Tyburn’s gallows was the main place of execution for London and Middlesex until 1783. It was also the place where women were burnt for Petty Treason and High Treason and soldiers shot for military offences.
In 1571, the famous “Triple Tree” was set up at Tyburn to replace the previous smaller gallows and was, at least once, used for the hanging of 24 prisoners simultaneously. This was on the 23rd of June 1649, when 23 men and one woman were executed for burglary and robbery, having been conveyed there in 8 carts. Another mass execution took place on March 18th, 1740 when the famous pickpocket and thief, Jenny Diver, was hanged before a huge crowd, together with 20 other criminals. Tyburn’s gallows consisted of 3 tall (approx. 12-18 feet high) uprights joined at the top with beams in a triangular form to provide a triple gallows under which 3 carts could be backed at a time. It remained in use until Monday, the 18th of June 1759 when Catherine Knowland, convicted of highway robbery, became its last customer. The structure was removed during the summer, as it had become a cause of traffic congestion and was disliked by the residents of what was becoming a fashionable area of west London. It was replaced by a portable gallows which was first used on Wednesday, the 3rd of October 1759 for the hanging of 4 men, as reported in the Whitehall Evening Post of that day. It stood near the union of Bryanston Street and Edgware Road and was dragged into position by horses for each execution. Surprisingly, there is little detail of what the new gallows looked like. The condemned were still transported to Tyburn in carts and turned off from them as previously according to contemporary accounts. The last execution at Tyburn took place on Friday, the 7th of November 1783, when John Austin was hanged for highway robbery.
Criminals were tried at the Old Bailey and then sentenced to death in groups at the end of each Sessions before being returned to Newgate prison to await their fate. Prior to 1752, murderers were treated in the same way, although it was not unusual for them to be executed more quickly than other felons. Occasionally, as in the case of Jack Sheppard (16th of November 1724) who had escaped several times, a person was hanged alone, but this was unusual, probably due to the expense of it. After 1752, murderers had to be hanged within two days of their sentence unless this fell on a Sunday, in which case they were executed on the Monday. It was normal for judges to sentence them on a Friday to allow them this extra day. Additionally, they had to be kept in irons and fed only on bread and water.
For ordinary criminals, there could be from 2 weeks to 4 months before execution. After the Sessions finished, the Recorder prepared his report for submission to the King and Privy Council indicating which prisoners the Court felt should hang and which should have their sentences commuted, usually to transportation. The King and Privy Council met in what was called the “Hanging Cabinet” which ratified or commuted the death sentences. Those not reprieved would be kept in the condemned areas of Newgate in abysmal conditions, and it was not unusual for one or two to die of Goal Fever or other illness before their execution date. Prisoners were grouped together, often from several Sessions, to be taken to Tyburn on the next “hanging day.” Women prisoners frequently “pleaded their belly,” i.e. that they were pregnant. If they were found to be “quick with child,” and they often were, they were respited and usually in fact reprieved, although theoretically they could be re-called to their former judgement.
If the prisoner was wealthy, they might be permitted to be driven to Tyburn in a morning coach, as happened with Jenny Diver, thus sparing them from the insults of the crowds along the way. It was normal for better off criminals to wear their best clothes for their “Hanging Match” as executions were known.
The execution process began at around 7 o’clock in the morning when the condemned men and women would be led in fetters (handcuffs and leg-irons) into the Press Yard in Newgate. Here the blacksmith would remove the fetters and the Yeoman of the Halter would tie the criminals’ hands in front of them with a cord around the body and elbows (so that they were able to pray when they reached Tyburn) and place the rope (or halter, as it was known) round their necks, coiling the free end round their bodies. The noose was just a slip knot like the halter used on cattle and not the coiled type typically shown in films. A typical condemned group might comprise of 7 men, not one convicted of murder or rape, but of crimes such as highway robbery and various forms of theft and burglary, and perhaps one woman convicted of privately stealing, highway robbery or stealing in a dwelling house. When the pinioning was completed, they were placed in open horse drawn carts sitting on their coffins surrounded by armed cavalry. The procession consisting of the City Marshall (a court officer responsible for prisoners), the Ordinary (Newgate’s prison chaplain), the hangman and his assistants, and a troop of javelin men started out for Tyburn about two and a half miles away. The procession made its slow and bumpy passage along Holborn, St. Giles, and the Tyburn Road (now called Oxford Street) to Tyburn itself near what is now Marble Arch. The narrow streets could be lined with crowds, especially if the criminals were notorious, and there would often be insults and more solid objects hurled at the prisoners and their escorts on the way. A stop was often made at St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell would be tolled and the minister would chant, “You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls.” As the procession passed on, the minister would tell the audience, “All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls.” Here friends might present the criminals small nosegays (bunches of flowers).
Stops were made at two public houses along the way, probably the Bowl Inn at St Giles and the Mason’s Arms in Seymour Place, where the condemned would be allowed an alcoholic drink. Once they left the second pub, it was a short journey to the gallows.
On arrival at Tyburn around noon, some two to three hours after they had left Newgate, the prisoners were greeted by a large crowd, of anything up to 100,000 people, who had come to watch the spectacle. Amongst the crowd were hawkers selling food and souvenirs and people selling copies of broadsides purporting to contain the prisoners’ last dying speeches and confessions of the condemned (bear in mind this was before they had been executed!) It has often been said that pickpockets were operating among the crowd, despite the fact that it was frequently some of their number who were being hanged.
Wealthier spectators hired seats in Mother Procter’s Pews – open galleries like modern grandstands at a football stadium. A seat with a good view was much sought after and very expensive – 2 shillings (10p) was a lot of money then. The poor just milled round the gallows held back by the Javelin men.
There was a house overlooking Tyburn, with iron balconies, from which the Sheriffs of the City of London and Under Sheriff of Middlesex plus their invited guests watched the executions.
The carts were each backed under one of the three beams of the gallows. The hangman uncoiled the free end of the rope from each prisoner and threw it up to one of his assistants positioned precariously on the beam above. They tied the rope to the beam leaving very little slack. The Ordinary would pray with the prisoners and when he had finished, the hangman pulled nightcaps over the faces of those who had brought them. As you can imagine, the preparations took quite some time where a large batch of prisoners were being hanged.
When everything was ready, the horses were whipped away, pulling the prisoners off the carts and leaving them suspended. They would only have a few inches of drop at most and thus many of them would writhe in convulsive agony for some moments, their legs paddling the air – “dancing the Tyburn jig” as it was known, until unconsciousness overtook them. The hangman, his assistants and sometimes the prisoners’ relatives might pull on the prisoners’ legs to hasten their end.
It was not unknown for the occasional person to survive their hanging. One of the most famous cases is that of John Smith, hanged on Christmas Eve 1705. Having been turned off the back of the cart, he dangled for 15 minutes until the crowd began to shout “reprieve,” whereupon he was cut down and taken to a nearby house where he soon recovered.
He was asked what it had felt like to be hanged and this is what he told his rescuers:
“When I was turned off I was, for some time, sensible of very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down.”
Another case is that of 16 year old William Duell, who was hanged along with 4 others, on the 24th of November 1740. He had been convicted of raping and murdering Sarah Griffin and was therefore to be anatomised after execution. He was taken to Surgeon’s Hall where it was noticed that he was showing signs of life. He was revived and returned to Newgate later that day. The authorities decided to reprieve him and his sentence was commuted to transportation.
After half an hour or so, the now lifeless bodies were cut down and claimed by friends and relatives or sent for dissection at Surgeons’ Hall. Fights often broke out between the rival parties over possession of the bodies. (Prior to the Murder Act of 1752, surgeons were allowed 10 bodies per year, after that they got the bodies of all murderers as well). Wealthier criminals provided coffins for themselves, the poorer ones often could not afford these. It was not unusual for their friends and relatives to sell the bodies to dissectionists.
The clothes of the executed belonged to the hangman and, therefore, some prisoners only wore their cheapest, oldest clothes whilst others dressed to look their best for their final performance.
In the case of notorious criminals, the hangman would sell their rope by the inch – hence the expression “money for old rope.”
Where a woman was to be burned at the stake for High Treason (mainly offences of clipping filing or forging coins) or Petty Treason, her execution was normally carried out after the hangings. Both men and women convicted of treason were drawn on a sledge to their execution instead of riding in the carts with the others.
The whole execution was a leisurely, and in many ways, theatrical process. Time seemed to matter very little (unlike 20th century hangings) and everyone went to enjoy the morbid entertainment. In some cases, the prisoners seemed to enter into the spirit of the occasion. They were, after all, the stars of the show wearing their best clothes and behaving with as much courage as they could summon, even joking and making speeches from the carts. Others seemed more affected by their situation and prayed fervently at the end with the Ordinary, no doubt afraid of what lay ahead in the afterlife which they would have believed in.
In a lot of cases, the public sympathised with the criminal, except where they had committed a really horrible crime. Elizabeth Brownrigg who had beaten and starved her apprentice girls to death was the sort of criminal the public really hated (c.f. the attitude to child murderers now). She was hanged on the 14th of September 1767.
From 1702, hangings were reported in the fledgling press, the Daily Courant being the first London daily newspaper, as well as the execution broadsides. The Ordinary’s reports of condemned criminals were also available.
Hangmen at Tyburn.
William Marvell took over from his predecessor, John Price, who was hanged for murder on Saturday, the 31st of May 1718. Marvell was a temporary replacement for Price from 1714, while the latter was in prison for debt. He held the job until November 1717, when he was dismissed after also getting into debt, but then presumably re-appointed to replace Price. He was succeeded by one Mr. Banks about whom very little is known. He was at some point between 1717 and 1725 succeeded by Richard Arnet who died in 1728.
John Hooper was appointed to take over from Arnet, working till 1735 when he was replaced by John Thrift who reigned for nearly 18 years, dying on the 5th of May 1752.
Thomas Turlis replaced him working for nearly 20 years before dying in 1771. His first job was to hang 12 people on Monday, the 4th of February 175
I do not think this is a realistic picture of the London Hangman in action, rather it is a propaganda piece, the executioner depicted as establishment figure, as “The Finisher of the Law”. Thomas Turlis’ clothes, appropriate to a tradesman or a member of the minor gentry, emphasise his respectability. Not for him the hood and half mask of the hangman of nightmares, nor the rough, workmanlike clothes of the butcher. He holds the main tool of his trade – the noose or halter – displayed in his hands. The simple running knot of the business end is quite clear and nothing like the later hangman’s knot. In practice, this haltar would have been tied about the neck of the condemned in the Press Yard Room at Newgate by the Yeoman of the Halter and the slack wound about their waist. No doubt the executioners and their assistants had learned by experience that it provoked less resistance – and in a location where resistance could be more easily suppressed – to noose the condemned while still within the confines of the prison rather than wait until they were all actually under the beam of the gallows. Once they were arrived and the cart carefully positioned, the slack would have been unwound and the free end tossed over and secured to one of the beams of the Tyburn gallows.
If the picture is a propaganda piece, yet the other attendant details it shows are fascinatingly accurate. It must date from between May 1752 when Turlis succeeded John Thrift and the summer of 1759 when the permanent triangular gallows of Tyburn was demolished to be replaced by a portable, single beamed, structure, since behind Turlis’ left shoulder is quite clearly one angle of the notorious and iconic Triple Tree – the Deadly Nevergreen – the Three-legged Horse – the Horse Foaled by an Acorn.
The cart on which Turlis is standing is the kind of cart used to transport the condemned to the gallows (you can see part of the wheel in the right foreground) and which has high sides to stop them easily jumping out but no tailgate so that they can be dragged off it once they are strung up. However, there is no sign of the cart’s horse whose hind quarters should be just visible beyond the dangling noose. Perhaps this would have complicted the picture too much. The horse in not out of sight at the other end of the cart because the condemned always rode with their backs to the horse and the direction of travel, although whether this was a deliberate humiliation or to spare them the sight of the gallows until the very last moment, is debatable.
Beside the cart is a mounted pike man, one of the military escort except that in many depictions of the escort, the pike men are on foot and the mounted escort are cavalry men with sabres. This man may be a conflation of both types of escort. Behind the two seated felons is a dark shadow which may represent the coffin in which one of them will be buried and against which they leaned or sat on the journey to Tyburn. It is interesting that the faces of the pikeman and the felons boarder on caricature while the face of Turlis is almost noble. There is no knowing whether it is an accutate likeness.
The felons themselves are two symbolic types. The one on the left is decently dressed in coat and cravat and has on his head the traditional white nightcap which the hangman will pull down to cover his face just before he is turned off. He bows his head in a posture of remorse. He depicts the appropriately pentitent criminal who meets with the chaplain’s approval. His companion gazes up in defiance or anguish. He has not bothered – or cannot afford – decent clothes: his shirt is ragged and his neckcloth a limp rag. He has no nightcap to conceal the final distorted expression of his face. The chaplain has not succeeded in bringing him to a suitable state of mind to confront Eternity. But both are shown to be weeping, the tears are clear on both faces. They are also shown as tied in the traditional way with a rope round the upper arms holding their elbows in at the waist but leaving their hands free to wring in anguish or to clasp in prayer. Again, long experience must have shown that this kind of bond was sufficient to immobilise the man: he would be have limited use of his hands to hold his tankard at St Giles or to give his friends and family a final handshake, but he cannot get them up to his throat to loosen the noose. Only the most notorious offenders – like the escapee Jack Shepherd – were handcuffed on the way to Tyburn.
Edward Dennis succeeded Turlis in 1771, carrying on at Newgate and assisted by William Brunskill until November 21st, 1786, when Dennis died and Brunskill took over.
It was widely believed at the time that the body of a newly hanged person had healing properties. People would pay the hangman to be allowed to stroke the hands of the executed person across their warts and injuries. Some people would also try and obtain trophies such as locks of hair.
For more detailed accounts of executions at Tyburn, read the cases of Catherine Hayes who burnt at the stake for Petty Treason in 1726, Jenny Diver who was hanged there with 19 others on the 18th of March 1741, Earl Ferrers, the last peer of the realm to hang in May 1760 and Elizabeth Brownrigg hanged in 1767 for murdering her apprentice.


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