The church of St Sepulchre, situated close to Newgate, was on the condemned route from that prison to Tyburn. At an early date, the custom of tolling the bell as if for a funeral as the condemned prisoners were passing was established. However, a second custom carried out on the night before the journey to Tyburn, soon established itself.
Today, in 2002, it is possible to stand in the 12th century porch of the church of St. Sepulchre and look out on the Old Bailey and the site of the old City gate of Newgate. The gaol of Newgate began its life as a place of detention within the structure of the Gate itself, in the same way that the gate at Ludgate did. Both of them looked across the stinking moat at the Fleet prison, which was a much more serious affair built by William Rufus in 1180. When the Fleet began to deal exclusively with debtors, the gaol at Newgate was much expanded to deal with criminals of a higher order. Here were incarcerated those who were destined for the gallows.
Until the end of the 18th century the work-a-day gibbet was located at Tyburn, now Marble Arch. However, this place did not enjoy a monopoly, many who were convicted of capital crimes were executed at the scene of the crime itself. Execution was seen as a form of expiation and, generally, the condemned went along with that, accepting their fate. composing prayers, forgiving wrongs and composing prayers etc.
This religious element placed the church of St. Sepulchre in a unique position. In a sense, it became the parish church of Newgate - even though there was a chapel within the prison. A prisoner condemned to hang at Tyburn was taken from Newgate to the place of execution by way of Holborn and Snow Hill. A route that took the procession past the south front and around the west end of St Sepulchre's. At some early stage arose the custom of tolling the bell of St Sepulchre, as if for a funeral, as the condemned prisoner was passing. This custom continued after Tyburn was dismantled and the street outside Newgate itself became the place of execution.
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However, human nature is nothing if it does not have a vicious and vindictive side. Once the custom of the funeral bell had become established another soon established itself as a necessary preliminary. Thus, on the night before an execution the bellman of St Sepulchre would walk past Newgate and, ringing his handbell, recite the following:
All you that in the condemned hold do lie,
Prepare you, for to-morrow you shall 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 t'eternal flames be sent.
And when St Sepulchre's bell to-morrow tolls,
The Lord above have mercy on your souls!
Past Twelve O'Clock.
According to John Stowe, in his Survey of London in the late 16th century, the basis of this practice was established by a bequest from a member of the Merchant Taylor's guild. He writes that:
Robert Dove, Citizen and Merchant Taylor, of London, gave to the parish church of St Sepulchres, the sum of 50. So that, after the several sessions of London, when the prisoners remain in the gaol, as condemned men to death, expecting execution on the morning following ; the clerk of the church should come in the night time, and like-wise early in the morning, to the window of the prison where they lie, and there ringing certain tolls with a hand-bell, appointed for the purpose, he doth afterwards (in most Christian manner) put them in mind of their present condition, and ensuing execution, desiring them to be prepared therefor as they ought to be. When they are in the cart, and brought before the wall of the church, there he standeth ready with the same bell, and after certain tolls rehearses an appointed prayer, desiring all the people there present to pray for them. The beadle also of Merchant Taylor's Hall hath an honest stipend allowed to see that this is duly done.
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