The Executioner’s Bell

Diary entry of James Ponsonby, clerk and bellman of The Church of St Sepulchre Without Newgate

18th March 1740

I once again find myself bound to report on my loathsome duty which comprised the events of this sorry two days.
As ever, the day starts well enough with a light breakfast of sardines, grilled kidneys, mashed potatoes and bread as I gaze across Smithfield contemplating my gruesome task. The view from my window is pleasant, being as we are just outside the city gates and facing north across the fields towards Highgate, Camden and the Chalcot Farm. No doubt these villages will be a part of a huge metropolis one day, but I am glad to be facing away from the city, the stink of the River Thames and the foreboding prison of Newgate.
As is the custom on days of a hanging we hear a sermon in the prison chapel across the way, attended as ever by gloaters who even pay to satisfy their morbid curiosity even though they are not necessarily related to the condemned men.
This day it is to be a mass execution numbering some twenty convicts, one of whom is a woman. Jenny Diver, the notorious pickpocket and thief is to be bourne from hence to Tyburn via St Giles and the Tyburn Road, which some people are now calling the “Oxford Road or Streete”.

Evening draws on and the time is at hand for the part I dread. As sexton t’is my duty at midnight to take the “execution bell” through the passage under the church and past the cells of those prisoners who shall be hanged in the morning. I must do it though I like it not. The things we must do because of those more wealthy than us, and all this because of a merchant called Robert Dowe who bequeathed this bell with the sum of £50 in 1605 that this macabre ceremony should take place as “helpful advice” to the condemned souls! And what is this advice that I must utter while parading in front of them and ringing that awful bell?

“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!”

I shall never forget this rhyme for as long as I shall live for t’is I who must ring the great bell of St Sepulchre in the morning as well.

Midnight approacheth and bell in hand I bend my steps through the passage and past the cells. I do not sing out the verse through shame, but rather I mumble these sickening lines beneath my breath, though there is no hiding the cold clanking resonance of the bell through the chamber. The prisoners stir, none are asleep, some hurl abuse of a sickening nature, not aimed at me necessarily but at anyone who will hear. Pitiful sobs, cries of mercy, some too dejected even to raise themselves…and the smell! Lord in Heaven, the smell.

As ever on these occasions I sleep not. I am up early next morn without breakfast and straight the the great bell of St Sepulchre as the prisoners are being loaded onto their carts. There are three such carts, seven in each, and as they stop outside the church they are offered nosegays as is the custom, whilst I pull the rope for the bell to toll. I wonder if children will sing of this bell one day when playing their games and not even know why. Perhaps it will not even be known as the bell of St Sepulchre in the future.

My task is done and I can soon sit down to reflect. I shall not watch the execution but they tell me that at Tyburn the “Triple Tree” as they call it can now accommodate 20 hangings at once! How foolish it all is. Will this really deter others from committing such crimes? Jenny Diver is being hanged as a thief and yet the large crowds that gather there to witness the hanging is a haven of pickpockets. If anything it encourages them.

They’ll hang you for anything these days..up to 350 offences! I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky. Our poor Reverend John Rogers of this very parish was burned at the steak under the reign of Queen Mary, and that wasn’t all that long ago!

The carts are drawn off from hence by the sturdy horses with the convicts in irons and the yells of the baying crowd, I turn away and try to empty my mind of these events as best I can.

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