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Commemoration of UK's last hangings in North West

HMP Manchester, formerly known as Strangeways Jail. Photo: Press Association

At the stroke of 8am 50 years ago this week, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen had their cell doors thrown open, their arms strapped behind their backs, and were escorted the 12 paces to the gallows.

With a quick flick of the wrist the executioner pulled the lever and the trapdoors opened, plunging the two convicted murderers to their deaths.

In separate prisons in Manchester and Liverpool, 36 miles apart, the two men secured the dubious joint honour of being the last people executed in Britain.

HMP Liverpool, formerly known as Walton Jail. Credit: PA Images

They had both been hanged for the murder of John West, a 53 year-old van driver, who died in a bloody heap at his home after being bludgeoned with an iron bar.

But while their deaths on August 13, 1964 secured their place in history books, they went almost unnoticed at the time.

Family and friends were banned from the execution, and their final moments were watched by just a handful of prison officials.

There was barely a mention of them in the newspapers - just a couple of lines in The Times and The Daily Mirror.

Anti-death penalty sentiment may have been on the rise, but these two executions did not spark a public outcry.

There was no all-night vigil by abolitionists as there had been for other prisoners condemned to death for their crimes.

Insofar as a murder and execution can be, this was run-of-the-mill stuff.

Steve Fielding, a criminologist and author of more than 20 books on hangmen and executions, said: "It was probably just bad luck that these two men went to the gallows. It wasn't a particularly gruesome case.

"In this murder, the men just needed money. But they ended up paying with their lives.

"There was barely a mention of them in the papers. The murder took place in Preston and it didn't even get coverage down the road in the Bolton newspaper."

The pair had murdered John West, known to his friends as Jack, just a few months before on April 7.

They had travelled to his home in Cumbria the night before in a stolen car with Allen's wife, two children and a stray lamb they had picked up along the way.

Allen and Evans planned to rob the bachelor. Once at his home it is believed they agreed to perform a sex act on Mr West for cash, but then killed him. His semi-naked body was found in a pool of blood at the foot of his stairs.

But their crime was quickly exposed. A neighbour was woken up by a suspicious noise in Mr West's house and looked out to see a car disappearing down the street. Meanwhile Evans made the fatal mistake of leaving his raincoat at the scene.

It only took a matter of days for police to track down and arrest the killers.

Just as their capture was quick, so too was their trial, conviction and execution.

They were found guilty in June, had their appeals rejected on July 21 and were hanged three weeks later.

Evans was taken to the gallows by Harry Allen, one-time apprentice to Britain's most notorious executioner Albert Pierrepoint, who oversaw some 400 deaths, while Allen was executed by Robert 'Jock' Stewart.

Little is known about what went through the killers' minds after they were handed a death sentence - just a few words.

Mr Fielding said: "Peter Allen, when he had his last meeting with his wife, he banged his hand on the glass panel with such force that he broke his wrist.

"And when he was walked up to the trapdoors he said 'Jesus'. He didn't have time to do anything else. It was all over in a matter of seconds."

Yet it is likely the two men would have hoped, even believed, they would be spared their sentence.

A string of controversial and high-profile executions had sparked public outrage against the penalty, and by 1964 around half of all convicts sentenced to death were given reprieves.

This was not enough to save Allen and Evans, but they were the last to make the lonely walk to the gallows.

Britain was in the midst of the 'swinging sixties' - the era of flower power, and increasingly liberal attitudes.

The death penalty for murder was suspended in 1965 and abolished in 1969 following an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons which was greeted with loud cheers from the gallery.

Mr Fielding said: "We were heading towards a more liberal society, and the death penalty seemed outdated.

"We had gone through the war and are getting towards a less brutal society. And the Labour government came into power on the promise they would abolish the death penalty."

Fifty years after Britain's last hangings, the death penalty remains a hotly debated topic.

The botched execution of Joseph Wood in Arizona last month, who was given a lethal injection but remained alive for nearly two hours gasping and snorting, provoked widespread revulsion and renewed calls for its abolition in America - one of the final Western powers which still has it on its books.

Yet walk into a pub in Britain and it is not hard to find someone who thinks the death penalty should be brought back.

Many see it as the only true deterrent and fitting punishment for child killers and other violent criminals.

Internet petitions demanding its restoration attract tens of thousands of signatures, and it routinely rates high in opinion polls.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of capital punishment, one thing can be said with some certainty.

When they took their final breaths, Evans and Allen would have not known their deaths would spark such interest five decades later.