For at least 700 years, one of the top forms of entertainment in London was watching someone die. This was judicial murder as a public spectacle, and the topic of the Museum of London’s latest exhibition.

It’s an exhibition that tells the story of ordinary people, often poor and illiterate, sentenced to death by a judicial system that saw little reason for mercy and rehabilitation. It covers the years 1196, which is the earliest recorded execution, although they certainly happened prior to that, up to 1868, when the death penalty was taken indoors and no longer a public spectacle.

An atmospheric entrance, all wood and beams, and the tolling of a funeral bell, introduces us to the various methods a government has employed to kill a person.

We often think of death as being by hanging or beheading, but King Henry VIII introduced death by boiling in 1531, but even the public that usually clamoured for a good hanging couldn’t stomach the sight, and it was abolished less than a couple of decades later. As odd as it might seem for a culture that boiled or burned people alive, judicial executions were usually designed to be reasonably quick. The hanged man is supposed to have a neck broken, not strangled to death, although incompetence often meant the death penalty was a lingering execution.

Although an exhibition about judicial killing has to talk about the methods used, this exhibition excels in telling the stories of what happened in the few days between the death penalty being imposed, and the sentence carried out.

Frantic appeals for clemency are on display, with many clearly showing the lack of literacy in the people who were about to be killed by the state, leaving that lingering suspicion that many of them were likely simply not fully cognisant of the court cases they just lost.

Where the exhibition can be troubling if you ponder it a while, is just how widespread the public display of judicial execution was. Not just the famous locations such as Tower Hill, Tyburn and Newgate, but they were all over London.

The exhibition has a lot of contemporary woodblock illustrations of various executions, mostly showing the huge crowds who would turn up for these events. While the death penalty wasn’t rare, it was rare enough for each one to be able to draw huge crowds to watch. How many watched for pleasure, and how many for the sheet diversion from the day to day lives isn’t clear, but many writers of the time express some level of disgust with what they saw.

Apart from the documents, flyers and obvious accoutrements such as manacles and ropes — probably the most interesting physical object on display is a shirt, claimed to be, if unproven, to be the one worn by King Charles I on the day he was executed. Do look closely though at the accompanying drawing of the execution, it was banned in the UK as it shows people mourning the death of the King.

Away from the death of Kings, people once executed a cat dressed up as a priest.

The study of bones of people who have been executed also found a darker story – as many were not from London. The tendency to blame “other people” for problems close to home lead to many people being executed for crimes they almost certainly didn’t commit.

The lure of the exhibition is that it tells these stories that you would probably only read in an obscure history book, but here they are given a postmortem life once more to remind us of how the law behaved in the past.

There’s a lot to see here, mainly as the exhibition is predominantly document lead, so you’ll spend a lot of time reading the documents and peering at the line drawings, and that’s what makes the exhibition so good as you can’t help but be absorbed in the lives of the people you’re reading about. It’s a historically fascinating exhibition, that tactfully explores the impact of the death penalty on the people subjected to it and the process of death as it was carried out.

However, is the UK’s death penalty a relic from the past of the sort that should be in a museum exhibition? Just last year, a survey found that over half the UK would support the restoration of the death penalty in some circumstances, a result that has hardly budged over the past few decades.

The exhibition, Executions, is at the Museum of London Docklands in Canary Wharf until April 2023.

Adult: £15 | Children (12-17)/Concessions: £12 | Children (<12): Free | Museum Friends: Free

You’re recommended to book tickets in advance from here.


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