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Once upon a time in London, United Kingdom

Marble Arch

Story - told by Victoria Dainton

Marble Arch is today a busy intersection, a beautiful spectacular architectural masterpiece and a great place to meet if you want to enjoy the shopping on Oxford Street. Many years ago, people would gather here for a more morbid affair.

Tyburn's gallows, or Tyburn Tree was the main place of execution for Middlesex and London. Today you will find a small plack on the ground to mark the spot on a busy intersection, in the 1500s you would have found a gallow so grand that it could hang 24 prisoners simultaneously.

Executions were always a big event, and a public holiday for the working class. It was a large celebration, with a carnival atmosphere that flooded the streets from the prison to the gallows. Many would enjoy the day as a family, and drink flowed copiously at the taverns. Food was sold throughout the crowds, and autobiographies were sold of the more notorious convicts.  Some executions attracted mass crowds of up to 200,000 people (1/3 of London’s population at the time), and many would travel to see it.

Many women would “plead their belly”, and very often would be found to be quick with child to avoid the death sentence. If the convict was wealthy they would be permitted to be driven in a Mourning Coach, sparing them from insults and items thrown at them from the crowds along the way.

The prisoners were secured to the beams and the Ordinary would pray with the prisoners before the hangman pulled nightcaps over the faces.

The bell would be tolled on execution day, and the two mile procession would begin making stops along the way at local taverns so the prisoners could enjoy a last drink, having endured their sentence on bread and water. 2-3 hours later, they would ascend to Tyburn, greeted by large crowds enjoying their afternoon out.

Open galleries were reserved for wealthier spectators and souvenirs were sold. The prisoners were secured to the beams and the Ordinary would pray with the prisoners before the hangman pulled nightcaps over the faces.

The horses would be whipped away, leaving the convicts to dance the “Tyburn jig”. Other men and women were shot or burned. This horrid theatrical spectacle went on for hundreds of years, many of the men and women who lost their lives were innocent or lost their lives for something as trivial as shoplifting.

So next time you are stuck in traffic on Marble Arch, or getting frustrated with the crowds on Oxford Street, count yourself lucky and enjoy your day!

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