Derek Bentley

Album: The Anthology (1953)
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Songfacts®:

  • "Ballad Of Derek Bentley," also known as "The Ballad Of Derek Bentley" or simply "Derek Bentley," is the kind of song any in-the-know musicologist would expect Ewan MacColl to have written, as it is about an alleged miscarriage of justice that occurred shortly before the crimes of John Reginald Halliday Christie came to light, crimes which cast doubt on the conviction of Timothy Evans, the subject of the MacColl composition "Ballad Of Tim Evans."

    Although Maccoll did indeed record "Derek Bentley" accompanied by Peggy Seeger (later his wife) on the banjo, it was actually written by Karl Dallas. The sheet music is copyright EMI Music, 1953.
  • While a reasonable person could certainly have doubt about the guilt of Evans, and Bentley was unfortunate to be hanged, it is difficult to see this as anything but an excuse for a senseless murder.

    The song ends with:

    It's true as you have often heard
    That in this land today
    They hang the little criminals
    And let the big go free


    Followed by the refrain:

    It was guns and comics
    Films of war that made his education


    On the evening of November 2, 1952 Police Constable Sidney Miles was shot dead in the execution of his duty on the roof of a warehouse in Croydon, South London. The trigger was pulled by 16-year-old Christopher Craig; he and the 19-year-old Bentley had clearly gone out with burglary in mind. As it was still less than seven years after the end of World War Two, guns were not that hard to come by in Britain, though it remains to be seen why someone of Craig's age should carry one.

    The would-be burglars were reported, and when the police arrived, Bentley was arrested. He had a knuckle duster and a knife in his possession, but the delinquent Craig decided to die with his boots on, and very nearly did, as after mortally wounding PC Miles with a wild shot he leapt from the rooftop fracturing his spine, and was taken to court on a stretcher. All the officers involved in this arrest were unarmed.

    Both youths were convicted of murder, Bentley on the basis of joint enterprise, but because of his age, Craig escaped the hangman and was eventually released. Bentley's family - and other apologists - claimed he too should be spared the noose because he was a) simple-minded and b) under arrest at the time of the murder. Bentley shouted "Let him have it, Chris!" before the fatal shot was fired, which was obviously interpreted by the Crown as an incitement, and just as obviously interpreted by the defense as "Give him the gun, Chris."

    In 1991, a film called Let Him Have It painted a reasonably accurate portrait of the two youths, their crimes and the aftermath.

    Bentley was sentenced to death, his appeal and calls for mercy rejected, and he was hanged on January 28, 1953. They didn't hang about in those days!

    That was not the end of the matter though, and following a referral by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, Bentley's murder conviction was quashed posthumously in July 1998, and to add insult to injury, his family was paid compensation. The family of PC Miles had to be content with a Queen's Medal For Gallantry.

    Although the public reaction to this case was generally one of sympathy over four decades and more, things have changed since. In 1998, the Metropolitan Police set up Operation Trident to tackle specifically black-on-black gun crime. The Autumn 2000 issue of the LINK (a police publication) reported that there had been no less than 15 such murders that year, and 160 officers were working on Trident. Since then there have been countless senseless shootings, knifings and other such murders by youths of all races the length and breadth of the country, and any latter day Derek Bentleys are unlikely to receive much sympathy. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Alexander Baron - London, England, for above 2

Comments: 2

  • Lilith from West YorkshireOne small but important fact. When Bentley (allegedly) shouted to Craig, 'let him have it', the shot Craig fired then hit DS Fairfax,the only policeman on the roof at the time, wounding him in the shoulder. NOT a case of murder, even if Bentley and Craig had intended this. By the time PC Miles arrived, Bentley was in the custody of Fairfax and had said nothing more and Craig was showing off, firing wildly, probably with no intention of killing anyone. It was Bentley's bad luck that he did!

    These were silly little lads, I quite agree, and the killing of Miles was stupid and tragic. But so, I feel, was the killing of Derek Bentley.
  • Mark from London, EnglandLatter day Derek Bentleys wouldn't be hanged. There is no doubt that he was the victim of a biased and vindictive judge.
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