Having just posted a webpage on Hangingstone Hill it got me thinking about – ‘Hanging Around on Dartmoor‘ A quick glance through my gazetteer of place names revealed some place-names that were suggestive of hanging on Dartmoor. There are several reasons for the names; some are the actual locations of a one-time gallows or gibbet, some are boundstones at which a boy would be ‘hung’ on the occasion of the local beating of the bounds. Another refers to the location where a suicide was committed and there are those where a legend has attached itself which involves a sheep stealer accidentally hanging himself. Finally there is one Hangingstone which indicates a logan stone and another which is a prehistoric menhir or standing stone. Whatever the reason these place-names live on in the history of Dartmoor albeit many are no longer shown on the Ordnance Survey maps:
|SX 5120 8522
|The site of Lydford Gaol gallows
|SX 5030 8114
|Hill upon which some gallows were located
|Gallows Park Cross
|SX 7720 7071
|Possible site of gallows
|SX 5657 7817
|Site of sheep stealers death ???
|Hanging Stone, The
|SX 5512 7629
|Site of sheep stealers death ???
|Hanging Stone, The
|SX 5850 6365
|Menhir & site of sheep stealers death – boundstone
|Hanging Stone, The
|SX 6160 8620
|Site of sheep stealers death – boundstone
|SX 6170 8610
|The ‘Hangingstone’ is a defunct logan stone
|SX 6724 7153
|Location of a suicide who hung himself
|SX 6001 8202
|An old moor name for Cut Hill Stream
|SX 5652 8071
|A bit of poetic license – nothing to do with hanging
|SX 70?? 73??
|Site of Spitchwick Manor gallows
|Watching Place, The
|SX 7129 8419
|Possible site of manorial gallows
In the case of gallows place-names these would suggest that at one time miscreants would have taken the ‘long drop’ in payment for their crimes. In all of the above cases they were either sited at the edge of a settlement or on a prominent hilltop. Other sites for gallows would have been at or near a road intersection, the belief being that any ghost would be confused as to which way to go. In reality a crossroads would be a busy place for passersby. They would have been highly visible and permanent fixtures that acted as a reminder to all passersby that crime did not pay.
Other place-names that are suggestive of gallows locations are; ‘forches‘, this derived from the Latin word ‘furcus‘ meaning ‘gallows’. There are no examples of this actually on Dartmoor but there is a ‘Forches Cross‘ just outside Newton Abbot along with a ‘Gallows Cross’. This location is on the edge of town and at a road intersection. Another term for gallows in Devonshire is the vernacular word ‘gallise‘ and slightly off track is the word ‘gallitrap‘. A gallitrap or ‘gallows trap‘ was supposedly a mysterious circle and should anyone who had committed a public offence enter one they would be infatuated with there own discovery.
There is little evidence for the presence of medieval manorial gallows apart from the one at Lydford which during it’s time would have been a busy place. It has gone down in history of being the final stage of the infamous ‘Lydford Law‘. Due to the lengthy judicial process of the time it was deemed necessary to pronounce sentence before a trail had taken place, hence the famous lines; “I oft have heard of Lydford Law, How in the morn they hang and draw, And sit in judgment after.”
In much later years the central location for many executions in Devon took place, in Exeter, one such site was located at Magdalene Road and those unfortunate to avail themselves of its service were said to have taken the ‘Magdalene Drop’. In 1815 it is thought that there were around 160 crimes on the statute book that could command the death sentence.
Another place on Dartmoor where gallows were located was actually in the grounds of Dartmoor prison. Oddly enough these were erected at the insistence of the French prisoners of war who at the time were incarcerated there. Trevor James notes; “The gallows erected at by the insistence of the French themselves who wanted the ultimate penalty to be available to them for murder and severe breaches of discipline. The French acted as arbitrators and judges on their countrymen and probably provided the executioner as well, because the British had nothing to do with it whatsoever.”, p.19.
It may be worth looking at the difference between gallows and gibbets as the above hill has been/is known by both names. Gallows were a wooden structure used in the past to hang criminals from as a form of execution. Whereas a gibbet was an upright post with an arm on which the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning or deterrent to others. Who knows maybe at some time in the past both structures were located on the hill ?
Next we come to the hangingstones, as can be seen above some got their names from the ‘hanging’ ceremony during a parish beating of the bounds. In addition a few of them along with the Hanging Rock acquired a legend about a sheep rustler who on returning home got the sack carrying the carcass caught on the rock and consequently hung himself.
For me the most enigmatic of all these place-names is ‘Hangman Stream‘ which is located on the remote eastern flank of Cut Hill. As to what connection this small stream would have with a hangman I know not, unless the name was somebody’s surname who had associations with the location?
The normal name for the stream is the Cut Hill Stream but certainly amongst the letterbox fraternity – Hangman Stream rules. I know the name exists (’cause I’ve been there and got the stamp to prove it, as can be seen below) in some publication but I have a slight problem locating in which one. Over many years I have built a gazetteer of Dartmoor place-names taken from every book, map and magazine I have ever read. The names have been entered onto an Excel spreadsheet each showing a numerical number referring to the publication and page number it appears in. Whilst I still have the main data set thanks to a computer crash (and not backing everything up) I lost the other spreadsheet which showed what number each book was. I have 432 possible places to look for the Hangman Stream reference and no inclination to trawl through them all, what I can say is whichever one its in appears on page 7.
STOP PRESS – just had a brain wave and found it in an article written for the Dartmoor Magazine by Tom Greeves so it must be correct: “Above Broad Marsh are shown Hangman Stream and Cut Combe, Eric Hemery records these two as Cut Hill Stream and Cut Lane Stream respectively.”, p.7. –
The final and probably saddest place-name is that of Hangman’s Pit/Hole/ Hollow as it is the location of a well documented suicide whose story is told on the above link.
As listed above we also have a Lynch Tor on Dartmoor but this has nothing to do directly with hanging and I have used some poetic licence to include it. In fact Gover et. al. suggest that in the 1240 Perambulation the tor was documented as being Lullingsfote. The ‘Lullyng‘ element possibly being the name of the hill and the fote being ‘foot’ thus giving the spot as ‘at the foot of Lulling hill‘., p.195. So you see nothing at all to do with hanging.
If time and distance was permitted there would be a lot more information on this topic to be found in the Devon Local Studies Library, unfortunately it’s not. But hopefully this page gives a very brief insight into Dartmoor place-names and the ‘hanging’ connection associated with their locations.
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A., & Stenton, F. M. 1992 The Place-Names of Devon, Nottingham: English Place Name Soc.
Greeves, T. 1991. Placenames of Dartmoor Lost and Found – The Dartmoor Magazine – No.35. Brixham: Quay Publications.
James, T. 2013. Prisoners of War at Dartmoor. North Carolina: McFarland & Co.