Archiver > WEST-RIDING > 1998-08 > 0904145036

From: Roy Stockdill <>
Subject: The Halifax Gibbett
Date: Wed, 26 Aug 1998 11:23:56 -0400

THERE has been much mention in this list of the old Yorkshire saying, "From
Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord Deliver Us" deriving from the fears of
ruffians and wrongdoers of the severe penalties meted out in those towns
(Hull and Halifax, I mean, Hell can speak for itself!). I have recently
been loaned by another kind member of this group an excellent book which
gives much detail on the infamous Halifax Gibbett - and the author insists
that it is correctly spelt with two "t's".

The Halifax Gibbett was not a gibbet of the normal kind, where the bodies
of executed criminals were hung in chains as a warning to others, but a
machine which removed the heads of offenders sentenced to death. It was
similar to the French Revolution guillotine - named after its inventor
Joseph-Ignace Guillotine - but preceded it by at least 400 years (Yorkshire
folks are always way ahead in everything, even the best way to perform
executions!!!). The Scots had a similar machine devised by the Earl of
Morton, Regent of Scotland, who was invited to witness an execution at
Halifax in 1565. After seeing how efficient the Halifax machine was, he
returned to Scotland and built his own, which was nicknamed "The Maiden" -
the name possibly deriving from the Celtic, 'mod-dun' meaning a place where
justice was administered. Ironically, the Earl died upon his own invention,
for he was executed for treason upon it in 1581, 16 years after he built

The origins of the Halifax Gibbett are lost but it was certainly in use
during the reign of Edward III (1327-77) and one tradition has it that it
was the invention of a monk. The story goes that the king had granted to
Halifax the right to execute criminals by hanging, but no volunteer hangman
could be found, so a local friar developed "a gin to chop off men's heads
of itself" [Thought - wonder whether it was known as a gin-and-chronic???
Sorry, bad taste joke!] In any event, the contraption proved a very popular
attraction for spectators on market days, usually Tuesdays, Thursdays and
Saturdays. Justice was swift in those days. Convicted criminals were
executed on the first market day after being found guilty, there never
being more than a week intervening. Whilst awaiting the final act, they
were placed in the stocks with any stolen goods on display before them as a
warning to other potential offenders. Principal victims of execution were:
anyone caught stealing cloth or falsifying the coinage of the realm,
murderers, rapists, robbers, horse thieves and sundry other criminals, The
crime of stealing cloth was regarded especially seriously in Halifax in the
17th century, as the area was largely dependent upon the cloth industry, so
capital punishment was prescribed for those found guilty of it. The
district lay within the Forest of Hardwick and 18 towns and villages were
involved in cloth manufacture.

A court established at Halifax comprised the Bailiff, four jurymen from the
town and four from the other townships. The law said: "If a felon is taken
within the Liberty of the Forest of Hardwick, with goods stolen out or
within the said precincts, either hand-habend, back-berand or confessioned
to the value of thirteen pence halfpenny, he shall after three market days
or meeting days, within the town of Halifax, next after such his
apprehension and being condemned, be taken to the gibbett and there have
his head cut from his body." The gibbett was mounted on a huge square base
faced with stone and with steps rising to it at one end. The twin uprights
were at the other end of the block and stood 15ft high, a cross beam at the
top, 4ft long, separating them and holding them steady. Deep grooves in
each of the uprights allowed the blade to rise and fall. The blade was
attached to a moveable and weighted block, the blade being 18 inches long
by 12 inches wide. The victim lay beneath it and it was drawn to its full
height by a rope attached to a horse. When the horse had drawn the blade to
its maximum height by means of the rope and a pulley, it was secured by a
peg. When the peg was withdrawn, the blade descended swiftly to sever the
victim's head instantly, the peg being withdrawn when the bailiff or one of
the jurors gave a sign by raising a finger.

Now and then, a somewhat callous twist was introduced. If the thief had
stolen a pig, a sheep, goat, horse or other animal, the animal in question
was attached to the rope and given the prvilege of hauling up the blade and
ending the life of its taker. On occasions, men hauled up the blade, but
always in a team so that no one individual could be held responsible for
performing an execution. Between 1541 and 1650 parish registers show 49
people lost their heads on the Halifax Gibbett. Twenty five died during the
reign of Elizabeth I, six of them women. In one case a father and daughter
were executed within minutes of each other; in another an unknown man never
revealed his name and his death was recorded as that of "a certain
stranger". The Halifax Gibbett was last used in April 1650 when two men,
John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchell, were executed for stealing 9 yards of
cloth worth 9 shillings and two horses worth 48 shillings and 60 shillings.
Even Oliver Cromwell is said by this time to have condemned its barbarity
When the gibbett fell into disuse, the machinery was forgotten and lost.
Then in 1840 when workmen were clearing space to lay out the area which is
now People's Park, Halifax, the base was discovered in its original
stonework under a mound of earth. The steps up which victims climbed were
also intact. The blade had been kept in storage at Wakefield until 1970,
when it was returned to Halifax for display in the Bankfield Museum,
alongside a model of the gibbett. The other remains are also preserved near
the aptly named Gibbett Street.

As a matter of interest, I wonder if there is anyone who could trace their
ancestry back to one of the last two men to be executed on the Halifax
Gibbett, assuming they had any descendants? Quite a thought!

* Murders and Mysteries from the Yorkshire Dales, by Peter N. Walker, pub.
1991 by Robert Hale, ISBN 0 - 7090 - 4386 - 4

Roy in Hertfordshire UK
The Stockdill Family History Society (Guild of One-Name Studies, FedFHS)
MEAD/YOUNG in Somerset, Wiltshire & Gloucestershire
Web page of the Stockdill Family History Society:-
Twice-yearly journal/newsletter "White Rose" dedicated to our Yorkshire

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and
that is not being talked about" - Oscar Wilde

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