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This page provides a brief history of 20th Century UK capital punishment and its eventually abolishment.

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History of UK Capital Punishment

In the years after the end of the war in 1945, there were several notable cases. Either due to the coverage given by the British media, the case's use by the pro- or anti-capital punishment people and the innocence of the executed person. In fact since 1945 three people have received posthumous pardons: Timothy Evans in 1966 and in 1998 both Mahood Mattan and Derek Bentley. After the abolishing of capital punishment, there have been several famous cases of miscarriages of justice which would have resulted in executions, if that option had been available. A good example of this is the Birmingham Six case.

It is almost two hundrea, sans-serif" size="2">It is almost two hundred years since Samuel Romilly introduced reforms in 1808 to abolish the death penalty for some of the 200-plus capital offences under England's "Bloody Code". Capital offences in this "Bloody Code" included:

  • being in the company of gypsies for one month;
  • vagrancy for soldiers and sailors;
  • "strong evidence of malice" in children aged 7-14 years of age.

Between 1832-34 Parliament abolished the death penalty for shoplifting goods worth five shillings or less, returning from transportation, letter-stealing and sacrilege. This measure to remove a punishment which was out of all proportion to the crime, increased the rate of convictions as judges were able to pass sentences which they viewed as more appropriate.

Gibbeting - where executed corpses were displayed publicly in cages - was abolished in 1843. In 1861, the number of capital crimes to four: murder, treason, arson in royal dockyards and piracy with violence. Public executions stopped in 1868 and the hanging, beheading and quartering of traitors ended in 1870.

Less than one century later, Parliament voted to suspend for five years the death penalty for murder when it passed Sidney Silverman's Private Member's Bill in 1965.

This was the fourth time that the House of Commons had voted for abolition but the first time it had actually become law. A Commons vote in 1938 called for legislation to abolish hanging in peacetime for a five-year experiment - but the onset of World War Two meant no more happened. Two later attempts were blocked by the House of Lords and then side-stepped by Labour and Conservative governments. The Labour government created a Royal Commission on the death penalty in 1948. The Conservative government came up with compromise legislation in 1957.

At the start of the century, the mandatory punishment for murder was death by hanging. A jury could aid a "recommendation to mercy", but this could be disregarded by the Home Secretary. There was no other sentence allowed in the law. Only one appeal could be mounted to the Court of Criminal Appeal on the grounds of conviction. For example, the judge misdirecting the jury and incorrect points of law. That was the only appeal allowed to the courts. If the Attorney General considered that the case contained important points of law, he could refer the case to the House of Lords (the highest court in the UK).

Once this stage had been reached, the Home Secretary could commute the sentence to one of Life Imprisonment. If he decided that the law should take its course, then that was it. Later Home Secretaries could ask for a medical panel to assess the condemned prisoner's mental condition.

Homicide Act 1957

Due to several controversial cases in the post world war two years, several abolishment campaigns were mounted. In 1957, the Homicide Act 1957 was passed. This restricted capital punishment in murder cases to five types of murder:

  • Murder in the course or furtherance of theft.
  • Murder by shooting or causing an explosion.
  • Murder while resisting arrest or during an escape.
  • Murder of a police officer or prison officer.
  • Two murders committed on different occasions.

These restrictions attempted to reserve the ultimate punishment in law for those people that were viewed, by society's politicians, as deserving the final and irreversible punishment. They also produced some unfairness themselves: why should someone who strangles a person not be eligible for hanging, whilst someone who shoots someone could be executed? Also murder in the course of theft was punishable by death, while murder in the course of rape was not. This fuelled further public disquiet against the death penalty. Capital murder convictions became less common.

The last executions in Britain were of two men on 13 August 1964. Peter Anthony Allen, aged 21, was hanged in Walton gaol, Liverpool and Gwynne Owen Evans, aged 24, was hanged in Strangeways, Manchester. They were both convicted of the murder of John Alan West, while robbing him in his house on 7 April 1964.

Capital Punishment Abolished

Notable Date Notable Event
1908 People under 16 are no longer liable for hanging.
1922 Infanticide (Mother killing her child) is no longer a capital offence.
1931 Pregnant Women are no longer hanged.
1933 People under 18 are not executed. sentenced to Her/His Majesty's Pleasure.
1948 House of Commons suspends capital punishment. Overruled by House of Lord's.
9 March 1950 Timothy John Evans hanged at Pentonville Prison.
28 January 1953 Derek Bentley hanged at Wandsworth Prison for the murder of P.C. Miles.
13 July 1955 Last Women hanged in U.K (Ruth Ellis at Holloway Prison).
1956 The passing of Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill is overturned by Lord's.
1957 Homicide Act 1957 restricts use of capital punishment.
23 July 1957 First execution under the 1957 act: John Vickers.
5 November 1959 Last execution for murder of police officer: Gunther Podola.
13 August 1964 Last executions: Peter Anthony Allen & Gwynne Owen Evans.
1965 Capital punishment in murder cases is suspended for 5 years.
1966 Timothy John Evans receives a posthumous pardon.
1969 Capital punishment for murder is abolished.
February 1998 Mahmood Mattan receives a posthumous pardon.
July 1998 Derek Bentley receives a posthumous pardon.

Parliament then voted to abolish the death penalty for murder for a five-year experiment in 1965. Just before the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965 received its Royal Assent, the Home Office allowed the reburial of Timothy Evans outside Pentonville prison. It was the start of a process which led to Evans being granted a posthumous free pardon in October 1966.

On 20 May 1998, a free vote during a debate on the Human Rights Bill, MP’s decided by 294 to 136, a 158 majority, to adopt provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights outlawing capital punishment for murder except "in times of war or imminent threat of war." The Bill incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law.

On 31 July 1998, The Criminal Justice Bill removed High Treason and piracy with violence as capital crimes, thus effectively ending capital punishment.

On 27 January 1999. The UK Home Secretary formally signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights in Strasbourg, on behalf of the British government formally abolishing the death penalty in the UK.

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