Nation is still gripped by the tragedy of Ruth Ellis

In 1955 Ruth Ellis became the last woman in Britain to be hanged. And more than 50 years later, the case still fascinates – as a new book on the case ably demonstrates. Bridget Galton reports. ENDURING fascination with the case of the last woman to be

In 1955 Ruth Ellis became the last woman in Britain to be hanged. And more than 50 years later, the case still fascinates - as a new book on the case ably demonstrates. Bridget Galton reports.

ENDURING fascination with the case of the last woman to be hanged in Britain has led the National Archive to commission a new book on Ruth Ellis.

Crime writer Vicky Blake was given access to the 53-year-old papers including witness statements, police files, personal letters, and the notes of psychiatrists observing her in Holloway Prison.

The nightclub hostess shot her lover David Blakely outside the Magdala pub in South Hill Park, Hampstead on Easter Sunday 1955. She was executed at Holloway three months later, aged 28.

The case created huge controversy with a 50,000-strong petition to the Home Office and Blake says several factors have kept it the public eye.

"Ruth Ellis was involved in the sex industry," she said. "She was photogenic and committed a crime of passion. Jealousy is a powerful, destructive emotion that is perennially fascinating but very few women kill, percentage wise, so it is a really unusual case. In addition, she was the last woman to be hanged and the outcry afterwards contributed to ending the death penalty."

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Blake says Ellis had a "love hate" relationship with Blakely - a minor figure in motor racing circles who was "rather a sad character, a bit of a loser".

Abused as a child, she had two children from previous failed relationships including a violent marriage, and had just lost her job through Blakely's behaviour when she fell pregnant with his child.

Less than two weeks before the murder he punched her in the stomach and she miscarried. He had promised to spend the bank holiday with her but went drinking with friends instead. After downing several Pernods, Ellis shot him outside the pub in front of several bystanders - then asked one witness to call the police.

"Blakely came out with his friend, his car was right outside the pub and witnesses say she chased him around the car firing wildly, then handed the gun over to a police officer and thereafter never denied it," says Blake.

In 2003, Ellis' sister Muriel Jakubait succeeded in bringing the case back before the Criminal Cases Review Commission attempting to have Ellis pardoned on grounds of diminished responsibility.

"In modern times the fact she was sexually abused and had suffered domestic violence would have been brought into the trial but there was no sensibility about such things at the time and the review judges had to look at the case in terms of the law as it stood at her trial," says Blake.

"She shot him because she was at the end of her tether. She had lost everything because of this man and was in a vulnerable situation. She said when she looked down at his body she felt an overwhelming sense of relief."

The papers show that once in prison she was a model inmate. Compliant, quietly reading the Bible and sewing soft toys from kits brought in by her mother.

"She was quite courageous. From the off she did nothing to save herself and insisted there should be an eye for an eye. People told her she should try to survive for her children but she wasn't interested. She could have gained sympathy by looking like a victim but appearance was important to her and she insisted on having her hair done and wearing high heels and astrakhan collars at her trial."

The nail in her coffin came when asked by the prosecution barrister what was going through her mind when she fired the revolver.

"It's obvious when I shot him, I intended to kill him," she said.

Blake says the global outcry following her conviction was extraordinary - especially from the French, who were disgusted that a crime of passion had warranted the death sentence. Raymond Chandler also wrote to support her reprieve but on the chilling side, there were letters backing the sentence.

"The most interesting thing were the letters from the public. Some were from husbands with jealous wives saying 'hang her or I am going to be shot'. Some were purely psychopathic made up of little bits cut out of newspapers quoting the Old Testament."

As a crime writer, Blake found such raw material displaying the extremes of human emotion fascinating.

"Her case generated very strong feeling. She transgressed in terms of how women were supposed to behave and there is greater outrage because women are seen as birth givers, and killing runs counter to notions of motherhood."

She adds: "It's been fascinating, emotionally gruelling and distressing looking into this terrible story; reading those letters and understanding the after effects for her family and for Blakely who, after all, was a victim at 25. Whatever he did, he didn't deserve to die."

Ruth Ellis is published by the National Archives price £7.99. Victoria Blake will talk about her book at the Magdala pub on Saturday May 10 as part of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival.