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‘An intolerable anachronism’: it’s 60 years since the last hanging took place in Bristol

On 17 December 1963, the final judicial execution in our city brought a long history of local executions to an end. We look back on what happened in Horfield in 1963, and the campaign to end the death penalty.

Russell Pascoe was just 23 years old when be became the last man executed in Bristol, in December 1963

People's History

“Stand up, son,” said hangman Harry Allen to Russell Pascoe, as he entered the condemned cell in Horfield Prison, just before 8am on Tuesday 17 December, 1963. 

“Do as I say and it will all be quick and easy.”

Pascoe stood. Allen’s assistant bound his arms behind his back, then two prison officers took hold of him and led him quickly to a room straight across from the cell door. 

Pascoe was moved onto a trap door while the assistant bound his ankles with a leather strap. 

Harry Allen pulled a hood over Pascoe’s head. Then the noose, tightening the rope, twisting the knot to the side of Pascoe’s neck. 

Allen stepped backwards, signalled the two prison officers to do the same.

He pulled a lever, the trap door opened and Pascoe fell, almost certainly dead a moment after jerking to a stop at the end of the rope. It had been just 14 seconds since Allen had asked him to stand. 

The clock struck eight. In their cells, every inmate knew what this meant. The prison erupted into a cacophony of noise. 

A senseless murder

Russell Pascoe, aged 23, was hanged at the same moment that Dennis Whitty, 22, was executed at Winchester prison. Both had been guilty of a senseless murder: killing reclusive Cornwall farmer William Rowe in the belief that he kept a large sum of money hidden in his house. They had left the crime scene with just £4 and a watch. 

Outside, at the door of Horfield Prison where around 60 protestors were gathered, men removed their hats. People had come and gone from the vigil, organised by the Bristol Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, for the last 64 hours – a mark of respect for the murder victim, given that William Rowe was 64 when he died. They had huddled around a brazier during the worst of the December chill. 

A sign left outside Horfield Prison reading: THOU SHALT NOT KILL
A sign left outside Horfield Prison reading: THOU SHALT NOT KILL

The group was relatively small, but had influential supporters, including Oliver Tomkins, the Bishop of Bristol. Local MP Anthony Wedgwood Benn had also visited. He was certain this would be the last ever hanging in Bristol, he said. 

Benn was right. Russell Pascoe was the fourteenth and final man to be hanged at HM Prison, Bristol, and the fourteenth to go to an unmarked grave in the prison grounds. 

Over the centuries, Bristolians witnessed hundreds of judicial hangings, all held in public until 1849. Thereafter, executions took place behind the walls of the ‘New Gaol’ on Cumberland Road; then at Horfield, which opened in 1883. 

Almost 800 civilians, the vast majority of them men, were executed in Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 20th century, all by hanging. A long succession of legal changes had drastically reduced the numbers killed in previous centuries. 

Most 20th-century hangings at Horfield were actually for crimes committed elsewhere – it was a favoured regional venue, because it had its own purpose-built condemned block. 

Several condemned men who found themselves on that block were given last-minute reprieves. Pascoe had hoped for a reprieve, but the Conservative home secretary, Henry Brooke, turned down the request and ignored a petition, as well as letters from church leaders including Bishop Tomkins and the prison’s own chaplain. 

Growing public unease

Look at the stories of those hanged in Bristol – never mind the rest of the country – during the 20th century, and you can see why many people grew uneasy about the death penalty. 

Some, such as the soldier who raped and murdered a pub landlady, or the man who killed his father-in-law in the hope of inheriting his money, would attract little public sympathy. 

Other cases are more dubious. In 1935 William Bressington, executed for the murder of an eight-year-old boy, was described as “feeble-minded”, while Miles Giffard was hanged in 1953 for murdering his parents, even though the court had been told he was schizophrenic. 

Everyone could see the law was not applied consistently. Some people were hanged, while others, whose crimes might be worse, were reprieved and served life sentences instead. 

But it was high-profile cases elsewhere in the country that caused many to question the system. Prominent among them was Derek Bentley, hanged at the age of 20 for the shooting of a police officer, even though he himself had not fired the gun. Six months later, Ruth Ellis went to the gallows for killing an abusive boyfriend. 

Most upsetting of all was the case of Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for the murder of his wife and child. It later emerged that the actual culprit was the Evans family’s downstairs neighbour in Notting Hill – the serial killer John Christie.

Yet there was no big public movement to abolish hanging – the petition asking the home secretary for a reprieve for Pascoe only had around 1,000 signatures. It was an issue largely taken up by Christians, liberals and intellectuals. The campaign lead was taken by the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, which later merged with the Howard League for Penal Reform. 

Well-worn ‘deterrence’ claims

From a present-day perspective, the 1950s-60s arguments against capital punishment can seem complicated. A common line was that judicial execution was nothing more than vengeance.

The Reverend FC Vyvyan-Jones, vicar of St Michaels, Bristol, wrote to the home secretary asking for mercy for Pascoe and Whitty saying that “no human being has the right to take the life of another, even in retaliation”.

The well-worn claim of populist politicians that hanging is a “deterrent” in the absence of any evidence was used at the time and since. 

Parliament had been set to consider an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty in the late 1930s, but the move was sidelined by the outbreak of the Second World War. The measure was revived in 1948, but was voted down in the Lords. 

But by 1965, certain cases and intense debate had shifted opinion among decision-makers, if not the public. Lords and Commons voted for a five-year suspension which was made permanent in 1969. 

Rather than being the product of a mass movement, abolition might be bracketed alongside the other great liberal measure taken in the 1960s by Parliament in the face of public opposition or indifference – the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, legalising gay sex for consenting over-21-year-olds. 

Later years would see regular parliamentary votes to restore the death penalty, but all have been voted down. Successive opinion polls over the decades told us that most Britons would like to “bring back hanging”.

Support is waning, though – more rigorous surveys, as opposed to crude online polls, tell us less than half the population now supports reintroduction of the death penalty.

Nowadays, in the face of numerous well-documented miscarriages of justice, many oppose capital punishment on the simple grounds that innocent people might be murdered by the state. 

The day before Pascoe’s death, a leader column in the Bristol Evening Post said that the vigil at Horfield had “reminded people of a dark corner of our law, which by its illogical, clumsy definition and its bitter clinging to revenge rather than reform as an essential quality of justice, is an intolerable anachronism.”

That chilly December morning in 1963, the few dozen people at the prison gates slowly dispersed after the clock struck eight. 

Some left banners and placards. One quoted a Quaker tract: “Let the law of kindness know no limits. Show a loving consideration for all God’s creatures.” 

Another, left propped against the prison gates, simply said: THOU SHALT NOT KILL.

The Bristol Evening Post front page from 17 December 1963 in full.
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