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50 years on: How Britain views the death penalty

noose Tuesday 10 November 2015

Dr John Walliss, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, examines how attitudes have changed in the fifty years since the Abolition of Death Penalty Act, which effectively abolished capital punishment in Britain. 

The 9th of November 2015 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the commencement of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, which effectively abolished capital punishment in Britain. The last judicial executions in England and Wales had taken place the previous year, with the simultaneous hanging of Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans in Liverpool and Manchester respectively for the murder of John Allen West. Henceforth the sentence of death would be replaced by life imprisonment. The Act contained a clause that it would expire in 1970 unless Parliament determined otherwise. In December 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed the decision to abolish capital punishment by a majority of 158, making the Act permanent. Some crimes, such as High Treason or piracy were not covered by the Act (a gallows was kept at Wandsworth prison if needed) and, indeed, the death penalty was still theoretically available as a sanction in Northern Ireland until 1973 and in the military until 1998. It was only in December 1999 that the then-Labour Government completely abolished capital punishment across the UK.

The path that led to the abolition of public execution began at the turn of the nineteenth century with reformers such as Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir James Mackintosh who campaigned to remove minor crimes from the raft of capital crimes that had accumulated on the statute books since the seventeenth century. Known subsequently as the ‘Bloody Code’, by the turn of the nineteenth century there were at least 220 capital offences in England and Wales ranging from murder to sodomy, animal theft, arson and shoplifting. In the face of mounting criticism, the Bloody Code was first rationalised under Peel in the 1820s and then reformed under the Whigs, effectively leaving murder as the only capital crime by 1841. Reformers from the 1840s onwards consequently turned their attention to the campaign for the complete abolishment of capital punishment. In addition to decrying capital punishment as the remnant of a less civilised past, critics focused their condemnation on the spectacle of public execution. Rather than being a force for deterrence, they averred, public executions served instead to further brutalise the many thousands of people who regularly attended them. Writing to the Times after attending the execution of husband and wife, Marie and Frederick Manning in 1849, for example, Charles Dickens (who had himself attended four or five previous executions, including possibly a guillotining in Rome) declared to readers ‘that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun’.

In the 1860s both opponents and defenders of capital punishment agreed that something needed to be done about public executions. The 1866 report of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment recommended that capital punishment should continue, but that executions should be removed from public sight and take place behind prison walls. The last public execution, that of the Fenian Michael Barrett, took place outside Newgate Prison in London on the 26th of May 1868. Just over two months later, following the passing of the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act, the first private execution took place at Maidstone, Kent with the hanging of convicted murderer, Thomas Wells. As a number of historians have noted, by removing the crowd from the capital punishment debate, defenders of capital punishment effectively secured a century-long reprieve for the gallows. Initially reporters were allowed into the prison to witness executions as a proxy for the public, but from the 1870s onwards, they were increasingly barred from reporting the execution scene. Consequently, they turned to reporting the scenes outside the prison and, in particular, the drama and trauma experienced by the families and friends of the condemned. Consequently, by the middle of the twentieth century capital punishment had become an increasingly emotive issue, with the press increasingly focusing in their reportage on the emotional world of the condemned and their families.

Another important factor in the shift of public support away from capital punishment in the twentieth century was the execution of persons whose guilt was questionable. In 1923, for example, Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were executed for the murder of Edith’s husband, Percy. Although the murder had been committed by Bywaters, love letters from Edith to Bywaters were used in court to link her to the murder and send her to the gallows with him. Three decades later, in 1950, Timothy Evans was executed for murdering his wife and infant daughter in Notting Hill, London. Three years later, however, it was discovered that Evans’ neighbour, John Christie, who had been one of the main witnesses for the prosecution, was in fact a serial killer. Christie had killed at least eight persons in his house, including Evan’s wife and daughter. The execution of Derek Bentley, also in 1953, for the murder of a policeman during a burglary heightened public concern about miscarriages of justice and capital punishment. As with Edith Thompson, Bentley did not murder anyone – the fatal shot had been fired by sixteen year old Christopher Craig. However, Craig was too young to hang and the jury accepted the prosecution’s claim that Bentley’s instruction to Craig to ‘let him have it’ was an instruction to kill and not, as the defence claimed, to surrender the weapon to the policeman. Two years after Bentley’s execution, the execution of a woman, Ruth Ellis, for the murder of her lover, David Blakely, increased public disquiet about capital punishment. In contrast to Edith Thompson, there was no doubt that Ellis committed the murder. However, at the time and subsequently it has been claimed that she was the victim of domestic abuse at the hands of Blakely. Nevertheless, while Evans and Bentley have subsequently received posthumous Royal Pardons, the most recent petition for a pardon for Ellis expired in 2008. 

In 1949 a Royal Commission into capital punishment was established to examine whether capital punishment should be limited or modified. In the final report, published in 1953, it concluded that capital punishment should remain unless there was widespread public support for its abolition. A subsequent vote in the House of Commons rejected a motion for abolition proposed by labour MP and abolitionist, Sydney Silverman. Nevertheless, from the mid-1950s the tide was clearly turning against capital punishment. Elements of the popular press enthusiastically supported abolition and the cases cited above became cause célèbres. The Homicide Act of 1957 marked in hindsight the beginning of the end for capital punishment in England and Wales. No longer would death be the automatic penalty for murder; rather, the Act limited death to only certain types of murder (such as the murder of a police officer or prison officer, or murder in the course or furtherance of a theft), introduced the defence of diminished responsibility and widened the defence of provocation. Critics nevertheless continued their campaign for abolition, pointing to the continuing arbitrary nature of the reprieve system as well as subsequent miscarriages of justice, such as the execution of James Hanratty in 1962. The Private Members Bill proposed by Silverman in 1965 was passed as the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act in November of that year, ultimately ending capital punishment in Britain.

The abolition of capital punishment occurred in the face of widespread support for its retention. Various surveys conducted over the last fifty years, however, reveal the public increasingly turning against capital punishment. In 1977, Ipsos MORI found that 81% of those polled replied ‘yes’ to the question ‘do you think the death penalty is ever justified or not’. Three years later this had fallen to 78% and in 1995 just over three-quarters of those sampled agreed with the question. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the British Social Attitude Report found that support for the death penalty remained high (around 73%), although its support has waned over the last two decades. Whereas in 1993 74% of respondents agreed that the death penalty was the most appropriate sentence for certain crimes, by 2012 only just over half (54%) agreed with these sentiments.

Data from two surveys conducted in 2014 and 2015 by YouGov and the British Social Attitude Report respectively reveal that support for capital punishment has fallen to its lowest levels yet. The British Social Attitudes Report found only 48% of those polled supported capital punishment, while YouGov found only 45% in support of the reintroduction of capital punishment for murder. Both surveys found that support for capital punishment was higher among baby boomers than generation X or Y. 57% of those aged between 18 and 24 thought that the abolition of capital punishment was a good thing. Interestingly, YouGov also reported that those polled who supported capital punishment tended to like the actors Clint Eastwood (who starred in, among other films, the 1968 western Hang 'em High) and David Jason, as well as the comedians Jim Davidson and Bob Monkhouse, and TV personalities Jeremy Clarkson and Sid James (who starred as the executed highwayman Dick Turpin in the 1974 comedy, Carry on Dick). They also tend to like meat pie and steak and roast potatoes and describe themselves as ‘dependable’ and ‘strong-willed’.

 Dr John Walliss - full profile

Criminology at Liverpool Hope University

Department of Social Science at Liverpool Hope University

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