Death penalty abolished

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Death penalty abolished

The 18th of December 1969 AD

In Britain the death penalty was at one time pronounced for crimes which even the staunchest hang 'em and flog 'em advocate would find it tough to justify. And not just for adults. Legend has it that in 1708 King's Lynn witnessed the hanging of seven-year-old Michael Hammond for stealing a loaf of bread. He was executed along with his eleven-year-old sister.
Gradually the crimes for which the death penalty could be imposed were whittled away. For example in 1832 shoplifting goods valued at less than five shillings (25p) was removed from the list; it was only in 1908 that children under 16 were exempt from the death penalty. And finally in 1969 Britain (but not Northern Ireland) abandoned hanging as a possible sentence for murder.
The great driving force behind abolition of the death penalty was the Labour MP Sydney Silverman. He had introduced such a motion in the Commons, and won by a substantial margin, in 1948, but saw it shot down in the Lords. In 1956 he saw the same thing happen again. Eventually he won the day, partly by the tactic of his Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965 actually only suspending the death penalty for five years.
But in 1969, with Jim Callaghan at the Home Office, the death penalty for murder was abolished in accordance with a motion proposed by him. On December 18 the Commons voted overwhelmingly in favour of the motion, followed shortly by the agreement of the Lords.
Interestingly this did not in fact end the death penalty in Britain, as various crimes - treason, piracy with violence and certain serious crimes of military discipline such as mutiny - were in theory punishable by death until 1998.

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