March 13, 2018 02:21:08by

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain - but questions remain

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain - but questions remain

As the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis is a figure who occupies a very dark place in the nation's history.

She was a simple, quiet girl born in the back streets of Rhyl, North Wales, who hankered after the bright lights of the capital.

Her sister later said Ruth had been sexually abused by her musician father.

She was a teenager when she arrived in London. She was beautiful and had a great figure - and she knew it.

At first she pursued a career as a model and was soon posing in lingerie for postcard photographs.

Ellis dreamed of owning a night club. But the nearest she came to that was to become the £8-a-week manageress of a plush West London drinking den which had film stars and aristocrats among its members.

By then she was a single mum after having a son at 16 with a Canadian officer. Of him, Ellis would say: "He was my first husband. It was so tragic. He was killed."

But they were never married because he already had a wife and family back home - and he wasn't killed either, he was just sent home to Quebec and she never saw him again.

It was five years before the murder that Ellis saw her first real chance of putting behind her a way of life that had begun to lose its glamour.

She met Norman Ellis, a middle-aged London dentist.

In November 1951, at a Register Office in Kent, she became the second Mrs Norman Ellis.

But the marriage did not last. Her husband got a divorce and, despite being violent, was given custody of their daughter Georgina.

Ellis drifted back into the little world of drinking clubs...

But she was to get a second chance to find happiness - and it was also her chance to break into the high life that she craved.

Into the Little Club, Knightsbridge, walked David Blakely, 25, an up and-coming racing driver, who had just been left a lot of money by his father, a Sheffield doctor.

Handsome David was educated at Shrewsbury School and a former lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry.

And he was hitting the high-spots.

His hard drinking was matched only by that of Ellis, the manageress of the club.

Within two weeks of their meeting, the couple were living together.

But Ellis knew it was going to be difficult to become Mrs David Blakely.

David was willing to have fun but knew that to marry a divorcee from a drinking club would mean disgrace in the eyes of his family and friends.

Already his association with Ellis had broken up his engagement to the daughter of a well-known industrialist.

Yet Ellis, intent on this last fling for happiness and respectability, tried every trick she knew to marry him.

She began to take lessons in French - "David speaks it when he goes to Le Mans" she told friends.

She took a speech course - "David thinks I've still got a bit of a Manchester accent."

But she lost her fight. She became a jealous second woman.

Blakely turned his back on her, fuelled perhaps partly by her own infidelities.

And Ruth, so changed now, shot him dead - in the back.

She had, according to witnesses, refused to be cast off by him and tried to track him down, eventually finding him in a pub in Hampstead.

As he left she shot at him six times with a revolver, hitting him four times.

On Wednesday June 21, 1955, the girl who sought the bright lights made her last appearance as a glamour girl.

Her ''stage" was the dock of the No. 1 court at the Old Bailey.

And her act ended in a sentence — of death.

Blakely had been found shot on Easter Sunday night - Ellis was found standing over his body with a revolver in her hand.

During her trial she claimed that she had been pregnant with Blakely's baby and had had an abortion. Records at the National Archives show Ruth was seen with bruises and that Blakely had beaten her so hard on one occasion that she'd been temporarily left deaf in one ear.

There was also a suspicion, never investigated properly by police, that her new lover Desmond Cussen may have helped her.

Her statement read to court said: “I walked down the road to the nearest pub, where I noticed David's car outside. I waited until he came out with a friend. David went to his car door and opened it.

“I was a little way away from it. He turned and saw me and then turned away from me. I took the gun from my bag and shot him.

“He turned and ran a few steps round the car, I thought I had missed him so I fired again. He was still running and I fired a third shot.

“I do not remember firing any more, but I must have done. I remember he was lying on the footpath and I was standing beside him. He was bleeding badly and it seemed ages before the ambulance came.

“A man came up and I said, 'Will you call the ambulance and the police?' He said, 'I am a policeman.”

Reports of her trial said Ellis was calm - the calmest person in the crowded court.

She smiled as she heard the foreman of the jury announce the verdict: "Guilty!"

And she smiled after the sentence of death was passed and she was led to the cells.

Thus ended one of the quickest and most dramatic murder trials ever.

It was all over in a day and a half with the jury taking just 23 minutes to reach their verdict.

There was no recommendation for mercy.

Ellis gave instructions that her wardrobe of expensive evening gowns and clothes should be sold and the proceeds go towards the keep of her 10-year-old son.

On July 13 – the day of her execution - Ellis was roused in the pink and brown painted death cell at Holloway Prison just before 8.30am and received Communion under a crucifix on the cell wall.

She refused breakfast but accepted a glass of brandy from a wardress. And as she sipped it, she asked calmly: "Will they blindfold me?"

A wardress told her gently that a white hood would be put over her head.

Then, into her cell came the public executioner, the prison governor Dr Charity Taylor, the prison doctor and a chaplain. It was one minute to nine.

Ellis walked out with them the few yards to the execution chamber. Seconds later she was dead. Prison staff at Holloway called her "the calmest woman who ever went to the gallows".

Outside the prison, before and during the execution, policemen held back a silent, solemn crowd. Women knelt and prayed. A man softly chanted a Psalm, Violet Van Der Elst, campaigner against capital punishment, struggled with two policemen, but was allowed to stand by the gates.

Then, at 9.17, the notice was posted up saying that the execution had taken place. The crowd surged forward to read it.

The execution was criticised at home and abroad.

In France, the Paris newspaper France Soir said: "A pretty girl, whose main crime was to have loved too much in a country where excesses and passions are not allowed died at once."

The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story starts on BBC Four tonight at 9pm.

Sections of this article were originally published in the Daily Mirror in 1955.