We start at the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, that great theatre of crime and punishment. In the 18th century the front of the court opened out onto the street – ‘the upper court was lined with grand columns, the judge’s bench, the juror’s partitions, the balconies for court officials, like a huge puppet-booth, with its pulcinellos dressed in fine wigs and fur-trimmed gowns’ (p.168).
Crossing Newgate Street we pass the site of Newgate Gaol, its main tower a gatehouse, a fearsome place known as the ‘Whit’ by its inhabitants as it was said that Lord Mayor Dick Whittington had it built (p.183-4).
We then enter Viaduct Tavern an old ‘boozing-ken’ of the city. In its cellars are the remnants of gaol cells. Here we’ll have a drink to steel ourselves for the walk ahead – ‘the journey from the doleful prison of Newgate to the fatal tree of Tyburn’ (p.3).
Our next stop is the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. Inside is the bell that was rung at midnight on the eve of an execution ‘whose sound is carried through an underground passage to the very cell of the doomed wretch’ (p.3), whilst a macabre rhyme would be recited:All of you that in the condemned hold do lie, Prepare you, for tomorrow you will die. A grim reminder of the debt owed to society, this is the bell of Old Bailey that demands: When will you pay me?
From there we proceed down Snow Hill and then climb the steps to Holborn Viaduct, the site of a much smaller Holborn Bridge that spanned the Fleet. As you gaze down at Farringdon Road think of: ‘that black river that winds its filthy way through London.’ It is here that we meet John Gay who, writing his mock-epic poem Trivia: or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London imagines the Fleet as ‘Cloacina’, the goddess of the sewer (p.112).
Crossing over the bridge we take a brief detour into what until recently was part of Cambridgeshire. Ely Place originally belonged to the Bishop of Ely, a ‘liberty’ outside the jurisdiction of the city and where criminals could claim sanctuary from authority. As we sneak through Ely Court we pass Ye Old Mitre, one of the few 18th century taverns still standing in this area. Mother Clap’s molly-house was located near here, in a similar alleyway called Field Lane.
We then cross Hatton Garden onto High Holborn.
The procession to Tyburn continues along streets often lined with spectators that might ‘cheer a villain or hiss some fallen master.’ The thief-taker Jonathan Wild was pelted with stones, mud, rotten fruit and dung on his way to the gallows. He tried to hide in the cart but ‘some cove high up in a glaze by Holborn managed to land a missile on his crown so that blood ran right down his phiz’ (p.298).
It was on High Holborn that Jack Sheppard planned to make his last escape at Little Turnstile, an alleyway off the main thoroughfare. When he was taken to the cart from Newgate he had a knife hidden in his coat to cut his bonds and then would jump out here and make his way down to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where a carriage would be waiting for him. The weapon was discovered and his scheme quashed but we might follow where he planned his flight. Here stood Lincoln’s Inn Theatre where John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, based on the exploits of Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, was first performed. Produced by John Rich it was said to have made ‘Gay rich and Rich gay’ but we’re here to visit a more gruesome spectacle.
Surgeon’s Hall was once located next to the Old Bailey and many a condemned villain’s worst fear was to be taken there to be ‘anatomized’ after being cut down from the fatal tree. Now the Royal College of Surgeons is in Lincoln’s Inn and its Hunterian Museum hosts the skeleton of Jonathan Wild. Having sent so many to the gallows and thus donated many bodies to medical science, it only seems appropriate that the self-styled ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’ should end up here. Three days after his hanging his body was unceremoniously dug up from St Pancras churchyard by ‘resurrection men’.
Crossing over Kingsway we make our way through the ‘Hundreds of Drury’ the warren of streets and alleys around Drury Lane, the labyrinth of infamy where Bess, Jack and Blueskin Blake lived the wild life. As we rejoin High Holborn we might spy Hawksmoor’s St George’s Church featured in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. We then proceed to St Giles High Street. St Giles was one of the city’s most notorious districts and its most diverse, home of London’s 18th century black community. Many freed slaves that had fought for the British in the American War of Independence settled here and were known as ‘St Giles Blackbirds’.
And St Giles-in-the-Fields is the last church on the procession to Tyburn. Here the condemned were given a drink of ale known as the ‘St Giles Bowl’. The Angel Tavern next door is on the site of the old Bowl Inn that continued this tradition of offering Dutch courage. ‘A cheer would go up as one of the damned drained his clanker and tipped the old jest that he’s settle the bill on the way back’ (p.33).
We now arrive at St Giles Circus, this great junction, soon to be the site of a Crossrail transport hub. Westward lies Oxford Street, formerly Oxford Road, that first built its retail trade on the selling of souvenirs to the sightseers that lined this last stretch of the journey to the gallows. To this day there is little to do on this dismal thoroughfare but shop. So let us take a modern cart to our final destination – the Central Line from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch.
It is on a traffic island where the Edgware Road meets Bayswater that we find a plaque that marks ‘the site of Tyburn Tree’, surrounded by three oak trees. The gallows was formed by three posts and was known as the ‘Triple Tree’ or the ‘Three-Legged Mare’. Edgware Road is very old and was known as Edgworth Road in Bess’s time (which gave her the street name Edgworth Bess). Her story begins here on ‘the old Roman road . . . without a single turn or bend in it, and ends directly at where Tyburn stands. So this was my swift journey from innocence and, in truth, I was headed for the gallows of that wicked city too soon and far too young’ (p.7). And it is here, at the end of the novel, where Bess determines to go back and have revenge on her past.
And so the procession to Tyburn takes a central place in my novel – it is the fate of so many of its characters after all, and it formed a fearsome spectacle for the city of that time. In this dangerous world all dwelt in the shadow of the fatal tree. Read on to learn who might escape it.