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When Was The Death Penalty Abolished In The UK?

December 21st, 2019
by:Ama Lorenz
located in:United Kingdom
tags:death penalty, human-rights, UK

A little history of the death penalty in the UK, and why capital punishment was abolished in 1965.

The early years of the death penalty.

Since the early Anglo-Saxon times, the favoured method of execution in the UK has been hanging. However, that didn’t mean a trip to a purpose-built gallows by horse and cart. The convicted could be hanged from said horse and cart or from some form of stepladder, with a rope slung over a convenient tree. They would die a miserable death from suffocation. Burning at the stake was popular between the 11th and 13th century for conviction of the crime of heresy in the 11th century, and treason in the 13th, and beheading was popular with Royalty.

As in most other countries of the world, life was cheap, and punishment barbaric. In the 13th century England, being convicted of treason could see you ‘hung, drawn, and quartered’. A process that saw the guilty dragged to a place of public execution, hanged by the neck until dead, then beheaded, disembowelled, and their limbs cut off. The head was often displayed on a stake.

Growing criticism of the death penalty.

There were many trivial misdemeanours a hapless person could commit which would often land them on a gallows. From the 1600s to the early 1800s, England had over 200 offences punishable by death. These could be as minor as poaching, cutting down a tree, petty theft, or working as a pickpocket. Although this period was known as Britain’s ‘Bloody Code’, they bought these statutes in as a deterrent and, on the surface at least, it seemed to work.

For several reasons, throughout the 18th century, there were fewer people executed than in the 16th and 17th centuries combined. As well as the deterrent element, by the late 1700s, early 1800s, the population was losing its appetite for needless death penalties in the UK. For instance, theft of goods above a certain value was a capital offence, so juries found ways to reduce the value of the goods, allowing the defendant to receive a custodial sentence, rather than facing the gallows.

During this same period, ‘transportation,' rather than hanging, was used as a popular punishment for those convicted of petty theft, or less serious crimes. Convicts were transported to the Americas and then, after the American Revolution, to Australia.

In 1806, a barrister by the name of Sir Samuel Romilly was appointed Solicitor General, and during his time in office, managed to repeal the death penalty for some minor misdemeanours. In 1834, Liberal MP William Ewart also got bills passed to reduce the number of capital offences, including abolishing the death penalty for rustling. In 1861, the death penalty in the UK was abolished for all crimes except those of high treason, piracy with violence, arson in royal dockyards, and murder. Some seven years later, public hanging ended, with the introduction of the Capital Punishment Act.

Capital punishment in the early 20th century.

By the end of the 1800s, there was already growing concern over the validity of the evidence for several convictions for murder. Nonetheless, the majority of these unfortunate souls still found themselves on the gallows. After the Great War, further legislation reduced the use of the death penalty in the UK. In 1922 the Infanticide Act protected mothers who had killed their new-born child, from the threat of hanging, provided an unbalanced state of mind at the time could be proven. In 1931, the death penalty for pregnant women was abolished, followed in 1933 by the abolishment of the death penalty for all those under the age of 18 years.

With controversial verdicts on several murder cases continuing to hit the headlines, the number of vocal, high profile capital punishment abolitionists continued to grow. By the early 1920s the penal reform group, ‘The Howard League’, became involved, and in 1927 the Labour Party published its ‘Manifesto on Capital Punishment.’ As the anti-capital punishment lobby began to gather pace, a Select Committee was set up in 1929, and published its findings the following year, recommending a trial five-year suspension of the death penalty. However, the committee’s suggestion was never followed up.

The death penalty in the UK in the mid-1900s.

After the end of World War II, the new Labour government again failed to get the abolition of the death penalty included in the 1948 Criminal Justice Act, although flogging and prison with hard labour was abolished. In the 1950s, new controversial cases involving the death penalty in the UK continued to hit the headlines and fuelled continued concern over the use of capital punishment. These controversies included the hanging of at least two innocent men, Timothy Evans in 1950, and Derek Bentley in 1953. The last woman to receive the death penalty in the UK was Ruth Ellis. Although she had suffered mental and physical abuse, and everything pointed to the fact she was mentally unbalanced at the time she shot her lover, she was hanged in 1955.

The death penalty was finally abolished in 1965.

Another failed attempt to abolish the death penalty was made in 1956, by Labour’s MP Sydney Silverman. However, in 1957, a change to the Homicide Act further reduced the types of murder that carried the death penalty. These remaining capital crimes were the murder of a police officer or murdering in the furthering of robbery. These changes reduced the number of hangings in the UK to three or four a year. On 13th August 1964, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were the last people to be hanged in the UK. They were convicted of killing a taxi driver during the act of robbing him (in furtherance of theft) and consequently received a death sentence.

In 1965, the Murder Act, (the Abolition of the Death Penalty), suspended the use of capital punishment in the UK for a period of five years, before making it permanent in 1969, and replacing it with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. In 1971, the death penalty for arson in Royal dockyards was abolished, and in Northern Ireland, the death penalty was abolished in 1973. In 1998, capital punishment in the UK for acts of treason, and piracy with violence were also abolished, finally making the UK totally free of the death penalty.

Article written by:
Ama Lorenz
Editor-in-Chief, Editorial Board Member, Author
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From the 1600s to the early 1800s, England had over 200 offences punishable by death.
In 1957, a change to the Homicide Act further reduced the types of murder that carried the death penalty.
In 1965, the Murder Act, (the Abolition of the Death Penalty), suspended the use of capital punishment in the UK for a period of five years, before making it permanent in 1969.
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