British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Increasing doubts about the deterrent value and the morality of capital punishment led the British parliament to abolish the death penalty, which, in the case of the United Kingdom, meant hanging.

Summary of Event

In 1800, there were more than 220 capital crimes on the British statute books, most involving the stealing of property. The chaos produced by the Industrial Revolution together with the lack of an organized police force turned the penal code to harsh punishment as the main deterrent to crime. By 1808, however, with the founding of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge Upon the Punishment of Death Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge Upon the Punishment of Death , demands for reform were heard in public and on the floor of the House of Commons. Sir Samuel Romilly Romilly, Sir Samuel began to agitate for penal reform and in 1808 succeeded in abolishing capital punishment for the crime of picking pockets. This marked the first step in a long series of parliamentary and public struggles that led eventually to the Murder Act of 1965 and the permanent abolition of capital punishment. Capital punishment Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, British (1965) [kw]British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty (Nov. 8, 1965) [kw]Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty, British (Nov. 8, 1965) [kw]Death Penalty, British Parliament Abolishes the (Nov. 8, 1965) Capital punishment Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, British (1965) [g]Europe;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] [g]United Kingdom;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] [c]Human rights;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] [c]Crime and scandal;Nov. 8, 1965: British Parliament Abolishes the Death Penalty[08660] Silverman, Sydney Gowers, Ernest Ede, James Chuter Wilson, Harold

Piecemeal legislation during the period 1819-1840 substantially reduced the number of capital crimes, and in 1861 the Criminal Law Consolidation Act Criminal Law Consolidation Act, British (1861) reduced capital crimes to four: murder, treason, piracy with violence, and arson in government dockyards and arsenals. A royal commission appointed in 1864 to study the question of capital punishment recommended that the crime of murder be divided into degrees, with the death penalty for only the first degree (murder with malice and murder committed in the perpetration of arson, rape, burglary, robbery, or piracy). No action was taken on the report, and public agitation on the death penalty was dormant until after World War I. Two organizations, the Howard League for Penal Reform Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty , promoted petition drives, published material designed to influence public opinion, and lobbied members of Parliament against the death penalty.

The question was raised in the House of Commons, but no government during the period, whether Conservative or Labour, supported abolition. A select committee studied the matter in 1929, but its recommendation that capital punishment be suspended for a trial period of five years was ignored. A trial period became the chief plank in the abolitionist platform. In 1938, the government introduced the Criminal Justice Bill Criminal Justice Bill, British (1938) , the purpose of which was to consolidate the criminal law. Because the bill retained the death penalty, abolitionists introduced a motion proposing the suspension of the death penalty for a five-year trial period. To their surprise, the motion carried. The government, however, refused to act on the resolution, and the coming of World War II ended consideration of the bill itself.

The end of the war in 1945 also saw the Labour Party Labour Party, British come to power, determined to reform British society by creating a humane welfare state. Abolitionists hoped that Labour would be sympathetic to ending the death penalty, but events proved that this was not the case. The Criminal Justice Bill, which Home Secretary James Chuter Ede reintroduced in 1947, abolished hard labor, penal servitude, and flogging but retained hanging. The abolitionists, led by Sydney Silverman, a left-wing Labour member of Parliament, then proposed a five-year suspension of the death penalty with life imprisonment as the alternative to hanging. Although the government had promised a free vote on the question, it later ordered its ministers either to vote against the clause or to abstain, because the question involved government policy and thus was a matter of collective responsibility.

The result of the vote was a serious defeat for the government. Not only did the clause pass, but most of the ministers abstained. The House of Lords, however, rejected both the Silverman clause and a compromise that would have established degrees of murder. Ede, who wanted to see the long-overdue Criminal Justice Bill pass, convinced the abolitionists to accept the original bill in return for the formation of a royal commission to study the matter. This was done in 1949. The commission, Gowers Commission Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, British chaired by Ernest Gowers, a recently retired and highly respected civil servant, presented its report in September, 1953. The report proposed that extenuating circumstances should justify modifying death sentences; that the existing rules relating to insanity, malice, provocation, and suicide be revised; and that the statutory age limit for execution be raised from eighteen to twenty-one. By the time the commission made its report, however, the Conservative Party had again come to power. The government, responding to Tory sentiment, rejected the Gowers Commission’s recommendations.

The cause of abolition gained two important converts in the middle 1950’s, Gowers and Ede. Gowers’s work for the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment had convinced him that the death penalty was counterproductive. His conversion was intellectual in nature. Ede, on the other hand, had become convinced that as home secretary he had sent an innocent person to the scaffold. He had refused to grant clemency to Timothy John Evans Evans, Timothy John , hanged in 1950 for having strangled his child; the notorious serial killer John Christie Christie, John later confessed to the murder, however, and Evans was granted a posthumous royal pardon in 1966. By 1955, Ede had serious doubts about Evans’s guilt and was ready to come out for abolition.

The abolitionists returned to the fray during the 1955-1956 session of Parliament, when Silverman introduced the Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill Death Penalty (Abolition) Bill, British (1955) . After vigorous debate, the measure passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. Under the British constitution, the measure would become law despite the Lords’ rejection if the Commons passed it again in the following session. Wishing to retain the death penalty, the Conservative government refused to give debating time to Silverman’s bill and introduced its own measure, the Homicide Bill, Homicide Bill, British (1956) in 1956. Lacking time, Silverman’s bill died, and the government bill became law. This measure limited the death penalty to murder committed with aggravating circumstances such as murder by shooting, murder while resisting arrest, or murder of a police officer or prison official. So long as the Conservative Party remained in power, the death penalty was retained, but the number of hangings declined to around four per year.

Several troublesome murder cases contributed to the growing disquiet over capital punishment during the 1950’s and led to public campaigns for abolition. The Evans case was one. Others were the hanging of Ruth Ellis Ellis, Ruth , a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two children, for shooting her lover, and the Craig-Bentley case. In the latter case, Christopher Craig Craig, Christopher escaped the death penalty for his crime of fatally shooting a police officer because he was under eighteen. Derek Bentley Bentley, Derek , a nineteen-year-old accomplice of Craig in the attempted warehouse burglary that led to the shooting, was hanged, even though the police had been holding him when Craig fired the fatal shot. Bentley was accused of having incited Craig to shoot the officer. Many people thought that such results were unjust.

In 1964, the Labour Party took office with Harold Wilson as prime minister. Under Wilson’s leadership, the government announced that it would permit a free vote on capital punishment and allowed Silverman to introduce the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill in December, 1964. The bill provided that capital punishment would be suspended for a five-year period, during which time convicted murderers would be sentenced to life imprisonment. Although retentionists fought for the death penalty, the bill passed both houses of Parliament and became law on November 8, 1965. Two years later, Parliament voted to make abolition permanent.


The abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom was the result of a long process related both to changing attitudes toward crime and punishment and to party political rivalries. Originally intended as a deterrent to crime in the absence of an effective police force, the death penalty was reserved for the most serious crimes after such a police force was created in the early and middle nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, and especially after World War I, criminologists began to doubt the utility of the death penalty as a deterrent.

It became clear that criminals were not likely to be deterred by thought of the death penalty. The few premeditated murderers usually were sure that they were too clever to be caught, while the murderers in crimes of passion usually were not thinking at all about their actions. It was the role of outside pressure groups, most notably the Howard League for Penal Reform and the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, to disseminate these new views about the death penalty’s value as a deterrent and to mobilize lobbying efforts in order to influence party leaders and members of Parliament.

The abolition of capital punishment must be seen also as part of the general opening up of society that characterized the 1960’s in the United Kingdom and the United States. The abolition of the death penalty did not lead either to the terrible consequences that the retentionists had predicted or to the wonderful results that the abolitionists had anticipated. Retentionists had argued that abolition would lead to an increase in killings and to the eventual arming of the British police. The British police remained unarmed, and although killings increased, they did so in the 1970’s, long after the abolition of the death penalty, and because of increased drug use, a reason unconnected with abolition.

Similarly, abolitionists had predicted that abolition would lead to a more humane society, one that placed a higher value on the sanctity of human life and that restrained aggressive tendencies. Such a society did not come to pass, as the growth of soccer violence, for example, suggests. Perhaps the clearest result of the abolition of the death penalty is that some innocent people remained alive who in past years would have been executed. Capital punishment Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, British (1965)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Block, Brian P., and John Hostettler. Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain. Winchester, England: Waterside Press, 1997. Block and Hostettler provide a historical overview of the movements to abolish the death penalty in the United Kingdom. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christoph, James B. Capital Punishment and British Politics: The British Movement to Abolish the Death Penalty, 1945-57. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962. A scholarly survey of the campaign in Parliament and the debates among criminologists and reformers. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, David D. The Lesson of the Scaffold: The Public Execution Controversy in Victorian England. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974. Useful for historical background to the twentieth century debate on capital punishment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dorey, Peter, ed. The Labour Governments, 1964-1970. New York: Routledge, 2006. A history of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, with a chapter on the party’s role in the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Havighurst, Alfred F. Britain in Transition: The Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979. This is a straightforward, clearly written general account of British political history from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the end of the 1950’s. It provides the context necessary to understand the events of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hollis, Christopher. The Homicide Act. London: Victor Gollancz, 1964. A legal analysis of the measure. Appropriate for more advanced students and other readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hopkins, Harry. The New Look: A Social History of the Forties and Fifties in Britain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964. A journalistic study that includes brief accounts of some of the more lurid crimes of the period and that mentions the campaign against capital punishment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kennedy, Ludovic. Ten Rillington Place. New York: Notable Trials Library, 2001. Originally published in 1961, this work in the Notable Trials series examines the tragic story of the hanging of an innocent man, Timothy John Evans, in 1950. Public outcry led to the abolishment of the death penalty in the United Kingdom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laurence, John. A History of Capital Punishment, with Special Reference to Capital Punishment in Great Britain. London: S. Low, Marston, 1932. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1971. A dated work, but still useful for the broader historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tuttle, Elizabeth Orman. The Crusade Against Capital Punishment in Great Britain. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961. A scholarly account with an extensive bibliography. Covers the nineteenth century as well as the first half of the twentieth century.

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