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The Murders At 10 Rillington Place And The Demise Of The Death Penalty

It was the 15th of July in 1953, just before 9am in Pentonville Prison, John Reginald Halliday Christie already had his arms tied behind his back and was complaining he had an itchy nose. The hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, reassured him, saying, "It won't bother you for long." From that moment, events proceeded with such swiftness that Christie would scarcely have comprehended what was transpiring. Pierrepoint took particular pride in the rapidity of his executions, which seldom lasted more than a few seconds once the condemned prisoner had laid eyes upon him.

Execution notice of John-Christie on the gates of Pentonville Prison, July 1953

Pierrepoint had a rather macabre party trick that he would perform whenever he had a new assistant executioner. Before departing his room to conduct an execution, he would sometimes light a cigar and leave it smouldering in an ashtray. Upon his return after the hanging, he would draw on the cigar to demonstrate that it was still alight.

Albert Pierrepoint the offical executioner of England seen here on honeymoon with his wife . September 1952

Pierrepoint commenced his career as an executioner in September 1932, following a week-long induction course at Pentonville Prison, after which his name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners. His first execution as the principal executioner, or ‘Number One,’ occurred nine years later, on 17 October 1941, when he hanged the former nightclub owner and gangster Antonio ‘Babe’ Mancini at Pentonville. Moments before the trapdoor was released, Mancini was heard to utter a muffled "Cheerio!"

Mancini was the first of many, as Albert Pierrepoint, who prided himself on making death by hanging "as instant and humane a thing as it could ever be," went on to execute 433 men and seventeen women during his career.

1953: Police officers guarding the entrance to 10 Rillington Place, scene of several murders, in Notting Hill, London, pose for a photograph.

Nobody was terribly with the passing of Christie, yet it marked a somber chapter for proponents of capital punishment, despite its widespread support among the populace. Indeed, it could be interpreted as the harbinger of the demise of the death penalty in Britain. The final execution would occur in 1964, preceding its abolition for murder the following year in Great Britain and in 1973 in Northern Ireland.

Two weeks prior to Christie’s execution, a pivotal moment unfolded within the packed chambers of the House of Commons. Standing amidst the assembly, Labour MP Sydney Silverman, characterized by his diminutive stature and thick flaxen hair, introduced a bill under the ten-minute rule. This bill, if enacted, would have suspended the death penalty for an experimental period of five years. It wasn’t the first instance of Silverman championing such a cause; he had previously proposed a similar amendment to the 1948 Criminal Justice Bill, seeking a five-year suspension of the death penalty.

During the Labour government of the day, the amendment secured passage with a majority of 23—a margin that might have been wider had Prime Minister Clement Attlee not advised his ministers against supporting Silverman's proposal, mindful of the enduring public support for capital punishment as indicated by opinion polls.

Following the vote, the Labour Home Secretary, the 65-year-old James Chuter Ede, opted to grant reprieves to all murderers awaiting execution, albeit only until the House of Lords had rendered its verdict on the bill.

The back garden at 10 Rillington Place 1953

Six months later, and to little surprise, the upper chamber rejected Silverman's amendment. However, on November 18th, the Home Secretary announced the establishment of a Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. Notably, the Commission's remit was not to deliberate on the abolition of capital punishment but rather to examine its procedural aspects and consider whether the liability for murder could or should be constrained or altered.

Simultaneously with the announcement of the Royal Commission, the executioners were instructed to resume their duties.

The issue stirred strong emotions, particularly for individuals like Stanley Clark, who had been convicted of murdering his wife in Great Yarmouth and became the first to face the gallows in over six months. By the time the Commission initially convened in April 1949, it hadn't escaped notice that, curiously, the average murder rate had risen by 50% in the six weeks following the conclusion of the Home Secretary’s reprieve compared to the seven months during which the deferment had been in effect.

When Sydney Silverman rose on that warm July evening in 1953 to propose the suspension of the death penalty for the second time, the Commission, comprised of ten men and two women, had held 63 meetings at 11 Carlton House Terrace in St James (the former residence of William Gladstone, now housing the British Academy). Yet, remarkably, the Commission had not yet published its report. Speaking within the allotted ten minutes, Silverman contended that the time had come to reintroduce the defeated clause from five years prior.

Silverman elucidated that the Commission's last session to hear evidence had occurred nearly two years prior, and furthermore, the question of abolishing or suspending the death penalty was explicitly excluded from the Commission’s mandate. "Do not await the Commission’s report," Silverman urged. "It is irrelevant to this debate. It is for Parliament to decide. Let Parliament decide."

Continuing, Silverman underscored,

‘one of the things which has always influenced thinking on this matter is the finality of the death penalty, that if you made a mistake there is nothing you can do to recall your error. Many people who might otherwise have opposed the death penalty were influenced by the view that such a mistake was virtually impossible’.

The Labour MP then recounted an exchange involving the current Conservative Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, in 1948, shortly after his return from serving as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. (Incidentally, Maxwell Fyfe played a pivotal role in guiding the drafting of the European Convention of Human Rights.) At that time, when queried about the potential for an innocent person to be executed, Maxwell Fyfe responded:

'There is no practicable possibility. Of course a jury might go wrong, the Court of Appeal might go wrong, as might the House of Lords, the Home Secretary. They might all be stricken mad and go wrong, but that is not a possibility which anyone can consider likely. You are moving in the realms of fantasy when you make that suggestion.'

In response, Silverman had this to say:

I would like to know from the Home Secretary whether he still believes that. We have had this week the complete establishment that a case made against a man on the charge of murder succeeded, an appeal failed, an application for a reprieve failed, and that man was hanged. We know today that he was convicted and hanged on a false case.

At this juncture, there erupted loud and sustained Conservative protests, with cries of "No!" and "Shame!" However, once the disruptions subsided, Silverman reiterated his assertion, emphasizing "on a false case," and contended that "the House should endorse the motion on the basis that, until human judgment becomes infallible, it has no authority to enact and enforce an irreversible sentence."

Predictably, and notably with the Conservative Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, conspicuously absent from the proceedings, the ten-minute bill was resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons by a margin of 257 votes to 195—a majority of 61. Even the Manchester Guardian remarked in its coverage the following morning, "Mr. Silverman overreached himself considerably, and it came as no surprise that the Commons dismissed his proposal."

Silverman's remarks were undoubtedly referencing the tragic case of Timothy Evans, a 25-year-old Welsh lorry driver who, in 1950, was convicted and subsequently executed for the murder of his pregnant wife and fourteen-month-old daughter. Their bodies were discovered at 10 Rillington Place in Ladbroke Grove.

Kathleen Maloney (left), one of the victims of British serial killer John Reginald Christie

Three years later, in March 1953, the grim remains of three women were found concealed in a boarded-up alcove within the same residence. The bodies, only a few weeks old, were later identified as Rita Nelson, Kathleen Maloney, and Hectorina MacLennan—all of whom were prostitutes and were described as ‘among the most forlorn of their company’. 

The Daily Mail, with their usual sensationalism, highlighted that one of the women had been pregnant and was found wearing only a "pink silk slip." However, the newspaper, along with others, emphasised the particularly disturbing nature of the discoveries due to the victims all being strangled and disposed of in the same house, and in a manner reminiscent of the murders of Evans’s wife and child.

Beryl Evans and baby Geraldine

In 1950, Timothy Evans's trial initially received relatively little attention or controversy, despite the appalling nature of the crimes. The Manchester Guardian's coverage of the jury's guilty verdict was modest, occupying a small column tucked between the crossword puzzle and an advertisement for Sobranie cigarettes—"In the satisfying flavour of the new Sobranie American No. 50’s, another wanderer has come to rest, beyond the reach of novelty’s temptation."

Evans, whom Mr. Justice Lewis accused of persistent lying, was executed at Pentonville Prison by Albert Pierrepoint on March 9th, 1950. Notably, a John "Reg" Christie had served as the main prosecuting witness in Evans’s trial, and he remained impassive at the back of the courtroom when the guilty verdict was announced. Evans purportedly uttered his last words to his mother and sister: "Christie done it."

Terrified face of a doomed innocent- in one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in British legal history, Timothy Evans was convicted of the murder of his wife and daughter, and in 1950 hanged.

Upon discovery of the additional three bodies three years later, the investigating detectives initially asserted that they were confident there was no connection between these bodies and the murders that had occurred in the same house in 1949. However, after yet another body was uncovered beneath some floorboards the following day, newspapers reported that the police were vigorously seeking John Christie, who had abruptly vacated his ground floor lodgings at Rillington Place a week prior.

Christie had not ventured far and had been lodging at a guest house in King’s Cross. Yet, upon the news of the bodies becoming public, one of which was soon identified as that of his wife, he began wandering around London, spending nights in the open and frequenting cafes. Despite managing to elude capture for several days, Christie was eventually apprehended by a policeman on 31st March 1953, found gazing into the Thames near Putney Bridge. On his disheveled person, he carried only a few coins, his identity card, and an old newspaper clipping about Timothy Evans.

The back room at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill, London, where John Christie hid one of his murder victims.

On June 22nd 1953 Christie’s trial began at the Central Criminal Court during which he admitted that he had killed his wife and six other women including Mrs Evans. Essentially he had murdered the women between 1943 and 1953, usually by strangling them after he had made them unconscious with domestic gas. He then raped them as they lay there, unconscious.

At one point in the trial Mr Justice Finnemore, said: ‘it has been made quite plain by Inspector Griffin and Mr Curtis-Bennett that there is no suggestion that anybody other than Evans killed the child’. In his closing speech Sir Lionel Heald who had led the prosecution but was also the Attorney-General said ‘I think you [members of the jury] will understand how, especially in my position…in a governmental position — it is most important that nothing avoidable should be said in Court which might cast an unjustified reflection on the administration of justice..’. Christie’s defence of insanity failed and he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

John Christie arriving at Magistrates Court 1953

Despite the assertions of former and current Home Secretaries regarding the improbability of a wrongful conviction for murder, a palpable unease emerged regarding the possibility that Timothy Evans had been executed for a crime he did not commit. This cast doubt on the public's confidence in the infallibility of the justice system in cases of murder.

Under the direction of Home Secretary Maxwell-Fyfe, an inquiry was commissioned to investigate the potential miscarriage of justice, chaired by John Scott Henderson QC. However, in a scenario typical of Establishment response, the priority seemed to be reassuring the public of the absence of any error in Evans' conviction, rather than a genuine pursuit of truth. The inquiry, constrained to a mere week in duration (decreed to conclude before Christie's execution), swiftly concluded that Evans was indeed guilty of both murders.

The inquiry's verdict rested on the premise that Christie's confession was deemed unreliable, as it was purportedly motivated by a desire to bolster his defence of insanity rather than a genuine admission of guilt. Thus, it upheld Evans' guilt in the deaths of both Beryl and Geraldine.

Christie leaving Brixton Prison for court

The conclusion that Henderson arrived at in the initial inquiry was met with widespread scepticism. However, twelve years later, in 1965, another inquiry was initiated under the auspices of the Labour Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. This time, the inquiry was chaired by High Court judge Sir Daniel Brabin. Brabin's findings diverged from Henderson's, suggesting that it was "more probably than not" that Evans murdered his wife but not his daughter. This conclusion struck many as peculiar, particularly considering that both bodies were discovered together and bore signs of the same method of murder.

Given that Evans had only been convicted of his daughter's murder originally, the new Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, recommended a royal pardon for Evans, which was duly granted in October 1966. Evans' remains were exhumed from Pentonville Prison, and he was reinterred in St Patrick's Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone, London.

Mrs Hart, the neighbour of serial killer John Reginald Christie, points to the spot in the garden of 10 Rillington Place, London, where two of his victims were buried, circa 1953

As for Rillington Place, which was renamed Ruston Close in 1954, it was demolished in the late 1970s as part of a broader effort to clear slums in the area. However, prior to its demolition, the location served as the backdrop for the Richard Fleischer film "10 Rillington Place," starring Richard Attenborough, Judy Geeson, and John Hurt.

In January 2003, the Home Office granted compensation to Timothy Evans' half-sister and his sister, Eileen, acknowledging the miscarriage of justice in Evans' trial. Lord Brennan QC, in his assessment, affirmed that the conviction and subsequent execution of Timothy Evans for the murder of his child was indeed wrongful and constituted a miscarriage of justice. Furthermore, he asserted that there was no evidence to implicate Evans in the murder of his wife, concluding that she was most likely murdered by Christie.

12th October 1966: Children playing outside 10 Rillington Place, London, the home of the mass murderer, John Christie. (Photo by Terry Fincher)

The case of Timothy Evans stands as one among several pivotal instances that contributed to the eventual abolition of capital punishment for murder in 1965. Nonetheless, it remains etched in history as one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in the United Kingdom during the twentieth century.


1 Comment

May 24

Any human endeavor is not going to be a 100% accurate. If that is the line to make for such a things to be allowed, then government has miserably failed. The look on Mr. Evans face in the photo will now, never escape me. To be condemned and killed for the murder of his wife and children (she was pregnant) and to be going thru such wickedness and falsehoods while grieving. That poor man. That "said", capital punishment is needed and the appeal processes (here in the USA) need to be streamlined and improved. We (in USA) have TOO MANY murderers living which should be dead and buried.

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