MANY of the crowds flocking to Knavesmire last week for the Ebor festival may have been quite unaware of the area’s grim and bloody past.

For mo re than 400 years, long before it became a racecourse, Knavesmire was the site of the York gallows.

Records show that on March 31, 1379, one Edward Hewison was executed on the new gallows there, at the place known as York Tyburn. The best part of four centuries later, on April 7, 1739, York’s most famous highwayman Dick Turpin also met his end there.

I n between, countless murderers, thieves, rapists and footpads breathed their last at this grim spot.

By 1815, thanks to a system of laws and punishments that came later to be known as the Bloody Code, there were more than 200 offences that carried the death penalty.

According to Michelle Petyt, assistant curator of social history at the York Museums Trust, they included damage to property, theft, and the writing of threatening letters.

In practice, however, by the 18th century the number of people executed was beginning to be reduced.

“Mercy was being used quite a lot – almost to demonstrate the beneficence of the state,” Michelle said. “For example, they didn’t like to hang young people unless they had to. Sentences of death were often being commuted to transportation.”

Nevertheless, despite this newly merciful approach, Execution Day remained a busy, rowdy event.

Most of those sentenced to the gallows would have been convicted at the York Assizes, held twice a year (in spring and winter) at York Crown Court or, before that was built in 1777, at the earlier court on the site of the female prison opposite.

If their sentence was not commuted prisoners would be held in the condemned cells at what is now the Castle Museum, before being taken to Tyburn by cart a few days later – along with their coffins.

We have – probably fortunately – no photographic record of the executions, for obvious reasons. But York Art Gallery and the Castle Museum between them have a number of gruesome etchings and cartoons depicting what went on. Perhaps the most famous are by the eminent cartoonist and artist Thomas Rowlandson. Born in London in 1756, he became one of the most famous cartoonists of the day – and among his work was these two works held at York Art gallery.

One, entitled “Execution day at York, c1820”, appears to show three condemned prisoners being driven to Tyburn by cart, with a coffin. It may well represent Micklegate, Michelle says. “I don’t think he ever went up there in his life, but he’s got the feel of it.” Another purports to show the execution of Mary Evans, “hung at York, 1799”. The only slight problem is that there is no record of a Mary Evans being hanged in York. The nearest is a Mary Ellah, executed in 1757 for murdering her husband by strangling.

Other images show a sketch by Henry Cave dating from about 1800 of the “Three-Legged Mare” – a popular name for the gallows, which consisted of a wooden triangle standing on three wooden pillars – and an image of an execution from one of the popular 19th century “execution broadsheets”, which carried graphic details of trials and executions.

The last hanging at Tyburn took place in 1801, after which executions took place at York Castle itself. This was so that “the entrance to the town should no longer be annoyed by dragging criminals through the streets.”

Hangings continued to take place in public at the castle until 1868. From then on, until the last York execution in 1896, murderers were executed from a specially constructed platform, known as “the drop”, at the end of the female prison.

• Pictures reproduced courtesy of the York Museums Trust. They can be seen online at