I joined the Parliamentary Archives nearly two years ago when I was given a tour of the Victoria Tower. To be honest, at the time it was a bit of a blur of amazing documents, manuscripts and plans filling almost all the shelves across 12 floors. But one item I was shown stood out from the rest; it is pictured here.
If you look carefully at the image you will see the name of Ruth Ellis (9 October 1926 – 13 July 1955). She was the last woman to be executed in the United Kingdom, after being convicted of the murder of her lover, David Blakely. Unlike others on the list she did not appeal the sentence. The date of her execution has been recorded incorrectly as the 13th June.
You may be wondering what this actually is. Well, this item is mentioned in Hansard in November 1938 when Mr Geoffery Lloyd, the then MP for Ladywood in Birmingham, revealed that;
'In the Home Secretary's room at the Home Office stands, by long tradition, a frame which contains a list of the condemned. Day by day it has reminded Home Secretaries of the final responsibility which, as shown in the memoirs of Home Secretaries, many of them have felt deeply. I remember that when the present Chancellor of the Exchequer was Home Secretary he made an addition to that frame. He had engraved upon it a remarkable line from a Roman poet. Perhaps the House will permit me, although I am not a classical scholar, to quote the line and to give the free translation of it which my right hon. Friend has given to me. The line is: Nulla unquam de morte hominis cunctatio longa est.'
The Latin text comes from Juvenal (VI.220-21 Persius Satires) and can be translated as : No delay is ever long when it concerns the death of a man.
For me, on a familiarization tour, it was a stark reminder of the weight of responsibility placed on some of our politicians. Capital punishment for all offences was completely abolished in 1998. For me at least, 1998 was not that long ago; Robbie Williams had a number one with a preemptive 'Millenium' and Badiel and Skinner cheered on the England football team in their failed World Cup bid with 'Three lions [on the shirt] '98'. However fresh in our memories that year may be, the final abolition of capital punishment confirmed how far we had travelled from a time in the early 19th century when the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death. Indeed the 1722 Act for the more effectual punishing wicked and evil disposed Persons going armed in Disguise, and doing Injuries and Violences to the Persons and Properties of His Majesty's Subjects, and for the more speedy bringing the Offenders to Justice created 50 capital offences in one fell swoop!