To look at it, you wouldn’t necessarily imagine the memorial marking the former site of the ‘Tyburn Tree’ near Marble Arch was part of the English Heritage Blue Plaques scheme. 

Tyburn-Tree2But, located on the ground on a traffic island at the junction of Edgware and Bayswater Roads, this memorial commemorating the site of the former gallows at what was once London’s execution grounds (and those who died upon it) is just that.

It’s estimated by some that as many as 60,000 people may have been executed here over the 600 years until the late 1700s

While the plaque only mentions one of the names by which the various gallows erected here were known – Tyburn being the name of the village originally here, others included ‘The Elms’, the ‘The Deadly Never Green Tree’ and the ‘Triple Tree’, the latter presumably a reference to the famous three-sided gallows set up here during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The last gallows was removed in 1759 when executions were moved into Newgate Prison (for more on the Tyburn Tree, see our earlier post here).

The plaque was erected on the site in 1964 by the London County Council; it replaced an earlier triangular plaque the council had erected here in 1909.

The memorial was restored and rededicated in a ceremony in 2014 with the placement of three oak trees around it (this picture was taken before the restoration).

There is a green City of Westminster plaque nearby which commemorates 105 Roman Catholic martyrs who lost their lives on the gallows between 1535 and 1681 while the deaths of the more than 350 Roman Catholics who died across England and Wales during the Reformation, including those on the Tyburn Tree, are also recalled in a shrine at the nearby Tyburn Convent.

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Tyburn-TreeThe site of public executions for hundreds of years, it’s generally accepted that at about 9am on 3rd November, 1783, John Austin became the last person to be hanged there (for more on the history of executions at Tyburn – and in particular the massive gallows known as the Tyburn Tree – see our previous post here).

Austin had been convicted of being a highwayman – specifically for inflicting “robbery with violence” upon labourer John Spicer, two weeks before during which Austin had attacked Spicer, beating and cutting him, “in a cruel manner”.

As he stood on the cart beneath the gallows (a mobile gallows had been in use since 1759 when the Elizabethan-era Tyburn Tree was dismantled), Austin’s last words were somewhat predictable – he requested that the crowd pray for his “departing soul”, that they would heed his example and that Jesus would have “mercy upon my poor soul”.

His death, it is said, was “hard”. As the cart was moved off, the halter around his neck apparently slipped “to the back part of his head” and instead of his neck being broken, Austin slowly choked to death.

The decision to cease executions at Tyburn (near where Marble Arch now stands) and move them to outside Newgate Prison was apparently due to complaints. These came from both City traders who felt the condemned person’s three mile procession from Newgate to Tyburn disrupted making money and the fashionable who sought to live in the city’s outlying western areas like Marylebone and who didn’t want to see the unruly mob that typically accompanied  outside their front doors. Such groups had long been lobbying for the practice to come to an end.

For more on the history of Tyburn see Robert Bard’s Tyburn: The Story of London’s Gallows.

An iconic location in one London’s most well-known Royal Parks, the history of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner as a site of public oratory dates back to at least the mid 1800s (although thanks to the site being located close to where Tyburn Tree once stood, its arguable that the tradition goes further back, to when condemned prisoners were able to have a final word on the gallows – but for more on the Tyburn Tree, see our previous post here).

Located near Marble Arch on the north-east corner of Hyde Park, the area was the scene of massive protests by the Reform League in the mid 1800s which were aimed at extending the voting franchise to the working class. In 1866, protestors tore up the railings and rioted for three days after they approached the area and found themselves locked out of Hyde Park. They returned en masse the following year in defiance of a government ban but were allowed to protest without intervention.

While there was some opposition to the idea of public protests in the area, in 1872, the passing of the Parks Regulation Act meant the park’s authorities could issue permits for speakers (while it didn’t enshrine the right to speak in law, it did establish the general principle of speaking in parts of the park). The area covered by the act is much larger than Speakers’ Corner but tradition has established that as the site where people gather to speak (and listen).

Anyone can now turn up to address the public at Speakers’ Corner whenever the park is open but tradition has meant most of the speaking happens on a Sunday morning (when you’ll certainly encounter some very regular speakers). The only condition is that the speech be considered “lawful”.

Among the more notable speakers who have attended are Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. The suffragettes also held meetings there in the early 1900s and, in 2003, it was the scene of a massive rally against the taking of military action in Iraq.

Numerous other countries have since adopted the idea and created their own version of a “speakers’ corner” including Australia, Singapore, Canada and the US.

London’s Speakers’ Corner has undergone a makeover in recent months (somewhat controversial to some) and was last month reopened by the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid who described Speakers’ Corner as a “deeply symbolic space that celebrates freedom of speech”.

The refurbishment included new trees and plantings, resurfacing and the installation of railings, designed by Royal Parks landscape architect Ruth Holmes and landscape architects Burns + Nice and carried out by award-winners Bowls and Wyer.

For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/hyde-park-attractions/speakers-corner.

Stay tuned – we’re launching our new Wednesday series next week. In the meantime, here’s a link to our 10 most viewed posts on Exploring London for the first quarter of this year (counting backwards from 10)…

10. LondonLife – The city illuminated…

9. Treasures of London – Admiral Lord Nelson’s coat

8. Where is it?…#58

7. LondonLife – A new crown for King Henry VIII…

6. Where is it?…#60…

5. Where’s London’s oldest…church?

4. Where’s London’s oldest…Thames tunnel?

3. Lost London – The ‘Tyburn Tree’

2. Treasures of London – The Cheapside Hoard

1. Where’s London’s oldest…department store?

Originally installed as a grand entrance to Buckingham Palace, John Nash’s arch was moved to its current location, what is now effectively a traffic island not far from Speaker’s Corner in nearby Hyde Park, in 1851.

The story goes that this took place after it was discovered that the arch was too narrow for the widest of the new-fangled coaches but there are some doubts over this, particularly as the gold state coach passed under it during Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1952. Another story says that it was moved after extensions to Buckingham Palace left insufficient space for it.

Work on the arch had started at Buckingham Palace in the mid 1820s and it was completed by 1833. It was originally moved to replace Cumberland Gate as the new entrance to Hyde Park and to complement Decimus Burton’s arch at Hyde Park Corner. Successive roadworks in the 20th century, however, left it in its current position.

Clad in Carrara marble, the design of the arch was inspired by Rome’s Arch of Constantine and the Arc do Carrousel in Paris. The sculptural ornamentation, which includes works by Sir Richard Westmacott and Edward Hodges Baily, however, was apparently never completed and an equestrian statue of King George IV, originally destined for the top of the arch, instead now stands in Trafalgar Square. The bronze gates – which bear the lion of England, cypher of King George IV and image of St George and the Dragon – were designed by Samuel Parker.

Only senior members of the Royal family and the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery are permitted to pass under the central arch of the monumental structure.

The arch stands close to where the Tyburn Tree once stood (for more on this, see our earlier post). It contains three small rooms which, up until the 1950s housed what has been described as “one of the smallest police stations in the world”.

There was some talk in 2005 that the arch would be moved to Speaker’s Corner but this obviously hasn’t eventuated.

For six centuries, the gallows at Tyburn, in the city’s west, was one of London’s sites of public execution. Today, little remains to remind visitors of the infamous past of the area, which lies close to Marble Arch, but for a plaque set in the middle of a road.

From 1196 to 1783, it’s suggested that thousands of people (some have estimated as many as 60,000) were hanged at various gallows erected at Tyburn, known by numerous names over the centuries including ‘The Elms’, the ‘The Deadly Never Green Tree’, and most infamously the ‘Tyburn Tree’.

Hangings were apparently initially carried out using the branches of a tree on the bank of the Tyburn River but the first gallows date from 1220. In Elizabeth times these were upgraded to a larger gallows known as the ‘Triple Tree’ which enabled many more people to be hanged simulteously – as many as 24 at once in 1649.

The gallows was removed in 1759 because it was blocking the road and a mobile gallows used until hangings were moved into Newgate Prison (see our earlier entry on Newgate).

Executions were a public spectacle and it’s estimated that at times the crowds at Tyburn swelled to more than 50,000 people, all eager to witness someone “dancing the Tyburn jig”.

Among those to be hanged at Tyburn were William Fitz Osbern (a champion of London’s poor who was hanged in 1196), Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March (hanged in 1330 after being accused of assuming royal power), Perkin Warbeck (pretender to the throne of King Henry VII who was hanged in 1499), and Elizabeth Barton, the ‘Holy Maid of Kent’ (hanged for treason after prophesying King Henry VIII would die within six months of marrying Anne Boleyn).

Others included key figures in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace (an uprising in England’s north in 1536 which followed King Henry VIII’s break with Rome) and many other Catholics including Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland (1681).

In an unusual move, the body of already deceased Oliver Cromwell, along with that of John Bradshaw and Henry Ireton, was exumed from his grave and and hanged there to mark the first anniversary of the Restoration.

What is believed to have been the site of the Tyburn Tree is today marked by a plaque set in a traffic island at the corner of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road (nearest tube station is Marble Arch).

There is a Shrine of the Martyrs dedicated to the more than 105 Roman Catholics who were hung at Tyburn for their faith at the Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place (for visiting details, see www.tyburnconvent.org.uk).

Note: This article originally referred to the Shrine of the Martyrs commemorating more than 350 Catholic martyrs who died during the Reformation as all being executed at Tyburn but it is believed some 105 were – the greater figure refers to those martyred across England and Wales during the Reformation.