Born Ruth Hornby in 1926, Ruth Ellis led a quiet, conservative, Catholic life growing up in Rhyl, North Wales. Her father, Arthur, was a cellist. He changed the family name to Neilson to allow for a more ‘exotic’ stage name. Her mother, Bertha was a Belgian refugee from the Great War. How did it happen that Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain?
World War Two
At the height of the 1941 London bombings the family moved to Southwark, South London. 15 year old Ruth got a job as a machine minder. After contracting Rheumatic Fever, Ruth took dance lessons to nurse herself back to health. Before she was 20 years old Ruth had a son. She worked as a photographer’s assistant, had been a model and eventually got a job in London’s clubland.
At the famous Camera Club, the sexy, attractive ‘peroxide blonde’ Ruth posed for photographers, which led her to a hostess job at the exclusive Court Club near Grosvenor Square. Here she was very popular and extremely well paid!
It was here too that the well-educated, good-looking, charming David Blakely, came into Ruth’s life. He was a wealthy racing driver and his fast life appealed to her. Very soon they were a couple (even though Ruth was still married). It was his partying fuelled Ruth’s heavy drinking. But playboy David had affairs with Ruth’s friends, and she drank more and more heavily. Their ‘love- hate’ relationship was abusive and violent and caused much heartache to all those in their lives.
On Easter Sunday in 1955, Ruth had had enough! Filled with jealousy and rejection she went to Hampstead and waited outside the Magdala public house in South Hill Park (with a gun that no one knows how she actually acquired). As David came out of the pub with a friend, Ruth shot him five times, calmly asked a friend to call the police and an off-duty policeman arrested her while still holding the smoking gun.
Her trial opened on 20 June in Number One Court at the Old Bailey. Ruth wore a black two-piece suit and white blouse and had re-dyed her hair to her signature platinum blonde.
During the court case the jury were not told that she was addicted to anti-depressants. The abuse, by her father, was not mentioned either. No one mentioned that the Rheumatic Fever she had suffered as a teenager had left her hand possibly too weak to even fire a gun. And yet, she was asked, “When you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?”. Ruth replied: “It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.”
The court found her to be of ‘sound mind and discretion’ and it took just 14 minutes for the jury to find her guilty of premeditated murder. She did not appeal against her conviction and she never attempted to deny the murder.
Ruth spent just over 3 weeks at Holloway Prison. During this time there were many calls for clemency. 50,000 signatures on a petition was luanched for her to be saved.
Ruth Ellis – Hanged
But on the 13th July 1955 a crowd of up to 1,000 gathered outside the prison gates singing, chanting and praying for Ruth. 18 minutes after her execution a notice of Ruth Ellis’s death was posted on the prison gates.
And thus Ruth became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Her story inspired many books, TV programmes and films, including ‘Dance with a Stranger’ which starred Miranda Richardson.
If Ruth had been found guilty of manslaughter, and her mental state at the time of the murder had been taken into account, she would probably have only received a prison sentence. She may also not even have fired the gun…
As was customary, Ruth was laid to rest in an unmarked grave inside the walls of Holloway Prison. During prison renovations in the 1970s, her body was exhumed and reburied at St Mary’s Church in Amersham, Buckinghamshire. The headstone inscription is ‘Ruth Hornby 1926–1955’. Tragically in 1982 her son Andy (Andre) destroyed her gravestone and then committed suicide.
Today Ruth Ellis’ grave is overgrown….
Lillie Langtry is another interesting Londoner, you may find interesting