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The small whimpering cry was entirely lost amidst the miasma of sounds and smells
that pervaded the solidity of darkness surrounding the small limp body lying huddled
in the corner of this most inhospitable of chambers. A sudden shriek followed
immediately by an incessant cackling noise caused the minutest of movement in the
ragbag hiding away in what he hoped was the deepest recess. A movement of
something across his unshod foot caused a semi-voluntary kick, which resulted in a
brown rat emitting a loud noise of complaint as it was unceremoniously and violently
propelled into a wall, a foot or so from the wasted body it had chosen to nibble at. The
rat scurried away, presumably in search for a less aggressive meal.
The small form was under no illusion; either that same rodent or another one with
similar appetites would be along shortly. Not that the boy, for such he was, had much
concept of time. There was precious little to measure the passage of days in this
subterranean hellhole with only the tiniest of apertures piercing the enormously thick
stone wall. Even then the fenestration was placed so high above the boys' full height
that the only benefit he gained from the slit window above him was the occasional
beam of direct sunlight that reduced rather than increased his ability to see his
immediate surroundings. These rays were rare events even then, since the slit was
only at ground level to those outside and was regularly blocked by all manner of
things being stood by it. The boy lay quite still and sincerely hoped that when he slept
an angel would take him away; that was the way it happened, wasn't it? That's
what he had always been told and that was how his own mother had been taken from
him. His aunt had told him that before she too disappeared from his life.
The story of the short life of Thomas Blake was at once pitiful and utterly shameful
considering he lived in the greatest city in the world, surrounded by the most wealthy
merchants, nobles and princes of the burgeoning empire that was Britain in the late
eighteenth century. Thomas was a product of the coupling of a young serving girl and
an unknown person of wealth, according to the story as told by his aunt. The person
of wealth was, according to the same tale, a gentleman of standing who would
appreciate the pleasures of Malmsey and Madeira wines and the wenches at his
favourite taverns. The mother was, at the time, not yet twenty years old and when she
died in childbirth nobody knew quite why, except that she had contracted a fever. The
baby was handed across to the mother's older sister to wet nurse and to bring up. The
task was taken up with something less than enthusiasm and glee since the sister had
no real maternal instincts and precious little concern or love for children; her
motivation was simply the money handed to her by the anonymous wealthy father.
By the time Thomas had entered his eighth year his aunt had deserted him. She
simply went off one night with a man and was never seen by Thomas again. Left
alone, in a riverside garret, he assumed independence undreamed of by children of
later generations. The education that he had received during his brief sojourn in life
had been a practical one; aimed at survival, usually at the expense of anyone
gullible or vulnerable enough to supply the basic needs of living at the lowest levels
of the metropolis. He was adept at a variety of petty criminal activities, he was an
active mudlark; an occupation much despised but, on occasions, surprisingly richly
rewarding. Living, as he did, by his wits he very quickly learned to recognise those in
the community that he could trust and those from whom he could only expect to
suffer – either by loss, by beating or worse.
Sitting as he now was, incarcerated in a tomb of a cell with an unknown number of
other unfortunates, he reflected miserably on his circumstances. In many ways the age
in which he lived was enlightened; great advances were being made in science,
geographical discovery, commerce, art and politics, often within a stones' throw from
where he now disconsolately sat. One aspect of the age that militated against his
ill-educated and undernourished mind was the state of the teaching of religion. This was
the apogee of the established church's teaching of hell-fire and damnation. Bewigged
clerics could be seen throughout the rapidly expanding conurbation, centred upon the
building in which Thomas was reluctantly being held, standing upon specially
erected wayside pulpits built outside the churches to which they were attached. These
educated gentlemen espoused a form of Christian ethics that, whilst sitting well with
the moneyed and privileged classes, were almost certainly unattainable by those who
existed in the greatest need of the succour of God.
Hellfire and damnation was all that young Thomas could envisage as his future in
perpetuity. His filth-caked brow sweated at the thought of eternity in a brimstone pit
as hot as a bakehouse oven. He shivered again and felt a massive bolt of pain inside
his cranium; he whispered to himself again and hid his head still deeper inside the
ragged remains of an old jacket that represented one third of his entire wardrobe.
The jangle of keys and the coarse language of the turnkey echoed down the dank, dark
steps that he could just make out beyond the old rusty bars. The stairs, and a small
area at their base, was all that whole chamber provided outside of the cell itself and it
was here that the turnkey sometimes arrived with minimal levels of sustenance. An
occasional ladle of rancid water and a weevil infested ship's biscuit, purchased by the
authorities as a cost-saving exercise from berthing ships at the nearby docks who
were reprovisioning and needed the stowage space. It was to the area at the bottom of
the stone steps that those people who deigned to visit were brought. The visitors were
not, usually, of the benign variety, like friends or family of the gaoled prisoners.
These visitors were paying to see the spectacle. The turnkeys made a handsome profit
from these visitations. Very rarely a visitor of really humane compassion would pay
the pennies required for access, and they might pass the prisoners foodstuffs or other
useful items to make their existence more bearable. The problem for Thomas was that
not only were this type of visitor extremely rare, but when they did arrive it was the
adults who grabbed at any largesse being distributed leaving Thomas with nothing
more than extra bruises on his already emaciated and scarred body. The normal
visitors, or perhaps they might be more appropriately named spectators, merely
squawked and squealed. Ladies in their finery holding nosegays before their faces to
disguise the all too obvious noxious odours that inevitably presented themselves in a
damp subterranean cellar without sanitation bearing a load of diseased human cargo.
Accompanying, and usually paying for these ladies' visits, were dandified gentlemen
with excessive powdered wigs, tricorn hats with ostrich feathers, and silk stockings;
entirely inappropriate to the environment, but fashion can be so frustratingly out of
step with one's means of entertainment. Of these latter visitors young Thomas knew
that the most he was likely to receive was a sharp poke from the silver-capped cane
that the gentlemen invariably carried.
Thomas had actually only been in this pit for nine days. It was just that he was
unaware of the significance of the morrow. Nine days ago he had listened with
increasing terror to the huge bewigged judge dressed in red and ermine. The judge
had a face suffused with subcutaneous blood vessels indicative, to those that knew the
predilection of this learned gentleman, of the influence of the principal product of friendly Portugal,
particularly of the city of Oporto. In the noisy atmosphere of the packed court His
Honour donned the black cap and intoned the sentence with great solemnity, raising, as
he pronounced, his extraordinarily hirsute eyebrows to indicate his great distaste for
the task and associated displeasure to the small creature before him. This minute shape
struggled to see across the spiked wooden wall of the dock that hid him. Cries of
anguish by a few matronly figures that had developed an immense sense of sympathy to
the boy, who looked to be of only about seven or eight years, but whom the court had assured
them was actually over ten years old. These cries were, of course, drowned by those
of the remaining numbers of spectators within the public galleries for whom a
hanging was a spiritually uplifting community sporting event. They looked forward to
a good hanging and resented the absence of the spectacle when verdicts of either
innocence or lesser sentences of transportation or prison were handed down.
Since that moment, Thomas, now convicted of theft, the theft of a loaf of bread, had
lived in terror of what the after-life, and possibly even more frightening, the journey
to the after-life, would be like. Completely friendless, this young child whose sole
reason for being executed was that he had once previously stolen an item of fruit and
was now viewed as a major threat to the whole fabric of this civilised society that
rated property at a level substantially above human life. This was especially true of a
low-life, such as Thomas was considered to be. A former soldier who suffered no
pangs of compassion for his charges had manhandled him from the dock. Smiling
through the wooden false teeth that he wore almost as a badge of honour, having lost
his own teeth and part of his jaw in the service of His Majesty in the colonial
wars in North America. This gruff man held Thomas by the scruff of his neck and
physically tossed him into the holding cage behind the court to await onward transport
to the condemned cell.
The judge had made no bones about the sentence. Thomas Blake, he had been told,
was to be taken to the condemned cells and thence onwards in ten days to a lawful
place of execution where he would be hanged by the neck until dead. The benediction
of God having pity upon his poor soul was entirely lost upon the small boy, thus
deprived of any future having enjoyed very little of his past.
Thus he sat in the coldness of the dark condemned cell, which he shared with at least
five others, and bided his time in undisguised self-grief and terror as he waited the
coming of the turnkey. The turnkey who would force him to join his fellow
condemned prisoners on the cart that would be their transport to the gallows. Without
doubt he was in the deepest despair that anyone could imagine, or should be made to
endure. His brain had begun to act without Thomas's knowledge or understanding,
and was relaying signals around his malnourished frame causing physical symptoms of
distress to show in various ways. He was feverish, twitching violently; he would retch
but without producing any vomit from his completely empty stomach. It was in this
state that Thomas awoke on the morning of the tenth day, unaware of the date,
unaware that this was his final day on earth and unaware, also, that this was his
Sunlight streaked into the gloom of this high-ceilinged cell. It pierced the darkness
and caused immediate distress to the young boy who had been awakened by the
customary clout from the turnkey. "On yer feet boy," he ordered, "You've got an
appointment with Jack Ketch!" Thomas was responding but in the manner of an
automaton. He was barely conscious of his surroundings any more. The light hit his
eyes and caused momentary blindness, but he was otherwise unaffected by his
surroundings. The turnkey, holding the gate open, shoved him violently out of the cell
and against the wall at the base of the stairs. Thomas hit his head on a small stone that
formed part of the wall but sat proud of its partners and provided a convenient sharp
surface for the young head to injure itself upon.
The old man encouraged Thomas to climb the stairs with the liberal use of the cudgel
that he habitually carried and never shrank from using. He emerged into the daylight,
only half-aware of the fact except for the renewal of the pain in his eyes. He gazed
around; the glare caused the scene to be mist enshrouded. His eyes, so recently
emerged from the lightless hole of the condemned cell, could barely cope with the
onslaught of the outside world. Another, younger, turnkey grabbed the boy and thrust
him towards an anvil. The bulky figure now staring down at Thomas scowled as he
took the boy's bone-thin wrist and sought out an appropriately sized manacle from the
assortment hanging from an iron bar arrangement adjacent to the anvil. Satisfied with
his choice the man proceeded to chain the boy's wrists together. The wrists were bound with solid iron
wristlets, joined by a length of chain. He repeated the performance with the
boy's ankles; he was going to be quite sure that this boy was going nowhere except
to meet his maker.
Onlookers seeing this waif, frail of limb and stature, would have described Thomas as
being no more than four feet six or seven inches in height. He was painfully skinny
from years of malnourishment. His small nose protruded, apparently, further from his
face than it would have done on a healthier well-fed version of the same boy. The
sunken eye sockets were dark and his skin taut over his skeleton. Across the exposed
areas of flesh could be seen a variety of marks; bruises received from the turnkeys and
fellow prisoners, bite marks from the rodents who shared his final accommodation.
There were other blotches that were yet further manifestations of the illness that was
developing within him, driven by his brain. He was clothed in a coarse cloth jacket and
trousers of a much finer, but older, cloth that had been cut down from those used by a
now dead neighbour. A coarse linen shirt that was once white but now resembled a
rag discoloured by oil completed Thomas's wardrobe.
Without any outward display of emotion the boy simply stood on the cart where he
had been placed. Each additional prisoner emerging from the condemned cell
occupied space alongside him. These others were adults and were each displaying their
feelings about the role that they were about to play in the day's entertainment. One
middle-aged well-dressed gentleman, now somewhat dishevelled following his wait
in the dungeon, was deeply upset and snivelling into his torn lace cuff. A more
formidable figure towered above him with a facial expression that seemed to invite
anyone in the audience to mock him; he growled and rattled his chains at any that he
thought were mocking him. That his actions were effective and that he was seen as a
frightening sight was demonstrated by the speed at which onlookers and passers-by
removed themselves whenever his guttural growl gave voice.
Eventually the older turnkey gave the order for the procession, consisting of two carts
and a handful of guards, to move out of the gaol gate and along the mile or so to the
The carts rocked and jolted along the uneven surfaces of the roads, making the
passengers' journey even more uncomfortable and unsafe. None of the prisoners probably
cared much for their safety, but as for comfort, certainly there were at least two who
wished for a little more before suffering the ultimate penalty of the law. As the
distance travelled from the gaol increased, and consequentially the nearer they got to
their destination, the crowds along the roads and nearby streets swelled.
Public executions were an opportunity for enjoyment. The
spectacle moved through three phases; the journey, during which abuse and refuse
could be thrown at the cart passengers, a little care being taken not to hit the guards or
at least not to be seen hitting the guards. The next phase came as the carts waited with
their loads as each customer for the hangman was fetched up to their particular noose,
balancing precariously as they awaited the push that would send them off of the
barrels upon which their feet were placed, and into oblivion. During this phase the
guards and cart drivers were able to afford the crowd a more open target, an
opportunity that seldom failed to attract its share of rotten fruit throwers. The final
phase, of course, was the real entertainment as the felons met their maker.
Some would break down as the noose was placed over their heads and about their
necks; others, of whom the crowds were much more appreciative, would make ribald
comments or gestures at their captors and executioners. Still others would react with
stoic resolution. This last group was a minority.
When the barrels beneath the feet of the convicted were kicked away their bodies
swung in unison, flailing in the wind and being subjected to the cruellest of endings.
Slow strangulation until life is extinct. To be absolutely sure, the executioner,
the hangman, would leave the cadaver swinging for periods far in excess of the time
in which death would occur. He did this for reasons of ensuring that he had been
punctilious in carrying out the orders of the Courts of Justice, but also for the macabre
spectacle that the crowds delighted in and for which the hangman was often richly
tipped. In direct response to the victim's last performance members of the crowd
would grab the legs of their favoured felon and dangle from them in an effort to
reduce the time of the strangulation process. Sometimes it was relatives who would
perform this grisly but humane task.
Thomas, all alone in the world and not being very heavy, was likely to be very slow in
dying, a fact noted by both the hangman and an elderly matron who was standing
with eager anticipation of the morning's entertainment. The old lady had spotted
Thomas in the cart and spoke to her neighbour, "He'll be slow going poor mite." An
unusual comment of compassion from someone who attended public executions for the
fun value of the spectacle. The neighbour agreed that the boy should be helped on his
Thomas had shoulder length hair considerably matted by dirt and the outpourings of
his sweat glands. His face was smeared with streaks of mud interspersed with blood
from his various wounds. It was his turn. Without any form of dignity allowed to him,
one of the guards pulled his leg chains and dragged him to the end of the cart. Cuffing
the defenceless boy as he was hauled to his feet, the guard earned himself the
opprobrium of the crowd which would later be repaid by a mouldering cabbage
hitting him squarely on the head. Dragging the limp form of young Thomas the
guard passed over the responsibility to the hangman and his assistants. They lost no
time in placing the boy on the barrel.
Thomas was now beyond despair and it must be considered miraculous that he
remained standing; his brain was now in overdrive and sending out danger signals that
had his young body attempting simultaneous actions that it simply was not equipped
for. He could not break away; he painfully learned this, earning another cuff for trying.
He could not jump or fly out of danger; shutting down was an option for Thomas's
brain, but not for the hangman, not yet anyway.
The two watching and waiting women stood nearby as the hangman's assistant
shimmied up on to the cross-tree to lengthen the noose so that Thomas could be fitted
into it, he wasn't even tall enough for that. As they watched, the delay merely caused
the boy's anxiety levels to increase further. A telltale dark patch developed on the
front of his ill-fitting grey trousers. The patch spread. The boy had urinated himself to
the disgust of the hangman who moved away from the unfortunate boy. The crowd,
growing impatient for the most important part of the act, began shouting abuse at the
grizzled man who wisely nodded to his assistant. Between them they started kicking
away the small platforms upon which these wretches stood. The legs began their
flailing dance. The two women, in concert with several others at the front of the
crowd, moved forward to carry out their mission of mercy.
Thomas had felt the noose placed around his neck and then tightened. A hood of some
description covered his head and strangely he felt some relief at that. During what
seemed an eternity he waited and without warning the drum-like barrel was no longer
beneath his feet. He felt the tightening of the rope against his neck and the tension
behind his eyes and throughout his head; there was an indescribable thumping in his
ears. Momentarily, down through the gap between his hood and his nose he spotted
the two women, warm comfortable women, approaching his legs. They were holding
his thin ankles. He thought his feet were shining – were they wet? A bright light took
over from all other sensations, a complete whiteness and an accompanying silence.
Through his eyes he began to make out other colours, reds, yellows, blues and shades
in between. The thumping noise had returned to his ears but less pronounced than
before. He was being moved, he could feel his legs being pulled. He couldn't smell anything, in
fact he couldn't recognise anything that he saw either. 'No hellfire and brimstone' was
the curious thought that flashed across his mind. He continued
moving. A rush, a very wet rush, and that white light was back. Noises! He was
conscious of noises, human voices, a pain, short-lived but unmistakably a pain crossed
his mind as he pondered his new experiences. He made an attempt to complain but
was surprised at the strangled noise that emitted from his own mouth. Well, perhaps it
was not so strange, but he wondered how long it would last?
More noises, more noises permeated his private thoughts. "It's a boy," someone
remarked. It was a female voice, probably one of those women he logically thought.
"We'll call him Thomas," said another. He felt no particular urge to tell her the
On a bright day in May, during the school Spring holiday, Thomas and his older
sister Annabelle emerged from the steps leading up from the South Kensington
underground station by the Natural History Museum entrance. They were with their
dad who had wangled a day off of work to take the children on a trip to London. It
was really a trip for Thomas, whose eleventh birthday it was, but he always went on
Annabelle's trips and she had wanted to see the museums. She also looked forward to
the promised shopping trip to Oxford Street afterwards. So here they all were; only
their mother was missing, she had to work and was in any case not a fan of traipsing
They had arrived immediately after the end of the morning rush hour so that
they would have time to 'do' two of the museums and get across to Oxford Street.
Both of the children enjoyed the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum next door
along Prince Albert's Exhibition Road. Even though they had all day, their dad was
persistent in moving both of his offspring along. He knew how to prevent premature
boredom and predicted uncannily accurately when his family would want to eat. This
chore he felt was best achieved between the two museums with the packed lunch they
had carried from home. They could sit in the gardens of the Natural History museum
and eat and drink their fill and then move onto the next phase of the operation.
The dinosaur section of the first museum still held captive Thomas's imagination, but
Annabelle was beginning to consider it a little passé, although even she was taken by
the escalator ride up to the earth sciences department. They both felt vertiginous as
they enjoyed the incredible feeling of tipping over as the apparently unsupported
moving staircase ascended into the perpetually rotating planet-like sphere that marks
the department's entrance from the lower floors. Annabelle took notes as they passed
the earthquake zone since she had been given the subject of volcanoes and
earthquakes for geography at school.
Thomas, at eleven, was five feet two inches tall, not quite up to his fourteen-year-old
sister's height but gaining rapidly. He had a small nose in the middle of his fleshy
face. His eyes were bright and he veritably twitched with intelligent excitement with
each new experience. Both of the children got on with each other. For Thomas this
would prove to be a boon in September when he finally left his primary school and
moved up to the same secondary school attended by Annabelle. Having a year 10
sister when you're only a year 7 has advantages. Their father also relished these trips
because he enjoyed the company of both of his children and because of work pressures
he had precious few opportunities to be with them.
They had 'done' the Natural History Museum and were now eating their lunch. "It's two
o'clock," said the father. "If we're to get across to Oxford Street and the small detour
I've got planned then we need to leave the Science Museum by three thirty – is that
"What detour?" Thomas and Annabelle piped up in tandem.
"Oh! That's a surprise,
but it should end at McDonald's," he added, again knowing his family well enough to
know that the mass-produced beef patties would win him the argument every time.
"Yeah!" they echoed each other again.
The Science Museum visit ended by the predetermined time, possibly with the carrot
of McDonald's being dangled. "We had better step it out – we're going to the park,"
the father said ambiguously. They strode out along Exhibition Road turning left into
Kensington Gore round by the Royal Geographical Society's building. They very
quickly crossed over and, pausing briefly to look at and admire the newly restored
monument to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, they hurried across the park to
"I thought you'd like to see this Annabelle," the father spoke to
his daughter. "It's the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial garden, and it's really
coming into bloom." He remembered her interest in the television pictures when all
the floral tributes were piled up in incredible numbers alongside these very railings.
"I wonder how William is?" Annabelle reminded her father of her current main interest
in the Royal family, "and Harry, of course," she added as an afterthought. They were
conscious of the time and hastened across to Bayswater Road.
"We can get to
McDonald's round at Whiteleys or wait until we get to Oxford Street," the father
posed the question. The children voted for the former and so they visited Whiteleys.
Refreshed, and wanting to attack the shops, Annabelle led the trio back to
Bayswater Road and left to her shopping Mecca. Thomas chatted endlessly of the
things he'd seen at the museums. He also delighted in how one of his best friends
would have to stop going on about one of the current attractions of the Science
Museum since he would no longer be the only one in the class to have visited it. The
time was creeping on, but late night shopping beckoned. As they drew near to the
Marble Arch end of Bayswater Road their father said that he was going to ring
their mother since they were obviously going to be later home he'd originally
He rang her mobile and she spoke in turn with each of them. They agreed that the
mother would cater for herself that evening and that the three of them would grab a
meal on the journey home. The father put his mobile back into his jacket pocket.
From here on the crowds on the pavement would be too great to have a reasonable
conversation on a mobile telephone. They moved on and watched with interest
as a car escorted by two police motorcycles, with blue lights flashing and sirens
blaring, sped around the arched monument from the direction of Park Lane. The noise
of the sirens as they passed Thomas, Annabelle and their father, was intense.
Annabelle and her dad craned their necks to see if they could spot any famous
celebrities in the escorted Jaguar. Thomas stepped back holding his ears.
Annabelle spotted him and laughed, shouting "You wimp!" Thomas's sister
continued smiling until she realised that Thomas was not playing, but that he really did
seem to have something wrong with him. She pulled her dad's sleeve and they both
rushed to Thomas who was now supporting himself against the wall of the nearest
building. His right hand was flat against the wall above his head. His left covered his
eyes. He screamed about the light and slowly crumpled, and his right hand slowly
descended from the wall-mounted memorial that it had been placed on. A nearby
policeman heard his cry and rushed over asking if everything was all right. The
reaction of the distraught father, the frightened sister and the crumpled pile of the son
were sufficient answer for him to immediately call for an ambulance.
A post mortem examination revealed death was caused by something resembling
strangulation. Perhaps some sort of allergy or shock had caused an involuntary
closure of the upper airways. The doctors were of the opinion that the boy had died
before the ambulance had arrived. Quite tragic;
the place of death was recorded for posterity, beneath the memorial plaque mounted
outside of the Tyburn convent indicating the site of the Tyburn tree on the traffic
island opposite. The notes recorded by the policeman on duty stated that the name of
the deceased was Thomas Blake, aged eleven.
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