Tyburn’s terrible past

Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree, by Alan BrookeWhen I was at university studying eighteenth-century London history, I discovered the gruesome past of the Tyburn Gallows. I was lucky enough to have access to the collections of the City of Westminster Archives Centre during my studies, and now I’m an assistant here I’ve enjoyed revisiting many of the sources I used in my essays.

Tyburn was a site of execution and drew in huge crowds to watch notorious criminals and disreputable Londoners being hanged. I was intrigued to discover that this grisly place was located so near to some of the wealthiest areas of Westminster. Take this 18th century map by John Rocque, for example. The map reveals the close proximity of Tyburn Gallows, positioned at the north-east corner of Hyde Park, to the upper-class residences of Grosvenor Square.

18th century map by John Rocque. Image property of Westminster City Archives

18th century map by John Rocque. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Not only were the upper-classes living near to the execution site; they also actively followed in the gruesome events that took place there. Upper classes revelled in the gossip and intrigue which surrounded prisoners, interested in the lurid facts of their crimes and seeing justice brought to individuals. While the development of exclusive estates had led to greater segregation of the classes, Tyburn provided a space in the city where people from all walks of life would gather to watch the ‘spectacle’ of execution.

Another item from the Westminster Archives collection, William Hogarth’s print of the Idle Prentice’s execution at Tyburn, starkly illustrates these surprising encounters between rich and poor at Tyburn. Look carefully at the background and you can see poor beggars and fighters surrounding a wealthy citizen in his carriage. This satirical print of the Tyburn hanging also depicts the large crowds which were drawn to the executions. We can see how public hangings became communal occasions, an exciting spectacle for all classes to view in 18th century London.

William Hogarth’s print of the Idle Prentice's execution at Tyburn. Image property of Westminster City Archives

William Hogarth’s print of the Idle Prentice’s execution at Tyburn. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Other documents, such as ‘The Behaviour, Confession and Execution of several prisoners that suffered at Tyburn’, give greater detail and a primary account of the executions at Tyburn. In publications such as these, literate Londoners could read over accounts of dastardly crimes and their perpertrators’ comeuppance. It gave citizens an insight into the criminal underworld of London and can do the same for us today.

The Behaviour, Confession and Execution of several prisoners that suffered at Tyburn. Image property of Westminster City Archives

The Behaviour, Confession and Execution of several prisoners that suffered at Tyburn. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Thankfully, the days of execution at Tyburn are long gone. The gallows were used for the last time in 1783 and today the site of the so-called ‘Tyburn Tree’ is marked by a plaque. We now more commonly associate the area with the beginning of Oxford Street’s busy shopping district, the monumental gate at Marble Arch and Hyde Park’s ‘Speaker’s Corner’. It is only by going back to the sources that have survived since the days of the notorious Tyburn Tree that we can get closer to its significance for Londoners.

Interested in finding out more about Tyburn and criminals in London during the 18th century? Alongside our primary resources we hold a range of secondary texts, which provide insight into this intriguing aspect of London life. Some of the useful texts I used in my own research included Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree, Crime & Criminals of Victorian London, London: The Executioner’s City, and The Complete Newgate Calendar – a set of the detailed memoirs of notorious characters, both those convicted and acquitted.

[Kim]

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