The short, tragic life of the last woman to be hanged

Family finally wins its campaign for a manslaughter verdict to be considered half a century after execution
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The Independent Online

The shooting dead of an upper-class playboy by a beautiful nightclub hostess caused a sensation in 1955.

The trial of Ruth Ellis gripped the nation and led to one of the most notorious cases in British criminal history.

It resulted in the death by hanging of Ellis, the last women to be executed in Britain, and has spawned a money-making industry including the film Dance With A Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson, and shelves of books.

Details of the extraordinary case are to be sifted once again after the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred it to the Court of Appeal, agreeing there was evidence supporting demands for the murder conviction to be reduced to manslaughter.

Ruth Ellis lived a tragic life, the hardship of which is only now being recognised by the criminal justice system.

An Old Bailey jury took just 23 minutes to pronounce Ellis guilty of shooting her lover David Blakely, a racing car driver, as he emerged from the Magdala Tavern in Hampstead, north-west London, on 10 April 1955. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

Outside the court, debate raged about the morality of killing a woman who had two young children. Thousands of people signed a petition calling for a reprieve.

In court, Ellis seems to have been judged for her morals as much as for her crime. A party girl and club "hostess", she led a life filled with jealous lovers and vicious beatings. On trial for her life, Ellis did little to help herself, refusing to bow to Fifties sensibilities. Instead, she appeared in her customary regalia, hair freshly bleached, lips painted and head held high.

After being found guilty she refused to appeal against her death sentence.

A month later, on 13 July 1955, aged 28, she was hanged outside Holloway prison, while a crowd waited at the gates.

But there were mitigating circumstances that might have saved Ellis from the gallows. Only now will the courts hear many of the explanations and provocations that led the young woman to kill. The CCRC believes there is a "real possibility" the Court of Appeal will clear her murder conviction and substitute it for the lesser offence of manslaughter.

The basis of the fresh appeal is largely on Ellis' state of mind, after suffering abuse at the hands of her lovers and father, and most notably suffering from post miscarriage depression after Blakely punched her in the stomach causing her to lose their unborn baby.

As a child she suffered years of sexual abuse from her hard-drinking father, the failed musician Arthur Neilson. Ellis left school at 14 and when the family moved to south London she spent most nights at the local dance hall.

When she was 17, Ellis fell in love with a Canadian soldier and became pregnant. He promised to marry her, but returned to Canada and wrote to say he already had a wife and children. Ellis had a son, Andre, born in September 1944. By the time she was 20, Ellis was working at a West End drinking club as a hostess, and entertaining clients at her flat upstairs. It was at the club she met a man known as "the mad dentist" – George Ellis, an alcoholic who became her husband and who regularly beat her. They had a daughter, Georgina, before the marriage ended.

Ellis became the manager of the Little Club, in Knightsbridge, central London, and fell in love with Blakely, 26. He was a handsome, ex-public school boy, with whom Ellis became obsessed. He had a string of public affairs which fuelled Ellis's jealousy.

At the same time, however, she was having an affair with a client, the wealthy businessman Desmond Cussen, 34, who wanted to marry her. It was this triangle that led to Ellis's downfall. She had already had an abortion after getting pregnant by Blakely, and she was expecting their second child when her lover punched her in the stomach, leading to the miscarriage. This was 10 days before the shooting and is the subject of an influential psychiatric report presented to the CCRC which says she was suffering from miscarriage or post natal depression.

At the trial, her miscarriage was not revealed. Nor was the truth of how she acquired a gun – from her jealous lover Desmond Cussen – which forms the second strand for the appeal. According to the evidence presented to the CCRC, Cussen, who moved to Australia after the trial and has since died, wanted to get rid of Blakely and had persuaded Ellis to kill him. He drove her to the scene of the killing after plying her with alcohol.

Though it was not revealed in court, Ellis's son, Andre, recalled seeing Cussen show his mother how to use a gun.

Through the decades, the reverberations of those tragic events have been felt by many.

George, her former husband, hanged himself in 1958. Andre took an overdose and died in 1982. Her daughter Georgie, who had campaigned for decades to clear her mother's name, died of cancer last November at the age of 50 – just months before news of the successful appeal.

Ellis's sister, Muriel Jakubait, 81, remains the chief family campaigner, who has been backed by the Cardiff-based firm of solicitors, Bernard and Matthew De Maid

Ms Jakubait spoke last night of her delight at the decision to have the case heard at the Court of Appeal.

"It's means everything to me. Everyone in the family has suffered terribly, but I have never given up hope of clearing Ruth's name.

"Blakely was a right so and so. He used to knock her around. After the miscarriage she was out of her mind. Her brain was in such a state she didn't know what she was doing. My mother spoke to her the day before the shooting and said she was in a real state and had been drinking.

"Cussen was also responsible – he was always rubbing it in and making Ruth jealous abut Blakely being with other women. In the end he just got to her."