Saturday, 4 June 2011

Clanking chains and skeletal remains

 The story of John Nadin executed for the murder of his master Farmer Robert Brough in August 1731 is a very well known one in the area. Nadin came to work as a labourer at White Lee a farm owned by Robert Brough, initially it is said that the two men got on well. There is a local legend that Nadin saved the life of the farmer when he fell into a flooded River Dane. However, a woman comes into story with fatal consequences. Brough’s wife, Julia was so passionately in love with the labourer she eventually persuaded him to murder her husband, only to betray him to the police after the deed was done. The evidence was stacked up against him and after a short trial at Stafford, he was found guilty and returned to Leek to face the gallows. The judge ordered that he was to hang at his master’s door and afterwards his body to be conveyed to Gun Hill, and hung in chains. Nadin spent his last night in a pub- the Cock- which stands on the site of the present Tourist Information Office in Leek. No doubt in his misery he will have heard the drunken carousing of the townspeople anticipating his lingering death. He was the last person to be hanged from the public gibbet locally and witnessed by the choir of Leek Parish Church and a large crowd of morbid onlookers. According to Henry Miller writing in his book Olde Leek it was said that the body hung on the gibbet until the body fell apart.

But what exactly was meant by gibbeting? The hanging up of a body by chains and in an iron framework became more commonplace after the 18th century. It is thought by historians to be a response to a crime wave. Lawmakers thought that by displaying the body of the criminal in this way that it would serve as a deterrent to others who might be thinking of a life of crime- think of the gibbet as a Georgian form of the CCTV. The body of the criminal was displayed either at the place of the crime or at a prominent spot to attract as much horror as possible.

The body of the executed man was covered with pitch which acted as an effective preservative. There is a story of an executed murderer in the 1760s near Coventry whose remains could still be seen 60 years after his death. The conserving effects of the bitumen were not always so effective. The body would often be picked at by birds or insects and gradually disintegrated birds sometimes nested in the cavities of the body that had open up.
Even more terrible were stories of criminals found guilty of particularly heinous crimes of being locked alive in the iron cage of the gibbet and left to starve to death although this cruel practice was dispensed with by the time of the first Elizabeth.

By the 19th century the sight of some wretch hanging from a gibbet was a common sight and hard it is to believe children were sometimes given time off from school to see the edifying spectacle of a criminal’s remains treated in this way.

There were many gibbets scattered around the country. They were often marked on maps. It is recorded that nearly 100 were erected on Hounslow Heath- an area west of London and a haunt of highwaymen- alone. A gibbet still stands on Caxton Heath on the road between Cambridge and St Neots and one can well imagine how the siting of the gibbet and the rotting human remains carried within its chains must have shocked the locals. Dickens captures the sense of the supernatural that gibbets exude well in Great Expectations. At the beginning of the novel Magwich the convict is described as lumbering towards the gibbet on the forlorn marsh, its chains holding the skeletal remains of a pirate. They were generally seen to be haunted places as the ghost of the miscreant yearned for a Christian burial. Gibbets were often situated on parish boundaries stopping the troubled soul from wandering too far.

The last occasion that a body was gibbeted occurred in 1832 and this is an instance when the old world met the new in that the victim was a trade unionist William Jobling, who had led a coal strike in the North East. He was arrested and convicted of a trumped up (or at least this is what his supporters say), charge of murder. Shortly, afterwards the law changed and gibbets began to be taken down although it is reported that the gibbet on Gun Hill was still standing as late as the 1870s.