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.
Local folklore is that it was first erected in 1676 to hang the bodies of a local man and woman who had been hanged at Winchester jail after being found guilty of murdering the man's wife and son. This article expands on this traditional story, which can be found under Combe Gibbet.
But was all this just a myth? The records of the 1676 event have proved illusive - and perhaps all this is just a complex legend?! Furthermore, careful research has revealed that the "gibbet" (where bodies were hung for public display) was also a gallows (where people were executed by hanging).
The following article was written by Dr Donald Peck and presented to the Virtual Museum February 2022, and updated March 2023.
Combe gibbet and gallows - myth and background
In August 1879 the Newbury and District Field Club conducted what sounds like a leisurely tour of the villages along the scarp of the downs and took in the parish of Combe near the end. This is how we have traced the myth of the gibbet as it has grown since the nineteenth century.
Richard Kimber of Eastwick (born in 1809) was the Club’s guide in 1879. Richard was the owner of the remains of the (in)famous, ancestral, then supposedly 200-year old leg of pork which dated, he said, from the same day as the hangings. The pork was put in a glass case in 1863 and documented in 1870 and moved to the Newbury Museum – where it is on display following restoration. Richard said that he had last tasted it in 1825 when his family gave some to a couple of people for Christmas lunch, garnished with white currants from the garden.
Richard Kimber on the same occasion boasted of having over 200 fox brushes and on one famous day, of hunting three foxes (and being awarded the brushes of two of them), followed by a ride to Andover for a late market the same evening.
In reporting on this visit, the District Field Club claimed to have found an unspecified source which told this story: George Brooman (or Broomeham) of Inkpen and Dorothy Newman of Combe were hung and gibbeted late in the reign of Charles II after being convicted of murder at Winchester Assizes (which links the murder with Combe, then in Hampshire, rather than Inkpen in Berkshire). George Brooman and Dorothy Newman killed Martha Brooman (presumably his wife) and her son Robert ‘each with a staffe’ and they were ‘ordered to be hanged in cheynes neere the place of the murder’, the place not being named. But subsequent searches made in the National Archives and the Hampshire County Archives, including searches of the relevant Winchester assize records, have failed to find any reference to any such murder, hanging or gibbeting, so the story may well have been more myth than fact.
OGS Crawford, an eminent, though perhaps also eccentric, archaeologist most famous for his aerial surveys of Salisbury Plain in the 1920s, led another visit of the Newbury Field Club to Combe and Netherton in 1964. Commander Britton Roberts then produced ‘two teeth and jaw chippings found by his wife 30 yards from the gibbet’.
In 1964 the furthest back that the Field Club could trace the gibbet story was this: they learnt that George Cummings, who had died 1901 at 91 had told how, as a boy of nine in 1819/20, he led one of the horses bringing a tree from Combe wood, to erect a new gibbet: 25 ft high with 6 ft of it below ground.
They also found tales of the history of the gibbet: a dispute was said to have arisen at time of the construction of the gibbet because the participants came from both Combe and Inkpen and the cottage where the murder took place was said to have been high on the downs and in Combe, whereas a nearby pond into which the bodies were thrown was in Inkpen. The house the Newmans lived in was said to be in Combe, so the parish of Combe undertook the cost, drew a fresh boundary and added 2.5 acres to the parish including the pond. The land was held as common land for many more years before it was enclosed some years later. This could possibly be Wigmoreash pond, the important hilltop pond 0.4 mile west of the Gibbet, on top of the downs just north of the track along the downs, just where a path leads down to Combe via Wrights Farm (past what would then have been known as Buttermere Corner).
What is more historical and more interesting, too, is the echo found here of a dispute between the parishes of Combe and Inkpen (and note that the two villages incidentally were never in the same county or diocese until 1895). Boundaries were very important then. They were key elements of land grants recorded in Anglo-Saxon charters; boundary routes and, in some cases, markers were often maintained by annual beating of the bounds of the parish carried out by local people physically walking right round the whole parish.
Parish boundaries were more important if, like at Combe Gibbet, they were boundaries between counties (and before the time of counties, between hundreds), and even more so if they were on the top of an escarpment and highly visible. In prehistoric times and still in Anglo-Saxon times parish boundaries were very often the sites of executions and of burials of the people executed (particularly on chalk downlands in the 9 th -10 th centuries, in what archaeologist Adrian Reynolds calls ‘deviant burials’, bodies buried decapitated, upside down or with hands tied together).
At Combe, in addition to the long barrow on which the Combe gibbet and gallows were later erected, nearby there are many other prominent tumuli or beorgs (distinct from burhs = castle/hillfort) from the Iron Age or earlier, for example along the escarpment top path to the west of the Gibbet, towards Oswald’s Burh, as identified in Saxon charters of the 8th -9th centuries BCE. This burh fortification is close to the prominent beech copse 2 miles further west which has several barrows on it and near it, and it features clearly in the charter boundaries for the parishes of both Ham and Buttermere/Linkenholt (known as ’Ashmere)’.
The tumuli here were all erected to be seen from afar. The Combe Gibbet tumulus also probably became an assembly place for similar reasons, as assembly places are common on the boundaries between parishes, and would be used to sort out disputes between parishes over land boundaries (which might be the background to the story of Wigmoreash) and stray animals or disputed grazing (though downland grazing was often amicably, or by formal ‘intercommoning’ agreement, shared between neighbouring parishes in the Saxon and post-Saxon farming system, which combined both organised, centralised manors like Combe and dispersed forest villages with smaller manors like Inkpen).
Across England Ordnance Survey maps show many hills with gallows on them and some with gibbets on them. Gibbets and gallows were invariably in prominent locations, even more often than tumuli and assembly places - the main point of gibbeting was of course to discourage people from committing crimes. Under the barbarous laws still very much in force in eighteenth century England, judges could choose whether a convict due to be hanged should be given to anatomists for scientific purposes or alternatively gibbeted; the latter required an iron cage to be made to hold the body in place for the longest possible time and fastened high up a pole. Gibbeting went on in England until the end of the eighteenth century, so at the Combe site it is quite likely that a gibbet was erected and possibly used at some point, but it is not clear when that was, or if towards the end of the period such a gibbet would have been used for purely symbolic purposes. If so the lasting memory of the gibbet is, at Combe, an effective result!
On nineteenth century maps, Combe Down becomes Gallows Down and it is likely that by then the gibbet was in fact a gallows (which is likely to have been what was re-erected in 1820). We have a telling story (recounted in the Newbury Weekly News in 1927 and vouched for by a local vicar) of a series of executions which took place there in the 1790s, as follows: “Three men from the same family were hanged there – a drover family with gipsy blood, Jim White and his sons George and Bill. First of all it was George, who took a horse at St Mary Bourne and was sentenced to death and ordered to be hung at Combe. When he was led out, his father’s voice rang out: ‘Die game, George, die game’. And it is said that George turned one look towards his father and died game. Bill was soon caught riding a flea-bitten mare taken from a stable in Weyhill. The whole scene was repeated. Jim White’s turn came. He was tried for stealing a dark chestnut from a field near Newbury. Carriages came from miles around and thousands walked or drove in carts or wagons to see Jim White hang”.
More on Donald and Lucy Peck's quest for primary evidence supporting the story behind Combe Gibbet:
Here goes with my explanation of why Lucy and I have both decided we think the lurid tale of adultery associated with Combe gibbet is a myth.
The fact that there are quite a few different versions of the adultery story does not, on balance, we feel, either strengthen or weaken the case for its veracity. So we decided to 'interrogate the sources', as they say.
First of all we were puzzled about the surnames of the people whose bodies were supposedly exposed on the gibbet, Brooman (or Broomham) and Newman, as neither of them appeared anywhere in the parish registers of Combe and Faccombe (not so sure about Inkpen registers, but we have never come across either of these names anywhere in our researches on Inkpen either).
We tried to find relevantly-dated assize records (ie 1660-1700) in the Hampshire Record Office but there were none that were in any way useable.
Then we were given the attached 1950 brochure details lent to us by Mr Ray Bulpitt of Andover. These seemed to point authoritatively to a named Assize document in the PRO which also turned up in the current National Archives index (which is in itself somewhat miraculous). But Lucy and I have both separately gone through ASSI 23 for the period with no success. It is a terrible volume, organized by date but not by anything else and almost completely illegible (except for one unusually very long entry about a licence for an alehouse which is legible and sensible). Overall a few stray names are visible (but very few women's Christian names) but no details at all of crimes or executions. We also began to doubt whether the Gaol report is even the right place to look because gaol deliveries (dealing with the people held in gaols locally) were the routine work of assizes, rather than the trials. But the only other series of assize reports in the National Archives (or anywhere else, I think) that is trackable at all for this period is actually something called the Postea books, within ASSI 24, which do not sound very coherent or well-organised either, but may conceivably be worth a look at some point.
After reading the Assize records for that period which were transcribed and published by JS Cockburn for other counties (esp Kent), we find they are well organised and full of pretty lenient sentences, and no stories that are lurid like the Combe myth. The most common crimes which assize judges thought deserved execution were clearly infanticide and (surprisingly) horse stealing.
We also thought about the reason why there would have been a gibbet on Inkpen Beacon irrespective of the myth. We think there is every reason that there could have been one for these reasons:
- Prominent location on a parish boundary;
- priately sited barrow reminding people of earlier inter-parish assemblies and incidences of dispute resolution at the gibbet site.
As for the history of gibbets, the heyday for use of and preoccupation about gibbets seems to have been the 18th c - and there are no stories of gibbets, murders or adulteries in Combe or Inkpen then.
- Manors and Combe - A short background to manorial agriculture in southern England and why manorial farming characterized the whole period from before 1000 to after 1350 and continued to influence life and farming in the following centuries.
- Combe and the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin - Combe (c 2,200 acres including woodland) as it appears from the account rolls of the owner of the manor, the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin, in the Middle Ages:
- Combe as a manor of Bec in the Middle Ages - from the custumal records of Bec-Hellouin.