Published: 13 September, 2012
Sick Unto Death” – the headline that appeared on the front page of the Ham & High the week Ruth Ellis fell to her death in Holloway Prison – has been firmly fixed in my mind for 57 years now.
The morning protesters prayed and paraded outside the gaol as 28-year-old Ellis was due to become notoriously crowned the last woman to be hanged in Britain. I was outside the Magdala Tavern, in South Hill Park, Hampstead, the scene of her crime.
This was where Ellis, identified as a brazen peroxide blonde nightclub hostess cum prostitute, had gunned down her flamboyant lover, David Blakely, on the evening of April 10, 1955, which was Easter Sunday.
I had only joined the Ham & High as a junior reporter the week after the murder drama and had yet to sit in the press box at Hampstead Magistrates Court, now closed like the police station alongside, where Ellis had first appeared in the dock.
Now, together with a senior colleague, Clive Cullerne-Bown, it was decided that the Magdala was the place to be for reaction to the horrific fate of a woman who showed tremendous calm and courage in going to the scaffold after a jury had taken a mere 23 minutes to convict her of murder.
At 9am Albert Pierrepoint, the public executioner, had placed a white hood over her face before pulling the lever that has traumatised – and transformed – lives ever since. Clive wrote the front-page piece which had the “Sick Unto Death” headline, epitomising that sad awful day in British social and legal history, which the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra so eloquently summed up thus: “It’s a fine day for haymaking. A fine day for fishing. A fine day for lolling in the sunshine. And if you feel that way – and I mourn to say that millions of you do – it’s a fine day for hanging.
“In this case, I have been reviled as being a sucker for a pretty face. Well, I am a sucker for all human faces because I am a sucker for all humanity, good and bad. But I prefer them not to be lolling because of a judicially broken neck.”
Hence the title of Carol Ann Lee’s new book, A Fine Day For Hanging, which follows a flow of remarkable biographies over the past half-century, as well as novels, plays and films – in particular Dance with a Stranger, so titled after Ellis’s favourite song.
Miranda Richardson’s poignant portrayal (the screenplay was by Shelagh Delaney, author of a Taste of Honey) mesmerised Lee, then but 16. But equally, she points out in her preface, it “unfortunately fixed the character of Ruth Ellis in the public mind as a screeching mass of neuroses”.
Finally, she has told the full story of Ellis’s arrest, trial and execution, her troubled childhood and life before she became manageress of the Little Club in Knightsbridge, plus the fascinating background of her forgotten lover, the racing car driver David Blakely, who drank too much and toyed with women’s affections.
Here you have, for the first time, a brilliantly researched epilogue of the doomed relationships that produced two children and one divorce, and Ellis’s catastrophic final days.
Lee has raided official and unofficial reports, witness statements, media interviews, examined all that have gone before, adding her own meticulous research talking to relatives of those directly involved.
More importantly, she reproduces the actual factual evidence that undoubtedly could have saved Ellis from the ignominy that has flowed from her grave.
Lee may be somewhat free with her descriptions, and too critical of some other authors – an index, unfortunately, is missing – but your tears may well fall as its pages shatter the senses in retelling the sad saga.
Here is a woman of 28, a single mother of two, abused in love by tormented men in a love-hate triangle, one of them, Desmond Cussen, 32, filled with jealously, handing her the loaded .38 Smith & Wesson revolver with which she killed 25-year-old Blakely.
Cussen drove her in his taxi, doused in drink and confusion, from her bedsit to No 29 Tanza Road, Hampstead, where she expected to confront Blakely at a party, only to discover he had walked to the Magdala with a friend to buy more booze.
The Old Bailey jury, sitting in Court No 1, never heard this. Indeed, Cussen was a witness for the prosecution, while Ellis’s solicitor, John Bickford, misguidedly insisted he couldn’t reveal information given to him in confidence.
When he eventually explained the background to Victor Mishcon, Ellis’s divorce lawyer, a frantic last-minute attempt to obtain a reprieve equally ended in disaster – the Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd George, brushing it aside, as did the Appeal Court judges when a belated attempt was made by Ellis’s sister decades later to win her a pardon.
“It was only recently, in older age, when I was listening to a copy of a tape recording, which Desmond Cussen had given to me, that I realised what I ought to have done,” Bickford had confessed in 1970 from his home in Malta.
That is not to deny the brutality of the killing as Ellis pumped bullets into Blakely’s head as he lay on the blood-soaked pavement, one of her shots hitting the hand of passer-by Gladys Yule, who watched as Ellis killed the man who had punched her in the stomach to abort his child she carried.
While, ironically, inside the Magdala, landlord John Coulson heard the reverberations.
“We were very busy,” he said. “It was Easter Sunday, and suddenly I heard this noise going on outside – shots. Nobody seemed to think it was shots, we all thought it was a car backfiring and nobody took a lot of notice of it.”
Then off-duty PC Alan Thompson rose from the corner seat in the saloon bar and stepped outside to hear Ellis to repeatedly declare: “Phone the police.”
Yet, in a final letter to Blakely’s parents from her prison cell, Ellis rejected her motive of revenge and, perversely, wrote: “I have always loved your son, and I shall die still loving him.”
All the compelling detail is here in Lee’s overwhelming story, which puts Ellis’s life into perspective for those wanting to have a basic reference of the past. And how too her demise boosted the campaign to end the death penalty, the more so as we have a new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, said to be more intent on retribution.
Lee even persuaded the authorities to allow her into Hampstead Magistrates Court where I used to report cases involving Sydney Silverman MP, the Hampstead solicitor whose Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act became law a decade after Ellis’s execution.
Her death was described by the American thriller writer Raymond Chandler as “the medieval savagery of the law”.
• A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. By Carol Ann Lee. Mainsteam, £11.99