The Gallows Hills of England cover

The Gallows Hills of England

Explore the eerie remnants of England's Gallows Hills, where the bodies of criminals once hung in chains as a grim warning to others. Uncover chilling tales like Busby's cursed chair and the ghostly hauntings of Gibbet Hill. These macabre sites continue to fascinate and terrify, shrouded in history and legend.

The haunting sites where criminals were hanged on public gibbets

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Gallows Hill, Skidby, East Riding of Yorkshire, England.(Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbeting (also ‘Hanging in Chains’): a gallows from which the dead – or dying bodies of criminals were hanged on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. Also used as a method of public execution, with the criminal being left to die of exposure, thirst and/or starvation. (Wikipedia)

There are a great many Gallows Hills in England, probably running into the dozens; places where the gibbets were set up to warn of the deadly penalty for many crimes in Ye Olde Days. Some, I’m quite sure, would be happy to bring them back though, both here and further afield, 'pour encourager les autres', as the saying goes.

The locations are often very evocative, and, if on your own, pretty eerie, such as this one near where I currently abide, at least two only 20 minutes away – although one may actually be miss attributed as gibbet-places due to their aspect and are Neolithic remains:

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Ivinghoe Beacon Barrow Alternative Name: Gallows Hill (Wikimedia Commons)
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Galley Hill in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire (Patrick Comerford)

A few chilling stories related to the practice of gibbeting:

Busby’s Cursed Chair

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The Busby Stoop Inn, North Yorkshire (Wikimedia Commons)

The Busby Stoop Inn boasts the macbre sight of the noose and gallows on the front of this otherwise welcoming tavern.

Former landlord Thomas Busby, was a drunk, bully, and general scoundrel. One day in 1702, Busby lost his temper and bludgeoned his father-in-law to death, either over kind of counterfeiting racket fallout, or his caddish treatment of the wife. Busby was sentenced to be hung on the other side of the crossroads from his pub, his body gibbetted and left to rot there. But before his execution, however, Busby was allowed to have a final bevy. Rising from his favourite chair he cursed the seat, saying any who parked their backside in it would endure a premature and violent death. Charming.

Across the centuries, some fools (and others) have taken in their heads to sit Busby’s chair, and all have supposedly fallen prey to his malediction. Tricked by his colleagues into sitting on the seat, a builder shortly afterwards fell through the roof of the house he was working on and bashed his skull open . During WWII, some Canadian airmen dared each other to sit on the chair – soon after, their plane crashed, killing everyone.

A former landlord as a result hid the chair in the cellar. But one day a tired beer delivery man spotted the seat and decided to take a rest on it. Predictably his lorry soon crashed, killing him. The chair now abides in nearby Thirsk museum, high on a wall to deter those tempted to use it as Olde Worlde suicide booth. But some said that the seat’s machine-turned spindles date it to after to 1840, 138 years after Busby's execution. So his recliner might still be around, waiting for the posterior of its next victim.

The Busby Stoop Inn is now an Indian restaurant called Jaipur Spice, but the shade of Busby has still be seen lurking there, grimacing evilly at the curry-scarfing, lager-quaffing customers.

Gibbet Hill, Coventry

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Gnarled tree, Gibbet Hill (Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbet Hill (or Gallows Hill as it was originally known) lies on the outskirts of Coventry and was used as a place of execution only once. In 1765, three soldiers of Lord’s Pembroke’s Regiment of Dragoons (some say two soldiers and one weaver), Robert Leslie, Edward Drury and Moses Baker (who may have been the weaver) wearing disguises, mugged three yokels returning from the Coventry market. One of these – Thomas Edwards from Stoneleigh, died. The trio were arrested, found guilty at Warwick Assizes and sentenced to hang until dead at Gibbet Hill.

The judge ordered that the men “be hung in chains on Stoneleigh Common, above Wenbury Wood, by the Three Mile Stone”. After being hanged, the bodies were taken down, tarred, fettered in metal suits and rehung, remaining there for the next 45 years. The gibbet itself was still standing in 1822. IAfter being taken down, some souvenirs made from the wood, and the main structure recycled in a nearby farm building. Uh-oh. No surprise then as for many years stories of hauntings and strange sights were common in the area. Old Gallow Hill then became known as Gibbet Hill, continuing to remind all of its grisly history. Along with the ghostly rattling of the murderers’ chains.

Local folklore recounts that Coventry soothsayers at the time claimed that if a hare ran out from under the scaffold, a reprieve would be on the way from Warwick Assizes. Word about the prophecy got around and the spectators watched for the hare, which indeed popped up when the three arrived for their executions. As the crowd (who knew of the prophecy) grew restive , the sheriff was forced by circumstances to delay the hanging, sending a messenger to Warwick ask whether there was indeed a reprieve. But there was not, so they all carked it.

In a local pub after the event, a bet was placed on whether anyone would have the courage to approach the gibbet and ask its three occupants how they were doing. Some clod took said wager. Late that evening, in the dark, cold, rainy night, he asked of the gibbet occupants, “How be you three?” to which they replied , “very wet and cold”. The brave fellow understandably fled in terror, only to discover that it had been one of chums from the pub, hiding in a bush. B*astard.

Winter’s Gibbet

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Winter's Gibbet (Wikimedia Commons)

Murderer, wanderer and highwayman, William Winter’s body hung on the lonely Northumberland gibbet until it rotted away. After that, his bones were scattered, though his skull was sent to one Mr Darnell in Newcastle. Winter’s shade is said to haunt the surrounding moorlands, causing sudden thick fogs and of appearing to startle rustic types and tourists at a nearby cattle grid.

It’s said you can cure toothache by cutting a splinter off the gibbet and rubbing where there was pain. Objects associated with executions were believed to have magical or healing properties – a hanged man’s clothing or filleted skin were prized as talismans. Some rascals thought that the mitt of an executed felon – known as a Hand of Glory – could entrance victims into a deep sleep. That the current Winter’s Gibbet is a replica doesn’t seem to have dented its fame for curing dental distress, as some oafs still chip bits off… The head suspended from his Steng Cross Gibbet (built on the remains of an ancient Saxon cross) is made of concrete; there was once a entire body, but ignorant locals used to shoot at the figure or steal it for peasant japery, so it was taken away with only the noggin remaining.

The Last Days of Gibbeting and Public Gallows

Gibbeting was always a controversial practice. Complaints abounded regarding the stench and sight of the decaying corpses. To stop the burial of those hanged, gibbet posts were made so high to make retrieving them difficult; some also had nails sticking out to discourage attempts to cut the corpses down.

Diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) and others expressed their repellence at the practice and sentiments grew as The Age of Enlightenment kicked in. Doubts were voiced about what the moral effects of public gibbeting could be; such as the case, a 16-year-old lass who invited a friend to picnic beneath a gibbet and gave her poisoned cake, to pay her back for getting the job she wanted.

The last public gibbetings in England were those of Jarrow miner William Jobbing, and James Cook, a Leicester bookbinder, both in 1832. Jobbing was soon cut down by his fellow miners and buried decently. Cook’s body was taken down by the authorities after a few days, due to disgusted complaints from those who neighboured the site. Gibbeting was abolished two years later in 1834.

But public hangings continued, often large-scale events, drawing thousands of onlookers; Charles Dickens, wrote a letter to The Times, condemning the, ‘wickedness and levity of the immense crowd … The horrors of the gibbet and of the crimes which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language of the assembled spectators.’ He called many who attended the executions, ‘thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind’ indulging in ‘every variety of offensive and foul behaviour … fightings, faintings, whistlings … brutal jokes’ with ‘tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight.’

From 1868, hangings were confined to being conducted behind prison walls. The UK’s final (to date) official hangings took place in 1964 – Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen.

In Orson Welles’ Othello (1951), Iago (Micheál Mac Liammóir) is condemned to be gibbeted.

But the continuing fascination with the places has led to several gibbets being reconstructed in England, confirming (to some) the intensely morbid sensibility of the nation:

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Berkshire’s Combe Gibbet replica (Wikimedia Commons)
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Gallows-style gibbet at Caxton Gibbet, Cambridgeshire, England (Wikimedia Commons)
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Wapping gibbet, by the Thames (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Swinburne Arms Gibbet Erected Sunday 7th March 2010 by Mr Peter Athey (Wikimedia Commons)
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The Bilstone Gibbet, Leicestershire (Wikimedia Commons)
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The memorial cross on the site of the gallows at Gibbet Hill, Hindhead, Surrey (Wikimedia Commons)

And even commemorative plaques:

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Wikimedia Commons

A View from a Hill

During a walk through the countryside with the Squire, inquisitive historian Fanshawe looks at a plain field through the cursed binoculars and spots an abbey which is invisible other than through the glasses. Next to it is Gallows Hill, where people were hanged.

The 2023 BBC Two series:

Stephen Arnell’s historical novel, THE GREAT ONE, is now available on Amazon Kindle:

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