9 Of London's Most Notorious Executions

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 92 months ago

Last Updated 19 October 2016

9 Of London's Most Notorious Executions

The death penalty was abolished in 1965. Before that, London played host to numerous executions that have long been remembered in popular culture. Whether it was facing Ketch's axe or Pierrepoint's noose, the end result was always the same.

Photo: David Hardman

Anthony Babington

Anthony Babington was an English nobleman who conspired with Mary Queen of Scots to assassinate Elizabeth I. When the plot was discovered, Babington and his co-conspirators were charged with high treason. Babington was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered at Lincoln's Inn. He made the bold offer of £1000 to Elizabeth I in exchange for a pardon, which was rejected, leading to his disastrous execution; Babington's hanging failed to kill him, so he was reputedly still alive and screaming as he faced his quartering.

Duke of Monmouth

In London's past, beheading was highly preferable to hanging. The theory went that beheading would be much quicker, and it was usually reserved for the upper classes. In the mid-17th century, London's axeman was Jack Ketch. Ketch developed a reputation for being poor at his job, often known to take a couple of swings of the axe to remove a head.

When the Duke of Monmouth faced the axe for leading a rebellion against James II, he wasn't happy when he heard that said axe would be wielded by Ketch. Monmouth accosted Ketch before the execution, handed him six guineas and said that his servant would give him more money if he 'did the work well'. Some accounts claim that Ketch was disconcerted by this incident, others that Ketch was annoyed by being lectured by someone he was about to execute. What is not disputed is his failure to 'do the work well'.

Ketch took between five and eight blows to finish Monmouth, with some claiming that he took a knife to finish severing the head from the body. Many protestants saw Monmouth as a martyr and dipped their handkerchiefs in the Duke's blood as a rather gruesome memento.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

Lady Jane Grey

Lady Jane Grey is (sort of) the first ever monarch to be executed. The 'sort of' is due to her heavily disputed nine-day leadership. She was named heir by her cousin the dying king Edward VI and ascended to the throne but was immediately challenged by 'Bloody Mary', Edward's half-sister. Jane lacked Mary's allies, swiftly falling to her and was charged with high treason.

She and her husband were found guilty and executed in the Tower of London. Still only a teenager, Jane asked her executioner to 'please dispatch me swiftly'. She was then blindfolded and as she knelt down to find the block upon which to rest her head, she struggled and cried out, 'Where is it?'. An onlooker guided her, a scene commemorated in the painting The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche.

Charles I

Charles I's execution makes this list for its importance in British history; he was the first widely-acknowledged British monarch to be executed (sorry, Lady Jane Grey). His execution wasn't particularly horrid compared to many others on this list, but does have a humorous accompanying anecdote.

Charles was desperate not to be seen as afraid, wanting the people to believe he was a defiant, strong man. He realised that with his execution taking place in January, the weather might make him shiver. Fearing that onlookers would mistake these shivers as caused by fear rather than the cold, he demanded extra clothing for the day. No reports of shivering ever surfaced, so perhaps it was a good call.

Robert Hubert

The tale of Frenchman Robert Hubert is a rather tragic one. Robert Hubert confessed to starting the Great Fire of London, but no one ever truly believed it was him. He made up a story which was incompatible with that of the fire, a story which he later changed. He was described as 'not well in mind' and spoke very little English, but London needed a scapegoat and as an outsider, he fitted the bill. It later turned out he wasn't even in the country when the fire started.

He was hanged before a massive crowd at Tyburn, who were ready to see the villain punished for the horrific crime he'd committed against their city. As his lifeless body was handed over to surgeons (post-hanging dissections for medical research was the norm), an angry mob overcame the guards and tore his corpse apart.

The Great Fire of London by an unknown painter

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. He was a second world war German spy, who parachuted into England to collect data to aid the Nazis. Unfortunately for Jakobs, he broke his ankle upon landing and was unable to move. He fired his pistol in the air to try and attract help and was quickly captured.

On 15 August 1941, Jakobs was executed by a firing squad within the Tower of London. He had to sit down for the ordeal as he was still handicapped by his ankle.

An interesting aside: although many think of the Tower as the spot for much medieval torture and execution, more people were executed there in the 20th century than in any previous century.

The Tower of London, site of many an execution. Photo: Carolina

John Christie

John Christie was an infamous serial killer from the 1950s, who murdered at least eight women. His is a case that contributed to the abolition of the death penalty; two of Christie's previous murders had been blamed on his neighbour Timothy Evans. Evans was hanged, and later posthumously pardoned. In the murders of Evans's wife and infant daughter, Evans' defence was based on shifting the blame to Christie. Due to substandard police work, no evidence was found to implicate Christie and the case bought his story over Evans's.

A couple of years later a new tenant in Christie's old flat discovered three of Christie's victims' bodies, hidden in the walls. When it came to his execution his arms were bound and Christie complained that his nose itched. The famed hangman Albert Pierrepoint assured him: 'it won't bother you for long'. Christie went on to be immortalised inside Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors exhibit.

Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis holds the infamous title of the last ever woman to be executed in Britain and her death contributed to the abolition of the death penalty. Ellis shot her lover, David Blakely, dead on the streets of Hampstead.

The case captured the public's imagination. Ellis was a stylish woman and Blakely a racing driver. Ellis garnered much sympathy as news emerged that her relationship with Blakely was heavily abusive, and that he had forced her to miscarry by punching her in the stomach. A petition asking for clemency was signed by over 50,000 people (quite an achievement in the pre-internet era), but was ignored. Despite the uproar, she herself remained quite ambivalent about the whole thing, saying

an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I am quite happy to die.

An extra titbit for you: the second last woman to be executed in England, Styllou Christofi, lived only a few houses down from Ellis. There was no similar uproar over Christofi's execution only months earlier; as a poor, unattractive, middle-aged immigrant, she lacked Ellis's glamour and few were bothered by her death.

Gunpowder plot conspirators by Crispijn van de Passe

Not Guy Fawkes

As a little bit of a bonus, here's one you might have expected to see. However, Guy Fawkes was never actually executed. He committed suicide moments prior to succumbing to hanging. As he climbed the ladder to his noose, he jumped and landed on the floor breaking his neck. It's unclear whether this was done on purpose to avoid the agony of hanging, or he simply fell, but those from the Jacobean era weren't going to let him get away so easily. His body was still quartered and displayed to the four corners of the kingdom as a warning against any future traitors.