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Romancing the Gibbet: Public punishment and local memory in the Georgian West Country 

This series of 4 GPS-triggered ‘darkside’ app-walks is a poetic response to the occasional and extraordinary 18th and early 19th century practice of hanging and sometimes gibbeting selected felons (exhibiting their bodies to public view in iron cages) at the scene of their crime. It was intended to leave an indelible and exemplary impression on disorderly villages and small towns.

These spectacular, expensive and processional events were usually staged on high (so everyone could get a good view) and in remote liminal locations outside the town boundaries. The defendant’s last sight on earth would be a seething mass of humanity – many thousands attended these gruesome events – and, symbolically, he or she would have a good view of where the crime was committed.

The hanging itself was by ‘the short-drop’ method: put up a gallows, process the felon (with accompanying priest and coffin) there, he or she would, hopefully, produce some mawkish last words expressing their repentance and acknowledging the justice of their sentence, then, at a signal – sometimes waiting upon the culprit themselves – the cart was drawn away and the victim strangled slowly to death.

All 4 walks can be downloaded onto your smartphone for you to follow at your pleasure. Once downloaded you do not need a network connection or signal – just follow the blue line and you will be guided along the walk. When your phone detects ‘a soundpool’ it will vibrate and you then have 7 secs to put your headphones on or earbuds in to hear the located audio. Background to what you are hearing can be seen on-screen (swipe down), usually in the form of authentic courtroom proceedings (if available). However, this is an AUDIO app – we don’t want you wandering around falling into holes etc , not appreciating the beautiful landscapes and peering at a tidgy little screen. So maybe the best strategy is to keep your phone handy, peer at it every now and then, WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING, and enjoy what you’re hearing! Soundclips from all 4 walks HERE!

The 4 GPS-triggered guided walks are:

THE LAY OF THE TWO DEADLY BROTHERS

This one has all the ingredients of real pot-boiler, and was indeed made into one by a nephew of the family: an aristocratic feud, marital indiscretion, a possibly mad, and certainly brutal baronet, a fratricide – murdering one’s sister or brother, aboard one of Her Majesty’s Men-‘O-War no less, the deep, dark River Avon at Bristol, a kidnapping .. and to top and tail it: a hanging and gibbetting.

The aristocratic feud was between the brothers Sir John Dinely Goodere and his younger brother, Samuel Goodere. Their father, Sir Edward, has left an estate near Evesham – to the value of three thousand pounds a year – which Sir John inherited. So far, so good. But Sir John, ‘brutal in his manners’, was being cuckolded by his wife, who was ‘perhaps not strictly observant of the sacred vow she had taken’ according to contemporary sources: she was off frolicking with a neighbouring lord. So they had no children. The estate, then, was to revert to Sir John’s sister’s children – not to Brother Samuel.

– who was understandably somewhat annoyed. Annoyed enough to have his brutal brother, Sir John, seized at the Bristol docks, rowed down the Avon at dusk, taken on board his ship, Her Majesty’s Man-O’-War, The Ruby, anchored in the King Road off the mouth of the Avon, and there, at his command,  barbarically strangled by two Irish sailors, Mathew Mahoney and James White.

Having been found out by the ship’s cooper and his wife, Maggie-Ann – who were engaged in business of their own that night, though, in principle, women were certainly not supposed to be on board a Navy vessel at all), the offenders and Captain Goodere himself were arrested by Britol’s water-bailiff and carted off to Newgate Prison (where The Galleries Shopping Centre at Broadmead is now).

All three were hanged on St. Michael’s Hill on the 20th of April, 1741, supposedly ‘within view of the place where the ship lay when the murder was committed’. Out of the three, one of the perpetrators, Mathew Mahoney, was subsequently gibbetted at The Swatch on Dumball Island, which now lies beneath the modern Avonmouth docks.

THE BALLAD OF JOHNY WALFORD

Baptised 1762, hanged and gibbeted in 1789, John Walford (baptised 1762) was born in the Parish of Over Stowey in the Quantock Hills in Somerset. He was from a respectable family. He was a charcoal maker, working for his father, and often had to spend nights out high up Quantock over-seeing the charcoal burning and sleeping in a rude hut.

It seems that a local girl, Jane Shorney, was in the habit of visiting John Walford in his hut, and the inevitable happened. Jane became pregnant. John was confronted with two choices:  marry Jane, or go to prison. He was between the devil and the deep blue sea as he, in the meantime, had another love interest:  Ann Rice, the daughter of the local miller.

The marriage was doomed from the onset. They quarrelled continuously, and, one fateful evening, as they were on the way to the Castle of Comfort for some cider – arguing as usual –  John lost his temper and bashed Jane over the head with a hedge-stake conveniently at hand. He tried to drag her body to the shaft of a copper mine nearby but she was too heavy, so he cut her throat and quietly sloped back off to his cottage. He was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging.

On Thursday August 30th 1789 John Walford was chained and lifted onto the cart to take him to the place of execution, with the cage in which his body was to be placed alongside him. At the gallows, John asked if he could see Ann Rice, now pregnant with his child. She was brought to the cart and they exchanged a few words. He tried to kiss her but was she was pulled away.

John’s last words were that he was guilty of the crime and that he hoped that God and the world had forgiven him. He was given a handkerchief to drop when he was ready and the hood was put over his head. He composed himself for a few seconds then jumped from the board, dropping the handkerchief at the same time. The cart was pulled away and John Walford hanged.

His body was tarred, placed in the iron cage (‘gibbetted’) and hung on a 30ft pole on a hill overlooking his childhood haunts, his parent’s cottage, the village of Nether Stowey and the actual crime scene.

AT THE INSTIGATION OF THE DEVIL

Why did two perfectly normal itinerant labourers, George Carpenter (21) and George Ruddock (20), both of whom were known to Farmer Webb of Oxstalls, on the Longleat Estate and with whom he had friendly relations, offering them cider when they came to ask him for work; why did they just ‘shoot him in the arm and stomach while sitting in his chair’, then, as he was still alive, ’beat him to death with a flail’, then chase down his servant, Mary Gibbons, cut her throat and ‘throw her down the bucket well’. Why indeed?

Mr.Justice Chambre, at their trial at the Salisbury Assizes of Monday, March 15, 1813, said, “I have hardly ever heard of this, the greatest of all crimes, having been committed without some provocation; when you went to Webb, he received you with kindness, and offered you refreshment – instead of being thankful, you executed the bloody purpose in your minds. You are now deprived of all human mercy – you have but a few hours to live, for he that sheddeth man’s blood, by man must his blood be shed”.

Carpenter and Webb were hanged on Warminster Downs above Warminster at Arn, near the lime kilns, before a crowd estimated at anything between 5- and 40,000’. Farmer Webb lies buried in the grounds of the Minster Church and his grave can be seen there today.

TOPS DOWN (THE MORRISMEN MURDER)

In May 1772, at 2pm, a market gardener named Richard Dyer was found murdered close to his house, half a mile or so from Chipping Camden. ‘There was a shocking fracture to the back of his head’ from a wooden stake found nearby and his head stretching from his mouth to his ear had been ripped open. A short time before Dyer’s body was discovered, a young girl who  passed a local called William Keely on the road had noticed blood stains on his breeches. Kelly was arrested. He first denied the crime, implicating others, but eventually confessed.

It was an opportunistic, spur of the moment, unpremeditated assault and robbery for money. Keely knew Dyer and knew that he was on his way home after having been paid for a job. He ‘overtook Dyer on the road, walked with him some way, and as they passed along, he picked up a stake as it lay in the road and…’

Keely ‘was a well-known morris dancer’ and a few mornings earlier – on a Sunday to boot – he had been teaching some new dances to the local side along with his friend, Warner, who played pipe and tabor. The local newspapers took a strong line, saying, ‘It is to be hoped that Justices will suppress such nuisances of idleness and drunkenness as morris dances have generally proved’.

On Friday, 28 September, 1772, Keely was taken out of his cell in Gloucester and put into a cart for the 30 mile procession to the top of Campden Hill. They arrived at about 3pm, and found ‘many thousands’ waitng for the show to begin. Keely now openly confessed his guilt, tried to make his peace with God, exhorted everyone there to pray for him and to take warning by his demise – it was all caused by his ‘neglect of the sabbath’, he said, and he ‘wished it had been otherwise’.