When I was a kid, I used to pour over a particular edition of the Guinness Book of Records – 1983, in fact. It had been given to me by a cousin for the simple act of visiting him, a kindness which I’ve always remembered but sadly never replicated myself.
In this edition were a few things I found fascinating – like space, for example, and the death penalty. There is a photo in it of the last public execution in France (1939) and a mention of the youngest man to be executed in Britain in the twentieth century, Francis Robert George “Flossie” Forsyth, hanged at Wandsworth in 1960 at the age of eighteen.
That, for some reason, has always stayed with me. Over and beyond the same age, I imagined the absolute convergence of youth and death in this story and thought that it seemed impossible. But it was in living memory – still is.
Here’s what he was executed for –
Alan Jee, a young engineer, was walking home after seeing his girlfriend whom he had recently become engaged to. He walked through a lonely alley, and immediately attacked by four local youths: Francis ‘Flossie’ Forsyth (age 18), Norman Harris (age 23), Chrisopher Darby (age 23) and Terrance Lutt (age 17). Lutt struck the first blow, causing Alan Jee to fall to the ground shouting “What do you want me for?”. Lutt, Darby and Harris held him down while Forsyth kicked him repeatedly. While Forsyth continued to kick Jee, Harris when through the young man’s pockets looking for money. Alan Jee never regained consciousness and died two days later in hospital.
Harris boasted about the attack, and word eventually made its way to the police, of Harris’s remarks. All four youths were quickly arrested and interviewed. All four denied being near the alley on the day of the attack, but Forsyth’s shoes still had stains from Alan Jee’s blood. Forsyth also remarked that he had just kicked Jee to shut him up.
All four youths were charged with the capital murder of Alan Jee; murder in the course or furtherance of theft. They were all tried together at the Old Bailey in London during September 1960. Forsyth and Harris were both found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Darby was found guilty of non-capital murder and sentenced to Life Imprisonment. Lutt was found guilty of capital murder, but due to being under 18 years old, he was sentenced to Detained during Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
Italicised material from: http://www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/forsyth_harris.htm
It’s history: the story is brutal and doesn’t end happily for anyone. It reminds us that there has always been violence; that some people act violently without thought for the consequences; that the state used to be far more savage than it is now in its punishments.
All the usual lessons, all the same stuff about history.
Except that thanks to the internet and to time, this story is still happening. People who knew those involved are still thinking about it, remembering, discussing.
And they’re doing it here:
This thread is the most extraordinary account of social history. From a footnote to a paragraph in the records books to the living history of ordinary people. Reading the comments, the youngest man to be hanged for murder in nearly 100 years is once more a person, with nicknames, a history of his own, a childhood and a troubled adolescence that didn’t seem to have an easy explanation. As commenter “Fred” writes:
the biggest puzzle of all is why Flossie ever went off the rails in the first place.He was bright and had passed his 11 plus, he liked sports and was good at them,He did not come from a council estate ( as I, and a lot of the local “herberts” of the time did) he lived in a pleasant suburban road.I did not particularly know his parents although my friend who lived three doors from Flossie knew them well and said that they were nice decent people and Mrs Forsyth was certainly not the hard matriarchal type. Yet as I have said earlier Flossie was scared of her reaction to him being out of work.
I won’t quote any more because this is a huge thread, with over 300 comments, most of which put the murder and the cultural issues around it – pubs, alcohol, teds, gangs, local culture – into a serious context. You can argue all you like about the reliability of blogs but it provides a valuable perspective on a not-quite-vanished time.