On 3 November 1783 highwayman John Austin became the last man to be executed at Tyburn, marking the end of an infamous 600-year history.
The notorious Tyburn hanging tree was located near Marble Arch, at the top of Oxford Street in the bustling heart of modern London. However, for much of its history, it stood outside of the boundary of the city.
Executions at Tyburn
The first recorded execution at Tyburn was that of William Fitz Osbert, or William with the Beard in 1196. Fitz Osbert was wanted for sedition (encouraging unrest) and after his capture was dragged naked to Tyburn and hanged.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the infamy of Tyburn grew apace. In 1571 the original Tyburn hanging place, made up of a row of elm trees, was replaced with a huge triangular Triple Gallows that made mass executions possible.
Condemned criminals were transported from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, watched by large crowds along the route. The journey could take several hours and included a stop at an inn where the prisoners could take a drink to calm them down.
Once at Tyburn, the prisoners were positioned beneath the gallows on a horse-drawn carriage and a noose placed around their neck. The carriage would then be moved away, leaving the prisoners hanging from the tree. Death could take up to three quarters of an hour.
The spectacle of death
The executions were watched by crowds of spectators who paid an entry fee to sit in specially built stands to watch the gruesome events unfold. Hanging days, normally Mondays, were made public holidays in order to boost crowd numbers.
Residents of nearby houses and inns looking to make some extra cash also rented out rooms with a view of the gallows to eager attendees. Responding to the theatrical nature of the event, some of the condemned dressed up in their finest clothes and made humorous speeches from their carts.
Competition was fierce for first pick of the corpses. Doctors were keen to acquire bodies for dissection and superstitious members of the public believed contact with the bodies could cure certain illnesses.
The last hanging
By 1783 the route from Newgate Prison to Tyburn passed through newly fashionable areas of London. John Austin was sentenced to death in 1783 for the murder of labourer John Kent and became the last man to be hanged at the site.
By now the permanent triple gallows had been replaced with a removable version but from now on the hangings took place at Newgate on a scaffold known as “New Drop”.