700 years of executions
Major new Museum of London Docklands exhibition uncovers London’s 700 years history of public executions
The Museum of London Docklands opens Executions, a new major exhibition exploring the capital’s history of public punishment, from the first recorded public execution in 1196 to the last in 1868.
More frequent in London than any other British city, the capital (known as the City of Gallows) was host to some of the most high-profile public executions, as well as those of thousands of unknown and forgotten Londoners. From Smithfield to Southwark, Banqueting House to Newgate Prison, executions became embedded in London’s landscape. Even today, hints of this past can be found across the capital.
Bringing together the rarely told and often tragic human stories behind these events, the exhibition reveals the social, cultural and economic impact of public executions over 700 years.
Amongst the extraordinary items going on display — many for the first time — are an intricately woven silk vest said to have been worn by King Charles I at his execution, a 300-year-old bedsheet embroidered with a love note in human hair, and items belonging to the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.
Visitors can stand in front of the imposing Newgate Prison door, which marked the last steps for many prisoners between the notoriously squalid Newgate Prison and the scaffold; listen to moving last letters that reveal the experiences of ordinary Londoners; and stand amidst a dramatic recreation of the infamous Tyburn ‘Triple Tree’ gallows, the centrepiece of the exhibition.
Visitors can learn more about the 200 offences — from treason to theft — that were punishable by death, the spectacle and rituals of execution days and the lives and crimes of celebrity criminals that captured the public imagination. Other sections will explore the economy around execution day and how these visible demonstrations of state power became embedded in popular culture through music, theatre and literature. In the exhibition’s final chapter, there will be a look at how reforming approaches to crime and punishment and the emergence of a new Victorian moral code uncomfortable with public pain and suffering contributed to the decline and abolition of public executions.
Beverley Cook, Curator of Social & Working History at the Museum of London, said: “Public executions were a very visible part of Londoners’ lives for many centuries, with some events attracting tens of thousands of people. This idea may seem remote to us now but many of the themes covered in the exhibition will be surprisingly familiar to Londoners today – the struggle to protect an urban population from crime, and the enduring issues of poverty, a rising population, discrimination, and domestic violence. But it will also reveal the resourcefulness and resilience of Londoners, characteristics still recognisable to those of us who have the privilege of living in London today.”
Tickets are available through the Museum of London website starting from £12. The recommended age for the exhibition is 12+. For further details, please visit: https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/museum-london/whats-on/exhibitions/executions