Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Last Hanging at Tyburn

To end the week of Halloween, we return to the Tyburn gallows on the anniversary of the last public hanging at this iconic place, that of a highwayman named John Austin. Now, I take as my inspiration the notes of my dear of grandmother Gilflurt and unfortunately, a rather ribald night with the Duke of Marlborough resulted in a gin spillage that has smudged the date somewhat and she is too cloudy to recall at present. Historians are not in agreement on the date of this final hanging with both 3rd and 7th November 1783 given as likely candidates. Since the trial at the Old Bailey definitely took place on 29th October, I am going to plump for 3rd so let us continue!


Plaque at the site of the Tyburn Tree

On 23rd October 1783, John Spicer was on the road for London, having left Grays in Essex with the intention of finding a new situation in life. Unfamiliar with the city, Spicer had been glad to make the friendship of two men who offered to direct him to reputable lodgings and travelled with him for a couple of days. However, rather than conduct him safely to a rooming house, the men took their victim to open fields near Bethnal Green and threatened him with a cutlass, leaving him in no doubt that he would die if he did not go along with their demands to hand over his valuables. Despite being outnumbered and unarmed, Spicer fought furiously but Austin and his accomplice were able to wrestle him to the ground, tying his hands tightly and taking all of his possessions.

The attack was interrupted by James Strong, a local man who had been working in his employer's garden. His efforts to apprehend the assailants were unsuccessful but he took the badly wounded Spicer to the infirmary, where his injuries were tended. It appeared then that Austin and his accomplice had made good their escape but the greedy felon returned to the scene of his crime in daylight to see if he had left anything behind. Strong apprehended Austin, who complained that he was an innocent man; he explained that he had been forced to participate in the robbery by a stranger, who threatened him with death if he did not comply. Whilst the men waited for the watch to arrive, Austin was locked in a stable and, when he was released, the takings from the robbery were found concealed in his makeshift prison.


Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn by William Hogarth
Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle 'Prentice Executed at Tyburn by William Hogarth 

After hearing the testimonies and defence, the judge, Mr Eyre, passed sentence of death on Austin and just days later he was taken by cart to the Tyburn gallows amid a crowd of spectators. The condemned man apparently passed the journey in a dignified fashion though panic overtook him as the noose was fixed and he told the crowd, "Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul; let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed; keep good company, and mind the word of God." This short speech completed, the cap was put over his head and as he began to speak again the cart started forward and the noose tightened; rather than face a quick death, Austin was slowly strangled for ten minutes.

Austin was the last man to die at Tyburn and from that day hangings moved to Newgate. There are many more stories to tell of this dark place but for now, I hope you pass a restful Sunday and take care on the road to London, no matter how friendly your travelling companions might seem.

13 comments:

Julian Rixon said...

I wonder why we commemorate these sites with such ceremony! In any case, this just goes to show that it's really true: the perpetrator does return to the scene of the crime, foolish man that he was!

Anonymous said...

An interesting article, but one thing that has become very noticeable we as a country in the past liked to celebrate hangings and executions, much like the french with the guillotine.

Over the years many people have been hanged!

Madame Gilflurt said...

They certainly were; in his marvellous book, The Hanging Tree, Vic Gattrell estimates that around 7,000 people were hanged during the years of "the Bloody Code".

Grace Elliot said...

I didn't realise there was a plaque to commemorate the Tyburn tree. Do you know where the spot is exactly?
G x

Madame Gilflurt said...

Indeed I do; it's at the corner of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road and visible on Google maps in the middle of a traffic island, at the foot of the green road sign. http://tinyurl.com/mrphq4b

Madame Gilflurt said...

And when he *did* return, he found more than he had bargained for!

John Yohalem said...

When was the last hanging, drawing and quartering? I think that was in 1746.

Madame Gilflurt said...

I believe you are correct; I need to check my Gatrell to be sure but I think I have read references to later executions encompassing hanging, beheading and quartering which is subtly different!

Gem Twitcher said...

...and there is a Convent near to the site of the Tyburn "tree"-to pray for the souls of the departed.

Catherine Curzon said...

Indeed, sir, indeed.

Tony Rotherham said...

If hangings were still around. I can guarantee that thousands of people would still turn up.
It's that morbid curiosity that we as a race have with death.

Catherine Curzon said...

I agree, people would definitely fill the square...

Mike said...

Anyone who finds this subject of interest should read "An Enquiry into the Causes of the Frequent Executions at Tyburn" by Malvin Zirker, written in 1725. It's a remarkable essay.