Execution Site Pub Crawl

Reader, Jon Howard, got in touch recently to tell us about a South London-focused exhibition that might be up our street, and which the artist had, splendidly, neglected to promote. I made a note to visit it the following week, despite the impending heatwave.

The following Tuesday it was already 27 degrees at 10am when I put on my Poundshop hat and made a dash for the Morley Gallery on Westminster Bridge Road.

‘Don’t forget to hydrate!’ called Mrs Raider from her eyrie.

‘I shan’t!’ I replied, and smiled a little smile as I pulled the door to behind me. Oh, I was going to hydrate alright.

The exhibition was tremendous. Called Between Dog & Wolf: A South London Twilight, it is a collaboration between artist David Western and writer Jon Newman and uses archive material, words and contemporary urban landscapes to chronicle, in three distinct parts, lost or forgotten Battersea, Herne Hill and the execution sites of the Brighton Road from Kennington to Croydon.

Hogarth’s The Reward of Cruelty, featured in Between Dog & Wolf: A South London Twilight

Jon (Howard) had suggested that the latter could – and indeed should – be turned into a pub crawl. This simple but powerful idea was given added resonance as I learned that condemned criminals were, by tradition, allowed to stop for an ale or a gin on their final journey to the gallows. A civilised pause, pewter on the lips, before their necks were broken and, in some cases, their limbs torn asunder

‘Maybe I could walk to Croydon,’ I said aloud to myself, startling a well-dressed woman who was in the gallery with me.

‘You are not walking to fucking Croydon in this heat!’ I replied to myself, sternly, and the woman in the gallery left.

But with my interest piqued, I wandered down to the old Kennington Common anyway, devising a more manageable South London execution crawl on the way, from my own half-forgotten memories of the area.

Kennington Common

Now known as Kennington Park, the original common was where the infamous Surrey gallows were located (the area was part of Surrey before the formation of the London County Council in 1889). The Surrey gallows were the South London equivalent of Tyburn and stood where now St. Mark’s Church stands, near Oval tube station.

The first person to be executed here was Sarah Elston (burned at the stake in 1678 for killing her husband) and the last was a chap from Camberwell known as Badger, who was hanged for forgery in 1799.

Between times, in a remarkable admixture of barbarism and civilisation, more than 140 people were executed here, alternating with the cricket matches that the common also hosted. Indeed, they were often more of draw for the crowds than the cricket – people would come down for a killing, bring a picnic and make a day of it.

St Mark’s, Kennington, site of the Surrey gallows

I imagined the Deserter crew getting together for a mead or two on just such an occasion: Dirtie Southe, perhaps, Roxanne, Spyder, even Half-pike, possibly with some knitting.

‘What are you knitting?’ I might ask him.

‘Cock muff,’ he would probably announce. ‘It’s like a hand muff, but it’s for your-’

‘Verily, I get it,’ I would reply, while he frisked me for clay pipes.

My faux historical reverie was interrupted by trying to get across the A23 to St Mark’s where the dreaded gallows once stood, on a raised mound for all to see. I mooched around for a bit before remembering the ritual of the condemned’s final pint. What a perfect way not only to honour the dead, but to keep my promise to stay hydrated.

In the Hanover Arms I placed my hat on the bar and asked if they had a pint of something nice for the heat.

‘I’m attempting to rehydrate using beer alone,’ I bantered.

‘Beer is between 90% and 95% water,’ said the barman, ‘But the diuretic effect of the alcohol makes it net negative in terms of hydration.’

‘Just pour the frickin’ pint,’ I said. This country.

Horsemonger Lane Gaol, Newington

When the public executions on Kennington Common ceased, the killing moved, as I did now, up to Newington Causeway at the Elephant and Castle, to the Horsemonger Lane Gaol. They may not strictly speaking have been performed in public, but since they took place on the specially built flat roof of the gate house they were clearly and intentionally visible to anyone who cared to watch, and plenty did.

Fun for all the family, Horsemonger Lane Gaol

The first person to be executed here, in 1803, was Colonel Despard who was convicted, along with several other men, of a half-baked conspiracy to do away with the king and take over government, though as the group was arrested in a Lambeth pub, it was possibly just beer talk. Who hasn’t wanted to take over the government after a few pints?

Despite an intervention and character reference from no less a person than Admiral Lord Nelson, Despard and his men were found guilty and informed by the judge that they were to be to be ‘hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for while you are still living your bodies are to be taken down, your bowels torn out and burned before your faces, your heads then cut off, and your bodies divided each into four quarters, and your heads and quarters to be then at the King’s disposal’. Which is really going to ruin lunch.

The site of Horsemonger Lane Gaol is today Newington Gardens, a little park off Harper Road and, appropriately enough, tucked behind the Inner London Crown Court. It’s still known locally as ‘Gaol Park’. I sat here for a while, reading the above before finding myself once again driven to honour the dead through the medium of booze.

‘Gaol Park’

I looked in at The Ship on Borough Road, raised a glass of London Pride to Despard and his not so merry men, and read some more about another local prison.

Marshalsea, Borough

Just up the road, on Borough High Street, stood the notorious Marshalsea prison (and, nearby, its hit sequel, Marshalsea 2: The Dickens Years)

The original Marshalsea was a handsome building that gave cover to an elaborate extortion racket, not to mention immense suffering. Before the 19th Century prisons were not considered places of punishment, they simply housed people until they had paid off their creditors or had their fate decided by judges. They were run privately for profit and inmates who could afford it were made to pay for food and lodgings, while the poor languished in the fetid conditions of the ‘Common side’ .

While it wasn’t an official place of execution like Horsemonger Lane and Kennington Common, the poorer inmates nevertheless faced starvation and torture as their debts increased. It was a killing machine in all but name. In 1729 a parliamentary committee reported that 300 inmates had starved to death within a three-month period, and that eight to ten were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.

I looked at my phone. It was 33 degrees. At that moment, Half-life called to say he was in Borough and did I fancy a pint.

‘Sure. Royal Oak? I’m looking for the remains of the second Marshalsea, then heading over to Wapping,’ I said.

‘Marshalsea?’ he said.

‘The debtors’ prison,’ I said, and I swear I heard him shudder. Maybe it was the two grand he owes me.

‘Is there beer involved?’ he said.

‘Verily,’ I said.

The Marshalsea, circa 1850

The second Marshalsea – built just up the road at what is now 211, Borough High Street, to replace the crumbling first – opened for business in 1811 and if anything became even more notorious than its predecessor. Charles Dickens’ father was incarcerated there for a minor debt, which greatly affected the young Dickens. He made Marshalsea world famous as the place in which Amy Dorrit’s father is imprisoned for debts so complex no-one is able to work out how to secure his release. (Opposite the site of this second Marshalsea is Little Dorrit Park).

I photographed the last remaining wall of Marshalsea, which runs along the unmarked Angel Place beside St George’s Churchyard Garden, and went to meet Half-life in the Oak.

‘You look hot,’ said Half-life, when I arrived.

‘Thanks. You don’t look so bad yourself,’ I said, and he grimaced.

After a restorative pint of Harvey’s Sussex Best, we wandered down Snowsfields towards Tower Bridge. The afternoon heat was stifling.

‘I wish it was a bloody snow field,’ grumbled Half-life, flapping his shorts. ‘My bits are on fire.’

I thought of telling him about his cock muff, but figured it would only encourage him.

Old Marshalsea wall, Angel Place, Borough

Execution Dock, Wapping

Some of the inmates of the Marshalsea were held under the legal jurisdiction of the British Admiralty, who had their own special killing site at Execution Dock, Wapping, where we now headed, over Tower Bridge and through St Katharine Docks.

Execution Dock was used for more than 400 years to execute those convicted of serious crimes at sea, such as piracy, mutiny, and pushing in at the queue for the cafeteria. The ‘dock’ was a scaffold built specifically for hanging and was located at the shoreline, symbolising the sea and the Admiralty’s watery jurisdiction. Its last executions were in 1830.

Here again, an execution at the dock meant crowds would line the river’s banks and even charter boats to get a better view of the killings. An execution of a pirate was considered a particular treat. This was done with a shortened rope, which meant a slow death from strangulation on the scaffold as the drop was insufficient to break the prisoner’s neck. The death throes of the condemned man were known as the ‘Marshal’s dance’ because of the twitching of the limbs during asphyxiation. Cheers! Pass the olives! Look at the funny man, Daddy!

Unlike hangings on land, the bodies of pirates at Execution Dock were not immediately cut down following death. These corpses were left hanging on the nooses until three tides had washed over their heads.

Journey’s end

There are three pubs on the river at Wapping: The Town of Ramsgate, The Prospect of Whitby, where there stands a commemorative scaffold complete with noose (see main pic), and another named after the famous pirate, Captain Kidd, who was convicted of piracy and murder and executed at the dock in 1701. During his execution, the rope broke and he was hanged on the second attempt. His remains were then put on display by the river Thames at Tilbury for three years.

‘He made a few mistakes but his biggest was getting caught,’ said Half-life, as we sat by the river at the back of the Town of Ramsgate, raising a glass to the Captain.

‘To err is human,’ I said.

‘To “arrr” is pirate,’ said Half-life.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that this final leg of my South London execution crawl is in fact north of the river. Nevertheless, all three pubs afford terrific views across the water to the glorious South, which of course, depending on the wind, would have been the last thing seen by the wretches that were hanged there. What a way to go.

Indeed, in William Kidd’s case, he not only got to gaze over at Rotherhithe while he struggled for breath, he also had a boozer named after him. And which of us would not gladly embrace death in return for lending our name to a pub?


Between Dog & Wolf: A South London Twilight runs until 29th June, 2017

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Image credits: Main image by DJ Cockburn, used under this licence; St Marks and Town of Ramsgate by Matt Brown, used under this licence