When You Could Catch The Underground To See A Hanging

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By M@
When You Could Catch The Underground To See A Hanging
Farringdon Station in 1866, when a 10 minute walk would take you to a public execution.

The underground trains into Farringdon would have been particularly busy on 14 November 1864. No eyewitness account exists, but we can imagine a scene like a modern-day football crowd on its way to Wembley, with thousands of extra passengers squashed onto what is now the Met line. These spectators were heading not to a sports arena, but into the Square Mile. They wanted to watch the killing of a man.

Franz Müller was the first person to be convicted of murder on the rail network, killing banker Thomas Briggs on a train through Hackney. Subsequent fears about safety on trains and a transatlantic manhunt gave the case a grim allure. It is a story that still grips today, as told in Kate Colquhoun's bestselling account, Mr Briggs' Hat.

Franz Muller. Public domain image.

Müller was sentenced to death by hanging. He would be executed in public outside Newgate Prison, Old Bailey. According to a press report, the crowd 'filled all the streets in the vicinity of Newgate, and gathered in spots from which it was impossible to obtain a sight of the execution'. Newspapers at the time describe a 'fearful mob' of 100,000 people, many drunken and rowdy. Large numbers would have arrived by Metropolitan Railway at nearby Farringdon.

It's strange to reflect that public hangings took place into the era of the London Underground. The tube network seems like part of the modern city, but its genesis came during the era when people still camped overnight to watch someone swing by the neck until death.

What is now the Metropolitan line opened from Paddington to Farringdon in January 1863. For five years, it was used by spectators attending executions at Newgate, just a 10 minute walk from Farringdon.

The last public execution in England took place on 26 May 1868. It was a very local affair. Michael Barrett was hanged at Newgate for his part in a botched jailbreak in Clerkenwell, in which a planted explosive killed 12 people. Farringdon station sits right between the scene of the crime and the subsequent execution.

Execution of Michael Barrett from the Illustrate Police News. (c) Board of the British Library.

Between the opening of the underground railway in 1863, and the last public hanging, 12 people were executed at Newgate. On all of these occasions, the Metropolitan line would have brought in many of the spectators. One multiple hanging in 1864 saw five pirates killed in quick succession before a crowd of 20,000. Among them, supposedly, was a five-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle who would later record their crimes in a short story.

Newgate was not the only execution site in London during this period. The jail at Horsemonger Lane, near Newington Causeway in Southwark, also had an active gallows. Three prisoners were hanged here during the 'Underground era', but it was several miles from the nearest station.

Dead Man's Walk, supposed route to the private execution site at the Old Bailey. Image by the author.

Following Barrett's execution in 1868, all subsequent hangings were performed in private, away from public gaze. The last person to be executed at Newgate — during its conversion to the modern Old Bailey — was George Woolfe in 1902. As far as we're aware he is the last person to be executed within the Square Mile.

Last Updated 17 July 2017