diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 25, 2004

Here comes a chopper to chop off your head

Just to the northwest of Marble Arch, where the Edgware Road meets the end of Oxford Street, stands a cobbled triangular traffic island. It's all barriered off, and pretty difficult to reach without getting yourself mown down by passing vehicles. Nobody gives it a second look, but for centuries this was the site of the most watched entertainment in town. This is Tyburn, for six centuries home to London's public executions.

The River Tyburn ran (indeed still runs, somewhere underground) from Hampstead to the Thames, and the first public hangings took place from tree branches along its banks. In 1220 the first gallows was built, and in 1571 the infamous Tyburn Tree was constructed. This was a huge wooden tripod, 18 feet high with crossbeams 9 feet long. Prisoners suffered a slow agonising death from asphyxiation, which gave the waiting crowds a real spectacle to watch. If you liked that sort of thing, which tens of thousands of did.

Condemned prisoners started their last day at Newgate Prison, two miles away from Tyburn, just outside the old city walls. At noon they set off on a horse-drawn cart through the prison gates, with the bells of neighbouring St Sepulchre's church ringing out to mourn their passing. That's the bells of Old Bailey from the nursery rhyme - you knew there'd be a connection eventually. The procession stopped outside the church, where the prisoners received a nosegay of flowers, and stopped at a tavern or two later along the route so they could enjoy a final pint of ale. The phrase 'on the wagon' is reputed to derive from these pub stops - when the prisoners climbed back on the cart they would definitely never drink again.

Huge crowds lined Holborn and what-would-be Oxford Street, cheering and jeering the condemned. You can read more about the journey here, or perhaps relive most of the experience on board a modern number 8 bus. At Tyburn itself a grandstand was built and there was a real festival atmosphere - for all but a few present, that is. The prisoners' last speeches were drowned by the roar of the mob, then they were finally blindfolded and strung up. The cart beneath the prisoners was pulled away, and they were left to die. This could take nearly an hour. The crowd listened for their screams, and watched for the tell tale dribble of urine dripping from one leg that meant death had finally arrived.

The last public hanging at Tyburn took place in 1783, Executions then moved to a site immediately outside Newgate Prison, where crowd control was easier, with the last public hanging in the UK held here as late as 1868. The closure of Tyburn finally allowed respectable London to grow rapidly to the northwest. A convent (with flash webpage) was founded close by the site of the old gallows, and a small group of snooker-playing nuns still pray for the souls of the dead. Most Londoners may drive past Tyburn without noticing, but the capital's punishment has not been forgotten by everyone.

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