Ruth Ellis: The Last Woman Hanged in Britain

She was born Ruth Neilson in the Welsh coastal town of Rhyl on 9 October 1926, her mother had been a Belgian refugee from the First World War and her father worked as a musician on cruise ships which meant he was often away from home.

The family name had originally been Hornby but was changed by her father, the reasons for which remain unclear, and it wasn’t to be the only unusual decision he made for despite appearing settled in Rhyl in 1941 he decided to move them all to London during the height of the Blitz but despite the risks involved in doing so the family were to survive the war unharmed.

Ruth briefly attended school in Basingstoke but left when still only 14 to work as a waitress. Three years later in 1944 she became pregnant to a Canadian soldier by whom she had a daughter, Clare Andrea, known as Andy. For a time the father supported them but the money ceased once he was shipped overseas.

Working in a series of poorly paid jobs Ruth decided to supplement her income by doing some nude modelling. She was soon to discover that taking her clothes off was a much easier and more lucrative way of making money than toiling for many hours in sweatshops and cafes.

Through her work as a model which veered from the legitimate to the pornographic she was to make contact with underworld figures and was soon working as a nightclub hostess at the Court Club in Duke Street.

Ruth who was naturally vivacious and always had a ready smile was the ideal hostess and she enjoyed her work, though she often expressed her regret at spending so little time with her daughter.

The hostesses were actively encouraged not just to flirt with but to seduce their clients not only as a means to supplement their own income but to compromise the club’s clientele and Ruth rarely disappointed.

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Her wealthy clients would wine and dine her in fancy restaurants, take her to the most fashionable places, lavish her with gifts, and occasionally provide her with money but despite the apparent glamour of her lifestyle it was merely prostitution by another name, and Ruth knew this well enough.

With no regular income and a daughter to support it was a precarious existence dependent upon Ruth’s continuing ability to charm and seduce men for whom she often had a deep loathing and their subsequent generosity as a result.

By 1950, she was again pregnant, the result of a liaison with one of her customers. This time she had no intention of keeping the baby, so with abortion illegal she paid to have a backstreet termination.

At a time when single motherhood was frowned upon Ruth was desperate for respectability not just for herself but her daughter and on 8 November 1950 she married the dentist, George Ellis, a regular visitor to the club where she worked, and who at 45 was 21 years her senior.

The marriage was never going to work, Ruth’s requirement to provide sexual favours to others did not sit easily with notions of domestic bliss and George it transpired was a violent alcoholic who was both possessive and insanely jealous. He would beat Ruth regularly believing her profession made her little better than a whore.

When in early 1951 she gave birth to a baby girl she named Georgina, he denied it was his and refused to support, either of them and shortly after they separated.

By now Ruth was well-known around the bars and clubs of London’s West End and there was always money to be had for a favour here and a favour there. Constantly on call it left her little time to herself, and even less for her children – but the simple fact was that Ruth needed her men.

Ruth Ellis

In 1953 she was appointed the manager of the Little Club in Knightsbridge and it was around this time she met the 23 year old David Blakely, the suave, articulate, ex-public school educated son of wealthy parents who as the heir to a fortune felt little need to seek gainful employment. Instead, despite often being short of money that saw him go cap-in-hand to his parents he enjoyed the playboy lifestyle.

Opinions about Blakely vary among those who knew him. Some were seduced by his aura of public school self-confidence and easy going charm. Others found him arrogant and sarcastic and despised his silly-arse public school persona and childish pranks believing him to be stupid, worthless, and lacking in masculinity.

Even so, Ruth thought she had at last found her man but Blakely loved only two things – cars and himself, – and not necessarily in that order.

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Despite the fact she was warned that he was a ponce and leech off her just as he did others, they soon moved in together.

Blakely was soon to prove himself an insensitive, drunken and abusive bully who was flagrantly unfaithful. Ruth too was unfaithful but this she considered to be part of her work.

They argued frequently and Ruth would often bear the scars of their rows and despite his promises to do so there was never the slightest prospect that they would marry.

Whilst Ruth continued to earn the money to support her family, Blakely was spending buying sports cars and racing them in the 24 hour Le Mans Rally.

In December 1954, Ruth lost her job at the Little Club and with no income and despairing of Blakeley’s frequent absence she moved in with Desmond Cussens, a long-time admirer.

Cussens was a wealthy ex-R.A.F pilot who was described as being dark, secretive, and essentially charmless but he could provide for Ruth and her children and she was soon pregnant by him, but she was also still seeing Blakely.

Cussens was aware of this and he had long been jealous of Ruth’s relationship with Blakely but he also knew through friends that he was being encouraged to leave her. Blakeley himself was uncertain, however. A friend who was present at a discussion about ending the relationship recalls him saying:

“You don’t know her. You don’t know what she can do.”

When Ruth confronted him there was a violent altercation following which she, miscarried.

It was to prove the final straw.

On Easter Sunday 1955 around 9.30 in the evening, Blakely and his friend Clive Gunnell emerged from the Magdala Public House in Hampstead and Ruth was waiting for them.

As they passed by Ruth approached them and said:

“Hello David.”

Blakely ignored her as he and Gunnell walked on. She then screamed “David!” and pulled out a Smith & Wesson Revolver from her handbag and firing, missed.

Gunnell stood back whilst Blakely fled and tried to hide behind a car but Ruth pursued him. As he emerged from his hiding place and began to run away she fired again and this time Blakely fell to the ground. She then proceeded to pump three more shots into his body before pressing the gun hard into his spine and firing one last time.

Even with her ammunition expended she continued to pull the trigger until she turned to the shocked Gunnell and said:

“Clive, would you kindly call the Police.”

To the arresting Police Officer she was to say:

“I am guilty but a little confused.”

Taken to the nearest Police Station there was little evidence that Ruth had been drinking or had taken any drugs. Indeed, she appeared calm and rational if a little distant.

She made a statement admitting her guilt and was promptly charged with murder.

Ruth Ellis appeared in the dock at the Old Bailey on 20 June, 1955.

The case had become a media sensation and her Defence Counsel Melford Stevenson had advised her to dress down for the occasion, but this Ruth refused to do. She was proud of her image as the brassy-blonde and would enjoy her moment in the spotlight. There were audible gasps as she entered the Court wearing a sharp black suit with astrakhan collar and cuffs and a white silk blouse. Her makeup had been carefully applied, her lips were a bright red, and her hair had been freshly bleached blond.

The journalists present had a field day playing up her image of the Scarlet Woman, the Femme-Fatale of a thousand Hollywood movies.

Ruth appeared composed and relaxed and under questioning spoke quietly and with little emotion.

When she was asked if Blakely beat her she responded:

“Yes he did but only with his hands and fists, but I do bruise easily.”

When the Prosecution Counsel Christmas Humphreys pressed her:

“When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakeley, what did you intend to do?”

She replied calmly and without hesitation:

“It is obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.”

During her testimony, Ruth said nothing in her defence neither claiming mitigating circumstances nor expressing regret.

Her behaviour in the dock undermined the Defence Counsel’s attempt to portray her as an abused woman who had been provoked at a time when her mind was disturbed and to have the charge reduced to manslaughter.

Considering the request Justice Cecil Havers concluded that there was no case for provocation and that the charge would remain one of premeditated murder.

It was then an open and shut case and it took the Jury just 23 minutes to reach its verdict of guilty, and Ruth was sentenced to be hanged by the neck until she was dead.

But the Ruth Ellis affair had made the entire country feel uncomfortable.

Not only had it revealed London’s sleazy underbelly but it was also self-evidently a crime of passion, but there was no such thing in English Law and as always opinion was divided. There was no question that it was pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder but one committed against a violently abusive lover who had been responsible for the loss of her child.

There followed a media campaign to have her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and groups were formed in her defence and petitions were sent to both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary along with thousands of individual letters.

One of those who wrote begging for a reprieve was her father:

“My daughter I would have thought to be the last person to become involved in such a crime, as a child she was quiet and reserved and never gave me any cause for anxiety, and later she was a devoted mother to her two children. I blame the whole sequence of events to the fact of such an unhappy experience of three bad men, the details of which you will know. I ask you as a distraught father to show her mercy”

But there was to be no reprieve.

Taking legal advice, the Home Secretary David Gwyllim wrote:

“I am not prepared to differentiate between the sexes on the grounds that one is more susceptible to jealousy than the other. Our law takes no account of the so-called crime passionele and if a reprieve were to be granted in this case, I think that we should seriously have to consider whether capital punishment should be retained as a penalty.”

She had murdered without compunction and in cold blood and the penalty for such was death by hanging.

Ruth revealed the day before her execution that Desmond Cussens had provided her with the gun and driven her to the scene of the crime. Her revelation appeared to confirm the view held by some that she had been goaded into the action she took but Police concluded that this did not constitute fresh evidence and that it did not warrant a stay of execution. They took it no further.

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Throughout her time in prison Ruth had remained calm seemingly resigned to her fate and only lost her composure once when she felt she was being bullied into making a personal appeal for clemency which she refused to do.

Ruth Ellis was hanged at Holloway Prison on, 13 July 1955.

She had earlier remarked that:

“It was quite clear to me that I was not the person who shot him. When I saw myself with the revolver I knew it was a different person.”

Visited by her family in the hours prior to her execution there was no mention of the murder or what was soon to occur. They merely made small talk with Ruth expressing concern for the welfare of her children and other domestic matters.

The clamour outside the prison was great but she went quietly to her death without uttering a sound.

Her post-mortem reported coldly:

“Twenty eight years of age, five feet two inches tall, weight 103 pounds.”

Ruth’s frailty has since led some to cast doubt upon her ability to have fired the fatal shots. How could she have wielded a heavy revolver and fired with such accuracy whilst running in high heels?

The death penalty was seen by many as too severe a punishment for any murder regardless of the circumstances and public opinion was beginning to turn away from it; just two years after her execution the defence of diminished responsibility was introduced into law.

The tragic life and death of Ruth Ellis served to hasten the death penalty’s eventual abolition ten years later in 1965.

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