Capital punishment in the United Kingdom

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Capital punishment in the United Kingdom was used from ancient times until the second half of the 20th century. The last executions in the United Kingdom were by hanging, and took place in 1964, prior to capital punishment being suspended for murder in 1965 and finally abolished in 1969 (1973 in Northern Ireland). Although unused, the death penalty remained a legally defined punishment for certain offences such as treason until it was completely abolished in 1998. In 2004 the 13th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights became binding on the United Kingdom, prohibiting the restoration of the death penalty for as long as the UK is a party to the Convention. [1]



Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that "[there is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England". [2] Known as the "Bloody Code", at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Many of these offences had been introduced by the Whig Oligarchy to protect the property of the wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century, a notable example being the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching. [3] Crimes eligible for the death penalty included shoplifting and stealing sheep, cattle, and horses, and before abolition of the death penalty for theft in 1832, "English law was notorious for prescribing the death penalty for a vast range of offences as slight as the theft of goods valued at twelve pence." [4]

Whilst executions for murder, burglary and robbery were common, the death sentences for minor offenders were often not carried out. A sentence of death could be commuted or respited (permanently postponed) for reasons such as benefit of clergy, official pardons, pregnancy of the offender or performance of military or naval duty. [5] Between 1770 and 1830, an estimated 35,000 death sentences were handed down in England and Wales, of which 7,000 executions were carried out. [6]


In 1808 Romilly had the death penalty removed for pickpockets and lesser offenders, starting a process of reform that continued over the next 50 years. The death penalty was mandatory (although it was frequently commuted by the government) until the Judgement of Death Act 1823 gave judges the power to commute the death penalty except for treason and murder. The Punishment of Death, etc. Act 1832 reduced the number of capital crimes by two-thirds. In 1832, the death penalty was abolished for theft, counterfeiting, and forgery except for the forgery of wills and certain powers of attorney. [4] [7] Gibbeting was abolished in 1832 and hanging in chains was abolished in 1834. In 1837, the death penalty for forging wills and powers of attorney was abolished. The death penalty for rape was abolished in 1841. [8] In 1861, several acts of Parliament (24 & 25 Vict; c. 94 to c. 100) further reduced the number of civilian capital crimes to five: murder, treason, espionage, arson in royal dockyards, and piracy with violence; there were other offences under military law. The death penalty remained mandatory for treason and murder unless commuted by the monarch.

The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864–66 [9] concluded (with dissenting Commissioners) that there was not a case for abolition but recommended an end to public executions. This proposal was included in the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868. From that date executions in Great Britain were carried out only in prisons. The punishment of beheading and quartering those executed for treason was abolished in 1870. [10] The last application of that punishment had been in 1820 and the last sentence to the punishment had been in 1839. [11] [12]

In 1908, the Children Act 1908 banned the execution of juveniles under the age of 16. In 1922 a new offence of Infanticide was introduced to replace the charge of murder for mothers killing their children in the first year of life. In 1930 a parliamentary Select committee recommended that capital punishment be suspended for a trial period of five years, but no action was taken. From 1931 pregnant women could no longer be hanged (following the birth of their child) although in practice since the 18th century their sentences had always been commuted.

In 1933 the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to 18 under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. The last known execution by the civilian courts of a person under 18 was that of Charles Dobel, 17, hanged at Maidstone together with his accomplice William Gower, 18, in January 1889. Harold Wilkins, at 16 years old, was the last juvenile sentenced to the death penalty in the United Kingdom, in 1932 for a sexually related murder, but he was reprieved due to age. [13]

In 1938 the issue of the abolition of capital punishment was brought before parliament. A clause within the Criminal Justice Bill called for an experimental five-year suspension of the death penalty. When war broke out in 1939 the bill was postponed. It was revived after the war and to everyone's surprise was adopted by a majority in the House of Commons (245 to 222). In the House of Lords the abolition clause was defeated but the remainder of the bill was passed. Popular support for abolition was absent and the government decided that it would be inappropriate for it to assert its supremacy by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949 over such an unpopular issue.

Instead, then Home Secretary, James Chuter Ede, set up a new Royal Commission (the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment, 1949–1953) with instructions to determine "whether the liability to suffer capital punishment should be limited or modified". The Commission's report discussed a number of alternatives to execution by hanging (including the electric chair, gas inhalation, lethal injection, shooting, and the guillotine), but rejected them. It had more difficulty with the principle of capital punishment. Popular opinion believed that the death penalty acted as a deterrent to criminals, but the statistics within the report were inconclusive. Whilst the report recommended abolition from an ethical standpoint, it made no mention of possible miscarriages of justice. The public had by then expressed great dissatisfaction with the verdict in the case of Timothy Evans, who was tried and hanged in 1950 for murdering his infant daughter. It later transpired in 1953 that John Christie had strangled at least six women in the same house; he also confessed to killing Timothy's wife. If the jury in Evans's trial had known this, Evans might have been acquitted. There were other cases in the same period where doubts arose over convictions and subsequent hangings, such as the notorious case of Derek Bentley.

The commission concluded that unless there was overwhelming public support in favour of abolition, the death penalty should be retained.

Between 1900 and 1949, 621 men and 11 women were executed in England and Wales. Ten German agents were executed during the First World War under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, [14] and 16 spies were executed during the Second World War under the Treachery Act 1940. [15]

By 1957 a number of controversial cases highlighted the issue of capital punishment again. Campaigners for abolition were partially rewarded with the Homicide Act 1957. The Act brought in a distinction between capital and non-capital murder. Only six categories of murder were now punishable by execution:

The police and the government were of the opinion that the death penalty deterred offenders from carrying firearms and it was for this reason that such offences remained punishable by death.


The only known photograph of the death sentence being pronounced in England and Wales, for the poisoner Frederick Seddon in 1912 Seddon being sentenced to death.jpg
The only known photograph of the death sentence being pronounced in England and Wales, for the poisoner Frederick Seddon in 1912

In 1965 the Labour MP Sydney Silverman, who had committed himself to the cause of abolition for longer than 20 years, introduced a Private Member's Bill to suspend the death penalty for murder. It was passed on a free vote in the House of Commons by 200 votes to 98. The bill was subsequently passed by the House of Lords by 204 votes to 104. [17] [18] Silverman was opposed in the General Election 1966 in the Nelson and Colne constituency by Patrick Downey, the uncle of Lesley Anne Downey, a victim in the Moors murders case, who stood on an explicitly pro-hanging platform. Downey polled over 5,000 votes, 13.7%, then the largest vote for a genuinely independent candidate since 1945. [19]

The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty in Great Britain (but not in Northern Ireland) for murder for a period of five years, and substituted a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment; it further provided that if, before the expiry of the five-year suspension, each House of Parliament passed a resolution to make the effect of the Act permanent, then it would become permanent. In 1969 the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, proposed a motion to make the Act permanent, which was carried in the Commons on 16 December 1969, [20] and a similar motion was carried in the Lords on 18 December. [21] The death penalty for murder was abolished in Northern Ireland on 25 July 1973 under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

Following the abolition of the death penalty for murder, the House of Commons held a vote during each subsequent parliament until 1997 to restore the death penalty. This motion was always defeated, but the death penalty remained for other crimes until the dates mentioned below:

  1. causing a fire or explosion in a naval dockyard, ship, magazine or warehouse (until 1971);
  2. espionage [22] (until 1981);
  3. piracy with violence (until 1998);
  4. treason (until 1998); and
certain purely military offences under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, such as mutiny [23] (until 1998). Prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for six offences:
  1. serious misconduct in action;
  2. assisting the enemy;
  3. obstructing operations;
  4. giving false air signals;
  5. mutiny or incitement to mutiny; and
  6. failure to suppress a mutiny with intent to assist the enemy.

However, no executions were carried out in the United Kingdom for any of these offences after the abolition of the death penalty for murder.

Nevertheless, there remained a working gallows at HMP Wandsworth, London, until 1994, which was tested every six months until 1992. This gallows is now housed in the National Justice Museum in Nottingham. [24]

Last executions

England and in the United Kingdom: on 13 August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen, at Walton Prison in Liverpool, and Gwynne Owen Evans, at Strangeways Prison in Manchester, were executed for the murder of John Alan West on 7 April that year. [25]

In 1955 Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain; for the murder of her lover David Blakely.

Scotland: Henry John Burnett, 21, on 15 August 1963 in Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, for the murder of seaman Thomas Guyan.

Northern Ireland: Robert McGladdery, 26, on 20 December 1961 in Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast, for the murder of Pearl Gamble.

Wales: Vivian Teed, 24, in Swansea on 6 May 1958, for the murder of William Williams, sub-postmaster of Fforestfach Post Office. [26]

Last death sentences

Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom: Liam Holden in 1973 in Northern Ireland, for the capital murder of a British soldier during the Troubles. Holden was removed from the death cell in May 1973. [27] In 2012 his conviction was quashed on appeal on the grounds that his confession was obtained by torture. [28]

England: David Chapman, who was sentenced to hang in November 1965 for the murder of a swimming pool nightwatchman in Scarborough. He was released from prison in 1979 and later died in a car accident.

Scotland: Patrick McCarron in 1964 for shooting his wife. He committed suicide in prison in 1970.

Wales: Edgar Black, who was reprieved on 6 November 1963. He had shot his wife's lover in Cardiff.

Final abolition

The Criminal Damage Act 1971 abolished the offence of arson in royal dockyards.

The Naval Discipline Act 1957 reduced the scope of capital espionage from "all spies for the enemy" to spies on naval ships or bases. [29] Later, the Armed Forces Act 1981 abolished the death penalty for espionage. [30] (The Official Secrets Act 1911 had created another offence of espionage which carried a maximum sentence of fourteen years.)

Beheading was abolished as a method of execution for treason in 1973. [31] Hanging, however, remained available until 1998 when, under a House of Lords amendment to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, proposed by Lord Archer of Sandwell, the death penalty was abolished for treason and piracy with violence, replacing it with a discretionary maximum sentence of life imprisonment. These were the last civilian offences punishable by death.

On 20 May 1998 the House of Commons voted to ratify the 6th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting capital punishment except "in time of war or imminent threat of war". The last remaining provisions for the death penalty under military jurisdiction (including in wartime) were removed when section 21(5) of the Human Rights Act 1998 came into force on 9 November 1998. On 10 October 2003, effective from 1 February 2004, [32] the UK acceded to the 13th Protocol, which prohibits the death penalty in all circumstances. [33]

As a legacy from colonial times, several states in the West Indies still had the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as the court of final appeal; although the death penalty has been retained in these states, the Privy Council would sometimes delay or deny executions. Some of these states severed links with the British court system in 2001 by transferring the responsibilities of the Privy Council to the Caribbean Court of Justice, to speed up executions. [34]

Crown dependencies

Although not part of the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey are British Crown dependencies.

In the Channel Islands, the last death sentence was passed in 1984; the last execution in the Channel Islands was in Jersey on 9 October 1959, when Francis Joseph Huchet was hanged for murder. [35] The Human Rights (Amendment) (Jersey) Order 2006 [36] amends the Human Rights (Jersey) Law 2000 [37] to give effect to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights providing for the total abolition of the death penalty. Both of these laws came into effect on 10 December 2006. Capital punishment was abolished in Guernsey in 2003, and the 13th Protocol was extended to Guernsey in April 2004. Sark (which is part of Guernsey but has its own laws) formally retained it until January 2004, when the Chief Pleas in a 14–9 vote removed it from the statutes. [38] [39]

The last execution on the Isle of Man took place in 1872, when John Kewish was hanged for patricide. Capital punishment was not formally abolished by Tynwald (the island's parliament) until 1993. [40] Five persons were sentenced to death (for murder) on the Isle of Man between 1973 and 1992, although all sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. The last person to be sentenced to death in the UK or its dependencies was Anthony Teare, who was convicted at the Manx Court of General Gaol Delivery in Douglas for contract murder in 1992; he was subsequently retried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994. [41] In 2004 the 13th Protocol was adopted, [42] with an effective date of 1 November 2006. [43]

Overseas territories

Like the Crown dependencies, the British overseas territories are constitutionally not part of the United Kingdom. However, the British government's ultimate responsibility for good governance of the territories has led it over recent years to pursue a policy of revoking all statutory provision for the death penalty in those territories where it had up until recently been legal.

The last executions in an overseas territory, and indeed the last on British soil, took place in Bermuda in 1977, when two men, Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, were hanged for the 1973 murder of the territory's then Governor Sir Richard Sharples. [44]

In 1991, the British government extended an Order in Council to its Caribbean territories the effect of which was to abolish capital punishment for murder in Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands. [45]

The British government was unable to extend the abolition via Order in Council to Bermuda, the UK's most autonomous overseas territory with powers of almost total self-governance—but warned that if voluntary abolition was not forthcoming it would be forced to consider the unprecedented step of "whether to impose abolition by means of an Act of Parliament". [46] As a result, the Bermudian government introduced its own domestic legislation in 1999 to rectify the problem. [47]

Further measures were subsequently adopted to revoke technicalities in British overseas territories' domestic legislation as regards use of the death penalty for crimes of treason and piracy. In October 2002 the British government abolished the death penalty for treason and piracy in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Since then, the death penalty has been outlawed under all circumstances in all the UK's overseas territories. [48]

Policy regarding foreign capital punishment

Under section 94 of the Extradition Act 2003, it is unlawful for an extradition of an individual to take place if the individual is accused of a capital crime, unless the Home Secretary has received assurances that the death penalty would not be applied in that case. [49] [50] Regardless of this, in July 2018, the Government said it will not object to the United States seeking the death penalty for two suspected British members of ISIS captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces. [51] [52] Although not strictly an extradition case, in response to an urgent question in Parliament on the matter, the Government stated that they still held the policy "to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle". [53]

Public support for reintroduction of capital punishment

Since the death penalty's suspension in 1965, there have been continued public and media calls for its reintroduction, particularly prompted by high-profile murder cases.

At the same time, there have been a number of miscarriages of justice since 1965 where someone convicted of murder has later had their conviction quashed on appeal and been released from prison, strengthening the argument of those who oppose the death penalty's reintroduction. These include the Birmingham Six (cleared in 1991 of planting an IRA bomb which killed 21 people in 1974), the Guildford Four (cleared in 1989 of murdering five people in another 1974 IRA bombing), Stephen Downing (a Derbyshire man who was freed in 2001 after serving 27 years for the murder of a woman in a churchyard) and Barry George (who was freed in 2007 when his conviction for the 1999 murder of TV presenter Jill Dando was quashed on appeal). [54]

Perhaps the first high-profile murder case which sparked widespread calls for a return of the death penalty was the Moors murders trial in 1966, the year after the death penalty's suspension, in which Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders of two children and a teenager in the Manchester area (they later confessed to a further two murders). [55] Later in 1966, the murder of three policemen in West London also attracted widespread public support for the death penalty's return. [56] Other subsequent high-profile cases to have sparked widespread media and public calls for the death penalty's return include "Yorkshire Ripper" Peter Sutcliffe, convicted in 1981 of murdering 13 women and attacking seven others in the north of England; [57] Roy Whiting, who murdered a seven-year-old girl in West Sussex in 2000; [58] and Ian Huntley, a Cambridgeshire school caretaker who killed two 10-year-old girls in 2002. [59]

A November 2009 television survey showed that 70% favoured reinstating the death penalty for at least one of the following crimes: armed robbery, rape, crimes related to paedophilia, terrorism, adult murder, child murder, child rape, treason, child abuse or kidnapping. However, respondents only favoured capital punishment for adult murder, the polling question asked by other organisations such as Gallup, by small majorities or pluralities: overall, 51% favoured the death penalty for adult murder, while 56% in Wales did, 55% in Scotland, and only 49% in England. [60]

In August 2011, the Internet blogger Paul Staines—who writes a political blog as Guido Fawkes and heads the Restore Justice Campaign—launched an e-petition on the Downing Street website calling for the restoration of the death penalty for those convicted of the murder of children and police officers. [61] The petition was one of several in support or opposition of capital punishment to be published by the government with the launch of its e-petitions website. Petitions attracting 100,000 signatures would prompt a parliamentary debate on a particular topic, but not necessarily lead to any Parliamentary Bills being put forward. [62] When the petition closed on 4 February 2012 it had received 26,351 signatures in support of restoring capital punishment, [63] but a counter-petition calling to retain the ban on capital punishment received 33,455 signatures during the same time period. [64]

Also in August 2011, a representative survey conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion showed that 65% of Britons support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Great Britain, while 28% oppose this course of action. Men and respondents aged over 35 are more likely to endorse the change. [65]

In March 2015 a survey by the NatCen British Social Attitudes Report showed that public support for the death penalty had dropped to 48%. [66]

Parliamentary debates on reintroduction

After Royal Assent for the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, supporters in Parliament have made several attempts to reintroduce capital punishment. On 23 November 1966, Duncan Sandys was refused leave to bring in a Bill to restore capital punishment for the murder of police or prison officers, by a vote of 170 to 292. [67] Motions to make the five-year suspension of capital punishment under the 1965 Act permanent were opposed, but agreed by 343 to 185 in the House of Commons; [68] in the House of Lords, an amendment to continue with a temporary suspension of capital punishment until 31 July 1973 was rejected by 174 to 220. [69] In April 1973, the House of Commons voted against reintroduction. [70]

The deaths of civilians in several IRA bombings in 1974 prompted a renewed debate. On 11 December 1974 Brian Walden moved a motion declaring that "the death penalty would neither deter terrorists nor increase the safety of the public"; Jill Knight moved an amendment calling instead for introduction of legislation providing for death to be the penalty for acts of terrorism causing death. Her amendment was rejected by 217 to 369. [71] A year later, Ivan Lawrence's motion "That this House demands capital punishment for terrorist offences causing death" was rejected by 232 to 361. [72]

After the Conservatives' victory in the 1979 general election, Eldon Griffiths (Parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales) moved a motion "that the sentence of capital punishment should again be available to the courts" on 19 July 1979. [73] While the motion was not expected to pass, the margin of its defeat (243 to 362) was much wider than expected. [74] Later in the same Parliament, the Criminal Justice Bill provided an opportunity on 11 May 1982 for several new clauses to be proposed which would have reinstated capital punishment. The first, which simply declared that "A person convicted of murder shall be liable to capital punishment", was tabled by Edward Gardner, and rejected by 195 to 357. [75] It was followed by an alternative under which capital punishment would be available "as the penalty for an act of terrorism involving the loss of human life"; this new clause was rejected by 176 to 332. [76] A further new clause proposing capital punishment "as the penalty for murder by means of firearms or explosives" was rejected by 176 to 343. [77] Then a new clause allowing for capital punishment "as the penalty for murder of a police or prison officer" was rejected by 208 to 332. [78] Finally a new clause allowing capital punishment "as the penalty for murder in the course of robbery and burglary which involves the use of offensive weapons" was rejected by 151 to 331. [79]

The new Parliament in 1983 again prompted supporters of capital punishment to put their case. Sir Edward Gardner's motion "That this House favours the restoration of the death penalty for murder" was debated on 13 July 1983, with several amendments moved to restrict capital punishment to certain categories of murder. The amendments were voted on first: capital punishment for murder "resulting from acts of terrorism" was rejected by 245 to 361, for murder "of a police officer during the course of his duties" by 263 to 344, for murder "of a prison officer during the course of his duties" by 252 to 348, for murder "by shooting or causing an explosion" by 204 to 374, and for murder "in the course or furtherance of theft" by 194 to 369. The main motion was then defeated by 223 to 368. [80] Towards the end of the Parliament, a new clause proposed to the Criminal Justice Bill proposed to return the death penalty for "A person convicted by the unanimous verdict of a jury of the premeditated killing of another person or of knowingly and intentionally killing another person in a manner, or for a reason, or in circumstances which a reasonable person would consider to be evil" was rejected by 230 to 342 on 1 April 1987. [81]

The Criminal Justice Bill in 1988 provided a further opportunity for a debate; the new clause proposed by Roger Gale allowed for the jury in a murder case to "have the power, upon reaching a verdict of guilt of murder, to recommend ... death in the manner authorised by law". It was rejected by 218 to 341. [82]

The aforementioned bills were rejected despite support from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. [83]

On 17 December 1990 a new Criminal Justice Bill again saw amendments designed to reintroduce capital punishment. The first covered anyone over 18 "convicted of the murder of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty" and was rejected by 215 to 350; [84] a general reintroduction of death as the penalty for murder (with special provision for the Court of Appeal to decide whether to substitute a life sentence) was then rejected by 182 to 367. [85] Capital punishment for "murder committed by means of firearms, explosives or an offensive weapon, or for the murder of a police or prison officer" was rejected by 186 to 349. [86]

The most recent Parliamentary debate on a question proposing reintroduction of capital punishment came on 21 February 1994 when new clauses to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill were moved. The first, providing for death as the sentence for "the murder of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty", was rejected by 186 to 383; [87] A new clause providing for general reintroduction with power for the Court of Appeal to substitute life imprisonment was rejected by 159 to 403. [88] This would have been aimed at terrorists in the Northern Ireland conflict. [89]

In June 2013 a new bill for capital punishment in England and Wales was introduced. This Bill has been withdrawn and will not progress any further. [90]

Notable executions

Before 1707

Mother Catherine Cauches (center) and her two daughters Guillemine Gilbert (left) and Perotine Massey (right) with her infant son burning for their protestant beliefs Martyrs of Guernsey.jpg
Mother Catherine Cauchés (center) and her two daughters Guillemine Gilbert (left) and Perotine Massey (right) with her infant son burning for their protestant beliefs

Kingdom of Great Britain, 1707–1801

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1801–1922

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1922–1964

See also

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Capital punishment in Jersey

Jersey is a state in which capital punishment has been abolished.

Capital punishment in Montenegro was first prescribed by law in 1798. It was abolished on 19 June 2002. The last execution, by shooting, took place on 29 January 1981, and the two last death sentences were pronounced on 11 October 2001. Montenegro is bound by the following international conventions prohibiting capital punishment : Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Protocols No. 6 and No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Art. 26 of the Montenegrin Constitution (2007): „In Montenegro, capital punishment is forbidden”.



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  • Hoffman, David; Rowe, John (2010), Human Rights in the UK: An Introduction to the Human Rights Act of 1998 (3 ed.), Pearson Longman, ISBN   978-1-4058-7403-8
  • Brian P. Block; John Hostettler (1997), Hanging in the balance: a history of the abolition of capital punishment in Britain, Waterside Press, ISBN   978-1-872870-47-2
  • Harry Potter (1993), Hanging in Judgment: Religion and the Death Penalty in England from the Bloody Code to Abolition, London, SCM Press ISBN   0-334-02533-8

Further reading

Hansard notes (Parliament of the United Kingdom):

Journal articles: