One Day in July….
Provided by George Coombs
3rd November 2008
It was a memorable day. A memorable time in the playground of the boys’ school I attended. Myself, and a group of friends talking quietly. As usual a teacher and a couple of prefects were about. Passers by paused and looked in. Perhaps they joined with the teacher in thinking we were up to something. For some reason people often think a group of boys together were up to something but no, that day was different.
It was July 13th 1955. We were held together not by any sense of joyful mischief plotting. I was eight years old and the same age as my friends. We knew and were together in a sense of horror, curiosity and fear. We could not understand even then and, I have had problems for different reasons since but, how could they do it?
This was the day Ruth Ellis died in Holloway Prison, the last woman in England to be hanged. We had heard grown-ups talking and seen pictures of the large crowds holding vigil outside Holloway Prison. We had noticed it in the newspapers and youngsters do notice and feel things.
Ruth Ellis, who had been found guilty of the murder by shooting of her abusive boyfriend David Blakely who had repeatedly physically abused her, includes punching her in the stomach thus causing her to miscarry. Ruth Ellis died the victim of a bullying man and a cruel system that could only see with narrow and blinkered vision.
Two years after Ruth’s death the possible defence of diminished responsibility became law and even now where it should be established it is often in fact difficult to make plain. In a BBC radio interview the public executioner Albert Pierpoint said he thought the legal system in England was the fairest in the world. Then as now prison and all its worse manifestations is a predominantly working class experience and this is somewhat of an inevitably as our laws are framed and administered around the laws of private property.
But, I am digressing slightly. We return to those boys in the playground. Wondering what it’s like when you go through to the execution room. When the rope is carefully and precisely fixed around your neck and then, the drop.
I remember this so well and it was in no way a kind of morbid curiosity. What held us together was a fear not of the unknown or of anything grown – ups might not expect us to understand; it was a sense of how could they do this to her; it was all so horrible.
As an eight year old I tried to express myself in words. I remember writing a poem about Ruth that sadly has got lost among the passing of the years. But what is left in memory is that feeling and also a sense that this may well have been one of the significant formative events in my life.
I am now a prisoner support activist; I write and also work as a tutor and counsellor. My support work extends to a number of prisoners in this country and in America some of whom are on death row. My compatriots of that day so many years ago have long since moved along their own pathways in life yet; I have a notion that from time to time they too will think back to that day all those years ago, a day though engulfed in the mists of time is still a beacon to the memory and, perhaps a teacher.
We need to learn that we do not really have a clear notion of what justice is. We need to look for decisions reached with impartiality and concern for the unifying and betterment of society and mankind at large and, to be aware of justice in Ruth’s condemned cell, in courts and prisons being an anguished wanderer who cries “Not in my name”
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The last woman to hang in Britain
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