This week: Public executions

The Execution of Charles I of England, attributed to Jan Weesop c.1649.

These days in Britain, we like to think of public executions as belonging to a distant and more barbaric age – one far removed from the modern world in which we now live.

It is sobering, therefore, to reflect that when crowds flocked to see the last public execution in London – the hanging of the Irish republican Michael Barrett outside Newgate Prison on 26 May 1868 – many of them arrived by way of the capital’s distinctly modern (and then newly opened) underground railway system, nowadays known as the Tube.

Before that, as we learn this week on The Past, public executions had played a leading role in London life over many centuries, earning it the nickname ‘the City of Gallows’. Between c.1196 and 1848, tens of thousands of prisoners were put to death at more than 100 locations around the capital – from royalty (Charles I in 1649) to enemies of the state (William Wallace in 1305; Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters in 1606), and from seasoned mass murderers to petty criminals barely into their teens.

Such was the demand that in 1571, a notorious gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ was erected at Tyburn (modern-day Marble Arch) capable of hanging 24 prisoners simultaneously. By the late 18th century, more than 200 capital crimes were listed under the legal system known as the ‘Bloody Code’ – including such minor offences as the theft of goods worth more than 12 pence (or about one-twentieth of a skilled worker’s weekly wage at the time).

In the latest issue of Current Archaeology, and on this week’s PastCast podcast, Carly Hilts visits a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands which tells some of the human stories behind this grisly history of public execution, and reveals how the work of 19th-century reformers such as Elizabeth Fry, and writers including Thackeray and Dickens, helped finally to bring an end to this brutal practice.

Elsewhere this week, we have been delving into the archive for more about crime and punishment: we reviewed the exhibits on show at the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum; we visited the site of New Bailey in Salford, once the UK’s largest prison, to learn how it came to be built on the basis of radically progressive ideals; and we even discovered how Thomas Becket made the leap from sinner to saint, after he was murdered on the orders of a king.

And finally, if all that leaves you wanting more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around crime and punishment. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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