Violet’s victory

02 November 2006

The death penalty in Britain was abolished just over 40 years ago, thanks not least to the efforts of one woman, says her great nephew, Gerald Phizackerley

IT IS NOW 40 years since a stout, golden-haired, cream-complexioned woman, aged 83, was sitting in the Strangers’ Gallery of the House of Commons, applauded by a group of excited Labour MPs gathered on the floor of the House below.

On 9 November 1965, Sydney Silverman’s Private Member’s Bill became the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, which ended the death penalty for murder. And although Violet Van der Elst is now largely forgotten, the former Prime Minister, Clement Attlee acknowledged in retirement that she did more than anyone else to secure the abolition of capital punishment in Britain.

Violet, a self-made millionaire in the cosmetic industry, recognised murder as a terrible crime. "Punish the murderer severely," she wrote, "but do not take life."

On the morning of an execution she would appear outside the prison walls in her cream Rolls Royce equipped with loudspeakers. She hired sandwich men to patrol the streets with her humanitarian message, and had aeroplanes fly overhead trailing banners reading: "STOP THE DEATH SENTENCE".

Violet often drew crowds of thousands, some jeering her, others cheering her, as at the execution of Dr Buck Ruxton at Strangeways Prison in May 1936, when she was arrested for obstruction.

In the Church of England, she found an ally in William Temple, Archbishop of York (and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury), but then crossed swords with Geoffrey Fisher, his successor at Canterbury.

On 3 February 1950, the Archbishop was giving evidence before the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. Charles Neilson Gattey, in his book The Incredible Mrs Van Der Elst, reports that the Archbishop had just affirmed that he was in favour of retaining "precisely the present procedure" for delivering the death sentence when a woman, clad in a black cloak with astrakhan collar and wearing a large-brimmed black hat with a veil, rose from her seat and pointed at him.

"Are you a Christian?" she asked. "Do you think Christ would have said exactly what you have said today? He was executed. Do you know that men are left hanging for a quarter of an hour? It is not a job for an Archbishop to come here and say the things you have said."

An attendant approached Mrs Van Der Elst and asked her to leave, but she kept speaking, and the chairman, Sir Ernest Gowers, said he thought the commission should retire. As they filed out of the disused Georgian drawing-room in Carlton House Terrace, she shouted after them: "Cowards always run away. Don’t listen to what I have to say. You live in a palace. I gave my castle away to the people."

She remained standing and addressing the press and public for a minute or two. "I have risen from my bed to come here and accuse him. I am very glad I have had my say, and there is a lot more I could say. I have fought for 25 years and I will fight to the last. My campaign will go on."

Then she descended the stairs unescorted, climbed into her Rolls-Royce and was driven off.

Violet was to campaign for almost another 15 years before her efforts were finally successful.

The Ven. Gerald Phizackerley was Archdeacon of Chesterfield until he retired in 1996.

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