John Vickers was among the many people in Britain who were convinced he wouldn’t hang. Many Tory MPs – the Conservatives were in office – had voted to retain hanging in the belief that it would be imposed only in exceptional circumstances and that it would fall into abeyance.

To the astonishment of many people Vickers became the first person to be executed under the new Homicide Act when he was hanged on July 23rd, 1957, at Durham Prison.

Six thousand people had gathered outside the prison by 9 a.m. The ticking clock told them when it was all over – under the new Act no execution notice was posted on the prison gates.

It was Harry Allen’s first assignment in his new role as chief executioner – he had been an assistant since 1940. Another 31 executions took place under the new Act before capital punishment was finally abolished in November, 1965.

The House of Lords resurrected the case of John Vickers in 1981. They decided to inquire whether there had been a miscarriage of justice and whether he had been rightly convicted. They came to the conclusion that their predecessors had got everything right…