Museum of London Docklands' latest exhibition offers a sensitive, sobering look at London's public executions.
Of all the lost landmarks of London, the Tyburn Tree is the one I'd least want to see up close. For centuries, this three-sided gazebo of death was London's most famous gallows. It stood at the sunset end of town, near today's Marble Arch, until the inexorable forces of gentrification and NIMBYism saw it swept away in the late 18th century.
Now, the fearsome isosceles is back as the centrepiece of Museum of London Docklands' new exhibition on executions. I know it is a replica, but standing beneath on the faux-boggy ground, with melancholy music swirling round the room... it's really quite affecting.
The rest of the exhibition is excellent — full of little details and moments that make you pause and think "did that really happen?". People were actually boiled alive for stealing small quantities. In 1279, more than 300 Jews were executed for coin clipping. Later Londoners could be hanged for just about anything, including sodomy, stealing a cheese and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.
Some seriously impressive objects are on show here. Items of clothing worn by Charles I on his execution day, a genuine 18th century gibbet, a door from Newgate Prison, the bell from St Sepulchre's which tolled the final hours, a prisoner's lament woven from human hair... Most compelling of all are the numerous hand-written letters on display. These are a mix of personal appeals from the condemned (which had a happy outcome more often than you might expect), and letters of last request. The latter are not only displayed, but also read out... by the currently incarcerated.
Among all the human artefacts and period etchings, the object I found most stirring was, surprisingly, a video screen of words. It displays a scrolling list of every person known to have been publicly executed in London between 1196 and 1868. Needless to say, it is a very long list and takes an hour to show every name. This simple display brings home how rich and poor alike were prone to extreme justice. One condemned unfortunate listed simply as "Old man" was executed immediately after a Plantagenet. A woman of 80 was hanged around the same time.
The exhibition ends on a slightly brighter note with a look at Elizabeth Fry and the movement to end public execution. (The last one happened at Newgate in 1868 which, famously, meant you could have caught the recently opened Underground to watch it.) Here the story ends. It would have been interesting to have a further room about capital punishment in the 20th century (including Ruth Ellis, the executions of German spies at the Tower of London and the eventual abolition of the death sentence). But, as the curators told me, that feels like a very different story, and one that was tackled in 2015's Crime Museum exhibition.
This is one of the best exhibitions yet staged in a museum with a reputation for putting on good shows. The gallery space has expanded somewhat on previous exhibitions, and you can expect to spend well over an hour here if you want to see everything.
It feels a bit lame to end on a pun, but there really is no other summary for this show: brilliantly executed.
Executions is at Museum of London Docklands 14 October 2022-16 April 2023. Standard tickets are £12, but the rest of the museum is free to visit. Look out for the accompanying book and associated events.