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Combe Gibbet is a double gibbet standing 25 feet (7.6 metres) high on the summit of Inkpen Beacon, about four miles south of Hungerford, but clearly visible from the town in fine weather. It marks the boundary between Inkpen and Combe, and stands in the middle of a neolithic long-barrow.
- Combe Gibbet, Sep 2006
- Combe Gibbet, 1923
Why is it there?
It was erected in 1676 to hang the bodies of George Bromham, a married farm labourer from Combe, and Dorothy Newman, a widow of Inkpen, who were together found guilty of the murder of George Bromham's wife Martha Bromham, and their son Robert Bromham.
In order to progress their illicit relationship, "they waylaid Mrs. Bromham and her son Robert close to where the gibbet now stands and beat them to death with staves."
The trial took place at Winchester Assizes, and began on 23rd February 1676 .
The accused were charged with "the murder of Robert, son of George Bromham and of Martha, wife of said George Bromham, each with a "staffe", and were ordered to be hanged "in chaynes near the place of the murder".
The public hanging duly took place in Winchester on 3rd March 1676, and the record of the trial is to be found in the Western Circuit Gaol Book for the period 22/23 Charles II. The records are retained in Winchester Library.
It seems that some dispute then arose as to who was to pay the cost of the "hanging in chaynes", which would involve the building and erection of a considerable sized double gibbet, together with two sets of iron "chaynes".
As the crime was neither committed nor planned in either the parish of Combe or Inkpen, but on their border, the matter was settled by the cost being equally split between both parishes.
The gibbet was erected in the middle of the Long Barrow itself - a place that neither parish had claim to as the boundary stopped at the side ditches.
Records indicate that the two dead bodies were then brought back to Inkpen and laid out in the barn at the back of the Crown and Garter Inn, where they were measured up by the local blacksmith and fitted in their chaynes. The barn is reputed to have became a tourist attraction, probably initiated by the landlord, and was renamed 'Gibbet Barn'.
The final hanging of the bodies of George and Dorothy, now bound in their chaynes, took place each side of their double gibbet on 6 March 1676.
Confusingly, there are many versions of the story of the murders, and several discrepancies. Even the date of the hanging varies: 3rd March in most accounts, but elsewhere the 6th (the Berkshire Book) and the 7th (Parsons postcard photograph).
Some accounts state that it was Mrs. Newman's two children who were killed by the George Bromham and Dorothy Newman, and that the children's bodies were found in a dewpond close to where the gibbet now stands. There is indeed a dew pond a short distance to the west of the gibbet. The Berkshire Book records this account, stating that "the two younger children of the woman were poisoned and their bodies thrown into the pond which lies about a quarter of a mile westward beyond the gibbet.
Research by Barry Roberts (NWN 3.5.79) refers to an account by W.H. Hudson, tells the story differently again:
"The story is of a poor widow with two sons, who dwelt in Combe at the latter end of the seventeenth century. She fell in love with a Woodhay man, a farmer. Alas the farmer was a married man and divorce in those days, being by Act of Parliament only, was only available to the nobility. Undaunted, the farmer chose to resolve the situation in a time-honoured manner, and murder his wife."
"The method he chose to use was as original as it was horrible. Driving his unsuspecting wife to market in Newbury one day, he enquired, apparently idly, whether she had ever seen a hornets nest."
"She had not, and so, as they passed through a lonely stretch of the track, he showed her one which he had discovered a few days earlier. Her curiosity was her undoing."
"As she stood looking at the hornets nest, he seized her from behind and thrust her head among the enraged insects, holding her down until she had been stung to death."
"This done, he placed her body in his cart and took her home, well prepared to play the part of the bereaved husband shocked at the terrible accident that had befallen his wife."
"With his wife's death accepted as an accident, he visited his lover in Combe one evening, to report on the success of the plan. As they discussed the deed in the front room of the widow's tiny cottage, her eldest son lay awake in the back room, listening in horror. Suddenly he heard his mother tell her lover to see if the children were awake, and, if they were, to do away with them in case they had overheard."
"In desperation, he feigned sleep as the farmer looked into the bedroom, so saving his life. The next day he told the schoolteacher and his mother and her lover were brought to justice."
"While the guilty pair waited to be hanged, an administrative dispute arose as to which parish should bear the cost of the hearing, as the crime was a conspiracy which could not be proved to have been planned exclusively in either Combe or Inkpen. At last a compromise was reached, and the two parishes agreed to share the expenses and to hold the execution at the highest point on the border between the two parishes, where it crossed the Inkpen Beacon. A date was set for the event and, as was usual in those days, a crowd of thousands assembled on the Beacon to see justice done and enjoy a holiday."
The records show that they were hanged for the murder of Newman's children, making no mention of George's wife Martha.
"It may be that the traditional story preserves a garbled version of the events. Perhaps George Browman (sic!) did murder his wife with the aid of hornets. Perhaps he got away with it, pursued only by parrish gossip. Perhaps the reason for the murder of Dorothy Newman's children was that they did come to know of their mother's complicity in the crime and did not have the wit to feign sleep."
The seven gibbets:
It is thought that there have been a total of seven gibbets on the site:
- 1 - 1676
- 2 - 1850
- 3 - 1949
-4 - 1950 (felled by vandals in 1965 and 1969)
- 5 - 1970 (blew down winter 1977-78
- 6 - 1979 (burned by vandals 1991)
- 7 - 1992
The original gibbet of 1676 lasted an unknown length of time, but the second gibbet was erected in 1850 to replace the rotted original. This was struck by lightning, and was replaced by number three in 1949. However, that one lasted only one year, and number four was erected in 1950.
The NWN anticipated the event on 23 Mar 1950 by reporting "Earmarked for the new Combe Gibbet, to be paid for by public subscription, is a 50ft 150-year-old oak tree from The Fens, Inkpen which will yield a 30ft upright to perpetuate the grim justice carried out on the spot". The NWN reported on 1 Jun 1950 "The fourth Combe Gibbet in now in place. Over 1,000 people watched the erection of the 31ft landmark." On 13 Apr 1950 it added "The new Combe Gibbet, made by local carpenter Mr F Carter, will be set in place on Saturday afternoon. BBC cameras will be present to record the event. The new gibbet, costing £50, will be 23ft high".
Since then the gibbet has been sawn down by vandals on two occasions, in 1965 and 1969 , both events believed to have been in protest against hanging.
The NWN of 6 November 1969 recorded: "There seems to be little enthusiasm to replace Combe Gibbet, felled by vandals nearly a month ago. Mrs G C Goodhart, presiding at Tuesday's Inkpen Parish Council meeting, said she had received no reaction about it from anyone in the parish, except from the agent of Mr John Astor, on whose land the gibbet stands in the parish of Combe."
On 4 Jun 1970 the NWN reported "Combe Gibbet, the 17th century landmark on Inkpen Beacon, which was sawn down by vandals last October, was re-erected on Tuesday afternoon".
On 18 Jun 1970 it added "Combe Gibbet, scene of a stunt last week when an effigy bearing political posters was hung from it, came in for more election fun this week when the Labour candidate, Mr Tim Sims, placed flowers there 'in memory of the past injustice of a feudal system, brought to an end by a compassionate society and the never-ending fight by the common man for equality'".
However, this fifth gibbet blew down in gales during the winter of 1977-78, where the stump had rotted.
The 6th gibbet - 1979:
It was re-erected on 1 May 1979 (Beltane!). Arrangements for the re-erection had been made by Mr. Kenneth Bastable, agent to Mr. John Astor, the landowner on whose property the monument stands, and who paid for all the preparations for the re-erection. (A condition of the lease of Eastwich Farm is that the tenant should keep the gibbet in good repair).
An oak tree had needed to be felled, then sawn up by a firm in Hermitage, and finally some carpentry work had to be done to join the new wood to the original base. This had been carried out free of charge by the late Mr. Percy Carter, whose father worked at Edwards Sawmills, and had made the gibbet in 1950, and his nephew Mr. John Green, in their Inkpen builder's yard.
A seven foot deep hole was dug by Combe man Mr Derek Hutchins, and Mr Green supervised the erection on 1st May - a day of rain, mist and wind, which made the operation harder. Norman Painting, owner of Inkpen Garage, loaned the equipment, and his son Dennis and Chris helped to guide the gibbet into position, helped by Reginald Racey of Combe, and William Carter of Inkpen. Also present as a witness was Mr. RA Bulpit of Burghclere, whose ancestors have lived in Combe since before the original gibbet was erected.
Judith Meynell Reports (Newbury Weekly News, 12th April 1979):
"Residents of Inkpen and Combe will no longer look up to a naked skyline, for on Tuesday afternoon their historic gibbet was re-erected on Inkpen Beacon.
After an absence of more than a year, fears had recently begun to mount amongst villagers that this famous landmark might never be seen again. It had blown down in gales last winter when the stump of the 25 foot high gibbet had rotted.
Said one resident: "Inkpen without its gibbet is like Stonehenge without its stones. It has been here 300 years and the people of Inkpen see no reason why it should not still be there."
Arrangements for the re-erection had been made by Mr. Kenneth Bastable, agent to Mr. John Astor, the landowner on whose property the monument stands.
An oak tree had needed to be felled, then sawn up by a firm in Hermitage and finally some carpentry work had been done to join the new wood to the original base. This had been carried out free of charge by the late Mr. Percy Carter, whose father worked at Edwards Sawmills and had made the gibbet in 1950, and his nephew Mr. John Green, in their Inkpen builders yard.
Mr. Green was present on Tuesday to supervise the erection of the gibbet, which has been reinforced with steel plates at the base. The top section is still in the old 1950 wood.
It was a bleak occasion that only a handful of stalwart onlookers witnessed. The mist and rain swirled round the hilltop as the gibbet was hauled into place. The operation was made more tricky by the fierce wind which blew the suspended gibbet off course several times before it finally settled into its place beside the remaining stump of the old 1950 gibbet. A seven-foot hole had been dug out of the thick chalk hill by Combe man, Mr. Derek Hutchings. Equipment for the operation had been lent by Norman Painting, Inkpen's garage owner, whose two sons Dennis and Chris Painting helped guide the gibbet into place, aided by Mr. Reginald Racey of Combe and Mr. William Carter of Inkpen.
Among those present to witness the event was Mr. R. A. Bulpit of Burghclere, whose ancestors have lived at Combe since before the original gibbet was erected in the 17th century.
This is the fourth gibbet to stand on the spot overlooking Inkpen. The original one was erected in 1676 to hang two local people, George Broomham of Inkpen and Dorothy Newman of Combe,
The second gibbet was put up in about 1850 to replace the rotted original. This was later struck by lightning and the third one erected in 1949. That one only lasted a year before it was blown down in a storm and the present one replaced it in 1950.
Since then the gibbet has been sawn down by vandals on two occasions, in 1965 and 1969, both events believed to have been in protest against hanging. Mr. Astor paid for all the preparations for Tuesday's event."
The 7th Gibbet - 1992:
The current gibbet was erected in 1992. It was unveiled by Emily and Charles Astor, whose father Richard owns the land. See "Unveiling the new Combe Gibbet", NWN 1992 and "The Gibbet hangs high again", 29 Sep 1992.
In 1948 John Schlesinger, whilst at university, produced a silent black-and-white film based on the story of Combe Gibbet. Follow this link for much more on Black Legend.
- Combe Gibbet - Alan Cooke and John Schlesinger [HHA Archive S9]