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Memories of Shrewsbury's last execution

Shrewsbury | News | Published:

It is 50 years since the last men were led to the gallows in the UK. Shropshire's last execution was at Shrewsbury prison on February 9, 1961.

The condemned man was 21-year-old George Riley, of Shrewsbury, who was convicted of murdering a 62-year-old widowed neighbour Mrs Adeline Mary Smith.

It is a conviction that some people felt, and still feel, was unsafe.

On the eve of the execution, prisoners at the jail were in a state of foment, as Mrs Sonia Shawcroft, a prison officer's wife who at one time lived within the prison, was to recall last year.

"The night before Riley was hanged the noise was all over Shrewsbury," she said.

"All the prisoners were banging their tin mugs on the bars and shouting 'Save George'.

One of those outside the Dana on the fateful morning of George Riley's execution was veteran Shrewsbury journalist Russell Mulford.

"It was 8 o'clock in the morning as I recall it and there were various people outside. Some women were on their knees praying," he said.

"There was a deathly silence as, I think, St Mary's Church bells tolled, and that was the hanging moment.

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"There was a lot of furore about it. Myself, Gordon (Gordon Riley, a fellow journalist), and various others were there just for the occasion and we went away and wrote our stories about what a poignant sort of situation it was. It was very moving, particularly with these ladies, from away I think, who were on their knees as the bell tolled.

"There was some argument at the time about whether Riley was guilty or not. I forget the name of the police superintendent in charge, but he was adamant that Riley was guilty and the whole trial went smoothly. There was an element nationally, led by a barrister called Louis Blom-Cooper. He led the opposition to Riley's hanging. I'm not sure whether his grounds were that it was a mistrial, or that hanging was wrong. Soon afterwards hanging was abolished. It was a controversial hanging, that's for sure."

Russell was one of the journalists who covered Riley's trial.

"It was a busy time. I was in and out of court filing my stories. I didn't get any impression of there being an injustice there. I was very much the journalist, recording it and reporting it as it was, without getting involved."

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Fellow Shropshire journalist Gordon Riley, who died in 2010, was to recall: "I was the member of the press voted by the others to represent the press at the inquest.

"I remember there was a very seasoned warder who had to examine my press card to admit me. In a pretty gruff tone he said 'that's funny initials to come in here with' — they were the same as George Riley's."

The last people to be hanged in Britain were killers Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, on August 13, 1964.

There was no fuss at the time, the routine hangings of a couple of murderers from "up North" rating a brief mention in the London-based national press.

Yet the tide of history has transformed these run-of-the-mill executions into a key last defeat before the abolitionists brought an end to capital punishment.

Had the pair got their timing only slightly different, they might be walking the streets today as free men in their 70s.

Opposition to capital punishment was rising, with protests outside jails when hangings were taking place.

Two months after their deaths a Labour administration was elected with a mandate to abolish the death penalty. Capital punishment was suspended for five years, and in 1969 the death penalty for murder was abolished permanently.

The arguments have continued to rage ever since. Opinion polls show popular support for the death penalty.

An online poll by the Shropshire Star mirror those nationally, a clear margin - 57% - in favour of it returning, although perhaps less of a majority than would have been shown a decade ago.

Those who oppose the death penalty point to practicalities as well as the basic moral objections. There are plenty of innocents who would undoubtedly have gone to the gallows had capital punishment remained in force.

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