It is the evening of 23 October 1783, and in a secluded spot on the King’s highway John Austin and an accomplice are mercilessly beating and robbing a stranger.
This act of brutality marked the beginning of the end, not only for Austin, but for an ancient ritual that had been enacted since the 16th century. Having been sentenced to death, he became the last man to be taken in procession from Newgate Prison to the gallows at Tyburn.
For 300 years, doomed convicts had made the journey from where the Old Bailey now stands to the place of their demise, near the site of Marble Arch.
These processions, which occurred only eight times a year, were held to be among the capital’s most exciting events.
Raucous crowds gathered on the roads and in the windows of houses with a view; a clergyman accompanied the condemned; cheering and shouting vied with preaching and jeering, and during the three hours it took to cover the two miles, the spectacle of impending death would unite the metropolis in an outpouring of heightened emotion.
The spectators themselves are dead and buried, and the buildings that lined the way long since leveled. But beneath the stratum of 18th century bricks and bones, millions still trace the same path today, albeit for different reasons.
For between St Paul’s station and Marble Arch, the Central Line follows the last journey of John Austin and his innumerable doomed predecessors almost exactly.
For those hoping to evoke the procession, the modern topography of London is wonderfully supportive. Despite the devastating zeal of the Victorians, who laid waste to many of the capital’s ancient streets, the conduit that flowed from Newgate to Tyburn remains largely intact.
Newgate itself is gone, replaced by the Old Bailey, but the Church of St Sepulchre remains.
From here a clergyman would make his way through a tunnel connecting the two buildings, and ring the bell that signalled the beginning of the great event. A visit to the church reveals that the artefact itself survives, silently encased in glass.
It is perhaps the most evocative remaining fragment of a ritual characterised by its cacophony of sounds as much as its spectacle