When you look at the photo of Ruth Ellis she looks the epitome of 50s beauty, to me she’s got some serious Marilyn Monroe vibes, of course this is a true crime blog and I’m not writing about some Hollywood starlet, Ruth Ellis (nee Neilson) is remembered as the last woman executed in the UK. Of course, as you’ll learn through this piece, the British public supported her execution, but due to the press coverage the case did strengthen the idea to abolish the death penalty in the UK, ten years later in 1964 the practice was halted. Statistical accounts collected state that between 1926 and 1954, 677 men and 60 women had been sentenced to death in England and Wales with only 375 men and 7 women ever executed..
Ellis was born in Rhyl, North Wales, she was the second youngest child of six, her childhood seemed normal, her mother Elisaberta (Berta) Goethals was a Belgian refugee, and her father Arthur Hornby (changed to Neilson) was a cellist from Manchester. The family relocated to Basingstoke, Hampshire and according to the Register of Marriages Arthur and Berta married at Chorlton, Manchester in 1920. Arthur did change his surname when their daughter Muriel was born in 1925. Ellis attended Fairfield Senior Girls’ School in Basingstoke, she left at the age of 14 and worked as a waitress. Ellis fell pregnant at 17 to a married Canadian soldier named Clare after her family moved to London in 1941, she gave birth to a boy and named him Clare Andrea Neilson known as “Andy”. The soldier sent Ellis money for the child for about a year but stopped. The boy eventually went to live with Ellis’ parents.
Ellis started working in London as nightclub hostess and did some nude modelling work. She had held lower paying factory and clerical jobs prior to this. The manager of The Court Club on Duke Street in London, Morris Conley would often blackmail his hostesses into having sex with him. Ellis took up prostitution after working in the club and in 1950 she fell pregnant again by regular customer, this time she had an illegal abortion in the third month of pregnancy and returned to work.
Ellis married George Ellis in 8th November 1950, he was a 41-year-old divorced dentist with two sons. They married in a registry office in Tonbridge, Kent. It is said that George was very possessive and jealous as well as a violent alcoholic, his jealousy caused the marriage to deteriorate when he kept accusing her of having an affair. Ellis would leave George and always return.
While four months pregnant Ellis appeared uncredited in the Rank film Lady Godiva rides again as a beauty queen. She gave birth to a girl named Georgina, but her marriage to George was finally over when he refused to acknowledge paternity, Ellis moved back to her parents with the child and started working again as prostitute.
By 1953 Ellis had decided to start managing a nightclub in Knightsbridge called The Little Club, during this time she had many rich admirers that would buy her expensive gifts as well as a number of celebrity friends that would frequent the club, it seemed at this point in her life she had left the bad marriage and career in prostitution behind her. It was while working here that she met David Blakely, they were introduced by a racing driver Mike Hawthorn, Blakely came across as a well-mannered former public-school boy, but also had the other side of being a hard drinking and partying racer. Blakely was engaged to a woman named Mary Dawson when he met Ellis, but it didn’t stop him moving in to her flat above the club within weeks, Ellis fell pregnant for a fourth time, but she aborted the baby that her and Blakely shared.
Cracks began to appear in Ellis and Blakely’s already turbulent and passionate relationship, and Ellis had started seeing an ex- RAF pilot Desmond Cussed, since leaving the RAF in 1946, Cussen took up accountancy and was appointed director of his family’s business Cussen & Co, a wholesale and retail tobacconists with outlets in London and South Wales. Ellis lost her job as manager of The Little Club and moved into one of Cussen’s properties as his mistress.
Despite the relationship with Cussen, Ellis and Blakely were still together. It is reported that the relationship started to get violent around this time as both continued to see other people. Blakely proposed to Ellis and she said yes, but in January 1955 after a violent argument where Ellis sustained a punch in the stomach from Blakely and suffered a miscarriage.
On 10th April 1955, Ellis went out looking for Blakely and she headed to a flat in Hampstead, the home of Anthony and Carol Findlater, she suspected that Blakely might be there. As she arrived at the property she saw Blakely’s car drive off, she paid the taxi and walked a quarter mile to a pub in South Hill Park, Hampstead called the Magdala (side note: the pub remained open for years as the Magdala, it closed in 2016). When she arrived at the Magdala she saw Blakely’s car outside.
Blakely was at the pub with a friend Clive Gunnell, they left the pub at 9.30pm an Blakely passed Ellis as she waited on the pavement she said, “Hello David” and he ignore her, so she then shouted “David!”. Blakely continued to ignore Ellis and searched for the keys to his car, as he was doing this Ellis pulled a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson Victory model revolver from her handbag and fired five shots at Blakely, the first shot missed so he started to run as Ellis pursued him, the second shot hit and caused him to collapse onto the pavement, she then stood over him and fired the last three bullets, one bullet was fired less than half an inch from Blakely causing powder burns on his skin.
Witnesses reported that Ellis stood over Blakely’s body mesmerised and that they heard several clicks as she tried to fire the final shot she had in her gun, she fired the last shot at the ground, this bullet ricocheted off the ground and injured a passer by Gladys Kensington Yule on the base of her thumb.
After the shooting Ellis seemed to be in shock, she asked Gunnell “Will you call the police, Clive?” she was arrested immediately when an off-duty policeman, Alan Thompson arrived. He took the gun off Ellis, put it in his pocket and heard her say “I am guilty, I’m a little confused”. The police at Hampstead station determined that she was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, she appeared to be calm and made a detailed confession to the police and was then charged with murder.
Blakely’s body was taken to hospital and examined to determine the extent of his injuries, he had sustained bullet wounds to the intestines, lungs, aorta and trachea.
Ellis was interrogated at Hampstead police station and then made her first appearance at magistrates’ court on 11th April 1955 and was remanded at Holloway. During her remand she was examined by principal Medical Officer M. R. Penry Williams, Ellis undertook an electroencephalography, this is a monitoring method that examines electrical activity in the brain, he failed to find any abnormality in Ellis’ brain. Ellis was also examined by psychiatrists one for her defence Dr D. Whittaker and one for the Home Office Dr A. Dalzell, neither found evidence of insanity.
Ellis appeared at the Old Bailey for sentencing on 20th June 1955 before Mr Justice Havers. Her lawyers expressed concern for her appearance, she wore a black suit, a white silk blouse with freshly bleached and styled hair, she refused to alter her appearance to be less striking.
She was asked in court by Christmas Humphreys, “When you fired the revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?” Ellis simply said “It’s obvious when I shot him, I intended to kill him” despite such an incriminating reply, she would have been advised by her defence of the question before the trial even started, as it’s standard legal practice to do so.
Of course, such a statement would guarantee a guilty verdict, and it took the jury 20 minutes to find her guilty, and the mandatory death sentence at the time followed. She was then taken to the condemned cell at Holloway prison.
Ellis’ mother and other relatives urged her solicitor John Bickford (chosen by ex Desmond Cussen) to petition to the Home Secretary for a reprieve, he wrote a seven-page letter setting out the grounds and took them over to the home of his sister Megan Lloyd George (the first female member of parliament). They decided that there were insufficient grounds for interference with the course of the law.
Ellis was told that she would not be reprieved and dismissed her solicitor John Bickford, but she asked to see Lee Simmons, he was a clerk to Victor Mishcon, he handled her divorce proceedings. Both men went to see Bickford before Ellis and asked him for a lead that might save her, he simply said “Ask her where she got the gun”. Mishcon and Simmons went to see Ellis a day before the execution, she wanted to make arrangements for her will, while there they pressed her for the full story behind the gun, she eventually gave in on the condition that they do not use the information to secure a reprieve (Mishcon refused).
Ellis did reveal that she had been drinking with Cussen for most of the weekend before the murder, and that she had received a gun and “shooting practice” from Cussen, and that Cussen had driven her to the murder scene. Ellis gave a two-hour interview in the condemned cell, after Mishcon and Simmons went to the Home Office where they spoke to a senior civil servant, the permanent Secretary Sir Frank Newsam was at Ascot races when he was summoned back to London and ordered by CID to investigate her story. Gwilym Lloyd George later said that considerable enquiries were made by the police, however this information would just make Ellis’ guilt greater as this proved that the murder was premeditated, he also mentioned the injury that Gladys Yule suffered and how it made the decision easier saying “We cannot have people shooting off firearms in the street! As long as I was Home Secretary I was determined to ensure people could use the streets without the fear of a bullet”
A letter was found in Ellis’ cell to David Blakely’s family, in the letter she wrote “I have always loved your son and I shall die still loving him”. Thirty seconds before 9am on 13th July 1954, an official hangman Albert Pierrepoint and an assistant Royston Rickard entered the condemned cell at Holloway prison and Ellis was escorted 5 yards to the execution room next door. At the time of the execution she weighed a tiny 7 stone and 5 pounds (103lb) a drop of 8ft 4in was set. Elli’s execution was done in 12 seconds and her body left hanging for an hour.
It was revealed in a London evening paper of the time called The Star that Ellis was visited just before her death by The Bishop of Stepney, Joost De Blank, Ellis told him “it is quite clear to me that I was not the person who shot him, when I saw myself with the revolver I knew I was another person”.
Looking at this I’ll say Ruth Ellis wasn’t some cold blooded serial killer that I normally write about, she didn’t have any mental illnesses, she wasn’t under the influence of anything during the murder that could have altered her state as she appeared coherent enough when police found her. I do believe that in this case she was a woman who had just had enough. For her adult life she had been exploited and abused by men, she seemed to be looking for that “happy ending” that you see at the end of a romance film, she wanted to be loved and to be in a stable relationship but kept getting stuck with violent drunks. I think for her she had found her “true love” with David Blakely, she wanted that happy ending with him, but with how volatile that relationship got she must have seen there would be no coming back for their relationship just before the murder especially after spending the weekend drinking with Cussen, and that hurt her, every bit of pain Blakely had caused her came to head and she lost it, there is no other way to describe it other than she lost it in her grief over their relationship. Her attitude after the murder shows how remorseful she was, she didn’t run, she gave the police and the courts all the information they needed and didn’t even want anyone appealing to save her from the death penalty, that’s clearly someone who believes that what they did was wrong and I think she regretted it, not because she got caught, but because her love David Blakely was dead, she said her self that she would die loving him.
I do think the Cussen is somewhat to blame for Ellis’ demise, she got the gun from Cussen and learned to shoot it from him, but I do also think that a murder in the relationship between Ellis and Blakely would have eventually taken place anyway, he was violent and she kept going back sadly in a relationship like that the abused woman does end up murdered, or it did seem that Ellis really loved this man and she did murder him in a fit of passionate anger so who’s to say that if she hadn’t have shot him when she did perhaps she would have stabbed him or hit him with something later on in their relationship?