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Capital punishment was used in the United Kingdom and its predecessor states of England and Scotland from the earliest times until the punishment was abolished in the twentieth century. The last executions, by hanging, took place in 1964, prior to capital punishment being abolished for murder (in 1969 in Great Britainmarker and in 1973 in Northern Irelandmarker). Although not applied since, the death penalty remained on the statute book for certain other offences until 1998.

Origins in English law

Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria was the only lord to be formally executed during the reign of William I of England. William Rufus re-introduced hanging but only for those found guilty of poaching royal deer. He too is known to have executed only a single aristocrat, William of Aldrie. Henry I brought hanging back as the main means of execution for many crimes. William Fitz Osbern was the first recorded execution at Tyburnmarker in 1196. The hanging tree, near present-day Marble Archmarker in Hyde Parkmarker, became notorious. Under the reign of Henry VIII some 72,000 people are estimated to have been executed by various methods including boiling, burning at the stake, decapitation and hanging, sometimes with the added punishment of drawing and quartering while still alive.

Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commonsmarker on capital punishment in 1810, declared that "…(there is) no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in Englandmarker." Known as the "Bloody Code", at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century, a notable example being the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching.

Whilst executions for murder, burglary and robbery were common, the death sentences for minor offenders were often not carried out. However, children were commonly executed for such minor crimes as stealing. A sentence of death could be commuted or respited (permanently postponed) for reasons such as benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy of the offender or performance of military or naval duty Between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, but only 7,000 executions were carried out.


In 1808 Romilly had the death penalty removed for pickpockets and lesser offenders, starting a process of reform that continued over the next 50 years. The death penalty was mandatory (although it was frequently commuted by the government) until the Judgement of Death Act 1823 gave judges the power to commute the death penalty except treason and murder. The Punishment of Death, etc. Act 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes by two-thirds. Gibbeting was abolished in 1832 and hanging in chains was abolished in 1834. In 1861, several acts of Parliament (24 & 25 Vict; c. 94 to c. 100) further reduced the number of civilian capital crimes to five: murder, treason, espionage, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence; there were other offences under military law. The death penalty remained mandatory for treason and murder unless commuted.

The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1864–66) concluded (with one dissenter) that there was not a case for abolition but recommended an end to public executions. This proposal was included in the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act 1868. From then executions in Great Britain were carried out in prison. The practice of beheading and quartering executed traitors stopped in 1870.

In 1885 John 'Babbacombe' Lee was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang though he maintained that he was innocent. On 23 February at Exeter prisonmarker, three attempts were made to carry out his execution, all of which failed, because when the gallows had been reassembled in the new shed the draw bar was misaligned by an eighth of an inch, so one of the hinges of the trap caught on the bar and failed to drop (see Home Office documents on the affair). As a result, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released from gaol in 1907, having become notorious as the man they couldn't hang.

Juveniles under 16 could no longer be executed from 1908 under the Children Act 1908. In 1922 a new offence of Infanticide was introduced to replace the charge of murder for mothers killing their children in the first year of life. In 1930 a parliamentary Select Committee recommended that capital punishment be suspended for a trial period of five years, but no action was taken. From 1931 pregnant women could no longer be hanged (following the birth of their child) although in practice since the 18th century their sentences had always been commuted, and in 1933 the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 18 under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The last known execution by the civilian courts of a person under 18 was that of Charles Dobel, 17, hanged at Maidstonemarker together with his accomplice William Gower, 18, in January 1889.

In 1938 the issue of the abolition of capital punishment was brought before parliament. A clause within the Criminal Justice Bill called for an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty. When war broke out in 1939 the bill was postponed. It was revived after the war and to everyone's surprise was adopted by a majority in the House of Commons (245 to 222). In the House of Lordsmarker the abolition clause was defeated but the remainder of the bill was passed. Popular support for abolition was absent and the government decided that it would be inappropriate for it to assert its supremacy by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 over such an unpopular issue.

Instead, then Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, set up a new Royal Commission (the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949–1953) with instructions to determine "whether the liability to suffer capital punishment should be limited or modified". The Commission's report discussed a number of alternatives to execution by hanging (including the US methods of electrocution and gassing, and the then-theoretical lethal injection), but rejected them. It had more difficulty with the principle of capital punishment. Popular opinion believed that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to criminals, but the statistics within the report were inconclusive. Whilst the report recommended abolition from an ethical standpoint, it made no mention of possible miscarriages of justice. The public had by then expressed great dissatisfaction with the verdict in the case of Timothy Evans, who was tried and hanged for murdering his baby daughter in 1949. It later transpired in 1953 that John Christie had strangled at least six women in the same house; if the jury in Evans's trial had known this, Evans might not have been found guilty. There were other cases in the same period where doubts arose over convictions and subsequent hangings, such as the notorious case of Derek Bentley.

The Commission concluded that unless there was overwhelming public support in favour of abolition, the death penalty should be retained.

Between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales. Ten German agents were executed during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, and 16 spies were executed during the Second World War under the Treachery Act 1940.

By 1957 a number of controversial cases highlighted the issue of capital punishment again. Campaigners for abolition were partially rewarded with the Homicide Act 1957. The Act brought in a distinction between capital and non-capital homicide. Only six categories of murder were now punishable by execution:

  • in the course or furtherance of theft
  • by shooting or causing an explosion
  • while resisting arrest or during an escape
  • of a police officer
  • of a prison officer by a prisoner
  • the second of two murders committed on different occasions (if both done in Great Britainmarker).

The police and the government were of the opinion that the death penalty deterred offenders from carrying firearms and it was for this reason that such offences remained punishable by death.



In 1965 the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, who had committed himself to the cause of abolition for more than 20 years, introduced a private member's bill to suspend the death penalty, which was passed on a free vote in the House of Commons by 200 votes to 98. The bill was subsequently passed by the House of Lords by 204 votes to 104.

The Murder Act 1965 suspended thedeath penalty in Englandmarker, Walesmarker and Scotlandmarker (but not in Northern Irelandmarker) for murder for a period of five years, and substituted a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment; it further provided that if, before the expiry of the five-year suspension, each House of Parliament passed a resolution to make the effect of the Act permanent, then it would become permanent. In 1969 the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, proposed a motion to make the Act permanent, which was carried in the Commons on 16 December 1969, and a similar motion was carried in the Lords on 18 December. The death penalty for murder was abolished in Northern Ireland on 25 July 1973 under the Northern Ireland Act 1973.

Following the abolition of the death penalty for murder, the House of Commons held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death penalty. This motion was always defeated, but the death penalty still survived for other crimes:

  1. causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, ship, magazine or warehouse (until 1971);
  2. espionage (until 1981);
  3. piracy with violence (until 1998);
  4. treason (until 1998); and
  5. certain purely military offences under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, such as mutiny (until 1998). Prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for six offences:
    1. serious misconduct in action;
    2. assisting the enemy;
    3. obstructing operations;
    4. giving false air signals;
    5. mutiny or incitement to mutiny; and
    6. failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy.

However no more executions were carried out.

There was a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth, London, until 1994, which was tested every six months until 1992. This gallows is now housed in the Galleries of Justicemarker in Nottinghammarker.

Last executions

England and in the United Kingdom: on 13 August, 1964 at 8 a.m., Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prisonmarker in Liverpoolmarker, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prisonmarker in Manchestermarker, were executed for the murder of John Alan West on 7 April that year..

Scotland: Henry John Burnett, 21, on 15 August, 1963 in Craiginches Prisonmarker, Aberdeenmarker, for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan.

Northern Ireland: Robert McGladdery, 25, on 20 December, 1961 in Crumlin Road Gaolmarker, Belfast, for the murder of Pearl Gamble.

Wales: Vivian Teed, 24, in Swansea on 6 May, 1958, for the murder of William Williams, sub-postmaster of Fforestfach Post Office.

Last death sentences

Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom: William Holden in 1973 in Northern Ireland, for the capital murder of a British soldier during the Troubles. Holden was removed from the death cell in May 1973.

England: David Chapman, who was sentenced to hang in November 1965 for the murder of a swimming pool nightwatchman in Scarboroughmarker. He was released from prison in 1979 and later died in a car accident.

Scotland: Patrick McCarron in 1964 for shooting his wife. He hanged himself in prison in 1970.

Wales: Edgar Black, who was reprieved on 6 November, 1963. He had shot his wife's lover in Cardiffmarker.

Final abolition

The Criminal Damage Act 1971 abolished the offence of arson in royal dockyards.

The Naval Discipline Act 1957 reduced the scope of capital espionage from "all spies for the enemy" to spies on naval ships or bases. Later, the Armed Forces Act 1981 abolished the death penalty for espionage. (In 1911 the Official Secrets Act had created another offence of espionage which carried a maximum sentence of fourteen years.)

Under a House of Lords amendment to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, proposed by Lord Archer of Sandwell, the death penalty was abolished for treason and piracy with violence, replacing it with a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment. These were the last civilian offences punishable by death.

On 20 May 1998 the House of Commons voted to ratify the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting capital punishment except "in time of war or imminent threat of war." The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (including in wartime) were removed when section 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force on 9 November 1998. On 10 October 2003, effective from 1 February 2004 the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol, which prohibits the death penalty under all circumstances, so that the UK may no longer legislate to restore the death penalty while it is subject to the Convention. It can only now restore it if it withdraws from the Council of Europe.

As a legacy from colonial times, several islands in the West Indiesmarker still had the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilmarker as the court of final appeal; although the death penalty has been retained in these islands, the Privy Council would sometimes delay or deny executions. Some of these islands severed links with the British court system in 2001 in order to speed up executions.

Crown dependencies

Although not part of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Manmarker and the bailiwicks of Guernseymarker and Jerseymarker are British Crown dependencies.

In the Channel Islands, the last death sentence was passed in 1984; the last execution in the Channel Islands was in Jersey on 9 October 1959, when Francis Joseph Huchet was hanged for murder. The Human Rights (Amendment) (Jersey) Order 2006 amends the Human Rights (Jersey) Law 2000 to give effect to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights providing for the total abolition of the death penalty. Both of these laws came into effect on 10 December 2006. The 13th Protocol was extended to Guernsey in April 2004.

The last execution on the Isle of Man took place in 1872, when John Kewish was hanged for patricide. Capital punishment was not formally abolished by Tynwaldmarker (the island's parliament) until 1993. Five persons were sentenced to death (for murder) on the Isle of Man between 1973 and 1992, although all sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The last person to be sentenced to death in the UK or its dependencies was Anthony Teare, who was convicted at the Manx Court of General Gaol Delivery in Douglasmarker in 1992; he was subsequently retried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. In 2004 the 13th Protocol was adopted, with an effective date of 1 November 2006.

Public support for reintroduction of capital punishment

A November 2009 television survey showed a majority of the public have been in favour of its return, and noted "High profile crimes against children often prompt calls for the return of the death penalty". Other surveys have noted similar things .

Notable executions

Note: This list does not include the beheadings of nobility.

See also


  1. 1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria.
  2. Wilson, James; Killmister, A. K. (1844). The Rod and the Gun: Being Two Treatises on Angling and Shooting. A. and C. Black. Harvard University. p. 306
  3. Gatrell, V. A. C., The Hanging Tree, OUP, Oxford, 1994
  4. Hansard, 22 May 1940
  5. Hansard, 1 February 1965
  6. Hansard, 16 December 1969
  7. Hansard, 18 December 1969
  8. The Naval Discipline Act 1957, section 93; previously the Naval Discipline Act (1866), section 6.
  10. Last executions in the UK
  12. Naval Discipline Act 1957, section 93
  14. Human Rights Act 1998 (Amendment) Order 2004
  15. 13th Protocol
  17. Human Rights (Amendment) (Jersey) Order 2006
  18. Human Rights (Jersey) Law 2000
  19. Report by the Bailiwick of Guernsey (page 5)
  20. UN Human Rights report para. 46
  22. Human Rights Act 2001 (13th Protocol) Order 2004
  23. Human Rights Act 2001 (Appointed Day) (No. 2) Order 2006

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