Today (November 7) in London History – the last man hanged at Tyburn

Tyburn was, for centuries, London’s principal execution site. More than 50,000 people were executed there. The last man to be hanged at Tyburn was sent to meet his maker on November 7th, 1783. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Brits know it. I wonder if the rest of you do? The acronym NIMBY.

N I M B Y  – NIMBY. Stands for Not in My Back Yard.

Well, Nimby is very germane – highly to the point – here.

Nimby is the reason Tyburn ceased to be London’s principal execution site. 

London was expanding westward. And that end of town – the western end – was the smart, posh end.

That’s another pertinent story in its own right. Why is it that the West End is the posh end of town. Not just in London but in cities all over Europe. Believe it or not it has to do with the direction in which the world turns. And in consequence, the prevailing winds. Because of the direction in which the world turns the prevailing winds blow out of the west and southwest. 65 – 70 per cent of the time. That explains so much. It explains the weather. It explains why your flight over here – if you’re coming from the United States or Canada – as a rule is faster and smoother than flying in the other direction. It’s those westerly tailwinds. They speed your jetliner along. Fly in the other direction – fly from here to New York say – it takes longer and it’s bumpier. You’re flying into those headwinds.

So much for the weather and your trans-Atlantic flights. In terms of the smart, fashionable end of London being at the western end of town – think Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Belgravia, Kensington, etc. – in pre-modern sanitation times you did not want to live downwind from central London. It wasn’t just open sewers and cess pits and human excrement – it was all those horses and animals being driven to market and abattoirs…well, you get the idea. Nobody in his right mind wanted to live downwind from that. It was said that in Shakespeare’s day you could smell London from 20 miles away. If you were downwind. And if your pockets were deep enough, well, no question about it, you settled down west.

So for those reasons, smart London – toniest London, to use that lovely American adjective – pushed ever westward. And toward the end of the 18th century, that tide had pretty much rolled up against Tyburn, up against that infamous execution spot.

Let’s put some dates up on the board. 

Portman Square – ever so smart Portman Square – comes along right at the time of the American War of Independence. Grosvenor Square – even smarter – pitches up in the 1730s. Bryanston Street arrives on the scene in 1766. Bryanston Square is teeing up. It’ll be there soon. Montague Square is about to make its debut. 

You see the problem. What had been countryside was now fashionable London. The last thing those people wanted on their doorstep was that lowlife carnival of wickedness, hanging days. The business itself was ghastly enough. Hideous. Unbearable. 

And to have it surrounded with the hoi polloi of London – a hundred thousand of them. 

Out of their minds with anticipation and excitement. Thrilling to the ghastliness of it all. And of course there was no end of crime in attendance. 

Picking pockets was rife, for example. Picking pockets was a capital crime. But the pickpockets rightly judged that the spectators were so excited, so absorbed by the dance of death, that they were easy marks. They wouldn’t be paying attention to the cutting of their purse or their handkerchief being filched. 

There was drunkenness and lewd songs and fights. It was unbearable. 

Nimby nimby nimby. Not here. Not in my back yard. This beastliness needs to stand on the drop itself and come to the end of its rope. By all means go on executing them – go on cleansing London of its criminal class – just don’t do it here.

And that’s what happened. A tradition stretching back centuries – executing people at Tyburn – ground to a halt on this day, November 7th, 1783. The last man to be hanged at Tyburn – more than 50,000 had gone before him – was one John Austin. What a distinction. To be the last man to be hanged at Tyburn. The last of 50,000. A little bit like being the man to be killed in the Vietnam War. Or any war for that matter. Remember Vietnam vet and presidential candidate John Kerry in his Vietnam Veterans Against the War testimony before Congress saying, “how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Well, Vietnam, any war really – to be the last soldier to lose his life – I don’t know why it should be any different from those who went before but it somehow is.

Anyway, John Austin, the last man to be hanged at Tyburn – he was launched into eternity for robbing one John Spicer and wounding him in a cruel manner.

50,000 people watched Austin swing. And swing he did. The executioner Edward Dennis – he was paid six shillings and eight pence for his services – botched the thing. He drove the cart out from under the condemned man while he was still mid-prayer. Worse – he’d put the halter in the wrong place. Austin’s spinal cord wasn’t broken. His feet were frantically clawing for support.  Which wasn’t there. It was a death dance that will have on for well over a minute.

It was a sight – a horrible sight – that none of the spectators would have ever forgotten. 

And here’s a googly for you. Googly, that cricket term – Americans would say a knuckleball. 

Just about everybody has heard of – and admires – Dr Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century man of letters. You might be about to temper that admiration. Or maybe not.

Dr Johnson was a firm believer in the benefits of capital punishment. And in particular, public executions. Here’s how the great cham weighed in on the public executions debate.

His answer to people who wanted executions to go inside, out of the view of the public.

“No Sir, it is not an improvement; they object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they don’t draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties: the public was gratified by a procession: the criminal was supported by it. Why is this all to be swept away?”

Well, I’ll leave you to ruminate on that pronouncement.

A Today in London recommendation. There’s no execution day in sight, thank goodness. Though we have some low-brow politicians – and their supporters – who would bring them back at the drop of a gallows trap door if they could.

That thought – shudder – can only be met with one response. We need something cleansing. Let’s go look at things of beauty, things that have furthered civilisation, enhanced our lives. I think a trip to the Courtauld, my favourite London gallery, is called for. 

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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