The Death Penalty in Britain
in the Twentieth Century

by L. J. Hurst


I had to check the last pages of some of the classic crime fiction on my shelves. I had a feeling that an awful lot of them closed with the words "(the murderer) was tried and paid the penalty for his crimes upon the scaffold" just before the final printed text that said "The End". In fact, most don't - golden age detectives may identify the murderer in book after book, but as critics at the time, and even the professional police pointed out (as in the Detection Club's Six Against The Yard where six authors had their stories criticised by police officers) most authors had very little idea of what was evidence of a forensic legal standard. Perhaps realising that risk few authors identified what happened after the murderer was exposed. I had mis-remembered.

However, any one picking up a newspaper, listening to the radio, overhearing a conversation in a pub, or reading an internet news group discussion might realise that a lot of people think that in a golden age between the two World Wars there was a strong correlation between conviction for murder and execution in the United Kingdom. I wanted to check whether that was true - I did not find the information easily available, so I have correlated it myself.

Average Numbers of Executions(1)

per year in the period 1900 - 1949 13
per year in the decade 1930 - 1939

("The figure for the 1930s was the lowest of any decade in the century" - Potter)

in the years 1940-1946 13.3

All those executed in the period would have been convicted of murder, although in theory the death penalty existed for other offenses. During the Second World War, for instance, looting was punishable by death, but the sentence was never applied. Four individuals were executed for treason after the war, the most well-known being William Joyce, "Lord Haw Haw", and the least well-known a Private Schurch.

Wartime Murders in England and Wales(2)

(excluding those in first year of life):

Exections in Year
Executions Following Year
1940 115 12
1941 135 11
1942 159 15
1943 120 15
1944 95 9
1945 141 18

The murder rate ("Murder" here means any unlawful killing) in Britain between 1918 and 1939 was about 300 per year, in a population of about 45 million, and the rate was declining (Potter says it was only 100 in the year 1938, page 143). The clear-up rate then would have been similar to now: over 90 per cent. Allowing for those identified but not tried, due to illness, insanity or some other cause, which might have reduced 90 per cent to, say, 75 per cent, this must have meant up to 200 individuals facing trial for their life each year. Juries feeling merciful might bring in a verdict of manslaughter, with its maximum sentence of life imprisonment, but that would not have been encouraged. Therefore nearly all those convicted and sentenced to death would then have experienced the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (through the Home Secretary) and have had their sentence commuted to life imprisonment. (Bizarrely, the authorities were so concerned that the "long drop" could be properly calculated that amputees and the deformed were always reprieved(3)).

There were 657 executions in the period 1900 - 1949, and there must have been somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 murders: whence it is possible to deduce that at its worst or most intense, the ratio of execution to murder was 1 to 8; while the smallest figure possible is one execution for every twenty-three murders. Assuming the average for the 'thirties was the actual figure for 1938, then there were one hundred murders and eight executions giving a ratio of 1 to 13 in the year before the outbreak of World War Two.

In 1942, there might have been fifteen executions for 159 murders, a ratio of only 1 in 11 for what seems to have been one of the worst years in all ways for Britain; or allowing a lag between crime, solution, trial and punishment the succeeding year, only nine executions following 159 murders. By comparison, in the following year, 1943, there were nine executions and ninety-five murders, giving a ratio of one in ten. However, allowing again for a lag between crime and punishment, comparing the executions in the following year with the murders in 1943, shows a ratio of eighteen executions to ninety-five murders. In just a year, the ratio appears to have changed from one in ten, to one in five. This does not appear to have been a consistent application of sentencing rules.

Questions of consistency apart, execution did not automatically follow conviction of murder and in most years nine out of ten at least, and almost certainly eight out of ten, murders were not followed by execution in the period most associated with judicial death.

Life imprisonment did not necessarily meant "life", but an indeterminately long period. The earlier Victorian "ticket of leave man" was someone released from prison on license, often after a long period of imprisonment (as, for instance, was John "Babbacombe" Lee), and the same sense of being released "on license" applies still today, with the possibility of the license being revoked.

As an aside: anyone reading about our close neighbour Ireland and the death sentence there might receive a false impression about its end. In his autobiography Executioner Pierrepont Albert Pierrepont includes some references to his being sent to perform executions because no Irish hangman could be found, however, Tony Gray's The Lost Years(4) reveals that although the number of hangings after Irish independence was very small, De Valera took another approach. The Prime Minister had his political enemies (mainly IRA men) tried by military tribunals and, when found guilty, executed by firing squad, thus not showing in the normal records. Gray does not say how many were executed in this way.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the murder rate of the 1940s and 1950s was very low - actually none in some years, but in 1953 there were three murders. Ian Hay Gordon was convicted of one of those murders - in 2000 he was cleared by the Court of Appeal. Even if the other two murders in 1953 resulted in valid convictions this small sample suggests that the judiciary of the period was satisfied with a clear-up rate that was thirty-three per cent bogus. There are other cases of the period which suggest that this was true of the whole of Great Britain.

While seven out of eight convicted murderers (regardless of sex) had their sentences commuted this figure hides a gross discrepancy. Capital sentences were passed on twenty-eight British women in the twentieth century. If the seven-eighths rule applied to them then four women would have been executed. The real figure was twelve, with the other sixteen receiving commutation to life. While the whole number of women accused was much lower than the number of men, it is clear that women convicted were then executed at more than three times the rate for men, in acts of apparent gross disproportion.

In Britain after 1945 the murder rate began to rise until in the 1960s it reached the point where it has stayed: 700 to 800 murders per year in a population of 60+ million. In 2003, for example, there were 853 murders(5). Although the number varies from year to year the upward trend flattened long before the end of the century. By comparison the USA(6) currently has had a murder rate of about 35,000 per year which, with a population five times as large, has continued to be ten times higher than Britain. However, the rate in the USA began to decline at the end of the 1990s and in 2002 only16,110 people were murdered(7), though that was an increase on the year before.

In January 2013, the BBC's Lucy Townsend returned to murder and conviction rates(8), saying "There were 636 killings in England and Wales in 2010-11 ... about 65% of these killings lead to a conviction. Of that two-thirds, between 57-62% end with a conviction for murder... a final figure of about 247 resolved murders from the total of 636". Applying this 247:636 rule to the 1938 figure of 100 murders, we would expect a consequent execution rate of 39. The true figure was, of course, nothing like it. The executed were the product of something close to a bizarre inverted lottery.




1. Hanging In Judgement: Religion and the Death Penalty in England by Harry Potter (sic) (London: SCM Press 1993), page 243, quoting the figures from the report of the 1953 Royal Commission.

2. Crime in Wartime: A Social History of Crime in World War II by Edward Smithies (London: Allen and Unwin 1982) quoting Criminal Statistics 1939-45 page 11. (By excluding neonates the official figures exclude Infanticide).

Of the 141 murders in 1945,  thirty-five took place in London according to Maureen Waller in her account of the year.

3. Potter page 168

4.  The Lost Years: The Emergency In Ireland 1939-45 by Tony Gray (London: Warner Books 1998)

5. According to the BBC News web site.

6. The US murder rate varies geographically. Like Northern Ireland, in at least one year of the twentieth century one state (New Hampshire, I believe - I have not kept this information) had no murders. On the other hand, at least 463 innocent people were executed in the USA between 1900 and 1994 (according to Richard Cohen in the New York Review of Books August 14, 2003 reviewing Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, And The Invention Of The Electric Chair by Richard Moran).

7. Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2003 quoting FBI figures.

8. How unrealistic is murder on television? 16 January 2013. Note, that this excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland

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© L J Hurst 2007