If you are a spelling geek like me, you will instantly have noticed that I could not be talking about the novelist, Jane Austen, and you would be correct. I could not help myself. The last man to be publicly hanged in London was a Mr. John Austin, in 1783. I came to this knowledge whilst looking for information about Georgian London, specifically Mayfair. I was confused by John Rocque's historic map which did not contain any Park Lane. Hyde Park was there, just at the edge of the city, but the road along its easterly border was called Tiburn Lane. What is this all about? I thought. I found the answer quite shocking; I thought others might be interested.
Tiburn, or Tyburn as it is more commonly spelled, was the name of the village that played unfortunate host to London's public executions for several centuries.Prisoners from Newgate Prison were taken there to be hanged at the Tyburn Tree, which was a triple gallows, with three posts, connected at the top by beams from which were suspended three nooses. In the late 18th century, public executions ceased, and prisoners were hanged within the prison instead.
It is not known precisely where the Tyburn Tree stood, though I am, no doubt, stretching the truth to suggest anyone was actually hanged in what is now Park Lane. Many believe it was in what is now Connaught Square, another highly desirable address. There is a memorial of the Tyburn Tree in a traffic circle in modern day Edgware Road, with three little cones to mark the three legs of the gallows.
Tiburn Lane was called such, rather obviously, because it led to Tiburn, pretty well right to the gallows. I find it highly amusing to think of all those posh people living in London's once notorious West End, where Newgate's hapless prisoners were carted to their doom.
I suspect these posh people were the motivation for the name change. Nobody wanted to talk about Tyburn any more, and those living in what had come to be, and remains, the most prestigious address in London would tolerate the association. It could be that by the time the gallows went, they were the only remnant of the village of Tyburn, and so the name did not hold any meaning any more, but I doubt it. London is full of names that refer to things that are not there any more. Consider Mayfair itself. No May Fair going on there for ages.
In any event, the name of the road was changed at some point to Park Lane. John Rocque's map was done in 1746, so I know it hadn't changed at that point, which makes sense because the gallows were still there. Another ordnance survey map in 1806 shows it as Park Lane, so by the time of Pride and Prejudice, I believe it would have been known as such. I like to think that there were still some people around calling it Tiburn Lane for a while after it had changed though, as sometimes happens when road names change. And I like to think of the posh people emphatically correcting them."You mean Park Lane. It is called Park Lane now, you know, because of the park. Such an excellent park, do not you think?"
We tend to think that public executions happened all the time in the olden days; that is how it seems in film and television. But the truth is that they were actually quite rare. Most people were transported if anything, and infinitely more frequently were recorded as having died of "teeth."
(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast.)