Today (May 26) in London History – the last public execution

The last public execution in Britain took place on May 26, 1868. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

How does Macbeth put it? “I have supped full with horrors.”

I know what he means. We’ve been here a lot this past week: Anne Boleyn, Captain Kidd, Jonathan Wild. Trip after trip down Execution Row. State-sponsored, state-served up, state-delivered ultra-violence. You’d be forgiven for wondering is this some sort of Ludovico technique, aversion therapy London Walks is dishing out. Being force-fed Clockwork Orange capsules, each of them labelled London History.

And yes, here we go again. And we’re going there again – down Execution Row – because this one’s important. But I’ll keep it mercifully brief.

It’s May 26th, 1868. We’re outside Newgate Prison. We’re watching the last public execution in this country. Yes, it’s a hanging.

Bears repeating: down here in England we’re bringing up the rear. Scotland had carried out a public execution – yes, a hanging – two weeks before. That did for our neighbours to the north. They’d had their fill. We got there two weeks later.

The condemned man is Michael Barrett. He’s a 27-year-old Irishman. His crime: he was accused of being the point man in an attempt to free two Fenian prisoners from London’s Clerkenwell House of Detention. The conspirators packed a wagon with dynamite, drove it to the prison, parked it by a prison wall. It was a Victorian car bomb. The massive explosion blew down the prison wall. But it also ripped apart the block of houses across the street from the Clerkenwell prison. Twelve working-class people were killed. 120 people were injured. This was in a district that had been sympathetic to the Irish cause. Michael Barrett and four other people, including a woman, were arrested. At their trial two of Barrett’s co-conspirators turned State’s evidence. Turned state’s evidence and demanded the reward for doing so. 

There were other things about the case that were troubling. Informers had tipped the police off days before the blast. The police response wasn’t up to snuff. Michael Barrett hadn’t been the one who lit the fuse. Michael Barrett was the only conspirator who was convicted and executed.

It’s – let’s use an anodyne word – it’s edifying, it’s an education to read the newspaper accounts of what happened that morning in front of Newgate prison. 

Here’s a paragraph or two. “The execution differed little from other similar exhibitions. On Monday the barriers were put up and on Monday night a fringe of eager sightseers assembled, mostly sitting beneath the beams, but ready on a moment’s notice to rise and cling to the front places they had so long waited for. There were the usual cat-calls, comic choruses, dances, and even mock hymns, till towards 2 o’clock when the gaiety inspired by alcohol faded away as the public houses closed and popular excitement was not revived till the blackened deal frame which forms the bass of the scaffold was drawn out in the dawn, and placed in front of the door from which Barrett was to issue. Its arrival was accompanied with a great cheer, which at once woke up those who had been huddled in doorsteps and under barricades, and who joined in the general acclamation. The arrival of the scaffold did much to increase the interest, and through the dawn people began to flock in, the greater portion of the newcomers being young women and little children. On an execution morning one sees faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. It stretched up beyond St Sepulchre’s Church and far back almost into Smithfield – a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and fro like waving corn. 

Towards 8 o’clock the doomed man, accompanied by his priest and attended by the executioner and three or four warders emerged from a dark and narrow passage and turned a corner leading to the gallows. The prison bell and that of St Sepulchre’s began to toll. With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd, and a loud, continued shout of ‘Hats off’ till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly looking in the morning sun. Amid such a scene as this, and before such a dense crowd of white faces, Barrett was executed.” He wore a short red jacket and grey striped trousers. His face was white as marble. His last words: he asked the execution to adjust the rope. William Calcraft, the executioner, obliged him. And a second later drew the bolt. The drop fell with a loud boom. There was a great cry from the crowd. It was neither an exclamation nor a scream. It was something more primal. Michael Barrett died instantly. I’m going to end now by quoting one of my brilliant colleagues. Fiona, London’s most decorated guide. She’s Blue Badged, she’s Westminster badged, She’s City of London badged. On all three of those courses she came first. Three guiding courses, three times the Valedictorian. Three Guide of the Year Awards. This brilliant guide makes the chilling observation that there will have been people who travelled to that execution on the underground. The same underground that modern London uses. Part of our underground will have carried some of those people to that stark, Goyaesque scene outside Newgate. Sobering isn’t it.

Ok, Today in London tip anyone? I’d say go to the Central Criminal Court – the Old Bailey – and watch a trial. The building we have today is the building that replaced the fearsome old Newgate Prison. But St. Sepulchre’s the church is still there, just over the way. And in front of the Bailey, well, the street widens out there. It becomes an arena. That’s where the gallows stood. That’s where rank after rank of those thousands of spectators crowded in – many of them young woman and little children – to see a man die.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company. The London Walks banner bears the rare device: It all comes down to the guiding. 

Now look at that honour guard marching beneath that rare device. That honour guard is London Walks guides. They march under that banner because, uniquely, they are accomplished professionals:

Guides who are barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, museum curators, Museum of London archaeologists, and the creme de la creme – the MVPs of the professional guiding fraternity – Blue Badge, Westminster and City of London guides who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award.

Guides who 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. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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