The Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain

By Phillips, Tom | Contemporary Review, February 1998 | Go to article overview

The Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain

Phillips, Tom, Contemporary Review

On 13 August 1964, in Walton prison, Liverpool, and Strangeways prison, Manchester, respectively, Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans were taken from the condemned cells and led to the execution chamber. A few minutes later, the last two men to be hanged in Britain met their deaths. The following year, on 27 October 1965, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Bill - originally proposed by the Labour MP Sidney Silverman in December 1964 - successfully completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament and capital punishment was abolished for a trial period of five years. In December 1969, this temporary abolition was made permanent. All subsequent attempts to reintroduce the death penalty for murder have failed. Britain retains certain capital statutes which would, for example, allow for the execution of traitors in war-time. Although it is often claimed that the majority of the population would, if given the chance, vote to bring back hanging for particularly brutal offences, a return to the pre-1965 capital code seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

In retrospect, of course, it is tempting to regard the abolition of the death penalty as inevitable and, therefore, irreversible. In fact, it seems as if capital punishment had been on the way out ever since the first murmurings of doubt about its efficacy were heard in the eighteenth century. From that time on, the procedures of execution underwent a series of reforms and the long advance towards abolition appeared to have begun. In London, the traditional Tyburn procession to the gallows was abolished in 1783. 'Aggravated punishments' such as post-mortem decapitation, anatomization or gibbeting were phased out in the 1820s and 1830s. In 1868, public executions were abolished altogether. Broadly speaking, the rate of execution also fell. In 1805 - the first year for which national figures are available - there were 68 hangings: in 1923 there were 11 and by the 1950s it was unusual for more than 3 or 4 people to be executed in any one year. In the space of two hundred years, capital punishment changed beyond all recognition. The regular public spectacles of suffering of the 1760s had become, by the 1960s, infrequent private rituals which, it would seem, the State performed with increasing reluctance. Given the general direction of reform, abolition appears to have been the logical conclusion of a long-running historical trend. It is as if capital punishment were a disease whose more appalling symptoms slowly got better until a complete cure was effected in 1965.

Such a reassuringly linear narrative, however, is misleading. It underestimates the astonishing resistance there was to abolition, suggests that reforms were introduced with eventual abolition in mind and implies that capital punishment was gradually refined until, quite literally, it refined itself out of existence. As it happens, none of the reforms identified above were necessarily humane innovations. Although they appear to make capital punishment more orderly and efficient, they were not introduced with the aim of reducing the suffering of the condemned.

Take the abolition of the Tyburn procession, for example. Before 1783, condemned prisoners due to be hanged at Tyburn in London were held in Newgate prison. On the morning of their execution, they were released from their prison irons and pinioned with rope and began their journey through the streets to the scaffold. Those convicted of treason were dragged on a hurdle: those guilty of other offences rode in a cart. The latter were usually made to sit on a coffin wearing a shroud. As they passed St Sepulchre's, they were exhorted to repent by the sexton of the church. When notorious felons, such as the thief-taker Jonathan Wild, were taken to be hanged, huge crowds lined the streets and the journey, interrupted from time to time so that the prisoner could converse with friends or take a drink at a tavern, could last several hours. Not every Tyburn procession was as riotous but the crowd at the scaffold itself was rarely less than three thousand strong.

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