Tyburn Gallows


Above: The site of Tyburn Gallows or Tyburn Tree is not beneath Marble Arch (as many people will tell you) but a few yards north on a small pedestrian island at the southern end of Edgware Road.

At the point where Oxford Street meets Edgware Road there is a vast inefficient elongated roundabout called Marble Arch. The same spot has been a road junction ever since Roman times when two of their roads were laid out and met at the same location. Ever since Norman times the site was used as a place of execution. It was a grim lonely spot then – well away from where anyone lived but, of course, passed by those who used either of the two roads.

Life in Norman England was not always pleasant. From Norman times, through to the Tudors, and well after that, public executions were relatively commonplace. This lonely road junction was one of those sites. England, remember, had no police force so it must have been pretty lawless. The only deterrent to crime was the thought of the terrible ways that you might be put to death if you were caught. However, since few villains were ever brought to justice, that was not really sufficient to deter most criminals. Most places of execution were well away from where people lived. They were outside villages or, if there was a large population in a town or City, town squares were sometimes used.

Tyburn Gallows was one of the places of public executions – by hanging. The earliest record of an execution taking place was in 1196 and, because such places were traditionally always used, it may well have been in use for decades or even centuries before that time. A permanent structure, known as ‘Tyburn Tree’ was in place from 1571 until 1760. It consisted of three stout timbers mounted in the ground to form the points of a triangle with three beams spanning the gaps between the tops of those timbers. In that way three felons could be hanged at the same time. Hanging was a terrible way to die – death was caused by suffocation and it could take several hours. It was not until Victorian times, when hanging was by the ‘drop’ process, that death was instantaneous – due to breaking your neck. Not only was the grizzly process held in public view but the bodies were often left to rot for all to see as they passed by. The whole process was utterly macabre.

In 1661 the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw were exposed on the gallows for 12 hours after they had been exhumed from Westminster Abbey. Claude Duval, the highwayman, was hanged on 21 January 1670 – as were many other highwaymen.

Many executions took place at this infamous spot. Those being held in Newgate Gaol were conveyed by cart via the route of Holborn, St Giles High Street and Oxford Street to be hanged at Tyburn Tree. The last man hanged at Tyburn was John Austin, a forger, on 7 November 1783 after which all executions took place at Newgate Gaol.

Although this is a grim subject, the spot needs to be mentioned because it influenced life for those who lived at Paddington and along the road we now call Oxford Street. The residents of the nearby village of Tyburn found that living so close to a place of execution was not only unpleasant but the regular spectacle attracted rowdy crowds who often attacked the villagers and stole from their properties. As time went by the villagers decided to move their village further north, to get away from the disruptive proceedings that they had to endure. Having moved to the northern end of what is now Marylebone High Street, the village adopted the name of the new local church and we know it today as St Marylebone.


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4 Responses to Tyburn Gallows

  1. An interesting but gruesome account but a reminder that places develop through trade, community and civic activities, and particularly at intersections of paths, tracks, lanes and roads … including specialisms such as hanging! Thank you Adrian.


  2. Thanks for your appreciation. Its amazing the services that have been provided in Oxford Street over the years. Hanging is no longer available but fast-food burgers are now served that result in a much slower death – over a period of 20 or 30 years!


  3. James Crowe says:

    Very informative. Thank you.


  4. Thank you for your appreciation.


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