Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of nine thought-provoking novels. Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won a First Novel Award in 2008. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards. Smash all the Windows was the inaugural winner of the Selfies Award 2019.
My latest novel, At the Stoke of Nine O’Clock, is the result of a long held fascination with one woman. I first became aware of Ruth Ellis (pictured below) as a teenager. What drew me to her story may well have been morbid fascination. After all, Ruth was that rarity: a female killer. ‘Six revolver shots shattered the Easter Sunday calm of Hampstead and a beautiful platinum blonde stood with her back to the wall. In her hand was a revolver…’ I was hooked by the story of the blonde hostess, who took a gun, tracked down her errant racing-boy lover to a public house in Hampstead, shot him in cold blood and then calmly asked a bystander to call the police.
“Women who are violent are monsterised by the system.” – Harriet Wistrich, human rights lawyer
Women, as we know, are far more likely to be victim rather than killer. (Arguably, the two are not mutually exclusive.) Unlike their male counterparts, when women kill they tend to know their victims. Statistics also show us that women kill for very different reasons than men. Either they feel threatened (in self-defence and sometimes when they have been rejected), they carry out what they believe to be an act of mercy (predominantly young children, in the belief that death is in the best interest of the child), or they intend to take their own lives and can’t bear the thought of leaving their children behind.
The other fact that drew me to Ruth is that she was the last woman in Great Britain to be hanged. It was after making this discovered that I first read, Ruth Ellis: A Case of Diminished Responsibility by Laurence Marks and Tony Van Den Bergh. Published in 1977, the book’s title is provocative, referencing the partial defence of diminished responsibility introduced in 1957, as a result of the public outcry that followed Ruth’s death.
Ruth’s case is often cited as an example of a miscarriage of justice. I beg to differ. Given that the only defence to murder was provocation, given that Ruth had handed herself in and admitted her guilt, given that she didn’t want certain facts to be revealed in court (that her ‘other lover’ Desmond Cussen gave her the gun that she used to shoot David Blakely, and her medical history, being two examples), how she jeopardised herself in court, and the directions the judge gave to the jury, I struggle to see how they could have arrived at a different verdict. Not forgetting that Ruth herself had repeatedly said that she didn’t want to live.
“Ruth admitted – she actually said this – that she’d had a peculiar idea that she wanted to kill Blakely. She used those words.”
At the same time, I have absolutely no doubt that Ruth was pre-judged. Her sex, her looks, the fact that her lifestyle was considered to be immoral (having two lovers while her divorce was not yet finalised, at a time when 73% of women polled said they thought sex outside marriage was wrong). Shouts of ‘common tart’ were heard as she entered court number one at the Old Bailey, where people had paid upwards of £30 for a seat in the public gallery. And for these very same reasons, I think that she was made an example of.
Why? Because not one but two women were sentenced to hang in July 1955. Ruth’s executioner was also supposed to have had an appointment with Mrs Sarah Lloyd at Strangeways Gaol, Manchester. Mrs Lloyd (married, middle-aged, teenage daughter) had been convicted of beating her 86-year-old neighbour to death with a spade. Apparently the pair had had a long-standing feud, although the detail is lost. Sarah’s Lloyd’s case attracted virtually no publicity – the Secretary of State was under no pressure from the public to grant her a reprieve, and yet that’s exactly what he did. Was Ruth Ellis’s crime any worse than Sarah Lloyd’s? No (unless we consider the life of a 25-year-old man to be more valuable that the life of an 86-year-old woman). It was Ruth’s failure to meet standards of conventional morality that proved fatal for her.
“The traditional female role is a nurturer, not a murderer. Extreme violence is far more alien to females than to males.” James Alan Fox, criminologist
And so we return to the provocative book title and the question that is often asked. Had the partial defence of diminished responsibility been available to Ruth, would she have been convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter? Those who still seek justice on her behalf would like the answer to be yes. But to explore how Ruth might have been treated in twenty-first century Britain, we must find a ‘similar’ case – one in which a woman has been driven to breaking point. The case of Sally Challen (2010/11) offers a number a parallels. Like Ruth’s, Sally’ story made scintillating headlines. Middle-aged woman in middle-class Surrey bludgeons husband to death. Like Ruth, Sally took the weapon – a hammer – to her former marital home suggesting that her actions were pre-meditated, she attacked an unarmed man, and was portrayed in court as a jealous woman out for revenge. After all, she herself admitted on film that if she couldn’t have him, she didn’t want anyone else to.
But despite the availability of this defence, Sally Challen was convicted of murder. Once again, the law failed to get to the truth. When Sally’s brothers, aware that their sister had suffered at Richard Challen’s hands (albeit that they didn’t know the extent of it), challenged why the matter of their brother-in-law’s behaviour wasn’t raised, they were told, ‘Speaking ill of the dead doesn’t go down well will the jury’, a sentiment echoed by the Crown Prosecution Service’s representative: ‘It’s not Mr Challen who’s on trial. The fact that someone was incredibly cruel and abusive towards their partner is not on its own a defence to murder.’
“The law doesn’t work well for women in relation to issues of violence. If a woman fights back, they are often punished more severely than a man that’s violent.” – Harriet Wistrich, human rights lawyer
That an appeal will be allowed is by no means guaranteed. Justice for Women fought for six long years on Sally’s behalf. The court must be satisfied that some substantial new evidence has come to light. The fact that evidence that had been available but had not been presented at trial wouldn’t be a good enough reason. Sally Challen had already served nine years when her conviction was quashed. Her case rested entirely on whether the court would accept new medical evidence confirming that she’d been suffering from a previously undiagnosed mental disorder, something that may have been masked, because Sally was also said to drink excessively. The reason for her new diagnosis was the psychosis she suffered while under observation in prison. It was accepted her husband’s coercive control (behaviour that was criminalised in 2015) amplified the disorder, providing the missing explanation for what appeared to be a ‘bizarre act, out of the blue’. Having already served an appropriate term for the lesser offence of manslaughter, Sally Challen walked free.
At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock
London 1949. The lives of three very different women are about to collide.
Like most working-class daughters, Caroline Wilby is expected to help support her family. Alone in a strange city, she must grab any opportunity that comes her way. Even if that means putting herself in danger.
Star of the silver screen, Ursula Delancy, has just been abandoned by the man she left her husband for. Already hounded by the press, it won’t be long before she’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Patrice Hawtree was once the most photographed debutante of her generation. Now childless and trapped in a loveless marriage, her plans to secure the future of her ancient family home are about to be jeopardised by her husband’s gambling addiction.
Each believes she has already lost in life, not knowing how far she still has to fall.
Six years later, one cause will unite them: when a young woman commits a crime of passion and is condemned to hang, remaining silent isn’t an option.
At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock will be released on 13 July, but you can pre-order it now for the special price of £1.99p/£1.99 (Price on publication will be £4.99/$4.99).
Read my companion piece that looks at female violence from a future/science fiction perspective.