Ruth Ellis PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 10 November 2008 12:01

Ruth Ellis born Ruth Neilson

Born: October 9, 1926, Rhyl, North Wales.

Died: July 13, 1955, Holloway Prison, London.

Age: 28

Cause of death: Hanged by Albert Peirrepoint.

Notable because: Pregnant at 17 by married man. Troubled life before meeting handsome race driver David Blakely. Shot him in a jealous rage. A crime of passion. Sentenced to death. 50,000 people signed petition asking for clemency. She was the last woman to be hanged in Britain and her killing strengthened public support for abolition of state killing. Her death sparked the deaths of her sister, ex husband and her son. The trial judge sent money every year towards upkeep for her 11 year old son. In 1982 her son traveled to her grave, destroying the headstone before killing himself.


Ruth Ellis was a British murderess who was the last woman to receive the death penalty in the United Kingdom. She was convicted of the murder of her paramour, David Blakely, and hanged at Holloway Prison, London.

Ellis was born Ruth Neilson in the North Wales seaside town of Rhyl. Her mother, Bertha, was a Belgian refugee, and her father was Arthur Hornby, a cellist from Manchester who had spent much of his time playing on Atlantic cruise liners, though he had long since given this up by the time Ruth was born. Arthur changed his surname to Neilson after the birth of Muriel, Ruth's elder sister. Ruth was one of five children. At the age of fourteen she left school to work as a waitress. In 1941, at the height of The Blitz, the Neilsons moved to London.

At 17, Ruth was impregnated by a married Canadian soldier, and gave birth to a son, Andre Clare ("Andy"), in 1944. The father visited and paid support for the child until he returned to Canada. Via low-level modelling work, Ellis became a nightclub hostess, which paid significantly more than the various factory and clerical jobs she had had since leaving school.

In 1950 she married 41-year-old George Ellis, a divorced dentist with two sons, at the registry office in Tonbridge, Kent. George had been a customer at the Court Club in Duke St, London. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic who became violent when drunk, and Ruth was jealous and possessive. She became convinced he was having an affair and the marriage deteriorated rapidly. Ruth gave birth to a girl, Georgina, in 1951 but George refused to acknowledge paternity, and they separated shortly afterwards. Ellis moved in with her parents, and went back to hostessing to make ends meet. That same year she appeared in the film Lady Godiva Rides Again, which starred her friend Diana Dors, but was uncredited.

It is claimed that Ellis was being run by Stephen Ward, a decade before his name became public in the Profumo affair, a British public scandal which profoundly affected the ruling Conservative Party government.

In 1953, she became manager of a nightclub, and met David Blakely, three years her junior. He was a well-mannered former public school boy, but also a hard-drinking racing driver with expensive tastes. Within weeks he moved into her flat above the club, despite already being engaged to another girl. According to documents stored at the National Archives, Appeal decision</ref>, and by Sunday evening she had developed, in her own words, "a peculiar idea" that she would kill him.

On the night of Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, Ellis took a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson Victory model revolver from her handbag and fired six shots at Blakely outside The Magdala, a public house in South Hill Park, Hampstead. Blakely was taken to hospital with multiple gunshot wounds and was subsequently pronounced dead. Gladys Kensington Yule, a passer-by, also sustained a slight wound when a bullet fired by Ellis ricocheted off the pavement and hit her in the hand. Ellis made no attempt to leave the scene, asking a witness to call the police. She was arrested and charged with Blakely's murder.

It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.
Ruth Ellis, in the witness box at the Old Bailey, 20 June 1955.

This was her answer to the only question put to her by Christmas Humphreys, counsel for the Prosecution, who queried "When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?" The importance of this question and Ruth's fatal answer are essential to understanding why she was convicted: in order to secure a guilty verdict in a British murder trial, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill the victim, otherwise it is the lesser offence of manslaughter. The defending counsel, Aubrey Melford Stevenson supported by Sebag Shaw and Peter Rawlinson, would have advised Ruth of this before the trial began, because it is standard legal practice to do so. In the event, Ruth's reply to Humphreys' question in open court guaranteed a guilty verdict and the mandatory death sentence which followed.

The circumstances of her obtaining the gun and learning how to use it were never fully explored at the trial.[citation needed] Reluctantly, at midday on 12th July 1955, the day before her death, Ruth Ellis, having dismissed Bickford, the solicitor chosen for her by her friend Desmond Cussen (a prosecution witness who visited Ellis daily in Holloway prison up until her trial), made a statement to her original solicitor Victor Mishcon (later Lord Mishcon) and his clerk Leon Simmons. She revealed more evidence about the shooting and said that the gun had been provided by Cussen, and that he had actually driven her to the murder scene.

Following their 90-minute interview with Ruth Ellis in the condemned cell, Victor Mishcon and Leon Simmons immediately went to the Home Office where they spoke to a senior civil servant about Ruth Ellis's revelations.

The authorities made no effort to follow this up and there was no reprieve.

The jury at the trial took just 14 minutes to convict her, and she received the mandatory death sentence. She went to the gallows at Holloway Prison on July 13, 1955, aged 27, the last woman to be hanged in England. She was executed by Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant, Royston Rickard.

John Williams was the Church of England chaplain at Holloway prison between 1951 and 1957 and responsible for the pastoral care of Ruth Ellis. The Bishop of Stepney (in the diocese of London) at that time was Joost de Blank. He visited Ruth Ellis just prior to her death. The visit is mentioned in both published biographies of de Blank. After the visit he said that he "was horrified and aghast beyond words" when he learned "that prisoners could hear the hammering as the scaffold was being erected." Also, he could not forget Ruth Ellis's words to him: "It is quite clear to me that I was not the person who shot him. When I saw myself with the revolver I knew I was another person." These comments were made in the old London evening paper The Star.

The case caused widespread controversy at the time: on the day of her execution the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra wrote a famous column attacking the sentence, writing "The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beasts will have been denied her - pity and the hope of ultimate redemption." A petition to the Home Office asking for clemency was signed by 50,000 people, but the Conservative Home Secretary Major Gwilym Lloyd George rejected it.

H. Montgomery Hyde, an Ulster Unionist Member of Parliament, took up the Bishop of Stepney's point in a question in the House of Commons on 8 December 1955. He asked the Home Secretary if he was aware that prisoners and staff were disturbed by the noise of scaffolding being erected for Ruth Ellis' hanging. Lloyd George replied that "no scaffold was erected in Holloway prison before the execution of Mrs Ellis." Hyde then said he hoped the Home Secretary's remarks would reassure those members of the public.

The hanging of Ellis helped strengthen public support for the abolition of the death penalty, which was halted in practice for murder in Britain nine years later (the last execution in the UK occurred during 1964). Reprieve was by then commonplace. According to one statistical account, between 1926 and 1954, 677 men and 60 women had been sentenced to death in England and Wales, but only 375 men and seven women had been executed.

Factors which counted against a reprieve for Ellis included her appearance, her lifestyle, her apparent lack of remorse, plus the fact that a passer-by was slightly wounded. Blakely's murder and Ruth's arraignment also occurred during the 1955 General Election campaign, which was won by the Conservatives on a strongly pro-death-penalty platform.

In the early 1970s John Bickford, Ruth Ellis's solicitor, made a statement to Scotland Yard from his home in Malta. He was recalling what Desmond Cussen had told him in 1955: how Ruth Ellis lied at the trial and how he (Bickford) had hidden that information. After Bickford's confession a police investigation followed but no further action regarding Cussen was taken.

In his book Anthony Eden (1986), Robert Rhodes James states that Eden, who was the British prime minister at the time, makes no reference to this matter in his memoirs and there is nothing in his papers about the case. Eden accepted that the decision was the responsibility of the Home Secretary, but James suggests there are indications that he was troubled about it.

The execution brought worldwide condemnation. Foreign newspapers observed that the concept of the crime passionnel seemed foreign to the British. One French reporter wrote: "Passion in England, except for cricket and betting, is always regarded as a shameful disease."

The tragedy of David Blakely and Ruth Ellis was not confined to them. Within weeks of her execution, Ruth's 18-year-old sister died suddenly, allegedly of a broken heart. Ruth's husband, George Ellis, descended into alcoholism and hanged himself in 1958. Her son, Andy, who was 11 at the time of his mother's hanging, suffered irreparable psychological damage and committed suicide in a squalid bedsit in 1982. It is said that the trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, had sent money every year for Andy's upkeep. Christmas Humphreys, the prosecution counsel at Ruth's trial, paid for his funeral.

The case continues to have a strong grip on the British imagination and was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Court firmly rejected the appeal, although it made clear that it ruled only on the conviction based on the law as it stood in 1955, not on whether she should have been executed.[citation needed]

On 15th September 2003, the night before the Appeal at the Royal Courts of Justice, The Evening Standard published a short article in which they reported, "Former nurse Maureen [sic] Gleeson claims she met an emotional Ellis before the shooting who told her she had a gun and was planning to use it on Blakely." However there was no mention in any of Moreen Gleeson's official statements that Ellis intended shooting David Blakely. On the contrary, she thought Ellis intended to shoot herself.

On May 21st 2005, The Mirror newspaper published an exclusive story, claiming: "Hanged killer Ruth Ellis has been secretly denied a pardon by the government, documents reveal. The decision has been kept under wraps for fear of unleashing protests which could embarrass ministers.".

Muriel Jakubait, Ellis's sister, has questioned the safety of Ellis's conviction. She claims her sister would have been unable to fire the heavy gun that killed Blakely. According to information stored at the National Archives at Kew, Ellis contracted rheumatic fever as a teenager which destroyed many of the bones in her left hand. Jakubait and writer, Monica Weller, have therefore claimed, that Ellis would have been unable to fire the six cartridges discharged from a gun that had a cumbersome 10lb trigger. Three out of four bullets were fired accurately from a distance and on target, one at point blank range, in the dark. Jakubait and Weller also criticise the fact that this information was never brought to the attention of the jury in 1955.

In July 2007 a petition was published on the 10 Downing Street website asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to reconsider the Ruth Ellis case and grant a pardon in light of new evidence that the Old Bailey jury in 1955 was not asked to consider.It expired on 4th July 2008.

The body of Ruth Ellis was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison, as was customary. In the early 1970s the prison underwent an extensive programme of rebuilding, during which the bodies of all the executed women were exhumed for reburial elsewhere. Ellis's body was reburied at St Mary's Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The headstone in the churchyard was originally inscribed 'Ruth Hornby 1926–1955'. However, in 1982 her son Andy (Andre) destroyed the headstone shortly before he committed suicide. Ellis' grave is now overgrown with yew trees.

The remains of the four other women executed at Holloway, Styllou Christofi, Edith Thompson, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters were reburied in a single grave at Brookwood Cemetery.

Coincidentally, Styllou Christofi, who was executed in December 1954, lived at 11 South Hill Park in Hampstead, with her son and daughter-in-law, a few metres from The Magdala public house at number 2a, where David Blakely was shot four months later.

Ruth's story, and the story of Albert Pierrepoint, are retold in the stage play Follow Me, written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield and directed by Guy Masterson. It premièred at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh in 2007 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Ruth's story was told in the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger (director Mike Newell), featuring Miranda Richardson as Ellis.

In the film Pierrepoint (2006), Ellis was portrayed by Mary Stockley.

The 1956 film Yield to the Night, starring Diana Dors as a doomed murderess bears a close resemblance to the Ellis case; however, the work is in fact based on a 1954 book of that name by Joan Henry. Unknown to most people until 2005, Diana Dors was a close friend of Ruth Ellis. They socialised in the London clubs in which Ruth Ellis was employed. Dors had previously written to the family of Derek Bentley - shortly before his execution in 1953 for his part in the murder of a policeman - to express her sympathy.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 15:26

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