Oliver Cromwell overthrew the monarchy in England and brought about – in effect – a republic. That was more than a hundred years before France and the new United States did the same. But, after his death, the mighty Cromwell’s head mysteriously went missing.
After a bloody civil war, Cromwell imprisoned King Charles I and then had him executed by beheading in Whitehall. But maybe the king got to have the last laugh. Because whereas King Charles was reunited with his head in his grave, Cromwell’s head was to go missing for hundreds of years.
In 1911, The Reverend H R Wilkinson gave an address to the Royal Archaeological Institute and exhibited what he claimed was the head of Oliver Cromwell. How had it become detached?
After ruling England in the absence of a king and calling himself the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell died aged 59 in 1658. He was buried with due pomp in Westminster Abbey – much as a king might have been interred.
However, a year later, the brave experiment in republicanism collapsed and King Charles II – son of the beheaded king – took the throne. He immediately had Oliver Cromwell exhumed and hanged in chains at Tyburn. This was the gallows in London where common people dangled from a rope.
His head was then struck from his body and put on a pole. According to some accounts, his body was dumped in a hole under the gallows at Tyburn. But others say that friends of Cromwell took his abused carcass away and buried it in Red Lion Square, Holborn. Without the skull.
His impaled head was displayed at Westminster Hall right outside the Houses of Parliament. Unbelievable though it may seem, it remained there until 1703 when the mouldy head blew down during a big storm.
A sentry guarding parliament picked it up and took it to his home. Apparently he never confessed to having done this until he was on his death bed. Then his family sold the grisly object to a family called Russell although the portrait painter Sir Joshua Reynolds attempted to make a rival bid.
The head of Oliver Cromwell then ended up around 1787 with an antiquarian dealer called James Cox who put it in the window of his Bond Street art gallery in 1799!
Cox even placed an advert in the Morning Chronicle on 18 March that year stating:
The Real Embalmed Head of the powerful and renowned Usurper Oliver Cromwell with the Original Dies for the Medals struck in honour of his Victory at Dunbar etc are now exhibited at No. 5 in Mead Court, Old Bond Street…”
Morning Chronicle – 18 March 1799
In 1812, the Cromwell head came into the ownership of the Wilkinson family and a hundred years later the Reverend Wilkinson was making his speech. If that really was the head of Oliver Cromwell, it was then buried under the floor of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, in 1960.
If you’ve watched the Netflix horror series The Frankenstein Chroniclesyou might be wondering what part of London were all those sordid and foul alley ways and run down houses? Well, it might surprise you to know that it was a district very close to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament.
I’m a latecomer to The Frankenstein Chronicles so you have to excuse my belated interest. But watching it, I was keen to know where all those squalid slums were set. And it turns out to have been an area of Westminster that Charles Dickens referred to as the Devil’s Acre. Those of you who have watched The Frankenstein Chronicles will recall that Dickens appears in the TV series (seasons one and two) as a young journalist using his pen name “Boz”.
The Devil’s Acre is very near where I worked for a few years at the Home Office (equivalent of the US Department for Homeland Security). And that’s ironic because the Home Office is all about law and order while the Devil’s Acre was notorious for its thieves and beggars. In the early 19th century, it was a part of London that you entered at your peril – at the very least, you would be robbed blind.
Pye Street, Duck Lane, Anne Street and Stretton Grounds were full of ramshackle buildings that were overcrowded and insanitary. As early as the 18th century, the area was getting a disagreeable reputation. One member of parliament, Lord Tyrconnel, said in 1741 that it was an embarrassment to have this seething den of iniquity so close to parliament where foreign visitors couldn’t fail to note the “herd of barbarians” who lived there.
At the state opening of parliament, the king’s coach had to whip through the area – no doubt His Majesty holding a perfumed hanky to his nose! So deep were the ruts in the muddy road that piles of wood had to be thrown into the holes to stop the king’s coach toppling over and ejecting the monarch into the mud.
The buildings in this massive slum district were often made of wood and illegally constructed. They might once have been ground houses in the 17th century but now reduced to tenements where people slept on the floors and several to a bed.
Much of the area was below the level of the nearby river Thames and so was prone to flooding. And the unhappy folk lived by their wits providing cabs by day then counterfeiting money and possibly picking pockets by night. This is a description by the journalist Thomas Beames in 1852:
Wherever you turned, the inhabitants were to be seen, in groups of half-dressed, unwashed men and women, loitering at doors, windows, and at the end of narrow courts, smoking, swearing, and occasionally fighting; and swarms of filthy, naked, and neglected children, who seemed well trained to use languages as profane, and do deeds as dark as those of their parents.
The problem of the Devil’s Acre was solved in a familiar way by the Victorians. Firstly, they rammed a massive road through it – Victoria Street – which is still there today. Then having sliced through the slums, they began redeveloping the area piecemeal. But it took a long time.
To wander those streets, get out at Victoria Station and meander behind Westminster Cathedral (the centre of British Roman Catholicism) up to Westminster Abbey. Very different today but see if you can spot any London Ghosts!
If you stand in front of St Paul’s cathedral and look to your left, towards Paternoster Square, you’ll see a stone arch with windows and well-worn statues. This is Temple Bar. Hard to believe now, but there were once human heads on poles adorning the top of it.
The structure was built in 1670 by Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect who gave us St Paul’s Cathedral and many smaller churches. He set about rebuilding London in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, a vast inferno that consumed much of the ancient city.
This terrible event had one upside. It gave Wren the opportunity to design a new and more ordered metropolis. However, poor Wren’s hopes of creating piazzas and wide streets was confounded at every turn by stubborn Londoners and their wish to keep the medieval winding thoroughfares and dark alleys.
So, why did Wren build Temple Bar?
The stone gate replaced wooden posts and chains that separated the City of London from the City of Westminster. It was originally positioned across the road in front of what’s now the Royal Courts of Justice. On one side was Fleet Street in the City and on the other was The Strand leading to Whitehall and the centre of royal government.
Everybody entering the City had to pass under the Temple Bar. It wasn’t entirely popular. For one thing, it held up traffic. The archway soon became way too narrow for the mass of carts, horses, carriage and people trying to cram through and do business.
It also had four poorly crafted statues of James I, Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II that were described in very unflattering terms by one Victorian writer as “mean” with “small feeble heads”. They’re not the greatest works of art it must be said.
The man who carved these mediocre works of art was called John Bushnell. By all accounts, he was somewhere between eccentric and insane. One scheme he devised was to prove that the Greeks could have invaded Troy by building his own Trojan Horse out of timber and covering it in stucco.
He spent £500 of his own money (a vast sum then) on this project creating a horse’s head that could hold a dining table to seat twelve people. The whole thing fell to pieces during a storm.
There is a room along the top portion of Temple Bar that was used as a storage room for Child’s bank. On the very top of Temple Bar, the heads of traitors once stared down on passers-by. This was meant to be an object lesson for 17th and 18th century Londoners not to rebel against their anointed kings and queens.
The first head to appear on Temple Bar was Sir Thomas Armstrong involved in the so-called Rye House Plot. Next came Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend who planned to assassinate King William III as he returned from hunting in Richmond – intercepting his coach between Brentford and Turnham Green.
They were hanged at Tyburn despite pleading their innocence – and their heads removed for public display.
In a ghoulish twist, typical of London, there were enterprising people in 1746 who were reportedly hiring out looking glasses at Temple Bar so that passers-by could take a closer look at the severed heads. It cost a halfpenny apparently. In 1766, a man was arrested for firing musket balls at the heads – which he then confessed to having done for three nights running.
In 1772, one of the heads blew down during a storm. Incredibly, the blackened object had been on top of Temple Bar since 1723 – nearly fifty years! A chap called John Pearce took it to a local tavern where it was then buried under the floor. Must have been an amusing subject of conversation beforehand!
Between 1880 and 2003, Temple Bar sat forlornly in a park in Hertfordshire. It was bought by the Meux brewing family. The City of London sold it to them as they’d long wondered what to do about what had become an unloved traffic obstruction. However, nearly twenty years ago it was uprooted once more and brought back into town.
Temple Bar has returned to the centre of London – not blocking any traffic and not sporting any severed heads.
How could somebody come to be executed not once – but twice? Such is the tale of one poor, unfortunate Londoner at a time of great cruelty and savagery.
Thomas Savage – appropriately named – 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 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?
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.
It’s appalling yet sadly true that in the past, teenagers and even children were hanged at the gallows for crimes like theft and arson. Murder didn’t have to be involved. There was a wide variety of crimes you could be judicially put to death for. And many teenagers were hanged as a consequence.
We don’t know the youngest person to be executed in Britain. And we probably never will as records could be patchy or lost. And names of very young criminals might not have been recorded. However, a certain John Dean was hanged in 1629 for an arson attack on two houses in Windsor. He was either eight or nine years old.
HANGED TEENAGERS – Martha Pillah
Martha Pillah – which might be a misspelling or cockney pronouncing of “Pillow” – was hanged at Tyburn aged 18 in the year 1717. According to the records of the Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court), she took six Guineas and 15 shillings from a woman called Elizabeth White. That would have been quite a sum in those days.
Martha was born in Brewers Yard in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster. That’s quite near the Houses of Parliament and full of shops and office blocks today. But up until the mid-19th century, the area was a massive slum lapping on to the steps of parliament. So not the greatest place to grow up.
Still, Martha had got herself apprenticed to a tailor and then left his service to make a living mending men’s clothes. But clearly that didn’t pay enough or she just wanted more money – faster. In the Old Bailey record, she is described as “lewd and lascivious” and ignorant of moral goodness.
That said, it’s also stated that she cried to God for mercy as she was put on the cart from Newgate prison and taken off to Tyburn to entertain the crowd at the end of a rope. This was the grim procession that ordinary Londoners had to make to their execution. First, leaving Newgate prison and then trundling down High Holborn and what is now Oxford Street to be executed at Tyburn – roughly where Marble Arch now stands.
HANGED TEENAGERS: John Lemon and Christopher Ward
Some other teenagers joined her on the same day – 20 May 1717. John Lemon aged 18 and Christopher Ward aged 17. They were both Eastenders from Whitechapel. Their crime was burglary. It’s a familiar commentary in these records that the court notes they knew nothing or little of “religion” or “Christianity”. The assumption being that if they did – they’d have led good lives.
Thomas Price, aged 17, was yet another teenager on the same day – in the same cart from Newgate – off to be hanged. Despite his youth, he’d already served four years at sea. Maybe not so surprising given he’d grown up on the Isle of Wight. But having been discharged from naval service, he went up to London to make his fortune.
Unfortunately what he actually ended up doing was stealing a load of silverware from a certain Dr Guy Mesmin. He tried to deny his involvement in the robbery but eventually caved in and confessed. Furthermore, to the delight of the court, he admitted his wickedness and prayed for divine forgiveness. He was told this would improve his chances of not going to hell – but he was still hanged.
And what a terrible day for teenagers was the 20 May 1717!
HANGED TEENAGERS: Josiah Cony
Because also in the cart with Thomas, Christopher, John and Martha was 18 year-old Josiah Cony. He had broken into the house of William Roy and stolen three “flaxen” sheets and some other goods. Josiah didn’t seem to have any trade. When asked how he made a living, Josiah said part of his time was spent “drawing drink at an Alehouse” and then helping his mother carry “greens” and flowers around the streets.
Well, his poor mother would have to do without his assistance in future. Josiah and the others were just a handful of the thousands of teenagers who undoubtedly swung at Tyburn over the centuries. Life was shorter. More brutal. And teenagers were held to be accountable for their crimes.
Sadly, so were children.
In the year that my house was built – 1829 – a 12-year-old was sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. He had been accused of theft and murder. As was quite common in those days, an advertisement was produced giving all the gory details. Plus a helpful illustration.
In case you’re wondering – surely there would have been some sympathy for a 12 year-old by the year 1829 – think again. Here’s a quote from the advertisement:
With horror we attempt to relate the progress of evil, generally prevailing among children, through the corrupt example of wicked parents: though we are constrained to confess that many a child through bad company, wickedly follow the dictates of their own will, and often bring the hoary heads of honest parents with sorrow to the grave.
The Dreadful Life and Confession of a Boy aged 12 years
Thanks to the British Library for this dreadful gem!