‘On the Conscience of The Nation’ – The Life and Death of Ruth Ellis As Told By Our Newspapers – The British Newspaper Archive Blog

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‘On the Conscience of The Nation’ – The Life and Death of Ruth Ellis As Told By Our Newspapers

Reading like a tabloid’s dream, or the script of a film noir, the shooting death of racing car driver David Blakely at the hands of his model girlfriend Ruth Ellis revealed the seedy underbelly of 1950s society.

From the smoky, dim-lit cocktail bars of West London, to extramarital affairs and illicit weapons, this is the story of a young woman and what drove her to shoot her lover in broad daylight on Easter Sunday, 1955, as told by our newspapers. The murder, committed in leafy Hampstead, divided the nation, and led the country to question the nature of British justice and punishment.

Ruth Ellis and David Blakely | Sunday Mirror | 26 June 1955

And so, this blog will tell Ruth Ellis’s story, month by month, from the murder in April 1955 until her execution in July 1955. It will examine the prejudice at play under the surface of 1950s society, asking that if Ruth Ellis had not been from the wrong side of the tracks, would she have been treated differently? We will also look at what drove her to commit murder, which made her the last woman to suffer capital punishment in Britain, and at how both she and the nation reacted to her sentencing.

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‘Model Charged With Murder’

On 21 April 1955 both local and national newspapers alike ran with similar, salacious, headlines, the Bradford Observer’s reading ‘Model Charged With Murder.’ Meanwhile the Daily Mirror staged the very real crime like the plot of a novel, its copy reading:

She was a leading mannequin. He was a crack car racing driver. Ruth Ellis, 28, and David Blakely, 25, seen together on the right, looked the picture of happiness – when that photograph was taken. But yesterday Ruth stood in the dock of a London court accused of murdering…David.

Daily Mirror | 21 April 1955

The murder of David Blakely, 25, at the hands of his girlfriend Ruth Ellis, 28, was perfect fodder for the tabloid headlines. And such tabloids were preoccupied by Ruth’s looks, and her position in society, the Daily Mirror describing how:

Ash blonde Ruth, a former West End club manageress and the divorced wife of a dental surgeon, was in the dock in Hampstead for two minutes. She wore a grey, tweed two-piece suit, edged with black piping, and black high-heeled shoes. Behind her back she clutched a white silk handkerchief embroidered with blue forget-me-nots. 

But what had led up to that shocking moment that Ruth pulled the trigger on David Blakely, a ‘motor racing driver’ and ‘the son of a Sheffield doctor?’

The Lancashire Evening Post on 28 April 1955 contained the background story to the ‘Gun Drama Outside Hotel.’ Blakely and Ellis had met ‘two years ago, when she was manageress of the Little Club in Knightsbridge.’ This was after her short-lived marriage to dentist George Johnston Ellis, which ended in 1951.

Daily Mirror | 22 June 1955

Very soon after meeting Blakley and Ellis begun living together, although prosecutor Mr. J. Caxton, speaking at the Hampstead hearing in April 1955, told of how ‘just before Christmas, 1954, there appeared to have been some cooling off between’ the pair. Ruth, meanwhile, had met another man, company director Desmond Cussen, and she went to live with him, ‘but from time to time she went out with Blakely.’

And in early 1955, Blakely had told Ellis in the presence of his friends that he wanted to ‘break off the association’ with her, ‘but she would not let him.’ So in February of that year ‘Ellis and Blakely decided to live together again in a furnished room in Egerton Gardens,’ but when Blakely left for the day, Cussen would often come and visit Ellis.

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‘I Am Guilty’

And it was in this strained atmosphere that things reached a head. On the Easter weekend in April 1955 David Blakely had gone to stay with his friends the Findlaters in Hampstead, as the Lancashire Evening Post details:

 On Good Friday Blakely went to the Findlaters’ flat to spend the week-end with them. During that day and the early hours of the next day, Ellis kept ringing up, wanting to know if Blakely was there. Blakely was there, Findlater told her that Blakely was not there. Early next morning Ellis was banging on the front door and ringing the bell to such an extent that the police were sent for. When they arrived she went away, but returned and smashed several windows of Blakely’s car.

David Blakely and Ruth Ellis | Shields Daily News | 1 July 1955

On Easter Sunday, 10 April 1955, the Findlaters were having a party, with David Blakely and another acquaintance, Clive Gunnell, in attendance. Running out of beer, Blakely and Gunnell went to the Magdala public house, and when:

…they came out and were getting into the car, there were two bangs. Gunnell heard Blakely scream ‘Clive!’ – his christian name. He went round the back of the car and saw Ellis standing there with a revolver in her hand. Blakely was lying face downwards on the pavement, and he saw Ellis fire more shots into Blakely’s back as he lay.

Lancashire Evening News | 28 April 1955

The Lancashire Evening Post details how an off duty policeman, P.C. Thompson, happened to be in the pub at the time. He ran outside to find the body of Blakely and Ruth Ellis standing beside it, and she allegedly told him, or Clive Gunnell, to ‘Phone the police.’ And when Ellis was taken to the police station, she is said to have stated:

‘I am guilty: I am rather confused. It all started about two years ago.’

Indeed, the Bradford Observereported how at an earlier hearing Ruth Ellis had thanked Detective Chief Inspector Davies when she was charged.

‘Trial Held Over’

Despite her early admissions of guilt, the Daily Herald on 29 April 1955 reported how Ruth Ellis ‘plead not guilty and reserved her defence,’ being sent for trial at the Old Bailey.

That newspaper told a conflicting tale of the ‘Hostess With Two Lovers,’ revealing how she ‘wanted race driver to stay her friend,’ but also how ‘she was not in love with him.’ These opposing, dichotomous, views, would be at the heart of the Ruth Ellis case in the months to come.

Dundee Courier | 29 April 1955

On 6 May 1955 local newspaper the Kensington Post reported how ‘Platinum blonde Ruth Ellis, twice-married 28-year-old model of Egerton Gardens, Kensington, was sent for trial at the Old Bailey.’ She ‘did not look up’ as prosecutor Mr. J. Caxton described the events that led to the death of David Blakely.

However, two weeks later, on 20 May 1955, the same newspaper reported how Ruth Ellis’s trial was going to be ‘held over’ to the June session, ‘so that the defence can complete its extensive inquiries.’

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‘An Emotional Prison’

On 20 June 1955 Ruth Ellis stood trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of David Blakely. The Dundee Courier, reporting on 21 June 1955, told of how she was ‘asked only one question in her cross-examination by Mr Christmas Humphreys at the Old Bailey yesterday.’ The question and her answer struck a devastating blow to her and her defence:

‘When you fired the revolver at David Blakely, what did you intend to do?’ He asked. She replied, ‘When I shot him I intended to kill him.’

But her defence rallied, bringing to light the alleged abusiveness of Blakely, as the Dundee Courier detailed:

Blakely drank quite heavily and was violent to her on occasions, she said. She made ‘numerous efforts’ to end their association and to get him out of her flat. Asked by Mr Melford Stevenson, defending, if she had had occasion to complain to Blakely about his conduct with other women, she replied quietly, ‘Yes.’ Once she went to Blakely’s flat and found him with a woman.

Dundee Courier | 21 June 1955

Meanwhile, the Dundee Courier reported how psychiatrist Dr. Duncan Whittaker spoke for the defence. He explained how ‘a woman was more prone to hysterical reaction than a man in the case of infidelity.’ It was, moreover, his opinion that:

…if she had been given a chance to blow Blakely up on the telephone, her emotional tension would have been released and the incident would not have occurred.

But as the newspaper went on to relate, Whittaker believed that Ellis was ‘sane’ at the time of the shooting. However, her defence lawyer Melford Stevenson suggested to the jury that his client was guilty of manslaughter, for she had ‘found herself in ‘something of an emotional prison guarded by the young man, from which there seemed to be no escape.’’

‘Only Possible Verdict’

Ruth Ellis’s murder trial only lasted one and half days, the Manchester Evening News running the headline ‘Blonde Model To Hang For Shooting Lover‘  on 21 June 1955. The newspaper reported how:

It had taken a jury of 10 men and two women barely 23 minutes to find her guilty of killing her lover by emptying a revolver into him outside a London public house. And as Mr. Justice Havers put on the black cap, Mrs. Ellis, the mother of two children, turned to the prison nurse standing beside her and smiled gently. Then she turned and, with a wardress’s hand under her arm, walked calmly down the steps to the death cell.

Ruth Ellis had been sentenced to death, the presiding judge explaining how, in his ‘view, it was the only possible verdict.’ He could find no evidence ‘whatever’ that Ellis was ‘insane at the time’ of the crime, whilst ‘Jealousy was no defence under English law to the charge of murder.’

Manchester Evening News | 21 June 1955

The same article in the Manchester Evening News reflected on what had led the daughter of ‘humble but eminently respectable people’ from Manchester on the path to murder. The newspaper pointed to her ‘good looks and her love for a good time,’ and how at the age of 17 she had fallen pregnant to an American soldier.

She moved into the nightclub and modelling scenes, and it was whilst she was working for a nightclub that a .38 service pistol came into her possession, given to her by a man who was supposed to be an army officer, to hold as ‘security’ for a debt. And so it was, as the Manchester Evening News rather dramatically noted, that:

That fatal gun sent race driver David Blakely slumping to his death in a quiet London street. And it led Ruth Ellis, the girl who loved life, to the sleepless silence of a condemned cell.

‘No Appeal’

The day following Ruth Ellis’s death sentence, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported how there wasn’t going to ‘be any appeal’ fronted by the condemned woman and her legal team.

Coventry Evening Telegraph | 22 June 1955

Meanwhile the press continued to unpick her life, and what led her to murder David Blakely. A particularly vicious Daily Mirror article by Howard Johnson, which revealed the snobbery at play in Ellis’s case, was entitled ‘The ‘Back Streets’ Girl Who Tried to Gatecrash Society.’ This article made Ellis’s story into a parable of a social climber, desperate to snatch at a life that did not belong to her, her death sentence a just punishment for her daring to dream beyond the status quo.

It began:

It took just twelve years to change Ruth Ellis from a simple girl, quiet girl into a jealous, vicious woman – a woman who could kill, and did.

It compared Ellis’s modelling work, the ‘semi-nude’ photographs for picture postcards, her life as a waitress and club hostess, with Blakely’s public school education at Shrewsbury, his military career as a lieutenant in the Highland Light Infantry, and the money that had been left to him by his father. How dare Ruth Ellis even dream of entering his world?

Daily Mirror | 22 June 1955

But Ruth knew it was difficult to become Mrs. David Blakely. David Blakely, willing to have fun, knew that to marry a girl from a drinking club would mean disgrace in the eyes of his well-to-do family and his influential friends in the racing world.

Johnson commented how ‘Ruth lost her fight’ to become legitimate in the eyes of society, noting how she ‘became a second jealous woman.’ He ended his article by writing:

Yesterday the girl who sought the bright lights made her last appearance as a glamour girl. Her ‘stage’ was the dock of the No. 1 court at the Old Bailey. And a death sentence was the end of the act.

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‘My Love and Hate’

Following Ruth Ellis’s death sentence, the press continue to abound with comment and opinion. One such comment came from Jacqueline Dyer, a barmaid who had worked alongside Ruth at the Little Club in Kensington. She was reported in the Daily Herald on 22 June 1955 as saying:

Ruth has been quite unconcerned about herself since that Easter Sunday. She still loved David in spite of what she did to him. The one thing she wanted was that I go and see him in Howard’s Chapel, Mayfair, before he was buried… She seemed to have forgotten the many times Blakely had beaten her and threatened to kill her if she left him, as well as her own danger.

Meanwhile, two days later on 24 June 1955 the Daily Mirror reported how an execution date for Ruth Ellis had been ‘fixed for Wednesday, July 13, at Holloway Prison.’ Her only chance of reprieve lay in the hands of then Home Secretary Major Gwilym Lloyd-George, who was ‘set to study all the papers in the case.’

Daily Mirror | 24 June 1955

But chances of a reprieve for Ellis seemed distant; it was unlikely her sentence would be reduced to manslaughter. The Daily Mirror related the words of a psychiatrist, who deemed that ‘She both hated and loved’ Blakely. Love and hate, the ultimate dichotomy, would be the theme of Ruth’s own story, as presented in the press.

On 25 June 1955 the Daily Mirror reported how Ruth Ellis would finally ‘tell her full story.’ She would tell of her devastating first love, and how Mayfair ‘opened its heart’ to her. Entitled ‘My Love and Hate,’ her account would appear in the woman’s Sunday Mirror. Crucially, tantalisingly, she states:

Only a woman who had led a similar life to mine could understand how I was irresistibly compelled to do what I did.

Daily Mirror | 25 June 1955
‘One More Sacrifice’

And as the days ticked by to the date of Ruth’s execution, rumours in the press continued to swirl. Harry Ashbrook for the Sunday Mirror on 26 June 1955 wrote of a mysterious ‘Other Woman,’ who despite not being mentioned in Ruth’s trial, may be able to ‘save her from the gallows.’

Meanwhile he reported on Ruth’s own supposed desperate pleas, as she reputedly demanded:

‘Why didn’t I speak? Why didn’t I tell the whole truth? Now it is too late.’

And then the Weekly Dispatch (London) on the same day reported on persistent rumours that Ruth Ellis was pregnant, although her mother, Elizabeth Nielson, was quick to refute them. However, she reinforced Ruth’s ‘domestic unhappiness and…the brutality she is said to have suffered at the hands of Blakely.’ The same article dubbed Ruth as ‘the woman who wants to die.’

Ruth Ellis | Daily Mirror | 22 June 1955

Meanwhile, there were moves to try overturn the condemned woman’s sentence. The Halifax Evening Courier on 30 June 1955 spoke of how her solicitors were advising people on ‘how to draw up a petition for her reprieve,’ whilst local M.P. for Kensington North, George Rogers, visited Ruth in prison, and received her blessing to appeal to the Home Secretary for clemency.

And public opinion continued to swell against Ruth Ellis’s death sentence. The Daily Herald, 2 July 1955, offered its own thought piece on the situation:

We know millions of people will be horrified if Mrs. Ellis ends on the gallows. We also know that public outcry, when it was whipped up, preserved the hangman’s beastly trade in this country. It has defeated efforts to civilise our law. If the community takes the life of Mrs. Ellis, she will be one more sacrifice to barbarous superstition. We commiserate with the Home Secretary on the state of our law.

Daily Mirror | 4 July 1955

Alongside such passionate pleas for judicial reform, the Daily Mirror, with other newspapers, took a macabre interest in Ruth’s every activity. On 4 July 1955 the newspaper published a piece on Ellis’s trip from the ‘death cell to church,’ where she sat isolated from other prisoners ‘by a heavy green curtain.’

For the same newspaper, however, Cassandra (pen name of William Connor) came out as ‘irrevocably opposed to capital punishment’ on 5 July 1955, revealing how he had received a ‘deluge’ of letters ‘asking that [Ellis] be reprieved.’

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‘On The Conscience of the Nation’

Emery Pearce, writing for the Daily Herald on 9 July 1955, echoed such a sentiment, writing how Ruth Ellis was now ‘on the conscience of the nation.’ He described how:

Never has there been such a spontaneous outcry deploring the simple fact that a woman who killed, will herself, in law, be killed on the end of a rope.

His article contained opinions from a range of different personalities, who all condemned Ellis’s death sentence. Methodist Dr. Donald Soper declared how ‘It will be degrading, retrograde, un-Christian to hand Ruth Ellis,’ whilst Raymond Chandler, an American novelist, stated how:

I am deeply shocked that this woman will be hanged until death. And in Britain.

Daily Herald | 9 July 1955

Meanwhile, Pearce dug deeper into the death sentence and his distaste for it:

A hanging, we are told, is over in a matter of seconds for the person on the rope. For those who watch it, and those who keep guard over the condemned for the dragging days, a hanging is never over. Think of all those involved in carrying out society’s sentence on Ruth Ellis…

He describes the ‘wardresses’ in Holloway Prison who volunteered to spend time with Ruth, and also the ‘likeable’ hangman, a publican from Lancashire, who was set to be paid £15 for his services, or over £350 today, tax payers’ money. This caused Pearce to observe how ‘We pay to hang Ruth Ellis.’

He ends his powerful article for the Daily Herald by stating:

The agony of Ruth Ellis will be momentary compared with the agony of those who love her, those who watch over her, those who will see her die. All of us who cry out against the death sentence do so not because of the woman who may hang next Wednesday. We protest because this act contributes to the degradation of mankind. 

‘The Public Pray’

There was to be no reprieve for Ruth Ellis, however. The Aberdeen Evening Express confirmed this on 11 July 1955 when it was revealed that there were ‘no sufficient grounds to recommend any interference with the due course of law.’ Her execution time was set for 9 a.m., 13 July 1955.

Aberdeen Evening Express | 11 July 1955

And outside the prison that day were scenes of sorrow and of protest. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reports on 13 July 1955 how ‘Women wept and others prayed’ outside Holloway Prison, as a crowd of about a thousand people gathered, surrounded by ‘scores of police.’

A striking figure amongst the crowd was Mrs. van Der Elst, ‘a noted opponent of capital punishment,’ who paced on the other side of the road wearing ‘a long black coat and a black hat.’ As nine o’clock came and went, a ‘hush’ eddied over the crowd, and then, eighteen minutes later:

…a dozen uniformed officers, three senior police officers and three mounted police officers almost obscuring the gates, the notices of execution were posted. The silence was broken, and as the warder hung the notices the crowd rushed forward, blocking the road, halting traffic and sweeping police aside.

The crowd outside Holloway Prison | Illustrated London News | 23 July 1955

After the execution, Anne Clarke, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, ‘invited the crowd to sign a petition calling for the abolition of capital punishment.’ The Coventry Evening Telegraph featured her poignant statement: ‘We intent to end this thing once and for all.’

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror took a close look at the ‘Last Hours of Ruth Ellis.’ She was woken at 8.30 a.m., refused food, but ‘accepted a glass of brandy from a wardress.’ After sipping at it, she asked a wardress whether or not she would be blindfolded. She was then led out of her cell, accompanied by the prison governor, the prison doctor, a chaplain and the executioner. Ruth was not blindfolded. Instead, a hood was placed over her head.

Daily Mirror | 14 July 1955

She was then described by the prison staff as being ‘the calmest woman who has gone to the gallows.’

‘What About British Justice Now?’

Reactions to Ruth Ellis’s death ranged from the macabre to the outraged. The Daily Mirror on 14 July 1955 reported how ‘A model of Ruth Ellis will go on show in a waxworks museum on the Golden Mile at Blackpool today.’ It was set to stand beside a likeness of serial killer John Reginald Christie.

Leicester Evening Mail | 12 July 1955

Meanwhile, in Sweden, ‘a girl no older than twenty, flung a Stockholm evening paper at Daily Mirror correspondent Gerald Tutton,’ labelling him ‘Nazi swine,’ and spitting at his face. The French press, too, were outraged, the Paris newspaper France-Soir reporting how:

A pretty girl, whose crime was to have loved too much in a country where excesses and passions are not allowed, died at once.

Meanwhile, the Australian press was of the opinion that ‘the hanging had shamed Britain.’

And on 16 July 1955 the Bradford Observer printed a letter from reader Leslie Brownlow, of Halifax, which summed up the mood of the nation. He penned:

Now Ruth Ellis has been hanged, what about British justice now? Some murderers condemned get a reprieve, others do not. 

He continued:

The Commandment says ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but since then we have seen Christ and forgiveness, souls given a chance to make good. Why was Ruth Ellis not given a chance to prove herself? What would she think as she went to the gallows, one man could have saved her?

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer | 12 July 1955

Ruth Ellis was only 28 when she was executed, three months after the crime she committed. It is remarkable how very young she was, and how she was not given a second chance. Meanwhile, her mental state at the time of the murder was never fully understood by medical professionals of the day.

Ruth Ellis was the last woman ever to be hanged in Britain, whilst capital punishment was not fully suspended until 1965, and it was finally abolished for murder in 1969, fourteen years too late for Ruth.

Our newspapers offer a fascinating window into this tragic crime, and the two lives that were cut short. Find out more about the crimes of the past, and the opinions people held about crime and punishment, by browsing the pages of our newspapers today.

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