Romancing the Gibbet: Public punishment and local memory in the Georgian West Country

The occasional, and extraordinary, 18th-century practice of hanging and sometimes gibbeting selected felons (exhibiting their bodies to public view in iron cages) at the scene of their crime, was intended to leave an indelible and exemplary impression on disorderly villages and small towns.

They were often staged in remote locations before very large crowds and were spectacular, expensive and processional events. On a hill top near Over Stowey in 1789, one such execution was carried out upon a Somerset laboring man, John Walford, for the murder of his wife. But why? And what was its impact?

This multi-media Being Human Festival event began with an illustrated talk by Professor Steve Poole on this and other crime scene executions in the West Country and concluded with a specially commissioned performance by poet Ralph Hoyte and artist Michael Fairfax involving poetry, sculpture, music, and sound installation. Their response to Walford's trial and public demise got to the very heart of what it is to be human in extraordinary circumstances.

This event was part of Being Human, the UK's first national festival of the humanities, led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.

 

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