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Executions, Museum of London Docklands

700 years of public executions in London from 1196 to 1868 is the grisly subject of this horribly compelling exhibition at the Museum of London in the Docklands.

The methods that were used to dispatch people - drawing and quartering, beheading, hanging - are meticulously detailed. So too is the extent to which the spectacle of execution was such an integral part of city life, recorded by the likes of Samuel Pepys and William Hogarth.

The first half of the show is laid out fairly conventionally. There are some strong visuals: a roll call of the 200+ offences that were punishable by death by the middle of the 19th century; a Punch and Judy display, hangman included, that older viewers will remember being terrified of when they were small, but in general this part of the show will appeal more to adults. Whether or not you are looking at the clothes Charles I was actually executed in is unlikely to engage a child.

The tone starts to change as you enter the section about prisons. The items on display suddenly seem much more emotive. A pair of leg irons, attached to an iron waist belt, forcing prisoners to stoop as they walked forward; the execution bell that was rung twelve times before the condemned cell; the clothes chosen to face death; the looming, heavy door of Newgate prison itself. Who needs the London Dungeons?!

Walk down a narrow passage, lined with silhouettes of townspeople who might have gathered to witness a hanging and into a covered gassy area with evocative voice overs recounting specific executions. It is all rather tastefully done but the hangman's noose swinging in the cabinet behind you a vivid reminder that this is history not fiction.

What happened to the dead is equally fascinating. The Murder Act of 1752 provided that bodies should be either hung in chains (there is a gruesome gibbet cage on display) or publicly dissected, good for anatomists. Records of the heads of murderers were kept and studied by the Royal College of Surgeons to see if they could identify murderous characteristics.

There is a rolling list of the names of 5,000 people publicly executed over the centuries - a tiny fraction of the full number. And, as you exit, a video presentation from Amnesty International reminding us that over 50 countries still have the death penalty today.

It is the stuff of nightmares. BUT it is well done and for kids of 12+ who enjoy being scared, well worth a half term visit. Plus, getting to Canary Wharf is now a dream from anywhere in central London. Hurrah for the Elizabeth line!

Executions at Museum of London, Docklands runs to 16 April, 2023

Tickets: £15 adults, £12 ages 12–17, under 12s free (though NOT recommended for under 12s!)

Emily Turner, 11 October 2023


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