Don’t lose your head

Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark in the 2015 TV series
The Halifax Gibbet


The latest lockdown has allowed me to rediscover films and TV programmes that I enjoyed in the past and my current favourite is the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. What strikes me about Captain Poldark is that despite being a nobleman, unlike his wealthy contemporaries, he champions the poor and the deprived, and recognises that poverty and starvation are often the true drivers behind criminal behaviour. 

One such storyline involved a young husband who had to support his wife, child and mother, but had no income due to fact that the local mine had closed. He resorted to risking his life by taking game from the local aristocrat’s land to feed his family. In the late 1700s, when the story is set, landowners had to the right to demand capital punishment for anyone caught poaching on their property. The young man paid a very high price for feeding his family. 

This severest of punishment is a topic discussed in my dad’s column from 24th January 1981 when he talks about the Halifax Gibbet. This fearsome contraption was a precursor to the favourite of the French Revolution, the guillotine. The Halifax Gibbet consisted of two tall wooden struts with one wooden block on the ground which would support a criminal’s head, and another bigger block with an axe head embedded in it held aloft by ropes secured by a wooden peg. When the peg was removed, the block plummeted downwards.

The origins of the Halifax Gibbet are lost, so we are not sure when it was first constructed, although there is a written record of something very similar from an account in the ‘High History of the Holy Grail’, a complex tale from the early 13th century that charts the progress of various knights of the Round Table. Although it is fictional, it is believed the description was taken from real life.

The first recorded beheading in Halifax took place in 1280, but it is not known whether that was by sword, axe or gibbet, but by the 16th century, beheadings by the gibbet were common. The first person to be recorded as being subjected to it was a Richard Bentley, from Sowerby, who was executed on 20th March 1541, although the contraption was believed to have been used for many, many years before records began. 

According to an ancient custom in Halifax, the Lord of the Manor had the right to decapitate anyone who was caught, or who confessed to, stealing goods on his land over the value of 13 and half pence.

If the felon was able to escape over the boundary, he couldn’t be pursued. However, if they ever returned, then they would be still subject to the punishment. In fact a man called John Lacey achieved such a feat in 1617 and remained at liberty for seven years until he thought he’d be able to come home safely. Unfortunately for him, the punishment was not forgotten and was ultimately carried out. The Running Man pub, still found in Pellon Lane, Halifax, pays tribute to his escapade. 

By 1650, public opinion had turned against such drastic punishment for petty theft and Oliver Cromwell prohibited it. The last to suffer the blade of the Halifax Gibbet were John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchel who died on April 30th1650.

The gibbet was dismantled and the site neglected over following couple of centuries, until it was dug up again in 1839. The original stone base was discovered, as was the deathly axe blade which was rescued and can now be seen in nearby Bankfield Museum. A replica has been erected on the original plinth, and still stands at the end of Gibbet Street in the town. A nearby plaque lists the names of all those known to have met their end at that spot.

The Halifax Gibbet was one of the most feared instruments of execution in the country, as were the gibbets of Hull that resided by the river’s edge. Felons would be strapped to them and drowned as the tidal waters of the Humber advanced. Thus sprang up the following saying: “From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the Good Lord deliver us.”

Unfortunately, unless we live nearby, we can’t visit these two notable Yorkshire towns at the moment, but at least when it is possible again, we will no longer have to fear being strapped to a gibbet! 

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 29th January and the Gazette & Herald on 27th January 2021

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