Tyburn Tree: Hidden History at Marble Arch
There’s plenty to spot in Marble Arch, on the North East corner of Hyde Park.
Aside from the huge white marble arch, there’s also plenty of public sculpture including Nic Fiddian-Green’s “Still Water”;
And more recently, Bushra Fakhoury’s “Dance Gwendour” is another eye-catching addition to the area.
So you could be easily forgiven for missing this insignificant traffic island in the middle of a busy road junctions;
Surrounded by three saplings, you’ll find this plaque embedded in the pavement;
So what’s the story?
Never an actual tree, Tyburn Tree was the site of public hangings, possibly established as early as 1108, the first recorded execution was in 1196. From 1571 a wooden scaffold was erected in a triangular shape, able to host three hangings simultaneously, perfect for a waiting crowd eager for some entertainment.
Illustration from around 1680 from the National Archives at Kew
A Fun Day Out For the whole family!
Public hangings were extremely popular (when the highwayman, Jack Sheppard, was hanged it was said that the audience reached around 200,000!) Huge crowds would follow the condemned on the 3 mile cart ride from Newgate Prison (in Holborn) to Marble Arch.
Hanging days were public holidays and the large crowds were there for the spectacle, not only for the death itself but the dramatic speeches that preceded the hangings; a last minute confession or defiant denial also went dow well. It’s these speeches that led to the tradition of public speaking and eventually Speaker’s Corner being established near this site.
Several phrases are said to relate to this history, including “one for the road” (the last pint before the prisoner starts his journey) and “hangover” (Hanging days were raucous, boozy affairs so the day after you wouldn’t feel great!)
Despite the popularity – or perhaps because of the growing crowds – the gallows were eventually moved from Tyburn and from 1798 public executions took place at Newgate Prison.
However, to accompany the plaque, there’s another piece of tangible evidence you can find.
A short walk down Bayswater Road will take you to the Tyburn Convent.
Founded in 1901 the convent was set up to pray for the souls of 105 Catholic martyrs who were executed between 1535 and 1681.
Tyburn is a closed convent, meaning the nuns here (of which there are around 20) never leave this site and at all times there is at least one person praying for the souls of Catholic martyrs.
It seems such a strange juxtaposition, to have a group of women who have intentionally shut themselves away from the world yards away from the busiest Shopping Street in Europe.
“At first it’s really hard; you miss your friends and family, taking the dog for a walk. But after a while, this is your home, this is what you are doing and you are just at peace.” – Mother Marion
You can visit the Convent during some of their public prayer sessions and services (more info here). This is something I discovered by accident when I wandered in unsuspectingly on a Sunday and ended up sitting silently through a – fairly lengthy – mass. It just goes to show that there’s always something surprisingly to be uncovered in London!
If you’re interested in hearing more about the nuns’ daily life there was an article published by the BBC in 2005 which you can read here.
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