Review of ‘Executions’ Exhibition at Museum of London Docklands
Did you know that within Central London you are never more than 5km from a former place of execution and that in the City this reduces to 500m?
In Executions, a new exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands, the stories behind 700 years of public executions in London are told. The exhibition covers a variety of aspects of executions including methods, sites, preparation, the day of execution, the executed body and ending the spectacle of public executions. You’ll be transported across London from Smithfield to Southwark, from the Banqueting House to Newgate Prison as you move from the 12th to 19th centuries. and discover the stories of rioters, heretics, treason and rebels.
Although famous people executed such as Charles I, Guy Fawkes and Katherine Howard, are mentioned, the focus is very much on the (until now) unknown, untold stories of everyday Londoners. These include the condemned, those who received a reprieve, those who made their living from the trade, and those who campaigned for reform.
Many of the fascinating objects, paintings and possessions have never before been displayed to the public. As someone who loves history, I absolutely loved seeing the
vest allegedly worn by Charles I at his execution. The maps of London’s execution sites and the broadsides sold were engaging reading, whilst the last letters of the condemned were emotional to read. One of the objects I found intriguing was the bedsheet embroidered with the hair of an Earl, made by his widow. As you see the bell used to signal the day of execution, the Debtors Door through which prisoners held at Newgate Prison passed on their last day, and various tools such as axes and ropes, it’s hard not to imagine how the condemned must have felt. Please be aware there are human remains in one of the displays.
In a powerful conclusion we learn that although public executions stopped in 1868, it would be a century before the death penalty was abolished for murder, and a further 30 years until the death penalty for treason was abolished. This is within my lifetime! More hard-hitting was the number of executions around the world in 2021, but it was uplifting to hear the work Amnesty is doing trying to address this.
Following our tour we had a Q&A with two of the three curators of the Executions exhibition: Beverly Cook and Thomas Ardill. It was fun to learn their journey to be a curator and they dealt with the emotional toll of the subject matter. They were excited to share upcoming exhibitions and that the Museum of London Docklands celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year.
Following the visit, I received a copy of ‘Executions: 700 Years of Public Punishment in London’ edited by Jackie Keily. This was such compelling reading that I finished it within one sitting. Although it has a lot of the same information as the exhibition there is some additional information.
I would definitely recommend heading to the Museum if London Docklands to check out both their free exhibitions as well as Executions (which costs £12). Executions closes on 16th April 2023. The museum is open 7 days a week, from 10am-5pm.
Address: Museum of London Docklands, No 1, West India Quay, Hertsmere Road, London E14 4AL.
Written by Caitlin Neal