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The Metropolitan Police’s Headquarters at New Scotland Yard, until recently housed a Crime Museum. Established in the mid-1870s, there was a time when it was known as the Black Museum, a name apparently coined by a journalist who was refused entry to the museum back in 1877. The museum was never open to the general public (nor was Scotland Yard, come to that) but at the time of writing is temporarily housed at the Museum of London, in the Barbican, until 10 April 2016 as The Crime Museum Uncovered.
Now that the MPS is selling New Scotland Yard, it is decanting various units to other buildings, and one of the ones to go is the museum. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit when it was the Black Museum, but that didn’t stop me jumping at the opportunity to go to see it at the Museum of London. It’s not the exactly the same as it was when I visited it as the Black Museum, but I guess some of that has to do with updating exhibits as more events occur. The Crime Museum is a record of some of the most dreadful crimes that have occurred in Britain.
One of the two outer rooms house various death masks from those who were hanged outside Newgate Prison. These were all murderers, although hanging was not reserved purely for murderers. Up until the eighteenth century, there were over 200 offences punishable by death in the UK. The other outer room has various handcuffs and courtroom sketches. There were also a number of execution ropes on show, although the names of those who had been executed with them were not familiar to me.
The main exhibition room was about Capital Punishment. And more. It started with execution box number nine, on loan from Wandsworth Prison, containing everything required for a hanging.
The last public execution in Britain took place in 1868, when Michael Barret was hanged for his part in an explosion outside of Clerkenwell Prison in 1867. Public tastes had changed from it being a good day out to becoming inhumane. That wasn’t the end of execution as a penalty though, that didn’t happen until forty years later. In 1908, the death penalty was abolished for those under age 16 (yes, we were a barbaric lot), we executed children. In 1933 it was abolished for those under age 18 although the last person aged under 18 to be hanged, for murder, at Maidstone, in January 1889 was Charles Dobel.
Further reforms came later, causing the last people to be hanged in Britain to be Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans on 13 August 1964, although the legislation to enact this didn’t become law until 1965 when the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act was introduced. This suspended capital punishment for five years, although in 1969 it was made permanent. It was, however, retained for treason, piracy with violence and arson aboard the Sovereign’s ships. Relatively recently, in 1998, it was abolished for all crimes.
What surprised me most, although I’m not sure why, is that a new rope wasn’t automatically used for each execution. I don’t know why I thought it should have been, just somehow, for me, it makes it worse that the ropes were used over and over, even though the hangman went through a number of steps to ensure that the death would be as humane as possible.
Around the sides of this room were exhibits relating to those who had carried out mostly murders, but some other brutal crimes, as well as a number of various weapons such as flails and knuckle dusters, and worse. Notable exhibits were those relating to Alfred and Albert Stratton who murdered Thomas and Ann Farrow. This was the first criminal case in Britain where fingerprint evidence was used to secure a conviction for murder.
Of course, there was the infamous Dr Crippen, who was convicted for the murder of his wife, Cora. And then the Sidney Street Siege, which was the first time that the police requested military aid to deal with an armed siege. It was also the first siege to be recorded on film. That was quite a significant piece of history, see my next blog post for further information.
Many of the other murderers and their victims were unknown to me, although of course, there were a few more famous names: John Haigh (the acid bath murderer), Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley (who doesn’t know about the outcry and subsequent posthumous pardon,over Bentley’s execution), John Christie who was made famous by the film 10, Rillington Place, and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain.
There were also exhibits relating to the Great Train Robbery of 1963 and the attempted diamond robbery at the Millennium Dome in 2000. It continued on to the Spaghetti House siege and concluded with exhibits relating to some of the bombings that have taken place in London.
It ends in another room with a film about whether or not the exhibition should be on show to the public. You need to see it for yourself to decide. Me, I thought it was a good exhibition, and I’d recommend it.
© Susan Shirley 2015