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The story of the Lancs men who were the last hanged for murder

Written by on July 5, 2020

In 1964, in two separate northern prisons, miles apart, two men swung from the gallows.

Just two years before England won the World Cup, two years after The Beatles formed and the same year The Rolling Stone’s single Heart of Stone was released, two men, living and working in Preston, were put to death.

Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Allen were the last men put to death in England. In amongst an emerging and modern Britain, they were the last dregs of the past penal system that had condemned thousands of of people to die for their crimes.

Just 15 months later the death penalty in England was suspended for all crimes bar high treason and within four years it was fully abolished.

This is the story of the last hangings in Britain, and the two men who committed a horrific murder.

The life of John Robson Walby

John Robson Walby (later known as Gwynne Owen Evans) was a perpetual liar and fickle handed thief. The ginger haired man would later become known as Sandy or Ginger but he also took on a number of other aliases as he tried to avoid divulging his previous criminal escapades.

Born at Maryport in Cumberland in April, 1940, John was the third, and eldest surviving, child of Thomas and Hannah Walby. He seemed normal on the outside, being raised with strong Catholic beliefs, attending the boy scouts and taking part in a church choir.

But from an early age it was clear that John had some kind of psychotic streak coupled with severe mental health defects that blurred the line between right and wrong. It is reported that he occasionally attended the Dovenby Hall Colony for ‘Mental Defectives’ in Cockermouth during his teenage years, before he was even 15.

Mental Colonies weren’t so much to help and aid people who were disabled or mentally ill but to keep them separated from the rest of society. They were essentially independent communities of ‘defectives’ with their own accommodation, shops, markets and more.

The Dovenby Hall Colony for ‘Mental Defectives’ in Cockermouth.

These colonies came into vogue between the world wars and were, shockingly, in use until the 1990s. Although a more prominent care in the community system for the physically disabled emerged after the Second World War, society’s view of those with learning difficulties was still primitive.

People were categorised, at the bottom were ‘idiots’ considered completely disabled, then there were ‘imbeciles’ (who were considered ‘medium grade’). Then there were ‘feeble minded’ people who were considered to be mildly disabled but able to support themselves to some extent and, finally, you had ‘moral defectives’ who were unable to distinguish right from wrong, these were considered a danger to the community.

Based on later reports from the medical examiners at Durham Prison, it seems that Walby was considered to be a ‘moral defective’ rather than disabled.

He had been sent to the colony for help because he was “untrustworthy, lacked moral sense, was untruthful, and inclined to steal.” He later proved to be a bit of a fantasist who lied and made up strange stories about his background. While on trial for murder in 1964, he would tell the court his parents were German and that he was Welsh. His mother confirmed that he had actually been brought up in Cumbria to English parents who were devout Christians.

Senior medical officer, P.J Waddington, who examined John while he was in prison, wrote that John consistently told ‘prestige lies’ to enhance his standings.

On leaving school at 15, Walby worked as a page boy at a hotel in Carlisle and an engine cleaner for British Railways, in between periods of unemployment.

In 1957, aged 17, he was given a supervision order and ordered to stay in a hostel down in Bristol. That same year he tried, unsuccessfully, to join the army.

His discharge gave a greater insight into his mental state. The Border Regiment expelled him  in March 1958 because he was “unfit under existing standards”. He was sent to a doctor while in the regiment who wrote: ‘this soldier was sent to me by his training wing officer, on account of his frequent telling of big lies which he apparently believed himself’.

John enlisted again in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in November that same year but was, once again, discharged in February 1959 on the grounds of “personality inadequacy.”

His commanding officer at the Fusiliers said: “He is a failure. He cannot make friends because of feeling superior and telling complete fairy tales all the time.”

Walby stopped using his birth name at this time and took on the alias of Owen Evans. He worked for the British Railways once again and was then accepted by the Royal Air Force in July 1959. He was discharged in November because he was “physically unfit for Air Force service” and on the grounds of “nervous instability.”

Now going under the name Owen, the man who had tried so hard to be a soldier returned to Cumbria and worked many short term roles in Workington.

In September 1960, he began working at Lakeland Laundry. It was here that he got to know a man called John ‘Jack’ West.

Owen continued with a number of small short term jobs. On April 5, 1963, while using his final alias, Gwynne Owen Evans, he was convicted by Carlisle magistrates of larceny of five shillings cash, as well as obtaining 16 shillings cash and a railway ticket by false pretences.

From here on out, the man born as John Walby began using the name Gwynne Owen Evans instead and so we shall refer to him as Evans.

In the following month Evans was given three months’ imprisonment at Dudley for driving a motor vehicle without a licence, and using a driving licence with intent to deceive.

In 1963, he signed up to the Army for the final time. Evans enlisted into the Lancastrian Brigade. He was gone within a month because he had failed to disclose his criminal convictions. 

It was then that he moved down to Preston.

Preston: Gwynne meets Peter Anthony Allen

At the back end of 1963, Evans moved to Preston where he lodged with one Peter Anthony Allen and his wife.

Peter Anthony Allen was born in Cheshire, on April 4 1943. Allen appeared to live a mirror life to Gwynne. A child of the 40s he also left school at 15 and found it hard to hold down a job. Within a month of leaving school he gained and lost two jobs for being careless and was later employed for three months as a pipe cleaner.

Like Evans, Allen decided to join the army. On July 10, 1958 he enlisted as a junior gunner in the Junior Leaders Regiment of the Royal Artillery, serving for 11 months before being discharged in 1959. He was no longer needed in the regiment and was given a good reference.

For two years after leaving the army, Allen worked for two trucking companies. He lost the latter job in October 1961 because he was given a promotion and was unable to handle the responsibility. During his time at the trucking company Allen was convicted of stealing a car but he was given a conditional discharge.

On November 11, 1961, Allen married Mary, a cinema usherette. The couple had a Catholic wedding, and moved to Manchester. Later that month he found employment at a scrap dealer but was dismissed in April 1962 for being constantly late. Six months’ work in a dairy was followed by six months in a steel works.

Allen (left) saw his propensity for crime increase once he met Evans (right).

Allen’s patchwork of odd jobs continued in April 1963 when he moved to Preston. He found a job as a labourer with an agricultural trading society but after two months he injured his back and was unable to work.

When Evans arrived to live with Allen he joined him at the agricultural job. But by January 1964, when Allen had been dismissed, the duo began committing crimes together.

The two were peas in a pod, unable to hold down a job, keen on the army but unsuited to the military life and no stranger to stealing. It seems that Evans preyed and accentuated Allen’s negative traits towards larceny, encouraging him to commit more and more crimes. 

On January 21, 1964 the crime partners removed the lead flashing from an empty house and a week later they broke open a cigarette machine and stole the contents. Their petty thefts turned a little more serious as the time went on.

The two stole a car and a van, using them in burglaries across several other premises. An incompetent attempt to cover up the van’s registration number led to their arrest and to fines of £10. In February and March the two were employed by a dairy but they were both  fired soon after for not turning up to work on time.

Evans and Allen were broke, without a job and facing a £10 fine. They now had a streak of criminal records, little education and a serious black mark against their names.

They needed money to pay their fine and quick.

The bachelor on Kings Avenue

John West was 53 in 1964. Known to his friends as Jack, he was a bachelor living alone at 28, Kings Avenue in Workington, Cumberland.

For a single man, Workington was an odd place to live. The Liverpool Echo had rather scathing reports of the place saying it was ‘seedy’ that visitors to the Lake District gave it a ‘wide berth’ and even going so far as to call it ‘decayed’.

The town had one pub in 1964, accompanied by a steel works and a smattering of coal mines. It was a desolate, dead end place to be but it seems that Jack was happy there.

He was part of the darts team at the pub, he was a frequent drinker in that same public house and he was keen on gardening and cars, owning a grey and cream Austin Westminster Saloon. He had worked the same job for 34 years as a driver at the Lakeland Laundry in Workington and had even received a 17-karat gold watch from the company in 1955 for the longevity of his service to them.

Number 28 Kings Avenue, in Workington.

In short, Jack was a complete contrast to Evans and Allen, calm, quiet, hardworking and steady he epitomised everything they weren’t.  But he was also an odd figure.

He was an odd figure, to live alone in his 50s without a wife or family, in fact there is some suggestion that he was homosexual (being gay was still illegal in Britain at the time).

Jack had met Evans (then going under the alias Owen Evans and not Gwynne Owen Evans) at Lakeland Laundry when he worked there for a brief spell in 1960. They kept up some kind of relationship and it has even been suggested that the two were secretly together.

Whether that was true or not, knowing Evans would become a fatal mistake for the bachelor on Kings Avenue.

A robbery gone wrong

On the evening of Monday the April 6, 1964, Allen and Gwynne stole a Ford Prefect car registered NXC 771 from outside a pub in Preston, intending to use the vehicle to drive to Cumbria. Both men were in desperate need of money to pay off the fine levelled at them after their last misdemeanour.

They both owed £10, just over £200 in today’s money, to the courts and neither of them had jobs. It is possible that Gwynne remembered the kind older man that he worked with back in Cumbria, as he and Allen set off on their journey. The steady, quiet man at Lakeland Laundry who wore the expensive gold watch, valued at £25, was an attractive option for a robbery.

Mary Allen and her two children accompanied Gwynne and Allen, went for the ride but stayed in the car asleep, during the visit.

At 1.10am in the morning of Tuesday, April 7, they arrived in Workington, Mary and her two children were left sleeping in the car while Gwynne approached number 28 Kings Avenue.

He was welcomed in and even offered refreshments by Jack, fuelling the rumours that there had been, or still was, some relationship between the two.

The blood spattered wall of 28 Kings Avenue.

Later Gwynne told police that Jack had propositioned him by inviting him up to his bedroom. Gwynne also told police that he refused and that he had asked to borrow £100. It would later become apparent that reality and fantasy were very much one and the same for Gwynne.

Around 3am Jack’s neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Fawcett, were woken by a commotion and thuds coming from the other half of the house. Mr Fawcett looked out of his bedroom window in time to see a car driving away. 

The police were called to the house.

Sergeant James Park of Lancashire Constabulary later told the Liverpool Echo: “I saw the body of a man lying on the floor at the foot of the stairs. There was a large amount of blood on the floor, and the man was obviously dead.”

The police were a little baffled. It was clear that no one had broken into Jack’s house and, according to his neighbour, he was the only person so have access to spare keys. Jack had let the assailants in.

The police immediately set up road blocks to get a hold of the situation and began a murder enquiry. 

It transpired that Jack had suffered a pretty brutal death, battered about the head with a metal pipe and stabbed through the heart. The chief superintendent told the Liverpool Echo that the scene resembled a ‘bloodbath’.

Jack West was stabbed in the heart.

Dr J. S. Faulds, the Carlisle pathologist, who examined the 53-year-old’s lifeless body found thirteen individual injuries, including serious head wounds.  There were six grazes to the face and upper body as well as six bruises and various brain contusions.  There was also a stab wound on the left side of the chest, which had pierced the left ventricle of his heart.

The doctor concluded: “In my opinion death resulted from hemorrhage and shock, caused by a stab wound to the heart and multiple head injuries.”

Police were also quick to discover one more thing. Jack was a man of means, he was not just in possession of an expensive watch but he had inherited a great deal of money from his late sister and mother (who had died just nine months before). His bank books and his gold watch were also missing, meaning that the thieves could withdraw money from his accounts.

The police had found a motive and, upon inspecting Jack’s bedroom, they found something else; a massive clue.

A raincoat in April

The man hunt for Jack’s killers was sort and sharp.

Police found a discarded raincoat in the bachelor’s bedroom, it was not the right size to fit the 53-year-old and, upon searching the pockets, police found a medallion inscribed with the words: G. O. Evans, July 1961. Also found, was a piece of paper with the name Nora O’Brien and an address in Liverpool written on it.

Officers were rapid in tracking down Nora, who was just 17. The teenager told police that the medallion belonged to a man known as Ginger who she had met in Preston the previous year. She also provided police with an address.

By April 9 newspapers across England were already reporting that two men had been arrested and charged in connection to the murder of Jack West.

Allen and Evans had used the 53-year-old’s bank books to withdraw £10 in Liverpool before returning to Preston.

The car they had stolen to drive to Workington was found in amongst a building site in Ormskirk, Evans had even asked a neighbour if he could park the car there. That neighbour later reported his actions as being ‘suspicious’ to the police. The car was found to be covered in fingerprints belonging to both Allen and Evans. 

John West, known as Jack to his friends.

Police arrested Evans while he was in Phillips Park Road, Manchester, with Allen’s wife and two children, the youngest was just nine months old. When officers searched Allen they found a gold watch in his pocket engraved J. A. West.  It had been presented to Mr. West as a 25 year service award by the laundry.  Evans claimed to have bought it earlier in the day.

Police turned up to Allen’s Clarendon Road address looking for Evans but ended up taking Allen to Preston Police station and then onto Workington where the police murder squad were based. In questioning Allen claimed to have been home with his wife and “Sandy Evans” on the night of the murder.

There was little honour amongst thieves when it came to Allen and Evans.

Allen cracked first after hearing that police had brought his wife into custody. He explaining to police that Evans had suggested robbing Jack, and had initially gone into the bachelor’s house on his own. Evans had then let Allen in, hoping that Jack would not notice his partner sneaking about the house, but Jack had come downstairs and discovered Allen, leading to a fight.

Allen claimed that Evans had given him an iron bar which he used to hit Jack.

Evans took a different tact.

His police interrogation was just the beginning of his wild lies. Evans played the honest and innocent man, telling officers he had gone to Workington to borrow money because Jack had made it clear that he would always loan him cash if he was short.

He then claimed that Allen had turned his attempts to secure a loan into a failed robbery, attacking Jack, although he did admit to stealing the watch.

Evans threw the knife, used to kill Jack West, in Lake Windermere.

Evans said: “I went into the hall and I saw Peter hitting Jack with something that looked like a pipe, he had him up against the wall and there was a a lot of blood.”

Evans continued to put his foot in it, spontaneously mentioning that he knew nothing about a knife and did not have one even though the police had not yet revealed anything about Jack’s injuries. A knife was later retrieved from Lake Windemere, covered in Jack’s blood.

At 1.15am on Thursday April, 9, a mere 36 hours after Jack was killed, both Evans and Allen were charged with wilful murder.

Trial, sentence and execution

Allen and Evans both pleaded not guilty at their initial trial at Workington Magistrates before it was transferred to Manchester Assizes.

Both were facing charges of wilful murder and robbery and both men blamed the other, acting as though they played minor roles in Jack’s death.

The trial began on July 1 and lasted just seven days but it was a case fuelled with drama.

Allen had more evidence stacked against him, police had discovered bloodied clothes from the night of the attack belonging to Allen while Evans had grounds to plead diminished responsibility which would certainly see him escape the death penalty.

Evans proved himself to be a flamboyant liar in court. He spoke in a Welsh accent, even though he was from Cumbria, and told the court that he had adopted a Welsh name because he had discovered his parents were both German and born in Innsbruck. He held no real logic to his words and he appeared to continue creating stories and half truths about himself.

The story made headlines across England.

As expected, Evan’s plea for diminished responsibility didn’t hold up and Allen’s lawyers were also able to prove that he had engaged in sexual activity with Jack, making his motive for the crime stronger and diminishing his character in the eyes of the jury (remember homosexuality was still illegal at the time).

The key witness to the whole escaped was Mary Allen. In July the Liverpool Echo court reported Mary telling the judge that she ‘hated’ Evans even tough Evan’s lawyers were able to prove that her and Evan’s had formed a romantic relationship, with Mary sending Evan’s love letters while he was awaiting trial in Durham prison. It seems Evan’s hold extended to both of Mr and Mrs Allen.

But Mary would proceed to fully back up her husband’s version of events.

She said that Evans had let Allen into Jack’s house, and that both men had been responsible for attacking him. She also testified that Evans had thrown the knife used to stab the 53-year-old in the heart, out of the window of the car at Windermere, and that Evans had made an incriminatory remark apparently referring to stabbing West.

The jury deliberated for three hours on July 7 but could not decided if one man or the other had struck the killing blow on Jack.

Eventually both men were found guilty and given the death sentence.

Both men appealed but were denied, Lord Parker, who was part of the appeal hearing, remarked: “a more brutal murder it would be hard to imagine.” An execution date was set for August.

Executions in Britain had slowed down of late, there had been no executions in Lancashire throughout 1964 until that point and only two the year before. Britain had half abolished capital punishment in 1957 by stating that criminals could only be put to death if they had committed murder combined with another crime while Reprieves were becoming more commonplace.

But no reprieve came for the deadly duo who had killed Jack West.

Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged by executioner Harry Allen at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison at 8am on August 13. Peter Allen was hanged at Liverpool’s Walton Prison by Robert Leslie Stewart at the same time.

They were the last men sentenced to death in Britain. On the day of their execution, The Herald wrote on the front page of their paper: “Let These Hangings Be The Last.”

“Peter Anthony Allen, aged 21, and Gwynne Owen Evans, aged 24, may be dead already as you read these words,” The Herald continued.

“Let us hope that August 13, 1964, can go down in history as the last date when the public conscience was tormented by the gallows.”

A miscarriage?

Evans was certainly a crooked and strange individual. He had a streak but there is now doubt that today he would have been consigned to mental institution and been found guilty through diminished responsiblity.

The evidence for his mental illness and lack of clarity in right and wrong was overwhelmingly clear.

Three doctors had agreed that Evans suffered mental impairment before his trial started and a rather chilling letter was sent to Evan’s defence team from the the father of a girl Evans had been seeing.

The man, a Mr Hampton had put an end to Evans’ relationship with his daughter because he had been so concerned about the man’s immaturity. According to Mr Hampton he was “completely childish in everything he did, he would make toys that a child would make and play with them for hours before pulling them to pieces.”

Evans continued to lie in court, making up odd stories and was even reported to boast and lie while in prison, trying to seem bigger and better than he was. By today’s standards we would see that Evans was not mentally fit to be tried as he was.

Soon after the murder of Jack West, captial punishment was suspended in Britain.

In 1969 that suspension was made permanent.