One of the many upsides to doing whatever it is I actually do, is that people don’t feel the need to engage me in generic social chit chat about pleasant but dull subjects. Instead they come straight in with a tantalising bit of trivia or an anecdote they’ve heard about where they live. The most recent example of this was meeting the Mayor of Lichfield at an exhibition at the Library, where the conversation went a little like this.
Mayor: I’ve got some information for you! I was born at Gallows Cottage and when I was a child, I was told that the walnut tree outside was planted to mark the place where the gallows once stood.
Me: Hold my glass of rose, I’m off to the Shell Garage.
I’m exaggerating of course but naturally it refuelled my interest in the subject which I first wrote about back in 2011. I roped in a mate to come and take a look with me and sure enough, on the patch of grass outside outside the garage, where the London Road, Upper St John St/Tamworth Road and Shortbutts Lane cross, was a walnut tree. Is this really the exact spot where forgers Wightman, Jackson and Neve met their end on 1st June 1810? It seems appropriate at this point to review the evidence.
- We know that the gallows were somewhere in this vicinity. They are shown on John Ogilby’s fabulous 1675 map but look to me to have been on the other side of Shortbutts Lane, almost opposite Borrowcop Lane? Other evidence comes in the form of place names with Gallows Wharf and as we now know, Gallows Cottage, birthplace of the Mayor of Lichfield!
- We have a bit of confusing anecdotal evidence from ‘Staffordshire Customs, Supersitions and Folklore’ written in 1924, where Frederick Hackwood tell us that at Gallows Wharf, ‘half a centry ago, a decayed oak stump stood two feet out of the ground….and was said to be the remains of the ancient gallows-tree’. However, the description given in The History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14 tells us that, ‘A gallows was built, or possibly repaired, at the bishop’s expense in 1532–3. In 1650 there was a gallows on the west side of the London road near its junction with Shortbutts Lane. The gallows there fell down c. 1700, its foundations undermined by people digging for sand, but it was re-erected’ which suggests to me that the city gallows were a purpose built structure, rather than a hangman’s oak.
- Of course, the Mayor’s information about the walnut tree is also anecdotal evidence and I have to confess that I do like to think that within any oral history or bit of folklore, there is always a kernel of truth. That said, such things do need to be treated with some scepticism as things can easily take root and be very quickly established as fact, when in actuality, the jury is still out.
To sum up, I find myself wondering if the exact location of the gallows could ever be proved but I also find myself wondering why it matters. Yet somehow it does. For me, ‘somewhere in the vicinity’ just doesn’t hit the spot. I’m not sure I can even explain why. Maybe I’m just a bit nuts…