Marble Arch and the Tyburn Tree

If you buy a picture postcard with a printed caption on the back, you expect it to be short, factual, upbeat and positive. No room for personal opinion. Maybe this caption writer didn’t get the memo.

Vintage postcard by J. Valentine of Marble Arch, London.

Marble Arch, London, – This fine if rather useless ornament of Hyde Park is reminiscent of the triumphal arches beloved of the Romans. The view serves to suggest the superb vistas available in the Park dear to fashion, which covers some four hundred acres, and is encompassed by a carriage drive two and a half miles long.

Arthur Mee, in his book ‘London’ (1937), gives us more detail about the Arch and the gruesome past of the place where it stands. This is the short, less harrowing, version.

At the top of [Park Lane], the meeting place of four great roads, stands the Marble Arch, which changed its address in the year of the Great Exhibition [1851]. Till then it stood at the entrance to Buckingham Palace; now it stands at the head of Oxford Street a few yards away from a little brass plate* which tells us that this was Tyburn Hill. Here were hanged men and women and children, heroes and malefactors, patriots and traitors.

The site took its name from the little river Tyburn, one of whose arms crossed Oxford Street here. Tyburn then lay among the fields, with only a few houses, from one of which the sheriffs watched the executions. Round the gallows were stands with seats, let to spectators at half a crown. Until 1783, when Newgate took its place, Tyburn was the busiest scene in the world of agony and sorrow. It became the frightful clearing-house for criminals of both sexes and of all ages. Upwards of 200 petty offences were punishable with death, and offenders were sent in horrifying numbers to die here in batches, a dozen or more at a time.

Vintage postcard of Marble Arch, London.

The arch was set up by John Nash ten years after Waterloo at a cost of £80,000. Chantrey’s statue of George the Fourth in Trafalgar Square was made for it, but never fixed. The arch was designed after [one] in the Roman Forum, and made of marble from Michael Angelo’s quarries at Carrara. It was orininally intended to symbolise the victories of Trafalgar and Waterloo in its picture panels, but the arch was made an arch of peace instead.

*The little brass plate was replaced by a bigger concrete marker in 1964.


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