Once enough to send a shiver down the spine of anyone in London or greater Middlesex, the infamous Tyburn gallows have at last begun to fade from collective memory.
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. 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.” (1)
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 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 hand bell was also rung within the prison at this time to accompany 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.”
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. His presence “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.” (1)
The law had their rituals and the public had theirs. While the authorities effectively stage-managed the executions to discourage the public from criminal acts, there is no evidence that this was any real deterrent as many attendees would later go on to commit similar crimes themselves.
Execution days were brilliant for businesses of all kinds. In addition to the pubs that benefited 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 well in the tightly-packed and distracted crowds, the execution more 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 (about £450,000 in today’s money) from the execution of Earl Ferrers alone.
Meeting a good end was crucial. While most would have been insensible with fear, the crowd loved those who showed a brave face. Some of the condemned gave daring or subversive speeches, joked with the crowd, or confessed at length, embellishing their crimes with lurid detail. The best executions had ballads written about them and were retold in newspapers and pamphlets. For so many who had lived lives of desperation and neglect, the idea of a little postmortem 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. One way they did this was through their clothing. 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. 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 leaped out of the cart herself, breaking her own neck.
What had been intended as a public display of punishment to encourage law and order evolved over time into 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 there 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.
An earlier version of this appeared on thehistoryvault.co.uk.