The name of Tyburn Road does no longer exist in London. At one time, Tyburn was a village close to the current location of Marble Arch. It took its name from a tributary of the Thames which is now completely covered over between its source and outfall into the river. Tyburn is recorded in the Domesday Book. The predecessors of Oxford Street and Park Lane were roads leading to the village, then called Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane respectively.
Until 1783 Tyburn served as London’s primary place of execution. Public displays of executions were a vital part of the criminal justice system which relied upon fear of retribution. On hanging day, the condemned were brought to the site from Newgate prison, which included a two mile procession through London along Holborn, St Giles and Tyburn Road to the Tyburn Tree (triangular gallows purposely built for multiple executions introduced in 1571).
Prisoners were transported on open carts, be they criminals, traitors, and religious martyrs. There are probably more historic prints of Tyburn than any other location in London. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Francis Thompson dedicated a poem ‘To the English Martyrs’ that starts with the following lines:
Rain, rain on Tyburn tree,
Red rain a-falling;
Dew, dew on Tyburn tree,
Red dew on Tyburn tree,
And the swart bird a-calling.
Thence it roots so fast and free,
Yet it is a gaunt tree,
Black as be
The swart birds alone that seek,
With red-bedabbled breast and beak,
Its lank black shadow falling.
Public hangings were a fair day. A rowdy and drunken mob followed the procession through the streets, pelting the condemned with rotten vegetables and stones. The procession to Tyburn and the executions served according to Henry Fielding in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) ‘to add the Punishment of Shame to that of Death; in order to make the Example an Object of greater Terror’. After the procession and having reached Tyburn the condemned person was allowed to make a ‘gallows speech’. Then a prison chaplain would urge the criminal to repent in a final prayer. As soon as the hangman appeared the noose was adjusted and a bag drawn over the criminal’s head. The horse would be lashed to move the cart and leave the criminal hanging in the air. Executions drew large number of spectators. Men, women and children enjoyed the carefree atmosphere. It was a great day for vendors, pickpockets, whores, pimps and broadside sellers. There were literally hundreds of gallows songs in circulation telling the stories of murderers, pirates, traitors and other felons.
The first readily available accounts of crimes and criminals in England were broadsheets and chapbooks. A broadsheet is a single sheet of paper with typically four pages printed on each side in such a way that the buyer could fold, stitch and cut it to form a booklet. A chapbook is one of these sold ready made up. Both were cheap and peddled at fairs and executions. Many of these included complete accounts of the execution, including the last words of the condemned man sometimes before he had even spoken them. The first so-called ‘Newgate Calendars’ were collections of these accounts, and as the eighteenth century progressed, more and more crimes were added. The various collections plagiarized their predecessors shamelessly. Some of them added morals to the stories. It was because of the didactic message that they were considered uplifting reading. Crime was also a frequent subject matter of contemporary engravings and prints. There was a flourishing market in these works, particularly in London. On first view many of such prints were morality tales, but the rich details in some, notably those of William Hogarth (in particular ‘Industry and Idleness’, 1747), contained different levels of meaning and social criticism. Although many prints celebrated the virtues of English law, there were frequent criticisms of lawyers, watchmen, and the police, thus providing a running commentary on crime and punishment in the metropolis.
The market for accounts of criminals’ lives was buoyant. It was not unusual for a condemned person to sell his biography to the highest-bidding prospective author. The expansion of detailed information about criminal cases available in newspapers and trial reports meant that the more sensationalist and moralistic forms of this literature became increasingly implausible, as readers could compare these tales with more explicit accounts. From the early eighteenth century, an increasing number of newspapers were published that provided detailed reports of crimes, trials, and punishments. There were accounts of murders and highway robberies; of trials at the Old Bailey; of executions of notorious criminals; and accounts of rarer punishments such as burning at the stake. And there was plenty to report.
The Bloody Code is a term used to refer to the English system of laws and punishments that was in use from 1400 to 1850. By the early nineteenth century there were more than 200 offences carrying the death penalty. Crimes that were punishable by execution included stealing anything worth more than five shillings, stealing horses or sheep, right through to arson, treason and murder. In 1823, the mandatory death penalty was made discretionary for all crimes except treason and murder. Gradually the number of capital offences was reduced, and by 1861 brought down to five (murder, piracy, arson, espionage, and high treason).
The criminal biography became a popular genre after the publication of The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen by Captain Alexander Smith in 1714. Ostensibly such books were meant to teach moral lessons by illustrating that crime does not pay. The wealth of titillating details however made these books highly entertaining. Publishers who were seeking material frequently visited Newgate prison looking for notorious criminals willing to sell their stories. Some attracted more than one biography, and some of the biographies went through multiple editions. Some of these publications purported to be autobiographies. Although heavily edited by publishers, the ‘authenticity’ of the tale was an important selling point. It was crucial that the voice of the criminal could be heard in these accounts. Every publisher was chasing a ‘good’ story. Changing standards of morality led to a toning down of the more lurid sexual details found in early publications. Consequently, by the 1770s some of the more racy publications were in decline.
Even so, throughout the nineteenth century crime, continued to be an audience-puller for authors ranging from George W.M. Reynolds with his long-running serial novel The Mysteries of London to the better remembered novels and stories of Wilkie Collins, Dickens and Trollope. One could argue that Truman Capote’s nonfictional novel In Cold Blood (1966) and the subsequent movement of New Journalism has in its documentation of true murder stories been preceded by a long history of English semi-fictionalized crime reporting.
Late October 1783 John Austin attacked John Spicer, robbed him and left him near to death in a field outside Bethnal Green. He was arrested and identified as a repeat offender. He was condemned to hang. On Friday morning 7 November 1783 he embarked upon his final journey when the procession took him through the streets of London from Newgate prison to the site of execution. He was the last man to be hanged at Tyburn. Making his gallows speech, Austin attempted to show the repent that authorities expected of a condemned man. He acknowledged the justice of his sentence. He continued warning his listeners to stay clear of crime and live a peaceful God-fearing life. It was a perfect moral tale that would have bored the hardened spectators. They expected bravado from a condemned person. They wanted him to show contempt for the judge, to be fearless towards the hangman, to face death with indifference. They demanded a proper show, not a sermon. The crowd became restless. Death came slowly for Austin. The noose of the halter having slipped to the back part of his neck, it took ten minutes before he was dead. Some of the unhappy mob had no sympathy for his prolonged demise. Whereas conventional practice allowed the body of felons executed for crimes other than murder to be turned over to their friends and family for burial, a disorderly element in the attending crowd gained possession of Austin’s mortal remains, carried them back to Newgate, and dropped them there to be buried. The unruly scene deepened unease with the increasingly rowdy atmosphere on execution days. Pressure increased to close procedures at Tyburn. Suburban development in the immediate vicinity of the place of execution had been fast and furious during the later part of the eighteenth century. Residents objected to the Tyburn carnival. Austin’s execution was the last to involve a procession through London and the hanging at Tyburn. Hangings from then on were to be conducted at the newly erected gallows immediately outside Newgate prison.