I'm in two minds.... which is pretty good actually, since it's often more.... whether the gibbet which surmounts the long barrow upon Inkpen Hill adds to, or detracts from a visit to the monument. Now I guess we all possess a certain interest in the macabre, something which needs to be satiated every now and then (hopefully not too often) by reminders of how brutal society once used to be. Still is in certain countries, of course. Perhaps this represents remnants of the relish ordinary people had for gladitorial games, public executions, even bear baiting and other completely uncivilised activities. Sure, we like to think we are well past that... but also perhaps worry that it still resides within to some degree. Dunno. Yeah, I know the massive public execution device which looms above this monument to the dead isn't original - not unless one thinks in terms of 'original' as applied to Trigger-out-of-Only-Fools-and-Horses' broom (with five new heads and ten new handles) - but what it represents still has the power to unsettle/disturb the visitor. Even if the only thing currently 'strung up' is a half empty cola bottle. Perhaps some wag is making a very witty, cutting point? Perhaps not.
Now - unlike the Mam C - I've been here before, but the impact is still intense, particularly with a biting wind swirling around the hilltop and mist beginning to do likewise as dusk starts to close in. Clearly the fact that the long barrow was chosen as the base of the gibbet was no accident... being situated upon the most visible part of the hill, and no doubt the object of much local folklore for millennia, there really was no other choice for maximum deterrent value. Just try NOT looking at it and imagining what went on here. Which is precisely the problem.... people come here to do just that, drop their litter, let their dogs do what dogs do and generally not give two hoots that this is actually a rather fine Neolithic long barrow.
Aye, that it is. Set in a perfect position in the landscape, with stunning views to north and south, the rather impressive Walbury Hill hillfort to approx south-east and - surely - an ancient ridgeway track to west, it is only the aforementioned litter which detracts from a great hang at what is a fine, substantial example of such a monument. Ha! I've just got the pun, which was actually unintended, believe it or not... of course the greatest distraction of all - by far - is the wacking great reminder of past judicial systems towering above one's head. Hmm. With darkness upon us we decide to beat a hasty retreat to the car.... not that we're scared or anything, you understand?
A bizarre place to find such a gruesome reminder of popular justice (or not) from not that long ago, it has to be said. I guess the siting of the gibbet just goes to show how adept Neolithic people were at making their monuments the focal point of the landscape.....
Not a bad long barrow, either, with far reaching views and Walbury hillfort close at hand to boot.
[Note, however, that the hillfort is an official 'nature reserve', so if you want to walk the perimeter you'll have to do a bit of 'naughty, naughty'].
The black legend is the tale of forbidden love, a femme fatale, exposed passion and a multiple murder.
Crafted by a Hollywood icon into a 1940's silent black and white movie, the story told by a young John Schlesinger and Alan Cooke contains the same sinful mix of ingredients found in such film noir classics like The postman always knocks twice.
Unlike the pulp fiction penned by Raymond Chandler, this eternal triangle of temptation, lust and homicide, was not played out on the backstreets of some depression hit U.S. city, but on top of the highest and most sacred hill on the Wiltshire Berkshire border.
After 333 years of damnation, have the murdered or murderers' found peace in this ancient landscape?
As with any tale that has become legend, sorting fact from fiction is not straight forward. Many variations on the same theme have grown up and with the script writers hand at work, aspects may have been lost in the mix, added to or completely created. The tale I will now tell may not be the whole story but I shall attempt to be as honest and direct as can be construed.
Travel back in time to a cold winters day in the year 1676, the 23rd of February 1676 to be precise. The place is Winchester Assizes where a farm labourer named George Bromham and a widow named Dorothy Newman are standing trial for murder. The record of the trial is to be found in the Western Circuit Gaol Book for the period XXII-XXIX Charles II, the exact chapter XXVIII Ch.II, is retained in Winchester Library. George Bromham was a farm labourer living in the tiny village of Combe, just below Walbury Hillfort on the edge of Berkshire. He was married to Mrs. Martha Bromham and had a young son, Robert. It would appear that George Bromham had formed some kind of illicit association with the widow Dorothy Newman who lived in the larger village of Inkpen, a few miles over the other side of Walbury Hillfort, in the valley below.
It is not stated how long this relationship had been formed or what brought the two together or even if the relationship was "village gossip". What is clear is that one dark day in the weeks leading up to the trial, Martha and her son Robert were walking the ancient Wigmoreash Drove which connects Inkpen and Woodhay to the top of Inkpen Beacon and Combe. Either George or both George and Dorothy were lying in wait, and beat Martha and Robert to death with a "staffe". Whether both committed murder or not, the beaten bodies of Martha and Robert were dumped into the dew pond known as Wigmoreash Pond or as it became known "Murders' pool".
The tale now twists with the addition of a character called "Mad Thomas". Thomas is said to have been the village idiot and either deaf , dumb or both. It was Thomas who is said to have witnessed the dastardly deed and altered the authorities to the bodies and the culprit(s). Indeed Thomas is said to have been called as a witness at the Assizes. Whether this was fact or fiction is unclear, it may have been written into the film's script for convenience, the guilty party(s) may have been brought down by other factors such as tracks in the snow or mud, the murder weapon(s), blood stained clothing, village gossip or a guilty confession.
Whatever or whoever it was that pointed the finger of suspicion at George Bromham and Dorothy Newman, both were haled off to the Assizes at Winchester, both stood trial for the murder of Martha and her son Robert, both were convicted and found guilty of murder and both were ordered to be hanged "in chaynes near the place of the murder". Their public hanging took place on 3rd March 1676 in Winchester.
Records suggest that some dispute arose as to who would be liable for the cost of the "hanging in chaynes", which would involve the building and erection of a considerable sized double gibbet, together with two sets of iron "chaynes". As the crime was neither committed, or planned in either the parish of Combe or Inkpen, but on their borders. This was settled by the cost being equally split between both parishes and the place that neither parish had claim to as the boundary stopped at the side ditches, the Long Barrow itself. Records indicate that the two dead bodies were then brought back to Inkpen and laid out in the barn at the back of the Crown and Garter Inn, where they were measured up by the local blacksmith and fitted in their chaynes. This barn is reputed to have became a tourist attraction, probably initiated by the landlord, and was renamed 'Gibbet Barn'. It would appear that the final hanging of the bodies of George and Dorothy, now bound in their chaynes, took place each side of their double gibbet on the 6th day of March 1676.
The original gibbet lasted an unknown length of time, but the second gibbet was erected in 1850 to replace the rotted original. This was struck by lightning, and was replaced by number three in 1949. It is unclear if this was a `prop' used in the film. However, that one lasted only one year, and number four was erected in 1950. Since then the gibbet has been sawn down by vandals on two occasions, in 1965 and 1969, both events believed to have been in protest against hanging. The fourth gibbet blew down in gales during the winter of 1977-78, where the stump had rotted away. The current gibbet was re-erected on May Day, Beltane, 1st May 1979.
In the Hampshire Highlands is Inkpen Beacon, and on the summit rises an old Double Gibbet. As may be expected, either age or weather in time forces this wooden structure to fall to the ground. When this does happen, whoever re-erects it first holds the right of feeding his sheep on the hill-side. It was carefully pointed out that the present gallows are leaning at a perilous angle, and eager expectations are arising.
Folklore, Vol. 34, No. 2. (Jun. 30, 1923), pp. 160-161.
This long barrow is 200ft long and 75ft wide, flanked by ditches 15ft wide and still 3ft deep. The 6ft high mound was crowned with a wooden gibbet, and might still be, because the original has been replaced many times over the years for some morbid reason.
(figures from Dyer's 'Discovering regional archaeology - the cotswolds and upper thames)
The Murder Act 1751 (25 Geo.2 c.37) was an Act of the Parliament of the Kingdom of Great Britain.
The Murder Act included the provision "for better preventing the horrid crime of murder","that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment", and that "in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried", by mandating either public dissection or "hanging in chains" of the cadaver. The act also stipulated that a person found guilty of murder should be executed within 2 days of being found guilty unless the execution would happen of a Friday in which case the execution should take place on the Saturday.