An account of a 19th century spine chilling encounter
Gibbet Lane is no place for the faint of heart as the autumnal gloaming gradually obscures the last vestige of daylight and the dismal cloak of night is cast over the leafy track, a well-trodden pathway between Kinver and Stourbridge during the nineteenth century.
Even today, strange creepy sounds haunt the underbrush which closely hangs the lane. Trees creak and groan in the wind and the lone walker is disturbed by an uneasy feeling he is being followed by something sinister, something stealthy and shadowy – something which blends with the night.
Time was when the moulding bones of William Howe, cut purse and murderer, hung in chains at the side of the lane as a gruesome warning to others who might be contemplating a criminal career.
It was on this very spot almost 200 years ago that William Howe murdered Benjamin Robbins, a wealthy farmer from Dunsley Bank, as these few details from Howe’s trial stated.
Mr Robbins was shot in the chest from close range. The dirty deed was perpetrated on the night of December 18, 1812, market day in nearby Stourbridge, and Mr Robbins was wearing a wel- filled money belt from the sale of a score of sheep at the market.
Despite his mortal wound he was able to stagger home, finally expiring on December 28th. From his deathbed he gasped out details of his lonely walk across Whittington Common of the nagging suspicion he was being followed, then the crack of a pistol.
The crime caused such a sensation in Stourbridge that famous Bow Street runners Harry Atkins and Sam Taunton were called in to investigate the crime. One witness described a suspicious character wearing a dark coat and a tricorn hat with a pistol stuck into his waistband, lurking in the bushes near Mr Hill’s Park. Another witness described how he saw the victim walking up Fir Tree Lane and another man following close behind. “I was struck by the pursuer’s fierce expression”, he testified. “I never saw a more evil pair of eyes in my life”, the witness remarked.
The landlord of the Nag’s Head, a famous coaching inn, recalled a suspicious stranger who had spent most of the day in the pub on the 18th, drinking in the taproom, and seemed particularly interested in Mr Robbins. He described the man as short and thickset, about 30 years of age, and wearing an elegant fawn-skin waistcoat, riding boots and a tricorn hat.
The fawn-skin waistcoat was to prove Howe’s undoing. It was stated a man wearing such a garment was seen to hire a gig to take him to Ombersley. The Bow Street runners were off on the scent that traced their man to the Marchioness of Downshire’s country house at Ombersley, where he was employed, but found the bird had already flown. His name was William Howe, and he had packed his belongings on the previous day and left without notice.
An attendant at the coaching station at Worcester informed the detectives that a man answering Howe’s description, but calling himself Mr Wood, had that very morning arranged for two boxes to be dispatched to The Castle and Falcon, Aldersgate Street, London, to be called for.
The Bow Street men headed for the capital and were in time to apprehend the mysterious “Mr Wood” in possession of the boxes. One of them contained a pistol, gunpowder and three bullets wrapped up in a fawn-skin waistcoat.
The culprit was taken back to Stourbridge where he was recognised as the suspicious charactor seen on Whittington Common by the two witnesses, and also later identified as William Howe by the Marchioness of Downshire’s footman.
The Stourbridge magistrates charged him with willful murder and he was sent in irons to Stafford gaol to await trial. After all the damning evidence the jury retired for only seven minutes, returning with a verdict of guilty – the sentence to be carried out within 48 hours.
Mr. Justice Bayley in passing sentence said, “That on the 18th day of this month you will be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that after you are dead, you will be cut down and your body be dissected and afterwards anatomised.”
The Stourbridge magisrates immediately applied for the body to be hung in chains near the spot were the heinous crime was committed.
Their request was granted. A notice was then posted in Stourbridge town to the effect that William Howe will removed from Stafford this day, the irons in which he is to be suspended being previously fixed upon his body.
The crowds gathered to witness the macabre arrival and followed in a melancholy procession as Howe’s corpse was conveyed to Fir Tree Hill thence named Gibbet Lane, and suspended in chains for “the moral benefit of local citizens”.
Howe’s creaking corpse swung there until it virtually “fell to pieces” and was then interred “on the spot”.
From that time the legend that his shade haunts Gibbet Lane was born, with many sightings of the ghost reported in the local press.
And on one occasion it was considered interesting enough to be featured in that compelling 19th century magazine “The Illustrated Police News” and the drawing of the spooky scene which appears with this article was lifted from that periodical.
The latest report of the sighting of Will Howe’s ghost came in 1940 when a local woman walking along Gibbet Lane on a clear moonlit night came aware of a man following her. She insisted the phantom’s neck stretched, and swayed from side to side as if broken . The figure disappeared on reaching the spot were William Howe’s corpse had hung in chains more than a century before.
Whether today Will Howe has finally found spiritual peace and no longer prowls the eerie environs of Gibbet Lane no one can say. But I for one have no intention of spending the night of the 18th of December on that ghoulish spot to find out; that I will leave for a braver soul than me.