Murder and Mayhem in London through the Ages – Part 2: Execrable executions

Continuing our time-travel through London’s pernicious past, here are a few ominous outings our forefathers might have enjoyed:

Newgate prison and Execution dock

Take an excursion to Newgate prison to gawk at inmates: Daniel Defoe sat here (for poking fun at the Tories), as did Pennsylvania founder William Penn (contempt of court). Then continue to Wapping (present day Docklands), known for several centuries as Execution Dock. This is where pirates were strung up after sentencing by the Admiralty Court. One who met his fate here 300 years ago, was famous Scottish pirate, Captain Kidd. Not only was he hanged; his body was also gibbeted – suspended in an iron cage. For years, he hung there, to serve as warning to any who might have romantic notions of life as a pirate.


Common thieves and crims were strung up at Tyburn (present-day Marble Arch). The executions were public, so why not bring the family for a fun day out? 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 – a wee bit pale in comparison. The last to be executed at Tyburn gallows was a highwayman in 1783.


Wallace Memorial, Smithfield, London

Ever noticed this plaque? It’s in Smithfield – on the wall of England’s oldest hospital, St. Bartholomew’s, founded in 1123. (A notable graduate was Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. Must be uniquely inspiring, attending medical school in a 12th century hospital). In 1305, Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace was found guilty of treason; then hanged, drawn and quartered at Smithfield.

Smithfield has been site of a wholesale meat market since 1179 (still there), as well as a place of public executions; a rather peculiar combination, don’t you think? 250 years after Wallace, 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.

Fleet Street

Around the corner is Fleet river, now subterranean. The street is rather better known. And not only for newspapers. If you are time travelling, you may want to think twice before stopping off at the hair dresser here. 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…

Execution dock
A barber shop on Fleet Street


Another popular outing of the past was going to bear-baiting. It was 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.

Watch this space for a few words on the most infamous of serial killers. You know who…

This is an excerpt, somewhat reworked, of my Boots’n’All article Execution Dock, Tyburn, Smithfield and other beastly business

23 Responses to “Murder and Mayhem in London through the Ages – Part 2: Execrable executions”

  1. Italian Notes 24 October 2011 0904 #

    I’ve never been so aware of the criminal, murderous side of London. It’s scary – in a cosy old-fashioned sort of way.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2011 0906 #

      @Italian Notes – I know exactly what you mean. Gruesome, yet cosy! Only England manages that peculiar combination, I think.

  2. Jarmo @ Arctic Nomad 24 October 2011 0907 #

    There is so much dark history in London! My old local pub the Prospect of Whitby used to be a meeting place for all the cut-throats and the like, there is still the old noose hanging outside over the river. It’s a great place!
    Jarmo @ Arctic Nomad recently posted..Stupid or Lucky, Making It Through the Bolaven Plateau on a Motorbike

  3. inka 24 October 2011 1404 #

    I follow you with delight.
    inka recently posted..Van/Turkey- where the earthquake hit

  4. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2011 1406 #

    Jarmo – Sounds like a cool pub. I’d like to check it out.

    Inka – Thanks :)

  5. Laurel 24 October 2011 1409 #

    You’re showing us such an interesting side of London. Is Execution Dock near where the WTM is being held? I would like to check it out.
    Laurel recently posted..Keeping Travel Memories Alive

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 24 October 2011 1455 #

      @Laurel – Great idea! Looks like it’s about 10 – 15 minutes away from WTM.

  6. Annie - FootTracker 24 October 2011 1513 #

    Eek, execution place and meat market all at the same time, fun fun….

    It is hard to imagine how execution use to be public and an event that people go watch.. D:
    Annie – FootTracker recently posted..Monterey (5) One Devilish Treat @Lily Mae’s Cinnamon Rolls

  7. Jeremy Branham 24 October 2011 1849 #

    Life in this day and age has its bad moments but we are nowhere near as cruel as those in centuries past. Yikes!
    Jeremy Branham recently posted..Fall colors in northern California: Hope Valley Autumn leaves

  8. adventureswithben 25 October 2011 0153 #

    I wonder if people would go to public executions today?
    adventureswithben recently posted..Norman Love Chocolates: Tiny, Beautiful, Delicious, Expensive and Worth It

  9. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 25 October 2011 1003 #

    Annie and Ben – Interesting thought and very disturbing. I don’t think people have changed that much, sadly. Quite a few would probably go see public executions. Taking reality TV one step further…

    Jeremy – I’m not sure we’re less cruel today – or if we’re just better at hiding our darker sides…

  10. robin 25 October 2011 1108 #

    Great fun!!
    robin recently posted..Las Nubes

  11. Angela 25 October 2011 1921 #

    I’m enjoying this series of yours, I wish you had written these posts when I was still in London, I would have looked at those sights in a different way :P
    Angela recently posted..Stepping back in time in ancient Abyaneh, Iran

  12. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 26 October 2011 1045 #

    Angela and Robin – thanks :)

  13. Vera Marie Badertscher 27 October 2011 0322 #

    This is a fascinating series you are doing. Did you know there’s a Smithfield Virginia, which is famous for Smithfield Ham? It’s nickname is Ham Town. No executions (except for pigs) as far as I know.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Chernobyl in Your Travel Plans?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch
      Anne-Sophie Redisch 27 October 2011 0522 #

      @Vera – No, I didn’t know that. How interesting! I wonder if it was named after that part of London… wouldn’t be surprised, especially as Virginia was one of the original “colonies” and (I suppose) very English (at least 400 years ago).

  14. nicole 27 October 2011 1619 #

    It is hard to imagine how execution use to be public and an event that people go watch..You’re showing us such an interesting side of London…It’s a great place!
    nicole recently posted..Murano Glass Italian Chandeliers and Home Decor

  15. Christy @ Technosyncratic 28 October 2011 1850 #

    Bear-baiting?!? Oh my. That seems remarkably ill-advised.
    Christy @ Technosyncratic recently posted..East Side Gallery: Artwork on the Berlin Wall

  16. Sailor 29 October 2011 0116 #

    Sounds more like the executions these days in the Middle East.
    Sailor recently posted..Chennai Clay Pot Seller – on a Rainy Day

  17. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 30 October 2011 1048 #

    Nicole, Christy, Sailor – thanks for reading :)

  18. Barry 8 November 2011 1420 #

    Very interesting. The historical realities are both chilling and reflective. I sometimes wonder if what has been gained in civility has been lost in expediency and moral impact. It is always an interesting road to travel. One of the greatest aspects of travel is the convenience to absorb the history. Thanks for sharing.
    Barry recently posted..Georgetown – Ghost Town – Hiking Alberta

  19. Anne-Sophie Redisch
    Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 November 2011 1049 #

    Thanks, Barry. Food for thought, indeed.

  20. Andrew 12 November 2011 1425 #

    The history stuff like this is interesting to see. In reference to several comments above, the world doesn’t seem to ever change in its cruelty, just the expression changes. Of course people would watch execution on TV, though there would (thankfully) be plenty against it as well. There is enough violence on the news and in shows.

    It occurs to me as I read that isn’t “boiling in oil” just the same as deep frying?
    Andrew recently posted..Feldkirch Austria : Phototour

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