The Halifax Gibbet

The Halifax Gibbet

The Halifax Gibbet was a guillotine used for public execution. The earliest reference to this was in 1280 and use continued through to the 17th century, long after the practice had been discontinued in the rest of the country.

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 stone platform and was reached by a flight of steps. The gibbet was a wooden structure with a heavy lead blade attached at the top. This was never sharpened, as the weight itself was enough to decapitate a personís head.

It 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 original blade can still be seen today at the Bankfield Museum.

The gibbet law was swift and unforgiving and itís notoriety spread throughout the country. Halifax was not the place to steal. William Camden's "Descriptions of Britain" (published 1722) records that 'Halifax is becoming famous among the multitude by the reason of a law whereby they behead straightways whosoever are taken stealing'. the case is now considered a classic example of how a society can go briefly insane with fear of some unknown menace...

The famous Beggar's Litany 'From Hell, Hull and Halifax, Good Lord deliver us' refers to the gibbet law:

"At Halifax, the Law so sharpe doth deale,
That whoso more than thirteen pence doth steale,
They have a jyn [engine] that wondrous quicke and well
Sends Thieves all headless unto Heav'n or Hell".

Between 1541 and 1650, the official records show that 53 people (men and women) were executed by the Halifax Gibbet.

The gibbet law stated that if a person due to be executed on the Gibbet was able to withdraw his head as the blade fell and escape across Hebble Brook, he could be freed.

In 1617 John Lacey famously escaped execution by running beyond the boundary. He became known as the running man and the Running Man public house in Pellon Lane was named after him. Unfortunately for Mr. Lacey the people have long memories and when he returned seven years later he was immediately arrested and taken to the gibbet where this time he did not escape. An apparition of the decapitated Lacey has apparently been seen at the Running Man pub.

After the 17th century the site of the gibbet was lost under a rubbish tip known as Gibbet Hill. In 1869 the land was bought and foundations dug for a warehouse. During the excavations the platform was discovered along with two skeletons and skulls believed to be those of the last two victims, John Wilkinson and Anthony Mitchell , beheaded on 30th April 1650.

In August 1974 a 15ft non-working replica of the Gibbet was reconstructed in Gibbet Street. This includes a casting taken from the original blade.

For more information about this grisley time in Calderdale's history visit the links below.

Compiled by Nycola Simpson 2008