Up at Gallows Gate there’s an old plaque which reads: “Gallows Gate Picnic Area. The popular legend is that of a man who stole a sheep, which he tried to carry away. Hanging by a rope over his back when climbing over the high gate the sheep carcass fell on one side and the robber on the other with the result the stolen property hanged the thief.”
So did it really happen and when did it supposedly take place? It’s a nice story but has one major flaw – we’re not alone in telling the tale. There are around thirty places in England with a gate called Gallows Gate, or a large boulder called the Hangman’s Stone, all telling a similar tale: a sheep-stealer was carrying a live sheep home with its legs tied together, when he stopped to rest against the gate or a boulder; the sheep slipped and struggled, causing the rope to twist round his neck and strangle him. Fate therefore made sure that he would be hanged for his crime.
What we’re reading here is a legend. Legends often centre on a specific place, person or object, the aim being to hand on accounts of events alleged to have occurred. Legends reflect the beliefs, morality and concerns of the community. They are generally told for entertainment value with the legend almost always brief as it’s normally told in casual conversation, where it is recounted in order to explain, warn or educate.
The earliest British record of the ‘sheep hangs man’ legend is in Thomas Westcote’s ‘A View of Devonshire in 1630’ (written in 1845), referring to Combe Martin in North Devon. Other sites include Boxford (Berkshire), Hampnett (Gloucestershire), Rottingdean (Sussex) and Barnborough (Yorkshire). In Allandale (Northumberland) the boulder is called the Wedderstone (from ‘wether’ or ‘castrated ram’), and there is a rhyme: “When ye yearn for a mutton bone, Think on the Wedderstone”. The story also seems to change depending on what animal is most prevalent in the local area. For example, the first apparent telling of the story comes from 1560 in Klettgau in Switzerland, though this was a pig rather than a sheep, while in Charnwood Leicestershire it’s a deer.
The legend reflects the importance of sheep farming in the past and serves to warn against sheep stealing – if the Law didn’t punish you, then God would. A shortage of food was common, particularly during the winter months, and one sheep could feed a family for a month. Sheep were available, a good size and often left in open fields, so theft appears to have been commonplace. The story also suggests that the thief was an idiot and it may have been told by country people about thieving townies – a farm hand would know how to handle rope and not make such a simple mistake.
In Devon there are nine stones with similar hanging legends, with five being on Dartmoor. The tale on the Moor seems to be associated with hangingstones which acquired their names from the ‘hanging’ ceremony during a parish beating of the bounds. This was an initiation for young boys attending their first drift. A halter would be placed around the boy’s neck and attached to a rock outcrop, leaving the boy suspended for a time with just his feet touching the ground below. Even here the hanging stones were often located on parish boundaries and associated with nearby gallows.
Hanging has been the principal form of execution in Britain since the fifth century, with even children as young as seven being sent to the gallows. Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that “There is no country on the face of the earth in which there have been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England.”
Many of these offences were introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes that had emerged during the first half of the eighteenth century. For instance, the Black Act of 1723 created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching. Later in 1741 came a law entitled, ‘An Act to render the Laws more effective for the preventing the stealing and destroying of Sheep‘, specifically identifying the death penalty for the offence of sheep stealing – between 1825 and 1831 alone 9316 death sentences were passed in Britain, 1039 for sheep-stealing.
The plaque up at Gallows Gate also reads, “The name probably derives from the practice of erecting gallows at parish boundaries.” There’s other evidence that Gallows Gate was the site of the gallows that served the villages that came to make up Torquay: the location is on an ancient Ridgeway and where the four parishes of Cockington, Marldon, Kingskerswell and St Marychurch meet; in 1436 the Cockington Manor Court referred to a nearby “stope”, usually defined as a gibbet or whipping post; a Marldon Tithe Map of 1839 shows a three-cornered field called Gallows Gate Field; to the south is Dada Croft and, as ‘Daddy’ is Saxon for ‘dead’, it’s reasonable to see the small enclosed field as a place reserved for the remains of those who died in the immediate area.
We further know that the site has been significant for a long time. The Haytor Hundred is recorded as being held at Kingsland (the King’s Land). This would have seen gatherings of men called to fight, as well as providing a good lookout for sighting hostile ships in the Bay. Most significant for this discussion is that Hundreds held open air courts and imposed judgments on wrongdoers. The partition of Devon into Hundreds dates from King Alfred (871-901) and so this could mean that the area had a thousand-year history as a place of execution – some 800 years after Alfred’s reign came the sheep legend.
So why don’t we know exactly where our gallows was? It’s mostly because accurate maps weren’t made until the mid-nineteenth century, many years after public hangings ended. Also, as gallows were wooden structures they left little evidence but a hole in the ground when they rotted or were removed. Manorial courts just didn’t keep that many written records of what were seen as routine events, and not many of these records survived anyway.
We then have to rely on place-names, such as Gallows Gate, or Forches Cross in Newton Abbot. We also know where gallows and gibbets were likely to have been erected. As the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning or deterrent to others, they were sited beyond the edges of a settlement, on a prominent hilltop, or near a crossroads, the belief being that any ghost would be confused as to which way to go. They would have been highly visible and permanent, acting as a reminder to all passersby, and particularly to visiting potential troublemakers, that crime did not pay and that Torbay’s communities expected good behaviour. Gallows Gate fits all those requirements.
Each village or town would have had access to a gallows – alternative forms of punishment such as imprisonment just weren’t available. So, if Gallows Gate wasn’t the location of the gallows that served the small communities that became Torquay, then where was it? The alternative suggestion that our gallows was at the top of what is now St Marychurch Precinct – outside of the church – seems unlikely. While on occasion public hangings could have taken place in the centre of a village, semi-permanent gallows and gibbets would not have been sited there. Gibbets often held still living prisoners, left to starve to death in cages, while the executed were left for months. You don’t want to see or smell a famished man or woman or a rotting corpse on your way to church. Also, as we have noted, the burial of the executed, along with suicides, wasn’t permitted on consecrated church ground. The uneasy dead were feared and so buried outside of communities, often at crossroads – as in the case of the suicide Kitty Jay of Jay’s Grave on Dartmoor.
Gallows had to be on the main route into a community. As it was only in 1827 that the Shaldon Bridge Company opened a new bridge, travellers from Teignmouth before that had to take the foot ferry or make a detour of 14 miles to Newton Abbot then turn back and return on the opposite bank. The Shaldon Bridge was built just as public hangings were going out of fashion. St Marychurch was off the beaten track which ran between the Bay’s villages and Newton Abbot and beyond.
We consequently have to go along with those who wrote the plaque up there on the ring road: “Gallows Gate…probably derives from the practice of erecting gallows at parish boundaries.” Admittedly, it’s now thought that the original site of the gallows was 170 meters to the north of the current Gate. This was at Kingsland, the highest point and where the reservoir now is. It was probably moved in the early 1800s when public hangings became seen as distasteful and the attending riotous crowd a threat to public order.
Nevertheless, generations of local historians have accepted the area of Gallows Gate as the true site of our place of public execution at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There doesn’t appear to be any real evidence to change this view… unless anyone can suggest otherwise…