Public executions may be a thing of the past in the United Kingdom but they were commonplace up until 1868. The fact that they were public may have been intended to act as a warning and deterrent to others, or perhaps to add to the humiliation of the prisoner, but they ended up being a spectator sport. The public loved to watch them. For the families and friends of those being executed, it might be the last time they’d ever see the body, they might not get it back.
Hangings in London
Hanging was the main form of punishment in the British Isles from Anglo Saxon times up until its abolition in 1964. It was almost a family day out.
Hanging was a method of punishment used in the United Kingdom from at least Anglo Saxon times up until the 20th Century. In fact, it was the main method of punishment from the eighteenth century until it was abolished in 1964. (Actually, it hasn’t been completely abolished; it is still on the statute for high treason and piracy.)
Until May 1868, all executions were public, and the main site of execution in London was at a place called Tyburn. Tyburn was a village roughly where Marble Arch is situated today.
Prisoners were taken from Newgate Prison in the City of London (the prison is gone, the Old Bailey now stands on the site) to Tyburn, the final part of the journey being along what is now Oxford Street. They would stop a couple of times en route at hostelries so that the prisoners could have a drink or two before they met their end. There was always a delay after sentencing before execution, sometimes up to four weeks before the hanging would take place.
Come the day of the execution, those to be hanged were tied together in pairs, and put in carts, standing facing forwards. The carts were guarded by officials on horseback who rode alongside as the carts travelled to Tyburn. The carts were specially designed so that the nooses could be put around the necks of the prisoners and the cart could be driven off leaving the prisoners hanging.
The better-off of the prisoners would wear their best clothes for their executions. They could also be taken to Tyburn in a private coach, so that they were spared the indignity of the crowds hurling insults, and anything else they fancied, along the way.
In 1571 what was famously known as the The Triple Tree was set up there, and on at least one occasion, was used to hang 24 prisoners at the same time. There were three upright posts, about 18’ high, joined by beams at the top. It was possible to get three carts underneath the gallows at the same time. The last person believed to have been executed on this particular gallows was a woman called Catherine Knowland who was executed on 18 June 1759. She was hanged for highway robbery. The gallows were removed because they caused traffic congestion during the summer months, and that part of London was becoming rather fashionable, and the local residents didn’t like seeing the gallows. A portable gallows was installed later, a bit further away in the Edgeware Road, but still in the Tyburn Village area. The last execution took place at Tyburn on 7 November 1783 was another highway robber, John Austin.
It was common for the friends and family of those being executed to hang on their legs after the cart had driven away, to hasten their deaths. The bodies and anything on them belonged to the executioners, so families would have to buy them back for burial. As time went on though, surgeons and medical students would try to buy them for dissection and if they could afford to pay more…
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When Tyburn ceased to be used at the site for hangings, most of them took place at Newgate, although Smithfield and Tower Hill were still sometimes used. Spectators were charged up to £10 a time to watch the hangings at Newgate through the windows overlooking the gallows. Public executions stopped in 1868.
Some of the famous (or infamous) people hanged at Tyburn include:
Perkin Warbeck, hanged 23 November 1499, pretender to the throne of Henry VII.
Elizabeth Barton, also known as the Holy Maid of Kent,hanged 20 April 1534. She was hanged for treason because she’d prophesied (incorrectly) that King Henry VIII would die within six months if he married Anne Boleyn.
Oliver Cromwell, hanged 30 January 1661, but he was hanged after his body had been exhumed from Westminster Abbey.
This is a stone placed near Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park.