Murder and Mayhem in London Part II – Execution Dock, Tyburn, Smithfield and other beastly business

Barber shop in Fleet Street. Photo by Aleksander Bratlie

Barber shop in Fleet Street. Photo by Aleksander Bratlie

Wondering what to do for Halloween? In case you missed it you might be interested in Murder and Mayhen in London Part I. Now, continuing our time-travel through London’s pernicious past, here are a few ominous outings our forefathers might have indulged in:

  • Stop by Newgate prison (by the Old Bailey) to ogle the inmates, some of whom included Captain Kidd (infamous Scottish pirate), Daniel Defoe (for making fun of the Tories) and William Penn (for contempt of court).
  • An excursion to Execution Dock: At Wapping (in present day Docklands), known for several centuries as Execution Dock, pirates were strung up after sentencing by the Admiralty court. Captain Kidd met his fate here 208 years ago. Not only was he hanged; his body was also left to hang for 20 years (!) in an iron cage.
  • Bring the kids to Tyburn (today’s Marble Arch) to see a common crim being hanged. The most fun you can hope for at Marble Arch today is hearing a passionate speech from someone on a soap box in Speakers’ Corner. In comparison, that’s a wee bit pale, don’t you think? The last to be executed at Tyburn gallows was a highwayman in 1783.
  • Can’t get enough of those executions? Smithfield is home to England’s oldest hospital, St. Bartholomew’s from 1123, as well as a wholesale meat market from 1179 (still there today).  A bit odd then, that it was also venue of bloody executions for centuries. In 1305, Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace was found guilty of treason; then hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield. A plaque on the hospital wall marks the spot. 250 years later during the Fires, Protestants were put to death under the reign of Bloody Mary. If you were just a regular swindler, you might be boiled in oil. All right here at Smithfield.
  • A haircut, perhaps? Near Smithfield is the river Fleet, today mostly subterranean. The street named after this river is rather better known. Heard of Sweeney Todd, the murdering barber of Fleet Street and his cannibalistic collaborator Mrs Lovett, who baked his victims into her pies? Were they real or an urban myth? No records of Sweeney Todd exist, and yet…
  • Watch bear-baiting – such good fun, in fact, that when Parliament tried to ban this most enjoyable entertainment on Sundays, it was overruled by Elizabeth I. Luckily for Bess, she didn’t have to deal with PETA.
  • And finally, my favourite: Watch doctors perform autopsies; an instructional night out for the whole family. Entrance fee: a penny or two.

Watch this space tomorrow for a few words on a famous serial killer. You know who…

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Anne-Sophie Redisch is a bilingual travel writer based in Norway who likes nothing better than hopping off a train in a new city. Her two daughters increasingly insist on coming along to enliven the travel experience. Antarctica must therefore remain a dream until her youngest reaches the minimum age-limit required by the expedition companies. Anne-Sophie has lived in the USA and New Zealand. Her work has appeared in inflight magazines and various other Scandinavian and English print and online media.

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Older comments on Murder and Mayhem in London Part II – Execution Dock, Tyburn, Smithfield and other beastly business

Michael Lynch
29 October 2009

WOW! Another great and informative read, Sophie. I can hardly wait to see what’s in store for tomorrow!

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16 January 2010

Amazing to think what people found entertaining in the past. Do we still, really? Only hide under a veneer of civilization?

Tim Brown
22 September 2010

I’m afraid I think we’re still that morbid, given half a chance.