Many of you may recall the last Dead Rat Orchestra Tour called The Cut – a canals and waterways tour, during which they travelled 273 miles of the inland waterways from London to Bristol crafting music along the way. We featured this tour as a series of guest blogs which was very well received. Their latest tour will be getting the same treatment on Folk Radio although the subject matter is so very different.
For over 700 years there was a site of execution at Tyburn in London. Here those who fell foul of political, religious and judicial reforms enacted by the state were executed for public entertainment and instruction. A study of those executed at Tyburn charts a history of the UK, illustrating the twists and turns of monarchical and political whimsy, church and state, and the birth of capitalism.
At our current moment of enforced austerity and social reform, Tyburnia explores the parallels between contemporary and historical notions of crime in relation to business and property, the spectacular nature of punishment, and the state’s use of the body as a site for political control.
By way of introduction to the project we have the first guest post from James Holcombe for whose film the Dead Rat Orchestra perform the soundtrack. It made perfect sense therefore to start these guest blogs with an entry from James. James Holcombe gained access to numerous artifacts associated with the Tyburn; reliquaries housing the remains of catholic martyrs, body parts preserved by surgeons, the bell that tolled on the eve of executions, and the eventual resting place of the gallows themselves. Using hand processing and historic chemical techniques the scenes forming Tyburnia bring forth a film that is both visually and thematically engrossing, demonstrating how, despite the gallows having long since vanished, we still stand in the shadow of it’s punitive ideology.
James Holcombe on Tyburnia
Tyburnia began as a project in 2009, when I was in residence on the Edgware Road as part of a project Serpentine Gallery had initiated. This was The Centre for Possible Studies, who provided a month long residency for no.w.here which gave me the freedom to pursue research into the Tyburn Gallows, which I had read about in a Reader’s Digest book of Folklore Myths and Legends of Britain. It was included in this book in a chapter on the ‘Romance of London’. The description of Tyburn dwells mainly on it’s use as a posthumous execution site for Oliver Cromwell and the other regicides of King Charles the first, also that the gallows had blown down in the 17th century ‘uprooted by it’s ghosts’.
A visit to the Westminster City Archives to view the Ashridge Collection of ephemera relating to executions revealed the scale, breadth and cruelty of Tyburn use a site for state sanctioned execution. Put simply, Tyburn was the largest single execution site in the UK from the time of the Norman Conquest through to it’s removal in 1783 (when the neat, exclusive enclaves of Connuaght and Grosvenor Squares were first laid out). The Ashridge collection contains woodcuts, prints, and ballads filled with the horror of these executions. The deaths of children for theft, the burning of women for murder or coin ‘clipping’ (physically de-valuing the currency of the realm by shaving metal off, re-smelting and creating new coins), the executions of the Catholic Martyrs for their faith.
I started filming regularly on the Edgware Road whenever I could get there, using super 8 and 16mm clockwork cameras to document the everyday activity of the road – Speakers at Speaker’s Corner, protests against the then newly formed coalition government as it started to implement it’s savage cuts to public services. I researched and sought out what physically remained from executions – body parts, fragments of human bone, hair, and skin preserved in perpetuity in Tyburn Convent, and the ‘living history’ of Tyburn as preserved in Catholic pilgrigamges from the site of Newgate Prison to the Gallows, a journey which many Cathoilcs made during the reign of Elizabeth the First. Tyburnia became as much a film about the present and it’s resonances with the past..
Having amassed several hours of footage over 3 years, my thoughts then turned to how this footage might be coherently wound into a narrative, which would not take the narrative form of voiceover, or traditional documentary. An acquaintance told me he had seen Dead Rat Orchestra supporting Godspeed You Black Emperor! and how much he had enjoyed their re-working of the English ballad tradition, so I contacted them and met with Nathan. His response to the footage I had shot was very positive, and together we started to look at ballads sung in ‘Thieves Cant’ relating to Tyburn executions..
Coincidentally in 2013 I started to notice the word ‘Tyburnia’ appear on Google Maps, and in the property sections of Estate Agents supplements. Thus a name which had been quietly erased in the 19th century as the gentry tried to forget what their exclusive neighbourhood had once been used for, has suddenly been re-introduced as a ‘new’ label for the area to give it the same ring of exclusivity as Fitzrovia and Belgravia..in this resurrection, the fact that the area was used for public executions has become a unique selling point, a sanitised and de-politicised marketing ploy.
The shadow of the Tyburn Tree extended well beyond London, with assizes, gallows, and gibbets in many market and county towns. To explore this rich and melancholy history Tyburnia will be performed as close to the location of various regional gallows as possible. This means taking a film screening to some pretty unusual places, and to do this we need your help!
Tyburnia is an incredible creative opportunity to explore how systems of civil jurisdiction were enforced across the UK, to examine local history and contemporary life and how these tie in with national narratives.
27 May – London – The Carpenters Arms
29 May – London – Apiary Studios
30 May – Norwich – Norwich Arts Centre
31 May – Colchester – Colchester Arts Centre
05 Jun – Bristol – Cube Cinema
06 Jun – Lewes – Westgate Chapel
07 Jun – Cambridge – Castle End Mission
11 Jun – Winchester – St John The Baptist
12 Jun – Reading – Rising Sun Arts Centre
14 Jun – Royal Holloway University of London- The Boilerhouse Lecture Theatre
19 Jun – Taunton – Museum of Somerset
20 Jun – Lewannick – Lewannick Community Cinema
21 Jun – Exeter – The Cavern
25 Jun – Devizes – Wiltshire Museum
26 Jun – Ipswich – Think Tank
03 Jul – Oxford – Modern Art Oxford
04 Jul – Northampton – The Victoria
5th July – Shrewsbury – Morris Hall
For full details on the tour visit: http://deadratorchestra.co.uk/the-tyburnia-tour/4587507939