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Authors: Alan Brooke,Alan Brooke

Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree

BOOK: Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree
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First published in 2004

Paperback edition first published in 2005

The History Press
The Mill, Brimscombe Port
Stroud, Gloucestershire,
5 2

This ebook edition first published in 2013

All rights reserved
© Alan Brooke and David Brandon, 2005, 2013

The right of Alan Brooke and David Brandon to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights, and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

978 0 7524 9579 8

Original typesetting by The History Press




  Tyburn: River, Resort of Bawds and Place of Death

  The King’s Gallows: Death at Tyburn in the Middle Ages

  Tyburn in Tudor Times: Victims of Religious Persecution and Others

  Religion, Civil War and Restoration: Tyburn in the Seventeenth Century

  Changing Methods of Punishment: 1500 to 1800

  Tyburn from the Restoration to 1700

  London Street Life in the Eighteenth Century

  Some Victims of Tyburn in the Eighteenth Century

  Newgate to Tyburn in the Eighteenth Century

  Some Hangmen of Tyburn

  The Lore of the Tyburn Crowd

  Newgate to Tyburn Today

Appendix: Tyburn in Literature



book that covers some six centuries of history is inevitably indebted to the research of other historians, especially those working in the history of crime and the history of London. Of the many libraries and archives the authors have used, particular thanks go to the staff of the Guildhall Library in London for their courtesy and helpfulness.

We record our gratitude to Christopher Feeney of Sutton Publishing for his constructive advice as well as his diligent and scrupulous reading of the draft.

Friends and relations have given moral support and encouragement throughout and our heartfelt thanks goes to them.

Alan Brooke and David Brandon
Peterborough, 2003


he name ‘Tyburn’ is synonymous with the idea of public execution. It was one of London’s major places of execution from the twelfth century until 1783. A review of those who died there and of the crimes they committed as well as an examination of Tyburn’s place in popular culture provides valuable and entertaining insights into the economic, social and political changes that took place in London and elsewhere in Britain during this period.

Among those who met their Maker at Tyburn were possibly William Wallace, the Scottish patriot; Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the throne who claimed to be one of the princes supposedly murdered in the Tower; Claude Duval, almost the prototype for the myth of the handsome, dashing and courteous highwayman; Jack Sheppard who kept escaping from the dreaded Newgate Prison and the hated Jonathan Wild, perhaps London’s first master criminal. Most of those who died at Tyburn had been hauled through the streets from Newgate in the City and the road from there to Tyburn brought the two locations together in a grisly symbiosis.

Many martyrs for their religious beliefs died at Tyburn, and memorials to some of them can still be seen nearby. In 1661 the corpses of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw, execrated as regicides, were exhumed, transported to Tyburn, hanged and then beheaded, whereupon the bodies were thrown into a pit adjacent to the gallows. The outcome of this extraordinary event has provided one of history’s perennial teasers – the question of what has happened to Cromwell’s head.

Over the centuries, dozens of executioners practised their art at Tyburn. One of the best known, although by no means the most competent, Jack Ketch, went on to provide a generic name for all public executioners. Who were these men? What skills did they require? How did the technology of hanging change over the years?

The journey of the condemned felons from Newgate to Tyburn provided free and popular entertainment for London’s masses and it became highly ritualised, particularly in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Prisoners stopped off at wayside inns as they passed through cheering crowds or, if their offences and their demeanour angered the spectators, they had to run the gauntlet of a hail of verbal and physical abuse. They were expected to show fortitude and the watching crowds warmed to the felon who made a valedictory speech in which he cursed the fates or, even better, those who had brought him to this sorry pass.

The hangman expected his perks from selling the rope and the clothes of the deceased while the physically afflicted in the crowd pressed forward to touch these because it was widely believed that they had curative properties. In later years, fights occasionally broke out as the relatives of the deceased fought those who wanted to take the body away for dissection. The vendors of the felon’s so-called ‘dying confessions’ hawked their wares among the crowd, as did a multitude of prostitutes. Pickpockets enjoyed rich takings. The wealthy hired expensive grandstand seats to obtain the best views at Tyburn Fair. All this etched itself deeply into the popular culture of London.

Before the 1960s, crime and the culture of the masses were subjects largely ignored by historians. Sensationalised, anecdotal writing about crime and punishment, the activities of individual criminals and the underworld of criminality had long been popular and had created popular preconceptions and prejudices. Dashing highwaymen carried out audacious robberies on Hounslow Heath, Jonathan Wild featured as the first ‘Napoleon of Crime’ and the escapades of Jack Sheppard appeared in innumerable ‘penny dreadfuls’. Vast crowds gleefully watched the death agonies of notorious miscreants at Tyburn, Execution Dock and other hanging places. Children were transported for stealing worthless trifles. This kind of writing, although entertaining, provided little real understanding of the nature of crime. From the 1960s, however, historians have turned their attention to popular culture, the behaviour of crowds, the causes and nature of criminal activity and the evolution of the country’s judicial and penal systems. The result is a far greater understanding of the dynamic relationship and interaction between crime and wider social, economic and political factors.

Many historians have concentrated their efforts on the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They have related changing levels and types of crime to the severe tensions evident in a society going through the uneasy transformation from a rural and predominantly agricultural base to a largely industrial and urban one. The authors wish to contribute to this ongoing process of historiography by focusing on one particular locality famous in the popular culture of London. There is little recently published material on Tyburn and its associations and this book, aimed at the general reader, is intended to make a modest addition to the social and cultural history of crime and punishment, the history of London and the history of Tyburn in particular.

The use of Tyburn as a place of execution goes back to at least the last decade of the twelfth century. Tyburn was located well to the west of the City of London and hence the phrase ‘go west’ emerged in Elizabethan times, ironic reference to the direction most often taken by those condemned prisoners despatched for execution from the Tower, Newgate or elsewhere. On execution days, bells rang in City churches and large crowds turned out to witness the processions to Tyburn. A sense of holiday, of carnival, developed around the procession to Tyburn and the events at the gallows.

The sight of the felon publicly expiring, convulsed with terror and agony, was intended to be a frightful lesson to those who watched. Contemporary accounts leave little doubt that large numbers of people thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle of a public execution. They could be extremely angry when a last-minute reprieve deprived them of their anticipated pleasure. Few hangmen attempted to despatch their victims as quickly and humanely as possible and indeed some were shamefully inept. The sight of a felon dying on the gallows was not an edifying one but it provided a popular form of public entertainment, the appeal of which transcended social class. There is little evidence that the crowds who gathered at Tyburn saw what was enacted there as a deterrent to the carrying out of serious crime.

Hangings took place eight times a year at Tyburn until 1783 and eight times a year after that outside Newgate gaol. Those who died at Tyburn had mostly committed their offences in Middlesex and the City of London. While many felons who died at Tyburn had trades and were printers, whip-makers or drapers, for example, and some were from the ranks of the well-to-do, large numbers were from the poorest and most debased sections of society, trapped in a hopeless cycle of poverty and despair. The majority had committed property crimes. Many who made up Tyburn’s gory harvest were adopted Londoners, often young, who had migrated to the capital in search of wealth and fame, only to find neither.

Hanging played a key role in the maintenance of authority in England from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century and yet it became central to popular culture. It was made the subject of innumerable jokes, ballads and satires. The heroic progress of some felons to Tyburn was nothing less than a parody. It was a ritual mocking of an occasion intended by the authorities to display the awful omnipotence of the law. It therefore undermined the authorities themselves. Ridicule, gallows humour, nonchalance, abuse of the hangman or the Ordinary, the priest who accompanied the condemned felons – all these had the effect of making the event the very opposite of what the authorities intended.

Most condemned felons wanted to die well, given the very public forum in which they would do so. Many used the occasion to make speeches. Sometimes they were cringing confessions or hopeless protestations of contrition or innocence. These cut little ice with the crowd, whereas those felons who used the occasion to denounce and defy the authorities or to spin a salacious yarn or quip with the crowd usually aroused an enthusiastic response. Legend has little to say of the felons – and they were probably the majority – who went to their deaths publicly evacuating their bladders and bowels through abject terror. For all those who underwent the ordeal with their chins up, the majority had to be physically supported into the cart at Newgate or from it to the scaffold at Tyburn. As V.A.C. Gatrell says, ‘most of those hanged were far from the swashbucklers of legend and could not behave like heroes if they tried. They were of such obscurity, their crimes so common, their deaths so humdrum, that their executions failed to earn a broadside, a ballad, or a notice in the newspapers’ (Gatrell 1994: 40).

It is impossible to give a definitive figure for the numbers of those who were executed at Tyburn. Alfred Marks states that the gallows received the condemned from the courts of Westminster and the Guildhall but its main suppliers were the Middlesex and the Old Bailey Sessions. Marks bases his estimate for executions at Tyburn on the figures supplied by the work of John Cordy Jeaffreson from the Middlesex County Records (four volumes; 1897–1902). Between 1609 and 1618 there were 714 people executed in Middlesex. Marks assumes that felonies committed in the City must have been greater in number and therefore proffers a combined figure for the same period of approximately 1,408. From this he goes on to give an estimate for the number of deaths at Tyburn during the reign of Elizabeth I and comes up with a figure of over 9,000. Clearly there is a great deal of guesswork involved but Marks is bold enough to suggest that over the 600 hundred years of Tyburn’s history as a place of execution, at least 50,000 died there. This makes a yearly average of around eighty. Others have put the figure much higher but with even less hard evidence.

BOOK: Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree
9.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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