Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen hanged simultaneously on August 13, 1964, at prisons in Manchester and Liverpool.
The pair had bludgeoned 53-year-old van driver John West to death at his Cumbria home after planning to rob him But their final moments earned barely a mention in newspapers, with no all-night vigil by anti-execution campaigners. A year later, the death penalty was suspended in Britain and Parliament finally abolished it formally in 1969 Unlike modern cases, pair met their deaths just months after the murder and three weeks after they lost their appeal Historian: ‘When Allen was walked up to the trapdoors he said “Jesus”. He didn’t have time to do anything else’
At eight o’clock one August morning exactly 50 years ago tomorrow, two men in different prisons in the North of England stood on the scaffold, waiting to be hanged for the same crime.
Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen were facing the long drop for the murder of a 53-year-old van driver in his home in Cumbria just 18 weeks earlier.
Evans was in Strangeways prison in Manchester. Standing in front of him was hangman Harry Allen, who combined his grim job with his other life as a publican.
They became the last men to be executed in Britain 50 years ago At 8am sharp on August 13, 1964, they were marched the 12 paces from their cells at separate prisons in Manchester and Liverpool to the gallows. A year later the penalty was suspended and never reinstated.
‘He went berserk,’ she said. ‘Really berserk. He was strong, you know, and the glass in there, they say it’s supposed to be bullet-proof, but he smashed it.’
That loss of temper, though understandable, did her husband no good.
As he was led to the scaffold by Stewart, he was heard to mutter just one word: ‘Jesus.’ The hangman pulled the lever and Allen fell to his death, though even at the last it seems he made a desperate attempt to escape his fate.
Former prison officer George Donaldson said: ‘We stood him on the drop and the hangman then put the straps on his legs and the back of his hands and a hood on him. And the last minute he seemed to me to make some sort of effort to throw himself [sideways], but he didn’t get the chance.
‘It was so quick. The lever dropped, door opened and down he went and it was all over.’
The same scene was being played out 30 miles to the east.
Harry Allen, carrying out his 42nd execution, knew what he was doing. He placed the noose over Evans’s head and briskly tightened it.
Then, at the same time as his partner in murder, Evans went to his death. If he uttered any last words, they were not recorded.
Though neither hangman would have known it at the time, these were the last executions that either would perform.
In fact, they were the last executions ever carried out by the Government on British soil.
For, just a few months later, in October 1964, a Labour government was elected with a mandate to abolish the death penalty, then still in use for crimes of murder.
The election’s result immediately suspended the use of the death sentence, until the Act was passed to abolish it in November 1965.
Had today’s laws been in place in 1964, the men would have been released at least 20 years ago — and would now be walking the streets.
The crime carried out by the pair was particularly unpleasant. The victim was John West — known to his friends as Jack — who had led a blameless life as a delivery driver for a laundry firm in Workington.
Still single in his late 50s, he was thought by many to be gay, but if he was, it did not seem to trouble the neighbours of his semi-detached house at 28 Kings Avenue — a house that still stands.
It was one o’clock in the morning of Tuesday, April 7, that a 1959 Ford Prefect with the number plate NXC 771 drew up outside his home. It had been stolen earlier that night.
Inside were Allen and Evans, both of whom had criminal records for various misdemeanours, and who had already committed several robberies together.
Wiry, short and with ginger hair, at 23, Evans was two years older than Allen, a 6ft 2in hulk of a man who was mentally extremely slow.
Evans lodged at Allen’s home — 2 Clarendon Street, in Preston, Lancashire — and later, in court, it emerged that he was probably sleeping with Allen’s wife, Mary. She was nicknamed ‘Mitch’ — which she had tattooed on the fingers of her left hand.
That night, Mary, 21, was sitting in the back of the car, alongside her two young children. She listened as the two men finessed their plan.
Evans said that West was an old acquaintance and, as a single man, he was the type to have saved plenty of money and was more than likely to keep it in cash.
What happened next is unclear, as the statements made to the police by the trio conflicted. What is certain is that Evans was the first to enter the house, having knocked on the door and been admitted.
He described how West was still awake and showed him into his kitchen. Despite the late hour, West, who regarded Evans as a ‘comical lad’, offered him some tea, as well as a teacake and some cheese.
‘He suggested that I went to bed with him,’ Evans claimed. ‘And I said “No”. I was going to ask him for £100 and told him I had a friend in the car outside.’
Whatever the truth of that, Evans also claimed that West summoned him into his bedroom in order to retrieve something from a cupboard. It was at this point Evans made the first of many mistakes — he took off his coat and placed it over a chair.
Soon, a knock came on the front door, and West let Allen in.
The report by the pathologist, Dr Faulds, would give a clear indication of what happened next.
West suffered 13 wounds, some of which split his head open.
There were six grazes on his face and upper body, and six bruises elsewhere. His brain was bruised twice.
The pathologist also found a stab wound on the left side of his chest, which had pierced the left ventricle of his heart. ‘In my opinion,’ Dr Faulds wrote, ‘death resulted from haemorrhage and shock, caused by a stab wound into the heart and multiple head injuries.’
With a haul of little more than a wristwatch and two bank passbooks — used to withdraw money — the killers fled.
As they sped away, Jack West’s neighbours were already knocking on his door. Awakened by crashing and banging at around 3am, Mr and Mrs Joseph Fawcett were understandably concerned for the man in the other half of their semi-detached houses.
At 3.25am, another neighbour called the police, and 20 minutes later, Sergeant James Park and Constable John Rodgers managed to get inside the house.
‘I saw the body of a man lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs,’ Park wrote. ‘There was a large amount of blood on the floor, and the man was obviously dead.’
After the Second World War, protests mounted over executions. This crowd gathered outside Wandsworth Prison, south London, on the day Derek Bentley was executed in 1954. The 19-year-old was finally fully exonerated by the Court of Appeal in 1998 after a campaign to clear his name spanning four decades.
Campaigners outside Wandsworth in 1959. Public feeling had slowly turned against executions and they were outlawed fully by Labour in 1959
While the police inquiry swung into action, the murderers, along with Mary and her two babies, were speeding south.
Mary demanded to know what had happened, but it was only when she turned the light on in the car and saw the blood all over her husband’s shirt that the truth began to dawn.
Any outrage must have been short-lived, however. She was certainly happy enough to help the pair in reaping what proceeds they could from their crime.
After dawn broke, the group stopped in Liverpool, where Mary accompanied Evans as he went into two banks, using the dead man’s bank passbooks to withdraw from his accounts just £10 — worth around £175 today.
By the late morning, the gang had made it to their home in Preston —but even as they were shutting the front door, the net was closing. The coat foolishly left behind by Evans had an old military-style identity tag and letters, which easily enabled the police to track him down.
At one o’clock on Wednesday, April 8, just 36 hours after the killers had pulled up outside their victim’s home, the police were arriving outside Clarendon Street.
Murder scene: The cottage in Seaton, Cumbria, where 53-year-old John West’s bloodied body was found. In a fatal mistake, murderer Evans left his coat at the scene.
Evans was taken to the gallows by Harry Allen (centre with his son Brian, right), a one-time apprentice to Albert Pierrepoint who oversaw some 400 deaths.
When Evans was searched, an object was found in the lining of his jacket. Asked to remove it, he produced a set of keys. But Detective Sergeant Hodgins knew he had felt something different and told the man to keep trying. Eventually, he brought out a wristwatch.
When Hodgins looked at its back, he saw that someone had crudely attempted to obscure the engraving of a name — J. A. West.
It was enough. At 1.15am on Thursday morning, the men were charged; Mary was not charged with any offences.
The wheels of justice turned quickly. By June 23, the case came to the Manchester Assizes.
On July 7, after a discussion lasting three-and-a-quarter hours, a jury of nine men and three women unanimously found both men guilty of ‘capital murder’ — the category of the crime that made the killers automatically eligible for the death penalty.
When the hour of the men’s execution arrived, no more than a handful gathered outside each prison in protest at the death penalty. As her husband was being executed, even Mary went to work as normal. As she said a year later: ‘I have my own life to lead.’
Which she did — remarrying in 1966 and changing her name. It is likely that she is still alive.