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Capital Punishment in UK

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Capital Punishment in UK

Did you know that the last execution in the UK took place in the 1960s? Capital punishment was used in the UK for centuries. The last execution in the UK was on 13 August 1964. Capital punishment for murder was suspended in 1965 and eventually abolished for murder in 1969. Then in 1998, capital punishment for treason and piracy with violence was abolished, making Britain fully abolitionist both in practice and in law.

Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, is the execution of an offender (criminal) sentenced to death after being convicted of a crime by a court of law.

History of capital punishment in the UK

Although the death penalty is mentioned in the fifth century BC in the code of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, it was not applied in Great Britain until the fifth century AD.

A brief timeline of the death penalty in Great Britain:

  • 5th Century => Hanging was first introduced as the main form of execution in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

  • 10th Century => Hanging became the general method of execution in Britain.

  • 11th Century => William the Conqueror abolished capital punishment for all crimes except crimes committed in times of war. However, his son William Rufus reintroduced capital punishment.

  • 16th Century => Under the reign of Henry VIII, an estimated 72,000 people were executed.

  • The 1700s => The number of capital crimes rose to no less than 222. This legal system was called the ‘Bloody Code’.

  • 18231837 => The Bloody Code led to death penalty reform, and within this period, the number of capital crimes decreased from 222 to 100.

British forms of punishment throughout history

As mentioned above, the main form of punishment was hanging. However, over the centuries, other methods have been used:

  • 11th Century => Burning at stake was used as punishment for heresy 13th Century.

  • 13th Century => There were two main punishments for treason:

    • Burning at stake.

    • Being drawn, hanged, and quartered.

  • 1727 => The last burning of a ‘witch’ in Scotland.

  • 1790 => Hanging replaced burning at stake for treason.

  • 1793 => The ‘new drop’ gallows were first used where someone sentenced to hang fell through a trap door.

  • 19th Century => The ’long drop’ was introduced, which was a hanging method in which the fall if done correctly, resulted in the breakage of the convict’s neck rather than the death of the convict by suffocation.

Some convicts were somewhat ‘luckier’ and were executed by decapitation. This method was considered the least brutal and was used until the 18th Century. Nobles and kings were often executed by using this method.

If you were in the military, the main form of execution was death by firing squad.

Reform of capital punishment

Death penalty reform began in the 19th Century, but it would take until the end of the 20th Century for capital punishment to be abolished entirely.

19th Century

Sir Samuel Romilly (Figure 1), a British lawyer, politician, and legal reformer initiated the reform of capital punishment that eventually led to its complete abolition. In 1808, Romilly succeeded in abolishing the death penalty for lesser offences. This began a reform that would continue for the next 50 years. In 1810, Romilly addressed the House of Commons on the death penalty and said:

“[there is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England”

Capital Punishment in UK Portrait of Sir Samuel Romilly StudySmarterFigure 1: Portrait of Sir Samuel Romilly by Thomas Lawrence, between 18061810 - Phoe, Wikipedia

Several laws were enacted in the 19th century:

  • 1823 => Death Sentence Act gave judges the power to impose a lighter sentence for the first time. This did not apply to treason or murder. It also did not apply in Scotland.

  • 1841 => Substitution of Punishment of Death Act abolished the death penalty for rape, sexual knowledge of (intercourse with) girls under the age of 10, and some other minor offences.

  • 1868 => Capital Punishment Amendment Act put an end to public executions in Britain. The end of public executions was mentioned in the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, a commission that dealt with capital punishment from 1864 to 1866.

While these laws ensured that many crimes were no longer punishable by death, the death penalty remained mandatory for treason and murder unless there was a royal pardon.

20th Century

The 20th Century saw an even greater reform of the death penalty when the following laws were enacted:

  • 1908 => Children Act prohibited the execution of children under the age of 16.
  • 1922 => Infanticide Act replaced the death penalty for a woman who deliberately killed her newborn child because it was believed that a woman’s mind could be disturbed by childbirth.
  • 1931 => The death penalty for pregnant women was abolished.
  • 1933 => Children and Young Persons Act: at this time, the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 18. No one under this age has been executed in Britain since 1887.
  • 1937 => Infanticide Act is an extension of the same 1922 Act. The Act states,

    at the time of the act or omission the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child.

  • 1939 => Infanticide Act (Northern Ireland) contains similar provisions for Northern Ireland.

There are two other notable wartime events in Britain involving the death penalty:

  • Ten German agents were executed during World War I under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914.

  • Sixteen spies were executed during World War II under the Treachery Act of 1940.

At this point, there was no real support for the complete abolition of the death penalty, but activists were gaining momentum.

Campaigns for the abolition of capital punishment

In the 19th Century, prominent figures in Britain began to speak out against the death penalty, such as Sir Samuel Romilly, Charles Dickens, and William Makepeace Thackeray.Campaigns against capital punishment usually focused on specific cases that aroused public sympathy. Examples include:

  • 1898 => Florence Maybrick was spared from the gallows because there was not enough evidence that she had poisoned her husband.

  • 1899 => Mary Ann Ansell was accused of murdering her sister, but there was doubt about her mental state. She was hanged later that same year.

  • 1923 => Edith Thompson and her lover Freddie Bywaters were hanged for the murder of Edith’s husband. However, there were doubts about their actual involvement.

One of the most prominent and well-known campaigners for abolition in the 20th Century was the wealthy businesswoman Violet van der Elst (Figure 2).Although the first full parliamentary debate of the 20th Century on capital punishment took place in 1929, the reports were largely ignored. The issue was considered a low priority on the political agenda.

Capital Punishment in UK Violet van der Elst StudySmarterFigure 2: Violet van der Elst, by Kurt Hutton, unknown date - HistoryExtra (2021)

Reasons for the abolition of capital punishment

Campaigns against capital punishment were based on moral and humanitarian grounds. Many activists believed that the infliction of pain was considered corrupting and uncivilised and that the death penalty did not provide redemption for the criminal.Violet van der Elst argued that capital punishment was uncivilised and harmful to society. She also argued that it is disproportionately applied to poor people.

Post-war

Capital punishment became an increasingly important political and social issue. In 1948, the Criminal Justice Act was passed. This act abolished penal servitude, prison divisions, and flogging.

Penal servitude was the punishment of being sent to prison and forced to do hard physical labour.

The public increasingly drew their attention to capital punishment in the postwar period. The following three cases were crucial in influencing views on the death penalty:

  • 1950 => Timothy Evans was convicted of the murder of his wife and infant daughter and hanged for the crime. However, it was not until 1953 that the remains of seven other women were found in the house Evans and his family shared with John Christie, and it turned out that Christie, not Evans, was responsible for the crime against Evans’ family. Evans was innocent.
  • 1953 => Derek Bentley, a 19-year-old, was hanged for the murder of a police officer. However, it was his friend Christopher Craig who shot the officer during a burglary while another officer held Bentley. Craig, at 16, was not old enough to receive the death penalty, so it was Bentley who was eventually hanged. Bentley was posthumously pardoned in 1998.
  • 1955 => Ruth Ellis was hanged for the murder of her boyfriend, David Blakely. This case was met with great public sympathy because it was revealed that Blakely had been violent toward Ellis and had abused her. The murder was considered a ‘crime of passion’. Ellis was the last woman to be executed in Britain.
  • In 1957, the Homicide Act was introduced. This act introduced the distinction between capital and non-capital murder. Only the former was automatically subject to the death penalty. There were now only six categories of murder punishable by execution:
    1. In the course or furtherance of theft.
    2. By shooting or causing an explosion.
    3. For resisting arrest or during an escape.
    4. Of a police officer.
    5. Of a prison officer by a prisoner.
    6. The second of two murders committed on different occasions.

Abolition of capital punishment

Sydney Silverman was a British Labour politician, elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1933, and for over 20 years, he committed himself to the abolition of capital punishment. In 1965 he introduced the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act. This act suspended the death penalty for 5 years, and it was replaced with a mandatory life sentence.

Abolition is the action of officially ending or stopping something

On 16 December 1969, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act was made permanent, and with it, capital punishment for murder was abolished.

It was, however, not until 25 July 1973, with the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act, that capital punishment was abolished in Northern Ireland.

The last execution in the UK took place on 13 August 1964, with the hanging of Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans. Even though the Homicide Act was already in place, considering they murdered a taxi driver and doing so ‘in the furtherance of theft’, it made it a capital crime.

Final abolition

While the abolition of capital punishment for murder had been in place since 1969, and no capital punishment in any sense had been carried out in the UK, there was no full abolition yet. The following events led to full abolition of capital punishment:

  • 1971 => Criminal Damage Act abolished the offence of arson in royal dockyards.

  • 1973 => Beheading was abolished as a method of execution for treason, although hanging was still a method in place until 30 September 1998.

  • 1981 => Armed Forces Act abolished capital punishment for espionage.

  • 1998 => Crime and Disorder Act is an act to make provisions for preventing crime and disorder. It formally abolishes the death penalty for treason and piracy, the last offences which still carried capital punishment.

  • 1998 => Human Rights Act. This act was to incorporate into UK law the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 1998, with the Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act, the death penalty was now fully abolished.

End of capital punishment in Europe

Capital punishment has been completely abolished in all European countries, with the exception of Belarus and Russia.

The complete ban on capital punishment is enacted in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU), as well as in the adopted protocols of the European Convention of Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

Some facts about the abolition of capital punishment in Europe:

  • San Marino, Portugal, and the Netherlands were the first countries to abolish capital punishment.

  • Belarus, not a party of the European Convention on Human Rights, still practises capital punishment carried out by shooting, with the most recent two executions carried out in 2019

  • Russia has suspended capital punishment indefinitely since 1996. It is, however, still incorporated in its law

  • In 2012, Latvia became the last EU member to abolish capital punishment in wartime.

  • Capital punishment has been constitutionally abolished in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995, but it was not until 4 October 2019, that capital punishment was erased entirely from the Constitution of Republika Srpska, 1 entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Figure 3 shows a map of Europe and its state of capital punishment:

Capital Punishment in UK Map of Europe showing the state of capital punishment StudySmarterFigure 3: Map of Europe showing the state of capital punishment - created by the article author in MapChart

Capital Punishment in UK - Key takeaways

  • Capital punishment in the UK dates back to at least the 5th Century.
  • Sir Samuel Romilly started capital punishment reform in the early 19th Century.
  • The following acts made many crimes no longer punishable by death:
    • Judgement of Death Act 1823.
    • Substitution of Punishment of Death Act 1841.
    • Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.
  • While the three acts ensured many crimes were no longer punishable by death, capital punishment remained mandatory for treason and murder unless there was a royal pardon.
  • In 1957, the Homicide Act was established. This act brought in the distinction between capital and non-capital murder. Only the former carried an automatic death sentence.
  • On 16 December 1969, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act was made permanent, and with it, capital punishment for murder was abolished.
  • In 1998, with the Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act, the death penalty was fully abolished.

Frequently Asked Questions about Capital Punishment in UK

In 1908 with the Children Act.

The complete abolition of capital punishment was in 1998 with the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

The abolishment of the death penalty began with Sydney Silverman, which started with the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965.

Capital punishment has been completely abolished in all European countries, with the exception of Belarus and Russia. 

Campaigns against capital punishment have called it morally wrong and inhumane. It was uncivilised and harmful to society. Violet van der Elst also argued that it was applied disproportionally to poor people. 

Final Capital Punishment in UK Quiz

Question

What is the definition of capital punishment?

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Answer

Capital punishment, also called the death penalty, is the execution of an offender (criminal) sentenced to death after being convicted of a crime by a court of law.

Show question

Question

What was the Bloody Code?

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Answer

In the 1700s, the number of capital crimes rose to 222. This legal system is called the Bloody Code. It led to reform on capital punishment in 1823–1837 when capital crimes were reduced to 100.

Show question

Question

Who was Sir Samuel Romilly?

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Answer

He was a British lawyer, politician and legal reformer. He was also the person who started the reform of capital punishment, eventually ending capital punishment altogether. 

Show question

Question

Which three acts were established in the 19th Century?

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Answer

  1. Judgement of Death Act 1823.
  2. Substitution of Punishment of Death Act 1841.
  3. Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868.

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Question

What did the acts that were established in the 19th century ensure?

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Answer

It ensured that many crimes were no longer punishable by death. However, capital punishment remained mandatory for treason and murder unless there was a royal pardon.

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Question

Which acts and events of the 20th Century saw an even bigger reform of capital punishment? 

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Answer

  1. Children Act 1908.
  2. Infanticide Act 1922 and 1937.
  3. Death sentence for pregnant women was abolished in 1931.
  4. Children and Young Persons Act 1933.
  5. Infanticide Act (Northern Ireland) 1939.

Show question

Question

What was the Criminal Justice Act 1948?

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Answer

It abolished penal servitude, prison divisions, and flogging.

Show question

Question

Which three cases in the 1950s were pivotal in influencing views on the death penalty?

Show answer

Answer

  1. The case of Timothy Evans.
  2. The case of Derek Bentley.
  3. The case of Ruth Ellis.

Show question

Question

When was the Homicide Act established?

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Answer

1957.

Show question

Question

What distinction did the Homicide Act bring?

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Answer

There was now a distinction between capital and non-capital murder. Only the former one carried an automatic death sentence.

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Question

Which six categories of murder were still punishable by death under the Homicide Act 1957?


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Answer

  1. In the course or furtherance of theft.
  2. By shooting or causing an explosion.
  3. For resisting arrest or during an escape.
  4. Of a police officer.
  5. Of a prison officer by a prisoner.
  6. The second of two murders committed on different occasions.

Show question

Question

Name two other notable events in post-war Britain regarding capital punishment.

Show answer

Answer

  1. Ten German agents were executed during World War I under the Defence of the Real Act of 1914.
  2. Sixteen spies were executed during World War II under the Treachery Act of 1940.

Show question

Question

Campaigns against capital punishment usually centred around certain cases that aroused public sympathy. Name three examples.

Show answer

Answer

  1. The case of Florence Maybrick in 1898.
  2. The case of Mary Ann Ansell in 1899.
  3. The case of Edith Thompson in 1923.

Show question

Question

Who was one of the most prominent and well-known campaigners from the 20th century for the abolition of capital punishment?

Show answer

Answer

Violet van der Elst, a wealthy businesswoman.

Show question

Question

What does Violet van der Elst name as reasons for the abolition of capital punishment?

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Answer

Violet van der Elst argued that capital punishment was uncivilised and harmful to society. She also argued that it was applied disproportionally to poor people.

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Question

Who started the beginning of the end of capital punishment?

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Answer

Sydney Silverman, a British Labour politician.

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Question

What started the beginning of the end of capital punishment?

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Answer

The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, which suspended the death penalty for five years and was replaced with a mandatory life sentence. On 16 December 1969, it was made permanent and with it, capital punishment for murder was abolished.

Show question

Question

Which two acts eventually led to the complete abolishment of capital punishment?

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Answer

  1. Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
  2. Human Rights Act 1998.

Show question

Question

Has capital punishment ended in Europe?

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Answer

Capital punishment has been completely abolished in all European countries, with the exception of Belarus and Russia.

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Question

The complete ban on capital punishment in Europe is enacted where?

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Answer

  1. In the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (EU).
  2. In the adopted protocols of the European Convention of Human Rights of the Council of Europe.

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