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A guest post by Catharine Arnold, historian, author and London Historians member. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter for December 2018. 

RUTHOn 12 July 1955, 500 people massed outside the gates of Holloway Prison, singing and chanting for hours. The governor was forced to call for police reinforcements as the crowd protested against the execution of Ruth Ellis, a nightclub hostess who was due to be hanged at Holloway the very next day for shooting her lover. Ruth had been convicted of murder but a higher court, the court of public opinion, demanded a pardon. Ruth’s death sentence had already provoked outrage. Fifty thousand signed a petition begging for the death penalty on Ruth to be lifted, but it had been rejected by the Home Secretary. Ruth was about to become the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Ruth had not always been a victim. Indeed, she was a survivor, overcoming child abuse and teenage pregnancy after an affair with a US airman, before finding work as a nightclub hostess in London. In 1950 she married George Ellis, a wealthy dentist she’d met at a club, but Ellis turned out to be a violent alcoholic, possessive and controlling. Leaving her children with her mother, Ruth went back to work. With her glittering ash blonde hair, She soon became the main attraction at the ‘Little Club’ in Mayfair, happy to pose nude for the so-called ‘Camera Club’ even when there was no film in the cameras. Driven and aspirational, Ruth took elocution and etiquette classes. Impressed by Ruth’s ambition, her boss promoted her to manager of another club, Carroll’s. It was here that Ruth met David Blakely, a handsome young racing driver, and fell hopelessly in love. Blakely moved into Ruth’s flat above the club and she was soon bankrolling him to subsidise his racing career. But Blakely swiftly proved to be another violent alcoholic, cheating on her with both women and men, then returning to his upper class fiancée in the county at weekends.

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Ruth and David at Brooklands racetrack.

Ruth and Blakely’s affair was tempestuous, fuelled by alcohol and punctuated by terrible rows. On one occasion Ruth ended up in the Middlesex Hospital with a sprained ankle and a black eye. On another, when she confessed to Blakely that she was pregnant, he hit her so hard she miscarried. At such times, Ruth turned for comfort to an older man, Desmond Cussen, a former Lancaster bomber pilot. Events came to a head on Easter Sunday, 1955. Blakely was spending the holiday weekend with his friend and mechanic, Seaton Findlater, at Tanza Avenue, Hampstead, and ignoring Ruth’s calls. When she arrived there, Blakely refused to see her, even though she could hear him inside, flirting with the nanny. Ruth responded by smashing all the windows in his car. A second visit proved even more humiliating, with Ruth muttering to Cussen that ‘if I had a gun I would kill him!’ The third, and last visit took place on the Sunday. With Cussen at the wheel, Ruth waited for Blakely outside the Magdala pub in South Hill Park. When Blakely emerged, Ruth pulled Cussen’s .38 Smith &Wesson revolver out of her handbag and fired at point blank range, with one stray bullet hitting an elderly lady pedestrian. After emptying the gun into Blakely as he lay on the ground, Ruth said calmly: ‘Call the police.’ She was immediately arrested by an off-duty police officer.

ruth and david

Ruth with David Blakely.

When Ruth appeared before Mr Justice Havers at Number 1 Court of the Old Bailey on 20 June 1955, she was dressed in an elegant black suit with freshly peroxided hair, looking as if she was just about to open up at Carroll’s. Ignoring her barrister’s advice, Ruth could not have looked less repentant. Another shock came when Ruth’s barrister stated that she would be pleading guilty, on the grounds of Blakely’s brutal abuse. But the biggest shock of all came when Mr Christmas Humphreys, prosecuting, asked:
‘When you fired that revolver at close range, into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?’

‘It is obvious’ Ruth replied, in a calm, audible voice. ‘When I shot him, I intended to kill him.’

The jury took just fourteen minutes to find Ruth guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. This provoked outrage in the press, while Raymond Chandler, that expert on femmes’ fatales, described Ruth’s sentence as ‘the mediaeval savagery of the law’. The judge Cecil Havers filed a personal request for a reprieve. It was ignored. But Ruth had already condemned herself to death, when she squeezed the trigger of that Smith and Wesson. By shooting Blakely, she effectively killed them both.

On 13 July 1955, Ruth wrote to Blakely’s parents, concluding, ‘I have always loved your son, and I will die still loving him.’ Then she put her diamante spectacles down on the table, saying, ‘I won’t need these any more,’ and went to her death. Outside the prison another crowd had gathered, silent this time, waiting for the execution at nine o’clock. When notice of Ruth’s death was posted outside Holloway at 9.18, the angry crowd surged forwards, blocking the road and stopping traffic.

Ruth was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint who later said, ‘She died as brave as any man and she never spoke a single word’.

As with every murder, this case left a painful legacy. Ruth’s estranged husband, George Ellis hanged himself soon afterwards. Ruth’s mother attempted to gas herself and was left with brain damage. Ruth’s son, Andy, who had been supported by Cecil Havers, smashed up his mother’s gravestone and then killed himself. Mr Christmas Humphries paid for his funeral. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, became an alcoholic. A failed singer, she appeared in a cringeworthy chat show interview with Michael Barrymore, before dying of cancer in 2000. Ruth’s story has inspired much speculation and many conspiracy theories, one of which places her at the heart of a Cold War espionage operation because of her friendship with society osteopath Stephen Ward.

In 2003, Ruth’s case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, but was rejected. Her family continues to campaign for her posthumous pardon.

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A new exhibition on the history of HMP Wandworth opens at the Wandsworth Museum this Friday, commemorating the 160th anniversary of the former Surrey House of Correction.

Now an imposing and grim Victorian edifice, in 1851 the gaol was the acme of modern theory on incarceration and rehibilitation, incorporating the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and other deep thinkers on such matters. The name of the exhibition is a good summary: Separation and Silence. Victorians viewed criminality as a kind of illness that could be cured in the same was as disease, that is to say isolating patients/prisoners from infection, first and foremost. Hence prisons were built that accommodated prisoners one to a cell with no interaction with other human beings – apart from warders – whatsoever. And these are the gaols that are so familiar to us today through TV programmes such as Porridge and countless crime dramas.

The exhibition tells us all about the history of HMP Wandsworth – mostly grim but deeply interesting – yet also features photography, artwork and needlework by currently serving prisoners. Without being in any way patronising, these are all of astoundingly high quality: there’s talent behind them bars. So there is an upbeat side to the show as well.

The most engaging part of the show is inevitably celebrity (Oscar Wilde, Ronald Biggs) and capital punishment (John Amery, William Joyce, Derek Bentley). HMP Wandworth had a working gallows right up until 1993. Although capital punishment was generally abolished in 1965, there were still capital crimes on the statute books that recently (treason, piracy with violence etc.). The most macabre exhibit is an execution box, which contained the tools of the trade that despatchers such as Albert Pierrepoint used. See the image below.

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No prison exhibition would be complete without this.

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Prison cell furniture, made by prisoners themselves. No nails, screws: all wood, dowels etc.

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Execution box. All the paraphernalia to despatch the condemned. Contains two nooses, just in case.

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Briefcase and personal belongings of HB (Harry) Allen, Britain's last working executioner, who despatched James Hanratty in 1962.

This show is an excellent peek behind the walls of Victorian prisons, so many of which are still with us today.

Separation and Silence opens on 16 September and runs until 31 December. Entry is £4. More information from the Wandsworth Museum web site.

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