If you can dodge the heavy traffic and make it to the traffic island at the corner of Edgeware and Bayswater Roads near Marble Arch, you will discover an unassuming concrete memorial – the Tyburn Tree plaque. This was the location of the ancient village Tyburn, but is more notorious as the site of a major public execution gallows that operated for centuries.
“Tyburn Tree” refers to the design of the gallows, which was a three-legged wooden construction topped with a flat wooden triangle. It stood in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, and its design allowed several criminals to be hanged at once. Bodies were buried nearby or else dispatched to local anatomists and medical schools for dissection and teaching purposes.
Executions regularly drew large crowds who viewed the grisly spectacle as a form of entertainment – public holidays were sometimes granted for the purpose. The artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) depicted one such gathering in his print, The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn (below).
The first recorded execution at the site took place in 1196, when political figure William Fitz Osbert was dragged naked behind a horse and hanged. The last was in 1783, with the hanging of highwayman John Austin.
Below the Tyburn Tree memorial, at the north-east corner of Hyde Park lies Marble Arch, which was designed in 1828 by architect John Nash (1752 – 1835). The arch was inspired by the triumphal arch of Constantine in Rome and was originally placed at Buckingham Palace. In 1855 it was moved to its current location.
Just south of Marble Arch is Speaker’s Corner. Like many similar Speaker’s Corners around the world, this site attracts people of all political persuasions. Freedom of speech is vigorously exercised here, with speakers usually standing on a chair or platform and often brandishing placards to underline their convictions. While many preach far-fetched conspiracy theories and seem to dwell on the fringes of rational discourse, others are simply there to offer free hugs.
The speakers gather every Sunday and if you’d like to join in, simply BYO soap box.