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Footie matches, festivals, pop concerts — all great reasons for an atmospheric gathering. But none of these modernday occasions have the pulling power of the past’s greatest crowd-pleaser: a good old public execution.

FAMOUS BARS

In 1783, London’s gallows moved from Tyburn (Marble Arch) to Newgate, the fearsome prison that once stood on the site of the Old Bailey. Over the hundreds of years that it was in use, it saw many famous names through (and behind) its doors, including a catalogue of literary sorts: writers Daniel Defoe and Thomas Malory, playwright Ben Jonson, poet Robert Southwell and The Times founder John Walter. It was not shy of taking women, either, among them highwaywoman Jane Voss and serial killer Catherine Wilson, a nurse who poisoned her victims and was hanged for her crime.

The public hangings came to an, erm, abrupt end in 1868 — and Clerkenwell played its part in the very last one. The previous year, Irishman Michael Barrett, who belonged to the Fenian movement (the IRA of the day), attempted to blow up the wall of the exercise yard at the House of Detention in order to free his incarcerated colleague Richard Burke. The plot failed (the police had got wind of it beforehand) but the gunpowder didn’t; the explosion killed 12 innocent bystanders in Corporation Row. Hence the death penalty.

Incidentally, about those Newgate doors – they’ve ended up all over the place. One is in the Museum of London (makes sense). Another, the iron gate that led to the gallows, was, bizarrely, used for decades in an alleyway in Buffalo, New York State. It’s now in the library at the nearby Canisius College. Libraries are a form of prison for students, aren’t they?

BALLS OF BRASS

He may have had one of the longest and most successful careers of all British monarchs (he did a stretch of nearly 60 years) but “mad” King George III didn’t have much luck when it came to his son, George, who took over from him as Prince Regent in the last part of his reign. Known disparagingly as “Prinny”, he was a drinker, a gambler, a dandy and a philanderer. Hence Hugh Laurie’s portrayal in Blackadder the Third.

Prinny led such an extravagant lifestyle (for him, a house by the sea meant the Brighton Pavilion) that he was constantly in debt. In fact, he was forced into a hopeless marriage with Caroline of Bruns wick just for her money. But it sounds like he had fun all the same — some of which took place in Cowcross Street.

Story has it that, as he was out on a gambling spree one night, dressed in ordinary garb so as not to give away his identity, he popped into The Castle. In dire need of more funds, he offered a bling royal ring (though some say it was a watch) to the landlord in exchange for some cash, who, of course, was more than happy to do the deal. The prince then continued on his losing streak.

The next day, he sent a servant back to the pub to reclaim the ring and to deliver a letter of thanks to the landlord, allowing him to set himself up officially as a pawnbroker. To this day, The Castle is still the only pub in Britain to have a pawn broker’s licence and you’ll see the sign of the three brass balls hanging outside.

 

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