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Violet Van der Elst: On the Gallows

Dying and the Dead module

Our final post in our series of blog posts from MA students turns our attention to another pioneering woman, Violet Van der Elst, in this piece from Joe.

By Joe Tollington, MA Student, University of Leeds

On the 16th April, 1935, a pristine black Rolls Royce pushed its way through a thick crowd assembled outside Wandsworth Prison, where the convicted murderer Percy Charles Anderson was to be hanged that morning. A woman named Violet Van der Elst, dressed in a mournful but luxurious black, emerged from the vehicle and began vociferously protesting the scheduled execution. She transmitted her voice over the humdrum of the masses through a loudspeaker, handed out hundreds of emotive leaflets and hired sandwich-board men to patrol with slogans denouncing capital punishment. She did not secure a reprieve for Anderson – a pin-up notice was placed on the prison gate confirming his fate – but created a spectacle that repudiated the rightfulness of his sentence and generated media interest in the nascent debates over the place of the death penalty in British law.

Violet Van der Elst driving through police barricades (On the Gallows, 1937)

This was just one episode in a career of activism covered in Van der Elst’s autobiographical 1937 book On the Gallows. Her campaigning would stretch in the 1950s. She was present for the infamous hanging of Ruth Ellis in 1955, but the height of her fame was achieved around the time of this publication. Whilst her name has since faded into relative historical obscurity – Lizzie Seal is one of the few scholars who has paid her any attention – On the Gallows presents the anecdotes and eccentric philosophies that propelled Van der Elst into the limelight and dozens of newspaper headlines. Most importantly, however, it is a source that sheds light on a neglected dimension of the abolitionist movement as well as the forms and approaches to protest in pre-war Britain.

As noted in the preface of the book, Van der Elst began her campaigning in memory of her husband, Jean Van der Elst, who was killed during the First World War. Prior to his death, the couple had nurtured a cosmetics business. Its success provided Violet Van der Elst with the resources to be constantly campaigning and protesting at every execution in Britain. She committed to this as the abolishment of capital punishment was a cause that had been important to her husband. In thinking about the study of death more broadly Van der Elst’s campaigning can therefore be perceived as not only a form of remembrance, but also a way of maintaining the relationship with her husband after death.

Van der Elst was portrayed as a peculiar, unconventional character by the press and she presents several ideas in On the Gallows with regards to murderers that are unscientific and outlandish. For example, she argues that all acts of murder are committed by insane individuals, and suggests in the first chapter that skull fragments from past injuries pierce the brain and cause acts of violence. The sympathy she shows towards the condemned criminals, as well as the eliding of their victims, can also make for uncomfortable reading. Nonetheless, Van der Elst proves more attuned to other causes of crime. Her analysis of the relationship between poverty and criminality is especially valuable. She recognises the desperate circumstances in which some crimes are committed, but also highlights the imbalances in the justice system, where the power of the state – often charged with the emotional voltage that surrounds homicide cases – was pitted against frequently penniless and uneducated defendants. In most histories of capital punishment debates, the focus has been concentrated on legal developments and wrangling, or the affairs and politicking of leading officials. Van der Elst’s On the Gallows is therefore a source that provides a contrasting perspective on these debates; one that instead forefronts the human and socioeconomic dimensions of criminal punishment.

On the Gallows also demonstrates that Van der Elst differed in her methods and ideas from other contemporary abolitionist campaigners. Although she forged strong relationships with some political figures, such as the left-wing backbench MP George Lansbury, she was far more interested in obtaining attention from the press. This can explain the increasing flamboyance in the performances Van der Elst would stage outside prison gates on many execution mornings, which came to include marching bands  and planes carrying banners that read ‘stop the death sentence’. As detailed with pictures in On the Gallows, she would also frequently provoke confrontations with attendant police officers, which led to Van der Elst being arrested on multiple occasions. This use of spectacle secured her coverage in local and national press, but also stirred the emotions of the crowd outside the prison. As Lizze Seal has argued, Van der Elst returned the drama to the execution scene, which had undergone a shift from a public spectacle to a private event (see Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for a theoretical perspective on this shift). Considering these direct action tactics deployed by Van der Elst, Seal places her as a protestor and reformer in a similar vein to the earlier suffragette activists.

Whilst Van der Elst largely campaigned alone, the abolitionist movement had grown and broadened in Britain significantly from the 1920s. The National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty (NCADP), led by Roy Calvert, was established in 1925. This organisation sought for abolition to be achieved through legal means and did produce a prolific amount of propaganda, although they did not engage in public protest. An abolitionist journal, The Penal Reformer, was also published from the mid-1930s. These groups received a boost in the form of the first Labour governments under Ramsay Macdonald in the 1920s, but despite sympathies in the government toward the abolitionist cause, little progress was made in this period. They also remained insular and did not seek to engage with the larger public as Van der Elst had. Instead of working with her, individuals like Roy Calvert derided Van der Elst for her exhibitionism and claimed she damaged the abolitionist movement with “futile emotion and sentiment” (Tuttle, 1961). Van der Elst cannot therefore be considered part of the mainstream abolitionist movement, but a fringe activist, determined to use her wealth to protest in a style that she believed was effective. She may have alienated other campaigners, but more importantly she captured significant public and media attention on an issue and a debate that had otherwise been largely contained to political circles in pre-war Britain.

Violet Van der Elst carried on protesting at executions in post-war Britain and lived to see the abolishment of capital punishment in 1965, but died the next year, having spent almost the entirety of her fortune campaigning.


Further Reading:

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1977)

Charles Neilson Gattey, The Incredible Mrs. Van der Elst (Leslie Frewin, 1972)

Lizzie Seal, ‘Violet van der Elst’s use of spectacle and militancy in her campaign against the death penalty in England’, Law, Crime and History, 3 (2013), 25-41

Elizabeth Tuttle, The Crusade against Capital Punishment in Great Britain (London: Steven & Sons, 1961)

Violet Van der Elst, On the Gallows (London: Doge Press, 1937)