Long before the United Kingdom even existed, there have been endless crimes that could result in the offending party meeting their maker.
Along with crimes such as murder, arson, robbery and treason, offences that could result in a journey to the gallows included being out at night with a blackened face, cutting down trees, damaging Westminster Bridge, stealing from a rabbit warren, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner and being in the company of gypsies for a month.
As the largest and most prominent city in the country, London was home to some of the most famous executions in history which were often watched by swathes of baying crowds.
Here are some of London’s most famous execution sites.
As one of the most famous and old execution sites, the area of Smithfield is said to be haunted by the tortured souls who met their end there. During the medieval era, the Elms of Smithfield (originally ‘Smooth Field’, since it was a large expanse of grass) was one of the most bustling places in London, full of jousting, livestock grazing, summer fêtes and the odd execution.
Some of the most famous people to have met their end at Smithfield include William Wallace, who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1305, and the leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt Wat Tyler, who was publicly decapitated there after fleeing from an earlier bloody exchange with the Lord Mayor of London.
After Smithfield fell from favour as an execution hotspot in the 1400s, the Roman road junction at Tyburn, which is located near to today’s Marble Arch, became the centre of public executions. Prisoners were taken in public procession from Newgate Prison via St Giles in the Fields and Oxford Street (then called Tyburn Road) to be hanged at ‘Tyburn Tree’, which was a large, triangular gallows with three legs that allowed many people to be hanged at the same time.
Many famous people met their ends at Tyburn. Even the exhumed body of Oliver Cromwell was symbolically hanged there in 1661. Many grim euphemisms such as ‘take a ride to Tyburn’ and ‘dance the Tyburn jig’ were well-known phrases in London at the time.
3. Newgate Prison
Commissioned in the 12th century by King Henry II and used for more than 700 years until 1902, Newgate Prison became the site of London’s gallows after Tyburn was finally retired in 1783. There, public executions took place until 1868. Named ‘Newgate’ because it was built into a gate on an old Roman wall, it is estimated that between 1790 and 1902 over one thousand people were executed at Newgate.
Inmates at the prison included Casanova, Rob Roy, William Kidd, Ben Jonson and Daniel Defoe. Today, the Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey) stands on the site of the old Newgate Prison, since the latter was demolished in 1902.
4. Execution Dock
London was once home to the world’s largest port, and therefore a seedy underbelly of smuggling and piracy. During the 15th century, the Admiralty decided to bring the Execution Dock into use to put pirates to death. Some, such as Captain Kidd who was executed at the dock in 1701, were the most feared and famed of the age.
Pirates found guilty and sentenced to death would be paraded from Marshalsea Prison in Southward Marshalsea Prison in Southward across London Bridge and past the Tower of London and finally to Wapping, where the dock was located. The streets would be lined with spectators and the Thames full of boats, eager to catch a glimpse of the condemned. On the way to their execution, prisoners were permitted to enjoy a quart of ale from the Turks Head. Shortly afterwards, they would be hanged with a short rope that prolonged the pain of the execution, since it didn’t break the neck. Afterwards, the dead would be left until three tides had washed over them.
5. The Tower of London and Tower Hill
Very few people were actually executed within the grounds of the Tower of London, such as Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. Most who were executed in the area met their maker on Tower Hill in full view of the public, such as Thomas Cromwell and Sir Thomas More, the former whose death was reportedly laboured and took many strokes of the axe.
The last person to be executed in the Tower of London was Josef Jakobs in 1941, who was executed by firing squad for being a German spy who was captured after parachuting into England during World War Two. Today, the site of the executions on Tower Hill has been made into a memorial garden.
6. Lincoln's Inn Fields
Lincoln’s Inn Fields is London’s largest public square, and has served as the backdrop for many gruesome executions. Someone who notably met his end there was Lord William Russell, who was convicted for plotting to kill Charles II and was only executed after many strokes of the axe to his head and shoulders.
Antony Babington, leader of the 1586 Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots, was also hanged, drawn and quartered there after being convicted of high treason. Today, the area is a popular lunch destination for city workers, and all that serves as a marker of the field’s grisly past is the bandstand, which stands on the site of the former scaffold.
7. Old Palace of Westminster Grounds
The grounds in front of the Palace of Westminster served as the execution site for Guy Fawkes in 1606, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in the view of the building that he had been sentenced to death for trying to blow up. Just 12 years later, Sir Walter Raleigh was also executed there, with his final words ‘strike, man, strike!’ being heard by many within the crowd. His wife carried his decapitated head around with her for many years after.
James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton was also executed there following the Battle of Preston. Today, the area is chiefly used as a carpark for the House of Lords, though parts of it are publicly accessible.
8. Kennington Common
The leafy Kennington Common of today is popular among cricket enthusiasts, who enjoy a game there in the sunshine. However, the Surrey gallows on Kennington Common served as the main execution site south of the river right up until the 1700s. Since the first execution took place there in 1678 – a Sarah Elston was burned at the stake for killing her husband – more than 100 men and women were executed at a gallows on the site of St. Mark’s Church.