A Death on Longley Crescent Sheffield 1953

The Sheffield Telegraph dated Friday 16th October 1953 gave the following report its front page.

Man Taken To Hospital

SON DEAD IN GAS-FILLED ROOM

A Sheffield father and his son were yesterday found in a gas filled room in their home at 5, Longley Crescent, Sheffield.

The son, John Hall, a 24-year-old bachelor was dead and his father, Charles Hall, a 64 year-old retired widower was suffering from the effects of coal gas poisoning. They lived alone.

The father was admitted to the City General Hospital was his condition last night was said to be "comfortable". A policeman waited by his bedside.

Mrs. Olive Mayhew who lives next door to the Halls at No. 7 said last night that she had not seen them since Wednesday afternoon and was worried.

She knocked on the door and got no reply. She asked a neighbour to call the police who later broke into the house.

 

 

The house on Longley Crescent where Charles and John Hall lived - 1953 (photo April 2004) 

The death, on the face of it, would seem like a tragic domestic accident but a closer examination of the article pointed to something far more graver. "A policeman waited by his bedside" seems to indicate something more than an accident. No indication is given as to why the police are in attendance but a second article six weeks later reveals all.  

The Sheffield Telegraph dated Tuesday 24th November 1953 reports on page 2

FATHER IS SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR KILLING IMBECILE SON

PLEADED GUILTY, WILL RELY ON MERCY OF CROWN

Charles Hall, aged 65, a retired steelworker and widower of Longley Crescent Longley Estate Sheffield was sentenced to death at Leeds Assizes yesterday after pleading "Guilty" to murdering his 24 year-old son John, who was an imbecile.

The son was found dead in a gas filled room at his home on October 15.   

The proceedings only lasted five minutes. Hall appeared in the dock wearing a hearing aid.

After Hall's plea, Mr. Justice sable asked Mr. J.F. Drabble Q.C. defending "Have you fully explained to him the implications of the course he has taken"

Devoted Care 

Mr. Drabble replied that he had, and that Hall had fully understood the consequences. The course Hall had taken had caused extreme anxiety to those who advised him.

The son he had killed had been an imbecile from birth.. He was unable to talk properly and was unable to attend to his most elementary needs   

Hall and his wife had given devoted attention to the boy until his wife died  four years ago from cancer. Since then Hall had given the same devoted attention to his son until the strain of it resulted in a breakdown in his health.

He believed the , he himself, was suffering from cancer, despite repeated assurances form doctors that it was not so.

At the age of 65, Hall found himself quite unable to render to his son the service he had rendered for 24 years.

In a fit of depression he though that the only way he could solve this apparently insoluble problem was that he and his son should die together. His son died and he nearly died too.

Two Photographs 

Counsel said that it was fair to say that it was extremely difficult to find an answer to the charge but it was Hall's desire that he should answer honestly the charge put to him.

Mr. Drabble said that there were two photographs of the son that he would  like forwarded to the minister.

The Judge: You wish the photographs and additional evidence which is not on the depositions to go to the appropriate Minister - Yes

Turning to Mr. J. Basil Herbert Q.C. prosecuting the Judge said " On the information available to the Crown, do you know of any reason why I should not accept the plea?"  Mr. Herbert replied "Not that I know of. "

The Judge: "He is fully rational and fully aware of the course he has taken"Mr Herbert: "It seems to be so"

Sentence of death was then passed and after Hall had been led from the dock, the judge said to Mr. Drabble " Under the circumstances, I think it was a perfectly proper course to take" 

Using present day standards this would seem a perversion of justice to say the least. Charles Hall received the same penalty as John Reginald Christie the multiple murderer of 10 Rillington Place who was tried in the same year. Charles Hall was  for many years "devoted" and "attentive" to his son John who would have had a mental age of between three and seven years of age - John would have been severely limited in all his activities. Christie on the other hand had murdered at least seven women and had watched an innocent man Timothy Evans hang for crimes he had committed. However under English Law Justice Sable had no other option but than to pass the sentence of death on Charles Hall. A verdict of murder attracted the imposition of a mandatory death sentence.

It is now that the whole process becomes distasteful and is in many respects is a lottery. After passing sentence, Mr Justice Sable  "

"was able to make a recommendation to the Home Secretary as to whether it should be carried out. It is said that where he recommended mercy it was rarely ignored by the Home Office. In evidence to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1949 - 1953), it was stated that there were only six occasions between 1900 and 1949 when the judge's recommendation to mercy was overruled.
It was not at all unusual for the jury to add a recommendation to mercy to their guilty verdict but this was, in reality, completely irrelevant to the final outcome.

Prisoners had the right of appeal after 1907 and their appeal process ran in parallel to the Home Office process, outlined below. If they won their appeal their murder conviction was quashed. They were either freed or had their conviction reduced to a lesser offence. They were not able to appeal against the death sentence itself, only the conviction for murder that had led to it.

The Home Office received the case papers after the trial, together with the recommendation of the judge. Its officials began to prepare a report for consideration by the Permanent Secretary and the Home Secretary. It was normal for the prisoner to be examined by a panel of three Home Office psychiatrists to determine if they were legally sane and competent to be hanged. This psychiatric report was also sent to the Permanent Secretary and considered along with the rest of the case papers. We can only surmise how decisions were reached in individual cases and what advice was given to the Home Secretary, as the reasons for reprieving or not reprieving a prisoner were always kept secret. We can again only surmise as to the criteria Home Office officials used in making their decisions. It would seem that poisoning or the use of a gun were seen as an aggravating factors, as were loose sexual morals in the case of female prisoners. Age could be a mitigating factor, especially in the case of females. Physical injury or disability were also mitigating factors where they might lead to problems with the execution. Any sign of mental illness after sentence had been passed was usually a reason for reprieve. If there was to be no reprieve the Home Secretary would write "the law must take its course" on the file and the execution would then proceed otherwise the Home Secretary would exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy on behalf of the monarch." 

Charles Hall's fate had in effect been placed in the hands of civil servants and politicians, groups that traditionally seem uneasy with the terms "truth" "justice" and  "compassion". The other side of the coin is admirably summarised on the Capital Punishment UK Website

".. from the point of view of the ordinary member of the public who read a newspaper every day or listened carefully to the news on the wireless. They would know of a trial for murder (they were much shorter then and much more fully reported) and hear of the guilty verdict and the death sentence. And yet time and time again they would hear of a reprieve. What message did this send? A system in chaos, or that couldn't make its mind up? Or a situation in which the penalty for murder probably wouldn't really be death? The public's perception is, in reality, far more important than the actual and often well hidden facts. If the death penalty is supposed to deter it must be seen to be carried out in all those instances where the crime warrants it, save in the most exceptional circumstances. Where there were genuine reasons for a reprieve these should have been clearly stated by the Home Office so that the ordinary person could have understood them. This was not the case and the reasons for reprieving or not reprieving were Official Secrets.

The whole process took a further twist when four days after the trial another article appeared which updated the public on the current state of the appeal. Apparently the civil servants and politicians were more interested in setting the date and place for the execution rather than dealing sympathetically with a man who must have gone through and still be going through Hell.  

The Sheffield Telegraph dated Friday 27th November 1953 reported on page 3

3,000 Sign Clemency Petition

Date Set For Execution

Well over 3,000 signatures have been collected for a petition asking for clemency on behalf of Charles Hall, a 65 year-old retired steel worker of Longley Crescent Sheffield, sentenced to death for murdering his imbecile son.

An additional 1,300 signatures came in from a big Sheffield works last night. The petition will be sent to the Home Secretary today

"Public Opinion"

The Rev Howard T Hall, Vicar of St Leonard's who is organizing the petition told the "Sheffield Telegraph" last night that he had advised the Home Secretary of the petition and in his letter had commented on the strong flow of public opinion about the matter. " An adequate demonstration of public opinion had been presented" said Mr. Hall " No further purpose would be served by going on multiplying signatures"

A "Mr. X" who is tied down by illness has been gaining sympathizers for Charles Hall by the extensive use of the telephone.

The execution of Hall who pleaded "Guilty" at Leeds Assizes on Monday to the murder of his 24 year-old imbecile son has been provisionally fixed for December 15 at Durham Prison. The son was found in a gas filled room at his home on October 15.      

 

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury dated 2nd December 1953 finally gave the news that should have been given days earlier

Charles Hall was reprieved from the "ultimate penalty". I can only assume that the sentence was commuted to that of life imprisonment. Up to 1957 the jury were allowed three possible verdicts: guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter (against tightly defined rules) or not guilty. In many instances only the first verdict was possible and in Charles Hall's case he was deemed by the Crown to be a murderer. The verdict was a travesty but under the system that prevailed at the time there was simply no other option available. The other astounding fact of the case is the speed with which it was done. John Hall died on 15th October and exactly two months later his father was due to be executed. The alacrity with which the Crown pursued the case seems rather perverse to say the least.  

Initially I did not know what actually happened to Charles after his reprieve. I assumed that Charles died in goal. The life sentences that reprieved murderers served varied immensely. An average of between 12 and 14 years would have meant that Charles would have been nearly 80 before he was released - a punishment that did not by any means fit the crime.   However I was very surprised to discover a small article in The Times dated November 24th 1954 (issue No 53097 - page 4). It stated that

"Charles Hall, aged 66, steel smelter of Longley Crescent, Sheffield has been released from prison. Nearly a year ago he was reprieved after being sentenced to death for the murder of his imbecile son."

And so in Britain in the 1950's, you could be sentenced to death and in less than 12 months be out walking the streets again even when you have pleaded guilty to the crime. Of course Charles Hall should never have been charged with murder in the first place but he was, and when he was found guilty, the judge HAD to don the black cap.  

His son John is buried in Sheffield's City Road Cemetery

Hall, John (Invalid, age 25) Died at 5 Longley Crescent; Buried on October 22, 1953 in Consecrated ground; Grave Number 20878, Section C6 of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Shaw, Edith (wife of Charles, age 42).Died at 12 Herries Rd; Buried on February 13, 1935 in Consecrated ground; Grave Number 20878, Section C6 of City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Notes

1. England and Wales - In the period 1900 - 1966 where where the death sentence could still be passed, 1485 people were sentenced to be hanged by civil courts for murder and 755 were actually executed. The remainder, effectively half of all these, were reprieved (49.2% in total). 1340 men were to hear the dread words of the death sentence and 741 of them were subsequently hanged, equating to 55.3%. In the case of women, 145 were sentenced to death but only 14 hanged. A reprieve rate of just over 90%.

Sources

The Sheffield Telegraph dated Friday 27th November 1953 page 3

Capital Punishment UK Website  

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury dated 2nd December 1953

The Times dated November 24th 1954 (issue No 53097 - page 4)

Executioner Pierrepoint - Albert Pierrepoint 

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