The Halifax Gibbet
Gibbet Street, Halifax, Yorkshire, England.

Halifax Gibbet
This is a crude decapitating machine or gibbet-axe which predated the French guillotine from 1792.
Between 1541 and 1650 there were 52 people decapitated with this device at Halifax. Richard Midgley in 1624 was one of those unfortunate enough to get caught, tried and executed. Today the blade is securely fixed to avoid accidents!


A chronological list of the 52 people recorded as having been beheaded at the Halifax gibbet between 1541 and 1650 (Halifax Parish Register, Vols 37-45, burials)
Some have been grouped into contemporary executions. Others are colour coded to try to identify filial relationships. At these times death was often the penalty for stealing whilst Papists and witches were burned at the stake
1500's:
1. Richard Beverley of Sowerby - 20 Mar 1541
2. ___________ "a certain stranger" - 1 Jan 1542
3. John Brig of  Heptonstall - 16 Sep 1544
4. John Ecoppe of  Elland - 31 Mar 1545
5. Thomas Waite  of  Halifax - 5 Dec 1545

6. John Learoyd of Northowram - 6 Mar 1568 - for a robbery in Lancs.
7. John or Richard Sharp of Northowram - 5/6 Mar 1568 - for robbery in   Lancs.

8. James Smith - Sowerby - 12 Feb 1574
9. Bryan Casson - 15 Oct 1580

10. John Atkinson - 9 Jan 1572
11. Nicholas Frear - 9 Jan 1572
12. Richard Garnet - 9 Jan 1572

13. William Cockere - 9 Oct 1572
14. Richard Stopforth - 19 May 1574

15. Robert Bairstow, alias Fearnside  - 6 Feb 1576
      Robert Fearnside, alias Bairstow  - 6 Feb 1576

16. Henry Hunt - 3 Nov 1576
17. Jno. Dickenson, of Bradford - 6 Jan 1578
18. John Waters - 16 Mar 1578
19. John Appleyard of Halifax- 19 Feb 1581
20. John Sladen/ Sladden- 7th Feb 1582
21. Arthur Firth- 17 Jan 1585
22. John Duckworth - 4 Oct 1586

23. Nicholas Hewett of Northourn (Northowram) 27th May 1587
24. Thomas Mason, Vagans (vagrant) 27th May 1587

25. Robert Wilson of Halifax - 13 July 1588
26. Wife of Thomas Roberts of  Halifax - 13 July 1588

27. Barnard Sutcliffe of  Northowram - 6 Jan 1591
28. Peter Crabtree of Sowerby - 21 Dec 1591
 

Hailax
                                       The Halifax gibbet in the 1600's. The name Halifax
              purportedly contains the word head and this device certainly produced a few.

   1600's:
29. Wife of Peter Harrison of  Bradford - 22 Feb 1602
30. Abraham Stancliffe of Halifax - 23 Sep 1602

31. Christopher Cosin -29 Dec 1610
32. Thomas Brigg - 10 Apr 1611

33. John Lacy of Halifax - 29 Jan 1623
34. ______ Sutcliffe-19 Jul 1623
35. George Fairbank - 23 Dec 1623
36. Anna Fairbank daughter of George Fairbank - 23 Dec 1623
37. Edmund Ogden  of  Lancs. - 8 Apr 1624
38. Richard Midgley of Midgley - 13 Apr 1624
39. Wife of John Wilson of Northowram - 5 Jul 1627
40. Sarah Lum of Halifax - 8 Dec 1627
41. John Sutcliffe of Skircote - 14 May 1629
42. Richard Hoyle of Heptonstall - 20 Oct 1629

43. Henry Hudson  - 28 Aug 1630
44. Wife of Samuel Ettall - 28 Aug 1630

45. Jeremy  Bowcock of Warley - 14 Apr 1632
46. John Crabtreeof  Sowerby - 22 Sep 1632
47. Abraham Clegg of  Norland - 21 May 1636
48. Isaac Illingworth of  Ogden - 7 Oct 1641
49. Jer. Kaye Taylor - Lancs - 7 Jun 1645 -for stealing in Bradford.
50.James Mellor of  Halifax - 30 Dec 1648
51. Anthony Mitchell of  Sowerby - 30 Apr 1650 -for stealing in Warley & Sandal.
52. Jo.Wilkinson of Sowerby - 30 Apr 1650 -for stealing in Warley & Sandal. This was the last execution at the gibbet3

Note: Sutcliffe-forbears of Peter Sutcliffe the "Yorkshire Ripper"?

Halifax Gibbet 1650 From 1645 to 1650  five men were "headed" by the gibbet axe, and after that the local law was abolished4.
"The Halifax Gibbet Law provided that if a felon was taken with stolen goods to the value of more than thirteen and a half pence in his possession, according to the assessment of four constables, he should be beheaded on the first market day within three days , and, if we are able to believe the old chroniclers, heads fell almost as fast in Gibbet Lane as outside the Bastille in Paris! this law was derived from the royalty originally granted by the King to Earl Warren, as to other great Norman lords, to execute thieves and other criminals caught within the bounds of the manor. When the population amounted to no more than a few score people, no man cared to be branded as a hangman by his neighbours. The Halifax gibbet, howeverdid not need a hangman for all that was necessary was to pull out the pin that held the axe aloft. Then it slid down the grooves of the tall posts onto the culprit's neck. If it was a case of stealing a horse or a sheep the animal was yoked to the pin in order to dislodge it"4.


An extract regarding the Halifax Gibbet (1822):
" The course of Justice formerly made use of here, called the "Gibbet Law," by which all criminals found guilty of theft, to the value of thirteen pence half penny, were to suffer death, hath long been discontinued.  The platform, four feet high, and thirteen feet square, faced on every side with stone, was ascended by a flight of steps; in the middle of this platform were placed two upright pieces of timber, five yards high, joined by a cross beam of timber at the top; within these was a square block of wood, four feet and a half long, which moved in grooves, and had an iron axe fastened in its lower edge, the weight of which was seven pounds eleven ounces; it was ten inches and a half long, seven inches over at the top, and nine at the bottom, and towards the top had two holes to fasten it to the block.  The axe is still to be seen at the gaol, in Halifax : the platform remains, but has been hid, for many years past, under a mountain of rubbish. The Guillotine erected in France, soon after the breaking out of the Revolution, and so fatal to thousands, seems to have been copied from this machine.
 The Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland, passing through Halifax, and happening to see one of these executions, caused a model to be taken, and  carried it to his own country, where it remained many years before it was made use of, and obtained the name of "the Maiden", till that Nobleman suffered by it himself, June 2, 1581.  The remains of this singular machine, may yet be seen, in the Parliament house at Edinburgh.  The origin of this custom cannot be traced, but it was by no means peculiar to this place. -See Gent. Mag. for April 1793......
 ....... The Lord of the Manor has here a Gaol for the imprisonment of debtors, within the Manor of Wakefield, and in this gaol is the Gibbet-axe of  the well known" Halifax Gibbet Law," Of Halifax and the parish, there are no less than three separate histories, viz. "Halifax and its Gibbet Law," by John Bentley*, 12mo. published in 1761.  "Antiquities of the town of Halifax," by Thomas Wright,12mo. Leeds, 1738; and the "History and Antiquities of the parish of  Halifax," by the Rev. John Watson, M.A. and F.S.A., London, 1775; besides an edition in 8vo. entitled the "History of the town and parish of Halifax," &c. published in numbers, by E. Jacobs, in 1789.  This last appears to be an abridgement of Watson's."1.
[*Note: The text mentioned here is "Hallifax and its Gibbett Law placed in a True Light" which was not written by William Bentley but by Samuel Midgley  described as "a man of letters" (who "practised physic"). Samuel was imprisoned for debt in York Castle in 1684 and was three times incarcerated in Halifax Jail for debt. It was here in Halifax jail that he wrote his text. Samuel died in Halifax jail  on the 18th July 1695.] If anyone can sight a copy I would be pleased to hear from you.
" The town of Halifax cannot boast of great antiquity; its name is not found in Domesday Book#,  nor is it mentioned in any ancient record, before a grant of its Church was made by Earl Warrein to the Priory of Lewes, in Sussex.  The origin of its name has been variously given:  Dr. Whitaker supposes it to be half Saxon (Anglian), half Norman:  and that formerly, in the deep valley where the church now stands, was a Hermitage, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the imagined sanctity of which attracted a great concourse of persons in every direction.  There were four roads by which the Pilgrims entered, and hence the name Halifax, or Holyways, for fax in Norman French, is an old plural noun, denoting highway........"1.
[#However Halifax in Domesday times is regarded as Feslei/Fasley]

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Sources:
                            1. Thomas Langdale's Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire
                            2. Halifax Parish Register, Vols 37-45, burials held at S.A.G.
                                Sydney, Australia.
                            3. The Story of Old Halifax, T. W. Hanson.
                            4. Midgleyana p 35,  J.F. Midgley, Litho P/L, Cape Town, 1968.
                            5. Midgley, Samuel. The History of the Town and Parish of Halifax.1759.

© Tim Midgley July 1999 revised 13th December 2009 1