Sunday, 11 August 2013




‘From Hull, From Halifax, from Hell, ‘tis thus, from all these three,  good Lord, deliver us.’  What does this old beggar’s litany mean?   Hull,  a port, refers to the ‘press gang,’  Hell is self explanatory,  whilst Halifax refers to ‘The Gibbet.’    Actually,  Gibbet is a misnomer  it was actually a guillotine!   This fiendish instrument of death fell into disuse in the mid-17th century, but the original base can be seen in Gibbet Street at Halifax in West Yorkshire, whilst the original blade can be seen in Bankfield Museum.

Gibbet Law meant harsh punishment for relatively minor offences in this area of the West Yorkshire Woollen District.   The rules were simple :

‘ If a felon be taken within the Liberty of Halifax, either handabend  ( with stolen goods in hand);  backharend  (with stolen goods on his back);  confessand  (admitted theft); to the value of thirteen and a half pence, he shall, after three markets, be taken to the gibbet and there have his head cut off from his body.’

This related especially to cloth which was the life-blood of the town.   When the cloth had been woven and then washed, it was hung outside on ‘tenterhooks’ and so was particularly vulnerable to theft.   The gibbet was first used in Halifax in 1286.

The last two men to be executed on the gibbet were Anthony Mitchell and John Wilkinson of Sowerby.  They were found guilty of stealing sixteen yards of russet coloured kersey cloth, value 9s from Luddenden Dean, and two colts value £5.8s from Durkar Green.   They were introduced to the gibbet on 30th April 1650, making a total of fifty recorded victims..    After the gibbet fell into disuse, the ground on which it stood gradually became a rubbish dump.  In 1839, workmen clearing the site found the base of the gibbet still intact and nearby they found the skeletons of two men with severed heads!

It was actually possible to escape from the gibbet!  If the accused could remove his head before the blade fell and then escape over Hebble Brook half a mile away, he was free, provided he never returned to the Liberty of Halifax.   The Running Man pub recalls that one man, John Lacy, managed to do just that but he made the mistake of returning to  The Liberty after seven years and was duly executed.

The Running Man pub at Halifax

Only the base of the gibbet remains in Gibbet Street.
The gibbet blade can be seen in  Bankfield Museum

No comments: