RUTH ELLIS: THE LAST TO HANG
Life needs to be taken by the lapels and told:
'I'm with you kid. Let's go.' Maya Angelou.
Ruth was born on October 9, 1926, at 74 West Parade, a house in Rhyl, a seaside resort town on the northern coast of Wales. She was the third of six children to Arthur Hornby and his wife Elisaberta, who was also known as Bertha. Arthur was a talented musician. His wife, half French and half Belgian, had been raised by nuns and had fled Liege to seek safety when the Germans invaded her country during World War One. In a small boat she was brought to England, shoeless and wrapped in a blanket. With no qualifications or money, she had gone into service, until she met and married Arthur.
Ruth's birth certificate showed her as Ruth Neilson, which was her father's professional name. He travelled around the country seeking work, sometimes accompanied by his wife. There was little security in his chosen profession and he was often without a job. Their other daughter, Muriel, was regularly left to care for the rest of the family.
Ruth was myopic and had to wear glasses from an early age. She was an unremarkable child, pudgy and indistinguishable from the other children she socialised with. In those early days, there were no signs of the complex woman she would become, except even as an infant, she loved clothes and was very ambitious. Elisaberta would say of her daughter in later years, "She used to say to me, 'Mum, I'm going to make something out of my life.'"
Perhaps she would, had she not had the misfortune to spend her short life surrounded by men who either were drunks, self-absorbed charlatans, physically abusive misfits, or combinations of all three.
In 1933, Arthur Neilson found work with a band at Basingstoke in Hampshire and the family moved south. However, this position only lasted a few months and he was out of work until he found employment as a hall porter in a mental hospital. His musical career was over and his pride dented. He turned first to drink, and then to excessive drink. He became irascible and morose, taking out his failures and frustrations on his wife and daughters. Her father was the first of many drunken, desultory men who would come to haunt Ruth in the years ahead.
Eventually in 1939, Arthur's job at the mental hospital went out of the window as visitors and hospital staff became more and more antagonised by his churlish attitude. This was the year that saw the beginning of World War Two and Arthur started another job, this time as a caretaker in Reading, west of London.
By 1941, Ruth had left school and found work as a waitress in a café. Later that year, Arthur moved on yet again, this time finding himself a better job as a chauffeur with a company based in Southwark, just over the River Thames from the City of London. The job came with a two bedroom flat, and Ruth jumped at the chance of moving in with her father. She found herself a job, first with a munitions factory and then a food processing company.
She was almost sixteen and had grown to her full height of five-feet-two inches. She was making the most of her face and figure, and now bleaching her dark hair with peroxide, a vane proclivity that would last for the rest of her short life. Her fixation with being a brassy blonde was at least partially responsible for the poor impression she made when giving evidence in her trial and in no small way contributed to her downfall in Number One Court at the Old Bailey.
She was also near sighted, but refused to wear glasses. And so pretty, gay and confident, she embarked on a mission to fill her leisure hours with fun and excitement. Her nights were spent at local dancehalls, cafes and drinking clubs. Even as German aircraft bombed London, she was enjoying life to the fullest during those turbulent years, taking for granted the food shortages, men in uniforms everywhere, the black-outs and the exciting uncertainty of life itself.
Whenever anyone tried to reproach her because of her behaviour, she would respond, "Why not? A short life and a gay one." Her words were to prove ironically prophetic.
In March 1942, she became ill and was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. After two months in hospital, she was discharged, along with some medical advice that dancing would help strengthen her body and speed her recovery along. She threw herself into the dancing routine with great enthusiasm and, eventually as a result of this, found herself a job as a photographer's assistant at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End of London. There, at the age of seventeen, she met and fell in love with a French-Canadian soldier who was called Clare. After a brief affair, she became pregnant by him just after Christmas, 1944. Although he promised her the moon like most of the men who crossed her threshold, he delivered considerably less.
He was already married, with children back in Canada. One morning, a bunch of red roses and a letter were delivered to Ruth at 19 Farmers Road, Camberwell in South London, where she was living with her family. Clare was on his way back to Canada and she would never see him again.
Later in the year, Ruth travelled north to Gilsland, a pretty little village deep in the Northumbrian countryside. There, at a private nursing home, on September 15th, 1945, her child was born. A boy, he was christened Clare Andrea Neilson. Throughout his life he was always known as Andy.
Ruth returned to London and a mixed reception from her parents, but as usual, warmth and comfort from her elder sister, Muriel, who would act as a surrogate mother to the child in the years to come. Needing a job to support her son, Ruth applied for a position as a model at a Camera Club.
She was soon posing in the nude, while up to twenty men snapped away, expressing their artistic intellect, often through the lenses of empty cameras. After a busy day in the studio, some of these hot shot photographers would invite Ruth out for drinks, at one of the many clubs operating throughout the West End. In due course, at one of these clubs, she would meet a man who would nudge her a little closer to her final, fatal confrontation