Thursday, 5 January 2012

Walk of the Condemned

I’ve just finished writing my fifth tour for the Rama iPhone app, this time on crime and punishment in London. It’s a walking tour with archival photographs showing how places would have looked a hundred years ago. So far I have mostly concentrated on New York, so it was great to research London, where I lived for three years studying at university. This tour takes you along the route where convicts were taken from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn, near present Marble Arch. The most astonishing part of this history however, is that the prisoners were taken along Oxford Street to Tyburn. ALONG OXFORD STREET. Many people say how history is a “world away” from the present, but this is taking it to a new level. And that’s what makes it exciting. It is almost impossible to imagine the delirious shouts of a blood-thirsty crowd, the sound of hooves and a rattling cart, perhaps the cries or spirited speeches of the prisoners as they were taken to their death…

Between 40,000 and 60,000 men and women died at Tyburn – most are nameless, forgotten to history, but some infamous criminals are remembered. The history of prisoner Jack Sheppard is worthy of a Hollywood film. Sheppard was a petty criminal, but he achieved fame through his ingenious ways of escaping prison. Numerous times he used razors hidden in his shoes to make holes in the ceiling or to file away the bars on his cell. On one occasion, imprisoned in Newgate with his partner in crime, Bess, Sheppard made a rope from Bess’s clothing and they descended from the window and into the night. And this happened several times. Once, he even managed to escape when he was chained to the floor. (At this point you can’t help but notice he must have been a poor criminal, since he kept getting caught all the time). The people of London were thrilled to hear of his exploits, since few prisoners escaped from Newgate – he became a hero, and it gave everyone a chance to mock the authorities. But, hubris eventually brought Jack down. One evening after a few drinks, loudly proclaiming his latest ingenious escape, he was arrested for the last time. On 16th November 1724, he was taken to Tyburn, followed by hundreds of people - proving that his execution was one of the most popular ever witnessed. As was customary, he was given one last drink on Oxford Road before he was hanged.

Another famous convict, a highwayman named James MacLaine, was renowned for being a “gentleman” to those he robbed. When he held up the carriage of Horace Walpole, the son of Sir Robert Walpole, MacLaine actually wrote a letter to him afterwards apologising for any distress he may have caused. Things have changed slightly. I doubt anyone is thinking of creating a new museum in this current climate, but how incredible would it be to have one dedicated to this history? Oh, and perhaps a film about Jack.

Check out the Rama app through this link:

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