Now here’s a real criminal curiosity, the infamous Execution Bell from London’s notorious Newgate Prison. Accounts of executions, themselves a grim British tradition until the 1960’s, often relate stories of a black flag being raised and a prison bell tolling to announce a prisoner’s death. These are true, at least after public executions ended with the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868.
Before Newgate acquired its own full-sized bell, the tradition was altogether more chilling and, many would say, unnecessarily cruel. It involved the employment of Newgate’s Execution Bell and its Bellman. A local merchant, one Robert Dove, established the tradition in 1604, donating the then-considerable sum of £40 to ensure the practice continued. Dove, a devout Christian, hoped it would encourage repentance among the condemned. To modern eyes it seems unspeakably cruel.
Before Newgate had its own prison bell the neighbouring Church of St. Sepulchre would toll its bell on every execution day, a sound even those not condemned learned to dread. Until Newgate acquired its own bell, its bellman would wait until just after midnight and, withe prisoner’s death imminent, would pace up and down outside the Condemned Hold reciting a verse while clanging the handbell.
The Bellman’s verse, recited loudly three times (in case anyone actually needed reminding of their impending execution), was this:
“All you that in the Condemned Hold do lie,
prepare you, for tomorrow you will die.
Watch all, and pray, the hour is drawing near,
That you before the Almighty must appear.
Examine well yourselves, in time repent,
that you may not to Eternal flames be sent.
And when St. Sepulchre’s bell tomorrow tolls,
the Lord have mercy on your souls…”
Possibly not the best cure for pre-hanging insomnia.
To give this ghastly ritual some context, it wasn’t intended as an act of sadism or cruelty. Just the opposite, in fact. Religion at the time dominated people’s lives to a much greater extent than it does today. Dove, Newgate’s officials and the Bellman (probably not the most popular man on Newgate’s staff) would have seen it as saving their souls, their lives already forfeit for their crimes.
It’s at best debatable whether it actually benefited the condemned all that much. Those who were already repentant didn’t need asking. Those who were unrepentant didn’t care. Everybody else, condemned to hang or not, probably didn’t appreciate the Bellman and his traditional early-morning alarm call.
Eventually this well-meaning but appalling tradition was ceased. In 1783 executions at Tyburn were ceased and Newgate acquired its own bell. From 1783 until 1868 hangings would be performed, still in public, outside Newgate Prison itself. After Michael Barratt was hanged in 1868 executions were moved inside prisons nationwide.
For decades there would still be the traditional hoisting of the black flag and tolling of the prison bell, but Newgate’s Bellman had had his day. Eventually the flag and bell ceased, replaced by a prison officer placing an official notice on a prison gate to certify a prisoner had indeed been hanged. No longer would trembling prisoners sit in filthy, dark, grimy cells, illuminated by candlelight and dim lanterns, hearing the dreaded Bellman approach. They wouldn’t hear his heavy doom-laden tread crunch his way over the thousands of lice and bugs infesting the prison. Especially pleasing, they wouldn’t hear him repeatedly reciting his traditional verse.
Newgate was finally closed and demolished at the turn of the 20th century, making room to expand the neighbouring Old Bailey (probably the world’s most famous courthouse) Its gallows equipment went to Pentonville Prison in north London where it hanged many more prisoners including Doctor Crippen.
Put yourself in a condemned prisoner’s place, just for a moment. Imagine the gloom of your cell, the stench and dirt, the fear and realisation of impending death. Consider what it would be like to lie manacled in your cell hearing the Bellman’s feet, the clanging of his bell and (in convoluted fashion) him saying;
“Ask not for whom my bell tolls…”
“It tolls for YOU…”