The death penalty was used in the UK since the founding of the state. It had been abolished for the first time in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, but was reinstated by his son, William Rufus.
Traditionally, those sentenced to death were executed by hanging. Sometimes, however, if the person was still alive, the executioner would pull out his intestines. This arrangement existed until the early 19th century – the last such punishment occurred in 1820. Yet, it was not the only way – the last person was beheaded in 1747. According to the law of 1401 women were burned at the stake for heresy, and in the 18th century they were burned for killing their husbands. This method of punishment was abolished in 1790. Public executions were abolished in 1868 by the decision of the Royal Commission.
The list of offenses punishable by death was called the "Bloody Code". In 1688 it included 50 crimes, and in 1776 this number increased to 220. Most of these crimes were "economic", including theft and forgery of documents. Thus, the UK authorities protected the property of the wealthy from the poor, the class gap was very large.
In 1770, Sir William Meredith suggested that Parliament consider "more proportionate punishments." His proposal was rejected but it opened up the debate.
In 1810, Sir Samuel Romilly spoke in the House of Commons condemning the widespread use of the death penalty: "There is no other state on Earth with such an extensive list of offenses, for which the culprits are sentenced to death”. This marked the beginning of the judicial reform leading towards the abolition of the death penalty. Since 1823, judges got an opportunity to replace the death penalty with another sentence, and the number of crimes punishable with death decreased after the exclusion of pickpocketing, forging the will and rape. By 1861, the list of such crimes included only murder, treason and deliberate arson of the Royal Shipyards and piracy.
However, by this time it was already obvious that in most cases the death penalty was replaced by another punishment or pardon. Between 1770 and 1830, there were issued about 35,000 death sentences in England and Wales, of which 7,000 were executed.
The first attempt to introduce a moratorium was made by the Parliament in 1930. It was recommended to suspend the application of the death penalty for 5 years in order to assess the consequences. However, a final decision wasn't taken.
In 1938, this issue was again brought to the Parliament through a clause in the Criminal Justice Bill – it was an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty. However, the bill was postponed due to the outbreak of war in 1939.
Between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales, as well as ten German agents during the First World War and 16 spies during World War II.
At the same time, in 1925 the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment formed and continued to campaign for abolition up to the end. Several then well known Left wing politicians were members of this, including prime minister to be, Harold Wilson. It would be wrong to leave out mention of one of the most tireless campaigners against capital punishment in the period from 1935 to 1960. This was Violet Van der Elst (1882-1966) who was also known as “Sweet Violet” and less flatteringly as “VD Elsie”. Although she came from a humble background she became very wealthy and would arrive outside prisons on the eve of an execution in her Rolls Royce. Here she would play hymns through loudspeakers and distribute leaflets to the crowd. She was considered as an annoyance by the authorities and an object of amusement and derision by the public. It was not at all unusual for her to be fined for causing an obstruction or for some other minor public order offence. Her first major demonstration took place outside Wandsworth on at the hanging of Leonard Bristock on April 2, 1935. She wrote a book entitled “On the Gallows” in 1937 which was an apologia for some recently hanged criminals both in Britain and in the USA. It is unclear whether her campaigning really had any effect.
After the end of the war, in April 1948, the House of Commons resumed its discussion and to everyone's surprise the bill was adopted by a majority vote. From March to October 1948 the penalty was not applied (the Labour Home Secretary, Lord James Chuter-Ede, announced that he would reprieve all murderers until the future of the Bill was resolved). The House of Lords rejected the Bill in late 1948, but it was decided to set up a Royal Commission (1949-1953) under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers to examine all aspects of capital punishment, including the most humane method of execution (lethal injections and others) or its replacement with other punishments. This initiative had no public support – society was convinced that the death penalty deterred crime, and spoke against its abolition. As a result, the Commission concluded that it wasn't worth abolishing the death penalty in the absence of public support. Thus, as a result of the commission's work there were only introduced changes to certain aspects – improvement of conditions of detention on death row, compulsory psychiatric examination of the accused and convicted of murder, improvement of the process of execution.
However, public opinion began to change in connection with the facts of judicial errors that had received publicity. An innocent man named Timothy Evans was hanged in 1950 (Evans had been convicted of killing his wife and young daughter, but later it turned out that the killer was his landlord John Reginald Christie, who also killed other women in Timothy's house. Evans was acquitted in 1966). Another innocent man, Derek Bentley, was hanged in 1953 (he was acquitted in 1998). The last woman, Ruth Ellis, was executed in 1955, and her case also caused a lot of controversy. Ruth fired at her lover David Blakely, but she was out of her mind, having suffered a miscarriage shortly before the incident.
In November 1955, Sidney Silverman introduced the Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill to the House of Commons and it was passed by the House of Commons in February, 1956. Once again, the Home Secretary, now Major Gwilym Lloyd George (later Lord Tenby), took it upon himself to reprieve all those condemned. Forty nine people escaped the gallows and there were no executions between August 10, 1955 and July 23, 1957. In 1957, the Government introduced the Homicide Act 1957 which tried to distinguish between different categories of murder. This act limited the death penalty to five categories of murder:
- murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft;
- murder by shooting or causing explosions;
- murder in the course of or for the purpose of resisting, avoiding or preventing lawful arrest or effecting or assisting an escape from lawful custody;
- murder of a police officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him;
- murder by a prisoner of a prison officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him.
Additionally, it allowed for the execution of a person who committed a second separate murder on a different occasion from the first.
Finally in 1965, Sidney Silverman, who has dedicated over 20 years to the abolition of the death penalty, introduced a Private Member's Bill to suspend the death penalty for 5 years. The House of Commons adopted the Law by 200 votes to 98, the House of Lords – by 204 votes to 104. Within five years, each of the chambers had the opportunity to adopt a resolution to make this law permanent. In 1969, the Minister of Internal Affairs, James Callaghan, made a proposal to abolish the death penalty for murder on a continuous basis. The decision was adopted on December 16, 1969 in the House of Commons and December 18 in the House of Lords.
Since that time, the Parliament of Great Britain has more than once heard proposals for a return to the death penalty. A free vote was held in 1979 and in 1994. However, it had not been supported by the majority of MPs.
In Northern Ireland, the penalty for murder was abolished only in 1973 due to the state of emergency on its territory. The last execution, however, took place there back in 1961. The death penalty for arson in the Royal Shipyard was abolished in 1971. In 1998 it was canceled for state treason and piracy with violence (in fact, the last execution for treason was performed in 1946).
The last executions took place in the UK on the day of the moratorium – at 8 a.m. on August 13, 1964, one in Manchester and one in Liverpool. Gwyn Evans and Peter Allen were hanged for killing a man during a failed burglary.
In 1999, the British Home Secretary signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, officially ending the death penalty in the United Kingdom, except for "actions committed during the time of war or of imminent threat of war".
February 1, 2004, the death penalty was canceled in the United Kingdom in all circumstances due to the ratification of the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Curiously, Albert Pierrepoint, first an Assistant Executioner in 1932 and a Chief Executioner in 1941, who retired in 1956, became a consistent opponent of the death penalty. Later he opened a pub in Lancashire and wrote in his memoirs:
"The fruit of my experience has this bitter after-taste: that I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”