9 October 1926
|Died||13 July 1955
Holloway Prison, London
|Cause of death||Execution by Hanging|
|Resting place||Holloway prison; later reburied in St Mary's Church, Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
|Occupation||Model, nightclub hostess|
|Known for||Being the last woman executed in the UK|
|Spouse(s)||George Johnston Ellis (1950–1955)|
|Children||Clare Andrea Neilson (1944–1982)
Georgina Ellis (1951–2001)
|Parent(s)||Arthur Neilson, formerly Hornby
|Relatives||Muriel Jakubait (sister)|
Ruth Ellis (9 October 1926 – 13 July 1955) was the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom, after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely.
From a humble background, Ellis was drawn into the world of London nightclub hostessing, which led to a chaotic life of brief relationships, some of them with upper-class nightclubbers and celebrities. Two of these were Blakely, a racing driver already engaged to another woman, and Desmond Cussen, a retail company director.
On Easter Sunday 1955, Ellis shot Blakely dead outside The Magdala public house in Hampstead, and immediately gave herself up to the police. At her trial, she took full responsibility for the murder; and her courtesy and composure, both in court and in the cells, was noted in the press. She was hanged at HM Prison Holloway.
Ellis was born in the Welsh seaside town of Rhyl, the third of six children. During her childhood her family moved to Basingstoke. Her mother, Elisaberta (Bertha) Cothals, was a Belgian refugee; her father, Arthur Hornby, was a cellist from Manchester who spent much of his time playing on Atlantic cruise liners. Arthur changed his surname to Neilson after the birth of Ruth's elder sister Muriel.
Ellis attended Fairfields Senior Girls' School in Basingstoke, leaving when she was 14 to work as a waitress. Shortly afterwards, in 1941 at the height of the Blitz, 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 Andrea Neilson, known as "Andy". The father sent money for about a year, then stopped. The child eventually went to live with Ellis's mother.
Ellis became a nightclub hostess through nude modelling work, which paid significantly more than the various factory and clerical jobs she had held since leaving school. Morris Conley, the manager of the Court Club in Duke Street, where she worked, blackmailed his hostess employees into sleeping with him. Early in 1950 she became pregnant by one of her regular customers, having taken up prostitution. She had this pregnancy terminated (illegally) in the third month and returned to work as soon as she could.
On 8 November 1950, she married 41-year-old George Ellis, a divorced dentist with two sons, at the register office in Tonbridge, Kent. He had been a customer at the Court Club. He was a violent alcoholic, jealous and possessive, and the marriage deteriorated rapidly because he was convinced she 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. Ruth and her daughter moved in with her parents and she went back to hostessing to make ends meet.
In 1953, Ruth Ellis became the manager of The Little Club, a nightclub. At this time, she was lavished with expensive gifts by admirers, and had a number of celebrity friends. She met David Blakely, three years her junior, through racing driver Mike Hawthorn. Blakely was a well-mannered former public school boy, but also a hard-drinking racer. Within weeks he moved into her flat above the club, despite being engaged to another woman, Mary Dawson. Ellis became pregnant for the fourth time but aborted the child, feeling she could not reciprocate the level of commitment shown by Blakely towards their relationship.
She then began seeing Desmond Cussen. Born in 1921 in Surrey, he had been an RAF pilot, flying Lancaster bombers during the Second World War, leaving the RAF in 1946, when he took up accountancy. He was appointed a director of the family business Cussen & Co., a wholesale and retail tobacconists with outlets in London and South Wales. When Ruth was sacked as manager of the Carroll Club, she moved in with Cussen at 20 Goodward Court, Devonshire Street, north of Oxford Street, becoming his mistress.
The relationship with Blakely continued, however, and became increasingly violent and embittered as Ellis and Blakely continued to see other people. Blakely offered to marry Ellis, to which she consented, but she lost another child in January 1955, after a miscarriage induced by a punch to the stomach in an argument with Blakely.
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 and where she suspected Blakely might be. As she arrived, Blakely’s car drove off, so she paid off the taxi and walked the quarter mile to the Magdala, a four-storey public house in South Hill Park, Hampstead, where she found Blakely’s car parked outside.
At around 9:30 pm David 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. He ignored her when she said "Hello, David," then shouted "David!"
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. She 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 mesmerised over the body and witnesses reported hearing several distinct clicks as she tried to fire the revolver's sixth and final shot, before finally firing into the ground. This bullet ricocheted off the road and injured Gladys Kensington Yule, 53, the wife of a local banker, in the base of her thumb, as she walked to the Magdala.
Ellis, in a state of shock, asked Gunnell, "Will you call the police, Clive?" She was arrested immediately by an off-duty policeman, Alan Thompson, who took the still-smoking gun from her, put it in his coat pocket, and heard her say, "I am guilty, I'm a little confused." She was taken to Hampstead police station where she appeared to be calm and not obviously under the influence of drink or drugs. She made a detailed confession to the police and was charged with murder. Blakely's body was taken to hospital with multiple bullet wounds to the intestines, liver, lung, aorta and windpipe.
No solicitor was present during Ellis's interrogation or during the taking of her statement at Hampstead police station, although three police officers were present that night at 11:30 pm: Detective Inspector Gill, Detective Inspector Crawford and Detective Chief Inspector Davies. Ellis was still without legal representation when she made her first appearance at the magistrates' court on 11 April 1955 and held on remand.
She was twice examined by principal Medical Officer, M. R. Penry Williams, who failed to find evidence of mental illness and she undertook an electroencephalography examination on 3 May that failed to find any abnormality. While on remand in Holloway, 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. Her lawyers expressed concern about her appearance (and dyed blonde hair), but she did not alter it to appear less striking.
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 asked, "When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?" The defending counsel, Aubrey Melford Stevenson, supported by Sebag Shaw and Peter Rawlinson, would have advised Ellis of this possible question before the trial began, because it is standard legal practice to do so. Her reply to Humphreys's question in open court guaranteed a guilty verdict and therefore the mandatory death sentence which followed. The jury took 20 minutes to convict her. She received the sentence, and was taken to the condemned cell at Holloway.
In a 2010 television interview Mr Justice Havers's grandson, actor Nigel Havers, said his grandfather had written to the Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George recommending a reprieve as he regarded it as a crime passionnel, but received a curt refusal, which was still held by the family.
Ellis 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 her relatives urged her solicitor John Bickford to petition to the Home Secretary, and he wrote a seven-page letter setting out the grounds. Gwilym Lloyd George took all the papers to the house of his sister Megan Lloyd George over the weekend, and decided that there were not sufficient grounds to recommend any interference with the due course of law.
Having been told that she would not be reprieved, Ellis dismissed her solicitor John Bickford (who had been chosen by Desmond Cussen) and asked to see Leon Simmons, the clerk to solicitor Victor Mishcon (whose law firm had previously represented her in her divorce proceedings but not in the murder trial). Simmons and Mishcon saw Bickford before going to Holloway; when Mishcon asked for a lead which might help save her, Bickford said "Ask her where she got the gun!". At 11.15 am on 12 July 1955, the day before her execution, Mishcon and Simmons saw Ellis, who wanted to make arrangements for her Will. They pressed Ellis for the full story, which Ellis was reluctant to give; she asked Mishcon to promise not to use the information to try to secure a reprieve (Mishcon refused).
Ellis then revealed that she had been drinking with Desmond Cussen for most of the weekend and that Cussen had given her the gun and some shooting practice. Cussen had also driven her to the murder scene. Following the two-hour interview in the condemned cell, Mishcon and Simmons went to the Home Office, where they spoke to a senior civil servant. The Permanent Secretary Sir Frank Newsam, who was at Ascot races, was summoned back to London, and ordered the head of CID to check the story. Gwilym Lloyd George later said that the police were able to make considerable inquiries but that it made no difference to his decision, and in fact made Ellis's guilt greater by showing the murder was premeditated. Lloyd George also explained that the injury to Gladys Yule was decisive in his decision not to reprieve Ellis: "We cannot have people shooting off firearms in the street! .. As long as I was Home Secretary I was determined to ensure that people could use the streets without fear of a bullet."
In a final letter to David Blakely's parents from her prison cell, she wrote "I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him."
Ever since Edith Thompson's execution in 1923, condemned female prisoners had been required to wear thick padded calico knickers, so just prior to the allotted time, Warder Evelyn Galilee, who had guarded Ellis for the previous three weeks, took her to the lavatory. Warder Galilee said, “I’m sorry, Ruth, but I’ve got to do this.” They had tapes back and front to pull. Ellis said “Is that all right?” and “Would you pull these tapes, Evelyn? I’ll pull the others.” On re-entering the condemned cell, she took off her glasses, placed them on the table and said "I won't be needing these anymore."
Thirty seconds before 9 am on Wednesday 13 July, the official hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, and his assistant, Royston Rickard, entered the condemned cell and escorted Ruth 15 feet (4.6 m) to the execution room next door. She had been weighed at 103 pounds (47 kg) the previous day and a drop of 8 ft 4in (2.54 metres) was set. Pierrepoint carried out the execution in just 12 seconds and her body was left hanging for an hour. Her autopsy report, by the pathologist Dr Keith Simpson, was made public.
The Bishop of Stepney, Joost de Blank, visited Ellis just before her death, and she told 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 a London evening paper of the time, The Star.
The case caused widespread controversy at the time, evoking exceptionally intense press and public interest to the point that it was discussed by the Cabinet.
On the day of her execution the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra wrote a 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. 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 public, however, largely supported the execution of the murderess.
Though the British public as a whole supported the execution of a murderess, the hanging helped strengthen public 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, John Bickford, Ellis's solicitor, made a statement to Scotland Yard from his home in Malta. He recalled that Desmond Cussen told him in 1955 that Ellis lied at the trial. Bickford had kept the information to himself. After Bickford's confession a police investigation followed but no further action regarding Cussen was taken.
Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister at the time, made no reference to the Ruth Ellis case in his memoirs, nor is there anything 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.
Foreign newspapers observed that the concept of the crime passionnel seemed alien to the British.
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 husband, George Ellis, descended into alcoholism and strangled himself in 1958. Her son, Andy, who was ten 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 adopted when her father killed himself three years later. She died of cancer aged 50.
The 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. 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 Ruth Ellis case and grant her a pardon in the light of new evidence that the Old Bailey jury in 1955 was not asked to consider. It expired on 4 July 2008.
Ellis was buried in an unmarked grave within the walls of Holloway Prison, as was customary for executed prisoners. 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 in the churchyard extension of St Mary's Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The headstone in the churchyard was inscribed "Ruth Hornby 1926–1955". Her son, Andy, destroyed the headstone shortly before he committed suicide in 1982.
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 yards from the Magdala public house at number 2a, where David Blakely was shot four months later.
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 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.
- Dunn, Jane (2010). "Ruth Ellis," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
- Jakubait, Muriel and Weller, Monica (2005). Ruth Ellis: My Sister's Secret life. Robinson Publishing. ISBN 1-84529-119-0
- Blackhall, p. 95
- "Ruth Ellis: The Last to Hang". Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- Blackhall, p. 96
- "The Magdala Tavern". Retrieved 6 June 2016
- "Melford Stevenson « Searching for the Truth about Ruth Ellis By Monica Weller". Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- "The Magdala". Retrieved 6 June 2016
- David Cocksedge, on his website 'The Lady Died for Love' described Blakely's car as a green 'Vauxhall Vanguard', a make/model that does not exist. It is presumed that he could have been referring to either a Standard Vanguard or some other model of Vauxhall
- Block, Brian P. and Hostettler, John (1997). Hanging in the Balance. Waterside Press. ISBN 1872870473. p. 164.
- Bresler, pp. 245–46.
- Bresler, p. 247.
- Bresler, pp. 248–49.
- Bresler, p. 250.
- Bresler, p. 251.
- Cocksedge, David. The Lady Died For Love. blakeleyons.org.uk
- "Searching for the Truth about Ruth Ellis By Monica Weller". wordpress.com. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- The condemned cell and execution chamber at Holloway Prison. None. Retrieved on 2016-07-30.
- "Autopsy Report of Ruth Ellis". Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- James, Robert Rhodes (1987), Anthony Eden, p. 420, Papermac, ISBN 0-333-45503-7
- Blackhall, p. 98
- ""Ruth Ellis" - British Pathé newsreel". YouTube. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- Hiney, Tom (1997) Raymond Chandler, A Biography. Grove Press. ISBN 0802136370. p. 224
- Block, Brian P. and Hostettler, John (1997). Hanging in the Balance. Waterside Press. ISBN 1872870473. p. 165.
- James, Robert Rhodes (1987) "Anthony Eden," p. 420. Papermac, ISBN 0-333-45503-7.
- "Judgement reserved in Ellis case". BBC News. 17 September 2003. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
- Court of Appeal, 2003; section 89
- Court of Appeal, 2003; section 90
- Author May Prove Hanged Woman's Innocence (from This Is Local London). Retrieved 6 June 2016
- According to the 1954 Electoral Register for England
- Leonard Maltin's 2004 Move & Video Guide
- Film Forum Brit Noir summer 2009 schedule.
- Trickett, Genni. "Review of The Thrill of Love". London Theatre1.com. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
- Blackhall, Sue (2009). "Ruth Ellis", True Crime: Crimes of Passion. Igloo. ISBN 978-1-84817-719-2
- Bresler, Fenton (1965) Reprieve. George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London.
- Ruth Ellis at the Internet Movie Database
- Ruth Ellis's story at Crime Library
- Ruth Ellis - an alternative view at the Wayback Machine (archived October 4, 2006)
- on YouTube
- Court of Appeal decision
- True Detective's alternative account of events
- Photographs of Ruth Ellis, including her grave
- Photographs of David Blakely's grave
- Scotsman report
- Photos relating to the Trial, the Smith & Wesson & Ruth's last letter.