The Death Penalty: When Was Capital Punishment Abolished in Britain? | History Hit

The Death Penalty: When Was Capital Punishment Abolished in Britain?

Peta Stamper

10 Dec 2021
A print made by Richard Verstegen showing an executioner beheading Catholic officials and two bishops hanging from the gallows during the schism of the Church of England, 1558.
Image Credit: British Museum / Public Domain

For millennia, the British state could legally punish convicted criminals with the death penalty. Today, the threat of capital punishment in Britain feels distant, but it was only in 1964 that the last executions for capital crimes took place.

Throughout British history, capital punishment has been enforced in various ways, determined by shifts in society’s attitudes towards religion, gender, wealth and morality. Yet as negative attitudes towards state-sanctioned killing grew, the nature and number of death sentences wained, eventually leading to abolition in the mid 20th century.

Here’s the history of the death penalty in Britain and its eventual abolishment.

The ‘Long Drop’

From the time of the Anglo-Saxons until the 20th century, the most common form of capital punishment in Britain was hanging. The punishment initially involved putting a noose around the condemned neck and suspending them from a tree branch. Later, ladders and carts were employed to hang people from wooden gallows, who would die by asphyxiation.

By the 13th century, this sentence had evolved into being ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’. This particularly grisly punishment was reserved for those who committed treason – a crime against your crown and countrymen.

It involved being ‘drawn’ or dragged to their place of execution, hanged until the near-point of death, before being disemboweled or ‘quartered’. As final penance for their crimes, the offender’s limbs or head were sometimes displayed publicly as a warning to other would-be criminals.

The drawing of William de Marisco, a disgraced knight who supported the failed revolt of Richard Marshal, 3rd Earl of Pembroke in 1234.

Image Credit: Chronica Majora by Matthew Paris / Public Domain

In the 18th century, the system of the ‘new drop’ or ‘long drop’ was devised. First used at London’s Newgate Prison in 1783, the new method involved gallows able to accommodate 2 or 3 guilty at a time.

Each of the condemned stood with a noose looped around their neck before a trapdoor was released, causing them to fall and break their necks. The quick death administered by the ‘long drop’ was seen as more humane than strangling.

Burning and beheading

Not all those found guilty were sentenced to hanging however. Burning at the stake was also a popular form of capital punishment in Britain and was used for those who committed heresy in the 11th century and treason from the 13th (although it was replaced by hanging in 1790).

During the reign of Mary I, a large number of religious dissidents were burnt at the stake. Mary reinstated Catholicism as the state religion when she became queen in 1553, and had some 220 Protestant opponents convicted of heresy and burnt at the stake, earning her the nickname ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor.

How three women from Bideford became the last people to be executed for witchcraft in England.
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Burning was also a gendered sentence: women convicted of petty treason, killing their husband and therefore overturning the patriarchal order of state and society, were often burnt at the stake. Those accused of witchcraft, disproportionately women, were also sentenced to burning, continued in Scotland until the 18th century.

Nobles, however, could escape the excruciating fate of the flames. As a final mark of their status, the elite were often executed by beheading. Swift and considered the least painful of capital punishments, notable historical figures such as Anne Boleyn, Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I were all condemned to lose their heads.

The ‘Bloody Code’

In 1688, there were 50 offences in the British criminal code punishable by death. By 1776, this number had quadrupled to 220 offences that could be sentenced with death. Due to the unprecedented rise in capital sentences during this period in the 18th and 19th centuries, it has retrospectively been called the ‘Bloody Code’.

Most of the new Bloody Code laws were concerned with defending property and resultantly disproportionately affected the poor. Crimes known as ‘Grand Larceny’, the theft of goods worth over 12 pence (around a twentieth of a skilled worker’s weekly wage), could be awarded the death penalty.

As the 18th century drew to a close, magistrates were less willing to hand out capital punishment for what today are considered ‘misdemeanours’. Instead, those convicted were sentenced to transportation following the 1717 Transportation Act and shipped across the Atlantic to work as indentured labourers in America.

Macquarie Harbour Penal Station, depicted by convict artist William Buelow Gould, 1833.

Image Credit: State Library of New South Wales / Public Domain

However, with the American rebellion during the 1770s, alternatives were sought to both capital punishment and transportation; large prisons were established as well as alternative penal colonies in Australia.

There was also an ongoing campaign for the abolition of the death penalty on moral grounds. Campaigners argued that causing pain was uncivilised and capital punishment did not give criminals any chance at redemption unlike prison.

The Judgement of Death Act in 1823 reflected this change in practice and attitudes. The act kept the death penalty only for the crimes of treason and murder. Gradually, during the middle of the 19th century, the list of capital offences reduced and by 1861 numbered 5.

Gaining momentum

By the early 20th century, further limitations were applied to using capital punishment. In 1908, those under 16 could not be sentenced to death which was again raised to 18 in 1933. In 1931, women could not be executed for infanticide after giving birth. The issue of abolishing the death penalty came before the British Parliament in 1938, but was postponed until after the end of World War Two.

The abolition movement gained momentum with several controversial cases, the first being the execution of Edith Thompson. In 1923 Thompson and her lover Freddie Bywaters were hanged for murdering Percy Thompson, Edith’s husband.

Historian Paul Stickler focuses on the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley in Hitchin, in 1919.
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Controversy arose for several reasons. Firstly, it was generally considered abhorrent to hang women and a woman had not been executed in Britain since 1907. With rumours spreading that Edith’s hanging had gone awry, almost a million people signed a petition against the imposed death sentences. Nevertheless, Home Secretary William Bridgeman would not grant her a reprieve.

Another publicly debated woman’s execution, the hanging of Ruth Ellis, also helped to sway public opinion against the death penalty. In 1955, Ellis shot her boyfriend David Blakely outside a London pub, becoming the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Blakely had been violent and abusive towards Ellis, and these circumstances generated widespread sympathy and shock towards her sentence.

The end of capital punishment

With the end of Wolrd War Two in 1945, capital punishment returned as a prominent political and social issue. The election of the Labour government in 1945 also fed the growing call for abolition, as a higher proportion of Labour MPs supported abolition than Conservatives.

The 1957 Homicide Act further restricted the death penalty’s application to certain types of murder, such as in the furtherance of theft or of a police officer. Up until this point, death had been the mandatory sentence for murder, only mitigated via political reprieve.

In 1965, the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for an initial 5-year period before, supported by all 3 major political parties, the act was made permanent in 1969.

It was not until 1998 that the death sentence for treason and piracy were abolished in both practice and law, fully ending capital punishment in Britain. 

Peta Stamper