Violet van der Elst (1882-1966) was a highly eccentric self-made businesswoman from a working-class background, who arguably did more than anyone else to end the barbaric practice of capital punishment. Yet she died forgotten and all but penniless, having given all she had for her cause.
VIOLET Ann Dodge’s first job was as a scullery-maid, but a groundbreaking brushless shaving cream she concocted in her kitchen, Shavex, made her independently wealthy. In 1937, she bought the crumbling Harlaxton Manor, once seriously considered by King Edward VII for his summer retreat.*
Three years earlier, Violet had been widowed a second time following the unexpected death of her husband, Jean van der Elst, and had responded by throwing herself into a campaign against capital punishment. She raised awareness with books and publicity drives, and even engaged bands to play Handel’s tear-jerking Funeral March from ‘Saul’ wherever an execution was taking place.
Violet spent the War in London, fire-fighting and caring for the homeless in the Blitz. Afterwards, she sold the Manor, which the War Office had left in a mess, and devoted herself to campaigning again. Her reward was the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, but victory had consumed both her and her fortune, and Violet died in obscurity a year later.**
* The King bought Sandringham House in Norfolk instead.
** The Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act of 1965 was a four-year experimental measure, confirmed in 1969. No judicial executions have taken place since, and since 1998 no peacetime offence, including treason, has been punishable by death.