The gruesome history of Combe Gibbet on Inkpen Beacon
PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 June 2020
Credit: Loop Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Combe Gibbet in Berkshire stands 25ft high on the summit of Inkpen Beacon and is unusual as it’s a double gibbet, reportedly erected for the hanging of a man and woman who were secret lovers – and evidence suggests she was the only woman to have been gibbeted in Britain. Samantha Priestley explores the history behind the gibbet...
Before 1752, when the Murder Act was passed, how we punished criminals was decided by authorities in each community, and often this included gibbeting, or ‘hanging in chains’. Today, Combe Gibbet in Berkshire is a replica and has been replaced and renewed seven times, such is its importance. It stands 25ft high on the summit of Inkpen Beacon and is unusual, firstly because it is a double gibbet, reportedly erected for the hanging and gibbeting of one man and one woman, and secondly because evidence suggests she was the only woman to have been gibbeted in the UK.
Combe Gibbet was first erected in 1676 and was only used once for its purpose. George Bronman and Dorothy Newman were secret lovers who were arrested for murdering George’s wife, Martha, and their son, Robert. The public hanging was to take place on 6 March that year, and the pair were to be hung side by side on the gibbet on the hill.
The record of the trial is detailed in the Western Circuit Gaol Book for the period 22/23 Charles II, retained in Winchester Library, and relays the dispute that arose over who was to pay for the execution, the parish of Combe or Inkpen, which included the cost of two sets of irons.
While George was from Combe, Dorothy was from Inkpen, and the dispute also centred on where the gibbet should be erected. In the end, the gibbet was built on the boundary and the two parishes shared the cost, but they would both have still felt the pinch. Erecting a gibbet and creating custom-made chains for murderers certainly wasn’t cheap.
Records talk of the two dead bodies, post-execution, being brought to the Crown and Garter Inn, where they were measured by the local blacksmith and then fitted in their ‘chaynes’. We need to take such reports with a pinch of salt as facts have often been exaggerated and the story of who was murdered by this pair does change in some reports, but it’s hard to argue with written records of two sets of chains and a double gibbet waiting to hang them on.
The double gibbeting at Combe Gibbet was highly irregular and the landlord of the Crown and Garter Inn at the time wasn’t one to miss an opportunity to capitalise on such an incredible occurrence. He swiftly named the barn at the back of his pub where the pair had been brought and measured for their irons Gibbet Barn, and opened it up to curious visitors.
Our relationship with the gibbet is a curious one and swings from fascination, dark humour and the belief in its power to cure and heal us; to cause fear, unease and also that it is haunted by evil.
Today, Combe Gibbet is the focus of many organised walks and so important as a piece of history, it has been replaced every time it has been destroyed. The first post had rotted so badly it was replaced in 1850. This post was struck by lightning and was replaced again in 1949. There is no record of what happened to this third post, but it stood for only one year and was replaced again in 1950. There was some ceremony around the erecting of this fourth gibbet.
Newspaper reports tell of a 50ft, 150-year-old oak tree being made into a 30ft post, paid for by public subscription and erected to perpetuate the grim justice carried out at that place. Over 1,000 people watched the spectacle and BBC cameras recorded the event.
Not everyone saw this landmark as something to celebrate. In 1965 and again in October 1969, the post was sawn down by protesters against hanging – an ironic twist of fate for the Combe Gibbet, so celebrated for bringing justice via the lasting punishment of hanging in chains. Still, this remarkable gibbet post persisted. Although newspapers in 1969 reported that there was little enthusiasm among the community for replacing the post, in 1970 a new one was built.
On 18 June 1970, in the run-up to the general election, an effigy was hung from the gibbet with political slogans strewn around it. Labour MP Tim Simms saw the opportunity to make something of this and laid flowers at the gibbet in memory of the injustices to the common people by a cruel feudal system, which we as a society had brought to an end through compassion. Mr Simms drew parallels between this and the battle for equality in our society.
Eight years later, this post blew down in strong winds. In 1979 the gibbet was re-erected for the sixth time. All costs were borne by the landowner, and it came to light that this was a condition of the lease by Eastwick Farm; that any tenant of the land should keep the gibbet in good repair.
It was a grim and misty day and only a handful of spectators arrived to see this historic landmark erected again, although members of the community had spoken out in support of the gibbet and it seems that by this time it was such a constant in the psyche of residents that no one wanted to see the horizon without the gibbet.
In 1991 the post was burned down. It’s not known who did this or why and it was reported as an act of vandalism, but the following year, in 1992, the seventh gibbet post was erected.
Combe Gibbet was immortalised in more ways than one. In 1948 John Schlesinger, who would go on to win Oscars for film directing, produced a black-and-white silent film while at university, called Black Legend, shot around the Combe Gibbet and telling the story of this most remarkable murder and punishment.