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The Gibbet - Halifax's violent execution machine

Public torture and execution was pretty common during the medieval period. Beheadings were often carried out in public and in England would often have been done using an axe or sword.

But in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax in 1286, beheadings became a more mechanised process when a new invention – a forerunner of the guillotine was used to execute a John Dalton.

On the outskirts of the town centre nowadays there is an exact size replica of what became known as “The Halifax Gibbet”.

But what exactly was the Halifax Gibbet?

Basically it was a wooden structure with an axe shaped blade at the top.

It was unique in England, the structure being wooden pillars connected to the top of two 15 foot columns. A square board with an axe weighing 3.5kg attached at the bottom as attached to a rope which dropped once a wooden peg was removed.

It was seen as being a more reliable way to behead someone than the sword or axe but upon researching further I found out that unlike a guillotine, the blade of the Halifax Gibbet was never sharpened.

The reason for its success was the weight of the blade and the speed with which it fell. Again, unlike a guillotine it wouldn’t sever the heads, it would literally crushed the neck and ripped the head off. One of the original blades is now in the care of Calderdale Museums.

The Gibbet was finally outlawed by Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War in 1650 due to public opinion. But between the 13th and 17th centuries 52 men and women were recorded having lost their heads by the Gibbet.

The original Gibbet platform was discovered in 1837 and eventually restored in 1974. The Gibbet we see today is very much a replica!

Halifax had passed a Gibbet Law, where the Lord of the Manor of Halifax (once part of the Manor of Wakefield) could execute someone caught with stolen goods to the value of 13 and a half pence or more!

Illustration courtesy of Calderdale Museums

The full wording of the Gibbet Law was:

"If a felon be taken within their liberty or precincts of the said forest [the Forest of Hardwick], either handhabend [caught with the stolen goods in his hand or in the act of stealing], backberand [caught carrying stolen goods on his back], or confess and [having confessed to the crime] cloth or any other commodity to the value of 13½d, that they shall after three market days or meeting days within the town of Halifax after such his apprehension, and being condemned he shall be taken to the gibbet and there have his head cut off from his body".

One of the key reasons for the Gibbet Law was to act as a deterrent to thieves from stealing length of cloth that were being stretched in tenter fields outside after fulling. This severe punishment was seen as a way of protecting the local economy.

Whilst executions continued in Halifax during the period of the Gibbet via hanging mainly, the Gibbet, with its raised stage and the very public nature of the execution would certainly have ingrained itself on people’s memory and I am sure would have put off many with the temptation to steal lengths of kersey or pieces of cloth. Let’s be grateful that we hopefully have become more civilised and gruesome methods of taking people’s lives are no longer allowed here unlike some parts of the world.

1 Comment

John Darby
John Darby
Oct 05, 2022

“From Hell, Hull and Halifax, may the good Lord deliver us” - These words form part of the so-called Thieves’ Litany, uttered in Mediaeval Yorkshire as a leave-taking ‘prayer’ between two thieves as they parted. Hell was to be feared, of course, as was Hull Gaol (in Yorkshire) with its evil reputation. Halifax because of the dreaded gibbet.

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