Marble Arch lies at the junction of Oxford St, Bayswater Rd, Park Lane, and the Edgware Road, and it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that the landmark once stood on an island in the middle of traffic mayhem. Thankfully, somebody had the sense to landscape the area around the monument to give it a bit more dignity, but it wasn’t meant to be here in the first place.
It was originally built for King George IV who inherited Buckingham Palace from his father George III in 1820. In 1827 his extravagant tastes led him to commission John Nash to add the arch as a state entrance, but within three years his own life had come to an end.
The monument was faced with Carrara marble and based on the Constantine Arch in Rome, but an equestrian statue of George IV was never added because the King’s successor, William IV, refused to stump up the rest of the cash to finish off his predecessor’s self-indulgence.
After the death of William IV in 1837 the crown passed to Queen Victoria who became the first monarch to actually live in Buckingham Palace, but she found it too small and began a programme of enlarging it. The plans included removing the arch, and in 1847 it was decided to relocate it to Hyde Park.
The transfer was completed in 1851 and the arch was used as a ceremonial gateway into the north-east corner of the park at Cumberland Gate – and a police station until 1968!
In a way it doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate to have a police station here because just yards away is the site of the infamous Tyburn Tree.
Just like Marble Arch was, the site of the Tyburn Tree is situated on a traffic island and marked by a plaque in the ground and three young oak trees planted in 2014. I’m not quite sure why oak trees were planted because Tyburn means ‘Place of the Elms’ and is named after the Tyburn Brook, but perhaps the original hanging tree was an oak – who knows?
The first ever recorded hanging was in 1196 but it was the 16th century before the tree was exchanged for the gallows that it’s so well known for. In 1571 a triangular wooden construction was built in order to facilitate the hanging of more than one person at a time – in fact it could manage up to twenty four which it did on at least one occasion.
Most of the hangings at Tyburn took place between the 16th and 18th centuries when prisoners from Newgate Prison were transferred here via St Giles in the Fields and Oxford St. The three mile journey could take as long as three hours by horse and cart, because apart from the baying crowd that thronged the streets, there were stops along the way for the felon to imbibe a last drink or two, and it wasn’t unheard of to arrive at the gallows drunk and disorderly. Whether the people transporting the criminal were sober or not I couldn’t say.
When the cart finally reached Tyburn the crowds who came to watch in their thousands would have witnessed speeches from the ‘villain’ who gave their own account of why they thought they shouldn’t be there at all, and interestingly enough, debates raged on for ages about some of the issues that were brought up, and which is why nearby ‘Speakers Corner’ evolved into what we know today.
When the speech was over the noose was tied and the cart moved away leaving the body dangling from the tree for anything up to three quarters of an hour.
It’s a well-known fact that thousands of people came to enjoy the spectacle – and I mean ‘enjoy’, but it didn’t always work out exactly as planned. Some people paid to sit in the stands, but on one occasion hundreds of people were killed or injured when one of these stands collapsed.
Probably the best attended hanging was that of ‘Gentleman’ Jack Shepherd, the notorious highwayman, who built up a cult following after escaping from prison four times and planned to escape the gallows at Tyburn, but without success. Another famous person who was hanged here was Oliver Cromwell, even though he was already dead. His body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and hanged posthumously by the royalist Cavalier Government in retribution for the execution of King Charles I.
Many of the hangings were dealt out to thieves as a deterrent to others, but pickpocketing was rife as the hangings were taking place, so it didn’t seem to have the desired effect. Some were just hung for their beliefs though, and along the road in Hyde Park Place is Tyburn Convent which is dedicated to the martyrs who died for following the Catholic faith.
I don’t think that anybody really knows how many people were hung here, but one report from the 1570s showed that 704 hangings were recorded during that decade. What is known is that the original gallows were taken down in 1759 and replaced with a ‘pop up’ system which could be moved into position when necessary, and the most likely last victim was John Austin, another highwayman, in 1783, after which the ritual was transferred to Newgate Prison. The prison doesn’t exist anymore, but the Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, has taken over part of the site, so judgement still takes place here, although capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1965.
Before wandering away from the area, take a look at a couple of modern sculptures which have recently been added. Sometimes I think there are too many sculptures which don’t add very much to a location but this isn’t the case with ‘Still Water’ by Nic Fiddian-Green and ‘Danse Gwenedour by Bushra Fakhoury. Both are excellent works of art that are very different to each other, but somehow seem to fit in together. They can be found either side of Tyburn Way near to the water fountains.