of these laws came into effect on 10 December 2006. The 13th Protocol was extended to Guernsey in April 2004.
The last execution on the Isle of Man took place in 1872, when John Kewish was hanged for patricide. Capital punishment was not formally abolished by Tynwald (the island's parliament) until 1993. Five persons were sentenced to death (for murder) on the Isle of Man between 1973 and 1992, although all sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The last person to be sentenced to death in the UK or its dependencies was Anthony Teare, who was convicted at the Manx Court of General Gaol Delivery in Douglas in 1992; he was subsequently retried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. In 2004 the 13th Protocol was adopted, with an effective date of 1 November 2006.
Like the Crown dependencies, the British overseas territories are constitutionally not part of the United Kingdom. However, the British government's ultimate responsibility for good governance of the territories has led it over recent years to pursue a policy of revoking all statutory provision for the death penalty in those territories where it had up until recently been legal.
The last executions in an overseas territory, and indeed the last on British soil, took place in Bermuda in 1977, when two men, Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, were hanged for the 1973 murder of the then territory's Governor Sir Richard Sharples.
In 1991, the British government extended an Order in Council to its Caribbean territories whose effect was to abolish capital punishment for murder: Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The British government was unable to extend the abolition via Order in Council to Bermuda, the UK's most autonomous overseas territory with powers of almost total self-governance—but warned that if voluntary abolition was not forthcoming it would be forced to consider the unprecedented step of "whether to impose abolition by means of an Act of Parliament". As a result the Bermudian government introduced its own domestic legislation in 1999 to rectify the problem.
Further measures have subsequently been adopted to revoke technicalities in British overseas territories' domestic legislation as regards use of the death penalty for crimes of treason and piracy. Since 2002, the death penalty has been outlawed under all circumstances in all the UK's overseas territories.
Public support for reintroduction of capital punishment
A November 2009 television survey showed that 70% favoured reinstating the death penalty for at least one of the following crimes: armed robbery, rape, crimes related to paedophilia, terrorism, adult murder, child murder, child rape, treason, child abuse, or kidnapping. However, respondents only favoured capital punishment for adult murder, the polling question asked by other organisations such as Gallup, by small majorities or pluralities: overall, 51% favoured the death penalty for adult murder, while 56% in Wales did, 55% in Scotland, and only 49% in England.
In August 2011, the Internet blogger Paul Staines—who writes a political blog as Guido Fawkes and heads the Restore Justice Campaign—launched an e-petition on the Downing Street website calling for the restoration of the death penalty for those convicted of the murder of children and police officers. The petition was one of several in support or opposition of capital punishment to be published by the government with the launch of its e-petitions website. As of 12 August, an e-petition calling to retain the ban on capital punishment has received 20,000 votes, 17,000 more than the e-petition calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Petitions attracting 100,000 signatures would prompt a parliamentary debate on a particular topic, but not necessarily lead to any Parliamentary Bills being put forward.
Also in August 2011, a representative survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that 65% of Britons support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Great Britain, while 28% oppose this course of action. Men, respondents aged 35–54, and those over the age of 55 are more likely to endorse the change.
Notable executions in the United Kingdom
Note: This list does not include the beheadings of nobility.
- 1724, 16 November: Jack Sheppard, housebreaker, was hanged at Tyburn for burglary after four successful escape attempts from jail. His partner-in-crime, highwayman Joseph "Blueskin" Blake, was executed for the same burglary five days earlier.
- 1725, 24 May: Jonathan Wild, criminal overlord and fraudulent "Thief Taker General", was hanged at Tyburn (over six months after Jack Sheppard's and Blueskin's executions) for receiving stolen goods and thus aiding criminals.
- 1739: Dick Turpin, famous highwayman, was hanged.
- 1746, 30 July: nine Catholic members of the Manchester Regiment, Jacobites, were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason at Kennington Common (now Kennington Park).
- 1750: James MacLaine, 'The Gentleman Highwayman', was hanged at Tyburn, London
- 1757: John Byng became the only British admiral executed, by firing squad by the Royal Navy. His crime was to have failed to "do his utmost" at the Battle of Minorca during the Seven Years War.
- 1760, 5 May: Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers was executed at Tyburn for the murder of a servant. He was the last peer to be hanged (reputedly by a silken rope) and is the only peer to have been hanged for murder.
- 1789: Catherine Murphy, a counterfeiter, was the last woman executed under a sentence of burning at the stake in England (though Murphy was in fact strangled before the fire was lit, and thus not literally burned to death). The penalty of burning at the stake, which applied to women and not to men, was abolished the next year.
- 1812, 18 May: John Bellingham was hanged for the murder of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval.
- 1820: Andrew Hardie and John Baird were hanged and beheaded at Stirling after being tried for their part in the Radical War in Scotland.
- 1828, 11 August: William Corder was hanged at Bury St Edmunds for the murder of Maria Marten at the Red Barn a year before.
- 1856, 9 August: Elizabeth Martha Brown was the last woman to be hanged in public in the English county of Dorset; her hanging is notable in part because it influenced Thomas Hardy, an eyewitness, in his portrayal of the execution of the fictional heroine of Tess of the D'Urbervilles.
- 1861, 27 August: Martin Doyle was the last person to be hanged for attempted murder, at Chester.
- 1868, 2 April: Frances Kidder was the last woman to be hanged in public in Britain.
- 1868, 26 May: Michael Barrett was executed at Newgate Prison for the Fenian bombing at Clerkenwell, the last public hanging in the UK.
- 1899, 19 July: Mary Ansell was hanged at St Albans, for poisoning her sister. At 22 she was the youngest woman to be hanged in the post-1868 'modern era' (non-public, and by the 'long drop' method).
- 1910, 23 November: Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged in London's Pentonville Prison for the poisoning murder of his wife.
- 1914, 8 September: Private Thomas Highgate was executed by firing squad, the first British soldier to be executed for desertion during World War I.
- 1915, 13 August: George Joseph Smith was hanged in Maidstone Prison for the pattern of serial killings known as the "Brides in the Bath Murders".
- 1916, 3 August: Roger Casement was hanged at Pentonville for treason, based on his attempt to smuggle German weapons into Ireland in support of the unsuccessful Irish Easter Rising.
- 1920, 2 November: Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers was shot for mutiny in India, the last member of the British Armed Forces to be executed for mutiny.
- 1923, 9 January: Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, in London's Holloway and Pentonville Prisons respectively, for the murder of Thompson's husband. The case was controversial because, although the two lovers had discussed the possible elimination of her husband in advance, Thompson did not directly participate in the murder for which she was hanged.
- 1931, 3 January: Victor Betts for murder committed during the course of a robbery. The case had established that a person need not be present when a crime is committed to be regarded as an accessory after the fact.
- 1940, 31 July: Udham Singh, a Indian Freedom Fighter was hanged till death at Pentonville Prison. He was charged with the murder of Michael O'Dwyer.
- 1941, 15 August: Josef Jakobs, a German spy, was executed by firing squad, the last execution in the Tower of London.
- 1946, 3 January: William Joyce, better known as "Lord Haw-Haw", for treason in London's Wandsworth Prison. He was an American citizen, but was convicted of treason because, as the holder of a British passport (albeit fraudulently obtained), he was held to have owed allegiance to the British sovereign. Theodore Schurch, hanged for treachery the next day, was the last person to be executed for an offence other than murder; he was executed at Pentonville. As a member of the armed forces he had been tried by court-martial.
- 1947, 27 February: Walter Rowland in Manchester for the murder of Olive Balchin despite maintaining his innocence. While he had been awaiting execution, another man confessed to the crime. A Home Office report dismissed the latter's confession as a fake, but in 1951 he attacked another woman and was found guilty but insane.
- 1949, 12 January: Margaret Allen, aged 43, for killing a 70-year-old woman in the course of a robbery, the first woman to be hanged in Britain for 12 years.
- 1949, 10 August: John George Haigh, the "acid-bath murderer", at Wandsworth.
- 1950, 9 March: Timothy Evans at Pentonville for the murder of his baby daughter Geraldine at 10 Rillington Place, North West London. He initially claimed to have killed his wife, but later withdrew the claim. A fellow inhabitant at the same address, John Christie, later found to be a sexual serial killer, gave key evidence against Evans. Christie was executed in 1953 for the murder of his own wife. Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966. In 2004 the Court of Appeal refused to consider overturning the conviction due to the costs and resources that would be involved. See John Christie (murderer).
- 1950, 28 March: George Kelly at Liverpool for murder, but had his conviction quashed posthumously by the Court of Appeal in June 2003.
- 1952, 25 April: Edward Devlin and Alfred Burns, for killing a woman during a robbery in Liverpool. They claimed that they had been doing a different burglary in Manchester, and others involved in the crime supported this. A Home Office report rejected this evidence. Huge crowds gathered outside Liverpool's Walton Prison as they were executed.
- 1952, 3 September: Mahmood Hussein Mattan, a Somali seaman, in Cardiff for murder. The Court of Appeal quashed his conviction posthumously in 1998 after hearing that crucial evidence implicating another Somali was withheld at his trial.
- 1953, 28 January: Derek Bentley at Wandsworth Prison as an accomplice to the murder of a police officer by his 16-year-old friend Christopher Craig. Craig, a minor, was not executed and instead served 10 years. Bentley was granted a posthumous pardon on 29 July 1993, and the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on 30 July 1998.
- 1953, 15 July: John Reginald Halliday Christie at Pentonville for the murder of his wife Ethel. Christie was a serial killer and had murdered at least six other women (see also entry on Timothy Evans above).
- 1954, 13 December: Styllou Christofi, aged 53, penultimate woman executed in Britain.
- 1955, 12 July: Ruth Ellis, aged 28, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. She was the 15th and youngest woman hanged in the 20th century.
- 1958, 6 May: Vivian Teed, 24, in Swansea, the last person to be executed in Wales.
- 1958, 11 July: Peter Manuel, aged 31, second to last person to be hanged in HM Prison Barlinnie and the third to last to be hanged in Scotland.
- 1959, 9 October: Francis Joseph Huchet, 31, in St Helier, Jersey, the last person to be executed in the Channel Islands.
- 1959, 5 November: Guenther Podola, the last person to be hanged for the murder of a policeman.
- 1960, 10 November: Francis Forsyth, the last 18-year-old to be executed in Britain.
- 1960, 22 December: Anthony Miller, 19, in Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison, the last teenager to be executed in Britain.
- 1961, 20 December: Robert McGladdery, 25, in Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, the last person to be executed in Northern Ireland, for the murder of Pearl Gamble in Newry.
- 1962, 4 April: James Hanratty at Bedford after a controversial rape-murder trial. In 2002 Hanratty's body was exhumed and the Court of Appeal upheld his conviction after Hanratty's DNA was linked to crime scene samples.
- 1963, 15 August: Henry Burnett, aged 21, at Craiginches Prison in Aberdeen for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan, the last hanging in Scotland.
- 1964, 13 August: Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester for the murder of John Alan West, the last people executed in Britain.
- Black Cap
- Christopher Simcox
- Courts of the United Kingdom
- Execution by firing squad in the United Kingdom
- List of executioners
- Shot at Dawn Memorial
- Wrongful execution
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- ^ Patrick Wilson (1971). Murderess: a study of the women executed in Britain since 1843. Joseph. pp. 151–154.
- ^ Slapper, Gary (23 June 2008). "The cases that changed Britain: 1917-1954". Times Online (London: News International). http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article4179652.ece. Retrieved 9 August 2011.
- ^ Moles, Dr Robert N.; Bibi Sangha. "R v Mahmoud Hussein Mattan (Hanged) Court of Appeal 24 February 1998". Networked Knowledge. http://netk.net.au/UK/Mattan.asp. Retrieved 30 March 2008.
- Hoffman, David; Rowe, John (2010), Human Rights in the UK: An Introduction to the Human Rights Act of 1998 (3 ed.), Pearson Longman, ISBN 978-1405874038
- A comprehensive site about capital punishment in the UK
- 'Hanging With Frank' (video showing UK execution protocol at the old gallows in Barlinnie Prison)
Capital punishment in Europe Sovereign
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Czech Republic
- San Marino
- United Kingdom
- Northern Ireland
- Vatican City
States with limited
- Northern Cyprus
- South Ossetia
and other territories
- Faroe Islands
- Jan Mayen
- Isle of Man
- European Union
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