Death Penalty: A History of UK Capital Punishment

A History of Capital Punishment in the UK

Capital punishment, the use of the death penalty by the state, originated in the Anglo-Saxon era and continued until 1965 when the death penalty was abolished.

Initially, the primary way to carry out the sentence was by a primitive form of hanging, placing a noose around the neck of the condemned and draping it over a sturdy tree branch. Progress was made with the introduction of ladders and carts used to hang people from wooden gallows.

Later in the 13th Century, hanging evolved into the more savage ritual of drawing, hanging, and quartering – although this was usually reserved for those who had committed the severest crimes, such as treason. The process involved ‘drawing’ – the dragging of the condemned to a place of execution, hanging, and finally disembowelling, beheading, burning, and ‘quartering’ – the severing of limbs from its torso. It was not unusual for the head and limbs to then be publicly displayed to act as a macabre deterrent to those considering similar crimes.

In 1783, ‘New Drop’ gallows were introduced at Newgate Prison in London, which speeded up the process by accommodating two or three individuals’ at once. The gallows were constructed on wooden platforms with built-in trapdoors through which the condemned dropped at the pulling of a lever. It would not be until later in the 19th Century when the ‘long drop’ became the common method of hanging. Considered more humane, it took into account the weight of the condemned, the length of the drop against the length of the rope, together with placement of the knot, death was caused by breaking the neck as opposed to the slower, and more painful, strangulation and asphyxiation.

Throughout the centuries, various other methods of capital punishment were used, such as being burnt at the stake (generally used for treason, specifically women convicted of petty treason which was the charge given for the murder of a husband or employer), although this was replaced in 1790 with hanging. The burning of those suspected of practicing witchcraft in Scotland continued until well into the 18th Century. And for those of more noble birth condemned to die, a less brutal method of execution was reserved – death by beheading.

In 1806, Sir Samuel Romilly, barrister, and solicitor general, campaigned for reform and succeeded in repealing the death penalty for some minor crimes and ending disembowelling convicted criminals whilst still alive. Further changes occurred in 1834 (abolition of hanging in chains), and 1837 (ending capital punishment for cattle stealing and other minor offences).

Campaigning for the complete abolition of capital punishment started sometime in the 1840s, with high-profile supporters, such as William Makepeace Thackery and Charles Dickens, who argued that inflicting pain was corrupting and uncivilised, and did not allow the criminal to be rehabilitated. The campaigners achieved some success, when in 1861, the death penalty was abolished for all crimes aside from murder, piracy with violence, arson in the royal dockyards, or high treason. Public execution ended in 1868.

But the public’s attitude towards capital punishment continued to be popular, and support for abolition of the death penalty was not widespread. There were always those cases that aroused public sympathy such as those involving flimsy evidence, or where mental soundness was a concern, but these cases were few and far between when compared to how many were being condemned to the gallows.

That said, further reforms took place during the first half of the 20th Century where changes in the law made the murder of an infant by its mother separate to murder and reduced it from a capital crime. In 1931, the death penalty for pregnant women was abolished, and 1933 saw its removal for anyone under the age of 18, although, in practice, no one below this age had been executed in the UK since 1887.

The Howard League – a penal reform group who had campaigned for humane prison conditions and a reformatory approach for incarcerated inmates – turned its attention to abolishing the death penalty. Abolition once again gathered speed, with the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and the Labour Party under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald joining the cause. However, although a full parliamentary debate took place in parliament which resulted in the establishment of a Select Committee, its report was largely ignored, primarily because the issue was regarded to be low on the political agenda and other social reform took priority.

Post War Reform

Following the end of the second world war in 1945, capital punishment became increasingly prominent both politically and socially. Although the Labour government failed to abolish the death penalty, the Criminal Justice Act 1948 was passed which ended penal servitude – hard labour and flogging – and heralded a reformist system for punishing and treating offenders.

During this time, certain high-profile contentious cases increased public disquiet. The executions of John Christie, and Derek Bentley, were two cases amongst many others that proved pivotal. Christie, of the now notorious 10 Rillington Place murders, had finally been found guilty after an innocent man, Timothy Evans, had already been sent to the gallows for a murder he did not commit. The case of Derek Bentley, who was hanged in 1953 at the age of 19 for the shooting of a police officer, despite his friend Christopher Craig, who was 16 years old at the time, actually pulling the trigger, also proved influential. Doubts about the Bentley case were intensified by his reported ‘low intelligence’ and age, just over the threshold as to be ineligible for the death penalty. Bentley was eventually posthumously pardoned in 1998.

The Last Woman to be Executed

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be executed, hanging in 1955 for the murder of her boyfriend David Blakely outside a pub in Hampstead, London. Her execution holds an important place in history because it had such a significant impact on society’s views on the death penalty.

Blakely had been violent and unfaithful throughout their relationship, which invoked much public sympathy at the time. The murder was widely viewed as a ‘crime of passion,’ and therefore, if not wholly excusable, was understandable. Until then, women had almost always had a death sentence commuted to life imprisonment (or deportation to the colonies), so there was widespread horror when Ellis did not receive the same.

Her case remains significant in the abolition of the death penalty because of its impact upon British societal attitudes at the time.

Abolition of the death penalty

The Homicide Act 1957 further restricted the death penalty for certain types of murder, up until this point, a death sentence was mandatory and only a reprieve would save the condemned. This change reduced hangings to three or four a year, but capital punishment remained a highly contentious issue.

The last people to be hanged in the UK were Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans in August 1964 for the murder of a taxi driver. Just a few months later, in 1965, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for a trial five-year period. It was made permanent in 1969. However, the UK was not fully abolitionist until 1998, when capital punishment was finally abolished for all crimes (treason, piracy with violence, and arson in royal dockyards had remained on the statute books until that time) both in practice and in law. This finally led to Britain being able to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

What is the current law on capital punishment?

The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the ECHR into UK law which banned capital punishment except ‘in times of war or imminent threat of war.’ In January 1999, Home Secretary Jack Straw signed the Sixth Protocol of the ECHR which formally abolished the death penalty in peacetime, followed by ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in December of that year. The UK government ratified protocol 13 in 2002, bringing capital punishment to an end, including during times of war.

Is the UK’s stance on the death penalty changing?

The UK debate on the death penalty was reignited in 2018 following the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid informing the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the UK would not seek assurances that the death penalty would not be used against two former British citizens on trial for terror charges committed in Syria as part of ISIS.

The two men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, were stripped of their British citizenship and sparked a row over whether they should return to the UK for trial or face justice in another jurisdiction, one that still carried the death penalty. Flying directly in the face of the UK government’s long-held opposition to capital punishment as a matter of principle and its strategy to reduce the number of countries yet to abolish it.

Although many groups continue to be opposed to the reintroduction of the death penalty, its restoration remains popular with society in general. Those in favour indicate its value as a deterrent and natural justice as reasons for supporting its revival. However, it is unlikely the political will is there to bring about change, which would, in any event, be contrary to the UK’s current international legal obligations.

Which countries still have the death penalty?

A total of 31 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice the last ten years, however China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the USA, and Yemen continue to be amongst those countries who use capital punishment most frequently, some in direct contravention of international human rights law. Malaysia, North Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam are all known to continue to carry out executions. Eleven countries persist in imposing death penalties but have not carried them out, including: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, India, Indonesia, Laos, Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Surprisingly, executions continue to be carried out in Europe, and following a year’s hiatus in 2009, in March 2010 the Belarussian authorities executed two prisoners, and sentenced three more to death.

Death penalty FAQs

Can you get the death penalty in the UK?

No, you cannot get the death penalty in the UK. The UK abolished the death penalty in 1965 for most cases and following changes in the law in 1998 and 2002, capital punishment was ended completely even during times of war.

What crimes are punishable by death in the UK?

There are no crimes punishable by death in the UK now. However, until 2002, capital punishment could still be used during times of war, or threat of war.

Why did they stop the death penalty in the UK?

Concerns surrounding the irrevocable nature of the death penalty, given the fallibility of the criminal justice system (particularly in the days before advances in DNA and forensics), such cases have been underlined by the posthumous pardons of people such as Derek Bentley, together with arguments that the death penalty is little more than state-sponsored murder, brought about the end of capital punishment in the UK.

When did the death penalty end in the UK?

For most crimes, the death penalty ended in the UK in 1965. However, until the introduction of further legislation in 1998, crimes such as treason, piracy with violence, and arson in royal dockyards, capital punishment remained on the statute books. The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the ECHR into UK law which banned capital punishment except ‘in times of war or imminent threat of war.’ The signing of the Sixth Protocol of the ECHR formally abolished the death penalty in peacetime, followed by ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The UK government ratified protocol 13 in 2002, bringing capital punishment to an end, including during times of war, making the UK a fully abolitionist country.

Death Penalty: A History of UK Capital Punishment 2
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