Once enough to send a shiver down the spine of anyone in London or greater Middlesex, these infamous gallows have at last begun to fade from collective memory. Eight times a year, Tyburn served as the place of execution for the condemned from the courts of Westminster, the Guildhall, Middlesex, and the Old Bailey Sessions.
Between 1196 and 1783, an estimated 60,000 people were executed at Tyburn. Murderers, sometimes, and highwaymen, certainly, but for every major criminal executed at Tyburn, there were four more condemned for petty theft. Some of them were in trade, some were well-to-do, and many of them were new to London. Most of the people hanged at Tyburn were under 21, and many of them were still children.
By the eighteenth century, “Tyburn had become associated with mockery, irreverence, and the defiance of authority. The activities there encapsulated rough-and-ready humour, elements of carnival and, on occasion, very public displays of approval of sympathy for the condemned miscreants. For their part, the latter sometimes seem to have relished their brief moment of glory and to have drawn succour from it.” (Brooke & Brandon, p. 105)
The public executions at Tyburn and the rituals surrounding them were intended to demonstrate the omnipotence of the law and to serve as a deterrent to crime. Hangings took place eight times a year in a highly ritualized and somber manner that was intended to put the fear of God into the condemned and the spectators alike.
The evening before the execution, the condemned would be offered the final sacrament by the prison chaplain before the bell was tolled in the tower of St. Sepulchre’s Church. In 1604, Robert Dow left the church fifty pounds annually to toll the bells for the condemned both the evening before and the day of the execution. The handbell was also rung within the prison at this time with the following cry: “All you that in the condemned hole do lie, Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die; Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near, That you before the Almighty must appear. Examine well yourselves; in time repent, That you may not to eternal Flames be sent. And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your souls.” (Brooke & Brandon, p. 180)
At dawn on the day of execution, the prisoner would have his irons struck off and replaced with a cord or handcuffs. A halter was placed around his neck by the Knight of the Halter, and he was loaded into the cart with the Ordinary and the coffin he was to be buried in. The cart stopped in front of St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell was rung again, and the bellman would ask the crowd to pray for the soul of the condemned. The Ordinary was not there to provide comfort. “It indicated the involvement of the Church in the punishment of sin and recognized that although the prisoner’s physical life was about to be terminated, his soul could still be saved even at this late hour.” (Brooke & Brandon, p. 183)
The law had their rituals and the public had theirs. While the authorities would effectively stage-manage the executions and encourage attendance with aims to demonstrate omnipotence and discourage the public from criminal acts, there is no evidence that this was any deterrent. Pickpockets did some of their best work on hanging day, and many attendees would later go on to commit similar crimes themselves, such as Edmund Kirk who attended the execution of a man for the murder of his wife. Thus inspired, Kirk murdered his own wife two days later.
The public attended in huge numbers and they showed resistance to the rule of law by making the executions their own. They would attend with their friends and families, purchase confessions and pies, and send their peers off in a blaze of glory or derision, swooning over the highwaymen even as they looked forward to the death throes of the condemned with no little excitement.
Execution days were brilliant for businesses of all kinds. Apart from the pubs that benefitted along the three-hour journey from Newgate to Tyburn, the “hanging fair” itself was ripe with opportunity for profit. Young pickpockets, known as “Tyburn Blossoms” did brilliantly in the tightly-packed and distracted crowds, the execution more of an opportunity than a deterrent. Prostitutes could count on being busy as the carnival atmosphere and the grim demonstration of mortality drove many to the pursuit of more earthly delights. Cakes, pies, and baked potatoes were sold, and the “Last Dying Confessions” were purchased and circulated. Seats could be bought, and the grandstand known as Mother Proctor’s Pew made £5,000 or about £450,000 in today’s money from the execution for Earl Ferrers alone.
The mood of the crowd waiting at the gallows depended on the nature of the crime and the behavior of the prisoner. While many highwaymen were cheered, many criminals were met with derision and hurled stones. Some, especially the very young or the terrified, were met with quiet compassion.
Meeting a good end was crucial. While most would have been insensible with fear, the crowd loved those who showed a brave face, giving daring or subversive speeches, joking with the crowd, or perhaps confessing at length, embellishing their crimes with lurid detail. The support of the crowd could be enough to give succour to the condemned. The best executions had ballads written about them and were retold at length in newspapers and pamphlets. For so many who had lived lives of desperation and neglect, the idea of a little post-mortem glory must have had its appeal.
The crowd loved a good show, and some of the condemned took the execution as a last opportunity to rebel. On the morning of the execution the prisoners were allowed to choose their clothes for the day. As the executioners could turn a handsome profit by selling the clothes of the condemned following the hanging, some chose to wear as little as possible to limit this.
A young Irish woman named Hannah Dagoe took this to the extreme, to the delight of the crowd. Intent on cheating the hangman out of the money he would receive for the sale of her clothes, she spent the three mile journey stripping them off and throwing them into the crowd. When they reached the gallows, she wore almost nothing at all. To add insult to injury, she kneed the hangman in the groin and leapt out of the cart herself, breaking her own neck, making the hangman look very foolish indeed.
What had been intended as a public display of punishment to encourage law and order had evolved over time into a regular acts of quiet rebellion. Executions became raucous fairs attended by thousands where pickpockets and prostitutes did their most profitable work. Displays of contrition and the warnings of the condemned were replaced with lurid confessions and triumphant farewells. While the law exercised power by executing people for relatively minor crimes, the people showed resistance by celebrating the condemned as heroes.
Evidence of the disregard the public had for the executions can be found in the tongue-in-cheek terms they developed for them. Tyburn became the “three-legged mare” or the “deadly nevergreen.” “Going west,” became a euphemism for execution, and being hanged was “to dance the Paddington frisk.”
The last hanging at Tyburn took place in 1783. After this, hangings were moved closer to Newgate, to a site where crowds would be easier to control. They remained at this site until the end of public execution in 1868.
Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Alan Brooke and David Brandon. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.
The Thieves’ Opera. Lucy Moore. Harcourt, 1997.