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Ruth to be remembered in museum’s makeover

As part of a £100k revamp of Hampstead Museum, it plans to tell Ruth Ellis’s story

19 January, 2018 — By Gerald Isaaman

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain after she shot her lover outside the Magdala Tavern in Hampstead

PLANS for a major revamp of the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House are under way to celebrate the 40th anniversary in 2019 of the Grade I historic Queen Anne mansion being saved from being sold off by Labour-controlled Camden Council.

But it will mean the launch – and success of – a fundraising drive to cover the estimated £100,000 cost of the enterprise, which will result in the museum’s permanent collection no longer being based in a chronological order over past centuries.

“We want to take everything out and look at the collections to see exactly what exactly we’ve got and then put everything back after re-designing them,” said Rebecca Lodge, the museum’s curator since 2010.

“The nature of our displays is that they are quite ad hoc. What we’re hoping to do is to promote the important stories and anecdotes about Hampstead from the past and introduce the new galleries next year.

“It’s quite a task re-interpreting the permanent displays and it is going to take a lot of fundraising too. We’re looking in the region of £100,000 – yes, a lot of money. But we are hoping to introduce the new collections next year – and that’s because 1979 is the year Burgh House was saved by the public.”

The brass cartridge acquired by the museum

Equally interesting in the Burgh House saga is that the revamped museum collections will feature the tragic story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain after she shot her racing car driver lover David Blakely outside the Magdala Tavern, in South Hill Park, Hampstead.

That is partly because last November the museum acquired at auction a .38 Special cartridge case in brass of one of the bullets fired by 28-year-old Ellis. Plus the fact that the death penalty was brought to an end by legislation introduced into Parliament by Sydney Silverman MP, a Hampstead resident and solicitor.

The purchase was made by Mark Francis, the Burgh House director.

“He saw this item and said: ‘Crikey, that would be truly interesting for our collection even though it is definitely quite macabre’, said Rebecca.

Mark, who has been at Burgh House for six years, recalled that there was a “fair amount of bidding” for the cartridge case, picked up at the murder scene on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955.

Although he declined to say how much it cost, the auctioneers JP Humbert put a £400 to £600.

“We couldn’t have afforded four figures,” he pointed out, adding: “I just felt it was a little bit of social history that it is important to tell, especially as the Magdala pub is now shut.”

Born in Rhyl, Wales, Ellis left home at 14 to become a waitress. By the time she was 17, she was pregnant by a married man who refused to acknowledge their son. At 24, she married George Ellis, 41, a divorced dentist, described as a possessive, violent and jealous drunk, who also refused to accept paternity when Ruth gave birth to their daughter.

Burgh House. Photo: Ceridwen

Then, in 1953, she met and has a passionate relationship with David Blakely, again accompanied with occasional violence. And in January, 1955, he punched her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry their child.

He meanwhile met other women while Ruth also had an affair with a former wartime bomber pilot who wanted to marry her.

So it was that the divided affairs of both Blakely and Ruth led to furious rows that came to a dramatic end when she tracked him down when he refused to answer her calls and she fired five rounds at him outside the Magdala.

An ambulance took him to New End Hospital, Hampstead, but Blakely was declared dead on arrival and Ruth, arrested at the scene of her crime by an off-duty policeman, confessed to his death on the spot, declaring she was “a little confused”.

The jury at her trail took just 25 minutes to pronounce her guilty. Ruth told her mother she did not want a petition to reprieve her from the death sentence, and took no part in a campaign that followed.

Ruth was hanged on July 13, 1956 in Holloway Prison by Albert Pierrepoint, who executed at least 400 people.

“At the time there was wasn’t much of an outcry, which I find weird when it was about hanging a woman,” Mark adds. “The case was not really very well reported at the time. In copies of newspaper articles I have got she was quite lampooned and described as a sort of call girl.”

Yet there are sombre and symbolic echoes for today in that Ruth Ellis was so badly abused throughout her life by men – “a problem that has not gone away today,” observes Mark.


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