Monday, 7 November 2011

A Grisly Tale about Tyburn Tree

Illustration, from about 1680, showing the gallows at Tyburn. Prisoners travelled
the three-mile journey from Newgate prison in an open cart, followed by crowds of people who watched the hanging.
Today I have a grisly tale to tell, for on November 7 , 1783, John Austin was the last person to be hanged at the infamous ‘Tyburn Tree’, the gallows which once stood at the junction of Edgware Road and Bayswater Road, near Marble Arch, in the heart of London.

Actually, before I continue I should admit to having some reservations about the date of this event – some sources list it as taking place on November 7, while others claim it happened on November 3. Anyway, the month is correct, even if the day is wrong, and he definitely appeared in court on October 29, 1793 – you can read the transcript of the trial at the Proceedings of the Old Bailey web-site

According to this, John Austin was indicted for ‘feloniously assaulting’ John Spicer , in a ‘certain field and open place, near the King's highway, on the October 23,  putting  him in ‘fear and danger of his life’, and ‘feloniously taking from his person and against his will’ one silver watch, value 30 s. a steel chain, value 1 s. a steel key, value 2 d. two silk handkerchiefs, value 4 s. two pair of worsted stockings, value 4 s. one linen shirt, value 12 d. one man's hat, value 12 d, which were all the property of  the said John Spicer.

The victim told the court he came to town from Essex, and two men that he did not know offered to show him a good lodging, but instead took him to some fields. “One of them took me to a ditch, he said, we cannot well get over here, then he took me to the corner; the other, which is the prisoner, had stopped to do his occasions,” said Mr Spicer. “The other man drew a cutlass, from under his smock frock, and he said, if I did not give him what I had, he would cut me down, I got hold of him, and made a good deal of resistance, he chopped at me several times, and cut away as hard as he could,” he added.

A map of Tyburn gallows from John Rocque's 1746 map of London, Westminster and Southwark.
Austin grabbed Spicer’s neckerchief and his leg, then threw him down on the ground, where he lay on his back while the assailants tied his hand together with a cord and took his possessions. “A person came up or else I think they would have killed me,” Mr Spicer said. His rescuer, a gentleman’s gentleman, described how  he John Spicer with ‘both his hands tied together all over blood almost’, and added that he was taken to the infirmary where ‘we expected he would have died’.

Stolen property was found on  property was found on Austin when he was captured, but in court he maintained his innocence, claiming he was ‘easing’ himself when the attack occurred, and did not know the other man. “When I went up to him, he said, damn you, if you will not assist me, I will blow your brains out,” Austin claimed. “I have no witnesses, I have never a friend in the world, I am far from friends.”

He was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the gallows he reportedly said: “Good people, I request your prayers for the salvation of my departing soul. Let my example teach you to shun the bad ways I have followed. Keep good company, and mind the word of God. Lord have mercy on me. Jesus look down with pity on me. Christ have mercy on my poor soul." As the cart on which he stood was driven away from the gallows, the noose around his neck slipped, and he choked to death rather than having his neck snapped.

After Austin’s execution hangings were carried out at Newgate Prison, but it was almost 100 years before legislation was introduced to ensure they were conducted in private, and it took another 100 for capital punishment to be abolished. Today a circular plaque on a traffic island at Marble Arch commemorates the Tyburn Tree.

Incidentally, the phrase 'money for old rope' came into being because after executions, hangmen used to cut the noose up and sell it. And, according to legend, the term 'on the wagon' also has a connection with the last journey of condemned prisoners, for they were allowed a final drink on the way to Tyburn, before going back on the wagon to their grim destination
Image of the stone commemorating the Tyburn site on the traffic island at the junction of Edgware Road and Marble Arch.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Tell Someone You Love Them

The Hallowe’en season continues with All Souls’ Day which, unlike All Saints’ Day, is a chance for church congregations to remember all those who have died – not just the saints and martyrs, but the souls of those in Purgatory who must atone for their sins before being admitted to Heaven.

The day has been part of Christian tradition since 998 when Abbot Odilo, from Cluny, in France, held a local feast in his monasteries. Over the next few years it became more and more popular, and spread throughout the Catholic world.

Today many churches still hold special services and, as with All Saints’ Day, people light candles and lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones, but the festival is no longer as strong as it once was. Before the reformation poor Christians offered up prayers for dead in return for money or soul cakes, which were a type of round spicy bun.

Even in the 19th century ‘souling’ seems to have been one of those traditional seasonal customs, like mumming at Christmas and pace egging at Easter, and it seems to have had elements in common with these other activities. The format varied from place to place, but generally children would knock on doors (sometimes accompanied by a hobby horse), singing a song while begging for pennies and cakes – an early form of trick or treating perhaps. Here is an example of a souling song:

 “A soul, a soul, a soul cake
Please, good missus, a soul cake 
An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry 
Any good thing to make us all merry 
One for Peter, two for Paul 
Three for Him who made us all”

Originally it seems that poor folk eating a cake took on the sins of the dead, releasing a soul from Purgatory, which is an odd concept for the modern mind to grasp. It sounds almost cannibalistic – and I wonder what happened to all those impoverished people weighed down with the misdeeds of others. At any rate, by the 19th century the custom seems to have become more symbolic, with a soul released for each cake eaten, just as mince pies consumed over the Christmas period are said to bring good luck in the months ahead.

Since today is about honouring those who have died, perhaps today would be a good time to do some family research... or sort through your old family photographs... or just tell someone you love them.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

All Saints Day

The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico can ben seen in the National Gallery

It always seems to take a few days to get back into routine after a break, so I thought I'd post a short piece to mark All Saints' Day, and then, later in the week, I'll write about my holiday in the Isle of Man.  Today is All Saints' Day, which is also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas. It is a feast day in the Anglican and Catholic Churches when believers remember all the saints and martyrs, known and unknown.

It’s a tradition which dates back to the 4th century AD, but it was in 609 AD that Pope Boniface IV established a special day (originally May 13) to honour Christian, and more than 200 years later, in 837, Pope Gregory IV broadened the festival, renamed it as the Feast of All Saints, and moved it to November 1.

In the Catholic Church the festival is known as the Solemnity of All Saints, which I think sound s very dignified, and it is a Day of Obligation when the faithful should attend mass and, according to Canon Law, refrain from ‘those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body’.

In many European countries people lay flowers on the graves of their loved ones, and light candles in their memory, and once upon a time an overnight vigil (on the eve of All Hallows) was part of the ritual – but today the Hallowe’en customs seem to have taken over, and few people remember that All Saints Day is one of the great church festivals.

However, November 1 also marks the Celtic festival of Samhain, the end of summer when animals were killed ready for winter food, or ‘cleansed’ in fires, and when people looked to the past and future and considered ageing and death. It was believed that at Samhain ancestors returned, and that fairies and spirits were abroad in the world, released from normal restraints while the Goddess left the world for three days.

You could celebrate by cooking a favourite dish... or give flowers to someone you love... or simply light a candle...