The Gibbet

This Foldout looks at some aspects of the Gibbet is Halifax

Halifax Gibbet

The Gibbet was a guillotine used for public execution in Halifax. One of the earliest references to the Gibbet is found in 1280, when there were around a hundred other places in Yorkshire that used the device, but the Halifax Gibbet Law remained through to the 17th century, long after the practice had been discontinued in other parts of the country.

As the legend of Hodgekins & the Gibbet illustrates, the use of the gibbet overcame the stigma of being hangman in a small community.

This was 600 years before the French guillotine was used. Dr Joseph Guillotine visited Halifax in his search for a means of execution during the French Revolution.

The gibbet was raised upon a platform, 4 ft high and 13 ft square, faced with stone, and reached by a flight of steps. In the middle of this platform was placed two upright pieces of timber, 15 ft high, joined at the top by a transverse beam. Within these was a square block of wood, 4½ ft long, which moved up and down in grooves – aka regalts or rabets – in the uprights. To the lower part of this sliding block was fastened an iron axe or blade, weighing 7 lb 12 oz, and measuring about 10 ins long by 8 ins wide. The axe was drawn up to the top by a cord and pulley. At the end of the cord was a pin, which, being fixed to the block, kept it suspended till the moment of execution, when the culprit having placed his head on the block, the pin was withdrawn, and his head was severed from his body.

The blade was not sharpened, relying on the weight for its effect.

If the execution was for theft of an animal, the animal itself was tied to the mechanism and allowed to withdraw the pin to release the blade.

A bagpiper played psalms as the felon lay his head on the block with his/her face upwards, facing the descending blade.

It had been suggested that the use of the gibbet in Halifax was continued to punish those who stole cloth, especially from the tenters and as a safeguard to the cloth trade. Oliver Cromwell tried to persuade Halifax not to use the Gibbet.

In 1286, the Earls of Warren were granted by the Crown the Royalty to execute thieves and other criminals, and in the same year, John of Dalton was executed, the first recorded victim of the Halifax Gibbet. There were around 63 executions at the Gibbet in all, the last were those of John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchell on 30th April 1650, who had been arrested for stealing cloth from Lower Shaw Booth and for stealing animals.

The Gibbet Law provided that, if the accused was able to withdraw his head as the blade fell and escape across Hebble Brook, he could be freed.

The gibbet originally stood at the junction of Gibbet Street and Cow Green, but it was later moved to the site in Gibbet Street where a reproduction gibbet stands today. The Gibbet was probably erected when an execution was due, and then taken down again afterwards, only the platform being permanent.

The present platform and steps were built in 1645.

The actual site of the Gibbet was lost after the 17th century. Part of the platform had remained until the late 18th century, but had been hidden beneath rubbish creating Gibbet Hill which tradition said was the site of the executions. About 1839, a Mr Bates bought the land and ordered foundations to be dug for a warehouse which was to be built on the site. In June 1839, during these developments, workmen discovered the platform and the skeletons and the skulls of two bodies – possibly those of Wilkinson and Mitchell.

On 27th January 1869, alterations at Bedford Street North were completed, leaving the Gibbet clearly visible.

In 1970, the original blade was discovered in a solicitor's office in Wakefield and returned to Halifax. It went on display at the Calderdale Industrial Museum and then at Bankfield Museum.

A 15 ft high replica of the gibbet was constructed in August 1974. This incorporates a casting taken from the original blade.

There are tales about the Gibbet:

In some parts of England, there are 18th/19th century examples of the bodies of gibbeted criminals being buried in graveyards or other ground and using crossed whale ribs as an archway entrance – possibly evoking Jonah's guilt. This often gives rise to names such as Whalebone Lane. There are no examples of this name locally.

The iron cage in which the bodies of convicted felons were suspended is also known as a gibbet

Some executions on Halifax Gibbet

See Chats, Dennis & the Gibbet Law of Halifax, Mr Dinnis, Furcé anglicé, Hull, Hell & Halifax, Maiden, Running Man and John Taylor

© Malcolm Bull 2022
Revised 11:43 / 22nd August 2022 / 16944

Page Ref: MMG34

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