Having spent the last two weeks blogging about the disappearance of any visual symbols of execution in the North East, I felt a sudden urge to visit one of the only remaining relics. One of the life choices I made when I took up the PhD scholarship, was to sacrifice my car (not literally – having said that, for anyone who knew me, my car interior always looked like the site of a pagan ritual at the best of times). There are many plus sides to being forced to walk everywhere, as I have blogged on before, but one major downside is getting to any remote locations. So, when I heard my girlfriend say that she was clearing down a wedding in Otterburn on Sunday – she’s a florist, my PhD head kicked in and I remembered that was very near Winter’s gibbet. So, I politely asked/bullied her into taking me, in return for helping her clear the wedding and so it was, that last Sunday I found myself in a Nissan NV200 (a white van to you and I) with the dog along for the ride, heading deep into the Northumbrian Wilds.
As it happens, the only sites I haven’t visited yet are the sites of gibbets in the North East (can you guess what the next blogs will be). With a little inside knowledge, this is not surprising as gibbets were often placed at the scenes of crimes far from the central town locations of execution.¹ In the three instances that the gibbet was used in the North East (between 1752-1834) all were placed a considerable distance from the more central town locations of the executions themselves. (see below).
Executed: Robert Hazlett 1770 (the subject of next weeks blog)
Scene of Crime: Gateshead Fell
Execution Site: Durham, Dryburn
Gibbet: Beacon Lough, Gateshead Fell.
Distance from scene of crime to Gibbet: (c.1-2 miles – although impossible to pinpoint).
Distance from execution to Gibbet: c.11miles.
Executed: William Winter 1792
Scene of Crime: Raw Pele, near Elsdon
Execution Site: Westgate, Newcastle
Gibbet: Whiskershiel Common
Distance from scene of crime to gibbet: c.6miles
Distance from execution to Gibbet: c.35miles.
Executed: William Jobling 1832
Scene of Crime: South Shields
Execution Site: Durham County Court Steps, Durham
Gibbet: Jarrow Slake, Jarrow.
Distance from scene of crime to gibbet: c.1 mile
Distance from execution to Gibbet: c.20miles.
Gibbets were built at an imposing height, often 20-30ft high, to gain a prominence on the landscape and, more importantly, to make recovery of the body extremely difficult. In the case of Jobling, his gibbet was actually placed in a body of water (Jarrow Slake) and the structure was daily covered and revealed by the tides. Despite this, and a seven-year sentence for attempted recovery,his body was stolen, presumed by friends, never to be recovered.
But more on Jobling another week, one gibbet a week is plenty enough for any blog! Despite my research and numerous websites with rough approximations of its location, we had several false starts in our search for Winter’s gibbet (say what you want about Google Maps, but their coverage of archaic symbols of punishment is woeful). We weren’t exactly helped by the less than detailed local map in Elsdon.
As it happened, all our delays worked out perfectly as we stumbled on the site in what, I believe, photographers call the “golden hour” and the light was spectacular. Perhaps nighttime would have been a more appropriate hour to have encountered this symbol, as my initial impression was not fear but of the rugged beauty of the Northumbrian Wilds.
The Structure itself was situated on top of a steep hill, opposite Harwood Forest, above 100 yards from the main road. To the right of the base of the gibbet there was the base of a Stone Cross (Steng Cross). It’s proximity to this cross base, may be a relic of a common medieval practice, as shown by recent research,
“Archaeologists and landscape historians have noted the widespread medieval practice of executing criminals on or adjacent to archaeological features, especially prehistoric burial mounds (e.g. Whyte 2003; Reynolds 2009; Meurkens 2010). In the post-medieval period such practices are not widely known in the British Isles, although there are a couple of examples. The murderer Loseby was hung in chains on top of a tumulus on the Watling Street Road, about 4 miles from Rugby. Thetumulus was subsequently destroyed in the construction of the Daventry to Lutterworth turnpike in the late eighteenth century (Bloxam 1875).”
Tarlow and Dyndor, “The Landscape of the Gibbet,” 79.
The landscape appeared little changed and was as wild, raw and exposed as contemporary reports stated. It’s exposed nature meant we were constantly buffeted by high winds the whole time we were there. This is no doubt the same wind that led to stories abounding of,
creaking chains and the stench from the gibbet alarming passing travellers and it is said that it became necessary to draw the rotting remains of Winter’s body into a sack and eventually the remnants were buried by shepherds somewhere nearby.
B.Redfern Winter’s Gibbet papers. Kindly donated to Newcastle Central Library.
Testament to the power of the wind can be seen all around the Northumbrian landscape, with vast turbines peppering many hillsides. I have never quite understood the public aversion to wind turbines, I have only ever been struck by their beauty. You only need to look at pylons to see how unsightly energy infrastructure can be, so I think we should be grateful for them. However, I realise this is not a view widely shared (as we will see later) and it is to this point that I’ll now turn. Just before though, here’s a quick summary of the Winter case as I know that my flights of fancy may not be what the average reader wants from this blog. For a full and detailed account, the oft-mentioned Barry Redfern has dedicated a large part of his life to detailing the intricacies of the case and very generously donated the Winter’s Gibbet Papers to Newcastle Central Library for public consumption.
William Winter was executed on 10th August, 1792 for the murder, arising from an attempted burglary, of Margaret Crozier. Crozier was an elderly lady who lived in the Raw (a bastle house three miles North of Elsdon now farm outbuildings). She kept a small shop for travellers and neighbours. On the night of 29th August, 1791, she fell victim to a brutal burglary and ultimately fatal attack by William Winter and two female accomplices (Eleanor and Jane Clarke). Winter was notorious in the area and was in fact, not the first member of his family to face the gallows as local c19th Historian Eneas MacKenzie wrote,
The gang to which he (Winter) belonged long inhabited the wastes of Northumberland. John and Robert Winter, father and son, were desperate robbers; but, in 1788, they were apprehended for breaking open the house of William Charlton, Esq. of Hesleyside. Being convicted at the assizes, they were executed at Morpeth on August 6th in that year. At their death, they testified the most brutal want of feeling, fear, or compunction. William Winter, another son of the hoary offender, was such a fearless depredator, that, during the last eighteen years of his life, he had not been at liberty six months together.
Footnote by Editor Eneas MacKensie in James THOMPSON (of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.) et al., A New, Improved, and Authentic Life of James Allan, the Celebrated Northumberland Piper; … Collected … by J. Thompson, with … Notes by E. Mackenzie, … and Illustrated … by (R.) Cruikshank (Mackenzie and Dent, 1828), 250–251.
It is astonishing really, given the limited number of people executed in the North East, how many were related. Small crime families make up roughly 10% of all the executions between 1752-1878.
Initially, William Winter and the Clarke women were both sentenced to be hung at the Westgate, Newcastle, and then dissected. However, as I have discussed in a previous blog, Winter’s post-death punishment was changed to gibbeting or Hanging in Chains as the public records show.
“Shall be hung in chains on some conspicuous part of Whiskershiel Common at a distance of one hundred yards from the Turnpike Road leading to Elsdon.
Northern Circuit Minute Book 1789-1810(Public Record Office Access No. ASSI 42/12)
Winter’s gibbet was constructed on nearby Whiskershiel Common and remarkably remains to this day. It is this remarkable longevity to which I will now turn.
Of the three gibbets in the North East, Winter’s far outlasted the others. This is largely owing to repeated efforts to, as historians Rushton and Morgan have stated, ‘lovingly restore’ it.¹ The current structure that I saw on Sunday looked brand new and was the latest incarnation of a structure that has undergone multiple renovations, to the point where it is better understood as a reproduction. Numerous early accounts of its decay and repair have been tracked by Redfern, such as this account from 1825
This loathsome spectacle (i.e. Winter’s Gibbet) at length fell into pieces and another gibbet, on which the rude figure of a man is suspended, occupies its place.
Eneas Mackenzie, An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland, and of Those Parts of the County of Durham Situated North of the River Tyne, with Berwick Upon Tweed, and Brief Notices of Celebrated Places on the Scottish Border. … (Mackenzie and Dent, 1825).
However, its latest incarnation is perhaps its most interesting. In 1867 local Magistrate and owner of Wallington Hall, Walter Trevelyan, ordered a replica to be built on his land. There is a strong local feeling, which Redfern believes is supported by OS map records, to say that Trevelyan moved the site 30 to 40 yards south of the original site, to allow it to fall within the boundary of his land. So what, was Trevelyan’s interest in this macabre relic? A clue can be found in a report of Winter’s execution.
Much praise is due to the worthy magistrate who with such laudable zeal interested himself in bringing to condign punishment these perpetrators of this barbarous deed. The Country has on many occasions experienced the good effects of his endeavours to extirpate the nefarious gang of strollers which have so long infested the County of Northumberland.
Newcastle Courant Saturday 11th August 1792 taken from B.Redfern, Winter’s Gibbet Papers (Newcastle Central Library).
The ‘laudable magistrates’ name? Trevelyan.
Over 200 years after its original creation, Winter’s Gibbet is now a listed building and its preservation continues to be a source of contention.² At a meeting of Elsdon Parish Council, the following discussion occurred,
Cllr Tait spoke about a conversation she had with Sally Richards (General Manager of Wallington Estate). It concerned the fact there appeared to be no plan to replace the ‘head’ on Winters Gibbet. The reason was that it had been vandalised on previous occasions. There was agreement that many visitors to the area asked for directions to the site and wanted to see the gibbet in a complete state with the ‘head’. It was agreed the Clerk should write to Ms Richards asking for the ‘head’ to be replaced and offering the possibility of Elsdon raising funds if required via EPIC.
As the pictures attest to the head has not been replaced and the latest Council meeting notes, attest to the fact that after 2 letters having been unreplied to, the radical suggestion of phoning Wallington estate was made. We wait with baited breath! whoever, said the “camel was a horse designed by a committee” had it right.
In 2011 Air Farmers Ltd submitted plans for wind turbines to be built beside Winter’s Gibbet. The plans caused uproar and led to the formation of the Middle Hill Action Group. Tempers reached a pitch when one of the developers referred to the Winter’s Gibbet as ‘nothing more than Victorian Disneyland’ leaving Councillor Steven Bridgett, who represents Elsdon on Northumberland County Council, apoplectic:
“I was absolutely flabbergasted at what was said on some occasions, I nearly drew blood from having to bite my tongue at times. This gentlemen sat and talked to us like we were nothing more than a bunch of country bumpkins, and I take great exception to that….I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The proposal is to build these colossal turbines within metres of both the Winter’s Gibbett which is Grade II listed and within metres of the National Park boundary and this gentleman had a complete disregard for both of them.
One can’t help wondering what William Winter would think of all this. To quote Bob Dylan, the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.
As I write this, I am sat in Gateshead Central Library – searching maps for next weeks blog about the gibbet of Hazlett the Highwayman. Imagine my suprise when I stumbled across an exhibition here (LOUD!) of “artwork from prisons, secure hospitals, secure children’s homes and probation services in North East England. As if that wasn’t odd enough, I stumbled across this work called ‘A Winter Walk.’
1).Morgan and Rushton, Rogues, Thieves And the Rule of Law, 2005,
2). Winter’s Gibbet and Adjacent Crossbase of Steng Cross – Hollinghill – Northumberland – England | British Listed Buildings,” accessed February 8, 2016, http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-236265-winter-s-gibbet-and-adjacent-crossbase-o#.Vri_qjaLRE4.
Distraction 1: Valentine’s
Nothing like a Valentine’s plug on a blog about death, but I’m nothing if not eclectic. My partner is a fantastic florist based in Newcastle‘s Ouseburn district and as it’s Valentine’s this weekend I thought what better time to promote her amazing work. So, Newcastle based lovers you have been tipped off – get your orders in and if flowers aren’t your thing – she is the exclusive supplier in the North East for Danish homewares Company Hubsch. And if neither of them interest you then how about floral dog collars (see our dog Remy above, don’t ask! – poor thing, what with gibbets and floral grooming he has a strange old life).
I got an early valentine’s present this week, when my girlfriend took me to see John Grant at the Sage Gateshead. I wasn’t aware of his music, but it was a fantastic gig and i’ll now be waxing lyrical about him to everyone I See.
Distraction 2: Social Haunting.
This week a very dear friend of mine and former University flatmate, Max Munday, put out a fascinating AHRC funded documentary on the concept of Social Haunting. This was a new theory to me and was applied to the Co-Operative movement particularly around Rochdale and South Yorkshire. Now, I must state here that both this theory and the history of the Co-Operative movement are not my strong suits, but I found the project and the idea very interesting. Put simply the theory behind Social Haunting is that it seeks to find,
some of the hidden stories, tensions and possibilities that hide in the cracks in the history of the co-operative movement.
In a sense it was an attempt to see if ‘history’ previously presumed neglected or dormant, had an untapped potential in current society. Although I found the theory a little watery, I think there is definite merit in the notion of a sort of social scarring having a deep-rooted and long-lasting effect on society. How could I not, having written a blog where a Parish Council in 2015 is debating how best to renew its gibbet, from 1792!