It is the evening of 23 October 1783, and in a secluded spot on the King’s highway John Austin and an accomplice are mercilessly beating and robbing a stranger. This act of brutality marked the beginning of the end, not only for Austin, but for an ancient ritual that had been enacted since the 16th century. Having been sentenced to death, he became the last man to be taken in procession from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn.
For 300 years, doomed convicts had made the journey from where the Old Bailey now stands to the place of their demise, near the site of Marble Arch. These processions, which occurred only eight times a year, were held to be among the capital’s most exciting events. Raucous crowds gathered on the roads and in the windows of houses with a view; a clergyman accompanied the condemned; cheering and shouting vied with preaching and jeering, and during the three hours it took to cover the two miles, the spectacle of impending death would unite the metropolis in an outpouring of heightened emotion.
The spectators themselves are dead and buried, and the buildings that lined the way long since leveled. But beneath the stratum of 18th century bricks and bones, millions still trace the same path today, albeit for different reasons. For between St Paul’s station and Marble Arch, the Central Line follows the last journey of John Austin and his innumerable doomed predecessors almost exactly.
For those hoping to evoke the procession, the modern topography of London is wonderfully supportive. Despite the devastating zeal of the Victorians, who laid waste to many of the capital’s ancient streets, the conduit that flowed from Newgate to Tyburn remains largely intact. Newgate itself is gone, replaced by the Old Bailey, but the Church of St Sepulchre remains. From here a clergyman would make his way through a tunnel connecting the two buildings, and ring the bell that signalled the beginning of the great event. A visit to the church reveals that the artefact itself survives, silently encased in glass. It is perhaps the most evocative remaining fragment of a ritual characterised by its cacophony of sounds as much as its spectacle.
From Newgate the route covered Snow Hill. This section of the modern journey is the least faithful to the original. Here London descends into a shallow valley (‘London’s most dynamic ditch‘), through which the subterranean river Fleet flows towards the Thames. In the 18th century this geographical feature was reflected in the names of the streets themselves, notably Holbourn Bridge and Holbourne Hill (neither of which exist today). Walking down Snow Hill takes you the short journey to the bottom of the valley, and a set of steps on the west side of Farringdon Road gives you access to that monumental ligament constructed by the Victorians to join its two sides: Holborn Viaduct.
Traversing this engineering marvel, we pass St Andrew Holborn, one of the few remaining significant structures that would have flanked John Austin’s journey to the gallows. The exterior walls and tower are all that remain of the original structure. The rest was destroyed in the Second World War, but later restored to the design of its builder, Christopher Wren.
Moving on, down High Holborn, few of the buildings Austin passed remain. Staple Inn, however, is an exception, its history dates back roughly as far as that of Tyburn itself. But with its heavily restored timber frame receding into the distance, a long stretch of architectural hotchpotch must be covered before the next, and last, major surviving building from the time presents itself.
St Giles in the Fields is the third and final church that lines the route of the Tyburn procession (though still around a mile from the site of the gallows). The building is also the youngest of the three. Though the 18th century design rests on much earlier foundations, at the time of Austin’s execution this ecclesiastical stripling had stood for only half a century.
Travelling the bend of St Giles High Street, John Austin would have reached the long final stage of his journey. Today this milestone is marked by the concrete totem of Centre Point. Though nothing so brutal ever pierced the 18th century skyline, a change in the urban landscape would, at this moment, have made itself felt to the procession. For it had reached Oxford Street, a region that was at the edge of the capital. Despite the fact that the 18th century is scarcely anywhere to be seen on Britain’s biggest high street, this is the place (and Saturday the day) where the bustle, noise and sheer magnitude of human traffic most closely recapitulate that of the heaving crowds who turned out for the excitement of an execution.
Walking past Zara, the modern pedestrian reaches the point where Oxford Street itself ceased and Tyburn Road began. Whether John Austin was fully conscious of the change is doubtful. Condemned prisoners were plied with alcohol on their way to the Tyburn Tree (as the three cornered gallows was known). The Bowl Inn, if it survived, would currently nestle in the shadow of Centre Point, while the Mason’s Arms, the last chance for the prisoner to imbibe, can still be found in Seymour Place.* The expression ‘on the wagon’ may stem from the procession, one explanation being that the driver would have to refuse ale himself. If the attribution (or one of its similar iterations) is accurate, it is one of the most compelling surviving features of the grim ritual, bolstered by endless repetition and preserving a special vestige of its original meaning.
For the modern walker, the road to the west of Zara is much the same as that to the east, though for the 18th century execution-goer the urban landscape changed once again. In fact it ceased to be urban at all, the buildings gradually giving way to open countryside. In plate 11 of Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness series, an apprentice has reached the end of the journey, where John Austin himself met his fate. The scene reveals the crowds pressed in around the wagon, the Tyburn Tree in the distance and temporary seating packed with spectators waiting for the thrill of public death. To the modern eye, almost as jarring as the impending execution are the rolling fields clearly visible in the distance.
*The Hand and Shears in Smithfield also claims to be the last stop for the doomed. Its location suggests that, if true, it must have been so after 1783, when executions took place at Newgate itself.
By Rob Clear. Photos by the author and Matt Brown.