A HISTORY OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN THE UK

By Tim Lambert

Capital Punishment in England in the 18th Century

Hanging was the traditional form of capital punishment in England. However it was not the only one. In England beheading was normally reserved for the highborn and it was last used in 1747. (The last person to be beheaded in Britain was a Scot named Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat). In 1401 a law in England made burning the penalty for heresy. In the 16th century during the reign of Mary (1553-1558) nearly 300 Protestants were burned to death in England. In the 18th century in Britain women found guilty of counterfeiting or murdering their husbands were burned. However burning as a punishment was abolished in Britain in 1790. (In England witches were hanged not burned).

In England the punishment for treason was hanging, drawing and quartering. The person was drawn on a hurdle pulled by a horse to the place of execution. They were hanged (strangled by being suspended by a rope) but when they were still alive and sometimes conscious they were cut down. The executioner cut open their stomach and 'drew out' their entrails. Finally the person was beheaded and his body was cut into quarters.

In the early 19th century the full sentence was no longer carried out. Instead the person was hanged until they were dead and then beheaded. They were not disemboweled. The last case was in 1820.

However hanging was the most common method of execution in England from Saxon times until the 20th century. At first the criminal stood on a ladder, which was pulled away, or on a cart, which was moved. From the 18th century he stood on a trapdoor. Sometimes the hanged man broke his neck when he fell but until the 19th century he was usually strangled by the rope. In the 18th century and the early 19th century hanging was the punishment for many crimes not just murder (although in reality people convicted to lesser crimes were often reprieved).

In 1752 a law in England stated that the body of a person hanged for any crime would be handed over to surgeons to be dissected. To us it would not seem a severe punishment. However to people of the time the idea that after their death their body would be cut up was terrifying. It added an extra punishment to hanging.

Capital Punishment in the UK in the 19th Century and 20th Century

During the early 19th century the number of crimes punishable by death was greatly reduced e.g. in 1829 a man named Thomas Maynard was the last person in Britain to be hanged for forgery. (Hanging as a punishment for forgery was abolished in 1836). After 1861 capital punishment was only retained for 4 crimes, murder, piracy, arson in the Royal Dockyards and high treason.

The last hanging in public in Britain took place in 1868 when a man named Michael Barrett was hanged. Then in 1908 hanging was abolished for people under the age of 16. In 1933 the minimum age for hanging was raised to 18.

From the 1930s opposition to capital punishment was led by a wealthy woman named Violet Van der Elst. In 1937 she wrote a book called On the Gallows about the subject.

Furthermore in the mid-20th century public opinion in the UK gradually turned against capital punishment. An innocent man called Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950. ( Evans was supposed to have murdered his wife and baby daughter. In fact it was later found out that a man named John Reginald Christie murdered them and several other women. Evans was pardoned in 1966). Another innocent man called Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953. (Derek Bentley was pardoned in 1998). The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis in 1955 and her case caused a great deal of controversy. Ruth shot her lover David Blakely but she probably wasn't in her right mind at the time. She suffered a miscarriage shortly before it happened. Then in 1956 Diana Dors starred in an anti-capital punishment film called Yield To The Night.

In 1957 a compromise was reached on capital punishment. The Homicide Act abolished hanging for certain kinds of murder. It was still allowed for murder during theft, by shooting or explosion. Capital punishment was also kept for the murder of a police officer or prison officer while on duty. (The last man to be hanged for killing a policeman in the UK was Gunther Podola in 1959). A person who murdered on more than one occasion could also be hanged. The Homicide Act also allowed people to plead not guilty to murder but guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.

The last men to be hanged in the UK were two men, Peter Allen and Gwynne Jones who were hanged on the same day in 1964. In Britain the death penalty for murder was abolished for an experimental period of 5 years in 1965. It was abolished permanently in 1969. Free votes were held on the restoration of capital punishment in 1979 and 1994 but both times it was rejected.

However capital punishment could in theory still be used for other crimes. Capital punishment for arson in the Royal Dockyards was abolished in 1971. In 1998 it was abolished for treason and piracy with violence. (The last person actually hanged for treason in Britain was Theodore Schurch in 1946). In 1999 the British Home Secretary signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights, formally ending capital punishment in the UK.

A history of punishment

A history of corporal punishment

A history of English society

A history of England

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