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A tale of suspense

With the summer sun at its peak, following the recent solstice, I thought I would introduce a hint of the shadows into the proceedings. After all, a touch of the macabre never fails to lighten the mood.

 I was  running my eyes over the county’s OS maps and speculating about local place names. I found places with names such as Gallows Corner, Hanging Hill Lane, Gibbets Cross. But it didn’t make sense to me. Even in less organised, and less civilised times, I knew that public hangings tended to be centralised. They took place  in the major towns, often in the market places and town squares, or in front of the county gaol or courthouse.  

So what could explain the place names I noticed, which you find in the most quiet and unlikely spots, a distance away from the towns?  The answer is very macabre indeed – it’s the gibbet!  

I had always thought that a gibbet was the device used to hang criminals, and in earlier times the term was used for exactly that. But gradually, the meaning changed. The gibbet was used, after the hanging had taken place.  Not for every hanging it’s true, but sometimes execution by hanging was not considered punishment enough. In order to deter others from committing the most awful crimes, the additional sanction of gibbeting was added to the sentence.

An aside

The “gibbet” in Halifax

Interestingly, the “Halifax Gibbet”, situated in Gibbet Street, Halifax, was actually an early form of a guillotine. It was last used in 1650, and the documentation is rather scanty, but  it was certainly used for execution. Who would have thought, a guillotine, used in England? There’s a replica in Halifax, on the site of the original.

For all to see 

Gibbet at Combe Gibbet, Berkshire

Back to our common gibbets: after execution, the body was placed into a cage made of iron bands or chains.  It was hoisted high onto a wooden frame, the gibbet. The iron casing was tailor-made for its poor guest. It was erected in a place where it could be viewed by all who passed by. The body would remain in the case for years, sometimes decades, until the wind and the weather did their worst. 

The “Hand of Glory”

Gradually, the body deteriorated into dust – but sometimes souvenir hunters gave a helping hand. Bits and pieces would be stolen. One thing especially valued was the criminal’s hand – called the Hand of Glory. Prized, because it could act as a charm to prevent victims from waking whilst being burgled. So, the corpse hands were especially valued by burglers. 

The term “hand of glory” comes from the French term, “main de gloire”, which itself derives from – mandragora, or mandrake. The mandrake is the root of a plant, much used in black magic. It resembles a man’s figure, and was said to scream when it was uprooted.

There is a real hand of glory, taken from a corpse in the museum in Whitby, if you’re ever there for a goth weekend. (I can recommend the Vampire Museum. It has “tableaux vivants” which means real people pose as waxworks, which scare you to death).

The site of the crime 

So – back to the gibbet – here’s the explanation for those out-of-the-way place names. The gibbet frame was purpose-built for a specific event. It  would be raised at or near the spot at which the crime was committed, or a site important to the victim. The criminal’s body was transported from the hanging place to the gibbet, which might be several miles away.

It was a brutal, but perhaps effective way for the authorities to make a very public display. It hammered home the lesson to any passing locals contemplating similar misdemeanors:  a very grisly end would be your fate. As Lord Halifax said in the 1700s, “men are not hanged for stealing a horse, but that  horses might not be stolen”.

So, in 1752, John Swan was hanged for murder in Walthamstow.  However, his corpse was displayed in a gibbet opposite the Bald Faced Stag inn in Buckhurst Hill in Essex, a drinking establishment favoured and frequented by his victim!  Poetic justice indeed. 

The more serious the crime….

Thankfully, gibbeting didn’t follow most hangings – it was only imposed for the most serious crimes. The bodies of offenders thought to be subversive and dangerous to the state have always been put on public display “pour encourager les autres”. Not only in England, but across the British Isles, Europe – and beyond – for thousands of years. You could argue that the Romans performed crucifictions for this very purpose. And remember what happened to the head of Oliver Cromwell

But in England at least,  gibbeting peaked during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Perhaps because we have more written accounts from then. But probably as  a result of “The Bloody Code”.

“The Bloody Code”

It’s the informal nickname given to the increase of capital offences in English law, in the eighteenth century. Between 1688 and 1776, the  number of offences for which you could be hanged increased from 50 to 220. Why? Probably because wealth had greatly increased during this period, at least for the ruling classes, with the acquisition of an empire. Ever more brutal sanctions were introduced for criminal offences, in an effort to protect property.

There was always the option of transportation for a first offence – originally to “The Thirteen Colonies” . But after the American War of Independence, conveniently, the newly-discovered land of Australia became the favoured place for miscreants.

Incidentally, it struck me, doing some background reading, how many transportees sneaked back to England. If and when they were re-captured, they were either transported abroad again – or hanged. Colonial life obviously did not suit all. Many were willing to take their chances, and return home.

The Murder Act

So, your chances of being hanged, especially if you were poor and desperate, increased considerably over the space of a hundred or so years. But if you were really unlucky, your body might be gibbeted as well. The law was formalised with the Murder Act in 1752. This  listed three crimes which were considered so bad, the judge had the option to order that the body be gibbeted. These were murder, highway robbery, and robbing the mail. 

The dissectionists

To add to the gruesomeness, an alternative to gibbeting was offered to the judge. This was to send the body for anatomical dissection. Medical science was in its infancy, and fresh cadavers were scarce, and hence highly valued. That’s why there were very few women gibbeted: female corpses available for dissection were few and far between. Judges could easily be induced to make sure that the few remains of female miscreants  ended up in those early medical schools.

But demand always outstripped supply. There were never enough corpses.  Where there is a demand, there is always a market. So, you see the rise of the body snatchers, like Burke and Hare.  They  would plunder newly-filled graves, in order to sell the corpses to the ravenous medical universities. 

Mural from Scottish pub wall

Things calmed down in 1832, with the passing of The Anatomy Act. This allowed any unclaimed body in a prison, or a workhouse, or a hospital, to be sent for dissection. So, the supply of corpses to the medical schools diverted from the criminal to the merely poor, and the supply increased. 

Public sites

Things were different in London, where  it wasn’t practical to erect gibbets at the location of the crimes committed. A rotting body in an iron cage at a very populous spot wasn’t considered a good thing for public health. Not even in the days before a full understanding of the causes of disease. And so, in London public hangings and gibbetings were held at designated public spots. These included Finchley Common, Shepherds Bush, and of course, the current Edgware Road, historically the hanging site of Tyburn.

A Good Day Out

And what increases the sense of horror is that hangings and gibbetings were considered  a good day out. In 1782, at the gibbeting of William Smith on Finchley Common, there were sausage, gin and gingerbread stalls set up, to add to the entertainment, for a crowd of forty thousand.

Even more bizarrely, in the 1840s, the new Thomas Cook  travel company, arranged trips to public hangings, in conjunction with their temperance trips to the seaside.

Where are your buccaneers?

Site of Execution Dock, Wapping


The fate of naval miscreants was even more horrific. There were specific locations where they were executed. In London, this was near to Wapping Stairs, on the banks of the Thames, at the site called Execution Dock.  

After hanging, the body of the pitiful sailor was tied to a post in the river, until three tides had washed over it.  The site of the post was near to the rear of the pub now called The City of Ramsgate. Allegedly, you can see the post at low tide, although I couldn’t  during my visit. 

The bodies were then put into iron casings, and transported to gibbets, erected at strategic sites along the Thames estuary. They were prominently placed so that they could be viewed by passing ships. Their crews would be in no doubt as to the fate that awaited them for mutiny or subordination. With true gallows humour, the swinging corpses were known as “Thames tassels”. 

Captain Kidd, gibbeted at Tilbury Point.

Captain Kidd, the infamous pirate, was executed at Wapping, tied to the stake for three tides, and then taken down river to Tilbury Point, where his corpse was exhibited for all passing ships to see.

The end of gibbeting

Gibbeting, and the corresponding public displays  gradually fell out of fashion, as society became more humane. The last gibbeting was in 1810 in Scotland, and 1832 in England. The last public execution in England  took  place in 1868. Of course,private hangings, behind the walls of England’s prisons didn’t end until 1964, when it was finally abolished. But that tale is for another post.

Hiding in plain sight

The clues are all there, in the place names dotted around the country. A multitude of Gibbet lanes, hills, commons.  Hangman’s corners and lanes, which must refer to the hanging gibbets, rather than the hangings themselves. The same with the many Gallows Tree corners, commons and lanes. 

You can see the actual iron gibbets themselves, in museums across the country, including at Norwich Castle.

And, most hidden of all, are the dozens of  English country lanes named after the people hung there in the gibbets.  In Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire for example, Tom Otter’s Lane, Robin Downs Lane  and Ralph’s Lane all  commemorate the criminals gibbeted at those spots.

If you find a local lane named after a person, don’t assume it’s commemorating a local fresh-faced farmer or yeoman: a little historical digging may unearth a far more grisly reason.

A good read

There is a very entertaining and well-researched book, if a little gory: The History of Gibbeting, Britain’s most Brutal Punishment, by Samantha Priestley.  It  describes in great detail many of the gibbetings which took place during the period of the Bloody Code. You can find it at Waterstones, or as an e-book on Google books, for a very reasonable price.


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gill

    Really informative and interesting. Loved hearing about local history.

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