For some 700 years between c.1196 and 1848, public executions were an inescapable part of the experiences of anyone living in London. In this period, the capital’s courts sentenced more people to die than in the rest of the country combined, earning it the grim nickname ‘the City of Gallows’. Hangings, burnings, boilings, and beheadings were wielded as a way to protect London’s ever-expanding population, to deter crime and rebellion, and to show justice being viscerally, visually done – but they also hammered home the power of the Crown, Church, and State over the lives and deaths of ordinary citizens. By the late 18th century, the notorious ‘Bloody Code’ listed over 200 capital crimes, encompassing undeniably serious offences as well as many that today would be seen as minor misdemeanours or are no longer illegal.
This legacy is still embedded in the capital’s landscape: within central London, you are never more than 5km from a former place of public execution, while in the City that distance reduces to 500m. At the Museum of London Docklands, a new exhibition traces the social history behind the scenes that these sites witnessed, and how they helped to shape the capital’s story. This might sound like a morbid subject to put on display, but the emphasis of Executions is firmly on human experiences – those who were executed or reprieved, those who made their living from associated trades, and those who campaigned for prison reform and for the abolition of capital punishment altogether.
While some of the people who were publicly put to death within the city are well known – William Wallace (1305), Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters (1606), Charles I (1649) – many others are far more obscure or have been lost to history altogether. It is thought that tens of thousands of people were condemned to death in the seven centuries that the exhibition covers, but their names were not consistently recorded prior to the 18th century. Extensive research that features in the exhibition has pulled together 5,000 cases, however, which appear as a scrolling list documenting each individual’s name, sex, crime, and place of execution. The offences for which they were convicted vary widely – including picking pockets, shoplifting, burglary, murder, rape, and arson – highlighting the broad scope of the law code of this period. Some of those included are strikingly young – while standing before the list, I saw an entry for Elizabeth Mason, who was executed for murder in 1712 at the age of 14.
Legacy in the landscape
Public executions took place across London (research for the exhibition has identified more than 100 locations) and were sometimes deliberately carried out in the area where the crime took place, to deter other would-be robbers, rioters, or rebels within the local community. There were also more official sites, though, and from the end of the 12th century until 1783, Tyburn was chief among them. Today the site is a traffic-clogged junction at Marble Arch, and it is hard to imagine that this was once a semi-rural spot on the city limits where the first hangings simply made use of available trees. In 1571, though, a purpose-built triangular gallows was constructed, capable of accommodating 24 people at once. The infamous ‘Triple Tree’ was such a recognisable landmark that it features on maps of the period, including John Norden’s 1607 map of Middlesex. The ‘points of the scaffold’ at Tower Hill, where at least 120 people were publicly executed between 1388 and 1780 (a smaller number of mainly higher-status individuals, including two wives of Henry VIII, were permitted a more private death within the walls of the Tower of London), are also used as a handy way-marker on Gulielmus Haiward and J Gascoyne’s 1597 map.
Tyburn lay on the junction of two key roads into London, something that made it highly accessible for would-be spectators – some of whom were willing to pay for a prime spot to watch the proceedings. Local landowners were happy to take advantage of this, among them Mother Proctor, who operated a highly lucrative ‘pew’ at Tyburn c.1724. Meanwhile, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys writes about paying a shilling to stand on a cartwheel for a better view of a hanging in 1663. Not all local residents welcomed this attention, however. The exhibition includes a petition of c.1768, asking for the gallows (which was by then a portable affair brought out only on execution days) to be relocated to Camden, complaining of the behaviour and disruption of the visiting throngs. These pleas fell on deaf ears, although Tyburn was eventually closed down in 1783, partly because its crowds were hampering the movement of goods and people along the turnpike where it stood.
The new focus was Newgate Prison, which had an open space at its front that could more easily accommodate large numbers, and whose central location made it an unmissable reminder of the consequences of crime. So iconic did the prison become that, when it was demolished in 1902, its materials were eagerly recovered and sold at auction. When the London Museum (a predecessor of the Museum of London) was founded ten years later, it acquired many of these ‘relics’, and some are included in its sister-museum’s new exhibition. Among these are an iron bolt from the prison’s condemned cell, a lock-plate from the Press Yard where inmates could exercise and speak to visitors through a grate, and the keystone from the ‘Debtor’s Door’, through which individuals passed on the day of their execution, which has been rather jarringly placed (not by the museum) in a jaunty souvenir frame.
The door itself is on display, too – a huge barrier that makes a chilling impact when you turn a corner and are confronted by its dark mass. This was one of three doors that condemned prisoners walked through before ascending the scaffold outside Newgate, and it is hard not to imagine how they must have felt as they became aware of the noise of the crowd on the other side. Not all spectators came to jeer, however – Executions also tells the story of ‘celebrity criminals’ who became popular antiheroes of their day. One such figure was Jack Sheppard, a petty thief who won public acclaim after escaping prison multiple times, twice from Newgate. Artists visited him in his cell to draw his portrait, and when he was finally executed at the age of 22 in 1724, Sheppard was accompanied to the gallows by a large, sympathetic crowd, and an autobiographical pamphlet circulated widely in the following days.
Another striking symbol of how public executions had become embedded in popular culture is a 19th-century set of Punch and Judy puppets shown in the exhibition – today, this is a slapstick seaside entertainment aimed squarely at children, but traditionally the marionette was more murderous than mischievous, ultimately facing the hangman for his crimes. In truth, public executions were themselves almost a form of street theatre, with their own particular pageantry. While Tyburn was still in use, this included formal processional routes from prison to the place of execution, with the condemned accompanied by marshals and guards carrying weapons to ward off rescue attempts and gleaming staves symbolising their authority, regalia that must have added drama to the occasion. A whole economy arose around the proceedings – not just benefiting the hangmen, who were paid for each execution but also supplemented their income through selling the dead prisoner’s clothing and pieces of the rope used to dispatch them, but also traders who made a lucrative living from selling refreshments and souvenirs to the crowds, and pamphleteers who published heartrending ‘final dying speeches’ given by prisoners on the scaffold. These were often composed long before the execution had taken place, reusing elements from previous speeches and sometimes describing events that never occurred in their haste to publish – the displays include examples of ‘last words’ supposedly spoken by individuals who had actually been reprieved. Mass-produced ‘broadsides’ narrating notorious cases in punchily vernacular language were hugely popular – a particularly ‘good’ crime could shift upwards of 250,000 copies.
It was far from unheard of for condemned prisoners to escape the gallows. Those held in Newgate were entitled to petition Parliament and the monarch for mercy, crafting pleas filled with character references from family and friends. Reprieves – which usually involved commuting the sentence to transportation– could come at any stage of the process, including while the prisoner was on their way to the gallows, or even during the execution itself. One dramatic example was that of housebreaker John Smith, who in 1705 had already been hanging for some minutes when his reprieve arrived – he was immediately cut down and revived, after which he was known as ‘Half-hanged Smith’. Smith survived his ordeal, though he did not change his ways, ultimately being transported to America.
Generally, petitions with a high chance of success came from well-connected individuals who could call on influential friends to support their case – those of lower social standing and new arrivals to the city faced a much less hopeful situation. Some of these petitions, loaned by the National Archives, feature in the exhibition, including one produced for Joseph Harwood, an 18-year-old washing- line-seller who claims he fell into gang life, and then highway robbery, when ‘bad company’ took advantage of him when drunk. Harwood had no high-ranking supporters to endorse his petition, and the poverty of his family is all too clear from the fact that his illiterate mother has signed her name with a simple X. Unsurprisingly, Harwood’s case was not successful, and he was hanged in 1824.
Prisoners’ voices are heard through a selection of letters that they wrote from the condemned cell. Some of these writings are pragmatic or remorseful; others express the desperation of condemned individuals still protesting their innocence, or despair over an administrative error that denied them a promised final visit from loved ones. Still more reflect the ways in which individuals sought to escape the final horrors of their execution: one letter requests a bottle of wine to be brought to the condemned cell on their final night, while another speaks of individuals who were able to smuggle vials of prussic acid to those determined to cheat the noose.
Some of these stories are followed through to their conclusion – a different display features anatomical drawings of executed prisoners. One shows another John Smith, convicted of murdering an officer of the fledgling Metropolitan Police Force in 1830. From the condemned cell, Smith wrote a letter arguing that it was a case of mistaken identity – a position he maintained until his death – and a short distance from this manuscript, visitors can see the sketch that was drawn of his body once it was removed from the gallows.
Dissection was imposed on the bodies of executed murderers after 1752, to help ameliorate the lack of cadavers needed by London’s medical schools, but this was not the only posthumous punishment applied to dead convicts. From the medieval period until 1678, the heads and limbs of executed traitors were prominently displayed on the City gates and on London Bridge (London’s only bridge over the Thames until the 18th century – see CA 391 for more on its history). William Wallace was one of the first to undergo this treatment in 1305, and to name just two of many other examples, in a diary entry for 1660, Pepys describes seeing the limbs of men involved in the death of Charles I displayed on Aldersgate, while the heads of Jacobites were impaled on Temple Bar after their rebellion of 1745. The bodies of those executed for crimes including piracy, smuggling, murder, and highway robbery might also be suspended in gibbets placed in public spaces for many years after their death – a practice that was not abolished until 1834. These closely fitting cages were tailored to the individual whom they held, and in the days before their execution, a prisoner would be visited by a blacksmith so that they could be measured – an experience that would surely focus the mind on what was to come.
As the need for cheap labour to serve Britain’s expanding colonies grew, more and more individuals were transported overseas instead of hanging (although many of these voyages were essentially a death sentence in their own right). From 1718, their main destination was America; after this practice was interrupted by the American War of Independence, between 1788 and 1868 a further 160,000 convicts were shipped to Australia. In the exhibition, a series of ‘leaden hearts’ – smoothed coins that were then elaborately decorated and given as tokens to the loved ones that transportees left behind stand as witness to this episode of judicial history.
By the 19th century, discomfort with the spectacle of public execution was increasing. This was thanks partly to the work of pioneering prison reformers like Elizabeth Fry (her simple bonnet, symbol of the Quaker faith that motivated her, and her visitor’s pass are on display), and partly to a growing emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution, and concerns that public hangings, far from protecting society, were brutalising it. Writing in 1840, William Makepeace Thackeray described one such gathering, saying that he ‘came away… with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done’. Nine years later, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to The Times to condemn the ‘inconceivably awful’ behaviour of the crowd at an execution he had attended, calling such events a ‘moral evil’.
London witnessed its final public execution on 26 May 1868: a dubious honour that went to Michael Barrett, an Irish republican who was hanged in connection to an attempt to break one of the Fenian leaders out of a prison in Clerkenwell, which had caused an explosion that killed several residents of a nearby tenement, including two children. Many of those who flocked to witness Barrett’s death travelled on London’s new underground network, the first of its kind in the world, and a symbol of the modern city that public executions no longer had a place in. After Barrett, executions moved within prison walls, shutting out the crowds and creating a more clinical and standardised system. While this change undoubtedly allowed prisoners the dignity of a quieter death, removing the punishment from the public eye may have also dampened campaigns for its ultimate abolition, the exhibition’s concluding displays suggest. It would be more than a century before England, Scotland, and Wales shed the death penalty from their statute books, revoking it as a punishment for murder in 1969 (Northern Ireland followed in 1973), and removing the final capital crime, treason, in 1998.
Carly Hilts discusses the Executions exhibition on an episode of The PastCast with Calum Henderson. Listen to their conversation here.
All images: Museum of London, unless otherwise stated
Further information Executions runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 16 April 2023. See www.museumoflondon.org.uk/executions for more details.