1792: William Winter, Elsdon Moor gibbet habitue

Atop a hill called steng Cross at the Northumberland village of Elsdon stands an eerie heirloom of England’s gallows history: Winter’s Gibbet. (Or “Winter’s Stob”, to use the local parlance.)

(cc) image from Flickr user johndal

It was here — within sight of the spot where he had murdered an old shopkeep to plunder her stores — that William Winter was gibbeted in chains following his August 10, 1792 hanging at the Westgate of Newcastle. In this fate, he followed his father and brother, hanged four years prior at Morpeth.

According to William Weaver Tomlinson’s Comprehensive Guide to the County off Northumberland,

In 1791 there lived here an old woman named Margaret Crozier, who kept a small shop for the sale of draper and other goods. Believing her to be rich, one William Winter, a desperate character, but recently returned from transportation, at the instigation, and with the assistance of two female faws [vendors of crockery and tinwork] named Jane and Eleanor Clark, who in their wanderings had experienced the kindness of Margaret Crozier, broke into the lonely Pele on the night of 29th August 1791, and cruelly murdered the poor old woman, loading the ass they had brought with her goods. The day before they had rested and dined in a sheep fold on Whisker-shield Common, which overlooked the Raw, and it was from a description given of them by a shepherd boy, who had seen them and taken particular notice of the number and character of the nails in Winter’s shoes, and also the peculiar gully, or butcher’s knife with which he divided the food that brought them to justice. No news, however, of Jane and Eleanor Clark’s fate.

This last line, however, is mistaken: Jane and Eleanor were hanged with William Winter. Indeed, “such was the uncommmon strength of William Winter, that, after receiving sentence of death, he carried both his female companions, one under each arm, from the bar, and across a wide street to the old Castle; supporting, at the same time, his own heavy chains, as well as the irons affixed to the women.” Afterwards, these lightweights weren’t gibbeted, but given over for dissection.

Winter’s rotting corpse hung for many years on his gallows. After it fell apart, the structure was dismantled — but in 1867 the English naturalist Walter Trevelyan, now landlord of the site, had a replica erected with a wooden mannequin. That figure was in its turn stolen, and over the years only the oft-stolen and -replaced wooden head has remained; even the gallows itself was torn down at least once. But it has weathered the years and borne the dim memory of William Winter down to the present day.

At the base of the Winters Gibbet sits a stone that was once the base of a Saxon cross that gave Steng Cross its name — an old medieval marker on the road from Elsdon to Wallington and Morpeth.

(cc) images above from Flickr users Phil Thirkell (first two) and just1snap (last two)

That legend alluded to by Tomlinson, that the shepherd’s boy was able to identify Winter by the pattern of his hobnails, was later exploited as an exemplar of watchfulness in Lord Baden-Powell‘s seminal Scouting for Boys, the book that launched the scouting movement.

“The following story, which in the main is true, is a sample of a story that should be given by the Instructor illustrating generally the duties of a Boy Scout,” runs the introduction to a three-page exegesis on the “strong, healthy hill-boy” who easily covered several miles after passing Mr. Winter, came upon the scene of the crime, recognized the bootprints, and summoned constables whom he guided back to the escaping murderer.

Thus the boy did every part of the duty of a boy scout without ever having been taught.

He exercised —
Observation without being noticed
Sense of duty

That last virtue Baden-Powell attributes by dint off the youth’s being broken-hearted at beholding the gibbet, to realize he had caused the criminal’s death. “You must not mind that,” says a magistrate to the child in a fabricated dialogue. “It was your duty to the King to help the police in getting justice done, and duty must always be carried out regardless of how much it costs you, even if you had to give up your life.”

Illustration from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys.

The historical Robert Hindmarsh sort of did pay that most extreme price for his duty; allegedly he was so terrified of reprisals that it led him to an early grave just a few years later. This circumstance, instructive of the marauding family’s reach and impunity, might be further bolstered by the popular superstition that Elsdon Moor is also haunted: a “Brown Man of the Moors” tale predates this crime, but is also sometimes conflated with the purported apparition of William Winter himself.

On this day..

6 thoughts on “1792: William Winter, Elsdon Moor gibbet habitue

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