Capital punishment: When we were happy to have a hangman

Saddam Hussein's death sentence has reignited the debate over capital punishment. This country wasn't always so squeamish, reports Katy Guest
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The Independent Online

When Saddam Hussein heard last week that he would be "hanged until he is dead for crimes against humanity", the announcement inevitably upset the British moral code.

Some welcomed this expression of "Iraqi justice". Others decried it as barbaric. The Prime Minister was reluctantly forced to make a statement: "Our position on the death penalty is well known: we're opposed to it." Across the country it was squeamishly accepted that the death penalty is something the British just don't do.

But while execution for the crime of murder was abolished by Parliament in 1965, the last person sentenced to death in the British Isles was Anthony Teare, convicted of a contract killing in the Isle of Man in 1992. The sentence was not commuted, but by the time of Teare's retrial in 1994, hanging had finally been removed from the Isle of Man Criminal Code.

The last Briton to be executed abroad was John Martin Scripps, hanged for murder in Singapore in 1996. Apparently he was convinced, said a family member, "that there would be some last-minute reprieve, simply on the grounds that he was a Briton abroad". The Foreign Office considered his case, but decided not to appeal for clemency.

Until 1998, though, it was still technically possible to be executed in this country. It was Section 36 of that year's Crime and Disorder Act that abolished the death penalty for treason offences and piracy with violence.

Polls still show broad support for hanging and leading Conservative David Davis demanded its reinstatement in 1993.

But abolition found some unlikely supporters. The most famous of them was Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last official executioner.

He died in 1992, knowing that none of the 400 men and women he hanged had ever repented. "I have come to the conclusion," he said, "that executions solve nothing."

Last woman to die

Ruth Ellis, 27, was the most notorious, but not the last, person to be executed in postwar Britain after a jury took 14 minutes to convict her of shooting her lover, David Blakely. Some 50,000 people signed a clemency petition, but the Conservative Home Secretary, Major Gwilym Lloyd George, rejected it and she was hanged at Holloway Prison on 13 July 1955. Ellis's estranged husband hanged himself in 1958 and her son never recovered, committing suicide in 1982. Ellis's story was told in the 1985 film 'Dance With a Stranger'. The furore at her death contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.

A double hanging

Britain's last double hanging took place at Pentonville on 17 June 1954 when 22-year-old Kenneth Gilbert and 24-year-old Ian Grant were executed side by side by Albert Pierrepoint. They were hanged for the sake of £2 - the amount they stole during the robbery of a London hotel which ended with the violent murder of its night porter, 55-year-old George Smart (left). One of the pair might have escaped hanging, but they blamed each other and so were both found guilty. A subsequent appeal was dismissed. Double hangings were outlawed by the Homicide Act of 1957.