London is known for a lot of things: its history, its culture, and its public executions. That’s right, for over 700 Londoners have gathered to watch convicted criminals be put to death. While today this may seem barbaric, at the time it was an important way to keep the public safe, or was it?
Episode 92. Public Executions
Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.
She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.
Guest: Ian McDiarmid
Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.
92. Public Executions
Hazel Baker: Hello and welcome to our London History podcast, where we share our love of London, its people, places, and history. It’s designed for you to learn things about London that most Londoners don’t even know. I am your host, Hazel Baker, Qualified London Tour guide and CEO and founder of London Guided Walks.
Each episode is supported by show notes, transcript, photos, further breathing, and sometimes even videos. All on our website. Simply go to londonguidedwalks/podcast and select the episode like we fancy. If you enjoy what we do, then you’ll love our guided walks and private tours that we offer throughout the year.
After an eventful summer, we are back with a selection of carefully curated episodes for you to enjoy. The highlight of those events has been delivering tours to so many of you, including so many of our listeners, and we are forever grateful for your support and enthusiasm for what we do. On a personal note, notable events have included the passing of two influential women in my life, including Cam Queen Elizabeth II, whom I had the honour to meet, but also my own mother, who is the main reason why not only do I have a love of history and literature, but a deep sense of wanting to share that with anybody who’d listen, including you.
Joining me in the studio today is City of London Tour Guide Ian McDiarmid. We’ve got a little bit of a treat today because in turn, we were given a treat earlier on this week with a visit to the Museum of London Docklands for their brand new exhibition opening today on Friday the 14th of October.
And it’s a major new exhibition and uncovering London 700 year history of public executions.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, the precise title of the exhibition is Execution, 700 Years of Public Punishment in London, and the exhibition is framed by two dates. The first is 1196 when the. First recorded execution takes place in London, so that’s not the first execution, but it’s the first execution we have knowledge of and it goes up till 1868 when public executions are ended.
Capital punishment obviously carries on after that time, but moves indoors and having said that, it ends there. They do frame the exhibition with a little bit on executions after that time and what it meant to move them indoor, how it took the execution of capital punishment out of the public eye to some extent, and how the capital punishment finally came to an end in this country, in theory, in the 1960s. The labour government, I think if I remember correctly, in 1965, they suspend the use of capital punishment in 1969. Though interestingly, until 1998, I think, it’s the incorporation of human rights on onto the statute book.
You could, in theory, still be executed for treason and one of the acts you could be executed for was committing arson in a royal naval dockyard. But no, nobody was executed after the early sixties.
Hazel Baker: It is a such a fascinating subject. It pops up on our walks time and time again, doesn’t it, in terms of crime and punishment. And also these public executions, have defined some of our open spaces in London.
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. And I think that’s one of the themes of the exhibition is how deeply embedded these executions were in the life of London as one section of the exhibition is on the execution economy, which is all the people who sold things to sometimes huge crowds that would attend these events.
So you’re talking. Pie sellers, but also sellers of broad sides. And then sometimes the writing up after the after the event has occurred, the huge interest that some of these criminals could evoke and other ones that we mentioned on the walks, of course that we are very familiar with.
One is Elizabeth Barton the maid of Kent who predicted the When Henry puts aside Kathryn of Aragon, she predicts his death in year. And of course, predicting the King’s death is Treasonable. But also she says that in a vision she’s seen the particular place in hell where Henry VIII is going to go and she’s executed and she has the distinction of being the one female whose head appeared upon a spike on London Bridge.
Hazel: What an honour.
Ian McDiarmid: And so they go on and the final one 1868. The last person to be executed publicly in England is Michael Barrett, who was accused of being part of the Clerkenwell bombing. This is the attempt by Irish Republicans to blast out Clerkenwell Prison some of their colleagues who have been imprisoned there.
And the the attempt goes horribly wrong. None of the prisoners are free, but they managed to kill an awful lot of people who are obviously completely innocent and wound, a very large number of them. And there’s a kind of desperate attempt after this terrorist atrocity to achieve justice.
And Barrett is the only person who is convicted of this crime. And there’s quite a lot of doubt as to whether he, he was actually guilty. He himself claimed that he was in Glasgow at the time of the explosion. And also he was convicted on the evidence of somebody who had turned evidence on him.
And it’s not the, that evidence might well be unreliable. So there are all these hugely important and extremely famous individuals are famous or notorious who. Are amongst the characters that met their deaths there. So the, I was saying earlier that it run, it covers from 1196 to 1868.
At one point in the exhibition, they’ve got a list of all the names of the people who, they got records of who, who were executed, which was quite moving. One thing about the exhibition is that although it covers 700 years, it’s very much focused on the 18th and 19th centuries, which isn’t a criticism of the exhibition.
The relative posity of information about earlier centuries, but just reflects the lack of information about them. The, as I saying the first man that they got evidence for is William Fitzosbert who was executing the 1190s for rebelling against Richard I. He is recorded as being a champion of the poor.
And again, this is another character we come across very occasionally in all walks because he was pursued by the Archbishop Canterbury took refuge in the Church of St. Mary Le Bow and Mary Le Bow is burnt down by the Archbishop Canterbury to flush him out. He is flushed out and he stabbed and then arrested and then subsequently executed The exhibition goes through the various stages.
Goes through from the execution to the treatment of the bodies afterwards. And as I said, the the economy that grew up around the executions and then deals with the end of capital punishment and. I think it’s an extremely good exhibition. It’s very, it’s a fascinating subject and I think a lot of people would be a bit wary about going to it because it’s a bit of a grim subject.
And indeed it is grim. But it, as I say, one of the main themes of the exhibition is how important these were in the wider context of London Society. And that comes out very clearly, doesn’t it?
Hazel Baker: I thought it was well balanced. They took great care not to sensationalise things. The choice of exhibits there were really good as well.
For example the Newgate prison door, I know we both have seen at when it was at the Museum of London. But to put that with some of the locks from Newgate Prison as well, just added something altogether for me in a physical aspect, how huge these things were, they’re bolts that goes across the door.
And when you would’ve heard that closing and sliding on your door and you know that there’s no way out, that would’ve been really quite something, it would’ve felt it in the bottom of the pit of the stomach, surely.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, on that new on the door is fantastic because they it would’ve been the last thing that the inmates saw on their way to being executed.
If you were executed at Newgate Prison, you would be led out and this would be the third door you would go through and it, to describe it, I’m guess I’m guessing Hazel, you’re going to put a picture of it in the links if you can. But it, it’s a pretty formidable looking door made outta metal lattice work, and you can imagine being led up to it and seeing the daylight and hearing the crowds as you are led out to execution. And yes it it’s one of those, it’s just a door, but it just speaks volumes of something that’s very dramatic and yeah. Terrifying really. Yeah.
And the exhibition’s very good on that one. One thing that I liked was well, Have to like the wrong word, but find fascinating is all the little details that go with the rituals about being executed. So for example, in Newgate Prison on the Sunday before your execution, you would go to a sermon and you as the condemned prisoner would sit in a dock with.
You coffin in front of you and you would hear a sermon and people would pay money to go and see these sermons. And we can imagine that they condemned on this occasion, though their reactions could vary. And one, one could well imagine that some of ’em are absolutely terrified by this. Yeah.
Hazel Baker: Because basically they’re seeing their own funeral and having your friends and family, maybe your mom or your wife or in the, in, in that same room, grieving already for your loss even though you are sitting there in person and having these people who have paid to come and watch this service.
And also the paparazzi who would’ve been writing down how you would’ve been behaving. Even there are accounts of. Some of even the most hardened murderers just totally freaking out at this concept of they have gone even though they’re still there. And of course other paparazzi drawing pictures of you with whether you are looking really rather mourn or whether you are really hard as stone and it’s not touching you at all because that’s what’s going to be as that’s how they sell their papers.
It’s never good news that they sell is. No indeed. I thought the execution as Bell was a nice ad as well. This is something I talk about with Newgate Prison on our heretics and horrors walk and the execution as bell there. Just putting in ‘cos we never go into the church. It’s so often on, so often locked. So it was nice to to join that story together on how the church played a part in preparing these condemned souls for their inevitable execution. And I thought that rang true.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah, that, that was that’s a particularly nasty detail. That Bell is, perhaps we should just explain that this is a bell that’s normally kept in St Sepulchre church.
And if you were going to be executed somebody from the church at midnight on the day before your execution would come and ring this bell outside your cell door and then cite. Awful piece of dog rule about how you need to examine your soul, because if you don’t, you might well end up going to hell.
And then the interesting de detail is that they didn’t bother ringing it for murderers because I don’t think there was much debate really as to which direction you were going in after you, you met your face. And also they didn’t I think they. Yeah, they offered condemned prisoners communion if they felt they merited it.
And again they just didn’t bother with murderers.
Hazel Baker: But do you want to hear the little ditty?
Ian McDiarmid: Oh yeah. People who haven’t heard it, why shouldn’t they suffer? Yeah, go ahead. Please read it out.
Hazel Baker: Read it out? I know it off by heart my dear!
Ian McDiarmid: It’s very exciting
Hazel Baker: All ye in the condemned whole do lie. Prepare ye for tomorrow you shall die. Watch all and pray the hour is drawing near, that you before Almighty God will appear. Examine well yourselves, in time repent, that you not to eternal flames be sent. And when Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls, the Lord have mercy on your souls.
Ian McDiarmid: This incidentally introduces a big theme within the exhibition and a big sort of important cutoff date, which I think is 1738.
So up until 1738 convicts from Newgate, and perhaps we should say that Newgate is the biggest source of. Conflicts being executed. Up until that date, they were transported across to Tyburn, and then after that date, they were executed immediately outside the prison, which and this makes a very big difference in the ritual of death.
So the door I was talking about obviously applies to the late date. And the another big change was when. Do them outside Newgate, they use a trap door to execute, to affect their hanging. Whereas prior to this state, they used various methods, but the main way was to use a cart and then just get the horses to pull a cart.
And right up until the 1870s they’re using these. They’re using essentially hanging as a form of strangulation to kill them. And it’s only in the 1870s that they come in and they develop the, they have the technique that’s been developed in Ireland whereby you use the weight of the body to break the neck.
So that’s one other. Unpleasant detail about you. You’re dying at particularly nasty death. But that cart ride over to Tyburn was itself full of a lot of ritual. Some of which I think is urban myth, but I’m not quite sure. I think you, you believe in these stories more than I do. Don’t you Hazel?
But perhaps you could enlighten us as to some of the rituals that went along when you were being carted off to. Face at ta.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, so it’s worth noting that we didn’t have public executions every day of the week. On average, about eight times in a year this would happen. And The condemned souls would go onto a wagon, as you mentioned, and be taken to Tyburn, which was our largest public execution site.
And there is a plaque where the Tyburn tree was on the ground. I’ll try and share a photo with those who want to have a little look as well. So that’s still there for people to see. Now as you’re going along. It’s a long journey. And you would be in typical English fashion, allowed to have your very final drink.
A half a pint of Porter, which is a bit like Guinness, and that’s where people get the term one for the road. So if you’re in a pub, in a pub now, and you are, you don’t really want to go home, you can’t stay forever, you might ask your friend, Oh, do you want one for the road?
Do you want a swift one a half? So that’s where that terminology comes. and then people would get off the wagon and go into one of the pre-approved pubs along that route. If you didn’t want to, maybe you’re a puritan or you just didn’t want to go through that friends, you could say, No thanks. I will stay on the wagon.
And that is something that we even say nowadays during dry January or throughout the year. If you don’t wanna drink, a nice way of saying you’re not drinking is to say, No thanks. I’m on the wagon, I’m not drinking, I’m staying dry. So as people go into the pub, these pubs will be packed with people wanting to see these criminals.
And the paparazzi be there as well. And. Another English tradition, is to make light of certain things and humour galls humour is something that we can talk about forever. But some of the stories that I’ve read in newspapers, one of the popular jokes someone would do would they’d get their half a pint of porter, they’d raise their tanker to everybody in the pub and go, Cheers my round on the way back.
And of course, That would never happen. And everybody had laughing. Oh yes, he’s a good egg, going to his end, but he can still laugh about it no matter if he murdered three people. He’s he’s given us a nice laugh and that’ll go into the newspapers, the broad sheets at the time as well.
So there were lots of things like that. And then they’d carry on to Tyburn.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. One of the things the exhibition picks up on, on the broad sides and the. Popularity of some of the executions is very, they’re quite good on, on women criminals because the view was that women criminals were particularly terrible because they had in some way subverted their natural femininity and had become even more terrible in some ways than the male offenders.
One thing you mentioned, Hazel, was the Tyburn Tree Perhaps we should explain that’s a large. Triangle of wood sitting on three pillars, which I think was introduced in the 16th century. sure. I’m not sure if I’ve got my details right there. But anyway, you could execute a lot of people in one shop.
Cause I think you could have up to eight people on each of the arms of this. And this tie burn tree was featured quite pro prominently in illustrations at the time. And in the exhibition they’ve got a, one of the central pieces of the exhibition is a mockup of the Thai burn tree. And they play images on the side and they’ve got the words of some of the condemned.
Hazel Baker: I must admit, I found that quite impactful. I didn’t like it. It made me feel uncomfortable, but I think. Part of the element here are telling certain stories like the the half hung man but walking into that space where you have the the grass and the mud on the floor, and then the Tyburn tree, which you forced to walk under to get through further in exhibition.
I thought that made it a bit more real in the sounds of the actors reading out some of the scripts. I thought that was a very well done. And once again it’s, it was theatrical but it was underplayed in that element. And yes, you’re absolutely right. The Tyburn tree is, you can see it on old and maps and in artwork of public executions. The elm trees that were very popular. As well, I suppose naturally made execution spots across the country, not just in London. These elm trees were hard wearing tall enough to get their open, have someone dangle. And they are usually at crossroads as well, because this is where the most amount of people are going to be seeing that body swing for about an hour.
Ian McDiarmid: And couple of other things to mention. We’ve been other aspects of executions at the right, the beginning of, we’ve been talking. I think exclusively about hanging so far. But at the beginning of the exhibition, they detail other methods of execution. So if you were aristocratic and and had committed trees and you’d be, you had the right to be beheaded.
And there’s a example of a guy called 4th Earl Ferrers in the 18th century who commits, he murders his vow, I think. . Although he’s an aristocrat he’s committed murder. He’s hung like a, an ordinary person. And the other thing, one other aspect of the exhibition, which is quite extensive, is the treatment of the bodies of the executed.
And in particular, after the murder act of 1752, it was stipulated that murders either be used for dissection or. Be displayed in gibbets, and there’s quite a lot on gibbets on there. And the gibbets would’ve been quite a prominent thing, particularly in London with regard to sailing up the Thames where the if you were guilty of piracy and you were executed by the admirals, you court, you’d be executed at execution dock in whopping and you’d be left to hung at low tide and they’d leave you hanging there until three tides covered you, and then you’d be displayed.
Probably in exhibit, and you’ve got to imagine the tenders you’re sailing up and down. It marked particularly on the bend by numerous gibbets. So that would be quite a sort of distinct feature. And obviously with the idea of deterring people from. The as defined by the admiralty of the terrible crime of piracy.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I liked the gibbets in the exhibition, because that one was adjustable.
Ian McDiarmid: Yes. That, that, that’s one from their own collection. It is very interesting, isn’t it? So the Yeah, normally gibbets were tailor made, but the one that they don’t have the details on how it was used, but.
The one that they’ve got is adjustable. So reusable reusable gibbets.
Hazel Baker: And that’s a question we often get asked in our southern walkers. We’re walking past the Clink Prism Museum and they’ve got a fake skeleton I might add in gibbets. And a lot of people from watching films, Hollywood films thing that people were put in there and they died in that gibbets. And that is is not the case.
Ian McDiarmid: No. The one couple of things about the exhibition I thought it was absolutely fantastic and I highly recommend people to go. Couple of reservations I have about it, which I thought I might share and see what you think. The first one was that they didn’t.
They could have mentioned, but they didn’t. Something which you touch touched on tangentially, which was the idea of how you should die if you were a convict. Cause you, you mentioned about these people joking, going along with the pubs and that’s with ordinary people in creating impression.
But they also mentioned one of the ones they mentioned is Simon Lovett, Lord Fraser, who is one of the Jack bites and one of the last people to be beheaded on Tower Hill. And he stands up on the scaffold and he makes some kind of jokey comment about, I’m surprised so many people have come to see the loss of an old grey beard.
And I think his way of dying is very much influenced by classical models of how to meet a good death. And in particular sort of stoical ideas. But fair enough. The exhibit. Big enough. But that seemed to be quite a big theme that there was, although we can imagine that people met their deaths in not in all kinds of ways, and a lot of them must have been absolutely petrified.
There was obviously at both the higher and upper ends of society, there was an ideal of how you should make a good impression and how you should meet a good.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, I think that’s supported by, stories that you hear with the, So Walter Raleigh, don’t you like “Strike Man, strike!”, having the last word.
Yeah. And then how abysmal executions like Margaret Pole, 60 odd year old woman running around the scaffolding, trying to avoid the executioner’s blade. It’s not the way you wanna go. No. I suppose one of the most high profile executions that they do mention is the execution of Charles I outside Banqueting House, on Whitehall. Seeing his silk vest with all the stains and that, I’m not quite sure if it is authentic or not, but that’s, that made it more real to me, rather than just something that you read about.
Ian McDiarmid: The other thing, the idea, this is another idea which might sound a bit strange, and also hope he doesn’t strike the wrong note, was that.
In a way, the whole premise of this exhibition and the whole premise of a lot of the ho historical writing about this is how common executions were. And they, one of the very, again, very effective, but very simple things they do in the exhibition is list all the crimes that carried the death penalty at the end of the 18th century.
And there, there are 200 of them. And the, they’re making out that executions are Commonplace. But actually, if you look at their figures, the, and they’ve got detailed figures for when they are, when the executions are taking place outside Newgate i e from 1738 to 1868, it averages 11 a year.
Now I don’t wanna sound distasteful, but I’m wondering, in my mind, 11 a year against, and this. Against all those acts that you could actually be executed for. I was wondering whether you could actually argue it the other way and say how infrequent these Executions are should add that Newgate is not the exclusive place where executions are taking place.
It’s just the main one. I’m a bit hesitant to say that in case it sounds distasteful, but the thought was put in my mind by an earlier podcast we did on the on the Hunter Brothers who have John Hunter has a very obvious need for cadavers. His one legitimate source is executed murderers.
It’s quite clear that he’s not relying on legitimate sources, that he is a big figure behind body snatching and. That sort of reinforces that from the point of view of, although this is all hidden up and they can’t talk about it openly that there’s actually a shortage of cadavers from their point of view.
Hazel Baker: Yeah, it’s it is interesting, isn’t it? And I think dissection is something that they do go into and also phenology as well. Which is something we do touch on in our Jacqueline Hyde tour. Yeah. So those who haven’t listened to are. Episode about Dr. William and John Hunter. That is episode 72 and I’ll link to that one for you as well.
And you may also want to listen to episode number 62, James Scott, the first Duke of Monmouth, who has a, particularly her bloody and painful public execution. And I think with one of the things that they also touch on is this changing attitude as well in about in the 19th century. Suddenly it’s just not right to not celebrate, but not to get into the old way of doing things.
And actually seeing people suffer is unacceptable
Ian McDiarmid: now. Yes. And also particularly the influential here is the figure of Charles Dickens who is appalled by the behaviour of the crowds at these executions. So I think this is the thing that really inspires them to finally stop the public spectacle of executions.
It’s. It’s the kind of enjoyment, the drinking, the celebrations whilst somebody’s being killed that Dickens object to, he doesn’t object to the death penalty. It itself, and it’s that feeling, that sentiment that moves it indoors.
Hazel Baker: Ultimately, the the exhibition highlights the ingrained behaviour that we have about, I suppose our interest in the macarb.
Ian McDiarmid: Yes, to some extent. But as you mentioned yourself, when they’re beheading people, they seem to botch it an awful lot. And also this business about hanging people. It just took quite a long time for them to actually die.
Suffocation or strangulation, however you described it.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. But you do hear stories of the executioner or maybe the person who’s being essentially strangled to death, their legs being pulled to help them along, which is where we get the terminology. Are you pulling my leg?
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. But whether they did that all the time, I’m not sure.
I thought that was something they did occasionally, and I think you could spend a good few minutes up there.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. Oh, of course you could. You had friends and families and the crowd pushing to the front, especially if it was someone that they had hoped would be reprieved.
And the quick, the best thing that they can do for that person who’s strangling to death is to end it for them if that reprieve isn’t gonna be happening. Yeah. And.
Ian McDiarmid: That’s one, actually one important aspect of the exhibition that we haven’t mentioned is the reprieve. In, because there were so many crimes for which you could be sentenced to death.
There were an awful lot of reprieve letters and a large proportion, and an increasingly large proportion of these people convicted were they were given a reprieve either a stay of execution or their sentence was transmitted into something else like in the 19th century into transportation and, Yeah.
In the 19th century, a majority of those sentenced to death were actually reprieved. And one of the aspects of the exhibition is the is a display of letters from people convicted requesting that they their sentence be commuted. Yeah.
Hazel Baker: Yeah. I thought that was That was quite powerful actually, seeing those different handwritings.
It was hard to read old handwriting, but I thought that was quite powerful seeing the, in the individuals there cuz they’re literally like writing for their life.
Ian McDiarmid: I think we both thought it was a fantastic exhibition and also the accompanying book is very good and what’s nice is that the information is presented in a very simple.
Comprehensive and economic way and is, I think all the more powerful for that.
Hazel Baker: Yes I thought it they balanced it out with enough information, enough exhibits, and also enough space to read them as well if with other people in this space. But yes I stopped at the time entry cause I thought that was very effective.
Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. And I think the message would be for that if anybody thinks, Oh, I really don’t wanna go along cause it’s such a gruesome subject unless you really are put off with it, do go along because it’s, it is information presented in a yeah, a sensitive, good, informative way. And also, as I say the, one of the themes is how important this was in the social fabric of London.
And that comes over very strongly as well.
Hazel Baker: That’s right. Yeah, I agree with that. Yeah. So it’s not about the the blurred and the gore and the drama associated with this. This is a factual storytelling at its Best Museum of London has given us some photos, which we will add into the show notes.
And I took quite a few of my own as well, so you can have a little look. If you’re unable to see the exhibit, then you can experience it virtual. From our website, londonguidedwalks.co.uk/podcast and then click on episode 92. All right, Ian, thank you very much for a a very, another very good discussion and let’s choose something a little bit happier next time, shall we?
Ian McDiarmid: Okay. Okay. My pleasure, Hazel.
Hazel Baker: That’s all for now. Don’t forget, we do walks touching on a lot of these subjects such as our best sellers, including Heretics and Horrors tour where we cover Newgate prison and some of the executions at Smithfield. And then part two; Bleeding Hearts and Body Parts tour including some of the more unusual ways that people were publicly executed.
And also about William Wallace, the first man in London, to have his head stuck on a spike on London Bridge.
That’s all for now. See you next time.
Museum of London Docklands
14 October 2022- 16 April 2023
Visitors are advised that there are human remains on display in this exhibition, and content which may not be suitable for younger children. The recommended age is 12+. Children under the age of 12 are welcome in the exhibition at the discretion of their parents/carers.