A Moment in London’s History – The last execution at the Tower of London…

The Tower of London. PICTURE: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

This month marks the 80th anniversary of the last person to be executed at the Tower of London for treason.

Injured when he was shot in the chest while serving as a conscript in the German army during World War I, Josef Jakobs worked as a dentist after the war (and was briefly imprisoned in Switzerland for selling counterfeit gold). Following the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany during the 1930s, he was arrested in 1938 by the Gestapo for selling black market passports to Jewish people fleeing the country and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

After two years, Jakobs was released after he agreed to work as a spy in England for the German military intelligence.

Having flown from Holland, Jakobs parachuted into England at a located near Ramsey in what was then Huntingdonshire, in late January, 1941. Breaking his ankle during the landing and in pain, he fired his pistol into the air early on February 1st and was subsequently apprehended by members of the Home Guard.

Among the items he was found with were a wireless transmitter, a small torch with a flashing device, a map marking positions of nearby RAF airfields and a German sausage.

Jakobs was taken to a local police station before being transferred to London where he was subsequently interrogated by MI5 during which he claimed he had escaped to England with the intent of securing passage to America. He was later taken to a hospital and treated for his injuries.

His court martial before a military tribunal was held at the Duke of York’s headquarters in Chelsea on 4th and 5th August. After hearing from eight witnesses in a closed court (due to intelligence sensitivities), he was convicted of spying and sentenced to death.

Jakobs’ execution was carried out at the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London – the same place where death sentences had been carried out on 11 spies executed during World War I – on 15th August.

Jakobs was blindfolded and tied to a chair (which can still be viewed in the White Tower) with a white target pinned over his heart. A firing squad of eight – all members of the Scots Guards – carried out the sentence at 7.12am (five of those in the squad had live rounds). He is said to have died instantly.

Jakobs was subsequently buried in an unmarked grave at St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green.

Jakobs was the only spy executed at the Tower in World War II and the last person to suffer such a sentence there.

Lost London – Newgate Prison

The most notorious of London’s many prisons, Newgate remained in use for more than 700 years.

The prison – located on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey on the site of what is now London’s Central Criminal Court (known as the Old Bailey thanks to its position on the street known as Old Bailey) – was apparently first constructed around the end of the 1100s on the orders of King Henry II at the site of one of the gates in the Roman wall (see picture).

It was enlarged and renovated several times over the ensuing centuries (including a complete rebuilding after the Great Fire of London in 1666 and another to the design of George Dance after the prison was badly damaged during the Gordon Riots of 1780, sparked by opposition to Catholic emancipation).

The prison, which was infamous for the squalid conditions in which prisoners were housed, was used for a range of purposes including housing debtors and the incarceration of people awaiting execution (by the 18th century, it’s said that more than 350 crimes had become punishable by death).

In 1783 public executions were moved from Tyburn, west of the city, to a site just outside the prison. In 1868, executions were no longer open to the public at large and the gallows moved inside. The prison closed in 1902 and was eventually demolished in 1904.

Famous prisoners who spent time in Newgate include Shakespeare’ contemporary Ben Jonson (for killing a man in a duel), 17th century author Daniel Defoe (for his authorship of political pamphlets), Captain William Kidd (for piracy), and William Penn, Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania (for contempt of court during a case brought after he was accused of having illegally preached ).

But perhaps the most infamous is the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, known for having escaped from the prison several times before finally being hanged at Tyburn (close to where Marble Arch now stands).

The only surviving part of the prison in its original location is part of the prison wall which can be seen in Amen Corner.

PICTURE: Wikipedia.com