Francis “Flossie” Forsyth saw his girlfriend Margaret Catlin for the last time on the 9th of November, 1960. He was 18. Margaret was 17, and pregnant with their child. They were separated by a glass screen in a bare room in Wandsworth Prison, south west London.
That night, as Forsyth waited in the cell reserved for condemned prisoners, tension rose in the jail, with prisoners shouting and banging on their doors with metal food plates.
The next morning, as he was led to the gallows in the room next door, “Flossie” wept and said, “I don’t want to die.” At 9AM, Forsyth, along with his accomplice, 23-year-old Norman Harris – labelled the “footpath killers” by the tabloids – were hanged for the murder of trainee engineer Allan Jee that June.
In a telegram to his girlfriend, which she received three hours after his execution, Forsyth told her: “Always remember my star will watch over you both and give you the love and strength you so richly deserve my angel yours till eternity.”
Francis “Flossie” Forsyth, who was 18 and seven months old when he was executed, occupies a macabre footnote in the history of capital punishment, as the last of 21 teenagers to be hanged in England and Wales in the 20th century.
At the time of Forsyth's execution, most people in Britain were in favour of capital punishment. But opposition gradually grew, and the death penalty was suspended in 1965. Four years later, it was outlawed altogether. The final executions carried out in Britain were in August of 1964, of Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen, two jobless criminals who beat a man to death to steal £10.
Sixty years on, those who knew Forsyth are sharply divided over his fate and whether he got what he deserved. Yet, even today, the debate over capital punishment is far from over.
It was only in 2015 that support for the death penalty among Brits fell below 50 percent for the first time. But backing remains strong, particularly for cases such as murder committed during acts of terrorism. A poll last year found that a third of the Tory party’s MPs are still in favour of the death penalty, and both Home Secretary Priti Patel and former Justice Secretary Michael Gove have previously expressed their support for it. Both ministers have since distanced themselves from the policy.
In 1960, it was in parliament, not the streets, where opposition to the executions of Forsyth and Harris was most visible, with 65 Labour MPs signing a motion “profoundly regretting” that the pair weren’t reprieved. The wider public, however, were never really taken by the case, or at least in the same way they were by the executions of Derek Bentley (who went to the gallows in 1953 for his part in murdering a policeman, despite having learning difficulties and his friend firing the fatal shot), or Ruth Ellis (the last woman hanged in England, in 1955, for killing her lover).
Their stories live on in films and books - and, in Bentley’s case, a 45-year campaign that finally saw his conviction posthumously quashed in 1998. Forsyth’s case, by contrast, is consigned to fading news clippings.
One explanation could be the nature of the crime, involving aimless young men committing senseless violence. As one old lady told the Daily Mirror on the morning Forsyth and Harris were hanged, among the handful of demonstrators outside Wandsworth Prison braving the heavy rain, “It was such a brutal crime that these lads don’t seem to have won any sympathy.”
The murder happened late one evening in June of 1960.
Jee – 23 years old, popular, good-natured and “never the sort of bloke to get mixed up in scrapes” – had spent the evening in Richmond, south west London with the fiancée he’d got engaged to the day before. They’d strolled along the river, then watched a film, before he caught a bus back to Hounslow, the drab western fringe of the capital where the city merges with the suburbs.
As he headed along a darkened footpath 20 yards from his home, Forsyth, Harris and two accomplices struck. Bored, drunk and skint, they’d been hanging around waiting for a suitable victim to pass.
Forsyth administered the fatal blows, kicking Jee’s head and fracturing his skull with his winkle picker shoes, staying momentarily longer as Harris and the others (who were later jailed) scurried away.
“I only kicked him twice to keep him quiet,” Forsyth told the police after he had been arrested. “I didn’t think I had hurt him that much. We did not want to roll anybody, but we had a few shants [drinks] and I always get a bit garrotty [violent] then.”
“I wanted to go thieving, as I was skint and out of work,” explained Harris, who had rifled through Jee’s wallet, finding nothing.
The murder fed the moral panic of the time. Britain had only recently emerged from the austerity imposed after World War Two. Teen delinquency was front page fodder for the tabloids, who particularly relished tales of feral young men wielding coshes, knives or knuckle dusters.
To the general public, this hooliganism was embodied by Teddy Boys, with their quiffs, drainpipe trousers and thick crepe sole shoes, known as brothel creepers. Meanwhile, jukeboxes – which started flooding in from America after the UK loosened import restrictions on luxury goods in 1955 – were seen as agents of indolence, encouraging teenagers to hang around doing nothing.
“I do not think it is a proper thing for groups of young people to go into coffee bars and spend hour after hour listening to records, buying cups of tea and coffee and bottles of pop,” said Birmingham’s Lord Mayor in 1958.
The following year, Sir David Eccles, the education minister in the Conservative government, declared that young people “have far less moral guidance, just at a time when many of their elders have become uncertain what is good and bad in behaviour and morals”.
But some who were around back then - and who knew Forsyth - don’t view the period, or Forsyth’s fate, in such stark, clear-cut terms.
The execution, for instance, strengthened Brian Pease’s hostility to the death penalty – which he has remained implacably opposed to ever since. Pease was 23 years old in 1958 and had been recently demobbed from the RAF when he started work as a relief housemaster at Ardale Approved School in Essex. Forsyth, who had been sent there for shop-breaking, was among the first residents to introduce himself.
One day, stricken with the flu, Pease fell asleep on duty. Forsyth woke him up, guided him to his room, made sure he was OK and then occupied the other boys with table tennis. “I found him to be a very pleasant young man,” Pease, now 83, told VICE News in a series of phone calls from his home in Cumbria.
He read about his execution in the paper. “I remember thinking, ‘Good God.’ What a waste of a young man. This was someone I knew and respected. Those were the days of National Service, and that might have helped him change his life around.”
Sheila Catton has a different take.
She was 16 years old and working in a shoe shop on Hounslow High Street, when “Flossie” – who she knew from the area – walked in on the 29th of June, 1960, three days after the murder. Her recollections now differ slightly from those in her police statement (which is preserved in the National Archives).
“I was desperate to get away for lunch when ‘Flossie’ came in,” she said in an interview at her home. “I sold him a pair of shoes and he asked if I could get rid of the ones he was wearing, so I carted them out the back. They had a stain on them, but I didn’t think anything of it until the police came a few days later.” She never found out if the police retrieved them.
The proximity of the murder – 300 yards from her home, by a park she went to almost daily – and involving people she knew, means the case has never left Sheila, six decades on. Yet then, as now, she thinks justice was served. “I still believe in the death penalty,” she says. “It was a cowardly and completely unprovoked attack.”
The case’s enduring grip over those who knew Forsyth can also be seen on an internet forum about past executions, where fragments of social history and morbid curiosity collide.
Among wistful memories of long gone youth and laments for a Hounslow “that was never the same after the murder”, views on “Flossie” and his fate are split sharply.
“He was a likeable, funny, intelligent guy,” writes someone who says he was a friend from Ardale.
“If anyone needed a mentor it was ‘Flossie’,” another contemporary says. “Whenever I think about him, it is with deep personal regret that I did not show him that he really had got his priorities all wrong.”
What of Catlin, Flossie’s pregnant 17-year-old girlfriend, who he promised to look over for eternity, and who reportedly said she would bring up their child with full knowledge of what he did?
“Francis kept laughing and joking,” Catlin later said of their chat on the eve of his death. “He didn’t talk about [his execution] once. He asked me about the baby, whether I was going to keep it or not. I told him I would, and he said: ‘Good’.
“I will not be afraid to bring up my child and tell it about its father, even though he was hanged as a murderer,” she added.
Seven weeks after Forsyth was hanged, she gave birth to a girl, and told the Sunday People newspaper: “My baby stays with me.”
“Theirs was a street corner and jukebox romance,” the paper said of her relationship with Flossie. “They met in the street and used to spend their nights in a coffee bar listening to rock ‘n’ roll.”
At the time, Catlin was living with Forsyth’s parents, after hers had urged her to have her baby adopted. “Only one of my friends has come to see me. All the rest have ignored me,” she said.
Forsyth’s mum was also interviewed by the paper, saying: “She’s a beautiful baby. Look. Her hair’s turning blonde, just like Francis’ did when he was a baby.”
Not long afterwards, records show, Catlin did give her child up for adoption. Forsyth’s name is absent from the birth certificate.
Barging into the life of someone who was totally blameless for terrible events which happened in another era, when they were not even an adult, is loaded with sensitivities. When I traced Catlin and made a cautious approach to her, she denied any knowledge of the case.
How she views what happened a lifetime ago, and whether their daughter ever learned of the torrid circumstances surrounding her entry into the world, understandably enough, are not for public consumption.
For one old schoolmate, though, Forsyth was warped beyond salvation: “Once in a while, someone either truly exceptional, or rotten, turns up. You see it in nature. A beautiful flower pushes itself out of a field of weeds. In the alternative, a huge ugly weed can grow quickly out of a well-tended garden… For whatever reason, Forsyth was at the wrong end, and ever would be. He left nothing but trouble and anguish in his wake. I’m glad he’s well out of the way.”