Ten places you might have got hanged in old London

London has always had its interesting landmarks but none could be so ghoulish as its regular places of execution. Up until the 19th century, there were certain places where you could be guaranteed to catch a hanging, burning or beheading – should you wish. Unfortunately, many Londoners did wish – as it was viewed as a macabre form of entertainment. So – where would you have seen such a dreadful spectacle?

  1. Tyburn. If you were a commoner, then it was off to Tyburn to be hanged high in the air dancing at the end of a rope for a vast crowd. The location of the triple gallows that entertained so many Londoners was on what is now a traffic island at the intersection of Oxford Street and the Edgware Road. Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the 1700s and the area was semi-rural, effectively the edge of London
  2. Tower Hill. If you were an aristocrat, you could avoid the shame and humiliation of dangling at Tyburn by being beheaded on Tower Hill. Your end was swift provided the executioner was good at his job – and that wasn’t always guaranteed.
  3. Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Those conspiring against the life of the monarch might be dispatched at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Such was the fate of Anthony Babington who plotted against Elizabeth I. Her day out was ruined however by his persistent screams of agony while being hanged, drawn and quartered. He made such a racket that the Queen decided just to behead everybody else involved in the conspiracy.
  4. Smithfield. Now being heavily redeveloped, the meat market near Farringdon tube station once rang to the shrieks of Protestants being burned for their faith by Queen Mary Tudor aka “Bloody Mary”. The Catholic Queen was out to reverse the religious reforms of her father Henry VIII using the flames to consume those who had rejected the pope’s authority.
  5. Execution Dock. Pirates breathed their last here – in a location deemed to suit their crime. They had lived by stealing on the waters – and so they would face their end by the river with the tide submerging their bodies. Captain Kidd was hanged at this location.
  6. Banqueting House, Whitehall. King Charles I stepped from a first floor window and on to a wooden scaffold to lose his head. When his son Charles II became king, he hunted down those who had signed his father’s death warrant and had them executed a stone’s throw away at Charing Cross. The diarist Samuel Pepys, a bit of a royalist toady by then, wrote an inappropriately merry account of one of those hanging, drawing and quarterings.
  7. Kennington. This was south London’s main place of execution. I’ve blogged before about two unfortunately gentlemen who were hanged for the crime of being gay. It surprises me that given the large LGBT population in the area, there is no monument to this injustice.
  8. Stratford-le-Bow. Now I knew nothing about this execution site until recently. But this is where Queen Mary Tudor burned another load of Protestants as part of her ongoing and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to turn Britain back to Catholicism. Thirteen men and women were burned in front of 20,000 people on 27 June 1556.
  9. Shooters Hill Crossroads. Little bit further out of town towards Woolwich is where highwaymen were hanged. This was presumably to warn any wannabe Dick Turpins heading towards London that they would meet a grim fate.
  10. St Thomas-a-Watering. Right next to the Thomas-a-Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, famous in the 20th century for playing host to gangsters and boxers, was the place of execution for a small group of Catholic friars in 1539. As with Marble Arch and Tyburn, you’re going to need to summon up those powers of imagination to picture the scene now.

Ten things you may never have known about Lincoln’s Inn Fields

  1. It was previously referred to as Ficket’s Fields and Whetstone’s Park and was considered very dangerous because of the high level of robberies
  2. The square may also have been known as Cup and Purse Field
  3. Queen Elizabeth I and then James I forbade the building of houses on top of Lincoln’s Inn Fields preserving it as a green space
  4. Then James I changed his mind and the famed architect Inigo Jones was allowed to design a public square
  5. The four sides of the square have distinct names: Newman’s Row, Arch Row, Portugal Row and Lincoln’s Inn Wall
  6. Lord William Russell was beheaded in the middle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21st July, 1683 and Algernon Sidney later that same year
  7. In 1662, the Duke’s Theatre was opened on Portugal Street on the site of an old tennis court and was named after Charles II’s brother, James the Duke of York
  8. After barbers and surgeons became separate professions in 1745 (no, really, that happened), Barber-Surgeons Hall was abandoned with surgeons wanting their own headquarters in London. They chose Lincoln’s Inn Fields
  9. Being so close to Chancery Lane, several Lord Chancellors lived on the square
  10. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, recent archaeology (conducted by Channel Four’s Time Team) suggests that refugees fleeing their burned homes camped in the square. Remains of large tent pegs were discovered

The wife who bought rope for her husband to be hanged

Dick Hughes is mentioned in the Newgate Calendar as a robber who came to London at the start of the eighteenth century to make money the dishonest way. He’d already been arrested and tried in Worcester for theft. On that occasion he’d been whipped at the cart’s tail “crying carrots and turnips” as he was dragged along and beaten.

Hughes fell into bad company the moment he arrived in the capital. After being caught stealing three shillings from a house in Lambeth, he pleaded for mercy at the Kingston-upon-Thames assizes and was not hanged – as could easily have happened. But instead of turning a new leaf, Hughes became ever more audacious. He robbed houses in Tottenham Cross, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Hackney, Hammersmith and a tobacconist in Red Cross Street. His luck run out when Hughes was caught breaking into the house of a certain George Clark in Twickenham. Very soon, he was languishing in Newgate prison.

Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff's rope
Hughes was dissected after being hanged with the sheriff’s rope

During a previous short stretch of imprisonment at the Fleet Prison, Hughes had married a very kind-hearted woman. On the 24th June, 1709, she had to watch her husband transported in a cart through the parish of St Giles towards the gallows at Tyburn. As the cart paused, she ran up to Hughes and asked whether she or the sheriff were supposed to buy the rope to hang him!

Her husband, a bit thrown by this question, said it was the sheriff’s business to do that. Rather sheepishly, his wife produced a length of rope:

I wish I had known so much before. it would have saved me twopence for I have been and bought one already.

Sarcastically, Hughes advised her to keep it as it might come in useful for her second husband. And so, aged 30, Hughes dangled at the end of rope provided by the authorities and not his dear lady wife. Afterwards, he was taken to the Surgeons’ Hall and dissected – a common practice for the bodies of poor criminals.

The axe and block used to behead people at the Tower of London

In the Tower of London, they still have the axe and “heading block” used for executions right up to the mid-18th century. There’s also a mask that was worn by the executioner. The block is chipped and dinted as a result of some considerable use. On it, the heads of three Scottish rebels – Lords Lovat, Kilmarnock and Balmerino – were severed in 1746. It’s not true, however, that the head of Anne Boleyn was taken off using it in the 16th century. She was decapitated by a French swordsman in a departure from the usual method. A nice clean cut!

Anne Boleyn

Thomas Savage

Londoner executed not once – but twice!

Thomas Savage was born in the parish of St Giles in the Fields and as a youth, became an apprentice to a certain Mr Collins, a vintner at the Ship Tavern at Ratcliff Cross. Three hundred years ago, when this story is set, Ratcliff was a hamlet by the river Thames with a strong ship building and provisioning tradition. It’s long been swallowed up by the borough of Tower Hamlets, located between Shadwell and LImehouse.

Thomas Savage
Thomas Savage at the “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay

The teenager Thomas showed what a wicked person he was by not attending church on the Sabbath.  “Breaking the Sabbath” was illegal at the time – this being the late seventeenth century. But that didn’t bother Thomas too much who spent his Sunday at a “bawdy house” with Hannah Blay, “a vile common strumpet , who was the cause of his ruin” (as one account puts it).

At first, Savage turned up at the brothel with wine and he and the prostitute Hannah got merrily drunk and enjoyed themselves. But being a lady of the night, Hannah wanted money for her services. So she goaded Thomas into robbing Mr Collins. But Savage explained that Collins’ maid was always in the house. To which Hannah responded:

Hang her, a jade! Knock her brains out and I’ll receive the money and go anywhere with you beyond sea, to avoid the stroke of justice.

So the weak-willed Thomas headed back to the Collins house and avoided his master by climbing over a back wall. He then ran into the other servants having dinner including the ever-present maid. Rather unwisely, she took Savage to task for spending too much time at the bawdy house. He didn’t like this telling off and it convinced him to bash her brains out as Hannah had advised.

So one day he took a hammer and began hitting out at objects round the house to provoke her to anger. This presumably would have made it easier for him to do the foul deed. Thomas needed to psyche himself up to commit his first murder. Initially, the maid seems to have tried to ignore this bizarre behaviour but eventually she asked him to stop. He then threw the hammer and scored a direct blow on her head. Falling to the ground she screamed in pain and her assailant hesitated to deal the fatal blow. He just couldn’t quite do it.

But as she moaned and groaned, he set about her with the hammer and snuffed the maid’s life out. Breaking open a cupboard, he found a bag with sixty pounds of Collins’ money – a princely sum then – and escaped. Meeting up with Hannah, his behaviour became increasingly erratic. She asked for all of it but he only gave her half a crown and then fled. In the hours that followed, he sat by the roadside crying out loud about what he had done. Eventually, gathering his wits about him, he went down to a guest house in Greenwich.

The mistress of this guest house was very suspicious to find a seventeen year old with a bag bulging with so much money. She asked him what he was doing. Thomas lied that he was on his way to Gravesend to meet his master, a wine cooper. This story seemed a bit fishy and Thomas, now in a total panic, said she could contact his master and in fact, he’d leave the money with her until she did.

So without any of his ill-gotten gains, Savage wandered off to Woolwich. Shortly after, word of his murder filtered down from Ratcliff to Greenwich – it took much longer for news to get around in the days before mass media. The mistress of the guest house sent a group of men to go after him and he was found in a Woolwich ale house, head on the table and a pot of beer by his side. The men challenged him:

Tom – did you not live at Ratcliff?

Yes

And did you not murder your fellow servant? And you took so much money from your master? You must go along with us!

Yes, with all my heart.

In custody, Savage confessed everything. On the day he went to court, his fellow prisoners got him a bit drunk and he shopped Hannah Blay to the authorities. She was then arrested too. Thomas was sentenced to death – the punishment to be carried out at Ratcliff Cross. This was quite a common thing to do – to kill the criminal at the place where they had committed their crime. Savage’s hanging was postponed on one occasion and news was given to him as he was dressed up for the occasion.

What – have I got on my dying clothes? Dying clothes did I say? They are my living clothes, the clothes out of which I shall go into eternal glory. They are the best clothes that ever I put on!

At Ratcliff Cross, there seems to have been some sympathy among the crowd for this pathetic figure. He said a little prayer and the cart pulled away to leave him struggling at the end of the rope. A friend beat Thomas around the chest to shorten his misery. Motionless and left dangling for a while, everybody assumed Savage was dead. His friends then took him to a nearby house and laid his body on a table. Then something incredible happened. Thomas started breathing!

His throat rattled. He heaved upwards. Then his eyes and mouth opened. His teeth are described as having been “set before” – I assume that means in his death struggle, they’d been pushed out – and he couldn’t speak. Now you might think he’d have been let off but not in seventeenth century England. As word got out that Savage was alive, an embarrassed sheriff turned up and took him back to the gibbet. Poor Savage was then hanged all over again until he was properly dead.

His forlorn friends then spirited his seventeen year old body away to Islington where he was buried on the 28th October, 1668.

The Calves Head Club – celebrating a beheaded king!

On the 30th January, 1649, king Charles I stepped out of a first floor window of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (a building you can still see today though much restored) and on to a wooden scaffold. In front of a great crowd, the king’s head was chopped off. This was the culmination of the English Civil War – a bitter conflict between the forces of the king and those of parliament. The latter, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, won. The decision to kill Charles wasn’t taken lightly and followed a trial after which 59 Commissioners signed his death warrant.

Not something to be celebrated!
Not something to be celebrated!

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, several of those Commissioners were hunted down and then hanged, drawn and quartered – a slow and dreadful way to die. Any talk of sympathy for the regicides was treason. So it’s rather surprising to find that reports began to emerge in the early eighteenth century of a gentlemen’s club that actually celebrated the beheading of Charles I.

They did this in a rather macabre way. At a tavern in Suffolk Street, a large dish of calves’ heads was served up each dressed in a different way to represent the late king and other royalists who’d died in a similar manner. When the cloth was whipped away to reveal the strange meal, the revellers sang an anniversary song. A calf’s skull filled with wine was then passed around and every man toasted the regicides and their good work.

In 1735, the gentlemen got a little carried away and chucked a bloodied calve’s head out of the tavern window. According to an account titled the Secret History of the Calves’ Head Club or the Republican unmasked, this act – on the anniversary of the king’s beheading, provoked a riot. At least that was the widely circulated version of events.

Lord Middlesex, who was one of the revellers, wrote an indignant letter to a friend of his, Mr Spence, who he referred to playfully as “Spanco”. According to his lordship, there was indeed a drunken party and the gentlemen even made a bonfire outside the tavern door for a bit of fun. But they suddenly realised that such an act on the 30th January would make it look as if they were celebrating the execution of Charles I, which they definitely weren’t, he wrote.

However, a mob of royalist Londoners was not so easily convinced and gathered round the tavern to rain rocks through the windows for an hour .  To try and fend off the mob, the party shouted “The King, Queen and Royal Family!” Only the arrival of some soldiers saved the gathering from getting their heads bloodied. After that incident, we don’t hear about the Calves Head Club again.

Newgate Prison: Public hangings in Victorian London

This is the first of a series of blog posts about the notorious Newgate Prison that once stood on the site of the Old Bailey

You might assume that hanging people in public had died out in England after the 18th century but in fact, these gruesome events continued right up until 1868. The authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray both witnessed some of the last hangings – which still drew crowds of tens of thousands. In fact, Dickens seems to have been a serial attender at executions while also condemning them. He was present, for example, when murderer Marie Manning gasped her last outside the Surrey County Gaol in 1849 and outside Newgate prison when Francis Courvoisier dangled from the rope.IMG_0872

I have a battered old guide to the city – London As It Is Today – published for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it tells visitors all about the delights of London’s prisons and even how they could be visited. It even lists some of the most recent executions!

Newgate prison was a huge jail standing where the Old Bailey is today. 19th century public hangings there included:

  • John Bellingham – executed in June, 1812 for shooting dead the prime minister Spencer Perceval. This was the only assassination of a prime minister in British history
  • Henry Fauntleroy – a banker hanged for forgery in November, 1824
  • Joseph Hunton – a well-known Quaker executed for forgery in December, 1828
  • George Widgett – the last person to be hanged for sheep stealing in May, 1831
  • John Bishop and Thomas Williams – for the murder of an Italian boy in December, 1831
  • Francis Benjamin Courvoisier – who killed Lord William Russell, his master, July 1840
  • Daniel Good – for the murder of Jane Jones at Putney in May, 1842
  • William Henry Hocker – for the murder of James De La Rue at Hampstead in April, 1845

My 1851 guide remarks on the imposing aspect of Newgate prison with its solid masses of granite walls.

In the open space in front of this prison, executions (now happily of rare occurrence), usually take place, with all their terrors; how many a young heart has here had its pulsation stopped! how many who once were the pride of their parents, and the joy and hope of their circle of friends, have here had their careers of profligacy and crime cut short, and in the pride of their strength, been “lighted away the way to dusty death”

In the prison chapel, there were galleries for male and female prisoners and at the centre – a chair for the following day’s condemned “shedder of blood”. Before the 19th century, his or her coffin would be placed at their feet during their last service just to rub the point home. In a small ante-room near the entrance to the prison was a collection of casts of the heads of well known executed individuals. Duplicates could also be seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s. IMG_0875

Newgate prison dated back to the 12th century but the last building dated from 1770 to 1783 and was designed by George Dance, who was the son of the architect of the Mansion House in the City of London (still standing). When it was decided to stop dragging condemned criminals from Newgate to Tyburn to be hanged (roughly where Marble Arch is today), they were simply led out to the front of Newgate and executed there – the first hanging being on the 7th November, 1783.

In another old guide to London in my possession, it states that on public execution days, local coffee shops and gin palaces would be bursting with people bargaining for seats to get the best view away from the crowds aside. You would hear the punters saying “excellent situation, comfortable room, splendid view”. The crush of people extended down Giltspur Street with criminals boasting loudly how their mates had been hanged, transported or imprisoned while they were still at large committing their foul deeds. City clerks often lingered too long and were late for work or even sacked.

When public hangings stopped in 1868 (Michael Barrett on the 26th May that year – an Irish Fenian), you would know that a life had been cut short within the prison walls by the flying of a black flag.

Should Victorian visitors wish to take a tour of the prison, they could apply to the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Home Office today), the Lord Mayor or the Sheriffs of London. Newgate Prison was finally torn down at the turn of the 20th century and the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey, was constructed between 1903 and 1906.

“Could he be executed in front of my house?”

Oliver Cromwell and his puritan revolution were a thing of the past. The monarchy was restored. Charles II and the Restoration were in full swing. But in 1683, there were some aristocrats who didn’t like the way things were going in the royal court. King Charles and his brother James, the Duke of York, were suspected of being crypto-Catholics bent on restoring the old religion to England. Charles was secretive in his sympathies but James left no doubt that he was an ardent Catholic. That meant, to some leading politicians, that James had to be blocked from ever becoming king. Some went a step further and concluded that both Charles and James had to be killed.

Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution
Lord William Russell before Jack Ketch botched his execution

The resulting Rye House Plot was uncovered and several peers of the realm including Lord William Russell were put on trial. Almost inevitably, Russell was found guilty. Being found guilty of treason meant death. The only problem for the king was that Russell and his views had some support with the London mob. So an execution at Tower Hill could have led to a riot in favour of the condemned man. There were already rumours of an attempt that would be made to rescue Russell while on the way from Newgate prison to the executioner’s block.

The Duke of York, the king’s brother James, came up with a novel solution. He hated Russell’s guts. After all, Russell and his friends had wanted to exclude James from the royal succession. Therefore – James asked Charles – could Russell possible be executed at his front door in Southampton Square? James and his buddies would therefore be able to watch Russell’s head depart from his shoulders over an agreeable claret from an upstairs window. The king decided this was a bit indecent.

Instead, Russell was taken down Holborn to be decapitated in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I worked at a digital agency on that London square for ten years – a big idyllic space in the centre of the city. Today, you can see office workers taking a lunchtime stroll or the tennis courts being used by the more energetic in the mornings. But on the 21st July, 1683 – Londoners would have been there to watch Russell meet his maker.

The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door
The Duke of York wanted the execution at his front door

As Russell was led down Holborn, some of the crowds insulted him while others wept. By all accounts, he sang psalms most of the way. Looking at the mass of people who’d gathered for their fun day out watching his beheading, Russell said he looked forward to being in better company very soon. Regrettably, his executioner wasn’t going to despatch him so quickly. Jack Ketch made a total mess of the job taking at least two axe strikes to get Russell’s head off. He later penned a pamphlet blaming Russell for distracting him!! Ketch later took five strikes to behead the Duke of Monmouth – so he had form.

James, Duke of York, never got to have that execution at his front door. But he did go on to become king for four years. As expected, he pursued policies sympathetic to Catholics. And for that, he was duly overthrown. Politicians with Russell’s leanings invited a Dutch prince, William, to invade England and become king instead – which he duly did.