9 October 1926
|Died||13 July 1955 (aged 28)|
|Cause of death||Execution by hanging|
|Resting place||Holloway prison; later reburied in St Mary's Church, Old Amersham, Buckinghamshire.|
|Occupation||Model, nightclub hostess|
|Known for||Being the last woman executed in the UK|
|Spouse(s)||George Johnston Ellis (1950–1955)|
|Criminal penalty||Death by hanging|
Ruth Ellis (9 October 1926 – 13 July 1955) was a British escort and nightclub hostess. She was the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely.
During her childhood, Ellis' family moved from Rhyl to Basingstoke, Hampshire, and, in 1941, to Hampstead in London. In her teens she entered the world of London nightclub hostessing, which led to a chaotic life that included various relationships with men. One of these was with David Blakely, a racing driver engaged to another woman.
On Easter Sunday, 10 April 1955, Ellis shot Blakely dead outside the Magdala public house in Hampstead then turned the gun on herself but it jammed and was immediately arrested by an off-duty policeman. At her trial in June 1955, she was found guilty of murder and was sentenced to death. On 13 July, she was hanged at HMP Holloway.
Ruth Ellis was born in Rhyl in North Wales, the fifth of six children. During her childhood her family moved to Basingstoke, Hampshire. Her mother, Elisaberta (Bertha) Goethals, was a Belgian war refugee; her father, Arthur Hornby, was a cellist from Manchester. The Register of Marriages gives Arthur Hornby as marrying Elisa B. Goethals, at Chorlton-cum-Hardy, in 1920. Arthur changed his surname to Neilson after the birth of Ruth's older sister Muriel in 1925.
Ruth attended Fairfields Senior Girls' School in Basingstoke, leaving when she was 14 to work as a waitress. Shortly afterwards, in 1941, the Neilsons moved to London. In 1944, 17-year-old Ruth became pregnant by a married Canadian soldier named Clare and gave birth to a son, whom she named Clare Andria Neilson, known as "Andy". The father sent money for about a year, then stopped. The child eventually went to live with Ruth's mother.
Ruth became a nightclub hostess in Hampstead through nude modelling work, which paid significantly more than the various factory and clerical jobs she had held since leaving school. Morris Conley, her manager at the Court Club in Duke Street, blackmailed his hostess employees into sleeping with him. By early 1950 Ruth was making money as a prostitute and became pregnant by one of her regular clients. She had this pregnancy terminated (illegally) in the third month and returned to work as soon as she could.
On 8 November 1950, Ruth married 41-year-old George Johnston Ellis, a divorced dentist with two sons, at the register office in Tonbridge, Kent. He had been a customer at the Court Club. George was a violent alcoholic, jealous and possessive, and the marriage deteriorated rapidly because he was convinced his new wife was having an affair. Ruth left him several times but always returned.
In 1951, while four months pregnant, Ruth appeared, uncredited, as a beauty queen in the Rank film Lady Godiva Rides Again. She subsequently gave birth to a daughter, Georgina, but George refused to acknowledge paternity and they separated shortly afterwards and were later divorced. Ruth and her son moved in with her parents and she went back to prostitution to make ends meet.
In 1953, Ruth Ellis became the manager of the Little Club, a nightclub in Knightsbridge. At this time, she was lavished with expensive gifts by admirers and had a number of celebrity friends. Ellis met David Blakely, three years her junior, through racing driver Mike Hawthorn. Blakely was a former public school boy who was educated at Shrewsbury and Sandhurst, but also a hard-drinking racer. Within weeks he moved into Ellis's flat above the club despite being engaged to another woman, Mary Dawson. Ellis became pregnant for the fourth time but had an abortion, feeling she could not reciprocate the level of commitment shown by Blakely towards their relationship.
Ellis then began seeing Desmond Cussen, 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 with outlets in London and South Wales. Ellis eventually moved in with Cussen at 20 Goodward Court, Devonshire Street, north of Oxford Street. The relationship with Blakely continued, however, and became increasingly violent as he and Ellis continued to see other people. Blakely offered to marry Ellis, to which she consented, but in January 1955 she had another miscarriage after he punched her in the stomach during an argument.
On Easter Sunday, 10 April 1955, Ellis took a taxi from Cussen's home to a second floor flat at 29 Tanza Road, Hampstead, the home of Anthony and Carole Findlater, where she suspected Blakely might be. As she arrived, Blakely's car drove off, so she paid off the taxi and walked the 1⁄4 mile (0.40 km) to the Magdala, a relatively large public house in South Hill Park where she found Blakely's car parked outside.
At around 9:30 pm Blakely and his friend Clive Gunnell emerged. Blakely passed Ellis waiting on the pavement when she stepped out of Henshaws Doorway, a newsagent next to the Magdala. As Blakely searched for the keys to his car, Ellis took a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson Victory Model revolver from her handbag and fired five shots at Blakely. The first shot missed and he started to run, pursued by Ellis round the car, where she fired a second, which caused him to collapse onto the pavement. Ellis then stood over him and fired three more bullets into him. One bullet was fired less than half an inch from Blakely's back and left powder burns on his skin.
Ellis was seen to stand over Blakely as she repeatedly tried to fire the revolver's sixth shot, finally firing it into the ground. This bullet ricocheted off the road and slightly injured a bystander.
Ellis, in apparent shock, asked Gunnell, "Will you call the police, Clive?" She was arrested immediately by an off-duty policeman, who heard her say, "I am guilty, I'm a little confused." Blakely's body was taken to hospital with multiple bullet wounds to the intestines, liver, lung, aorta and trachea.
At Hampstead police station Ellis appeared to be calm and not obviously under the influence of drink or drugs. She made a detailed confession and was charged with murder. She made her first appearance at a magistrates' court on 11 April 1955 and was ordered to be held on remand.
Ellis was twice examined by principal Medical Officer, M. R. Penry Williams, who failed to find evidence of mental illness; an electroencephalograph examination on 3 May found no abnormality. While on remand she was examined by psychiatrist Dr D. Whittaker for the defence, and by Dr A. Dalzell on behalf of the Home Office. Neither found evidence of insanity.
On 20 June 1955, Ellis appeared in the Number One Court at the Old Bailey, London, before Mr Justice Havers. She was dressed in a black suit and white silk blouse with freshly bleached and coiffured blonde hair. Ellis's defending counsel, Aubrey Melford Stevenson, supported by Sebag Shaw and Peter Rawlinson, expressed concern about her appearance (and dyed blonde hair) but she did not alter it to appear less striking.
The only question put to Ellis by prosecutor Christmas Humphreys was, "When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?"; her answer was, "It's obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him." This reply guaranteed a guilty verdict and the mandatory death sentence. The jury took twenty minutes to convict her.
Ellis remained at Holloway Prison while awaiting execution. She told her mother that she did not want a petition to reprieve her from the death sentence, and took no part in the campaign. However, at her relatives' urging her solicitor, John Bickford, wrote a seven-page letter to Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George setting out the grounds for reprieve. George denied the request. In a 2010 television interview, the grandson of Mr Justice Havers, actor Nigel Havers, said his grandfather had written to the George recommending a reprieve as he regarded it as a crime passionnel, but received a curt refusal.
Ellis dismissed Bickford (who had been chosen by Cussen) and asked to see Leon Simmons, the clerk to solicitor Victor Mishcon (whose law firm had previously represented her in her divorce proceedings). Before going to see her, Simmons and Mishcon visited Bickford, who urged them to ask Ellis where she had obtained the gun. On 12 July 1955, the day before her execution, Mishcon and Simmons saw Ellis, who wanted to make her will. When they pressed Ellis for the full story, she asked them to promise not to use what she said to try to secure a reprieve; Mishcon refused.
Ellis then said that she had been drinking with Cussen for most of the weekend and that he had given her the gun and some shooting practice. Cussen had also driven her to the murder scene. Following a two-hour interview, Mishcon and Simmons went to the Home Office; the Permanent Secretary, Sir Frank Newsam, was summoned back to London and ordered the head of CID to check the story. George later said that the police were able to make considerable enquiries but that it made no difference to his decision, and in fact made Ellis's guilt greater by showing the murder was premeditated. George also said that the injury to the bystander was decisive in his decision: "We cannot have people shooting off firearms in the street!"
In a final letter to Blakely's parents from her prison cell, Ellis wrote, "I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him."
The Bishop of Stepney, Joost de Blank, visited Ellis prior to her execution. Just before 9 am on 13 July the hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, and his assistant entered Ellis's cell and took her to the adjacent execution room where she was hanged. As was customary in British executions, she was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison. In the early 1970s the remains of executed women were exhumed for reburial elsewhere; in the churchyard of St Mary's Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Her headstone was inscribed "Ruth Hornby 1926–1955". Her son, Andy, destroyed the headstone shortly before he committed suicide in 1982.
Public reaction and legacy
The Ruth Ellis case caused widespread controversy at the time, evoking exceptionally intense press and public interest to the point that it was discussed by the Cabinet. Then-Prime Minister Anthony Eden made no reference to the Ellis case in his memoirs, nor is there any mention in his papers. He accepted that the decision was the responsibility of the Home Secretary, but there are indications that he was troubled by it. A petition to the Home Office asking for clemency was signed by 50,000 people, but was rejected.
On the day of Ellis's execution, columnist Cassandra of the Daily Mirror attacked her 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". The British Pathé newsreel reporting Ellis's execution openly questioned whether capital punishment—of a female or of anyone—had a place in the 20th century. The novelist Raymond Chandler, then living in Britain, wrote a scathing letter to the Evening Standard referring to what he described as "the medieval savagery of the law".
Though the execution was on the whole supported by the British public, it helped strengthen support for the abolition of the death penalty, which was halted in practice for murder in Britain ten years later (the last execution in the UK occurred in 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.
In the early 1970s, Bickford told Scotland Yard that Cussen had told him, in 1955, that Ellis lied[further explanation needed] at the trial. A police investigation followed but no further action regarding Cussen was taken.
Ellis's husband, George Ellis, descended into alcoholism and died by suicide, hanging himself at a Jersey hotel on 2 August 1958. In 1969, Ellis's mother, Berta Neilson, was found unconscious in a gas-filled room in her flat in Hemel Hempstead; she never fully recovered and did not speak coherently again.
Ellis's son, Andy, who was aged 10 at the time of his mother's hanging, took his own life in a bedsit in 1982, shortly after desecrating his mother's grave. The trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, had sent money every year for Andy's upkeep, and Christmas Humphreys, the prosecution counsel at Ellis's trial, paid for his funeral. Ellis's daughter, Georgina, who was three when her mother was executed, was fostered when her father killed himself three years later. She died of cancer aged 50.
The Ellis case continues to have a strong grip on the British imagination and in 2003 was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). The Court firmly rejected the appeal, although it made clear that it could rule only on the conviction based on the law as it stood in 1955, and not on whether she should have been executed. The court was critical of the fact that it had been obliged to consider the appeal:
We would wish to make one further observation. We have to question whether this exercise of considering an appeal so long after the event when Mrs Ellis herself had consciously and deliberately chosen not to appeal at the time is a sensible use of the limited resources of the Court of Appeal. On any view, Mrs Ellis had committed a serious criminal offence. This case is, therefore, quite different from a case like Hanratty  2 Cr App R 30 where the issue was whether a wholly innocent person had been convicted of murder. A wrong on that scale, if it had occurred, might even today be a matter for general public concern, but in this case there was no question that Mrs Ellis was other than the killer and the only issue was the precise crime of which she was guilty. If we had not been obliged to consider her case we would perhaps in the time available have dealt with 8 to 12 other cases, the majority of which would have involved people who were said to be wrongly in custody.
In July 2007 a petition was published on the 10 Downing Street website asking Prime Minister Gordon Brown to reconsider the Ellis case and grant her a pardon in the light of new evidence that the jury at her trial was not asked to consider. It expired on 4 July 2008.
Film, TV and theatrical adaptations
In 1980, the third episode of the first series of the ITV drama series Lady Killers recreated the court case, with Ellis played by Georgina Hale.
Both Ellis'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 premiered at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh as part of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Diana Dors, who had starred in Lady Godiva Rides Again, in which Ellis had had a minor, uncredited role, played a character resembling (though not based on) Ellis in the 1956 British film Yield to the Night, directed by J. Lee Thompson.
The case was the basis for Amanda Whittington's play The Thrill of Love. It premiered at the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, in February 2013 and subsequently played at St James Theatre London with Faye Castelow in the main role. Maxine Peake played Ellis in an adaptation of Whittington's play, broadcast on 5 November 2016 by BBC Radio 4.
The Ruth Ellis story was dramatized in the Murder Maps series of documentaries on the Yesterday Channel on 2 November 2017. It featured Monica Weller, ghost writer of Ruth Ellis My Sister's Secret Life.
Ruth Ellis also appeared on Deadly Women's last episode of Season 1 called "Revenge" in 2005. In the dramatization, she's portrayed by Carissa Singleton while David Blakely is played by Jimmy Aschner.
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