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A Fine Day for a Hanging
Life was never easy for Ruth Ellis. Having given birth to a son whose father turned out to be a married man, she later had a daughter to her husband, George Ellis, a drunkard. She then suffered a long and violent love-hate relationship with her racing car boyfriend, David Blakely. And now, not long after she had miscarried his baby, he was ignoring her, choosing instead to drink with friends, including a woman known to have been his lover. Small wonder that Ruth was hurt, angry and frustrated, and that her tortured mind, possibly driven by alcohol and certainly by jealousy, sought retribution. But no-one, least of all Blakely himself, could have predicted that she would step from a doorway armed with a revolver to kill the man she loved.
It was Easter Sunday, 1955, and Ruth was 28 years old. Five shots she fired into David Blakely’s body, as he emerged from the Magdala Tavern, Hampstead, with a male friend. At point-blank range Blakely stood no chance. His killing, as murders go, was unremarkable. Several people witnessed the shooting, and Ruth Ellis never attempted to deny it. But the murder of David Blakely is remembered after so many years for one reason: that Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in England.
Should she have hanged? Was she guilty of murder, and not manslaughter, as she might have been? This woman acquired a gun, was driven to a place she believed her intended victim to be, where she shot him in cold blood, not once but five times – hardly a spontaneous deed or an act of self defence, no matter that she had been the victim of so much violence at the hands – and fists – of the man she killed.
Was she of sound mind? She knew well enough how many shots she had fired, for it seems she kept the last one for herself, only for the gun to jam. Then matters were made worse when it suddenly went off, for the bullet ricocheted off the pavement and struck the hand of a woman passer-by, Mrs Gladys Yule, who would later demand that Ruth Ellis should hang, and being the victim, albeit accidentally, of the shooting, her voice would have carried weight when the case was being considered by the Home Secretary, the only person left who could spare Ruth’s life.
Ruth did not try to escape. Instead, she was arrested without fuss by an off-duty policeman and taken in, along with the gun. Whoever drove her to the scene drove quietly away. The case, like so many others, raises the issue of capital punishment, favoured by the majority, but not when they were going to hang a woman.
Ruth Ellis was born in 1926, in Rhyl, North Wales. Her father was a musician, who chose the stage name Neilson; her mother was a Belgian refugee from the First World War. To find work, the family moved to Basingstoke, and later to Southwark, where at 15 Ruth got a job as a machine minder. Rheumatic fever kept her off work for a year, but she took up dancing lessons as a means of convalescence. At 17 she found work as a photographer’s assistant, which led her to London’s clubland and directly affected the course of her life thereafter.
After giving birth to her illegitimate son, Andy, who was looked after by her mother and sister, Ruth worked as a model at the Camera Club, London, posing for photographers, and later met up with Morris Conley, a ‘vice king’, who owned the Court Club, near Grosvenor Square. Ruth was attractive, a ‘peroxide blonde’ who dressed in smart, sexy clothes. Her job, as hostess, was to parade for the customers in this seedy club. Not surprisingly she was very popular. She was well paid, and ensured sufficient money went to her mother and sister for the upkeep of her son.
But working in clubland had its price. Ruth started drinking heavily, mostly to please clients out for a good time. One of them was George Ellis, an older man, whom Ruth married, evidently for security for herself and her son. They moved to Southampton, where they had a daughter, Georgina, and things might have gone well, but Ellis, like most people she met, was a heavy drinker, and when they parted Ruth went back to what she knew, London’s clubland, taking her children with her.
The Court Club was now called Carrolls. It was the haunt of businessmen and, by this time, racing car drivers. Some were famous, such as Mike Hawthorne (later killed in a motor accident), and most raced at prime racing circuits in England and abroad. Two men now came into Ruth’s life: Desmond Cussen, a rich businessman, and Blakely, one of the racing car set. Destiny had laid out the rest of Ruth’s short life for her.
Cussen was besotted with Ruth. He would do anything for her. He was 32, eligible, and would later take her and Andy to his home (Georgina was adopted). But Ruth’s heart ruled her head, and she chose instead David Blakely, but not entirely to the exclusion of Cussen, who would remain very much on the scene.
David Blakely was nearly three years younger than Ruth. Life had dealt him a favourable hand. He was the son of a Scottish doctor, and when his parents divorced his mother married a racing car driver (from whom Blakely acquired his interest in racing cars). He was well educated, and was provided with a flat in the family home at Penn, Bucks, as well as a shared flat with his brother in London. He had a £7,000 inheritance, all of which went into building racing cars – he owned one called The Emperor – and an extravagant lifestyle of booze, cars and women. Young, dashing, part of the racing set, Blakely had it made.
Just weeks after meeting Ruth Ellis, the pair were sleeping together in her flat above a club in Knightsbridge, which she now ran for Conley. Blakely virtually lived off Ruth, fluctuating between her, other women and his home in Penn. That Blakey’s relationship with Ruth was a tempestuous affair is in no doubt. Their liaison extended to the extremes of physical passion to physical abuse, as plenty witnesses to the latter could testify. Meanwhile, Desmond Cussen offered security to Ruth, who must have been tempted to accept, yet could not forsake the attentions of her violent lover.
These events took place before George and Ruth Ellis were divorced. After they were, and Georgina went into adoption, Ruth and David Blakely became acquainted with Anthony and Carole Findlater, who lived at Tanza Road, Hampstead. Anthony Findlater also liked cars, and worked on Blakely’s racer. It wasn’t long before Blakely was working on Carole. Anthony found out and forgave him. Ruth found out and didn’t. Yet she could not let go of her lover. Instead, she drank heavily, taking him back time after time and suffering physical abuse – ‘he only hit me with his fists,’ she said, as though excusing him for his violent behaviour, as many women do in ‘domestic’ situations.
Ruth suspected Blakely of having an affair with every woman he met, including the Findlater’s nanny. The besotted Cussen, meanwhile, had taken to following Ruth and Blakely around, and sometimes took Ruth with him if she wanted to know what Blakely was up to. For Ruth and Blakely, ‘love’ and ‘hate’ became inextricably linked, one as strong as the other. Sex, drink and violence were the ingredients that would lead to the deaths of them both. They were in love and at war at one and the same time.
In February, 1955, police were called to Cussen’s flat, where Blakely said Ruth had tried to stab him, and Ruth didn’t need to say anything as she was covered in bruises, had a black eye and was limping. That same month she and Blakely moved to a flat in Kensington, where love and war continued unabated. For Ruth, Blakely had fists or flowers, never stability. Ruth became pregnant and miscarried, then she became ill with a fever, and somewhere along the line she lost her job.
In April Blakely, who had been selected to race at Le Mans, presented Ruth with a photograph, endorsed: ‘To Ruth, with all my love’. Then, on Good Friday, he went to the Findlaters and told them he never wanted to see Ruth again. When he failed to come home, Ruth kept telephoning the Findlaters, who ignored her. In desperation she called Cussen, who, willing as ever, took her to the Findlaters where an almighty ‘domestic’ took place, with Ruth screaming at David and his friends. Instead of dealing firmly with the incident, the police quietened things – and left. Cussen took Ruth home. But Ruth wasn’t finished with David Blakely.
David Blakely and the Findlaters spent Easter weekend together. On the Sunday evening, Blakely and Clive Gunnell, who had met up with them, went in Blakely’s car to the Magdala Tavern to buy cigarettes and beer. Whenever Ruth sought Blakely out his car was always the giveaway, and she saw it outside the Magdala. No-one knows for certain who drove her there that evening, although it was almost certainly Desmond Cussen, and no-one knows how Ruth came to be in possession of a gun. But she was, and when David Blakely appeared she was waiting. A premeditated killing for certain. But given that murder is committed by a person ‘of sound mind and discretion’, was Ruth Ellis guilty of the crime for which she would hang?