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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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The Wandsworth Prison Museum was founded and has been run by a London Historians Member for the past 10 years. He is a serving prison officer at HMP Wandsworth. He has organised these on-site events during 2018.

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WANDSWORTH PRISON MUSEUM
2008-2018 10th Anniversary Events

20.5.18 Boardroom Talk “ The Prison & the First World War” Spies, hangings,
Conscientious Objectors, Easter Rising.

8.7.18 “The Ronnie Biggs escape” (8.7.1965) External and internal wall walk
and talk during the history tour of the escape.

8.9.18 Boardroom talk “Wandsworth’s Last hanging and the end of capital
punishment” (8.9.1961)

4.11.18 Boardroom talk “Oscar Wilde, his time at HMP Wandsworth

The above events are taking place for a maximum of 20 per event, as part of a small scale celebration of 10 years of the Wandsworth Prison Museum.

The venue for the talks is the Governor’s Boardroom inside the prison but all groups will meet initially at the Wandsworth Prison Museum at 11am. The talks and one walk will be for approximately one hour.

To book.
As the venue is inside the prison, the following is needed to make a booking:
Name, address and date of birth of each visitor. Visitors must be over the age of 18.
One booking per person, which is not transferable as there may be a waiting list should any event be over booked.
Bookings can be made by emailing: Wandsworthprisonmuseum@hmps.gsi.gov.uk or in writing at Wandsworth Prison Museum, C/O POA Office, Heathfield Road, London SW18 3HS

The above is the current agenda, other events may be added if time and resources permit

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The Magpie and Stump in Old Bailey was famously a venue where – if you could afford it – you could get your kicks on a Monday morning watching the hanging outside Newgate Prison opposite. Although its building is now modern, the new licencee has refurbished the place to remind us of its macabre past. Here, beer historian Martyn Cornell ponders how far back we can trace this historical tavern.

A guest post by Martyn Cornell.

My library of pub books only seems to have a few brief mentions of the Magpie and Stump and none gives a definite age, though we can certainly push it back to nearly 300 years old at least. City of London Pubs (Richards and Curl, 1973) says it changed its name to the King of Denmark “[w]hen James I married Anne, a daughter of King Christian IV”, changing it back to the Magpie and Stump only after “many years elapsed”. If correct, this would mean the pub was around in 1589, which was when the marriage took place. There are a couple of problems here, though: Anne was the daughter of Frederick II, not Christian IV, who was her brother (though he WAS king of Denmark at the time of his sister’s marriage to James), and while James was, of course, heir presumptive to Elizabeth I in 1589, I’m not sure a pub in London would name itself after the royal brother-in-law of the ruler of a rival kingdom.

However, after James succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne, Christian IV came to visit his sister and brother-in-law, in 1606, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that the pub was renamed then: though according to this book  even before Christian’s visit, the Danes and their king had a reputation in England for being heavy drinkers. If the pub wasn’t actually renamed at the time of Charles IV’s visit to London, which seems perfectly possible, it seems just as likely it would have been renamed at some slightly earlier time around after a well-known heavy drinker with strong family links to the new king of England.

Whatever the true story here, the pub appears as “the Magpie” in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the rhyming “good pub guide” probably written by Edward “Ned” Ward and published around 1718, with the entry revealing that the inn sign showed the bird sitting on a stump, so it is definitely that old, at least, albeit under a shorter version of today’s name: The scan shows that it appears to have been a hangout of supporters of the (long-vanished) Commonwealth, as well as the “thieves, thieftakers and turnkeys” you might expect from its position by the prison, that the landlord’s name was “Sk–ck” (Skeock would be my guess – a rare North East of England/Scottish surname), and that the house tipple was Twopenny, which was a type of pale ale.

magpie and stump

Its politics look to be confirmed by a mention in Larwood and Hotten’s History of Signboards, which says that the Magpie and Stump “was the sign of one of the Whig pothouses in the Old Bailey during the riots of 1715”, that is, the Mug-House riots between supporters of the Hanoverians and the Stuarts, something confirmed by this entry from Chamber’s Book of Days  which again says the pub was just “the Magpie” in the early 18th century: presumably “and stump” was added because of what the inn sign showed.

HE Popham’s The Taverns In the Town (1937) says the Magpie and Stump at that time “bears a sign telling that it has been established over two hundred years”, which appears to have been an under-estimate even then. It also gives the story of “the gentry” hiring rooms at the pub to watch the public hangings that took place at Newgate Prison from 1783 to 1868. The Old Inns of London (Stanley, 1957) pretty much rehashes what Popham says.

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Martyn Cornell, who is a journalist and award-winning author, is one of our leading authorities on the history of British beer, the subject of his book, Amber, Gold and Black (2010). He also has an excellent blog: Martyn Cornell’s Zythophile.

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execution of 1st duke of monmouthThere can hardly be a more fascinating dramatis personae in London’s rich story than that of the Restoration. Aside from the king himself, we have playwrights, diarists, scientists, architects, building developers, projectors, wheeler-dealers of every stripe. Everybody striving, but striving in a general atmosphere of paranoia and fear. For the issues which dominated this highly politicised, religious and violent of centuries still persisted.

And so we come the legal profession, which was  kept extremely busy. Dozens of barristers making a name for themselves either defending or prosecuting Catholics and recusants, in fact anyone straying from the restored Anglican orthodoxy. From Judge Jeffreys at the pinnacle wielding terrible justice to the prisoners at the bottom. On the rung barely just above them, their own gaolers and executioners. Most notorious of these was Jack Ketch (unknown – 1686). Sometimes referred to John, his surname frequently rendered as “Catch”, his onomatopoeic moniker quickly became the stuff of legend, invoked even by frustrated parents as a warning to miscreant toddlers.

Even though Ketch was a public executioner almost continuously between 1666 and 1678, his background remains a mystery. Date of birth unknown, it’s thought that he came from Ireland. It is known that he lived near Grey’s Inn Road and was buried in Clerkenwell in 1686, predeceasing his wife, Katherine.

With at least eight public executions a year, at Tyburn and elsewhere in the capital, it is certain that Ketch would have despatched hundreds of prisoners, almost all by hanging. Those who were found guilty of treason were also drawn and quartered at his hand. The heads of traitors, as was the custom, were displayed on London Bridge, Temple Bar and other notable landmarks. The corpses of many prisoners who were not quartered, were instead gibbeted, that is to say displayed in a cage which was hung up near busy roadways. In order to make body parts and corpses last longer, the executioner would first immerse them in boiling pitch. Ketch did this at his headquarters in Newgate Prison which hence became known as Jack Ketch’s Kitchen.

Executioner is a macabre profession in any age, and there were many over the years, so why did Ketch become so notorious? First, there was his longevity in the job. Second, he was known to be unpleasant, and very frequently extremely drunk, on and off the job. Third, he was avaricious. He was constantly in dispute with the authorities over payment for quartering and “boylinge” of the bodies. A further stream of revenue, it was customary for the executioner to keep the clothes of the condemned, often very fancy in the case of the wealthy, people preferred to look their best en route to the scaffold. But in addition, the prisoner would often bribe the executioner with as much as he could afford, to despatch him as painlessly and quickly as possible. Ketch was known to milk this particular system in full. One has to wonder, therefore, how he ended up doing a spell in the Marshalsea for debt.

After 1678, Ketch continued to work as an executioner until his death and it’s from this period that almost certainly he derives his notoriety, in particular for his appalling incompetence in the beheadings of William, Lord Russell in 1683 for the Rye House Plot; and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 for his failed attempt on the throne itself. Beheadings during this period were relatively few, reserved for the high-born only. In earlier times it was customary to engage a specialist, often from the Continent, to do the job. Ketch had no experience as an axe-wielder and so he proved. In the case of Lord Russell, despite being given between ten and thirty guineas (accounts vary) to do a good job, he took at least three blows to sever the noble’s head, the first of which struck Russell on the shoulder! Some say Ketch had been deliberately vindictive, others that he was blind drunk. Perhaps he was both.

Two years later it was Monmouth’s turn. The Duke gave Ketch six guineas with a promise of more from his servant after the act and demanded that he do a better job this time:

Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russel. I have heard you struck him three or four times…

In vain. Ketch took a least five strikes this time. Halfway through he cast down his axe in frustration and was ordered to continue. In the end, he had to finish the task with a knife. The crowd were up in arms. The diarist John Evelyn wrote:

five Chopps … so incens’d the people, that had he not ben guarded & got away they would have torne him to pieces.

A year later, Ketch himself was dead.

But his fame was well established in his own time. Poems, ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, essays abounded, all laced with hefty dollops of black humour, irony and sarcasm. Within a generation he was resurrected, reinvented as the hangman in Punch and Judy shows, the one whom Mr Punch tricks into hanging himself.

Sources:
Wikipedia, as per.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required), profile by Tim Wales
Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday

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Dr William Dodd by John Russell

Dr William Dodd by John Russell, ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

When visiting Dr Johnson’s House recently, I was intrigued by the story of Dr William Dodd (1729 – 1777), a portrait of whom is on display there (not the one featured here). I met him again a few days ago where he is covered in Stephen Halliday’s excellent book about Newgate Prison (page 109), which I’m reading.

Dodd, a clergyman, was a social-climber, dilettante and bon viveur who, in order to support his lifestyle, put himself in terrible debt: this ultimately cost him his life. But he seemed to be well-liked as evidenced by the trouble that many influential people took to see him pardoned. To no avail.

In 1777, Dodd was tried for forgery and sentenced to death by hanging. Finding himself in insurmountable debt, he had forged a bond in the name of his friend the Earl of Chesterfield for £4,200, a whopping sum. The Earl himself did not wish for the prosecution to proceed, but matters were out of his hands. Even at his trial, the jurors themselves did not wish for Dodd to be condemned to death. There followed a petition of 37,000 to have him pardoned. Samuel Johnson and others vigorously petitioned for his life to be spared and the matter eventually reached the King. Despite Dodd having once been the King’s own chaplain, George III decided that he could not make a special case, and the flamboyant reverend’s fate was sealed.

Or was it? One of Dodd’s many past preoccupations was the development of a method to resuscitate victims of hanging. He collaborated on this with the eminent surgeon Dr Hunter and even published a paper on it. The procedure involved the immersion of the corpse in a warm bath. Immediately after his execution at Tyburn, Dodd’s friends rushed his body to a private house and attempted his own innovation to return  him to life, but unfortunately their efforts failed.

There is much more to tell about the fascinating Dr Dodd, a true eccentric. I recommend you follow the Wikipedia link above, whence there are excellent further external links.

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