Where a Gallows Once Stood

Francisco Garcia

‘An Execution outside Newgate Prison’ by Thomas Rowlandson (c.1805)

An exhibition on public executions has to maintain a delicate balance: leaning too gleefully into the gore would be in bad taste, but it would also be a mistake to sanitise it. Executions at the Museum of London Docklands manages a decent compromise: sober without being tedious, unflinching but not bloodthirsty. Paintings and engravings are displayed alongside the writings of early anti-capital punishment campaigners and the last letters and petitions of the condemned. There are executioners’ ‘trade signs’ of doubtful provenance and the fine silk shirt that Charles I may have worn on the scaffold. The exhibition covers the period from the first recorded hanging at Tyburn in 1196 to 1868, when executions were moved into jails and out of the public eye. According to the curators, there’s nowhere in the City of London more than five hundred metres from a spot where a gallows once stood.

Lee Anderson, the recently appointed deputy chair of the Conservative Party, was interviewed in February by the Spectator. He reeled off a series of hard right talking points: food banks are for feckless scroungers, the Royal Navy would do well to engage in a ‘stand-off’ with migrants in Calais, and it was past time to bring back the death penalty. ‘Nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. You know that, don’t you? 100 per cent success rate,’ he said. He acknowledged the potential for miscarriages of justice, but insisted that anyone shown murdering someone on camera should be executed the ‘same week’.

His comments, as Rishi Sunak immediately told the media, are not representative of Conservative policy. Still, Anderson’s views are shared – as he well knows – by a large and vocal minority in British society. A recent YouGov poll shows that 49 per cent of the country would support the death penalty for terrorists and child killers, and 34 per cent support it in the case of all murders. Support tends to skew older and Tory, though the Instagram posts of ‘crime news aggregators’ attract no end of ‘bring back hanging’ comments from a younger crowd. When nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel was murdered in Liverpool last August, social media were filled with calls for an immediate return to capital punishment. There are regular petitions, which attract a few thousand signatures.

One of the notorious miscarriages of justice that preceded the 1965 Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act was the case of Derek Bentley, an illiterate 19-year-old with learning difficulties who was sentenced to death after a botched 1952 robbery in which his 16-year-old accomplice shot and killed a police officer. Even though Bentley was already under arrest when the shot was fired he was found guilty of murder and hanged in Wandsworth Prison a year later.

His conviction was finally overturned at the court of appeal in 1998, after decades of campaigning by his family. The lord chief justice, Lord Bingham, remarked that ‘it must be a matter of profound … regret that this mistrial occurred and that the defects we have found were not recognised at the time.’ Christopher Ecclestone starred as Bentley in Peter Medak’s movie Let Him Have It (1991), which I was shown at secondary school in the mid-2000s. We were encouraged to think of capital punishment as having been consigned to history by the forces of progress.

But its abolition was never as straightforward as that, and took longer than campaigners hoped. In late 1945, the National Council for the Abolition of the Death Penalty had written to its members that the incoming Labour government would bring ‘success to our efforts … within the next few years’. But the spectre of violent crime was being driven hard by the press and seemed, as George Orwell wrote in ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, to be taking on a baffling new randomness. Despite the outcry over well publicised miscarriages of justice, public support for capital punishment remained high, then as now. If abolition was a consequence of public opposition to the death penalty, it was an indirect one: by the 1950s, there was a growing nervousness among juries to convict in cases that involved capital crimes. Hanging had to be abolished, some people thought, to secure the conviction rate.

There is no imminent threat of a return to capital punishment, despite the tabling of a few rogue private members’ bills in the years since its abolition. The political consensus here, at least, is more resolutely liberal than public opinion (it is anyway impossible for as long as the UK remains a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights). There are currently 55 countries that still have the death penalty, including China, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The number has shrunk dramatically since the early 1990s.

Near the end of Executions is a small block of text devoted to the 1840 public execution of François Courvoisier, a valet who had been convicted of cutting the throat of his aristocratic employer in London. Both Thackery and Dickens were present at the hanging and described their revulsion at the day’s giddy theatricality. Any ambivalence Thackeray may have once had concerning capital punishment, he wrote, had vanished: ‘I came away … that morning with a disgust for murder, but it was for the murder I saw done.’


  • 6 April 2023 at 10:54am
    Phil Edwards says:
    That's "Let Him Have It"; the title's taken from the words that got Bentley convicted (and hanged), although both he and Christopher Craig - who fired the gun - denied that he'd said them. I read somewhere that the phrase is used in a "juvenile delinquent" film that was out at the time; it's possible that the police officers who gave evidence had been influenced by it.

    As for the existence of support for the death penalty lower down the age range, I can vouch for this. About ten years ago I was shocked to hear students advocating bringing back the rope; I closed down the discussion by saying that in order to do that Britain would need to repudiate the European Convention on Human Rights, and in order to do that we'd need to leave the EU, so it just wasn't a realistic prospect. O tempora...

    • 7 April 2023 at 10:09am
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Phil Edwards
      That typo (mine) is now corrected, thanks