It's barely fifty-one years since Great Britain abolished the Death Penalty, with the last woman (Ruth Ellis on 13th July 1955) and the last man (Gwynne Evans on 13th August 1964) being hanged for murder. Not that the Death Penalty was entirely abolished, Parliament could still request a "death sentence" for piracy, treason, espionage and even mutiny right up until 1998, which is why a working gallows - tested every six months - remained at HMP Wandsworth until the mid-nineties. Prior to this, Britain has always had a very healthy appetite to capital punishment, with all manner of gruesome executions taking place in our towns and cities on a daily basis.
But the death penalty wasn't always for the most serious of offences, as up until the 1880's when Victorian values forced many of Britain's more gruesome public executions to be moved out of sight, over two hundred and twenty crimes in Britain were still punishable by death, including blacking-up or disguising your face while committing a crime, causing damage to Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, and being in the company of a gypsy for a month.
London is literally littered with thousands of execution sites; whether famous or infamous, well-known or long forgotten. So where are they? Surely they were hidden away from sensitive eyes to somewhere a little more secluded, a prison yard, a warehouse, or tucked away in an isolated field? I'm afraid not. Public executions were not just a punishment for the guilty, they were also a warning to others, to assuage any criminality, so often these grisly deaths were meted-out in plain sight. And the chances are... you walk by them every day.
London's Bloodiest Execution Sites
Smithfield: By St Bartholomew's Hospital is The Elms, where sits a plaque to mark the site of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace’s execution in 1305. Over an afternoon, Wallace was publicly "hung-drawn & quartered", his head was tarred, sat atop of spike on London Bridge and his severed limbs were put on display in Newcastle, Berwick, Sterling and Perth, with the upper left quarter of his torso taken to Aberdeen where it is said to be buried in the walls of Saint Machar's Cathedral. Although a vast field that was used daily as a cattle market, Smithfield proved a popular execution site for "traitors", including over fifty protestant martyrs put-to-death under Queen "Bloody" Mary’s orders, Wat Tyler - leader of the 1382 peasant’s revolt, John Badby of the Lollard martyrs executed for blasphemy by being burned to death in a flaming barrel of oil, and Richard Rouse, who poisoned the venerated Bishop John Fisher, and was subjected to one of the slowest, painful and most gruesome deaths imaginable - being boiled alive.
The Tyburn: Situated at the crossroads where Bayswater Road joins Edgeware Road, The Tyburn (originally a small village) was an execution site for almost 600 years (1196-1783). Today a simple stone plaque marks the spot of this infamous three-sided gallows which was so big it once hung twenty-four felons at once. Some of The Tyburn Tree's famous customers included the Jacobite traitor Oliver Cromwell who's corpse was exhumed and hung again. As well as Perkin Warbeck (who pretended to be Richard of Shrewsbury), Jack Sheppard (notorious robber, thief and jail-breaker) and “King of the Beggars” Jonathan Wild. The last journey of the condemned was from The Old Bailey (a legal session house since 1570’s but rebuilt many times since), along Tyburn Road (now the West End's Oxford Street), with crowds lining the streets, cheering them on, as they were allowed to stop for "one last pint” at either the Bowl Inn at St Giles or the Mason's Arms in Seymour Place.
Newgate Prison: From 1188-1902, Newgate Prison (a site currently occupied by London's high court The Old Bailey) became the main arena for public displays of capital punishment after the 1783 closure of the Tyburn gallows, which shortened the condemned's final journey to their death, but did mean they they missed out on a last pint. The gallows which were set up on Newgate Street until 1868, were the execution sites for many of London's most infamous including Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe), Captain William Kidd (pirate & privateer), counterfeiter Catherine Murphy (last person to be executed by burning in 1789), and poisoner Thomas Neil Cream (who’s last words before being hung were “I am Jack the Ri…”, as well as Murder Mile's very own William Bousfield. Newgate Prison was demolished in 1904 but in the basement of The Viaduct Tavern on Newgate Street you can still see five cells from the original prison.
Tower Hill: Only the well-to-do were executed in the grounds of the Tower of London, including Anne Boleyn (2nd wife of Henry VIII) and Lady Jane Grey (The Nine Day Queen, grandniece to Henry VIII) whose regal bonces were lopped off on Tower Green. Others beheaded on Tower Hill, including Thomas Cromwell (Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII) and Sir Thomas More (Councillor to Henry VIII), as well as 125 others. The final "beheading" took place in 1747, although the last execution in the Tower of London was on 15th August 1941, when German spy Josef Jakobs was shot by a firing squad.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields – now home mostly to lawyer (go figure), the largest public square in London has been host to many gruesome executions. Most infamous being Lord William Russell (who plotted to kill Charles II) and was so badly butchered by executioner Jack Ketch that it was only after four badly-aimed blows with an axe - the first missing his neck and lopped off his shoulder, causing Russell to cry “You dog, did I give you 10 guineas to use me so inhumanely?" - that he was actually beheaded. As well as potential King-killer Anthony Babington whose death was described thus: "...There to be hanged and cut down alive, and your body shall be opened, your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off and thrown into the fire before your eyes. Then your head to be stricken off from your body, and your body shall be divided into 4 quarters, to be disposed of at (the Queen's) pleasure". It is said that he was still alive, when they severed his penis, and burned it.
Execution Dock: A commemorative noose dangles over the River Thames at the back of The Prospect of Whitby pub. Although the exact location of the execution site remains in doubt - where smugglers, pirates and mutineers were slowly hanged, until three tides had washed over them, and their festering corpses had been left on display at Tilbury Dock as a warning to other pirates entering London's ports including infamous pirate Captain William Kidd - historians believe this famed hanging site is where Wapping Station currently is.
Stratford-le-Bow: Although the exact execution site the Stratford martyrs - whether at Fairfield Road or Bow Church - is unknown, a memorial outside of St John's Church confirms that eleven men and two women were burned alive, at the stake, for their "protestant beliefs", with two more at Smithfield, one at Ware and another at Uxbridge.
St Paul's Churchyard: Unquestionably London’s longest serving site of holiness has been the grisly scene of several executions. Most famously the Gunpowder Plotters, who - on 4th November 1605 - tried to blow up Parliament. On 20th January 1606, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Winter, John Grant and Thomas Bates were publicly "hung, drawn & quartered", meaning they were tied to wooden panels, dragged through the streets, stripped and hung, but before he died - and was fully conscious - was castrated, disembowelled, had his limbs cut off and his torso was cut into quarters. The most famous of the Gunpowder Plotters - Guy Fawkes - was executed on the 31st January 1606, but after many weeks of brutal interrogation and torture was so weak he was unable to climb the gallows, he fell, broke his neck... and then they hung him anyway. Queen Elizabeth's favourite Sir Walter Raleigh also died here in 1618.
Banqueting House: Charles I was beheaded in front of a baying mob on an especially erected scaffold outside of Banqueting House in Whitehall. It is said he wore two shirts that day as he didn't want his shivering - because of the cold - to be mistaken for fear. Outside of the building lies a memorial to Charles I today, and if you look closely at the clock on the Horseguard's building, you will notice a "black mark" at two o'clock, which is the hour that Charles was executed.
Charing Cross: Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and seeking wreak revenge against those who’d had his father King Charles I beheaded, Charles II ordered eight regicides (“a person who takes part in the killing of a King”), to be hung, drawn and quartered in Charing Cross, at an especially erected gibbet; however the site remained popular for public floggings long after.
Kennington Park: Up until the late 1700's, the Surrey Gallows at Kennington Common (now Kennington Park) proved a popular pastime for those living south of the river, as it hosted the executions of many highway robbers, 17 members of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, husband killer Sarah Elston in 1678 (who was burned at the stake), as well as over 100 men and women, that stood on the site of St. Mark's Church.
Pentonville Prison: Following the closure of Newgate Prison in 1902, Pentonville Prison carried out more executions in its fifty-nine year existence as a place of execution than any other prison in England & Wales, Pentonville saw the hanging of 120 men (including two for treason and six for spying), most famously were Dr Crippen, John Reginald Christie and Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary who shot Sir Michael O'Dwyer (Governor of the Punjab, who endorsed Reginald Dyer’s massacre at Amritsar, for which both men were promoted).
Holloway Prison: Likewise, after Newgate Prison closed in 1902, Holloway was the place of execution for female prisoners, with five women being hanged between 1903-55, concluding with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
Wandsworth Prison: Between 1878-1961, Wandsworth Prison was the place of execution for 134 men and women at the gallows (including 10 spies and 2 traitors), the most high-profile of which were John George Haigh “The Acid Bath Murderer”, Derek “let him have it” Bentley and William Joyce, the WWII Nazi radio propagandist who became commonly known as “Lord Haw-Haw”. The gallows were still in full working order until 1993 and were tested every six months.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol: A commoners jail that housed debtors and criminals, it was the execution site for 131 men and 4 women between 1800-77, with the gallows erected on the prison’s gatehouse. Although the building no longer exists, it was South London's principal execution site, situated now Newington Causeway in Southwark, it was demolished in 1881 and is today, Newington Gardens on Harper Road, a public park.
Fetter Lane: Just shy of Holborn Circus, on the corner of Fleet Street and Fetter Lane (a site now occupied by a Pret-a-Manger, but what isn’t?) is the little known execution site of Catholic priest and traitor Christopher Bales who was hanged there in 1590.
Shooters Hill Crossroads: Shooter’s Hill, one of London’s highest points was a common haunt for highwaymen and promptly became a popular site for a gibbet, used for executing felons, 1661 Samuel Pepys wrote about seeing the “filthy remains” of a man hanging on a gibbet at Shooters Hill, although the most notorious English highwaymen died at Tyburn gallows.
Salmon & Ball Pub: During the silk weaver protests of 1763-69, known locally as the “Spitalfield Riots”, there were numerous violent attacks on workshops which either housed the new mechanical looms (which weavers feared would end their livelihoods) and were hell-bent to destroy any cheap imported silk. In the height of the riots, soldiers opened fire, killing two weavers and arresting four. John Doyle and John Valline were hung in front of the Salmon & Ball pub on 6th December 1769, although it later emerged that – to gain a quick conviction for all four weavers - money had changed hands.
St Thomas-a-Watering: In the 1500’s, St Thomas-a-Watering on Old Kent Road (a well-traversed route for pilgrims going to Canterbury) was a well-known place of execution for Catholics and reformation dissenters, including Griffith Clerke, the Vicar of Wandsworth and three friars were hung, drawn and quartered here. As well as Wales’s most famous martyr John Penry executed doing little more than ‘issuing strong words of warning’ against the Queen.
Centre Point: Originally called St Giles’s Pound (a holding pen for sheep, goats and occasionally prisoners) the site which houses Centre Point at the crossroads of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road was where the recently deceased corpse of bricklayer John Duke was executed. But why kill a corpse? Well, in 1761, suicide was considered such a serious offence that anyone who killed themselves - a crime against God - was buried with a stake driven through their heart, that pinned them to the ground, to prevent their ghost from returning. This posthumous execution was done at a crossroads to confuse their ghost, and deter other would-be suicides. John Williams, of the 1811 Radcliffe Highway murders fame, was buried and staked at the crossroads between Cannon Street Road meets Cable Street, as well as Abel Griffiths in 1823 where Victoria Station now stands.
If you "enjoyed" this blog post, take a peek at other intreguing topics such as; Killer Couples Part 1 & Part 2, Life, Death & Whole Life Sentences, Famous British Serial Killers - Where Are They Now? Serial Killers & Murderers Who Were Never Caught, London's Deadliest & Often Forgotten Disasters, KIllers Born During a Full Moon, Killer's Birthdays / Star Signs, Serial Killers Who Were On TV, Celebrities Who Have Killed, London's Railway of Death, Serial Killers as Kids and the World's Weirdest Death Rituals
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.