Something odd stands on a hill, high over the rolling hills of Berkshire. A tall wooden pole topped with a length of wood to form a T shape. The fact that the hill is called “Gallows Down” gives you a good idea of what this unusual object was for.
The original Coombe Gibbet was erected in 1676 for the express purpose of gibbeting (or displaying) the bodies of George Broomham, a married labourer, and Dorothy Newman, a widow after their execution for murder. It was only ever used for these two people, with its location intended to act as a deterrent to other would-be criminals.
The story of how these two souls ended up dangling in this desolate place varies – as is often the case with history. The general tale is that the two were having an affair and in order to be together, killed George Broomham’s wife and son. They were subsequently caught (some versions have the incident witnessed by the wonderfully named “Mad Thomas”), put on trial, and hung in Winchester. The bodies were then returned to be gibbeted near where the crime was said to have occurred on 6 March 1676.
Other accounts say it was Dorothy’s two children who were killed. And another account suggests George did away with his wife via the rather unbelievable method of sticking her head in a hornet’s nest.
Whatever the truth, the gibbet must have been an effective warning as no further murderers were strung up there. Over time, it seems it evolved from a deterrent into a tourist attraction with the original gibbet being replaced seven times over the years, the latest being in 1992. It has been blown over or rotted more than once, and twice destroyed by vandals in the sixties, possibly in protest at hanging as a punishment.
We walked to this place on an appropriately bleak afternoon and continued on a long walk around the area, spotting the gibbet on and off in the distance. I imagine on a sunny day it’s quite nice. But with dark clouds, rain, and wind, you could certainly feel a foreboding atmosphere.
The place itself and the story connected with it could certainly spark more than one story idea. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth popping up to take a look. There’s a couple of car parks not too far away, but I’d get there early as even on this dark day it was busy by the time we returned.
What do you think? Please share in the comments.