Hanged for murder: Fiftieth anniversary of last people to be executed in UK

An unheralded walk to the gallows that proved a milestone for justice

When, at 8am on 13 August 1964, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans took a short walk to the gallows to be hanged for murder, the deaths of two hapless petty criminals were little mourned and little noticed.

The executions merited only a few lines in a couple of daily newspapers. Everyone expected more hangings would follow.

Instead Allen and Evans became the last people to be executed in Britain. Wednesday this week will be the 50th anniversary not just of their deaths, but of a major milestone in the history of British justice.

The death penalty for murder was suspended for a trial period the year after they were executed. In 1969 it was abolished altogether by a vote in the House of Commons, which won an overwhelming majority and loud cheers from the public gallery.

So a killing characterised more by incompetent desperation than anything resembling cold-blooded calculation acquired a significance few could have imagined at the time.

Needing money to pay off magistrates fines of £10 imposed on them for earlier thefts, the two jobless men had driven to the home of Evans’ former workmate John West, 53, in Seaton, Cumbria, to request the loan of “a few quid”.

Mr West refused to give them any money. His stabbed and battered body was found the next day. Tracing the two suspects was hardly difficult. Evans had left his raincoat at the scene, with a medallion inscribed with his name.

Letters from both men’s mothers begging the Home Secretary Henry Brooke to grant clemency had no effect.

At Strangeways, Manchester, Evans, 24, was led from his cell by Harry Allen, who always wore a bow tie for the job as a sign of “respect” and once claimed he “never felt a moment’s remorse” for his executions.

Thirty-five miles away in Walton Jail, Liverpool, Allen, 21, shouted “Jesus” as he was led to the gallows by his executioner Robert Stewart.

Former prison officer George Donaldson who witnessed the execution, told the makers of the ITV documentary Executed: “At the last minute he seemed to make some sort of effort to throw himself, but he didn’t get the chance. The lever dropped, the door opened and down he went. It was all over. “

From murder to double execution had taken just 18 weeks. It was too late for Evans and Allen, but an abolitionist campaign that dated at least as far back as the formation of the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty (NCADP), in 1923 – after the dubious execution of Edith Thompson – was beginning to bear fruit. It was fuelled by cases like that of Derek Bentley, a 19-year-old with a mental age of 11 who was hanged in 1953 for the murder of a policeman, despite not having fired the fatal shot. The officer had told Bentley’s accomplice to hand over the gun, and the teenager had uttered the highly ambiguous phrase: “Let him have it.”

Also in 1953 it was discovered that the Rillington Place serial killer John Christie had been the real murderer of Beryl Evans and her baby daughter Geraldine. Mrs Evans’ husband Timothy had been wrongly hanged in 1950.

Mr Evans’ sister Maureen Westlake told the Executed documentary, to be broadcast on Tuesday night: “The last time I saw him, he did look like a 10-year-old. His face was all pale. He waved and said, ‘cheerio’.”

“It’s the Government that murdered Tim. Not killed him. Murdered him.”

In January this year, a poll found that 54 per cent of British people want the return of the death penalty.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss