Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC
The clue’s in the name with this one. Combe Gibbet is a Neolithic long barrow on Inkpen Hill (aka Inkpen Beacon, aka Gallows Down) around four miles south of Hungerford in Berkshire, not far from the borders of both Hampshire and Wiltshire. It is reached via a short, steep, somewhat bumpy track and you can park right by the access gate.
National Grid Reference: SU 36474 62235 Postcode: RG17 9EL
The archaeology bit
The barrow is around 65 m long and 20 m wide and its height ranges from 0.5 m and 1.5 m. It is orientated east-west and has surviving full-length flanking ditches to the north and south with a depth of 0.5 m. Of the 500 or so long barrows in England, Combe Gibbet is one of only three known in the county of Berkshire and geographically it is likely that these have connections to the more dense concentration of these monuments in Wiltshire and Dorset. There is no record of the barrow having been excavated at any time and, unfortunately for my research, no record of any human remains having been found there, or any other finds for that matter with the exception of two probable Neolithic flint flakes from the surface handed in to Newbury Museum. The information board has seen better days and it would be nice to see this rectified.
The history bit
However what makes this long barrow fun is the presence of a gibbet on top of it. It is a double gibbet, that is one designed to hang two people simultaneously. I had never previously considered the possibility of a gibbet-for-two, not even when playing Hangman, but I can see now that this would have been useful in certain situations. The Combe Gibbet gibbet stands 7.6 m tall, 25 m from the east end of the barrow. The gibbet you see today is the seventh one to stand on the site, the original one having been placed there in 1676, more of which in a moment. The subsequent gibbets were erected in the years 1850, 1949, 1950, 1970, 1979 and this one in 1992. The original gibbet rotted and in turn the replacement met its demise at the hands of a lightening strike. Two of the following gibbets were felled by vandals, reportedly in protest at the practice of hanging, one was blown down by high winds and another burned by vandals. The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965 suspended capital punishment for murder in Britain and, of course, the punishment subsequently ceased permanently so the gibbet’s continued existence for the past 48 years has been symbolic, and rather strikingly so as it can be seen from quite some distance away.
The 17th century gibbet was erected to hang married George Bromham (possibly Broomham) from the village of Combe and widow Dorothy Newman from the nearby village of Inkpen who were found guilty of the murder of Bromham’s wife, Martha, and their son, Robert Bromham. The trial at Winchester Assizes heard that George Bromham and Dorothy Newman beat Martha and Robert to death with staves very close to where the gibbet now stands, having been caught in the act of infidelity. Apparently, the local ‘village idiot’, Mad Thomas, witnessed the event and reported the crime, leading to their conviction. Based on these facts alone it can be wondered how safe the conviction was. Anyway, the ‘hanging in [iron] chaynes’ took place on 3 March 1676 on the double gibbet erected on top of the barrow which was neutrally situated due to the parish boundaries of Combe and Inkpen stopping at the previously mentioned ditches, thereby enabling the cost of the gibbet and the ‘chaynes’ to be split equally, which seems only fair. The dead bodies were reportedly taken down the hill to Inkpen where they were kept in the barn at the Crown and Garter Inn before being returned to the gibbet for their ‘final hanging’ on 6 March. I must say that the view from Combe Gibbet is wonderful and far reaching and today there were sheep grazing all around and several buzzards flying very low overhead. I’m sure there are worse places to meet your maker.
The method used by the convicted murderers to do away with poor Martha and Robert Bromham varies in different accounts. Some say they were killed by poisoning and/or drowning in a dew pond (incidentally, according to some accounts, Dorothy Newman’s own two children were murdered). Alternatively, and rather horrifically, it has been said that Martha was killed by having her face thrust into a hornet’s nest by her husband.
Rather excitingly, the Crown and Garter Inn is still in Inkpen and still a pub and still has its barn in situ (now B&B accommodation called Gibbet Barn). This would have been the perfect refreshment stop for today’s outing but, disappointingly, the pub is currently closed for refurbishment and not due to open again until August, according to a gentleman overheard talking about it in the The Swan Inn, a little further down the road.
Meanwhile The Swan is a nice, quiet pub and twice the West Berkshire CAMRA pub of the year. It stocks Butt’s organic ales and the Jester was a pleasant, quaffable beer; the Traditional a little stronger. The barman was very friendly and helpful and the beef (from Inkpen itself) and onion pie is highly recommended.