So, having first detailed the crimes, trial and execution of the highwayman Robert Hazlett and last week mapped the location of his gibbet site, this week I finally set off to see what, if anything, remains.
I took my starting point as Gateshead Central Library and headed South East. I swiftly met the Old Durham Road (see opening image), the ancient spine of Gateshead, that was the main turnpike road from Durham to Newcastle for centuries. This was the main thoroughfare until 1824 when work commenced on a “New branch of the turnpike-road from Tyne-Bridge, to Durham, in order to avoid the Long Bank.”
This new road is what is now known as Durham Road and was built about a mile west of the old turnpike road and roughly parallel to it. It was a combination of this new road and the private housing from the Land Enclosure Act of 1809, mentioned last week, that kickstarted the rapid urbanisation and gentrification of a previously sprawling, pit straddled moorland.
‘Aw say, lads, hae ye heard what they’re gannan te dee.
wi’ the road frae Newcassel te Lunnen?
They’ll shift it, they say, if the grit folks can ‘gree,
Where the coaches will flee ‘stead o’ runnin.
Lubin Level, Stanzas on the Intended New Line of Road, from Potticar Lane to Leyburn Hole: With an Account of the Memorable Events Which Have Occurred on Gateshead Fell ; and Additional Notes by the Publisher (J. Sykes, 1825), 11.
The road out of Gateshead is a tough hike, steadily (and occasionally rapidly) steepening. A lengthy and testing walk at the best of times, let alone at a processional pace and in the fine liveries of state. Pretty soon, the Old Durham Road becomes the Sheriff’s Highway, a name that is a remnant of the elaborate processions made by the Judges of the Assize (Courts) on their way to oversee criminal trials. The arriving Judges would be met by a delegation from Newcastle headed by the Sheriff, who would be accompanied by Bailiffs, trumpeters, gentlemen and yeomen. A later example of a similar coach as the ones the Judges would travel in, used in Durham in the late 1940’s, can be seen here.
(Monday August 17th, 1767) Hylton Lawton Esq. High Sheriff for the county of Northumberland made his procession from the Moothall in this town to the usual place of meeting the Judges of Assize in their way hither, accompanied by a great number of the principal gentlemen of this and adjacent counties.- And John Hedley Esq; Sheriff of this town, was on the same occasion honoured with a numerous company, who attended him to the blue stone on the bridge, (the limits of the county,) in order to pay the usual compliments of respect to the Judges on their arrival.
Newcastle Journal Saturday August 22nd, 1767
James Boswell, writing at Carlisle on 21st August, 1778, detailed his experience of riding with the assize delegation from Newcastle to Carlisle. The Judge himself was, “not a popular man” and consequently was “but poorly attended”, having as he did under “twenty Javelin men, and few Gentlemen.” Boswell noted that the occasions were often far grander,
An old Gentleman of the county, Mr Appleby Dacre, told him that when he was Sherif (sic) he was attended by 250 Javelin men, whose liveries cost £3 a piece, so that the cost of that alone was seven hundred.
Boswell Papers. Isham Collection. Vol XIII, p.137 seq cited in Sir Frank Douglas MacKinnon, On Circuit, 1924-1937 (CUP Archive, 1940), 31–32.
These delegations of Judges would’ve passed in plain view of Hazlett’s Gibbet.
There were minor changes to the meeting sites over time, writing in the 1820’s E.Mckenzie noted that
The Sheriff of Northumberland still goes in procession to the New Cannon, on the Low Fell, to receive the judges of assize on their northern circuit. Formerly, the procession halted at Sheriff Hill, or the sign of the Cannon, on the old road.
Clearly executing justice was a thirsty business. Instances exist in the records of criminals on their way to facing the gallows at Tyburn, being handed ale by members of the crowd or stopping mid procession at a public house. This is not really in evidence so much in the North East, but certain numbers of the crowd were often ‘in drink.’
By and large, the procession route remained relatively unchanged until, with the rise of the railways, it became illogical to travel by road.
(of 1845) The custom of escorting the Assize Judges from Sheriff Hill, near Gateshead with elaborate ceremony was one of the first to go. Ralph Carr (later Carr-Ellison) was the last High Sheriff to set off, accompanied by Bailiffs, trumpeters, gentlemen and yeomen, to meet the Judges. The next year, 1846, the Judges came by train and were met at the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway Station.
Bill Purdue, Newcastle: The Biography (Amberley Publishing Limited, 2012).
The area itself where the meeting took place has now become a Designated ‘Conservation Area’.
The Conservation Area is situated in an elevated position with commanding views over the Tyne valley. It is based around a crossroads, where Sheriff’s Highway, Windy Nook Road and Church Road meet St. John’s Church. It includes a mixture of early and mid 19th century buildings, turn of the 20th century villas in large gardens, early flat-roofed houses and a wooded setting.
Tyne and Wear HER(11880): Sheriff Hill Conservation Area – Details
After a gruelling uphill walk (can you tell I’m not fit!) the road plateaus out at the topographic peak.
Just before that, I decided to treat myself with a short break at Barry’s Bakers & Confectioners, not strictly staying within my period but at £0.80 for a sausage roll and a can of coke they seemed to be selling at c18th prices.
So, having reached the peak and partaken of some nourishment, I sat down to assess where I was in relation to Hazlett’s gibbet.
Below is an 1819 map of the Parish Boundaries and, below that, a modern day comparison. If you look at the middle of the first image you can see Windy Nook road, bisecting the Old Durham Road. On the left of the image there is a marked ‘New Church Yard’, this was St John’s Church which still stands today, built as one of the stipulations of the 1809 Enclosure Act, mentioned last week. Comparing both maps you will notice how the main features of the route are still with us. Just below Windy Nook Road, on the other side of Durham Road, you can see Beacon Hill, but no mention of Hazlett’s pond or gibbet.
An 1877 map, bears further fruit.
On the 1877 map, we can see ‘Heslop’s Pond’, a derivation of Hazlett’s positioned exactly in line with maps from previous blogs. The side by side Modern Google map with the 1877, shows the marking of Whitehouse Lane (Sundew Road above is not present in 1877) and the outlines of Beacon Lough Plantation bear remarkable similarities to the trees to the right of the Bluebell Court area on the (top left of the Google image).
So, from the uppermost point of the Sheriff’s Highway crossroads, I headed down the steep incline to Beacon Lough. It is ironic in the search for a totemic structure on a Gateshead hill, how many you encounter on the way. The first thing you pass on your left is a large Wireless Transmission Station and associated transmitter tower-communication Tower (pictures below). As you follow the road downhill, you are then met on your left, by the imposing structures of Beacon Lough Estate. Consisting of three imposing high rise flats, the mid 60’s constructions dominate the landscape. There is a left turn that skirts off and upwards behind the high rises and leads you to a power station and the aforementioned communication tower.
From up by the Transmitter station, if you look South the three high rise flats are nestled into a steep hill that leads into open grassland – Beacon Hill Plantation. The words of the Reverend James Murray were immediately brought to mind.
The place where Hazlett hangs is the finest place in the world for the walk of a ghost. At the foot of a wild, romantic mountain, near the side of a small lake, are his remains. His shadow appears in the water, and suggests the idea of two malefactors. The imagination may easily conjure up his ghost.” Yes! the imagination is a great wonder-worker. But in the present day, when everybody -steams over Loch Lamond and rambles among ‘The Lakes’ the tourist will be disposed to smile over the “wild romantic mountain” and the “lake” on Gateshead Fell !
Just two and a half centuries after Hazlett’s body hung in a metal gibbet as a symbol of the power of the state, I stood atop of the site of Beacon Hill and looked down to the foot of this ‘wild romantic mountain’ and saw a collection of striking metal objects. What exists in its place is a children’s playground, built with the support of Gateshead Council. If ever there were two more diametrically opposed features on a landscape, I don’t know of them.
So, what have we learnt? Firstly, Hazlett’s gibbet and all the signs thereof have long since disappeared from the landscape. However, the surroundings have not changed all that much. Where his body once hung as a haunting spectacle to passers-by, there now sits three high-rise flats and a children’s playground. In the landscape, the flats stand as a sort of symbolic reminder of the brutal totem that hung heavy over the Fell. The playground in their wake a perfect nod to a society that has moved away from a system of public punishment rituals.
We have also seen that the main thoroughfare through which all travel from the south to Newcastle and beyond would’ve led is still very much in its original form, even several of the connecting roads still remain the same. The dramatic change to the landscape came from the 1809 Enclosure Act and privatisation of previously common land which ultimately led to the removal of Hazlett’s gibbet – A finding in line with other locations.  Finally, we have learnt that the man who purchased the land and ultimately drained and filled in the pond over which Hazlett’s remains hung, Michael Hall, was later to become the second Mayor of Gateshead.
In its absence, it is hard to understand the impact of a structure like Hazlett’s Gibbet. Or is it? Perhaps for the people of Gateshead not so much. In fact, they need only to walk a few miles south down the New Durham Road, to picture a human form, encased in metal, dominating a prominent part of the landscape.
 Nicola Whyte, “The Deviant Dead in the Norfolk Landscape,” Landscapes 4, no. 1 (April 1, 2003): 24–39, doi:10.1179/lan.2003.4.1.24.
. Lubin Level, Stanzas on the Intended New Line of Road, from Potticar Lane to Leyburn Hole: With an Account of the Memorable Events Which Have Occurred on Gateshead Fell ; and Additional Notes by the Publisher (J. Sykes, 1825), 9.
Distraction 1: In Plain Sight
In a week all about figures that have marked the social landscape, I went to a talk at Newcastle’s Live Theatre with authors Dan Davies and Andrew Hankinson, in which their discussed their respective books on Jimmy Saville and Raoul Moat. These were both books I have on my to-read list, so I cannot proffer a review of either, but both have been widely lauded.
Davies’ work had a strange resonance with me as his fascination with Jimmy Saville started when he went to see Jim’ll Fix It as a young man. I was a huge fan of the programme and my mum managed to get me tickets to the show, for my 10th birthday, and we got to backstage and meet Jimmy. Bizarrely, I have no real memory of the day or the recording, other than I seem to recall a kid got to play the drums with his favourite band, the White Angels?. To be perfectly honest, the day largely passed me by, but for Davies his encounter was to spark a lifetime of following a man who fascinated him. He was convinced that Saville was not all he seemed, but his quest to uncover the real Jim led him to spend inordinate amounts of time with his subject, occasionally staying over at his house and in one instance going on a cruise with him. Davies’ insight into the man was remarkable and I was glad to hear that he found the pronouncements of the Dame Janet Smith’s report as dubious as I did. I think when the comprehensive histories of the late 90’s and early 00’s are written, they will show us how inquiries were where all our dirty secrets were buried. The idea that no-one at the BBC knew what was going on is astonishing. It put me in mind of the fabulous The Thick of It, when Hugh Abbott MP is facing the sack for having an unoccupied second flat and in the end the problem goes away when the PM launches an inquiry. The scene when Hugh and his team find out there’s to be an inquiry says it all. (link below 18m 20 – 20mins).