Since laws were made for every degree,
To curb vice in others as well as in me,
I wonder we ha'nt better company
'Neath Tyburn Tree.
(John Gay, The Beggar's Opera)
Tyburn is of course famous as the place of public execution for Middlesex which was in use between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. The place of execution was named after the manor, and later district of Tyburn where it was located, which was in turn named after the river Tyburn.
The name Tyburn is derived from the Old English 'teo' for boundary and 'burna' for stream and hence denotes any watercourse that marks a boundary. Although it has alternatively been suggested that the name was derived from 'Twa-burne', that is 'two streams', that would appear unlikely as it would have given us the name of Twyburn (as in Twyford, two-fords) rather than Tyburn, and whilst the river name has been variously recorded as Tybourne, Tyborne, Tiborne, Tyburne, Tibourne, Tiburne, Tiburn, and Tiborn, the 'twy' prefix has been consistently absent.
The "little river Tyburn" was once "a pleasant brook enough, with rows of elms growing on its banks" that for part of its course marked the boundaries between the manors of Ebury (modern Belgravia and Mayfair) and Westminster. It was one of the "ancient watercourses of the Hampstead and Highgate hills" that flowed south to join the Thames, between the Westbourne to the west and the Fleet to the east. It is now one of the lost rivers of London, and is often known by the rather more prosaic name of the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer as it is now entirely contained within a series of underground conduits, being channelled through "huge metal pipes" as it bypasses the Baker Street and Victoria underground stations.
Charles Gatty in his Mary Davies and the Manor of Ebury (1921) noted how during the construction of the Junior Constitutional Club in Piccadilly (established 1887) the architect Robert Edis supervised the construction of the concrete culvert through which the stream passed under the building, whilst there were those who still recalled the days when the Tyburn "crossed Piccadilly under a substantial stone bridge".
Charles Gatty also put some effort into tracing the route of the Tyburn from its source in Hampstead, through St.John's Wood towards Regent's Park, and beneath the streets of Marylebone, Mayfair, and Piccadilly towards Green Park and underneath Buckingham Palace itself. It is at that point that there is some dispute as to the subsequent course of the river, in regard of whether it turns right at Buckingham Palace and travels via St James Park to the precincts of Westminster Abbey, or goes straight on past the Victoria and Pimlico Stations towards Vauxhall Bridge. Gatty appeared to certain that the latter was the true course, and that the Tyburn joined the Thames to the west of Vauxhall Bridge, whilst the other channel simply went to Westminster to drive a mill. Others, of course, have taken the opposite view. When Gatty traced the route he did so on paper and was "chiefly guided by an elaborate Plan of the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer, made in 1807, for the Westminster Commission of Sewers", although others such as the Victorian author John Hollingshead felt obliged to take a more practical course and once spent the day travelling the five miles underground from St. John's Wood to Westminster in 1862.
Of course the river Tyburn should be distinguished from the Tyburn Brook which rises in Hyde Park and joins the Westbourne, but it is very clear that the brook was so named after the place of execution and not the other way around.
The river gave its name to the manor of Tyburn which was recorded in the Domesday Book as being worth fifty-two shillings, and lay to the north of the manor of Ebury. Tyburn was originally part of the royal demesne but was leased to a succession of tenants until 1538, when the northern part was turned into a royal hunting ground for Henry VIII, (what has since become Regent's Park) whilst the southern part was later sold by James I in 1611 for the sum of £829 3s 4d. It was eventually acquired by the Duke of Portland, and it was the Portland Estates who were responsible for much of the development in the area which gave rise to such notable London thoroughfares as Harley Street, Portland Place and Wimpole Street.
However the district of Tyburn was destined to suffer a similar fate as the river. Probably due to the unfortunate associations of the name Tyburn, the residents of the district began to refer to the area as Maryburn or Marybourne in the fifteenth century, after the local parish church was re-dedicated to the Virgin Mary in 1400. It was later in the seventeenth century that Maryburn became Marylebone, with the insertion of the French 'le', a quite unnecessary and ultimately meaningless addition, which was probably intended to sound more historically authentic and thereby increase the marketability of property in the area. It was no doubt a similar desire to cast off the rather grim associations with the name of Tyburn, that led the Tyburn Road to be renamed as Oxford Street in 1782, whilst Tyburn Lane became Park Lane.
The name of Tyburn was later revived during the nineteenth century, at least as a literary affectation, in the form of Tyburnia, to denote the residential district that had sprung up on the north side of Bayswater Road between Marble Arch and Lancaster Gate. This however failed to catch on and the name of Tyburn was afterwards forgotten, although Westminster City Council has designated part of the area as the Tyburn Settlement Area of Special Archaeological Priority.
The Place of Execution
It was the junction of the present Oxford Street, Bayswater Road, and Edgware Road, close to where Marble Arch now stands, which became the place of public execution for Middlesex. It was quite possibly the presence of the large elm trees along the banks of the Tyburn that inspired the choice of location, which some have suggested might have been the original 'Tyburn Trees', although since this was where Watling Street met the main road westwards to Oxford, it may simply have been because it was the nearest cross roads to the sheriff's court for Middlesex. Over the centuries Tyburn became famous as the principal (but not the only) place of execution for the nation's capital, being immortalised in John Cooke's The Tyburn Chronicle: or, villainy display'd in all its branches. containing an authentic account of all the lives, adventures, tryals, executions, and last dying speeches of the most notorious malefactors, published in four volumes in 1768 with illustrations by Samuel Wale.
It was once claimed that Tyburn's history as a place of execution began with Nicholas Brembre, who was drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn on the 20th February 1388 and hanged for the crime of treason, more recent research has however established that the first recorded execution took place in 1196 when William Fitz Osbert and nine others were "dragged to a fork near Tyburn and hanged" according to Ralph de Diceto. Although since Fitz Osbert's crime was sedition, it is likely that his was simply the first execution the chroniclers saw fit to mention, and that were countless others who had previously met their end at Tyburn for more mundane reasons. Certainly Tyburn became a regular place of execution thereafter, as the records show that Henry III ordered that two gallows be constructed at Tyburn in 1220. It should also be remembered that Tyburn was a place of execution, and although the vast majority met their fate by simple hanging, many were hanged, drawn and quartered, whilst some such as Catherine Hayes were burnt alive. And although there was the occasional beheading at Tyburn, that particular method of execution was generally reserved for the aristocracy, being therefore carried out, at least from the sixteenth century onwards, at the more refined location of Tower Hill.
Nevertheless hanging was the general fate of those condemned to death, and such was the supply of those condemned to die that it was deemed prudent in 1571 to build a permanent set of gallows. Known as the 'Triple Tree' it comprised three 12 foot high uprights joined at the top with beams to form a triangle. Three carts could therefore be lined up simultaneously under each crossbeam so that the 'Triple Tree' had a design capacity of twenty-one, although on the 23rd June 1649 a total of twenty-three men and one woman were hanged for various acts of burglary and robbery, believed to be a record for the highest number of criminals put to death at a single execution in Britain.
It became the practice during the eighteenth century for there to be eight hanging days a year at Tyburn, which were normally held on a Monday. The prisoners were held at Newgate Gaol which lay within the City of London and at seven in the morning those whose time had come were placed in open carts and taken on a procession through St Giles in the Fields and down Oxford Street (or the Tyburn Road as it was at the time). The procession would stop at St Sepulchre's Church enroute, where the minister would pronounce, "You that are condemned to die, repent with lamentable tears; ask mercy of the Lord for the salvation of your souls", before calling on "All good people, pray heartily unto God for these poor sinners who are now going to their death, for whom the great bell tolls" as the church bells rang. It was also the practice to pause at one or two public houses along the way such as the Bowl Inn in St Giles and the Mason's Arms in Seymour Place where it became customary to offer a final drink to the condemned.
Crowds would gather to line the route and cheer or jeer the prisoners as the fancy took them, whilst others would gather at Tyburn itself to witness the final minutes of the condemned. Anything up to 100,000 people were said to have congregated in the fields surrounding the gallows, and whilst the poor simply stood and made the best of the free entertainment on offer, wealthier spectators would pay two shillings for a seat in Mother Procter's Pews, as the temporary grandstands were called. Even after the dead were cut down the entertainment continued, as there were frequently conflicts over the fate of the bodies of the hanged, as the families and friends of the deceased sought to gain possession of the remains before the surgeons got their hands on them. Such disputes became largely a thing of the past after the Murder Act 1752, which gave judges the power to order that a murder's body be "dissected and anatomized" after hanging, and it was one Thomas Woolford, hanged at Tyburn on the 22nd June 1752, who became the first to have his remains publicly dissected at Surgeon's Hall.
The Triple Tree later came to be regarded as an obstacle to traffic and was removed in 1759, in order to allow the construction of a new toll gate and house, with one Catherine Knowland earning the distinction of being its final customer on the 18th June 1759. It was replaced by a set of mobile gallows which was first deployed on the 3rd October 1759, although by the time that Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers was hanged at Tyburn on the 5th May 1760, the authorities had adopted a new design of gallows which featured two uprights topped with a cross beam, and a drop-down box. Regarded as a forerunner of the 'New Drop' gallows, the new design was the first to attempt the task of ending the condemned's life by severing the neck bones and spinal cord, rather than by asphyxiation as was previously the case.
Despite such innovations, the authorities later became concerned that the 'Tyburn processions' were simply an excuse for general disorder and drunkenness, as well as being an open invitation for all manner of attempted rescues. It was therefore decided to transfer executions to Newgate Gaol, and the last to be hanged at Tyburn was the highwayman John Austin, who met his end on the 3rd November 1783. However, there were those that strongly opposed this as an unconstitutional innovation, which would inevitably lead to the dangerous practice of secret executions, and Samuel Johnson for one complained that, "Executions are intended to draw spectators: if they do not draw spectators they don’t answer their purpose".
The Roll Call of the Condemned
Over the centuries Tyburn was to be where many would spend their final moments on this earth. The cast of characters included those such as Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (1330), Thomas Usk (1388), Bernard Brocas (1395), Roger Clarendon (1402), Thomas Burdet (1477), Michael Joseph otherwise known as Michael An Gof and Thomas Flamank (1497), Perkin Warbeck (1499), Agnes Hungerford (1523), and Elizabeth Barton the 'Holy Maid of Kent' (1534). They subsequently were joined by a whole host of Catholic martyrs such as Thomas More (1535), who was executed in the same year as John Houghton Richard Reynolds and William Exmew, and later joined by others such as John Pickering (1537), Thomas Forde (1582), James Fenn (1584), John Ballard (1586), Anne Line (1601), John Roberts (1610), and Ralph Corby (1644), whilst John Storey had the distinction of being the first to grace the Triple Tree at his execution on the 1st June 1571. But few if any Protestant martyrs met their end at Tyburn, as the Catholics preferred to have their opponents burnt at the stake as heretics at Smithfield.
The presence of such names as that of Agnes Hungerford and Anne Line should remind us that Tyburn was an equal opportunity place of execution, and many notable female miscreants also died there, including Anne Turner (1615) an accessory to the murder of Thomas Overbury, Elizabeth Sawyer (1621) who was convicted of witchcraft, and Mary Carleton, otherwise known as the German Princess, who was hanged at Tyburn on the 22nd January 1673. The most bizarre execution at Tyburn would be that of the trio of regicides John Bradshaw, Oliver Cromwell, and Henry Ireton, whose bodies were exhumed and ceremonially hanged in their coffins on the 30th January 1661, whilst the most ironic would be that of John Price alias Jack Ketch, who was hanged for murder at Tyburn on the 31st May 1718, having previously served as the hangman at Tyburn.
Many of the victims of the Popish Plot, such as Thomas Pickering and Richard Langhorne met their end at Tyburn in 1679, as well as many of the participants in the various Jacobite Rebellions, whilst during the Golden Age of British crime, sundry highwaymen and women, prison-breakers, and thieves such as Jane Voss (1684), Jack Sheppard (1724), Jonathan Wild (1725), Daniel Malden (1736), Jenny Diver (1740), James Maclaine (1750), Charles Speckman (1763), and John Rann alias Sixteen String Jack (1774), as well as infamous murderers such as James Hackman (1779) all had an appointment with the Tyburn Tree.
The old 'Triple Tree' which was in use between 1571 and 1759 was located right in the centre of the southernmost extremity of the Edgware Road and its approximate location has since been marked by a succession of plaques. There was one set against the railings of Hyde Park until 1909, when it was replaced by another set into the Edgware Road itself. That remained until 1964, when it was replaced by one set in a traffic island at the junction with the Bayswater Road. That disappeared in early 2008 as a result of refurbishment works although it is apparently the intention of Westminster City Council to replace it sometime soon. There is also a Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place not far from Marble Arch, which was founded in 1901 and dedicated to the memory of the 105 Catholic martyrs who died on the 'Triple Tree'. It also claims to retain various relics of bones and clothing relating to said martyrs in their crypt. The mobile gallows which were in use between 1759 and 1783 was located a few hundred feet away where Connaught Square now stands, and although it was widely believed in 1870s that No 49 had the distinction of being the exact site, other specific locations have since been suggested.
The fame of Tyburn naturally left its imprint on the English language. Those sentenced to die at Tyburn were said to be about to 'preach at Tyburn cross', to 'dance the Tyburn jig', or to suffer the 'Tyburn stretch', whilst the hangman's rope was variously known as a Tyburn check, Tyburn piccadill, Tyburn string, Tyburn-tie, Tyburn tiffany or Tyburn tippet, and the Tyburn tree was often used to describe any set of gallows. To wear a Tyburn face was to look decidedly down in the dumps, whilst a Tyburn blossom was any "young thief or pickpocket, who in time will ripen into fruit borne by the deadly never-green", and the "Tyburn-topp'd wig" or Tyburn Top was a wig with "the foretop combed over the eyes in a knowing style" as worn by the underworld fraternity.
There was a brief lived British film production company named Tyburn Films, which was responsible for the films Persecution or The Terror of Sheba (1974), Legend of the Werewolf (1974) and The Ghoul (1975). The choice of Tyburn seems perfectly natural given that the company sought to emulate the output of the better known Hammer Films.
There is also a district known as Tyburn in Birmingham. One of the local council's electoral districts is the Tyburn Ward, and there is a Tyburn Road which forms part of the A38 and runs alongside the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. In addition there were one or two Tyburn Farm scattered about the country. There was one at Fenwick in Ayrshire and another at Frant in East Sussex, where the Wellcome Foundation once had a laboratory, and which gave its name to the Tyburn Project for the production of a scrub typhus vaccine.
- The entry for 'Tyburn' in the Oxford English Dictionary and various entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography revealed by the use of the search term 'Tyburn'
- John Ayro and Ian Crofton, Brewer's Britain and Ireland (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)
- Charles Gatty, Mary Davies and the Manor of Ebury (The Waverley Book Company, 1921)
- Claire Heald, Behind the locked doors of Tyburn, BBC News, 8 August 2005
- A Guide to Archaeology and Planning within Westminster
Department of Planning and City Development, Development Planning Services, March 1995
- Being hanged at Tyburn
- Where has the Tyburn memorial gone?
- 'Tyburn and Tyburnia', Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878), pp. 188-203.
- 'Paddington: Tyburnia', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9: Hampstead, Paddington (1989), pp. 190-198.
- The King's Scholars' Pond Sewer a.k.a The River Tyburn
- Slate Of Independents
- Francis, Freddie (1917-2007)