• Hanging in the Balance by Brian P Block and John Hostettler - book cover

Hanging in the Balance

A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain

by Brian P Block and John Hostettler, Foreword by Lord Callaghan


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Hanging in the Balance traces the history of capital punishment in the United Kingdom from ancient times to the modern day-through periods of reform until hanging for murder was finally abolished by Parliament in 1969. It describes in detail the Parliamentary and public debates, and notes the stance taken by organizations and individuals (including the tenacious and persistent Sydney Silverman MP). The book collates data and references not previously brought together in one place – and in exploring the underlying issues and the recurring arguments about deterrence, retribution and expediency it provides an invaluable resource vis-à-vis the same debate in the many countries where capital punishment still exists. Lord Callaghan was home secretary at the time of abolition. His Foreword conveys how strong his personal feelings were concerning the death penalty from the time he entered Parliament in 1945. The book’s closing chapters record how his insistence that abolition should become permanent ultimately overcame the still considerable opposition. Capital punishment was finally abolished in 1999 throughout the UK. For all practical purposes this had already happened in 1969 when the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 was made fully effective into following a trial period.


The chief milestones as charted by Brian P Block and John Hostettler are as follows:

  • 1810 London described as the ‘City of the Gallows’. Romilly commences crusade against the death penalty.
  • 1832 Death for shoplifting to the value of five shillings or less abolished.
  • 1833-37 Following the Reform Act of 1832, punishment of death is removed from two-thirds of capital crimes.
  • 1841 Hanging for rape abolished. Death inflicted only for crimes of murder and treason.
  • 1866 Majority of Royal Commission favours end to public executions and the introduction of degrees of murder, but no statute enacted for the latter.
  • 1868 Executions to take place only within prisons.
  • 1908 Death sentence for children under 16 years of age abolished.
  • 1921 Howard League for Penal Reform founded.
  • 1922 New offence of infanticide by a distracted mother effectively reduced this from murder. 1925 National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment formed.
  • 1930 Parliamentary Select Committee recommends suspension of the death penalty for a trial period of five years. Not adopted.
  • 1931 Execution of pregnant women prohibited.
  • 1932 Capital punishment for people under 18 years of age abolished.
  • 1938 Free vote of House of Commons in favour of abolition of capital punishment. Not acted upon.
  • 1948 Sydney Silverman’s motion for abolition carried in the House of Commons but heavily defeated in the Lords.
  • 1953 All the principal recommendations of the Royal Commission under Sir Ernest Gowers rejected.
  • 1956 A Commons motion in favour of abolition approved. Sydney Silverman’s Bill given a second and third reading but rejected in the Lords.
  • 1957 Homicide Act 1957 divides murder into capital and non-capital offences. Introduces defence of diminished responsibility and abolishes constructive malice.
  • 1965 Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 becomes law. Death penalty suspended for five years.
  • 1969 Death penalty for murder totally abolished by both Houses of Parliament.


Former prime minister Lord Callaghan makes the following remarks in Hanging in the Balance:

‘The undoubted hero of the campaign was Sydney Silverman MP -small in stature, uptilted head, erect carriage, a quick pattering footstep and a prominent pointed beard which was almost a weapon in itself. In the Commons he always perched himself (perched is the word) on the corner seat just below the gangway adjoining the Government Front Bench, his feet hardly touching the ground. From that advantageous position he was always ready to jump to his feet at any moment. He was fearless in the face of hostility, of which there was plenty, and coupled this with great skill as a Parliamentarian and with considerable legal knowledge and practical experience, brought from his profession as a solicitor. He carried a formidable armoury that convinced many of us just back from the war in the late 1940s that hanging should go. I cannot say that until then, hanging had impinged on my thinking, and it was only when I reached Parliament in 1945 and was confronted by the need to take a position, that I concluded that hanging should be abolished. In the debates of 1948, I voted for abolition for the first time and after that decision, did so steadily thereafter, whenever the issue came before the House.’

Lord Callaghan also indicates that ‘. . . it should not be forgotten that there are men who would have been hanged although they are innocent, but who are alive today because the law was changed. Members of Parliament show themselves to be only too aware of this and it is not surprising that whenever a proposal to reinstate hanging comes before Parliament, it has been rejected on every occasion by a large majority.’ Capital punishment is in fact now unlikely ever to be reintroduced due to international obligations, the UK having ratified the Sixth Protocol to the European Convention On Human Rights which prohibits this form of punishment within the European Union.

Hanging in the Balance is also an ideal companion to Capital Punishment: Global Issues and Prospects which surveys capital punishment worldwide. Together, these two books provide a wealth of information for lawyers, politicians, researchers, reform groups and members of the public.


‘A masterwork’: Justice of the Peace

Additional information

Weight390 g
Dimensions229 × 153 × 16 mm

Foreword author

Lord Callaghan


Waterside Press




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Place of origin

United Kingdom

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