Friday, 18 May 2012
Tyburn Hill took its name from a narrow stream, the Ty Burn, which ran past it to enter the Thames to the south and is close to where Marble Arch now stands. It was chosen as a place of execution in medieval times because it formed a prominent rise on the main road out of London to the west.
All manner of felons were hanged at Tyburn, except for the nobility. From time immemorial noblemen were granted the privilege of being executed by having their heads chopped off with an axe, this being a quicker and less painful death. The gibbet at Tyburn took the form of a horizontal wooden bean supported by two posts. The unfortunate to be hanged was placed on a cart under the beam, his neck tied to the beam with a stout rope and the cart driven away. Death resulted from slow strangulation, though friends and relatives were allowed to hasten death by pulling on the legs.
Such executions were, of course, public and sometimes attracted large crowds to the open fields around Tyburn. The largest crowds were attracted by highwaymen who had frequently led colourful and glamourous careers before being caught. For a celebrity victim, such as highwayman James Maclean, hanged in 1750, the day of execution was a carefully choreographed spectacle. After being allowed to receive visitors in his cell, several of whom were charged for the privilege, the criminal would be allowed to don his finest clothes for the execution. Several even ordered new suits for their final day.
Loaded on to the back of a cart, the criminal was then driven out of Newgate Prison, which stood on the site of the Old Bailey. The procession of guards and cart proceeded up Holborn and out along Oxford Street. The cart was stopped whenever it passed an inn and the criminal would be allowed a drink, to be paid for by the executioner on the return journey. When the cart reached Tyburn, the assembled crowd would fall silent for the final speech from the scaffold. Some poor men hardly said a word, but Maclean gave forth an impassioned Biblical tirade on the wickedness of men and called on all present to lead honest lives. These speeches were often copied down, printed up on cheap newsheets and sold around London that evening.
Then the execution took place.
In 1783 the decision was taken to dispense with the long journey to Tyburn, with executions being held on a scaffold outside the prison. the move was made to spare the criminal the long journey and to ensure a speedy and well organised execution. Not everyone approved, Dr Johnson for one arguing that the deterrent effect of execution was lessened if the spectacle was over too quickly.
Fortunately most people disagreed and the moves to make justice more merciful continued. Executions were first made swifter in 1788 when the trapdoor, leading to a swiftly broken neck was introduced and in 1865 public executions were ended.