Ruth Ellis was the last lady executed in the UK. Her trial at The Old Bailey and execution at London’s Holloway Prison aroused great public interest and coverage by the newspapers of the day. This contrasted with the lack of sensationalist media interest in the executions of the two ladies before Ruth Ellis: Louisa Merrifield in 1953 and Styllou Christofi in 1954.
|THE CASE OF SACH and WALTERS|
|THE CASE OF EDITH THOMPSON|
|THE CASE OF STYLLOU CHRISTOFI|
|THE CASE OF LOUISA MERRIFELD|
Ruth Ellis was born Ruth Hornby, the daughter of Arthur Hornby and Elisaberta Goethals, in Rhyl, on 9 October 1926. The family name was changed to Neilson after the birth of their daughter Muriel in 1925.
In 1939, Ruth Neilson was living in Basingstoke.
In 1941, Ruth Neilson moved to Hampstead, London, entering the life of a night-club hostess and having affairs with several men. After an affair with a Canadian soldier, on 15 September 1944, Ruth Neilson gave birth to a boy named Clare Andre Neilson (known as Andy).
Ruth Neilson became a model, including posing for semi-nude photographs. However, her fees from modelling never paid more than the rent, so she took jobs as a waitress and club hostess.
At one stage in her early London days, she shared a room with Vicki Martin (real name Valerie Mewes), who Ruth Neilson had met when they worked at Murray’s Club, Soho; the club where Stephen Ward met Christine Keeler. Vicki Martin, who became the much talked about friend of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar, died in a car crash in 1955.
Ruth Neilson had dreams of owning a night club. The nearest she came to this dream was to become the £8 a week manageress of a Knightsbridge afternoon drinking club.
Ruth Neilson met Norman Ellis, a middle-aged London dentist. They were married on 8 November 1951, at Tonbridge Register Office, Kent. She gave birth to a daughter Georgina Ellis in 1951. Ruth Ellis’ husband refused to recognise that the child was his and after one year of marriage, the couple divorced and separated, with George Ellis granted custody of their daughter.
Ruth Ellis drifted back to the world of drinking clubs, and became a hostess of the Little Club, Knightsbridge. One day, in walked David Blakely, an up-and-coming racing driver who had been left a lot of money by his father.
David Blakely’s hard drinking was only matched by Ruth Ellis. Within two weeks of meeting, they were living together. But Ruth Ellis realised that Blakely’s family would not be prepared to accept her as a future Mrs. Blakely. They would have viewed it as a disgrace that their public-educated son would marry a drinking club hostess.
DAVID MOFFAT DRUMMOND BLAKELY
David Moffat Drummond Blakely was born on 17 June 1929, in Sheffield, the son of a successful Sheffield dentist. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and was a former Lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry.
Blakely was scheduled to drive an Emperor H.R.G racing care at Goodwood on Easter Monday 11 April 1955. The car was withdrawn from the race, without informing the crowd as to why.
David Moffat Drummond Blakely is buried in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Penn, Buckinghamshire, just six miles from Ruth Ellis’ grave in Amersham.
The trial of Ruth Ellis opened at the Central Criminal Court on 20 June 1955. The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Havers. The prosecution was led by Mr. Christmas Humphreys, QC, with Ruth Ellis defended by Mr. Melford Stevenson, QC.
Ruth Ellis pleaded not guilty to the murder of David Blakely,
Ruth Ellis stood in the dock wearing a black two piece outfit, with Astrakhan fur on the lapels and pockets and her platinum blonde hair freshly dyed.
THE PROSECUTION CASE
Mr. Christmas Humphreys told the court that Mrs. Ellis was a divorced woman and in 1954 and 1955, she was having love affairs simultaneously with two men: David Blakely and Desmond Cussen.
Late in 1953, Ruth Ellis began to live with Blakely in a flat over a club where she was a hostess. In the summer of 1954, she began an affair at the same time with Cussen. In December 1954, Ellis left the club and went to live with Cussen at his flat in Goodwood Court, Devonshire Street, but she also continued to see Blakely.
On 9 February 1955, Ruth Ellis rented a bed-sitting room at Egerton Gardens, Kensington, living there with Blakely. She also continued to visit Cussen.
On Easter Sunday 10 April 1955, just before 9pm, Blakely and a friend name Gunnell left a small party at Anthony and Carol Findlater’s flat, to buy some more beer from the Magdala public house.
The prosecution had presented witnesses who saw Ellis fire six shots at David Blakely, outside the Magdala public house, Hampstead. The witnesses said that Ruth Ellis had recognised Blakely’s car outside the pub. She waited for Blakely to emerge from the pub. She then crossed over the road, and shouted to Blakely.
He didn’t acknowledge her so she withdrew the Smith and Wesson 0.38 calibre gun from her handbag and fire six shots:
- First shot missed Blakely. He then ran to the other side of the car.
- Second shot hit Blakely in the back and he fell, face down, on the pavement motionless.
- Third, fourth and fifth shots hit Blakely in the back. The shots were fired from a range of three to six inches.
- Sixth shot missed Blakely, ricocheted off some stonework and injured a passer-by in the hand.
Ruth Ellis, with the gun still in her hand, was detained by an off-duty policeman who had come out of the public house.
David Blakely was pronounced dead at the scene, with fatal injuries to his intestines, liver, lung, aorta and trachea.
Ruth Ellis was taken to Hampstead police station. At 11.30pm, she was seen by Detective Superintendent Crawford, to whom she said
I am guilty. I am rather confused.The Times newspaper, 21 June 1955.
Ruth Ellis was informed of her rights and then made a statement in which she said
David did not come home on Saturday … I took a gun which I had hidden and put it in my bag … I intended to find David and shoot him. I took a taxi to Tanza Road, and as I arrived David’s car drove away from Findlater’s premises.
I dismissed the taxi and walked down the road to the nearest pub, where I noticed David’s car outside. I waited till he came out with a friend I knew as Clive, that is Gunnell. David went to his car and opened it. I was a little 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 around 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.The Times newspaper, 21 June 1955.
THE DEFENCE CASE
Ruth Ellis heard her defending counsel tell the court
Let me make this abundantly plain – there is no question here but that this woman shot this man.The Daily Mirror newspaper, 21 June 1955.
Her counsel then went on to explain that the crime of murder requires two things to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt: actus rea (guilty deed) and mens rea (guilty mind). There was no doubt that Ruth Ellis carried out the shooting of David Blakely (the guilty deed).
Ruth Ellis’ counsel then explained that he would show that she was temporarily mentally unhinged at the time of the shooting. Therefore, she lacked the guilty mind. This would reduce the offence to the non-capital charge of manslaughter.
Mr. Stevenson told the court that Ellis’ story was a long, painful story and a sordid one. The court would also hear the sad story of Ruth Ellis’ association with this young man “… who is now dead. He was a most unpleasant person.”
Ruth Ellis testified on her behalf. She began by stating that her marriage, to George Johnson Ellis, was dissolved and that she was the mother of two children: a boy (age 10) and a girl (age 3).
She first met David Blakely in mid-1953 at a club called Carrolls Club. After a few weeks, Blakely became her lover and moved into her flat above the club. Ellis admitted that she knew that Blakely was engaged to another woman and that she was still married.
In December 1953, Ellis found she was pregnant. She stated that Blakely offered to marry her, even though he was engaged to another woman. She told Blakely that there was no need to marry her and that she would have an abortion (illegal at the time), which she had in February 1954.
From then until June 1954, they continued their relationship together. Blakely was a keen contender at race meetings. Ellis admitted that she knew Blakely was engaged to another woman, and she didn’t take their affair too seriously until he broke the engagement.
Ruth Ellis testified that she had told Blakely that she wished to end their relationship as it “… was not good for the business.” However, the relationship continued.
Towards the middle of 1954, Ruth Ellis had a affair with Desmond Cussen. David Blakely was away at the Le Mans races. In December 1954, Ellis moved into Desmond Cussen’s flat at Goodwood Court, Devonshire Street, Marylebone. She continued the affair with Blakely, sometimes going to a hotel with Blakely.
When Blakely returned from Le Mans, he went straight to see Ruth Ellis. He asked her what she had been doing. She didn’t mention her affair with Cussen, and their affair started again. About a month later, Blakely asked Ruth Ellis to marry him. Asked how he behaved towards her, Ellis replied that he was very persistent, jealous and devoted but that she didn’t trust him. Blakely stayed away one night and returned with bites over his back. When she asked about the bites, Blakely told her that he had been “… bitten while he was playing darts.” Ellis then told him to get out of her flat.
The next day, Blakely came to the club and fell to his knees crying. He said “Please marry me”, to which Ellis replied “I don’t think your mother or family would agree to that.”
When asked by her counsel, Ruth Ellis stated that Blakely started to run out of money, and he kept telling her that he was broke. She gave him some money as well as paying for some clothes and settling his drink bills and cigarettes. By now, Blakely was drinking heavily as well as hitting Ruth Ellis, who suffered a black eye as well as other bruises. After hitting her, Blakely sent flowers and an apology card, with the affair starting up again.
Ruth Ellis also described her recent miscarriage, saying that a few weeks ago, Blakely became very violent and hit her in the stomach. Ellis speculated that this may have caused her miscarriage.
In her statement to the police, Ruth Ellis told them that Blakely left her at about 10am Easter Sunday 10 April 1955, promising to return by 9pm, so he could take her out. She waited until 9.30pm but he didn’t phone. Becoming worried that Blakely’s car had broken down, she phoned some mutual acquaintances the Findlaters. They told her that Blakely was not there, but she had spoken to Anthony Findlater asking if Blakely was alright. He laughed and said that Blakely was alright.
She did not believe that Blakely was not there, so she went to the flat and saw Blakely’s car parked outside. She then rang the flat from a phone box. When they recognised her voice, they hung up the phone. Ruth Ellis then walked the short distance to the nearest public house, which was the Magdala public house.
When Ruth Ellis was cross-examined, the prosecution only asked one question.
When you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?The Times newspaper, 21 June 1955.
Ruth Ellis replied
It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.The Times newspaper, 21 June 1955.
Dr. Duncan Whittaker, the defence psychiatrist, testified that a woman was more prone to hysterical reactions than a man in a case of infidelity, and in such circumstances she would lose her critical faculties and try to solve the problem at a more primitive level. At the time Mrs. Ellis fired the revolver her mind was very disturbed.
DEFENCE LEGAL SUBMISSIONS
When the trial was resumed on 21 June 1955, but before the jury was admitted, Mr. Justice Havers said that he had given careful consideration to the legal submissions made by Mr. Melford Stevenson, QC. The judge ruled that
there was insufficient material, even upon a view of the evidence most favourable to the accused woman, to support a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.The Times newspaper, 22 June 1956.
Mr. Melford Stevenson, QC, then said that in view of the judge’s ruling, it would not be appropriate for him to say anything more to the jury.
The jury were then brought back into the court, and Mr. Melford Stevenson, QC, repeated his statement.
For the prosecution, Mr. Christmas Humphreys, QC, declined to make a closing statement.
In his summing up, the trial judge Mr. Justice Havers told the jury
The House of Lords has decided that where the question arises whether what would otherwise be murder may be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation, if there is no sufficient material, even upon a view of evidence most favourable to the accused, that a reasonable person could be driven by transport of passion and loss of control to use violence and a continuance of law, to direct the jury that the evidence does not support a verdict of manslaughter. I have been constrained to rule in this case that there is not sufficient material to reduce this killing to manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.The Times newspaper, 22 June 1955.
The jury (ten men and two women) was dismissed to consider its verdict. After 23 minutes, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and no recommendation for mercy.
Ruth Ellis was sentenced to death by hanging, and returned to Holloway Prison to await her execution.
The legal concept of “diminished responsibility” did not become law until the passage of the Homicide Act 1957. This act also restricted capital punishment to five situations that were viewed as especially deserving the death sentence.
- Murder of a police or prison officer.
- Murder in the course of escape from lawful custody.
- Murder by using a firearm or explosives.
- Murder in the course or furtherance of theft.
- Two or more murders done on different occasions.
Therefore, as the law stood in 1955, Ruth Ellis was correctly convicted and sentenced to death.
AFTER THE TRIAL
On 22 June 1955, Ruth Ellis announced that she would not be appealing her conviction.
According to the Daily Mirror newspaper (23 June 1955), Ruth Ellis spent her time in the condemned cell cheering up the women prison officers who had to guard her day and night.
To friends that had been allowed to meet her since her arrest last Easter Sunday, she has repeatedly said
Why all the fuss? I killed David Blakely and that is that. There is nothing anyone can do for me.The Daily Mirror newspaper, 23 June 1955.
This point marked the point when newspapers started to produce exclusive articles about various parts of Ruth Ellis’ life. On the same page as the news of the announcement of Ruth Ellis not appealing her conviction, the Daily Mirror has the following text:
And now Ruth Ellis is to tell her full story exclusively in Woman’s Sunday Mirror.
She will trace her romance with David Blakely from the day they met in a dimly lit Mayfair club.
Every woman will want to read her story of passion and jealousy.The Daily Mirror newspaper, 23 June 1955.
On 23 June 1955, the Home Office announced that the execution of Ruth Ellis had been arranged for 13 July 1955, at Holloway prison, London.
The Daily Mirror, 25 June 1955, contained another advertisement of “Ruth Ellis tells her full story. ‘My Love and Hate’ begins this weekend. Exclusive in Women’s Sunday Mirror”
The newspaper media didn’t see the need to bother publishing similar articles about Louisa Merrifield (hanged 18 September 1953 at Manchester) and Styllou Christofi (hanged 15 December 1954 at Holloway). But then neither of these two ladies was a platinum-blonde, attractive 29-year-old lady!
On 30 June 1955, “Cassandra” had a full page article on page 9 of the Daily Mirror, under the banner headline of “Should Ruth Ellis Hang?” The article went to discuss society’s role in the carrying out of a death sentence and that “Cassandra”, if he had the power, “I would save her.”
One of the problems in having a murder law with a mandatory death sentence, is that some murderers have more appeal with the public, some murderers have less. Each case leads to sensational media reporting and campaigns to either reprieve or execute the murderer.
On 1 July 1955, the Daily Mirror had another advertisement about another episode in their exclusive “Ruth Ellis continues her story – My Love and Hate” series. This time the quote was “That lie took the heaven out of my happiness.”
On 4 July 1955, the Daily Mirror reported that Ruth Ellis had left the condemned cell to attend the prison church. She took her place in the empty church in a front pew screened by a heavy green curtain on three sides. Then the other prisoners were allowed into the church. During the service, Ruth Ellis could only see the padre and only the padre could see Ruth Ellis. The service lasted one hour. Ruth Ellis then had to wait whilst the church emptied and she was then taken back to the condemned cell. The paper reported that lunch was roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and greens, followed by rice pudding.
This was followed by exercise time. Accompanied by two female prison officers, Ruth Ellis walked out of the cell, down a corridor and out into the exercise yard. For one hour, she walked around the exercise area. At all times, Ruth Ellis could only see her escort and only her escort could see her. After the one hour was up, she was escorted back to the condemned cell.
Every day, Ruth Ellis was visited by the prison governor Dr Charity Taylor.
Dr May Doris Charity Taylor (16 September 1914 – 4 January 1998) was a medical doctor and prison administrator. She was appointed assistant medical officer at Holloway in 1942, later becoming medical officer. In 1945, she was appointed the first woman Governor of Holloway Prison and the first woman prison governor in the United Kingdom.
On 5 July 1955, “Cassandra” published the following report in the Daily Mirror newspaper.
I have been bombarded with letters protesting against my plea that Ruth Ellis should not go to the scaffold. I have been also deluged with letters (twice as many) asking that she should be reprieved.
To the first batch of correspondents and their main challenge that would I say the same thing if it had been my child or any close relative of mine that had been foully done to death, I state categorically that I would, with God’s grace, say the same thing again.
I am irrevocably opposed to capital punishment.The Daily Mirror newspaper, 5 July 1955.
Eight months previously, “Cassandra” did not feel the need to make a similar plea when another lady, Styllou Christofi, was executed at Holloway.
On 8 July 1955, the Daily Mirror had another advertisement about another exclusive episode in their “Ruth Ellis continues her story of love and hate” series. This time the quote was “How David tried to strangle me.”
The Daily Mirror article headline, on 11 July 1955, was “2 days to go – Ruth Ellis says: I am content to die”. The article continued to say that people who had seen Ruth Ellis since she was sentenced to death, had been amazed at her calmness. She also told friends that she is “very grateful” for the unknown people trying to help.
But she has said she is quite content to die.The Daily Mirror newspaper, 11 July 1955.
The report continued by saying that Ruth Ellis had told the people attending her in the death cell that she was overwhelmed by their efforts to make her last few hours alive comfortable.
On 11 July 1955, the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd-George announced that there was “no sufficient grounds to recommend any interference with the due course of law.”
Later that afternoon, Ruth Ellis’ parents made their final visit.
13 JULY 1955 – THE EXECUTION DAY
During the night of 12-13 July 1955, police reinforcements were sent to Holloway prison, London, to control crowds who had been demanding to see Ruth Ellis. The reinforcements had been requested by the Governor of the prison, Dr. Charity Taylor, who complained of the noise of singing and shouting which had been going on for several hours. Before the crowd was moved back across the road, some people broke through a thin cordon at the prison’s entrance and knocked at the gate demanding to see Ruth Ellis. They wanted to ask her to kneel in prayer with them but were told that she didn’t want to see anyone. Police dispersed the crowds by 11.30pm.
At 8.30am on 13 July 1955, Ruth Ellis was woken up. She refused breakfast but accepted the offered glass of brandy. At 8.59am, the executioner Albert Pierrepoint, prison governor Dr. Charity Taylor, the prison doctor, prison padre and two male prison officers (from nearby Pentonville prison) entered the cell. Pierrepoint bounds her wrists with a soft leather strap. Escorted by the two male warders, Ellis walked the few yards to the execution chamber. After placing the white hood on Ellis, Pierrepoint positioned the noose and seeing that his assistant had bound Ellis’ legs, Pierrepoint removed the safety pin and pulled the lever to operate the trapdoors.
At 9.17am, the official notice was pinned on the main prison gates. At this point, the crowd rushed forward to read the notice, blocking the road, halting traffic and sweeping the police aside. The mounted police held their horses broadside on to the rushing crowd, mainly composed of women. Eventually, order was restored and the crowd was moved into two 100-yard long queues. Slowly they shuffled past the two notices of execution: one signed by the prison governor and Under-Sherriff as witnesses and the other signed by the doctor certifying death.
Later that day, a post-mortem was performed by the pathologist Dr. Keith Simpson. All her organs were normal and showed no signs of illness or disease. The post-mortem concluded that Ruth Ellis had died from injuries to the central nervous system consequent of judicial hanging.
After the inquest, Ruth Ellis was buried within the prison grounds.
In 1971, rebuilding work at the prison required that the remains of the five women executed at Holloway prison were exhumed.
The five executed women were
- Amelia Sach (3 February 1903)
- Annie Walters (3 February 1903)
- Edith Thompson (9 January 1923)
- Styllou Christofi (13 December 1954)
- Ruth Ellis (13 July 1955)
The remains of Ruth Ellis were buried in St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard, Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The gravestone had “Ruth Hornby 1926-1955” inscribed on her marker, but this marker was destroyed in 1982 by her son prior to his suicide, hence her grave is now unmarked.
The relatives of the other four women could not be traced or did not want the remains, so they were all buried in one grave at Brookwood Cemetery.
In July 2018, an exhumation order was granted to René Weis, Edith Thompson’s executor and heir. On 20 November 2018, Edith Thompson’s remains were exhumed, and two days later buried alongside her parents in the City of London Cemetery.
On 15 July 1955, two days after Ellis’ execution, the Daily Mirror started a readers’ poll “Should the death penalty be abolished?”. The paper didn’t seem interested in its readers’ opinion eight months earlier when Styllou Christofi was executed.
The Sunday Dispatch newspaper, 17 July 1955, had a photograph of Ellis’ mother laying a bunch of carnations on David Blakely’s grave. She explained that it was Ruth Ellis’ last wish that pink, white and blood red carnations were laid on Blakely’s grave. The bouquet was the same type that Ruth had received from Blakely.
“WHY RUTH ELLIS WANTED TO DIE”
The Sunday (Weekly) Dispatch, dated 17 July 1955, printed an article stating that Ruth Ellis wished to die as she told her mother that she had an incurable illness and had been given two years to live. Two months before shooting David Blakely, she had been examined by a doctor. She wanted her mother, Mrs. Neilson, to keep it a secret even from her father. She had not told the prison authorities or the doctors that examined her. Her mother speculated that Ruth Ellis wanted the execution as she didn’t want a long drawn out and increasingly painful death.
However, the post-mortem conducted after Ellis’ execution found no signs of disease or illness in any of her body’s organs. Apart from the effects of hanging, the only item found was a lower abdominal scar for an ectopic pregnancy operation in her left fallopian tube, which had healed.
WHO GAVE RUTH ELLIS THE GUN?
During her trial, Ruth Ellis testified that she was given the gun in payment of a bill in a club in Kensignton, London. She never named the man who gave her the gun.
On the day before her execution, she asked to see her lawyer Mr. Victor Mishcon. She told him more about the gun with which she murdered David Blakely. With this new information, Mr. Mishcon visited the Home Office. He spent two hours talking with senior Home Officials.
While at Royal Ascot, an announcement over the P.A system asked the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Home Office, Sir Frank Newsom, to go immediately to one of the course telephones. He spent some time talking about this new information.
The police examined this information but it just provided greater premeditation on the part of Ellis. The police declined to take action against Desmond Cussen.
Desmond Cussen was a former Royal Air Force pilot who had flown Lancaster bombers during the Second World War, and had taken up accountancy after leaving the service. He was appointed a director of the family business Cussen & Co., a wholesale and retail tobacconist.
The day before her execution, 12 July 1955, Ruth Ellis asked to see her solicitor Victor Mishcon. She told him that she had been drinking with Desmond Cussen over the weekend before the murder. She told Cussen that if she had a gun, she would shoot Blakely. He told Ellis that he had a gun, and he took Ellis and her son Andre to show her how to use it.
It was this information that had caused the announcement for Sir Frank Newsom to be made at the Ascot racecourse.
RUTH ELLIS’ FAMILY
On 2 August 1958, George Johnson Ellis (a dental surgeon) committed suicide, by hanging himself with his pyjama cord, in his hotel room at Corbiere, Jersey. His remains were buried in Southern Cemetery, Chorlton-Cum-Hardy, Manchester. Ruth’s daughter Georgina was then looked after by Ruth’s sister Muriel.
On 17 June 1982, Ruth’s son Claire Andre McCullum committed suicide by an overdose of Glutethimide sleeping pills, in his room at Sale Place, Paddington. His remains were cremated and buried within his mother’s grave at Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
On 3 December 2001, Ruth’s daughter Georgina (known as Georgie) Blackburn, died from cancer age 50. She was married to former York Unicorns rugby player Mike Blackburn.
THE CRIMINAL CASES REVIEW COMMISSION
The case of Ruth Ellis was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). The commission exists to hear possible cases of injustice, especially cases where an innocent person has been executed or received a prison term.
The family made submissions to the CCRC, showing that Ruth Ellis was suffering from post-miscarriage depression and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder; a condition not diagnosed in 1955.
The CCRC referred the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
The court heard the case on 16-17 September 2003. The judges were Lord Justice Kay, Mr. Justice Silber and Mr. Justice Leveson. The Ellis family was represented by Mr. Michael Mansfield, QC, and the Crown by Mr. David Perry.
On 8 December 2003, Lord Justice Kay delivered the court’s ruling dismissing the appeal as “without merit”, finding that under the law as it was in 1955, Ruth Ellis had been properly convicted at her trial of murder.
Lord Justice Kay added that Ruth Ellis had committed a serious criminal offence, and that the case was completely different from other cases considered by the court. Cases such as Derek Bentley and James Hanratty were concerned with whether a wholly innocent person had been convicted and executed for murder.