At ten seconds to 9 a.m. on July 13th 1955 Albert Pierrepoint, owner of a public house (aptly called Help The Poor Struggler) and official public executioner walked through the door of a cell at Holloway prison, deftly tied the hands of the condemned prisoner and accompanied the person through the door to the adjoining execution chamber. There he carefully positioned the body on the check marks on the drop gates, draped the blonde hair with the white cloth bag that he drew from his top pocket, fastened the noose carefully round the neck and stepped aside. Removing the cotta pin he pushed forward on the lever and the floor opened up below the condemned. The rope brought the descent of the body weighing just over 7 stones to a sudden halt and in the official cause of death statement “causing injuries to the central nervous system consequent upon judicial hanging”. The whole process took just 12 seconds.
Ruth Ellis, 29 years of age, hostess, pornographer (disputed), model and murderer was dead. She would be the last woman to be hanged in the U.K.
Born Ruth Hornby in 1926 in N.Wales her early years were blighted by the constant moving of the family to fit in with the father’s attempts to find jobs. Arthur Hornby was a man handy with his fists and controlled the family through bouts of drunkenness as he slowly slipped down the social ladder. The fourth of six children Ruth finally stepped away from the shadow of the family when war broke out and she had the opportunity to move into rented accommodation in London. Getting pregnant by a Canadian soldier who firstly said he would marry her but then sent her a bunch of flowers as he was in transit back to Canada with a note to say he was already married, Ruth was left in the lurch with a baby which she named Clare Andrea (after the father) but which, understandably, was quickly shortened to Andy. Not one to let a child hold her back, Ruth handed over care of Andy to her elder sister and set off for the dance halls and fleshpots of blitzed London. An advert in a local newspaper for a model required for a Camera Club set her on a new path. Posing nude for the men who may well have had no film in their cameras felt exhilarating and she relished the stares of the older men and the more closer attention of the younger who she allowed to take her out wining and dining. It was to one of these dining clubs that Ruth was first spotted by Morris Conley who was struck by her peroxide blonde hair, her ample bosom and her “generous” nature with clients – Conley’s clients who were prepared to pay good money for the right woman. Ruth had all the attributes that Conley knew could make him good money and eventually he put her in charge of The Little Club in Welbeck Street. Here, a mixed bunch of ex-servicemen and wealthy men-about-town could be entertained by the ladies provided by Conley and in the midst of it all Ruth would be circulating plying the couples with drinks and raking in the money – of which she would be the recipient of a very small percentage.
Having got knocked up once more by one of her wealthy clients she sought out and obtained an illegal abortion – one of several – before finally settling in 1950, on an alcoholic dentist George Ellis, as suitable husband material. This, like many other choices in Ruth’s life, could not be described as ideal and although she hoped they could settle down together in, of all places, Sanderstead (a genteel suburb of Croydon) it was not to be. Like her father, George Ellis was apt to use his fists whenever he had too many sherbets and Ruth was the prime target. Black-eyed, fat-lipped, she was often seen about outside the house by neighbours who were all too often witness to the furious rows between husband and wife. Taken into Warlingham Park Hospital to dry out George Ellis may have tried it on with one of the nurses. Ruth, pregnant again, turned up at the hospital causing mayhem, accusing her husband of being a “fucking adulterer”. She had to be restrained and was given drugs to calm her down – drugs that were to be a constant for the rest of her life. Eventually she left George and returned to London with her new baby – Georgina – who she promptly off-loaded on to her elder sister. George Ellis was to live out his days as an alcoholic before committing suicide in a Jersey hotel room – just one of the tragic victims of his brush with Ruth.
So, into a life that was already frayed at the edges stepped Desmond Cussen and David Blakely, both clients in the club at which Ruth was the hostess. Both men knew each other before they knew Ruth. They were members of the Steering Wheel Club which was specifically aimed at both amateur and professional racing motorists. It also numbered Mike Hawthorne and Sterling Moss among its members. After their own club closed in the evenings the lads would repair to The Little Club where Ruth would ply them with more drinks and provide other services for those interested. Blakely was, in no uncertain terms, a supercilious shit and hung on to the fringes of The Steering Wheel club mostly through sycophancy towards the more famous members but also he was hoping to build and race his own car at Le Mans. Ruth took a shine to Blakely and he, undoubtedly, was excited by her natural sensuality. His background was money-privileged and employment was not something he needed to worry about. His parents put him up in his own flat just off Park Lane. Cussen, on the other hand ran a shop in south London and was relatively successful. It is tragic, considering the outcome, that both Cussen and Blakely both became obsessed by Ruth, Cussen in a fatherly protective way, Blakely in a more physical and overbearing possessive manner. It became very apparent to all within their circle that Blakely – like her father and her husband – visited physical abuse on Ruth on a number of occasions. Cussen took Ruth under his wing when she lost her job as hostess and housed her firstly in his own flat and then on her own in another when her constant return to Blakely became too much for him to bear.
Bearing in mind that Ruth was on prescribed drugs and was drinking heavily (Pernod was a favourite) it is perhaps understandable that when she miscarried Blakely’s child at 3 months (after being punched in the stomach by Blakely) it sent her reeling over the edge. Believing that Blakely was seeing another woman Ruth began to stalk him, endlessly phoning places where she knew he could be staying, getting Cussen to drive her out to his parent’s house in Buckinghamshire or around parts of London that she knew he haunted. The role of Cussen at this time is puzzling but one suspects that he was hoping that by supporting Ruth in her search for evidence of Blakely’s unfaithfulness he hoped that she would make the final break with Blakely and stay with him. Unfortunately the gun that Ruth obtained may lead one to argue that Cussen had ulterior motives and that he wanted Blakely removed completely. It was never established at the subsequent trial where Ruth acquired the gun – some cock and bull story was run out about Ruth receiving in lieu of a payment – but it has to be assumed that Cussen supplied the gun and that he probably taught her how to fire it.
And fire it she did. Five times into the body of David Blakely as he stepped out of the Magdala pub in Hampstead. The last shot was fired just inches from his chest. She stood over him and said “You better call the police”. By chance a drinker at the pub was an off-duty policeman who replied “I am a policeman” and took the gun off her and thereby fudging any other fingerprints other than Ruth’s that might have been used in evidence. As it was the subsequent trial took just one and a half days. Ruth did little to protect herself when giving evidence. When questioned by the prosecution as to her state of mind on the day of the killing she replied:
“I had an idea I wanted to kill him (Blakely)”
“When you say you had a peculiar idea that you wanted to kill him, were you able to control it?”
“And then you went up, in fact, and shot him. Is that right?”
“Mrs Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?”
“It is obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.”
And with that reply she successfully placed the noose around her own neck. Any question of diminished responsibility or her mental state or the long history of violence towards her by at least three of the important men in her life was never raised. It was if she had finally and irrevocably given up on life.
Cussen who had been attentive towards Ruth while she was on remand mysteriously disappeared after the capital charge was read out by Lord Justice Havers (Nigel’s grandfather). Attempts were made to locate him in respect of an appeal but one might surmise he didn’t want any further enquiries into the ownership of the gun.
The tragedies continued to unfold after Ruth’s execution. Her father died through alcoholism three years later. Her mother tried to gas herself, failed and ended up a cabbage to the end of her days. Ruth’s daughter by George Ellis, died of cancer aged 50. George Ellis hung himself in a cheap Jersey hotel bedroom.
It is said that the trial judge, Sir Cecil Havers, sent money every year to Ruth’s son, Andy for his upkeep. This continued until 1982 when Andy desecrated his mother’s grave and then committed suicide in his bedsit.
© Roger Ackroyd 2019