Cuckold’s Point to Tyburn: Hogarth-related hanging streets

An earlier post about Hogarth-related streets featured fictional and lost names; today I thought we could look at some street and place names with hanging connections, starting with Cuckold’s Point, which features in the Hogarth series ‘Industry and Idleness’.

The series charts the parallel lives of two apprentices, recognisably named Francis Goodchild and Tom Idle: one is industrious and virtuous and becomes Mayor of London while the other is lazy and morally corrupt, eventually being hanged for murder.

In the fifth engraving of the series, Idle is seeking his fortune at sea. He is shown being rowed along the Thames, with a seaman pointing out a gallows that once stood at Cuckold’s Point. The bodies of executed criminals, usually river pirates, were displayed there as a deterrent.

Although not officially listed in many London street atlases, this name still exists: the point is part of a sharp bend in the Thames on the Rotherhithe peninsula, opposite the West India Docks.

The point was once marked by a pole, crowned with a set of horns, which – so the story goes – delineated the boundary of land granted to a miller who had been cuckolded by King John. Legend has it that the miller returned home unexpectedly one day to find his beautiful wife disporting herself with the king. Not unnaturally, the fact that it was royalty in his bed did not stop the miller from being somewhat upset about the whole matter. In order to appease him, King John granted the miller as much land as he could see, and the furthest point he could see was the point that bears the name.

The king also granted the new landowner the privilege of an annual fair but there was, however, a catch (there often was with royal generosity back then). The condition was that, on the day of the fair, the miller should walk to the point wearing a pair of buck’s horns on his head. The miller’s jealous neighbours had to wrest some satisfaction from this downside to his newfound wealth: they dubbed the fair Horn Fair and gave the name of Cuckold’s Point to the termination of the miller’s journey.

Cuckold’s Point is mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys, when he describes a trip on a pleasure boat: “It carried us to Cuckold’s Point, and so by oars to the Temple, it raining hard, where missed speaking with my cosen Roger, and so walked home and to my office; there spent the night till bed time, and so home to supper and to bed.”

Daniel Defoe mentions Cuckold’s Point both in his description of London and in A Journal of the Plague Year, and it is the subject of a painting, ‘A Morning, with a View of Cuckolds Point’ by Samuel Scott.

The pole with the horns stood there in Ben Jonson’s day, and he used the setting in one of his plays, Eastward Ho!, written in conjunction with George Chapman and John Marston.

From one hanging spot to another: in the penultimate scene of this series, Tom Idle is shown in a cart with his coffin, having made the journey from Newgate to the gallows at Tyburn, the location of which is marked by a plaque at Marble Arch. This journey was made by those condemned to be hanged: they would travel from Newgate Prison to Tyburn, leading to the expression ‘going west’, in the context of dying. 

Tyburn once referred to the area now known as Marylebone, taking its name from the Tyburn River, from teoburna, or boundary stream: the Tyburn marked the boundary of Westminster.

But back to Newgate, which was one of the original seven gates within London Wall, and one of the six that date back to Roman times. It was so named because it was, in the 12th century, a new gate, built to replace the original Roman gate. The gatehouse was being used as a prison later that century and Newgate has a place in history as one of the world’s most famous, and infamous prisons. In 1783 the last hanging took place at Tyburn and the gallows were moved to Newgate prison. Prisoners no longer made the long journey west from Newgate to be executed, and could more conveniently be hanged close to their cell.

Before his trip west, Tom Idle was ‘betray’d by his Whore, & taken in a Night Cellar with his Accomplice’. This scene, ninth in the series, is set in Hanging Sword Alley. The name of the alley goes back as early as 1564, when a large Tudor house there was known by the sign of the Hanging Sword. The area was popular with fencing masters and the sign may have referred to this occupation.

The alley was also known at one time by the sinister name of Blood Bowl Alley, after a 14th century inn called Blood Bowl House – the unsavoury and notorious night cellar where Idle meets his doom.

Hanging Sword Alley is also immortalised in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities: Jerry Cruncher, messenger and odd-job man, had lodgings in the alley (“not in a savoury neighbourhood”.)