Today (December 9) in London History – Ugh & Oh, Bother

The first execution at Newgate took place on December 9th, 1783. Happier times came on December 9th, 1914. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale(s).


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Trigger warning first. This one’s pretty grim. The first part of it at any rate. But if you can, hang in there. Because at the end it’s really lovely. There’s just a ton of feel-good at the end of this one. 

Anyway, starting properly now, this one picks up where we left off. Where we left off on November 7th. The year was 1783. That was the date of the last execution at Tyburn.

And so here we are, just over a month later, December 9th, 1783…and, yes, the hangman is back in business. Back in business but in new premises, so to speak. At Newgate, London’s Bastille, the most infamous prison in this country. Well, just outside Newgate. So the grim, louring prison can look on at the proceedings. Newgate will have to wait for nearly a century before it gets to go the last mile, play host to executions, have them inside, en suite as it were. 

And they went to some trouble getting things ready, getting the new venue in order. I wonder what it must have been like living in that neighbourhood that autumn, watching the work being carried out, knowing full well what it was for. Has to be different from watching, say, a new hospital go up, a building that’s all about trying to save the lives of human beings, a building where babies are born, a building where life is a flame that is prized rather than snuffed out. The hammering and sawing and rearranging and demolition that was going on outside Newgate that November and early December was all about getting that space ready to end lives. And making sure there was plenty of room for the spectators.

Specifically, what did they do? Well, a lot of houses had to be demolished. Imagine if your house stood where the new gallows stood. You’d go by there and think, “right there, that’s where they hang people – and that’s where my house was, that’s where I lived.” 

Anyway, just outside the western side of Newgate there had been two narrow lanes separated by a row of houses. They knocked the houses down to clear the space – create a broad expanse for the gallows and the spectators. The prison of course is long gone – the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, stands there today. But the building line is unchanged. Right there in front of the Old Bailey the street – which is also called the Old Bailey – widens, fans open like the business end of a sherry glass. That’s the very space, that’s where the gallows stood. Just outside the Debtor’s Door of the prison. They built a new gallows for the new venue. That was stored in a shed behind the prison. And brought out on hanging days. The gallows was the very latest model in eternity launchers. It had a proper trap door the condemned person stood on. Sprung, there was no longer any floor for the condemned man or woman stand on and he or she dropped to his death. A more or less instantaneous death because the taut rope, providing the eyelet had been positioned correctly, would rotate the head backward – this is pretty grim – break the neck and rupture the spinal cord, which would cause instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death. At Tyburn the condemn had stood on a cart which was driven out from underneath them and, well, death by strangulation ensued. That could take a couple of minutes or longer. 

I’m not sure it’s much to be proud of, as a species, that we get better at killing our fellow human beings, but there you go, that’s how it is.

And to throw the bolt on the trapdoor this podcast is standing on, well, let’s name names. The hangman was Edward (Ned) Dennis. He’d presided at the last execution at Tyburn. And now here he was taking care of business at the first execution at Newgate. He had an assistant. His name was William Brunskill. I suppose some assistance came in handy, because they executed ten people on that first outing. Ten seems like a lot but it was only half the capacity of the new gallows. It was designed to dispatch, to end, if need be, twenty lives more or less simultaneously.

Times change, things move on. In due course the new gallows became the old gallows and when executions were moved indoors it was no longer needed. It was sold to a carpenter who converted it into stands for beer butts in the cellars of the Carpenter’s Arms pub in Adam Street.

Well, that’s all just so grim. Pretty foul, really. You feel a bit besmirched by it, a bit contaminated.

So let’s decontaminate – wash it off.

We’re going to cleanse ourselves by fast-forwarding to December 9th, 1914. A young Canadian officer – Lieutenant Harry Colebourne of the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade – had, back in August, purchased a black bear cub from a hunter who’d killed its mother. Lieutenant Colebourne named the bear cub Winnipeg after his home town. When his regiment came to Europe he brought the baby bear with him. She became the unit’s mascot. Come shipping out time, to the Western Front, Lieutenant Colebourne left the baby bear at the London Zoo for safekeeping. That was on this day, December 9th, 1914. On leave Lt. Colebourne would always visit the bear. And he intended to take her home with him when the war was over. But because she’d become such a favourite with the Zoo’s visitors he decided to donate Winnipeg to the Zoo. One of the frequent visitors to the Zoo, and to Winnipeg in particular, was the author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin. And, well, you know where this is going, Winnipeg became the fictional Winnie the Pooh. There, we all feel better now, don’t we. 

And for a Today in London recommendation. London Walks has a lot of actor-guides. Actors are perfect for this job. It’s the same skill set. It’s performing. And actors have the great voice and timing and audience awareness – those are gifts, they can’t be taught. So, yes, we have a lot of actor-guides. And primus inter pares of our actor guides are Stephen Noonan, of RSC and now Dr Who fame, and Nick Day, who’s had – and continues to have – a really distinguished film, television and West End stage career. Well, Nick has a great role in Witness for the Prosecution, Agatha Christie’s gripping courtroom drama. Which is being staged in the best possible courtroom setting, the former debating chamber of County Hall. In the words of one reviewer, The grandeur is unmistakable, and the sound effects that create the sense of long foreboding corridors just outside the chamber, only serve to heighten the sense that the scales of Lady Justice are hanging precariously over our heads, as the audience surround the stage in what must be the comfiest way to watch a play in London. So that’s our recommendation. Mary saw it a couple of days ago. Shaughan saw it not long ago. They’ve both given it – and especially Nick’s performance – a rave review. And – wait for it – Nick has promised to do a podcast for us – any day now – on that great English theatrical Christmas tradition, the pantomime. Watch this space.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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