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Every Monday for the last 200 years or so of its existence, condemned men and women travelled the route through London from Newgate to Tyburn, place of public execution. Set at the junction of what is now Edgware Road, Park Lane and Oxford Street1, the gallows overlooked Hyde Park. Estimates of the number of people who died here vary between 40,000 and 60,000. They were mostly commoners.
The first execution at Tyburn took place in 1196, the last in 1783. The first hangings were carried out from tree branches on the bank of the Tyburn River (see below), but in 1220 a pair of gallows were built on the site. The Triple Tree (the name given to the gallows) was built in 1571, and removed in 1759 because it was obstructing the highway. A mobile gallows was used until public executions ceased there.
The name Tyburn comes from the river that flowed through the area from South Hampstead to the Thames. Tyburn is now one of London's 'lost rivers' and is completely underground, but many years ago it crossed Regent's Park, followed Marylebone Lane, down to Piccadilly near Green Park, and into the main river near Vauxhall Bridge. 'Bourne', written down 'burn' at some point, means brook. The river branched a number of times and 'Ty' meaning two, hence 'two brooks' reflects this.
The Journey to Tyburn
At Newgate, having been released from their chains, prisoners were put on carts (often sitting on their coffins) with the hangman and, accompanied on all sides by peace officers, constables and javelin men, began their last journey. First stopping at St Sepulchre's Church, where prisoners traditionally received a nosegay of flowers, the procession then moved down Snow Hill, turned left and crossed Fleet Ditch by a narrow stone bridge, and then went back uphill to High Holborn. It manoeuvred through the narrow streets of St Giles High Street, before the last part of the route, Oxford Road. The three-mile journey could take up to two hours.
Interestingly the phrase 'on the wagon' stems from another tradition that took place on this last journey. At Queen Matilda's ( wife of Henry I) bequest a cup of charity was given to the condemned as they travelled towards their death. Originally this was given at St Giles-in-the-Fields, a leper hospital until 1539 (it became a church in 1547). Then it became a custom that Bow tavern gave a pint of ale to each condemned person. Commonly used to describe abstaining from alcohol, one theory states that the phrase developed because prisonsers were put back on the wagon, never to drink again. Another theory goes that the executioner stayed on the wagon the whole time, as they were not invited into the tavern.
The Tyburn tree was a huge triangular construction, the three posts were 18 feet high and the crossbeams were nine feet long - capable of hanging 24 (eight on each horizontal beam) prisoners at once. Records only show it being used at full capacity once, in 1649, but days when only one person was hanged were very rare.
Being hanged at the tree was an agonising death; standing on a wagon with a rope around their neck the condemned waited for the horse to be whipped so that it ran forward. This meant that as the wagon moved away the prisoners were only supported by the rope around their necks. A slow death by asphyxiation followed.
Hangings were a big public festival. Crowds gathered along the route from Newgate to Tyburn, and around the Tyburn tree itself, often exceeding 100,000. The rich rented upper-storey rooms in houses and pubs so that they could get the best views. Street hawkers and food vendors also lined the route - they knew a good bet when they saw one. A grandstand was even erected at the gallows. Thieves and pickpockets also took advantage of the holiday atmosphere.
The hangman was entitled to the clothes of the dead, which was why some prisoners would wear their worst rags - they didn't want him to benefit too much. Some prisoners took the opposite stance and wore their finest clothes in the hope that the hangman would make it as easy as possible for them. He would then help out by pulling on their legs and beating on their chests so that they died more quickly. This was also done by the friends and family of many of the prisoners; having the hangman close also meant that they couldn't lift the prisoner in an attempt to save them.
The people of the time believed that the bodies of the hanged had medicinal properties. People would pay the hangman for the chance to stroke the hands of the dead across their faces, illnesses or injuries. If they could, they would also take body parts, locks of hair or even blood.
Some of the bodies were given to hospitals for dissection (surgeons were allowed ten bodies per year), and the rest taken away by friends and family to be buried. The hangman would then settle himself in a pub in Fleet Street and sell the rope for 6d an inch.
Because the procession to Tyburn became more and more unmanageable, in 1783 executions were moved to Newgate prison. Too many precautions were needed to prevent rescue attempts and premature lynchings, and complaints were made about the noise and crowds that accompanied them.
The first anniversary of the Restoration was celebrated by exhuming the bodies of Cromwell, Bradshaw and Ireton and hanging them at Tyburn from sunrise until sunset.
There is a plaque in a traffic island at Marble Arch, claiming to be the exact site of the Tyburn Tree.