The Ghost Of Whittington Common

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”.

ghost-of-gibbet-lane-william-howe-hung-and-anatomised
The Spook of Gibbet Lane

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.

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8 comments

  1. Interesting tale this. I now live in Wollaston, grew up in Kinver. In August 2009 I had joined freinds in Kinver for a curry. Having got a lift over decided to walk back home as it was a pleasant evening.
    I had consumed 3 pints of Lager with my food, but felt fine and was by no means drunk.
    I walked over the canal past the Vine pub, then took the right hand fork opposite Dunsley Hall which comes out on the A449 opposite the entrance to Gibbet Lane.
    Darkness had fallen, but having walked the lane before and having a small torch on my phone I had no issues with continuing.
    The lane had been recently closed to wheeled traffic due to fly tipping. However the route is well defined, total distance from end to end being no more than 1 and a half miles.
    Everything was normal until I made my way up a slight incline the track bends slightly left at this point. I noticed a sudden temperature drop, I would estimate between 3 and 4 celsius. At the same time I felt a sense of being watched, this was accompanied by a feeling of unease. I am not the kind of Man to be spooked in this way ordinarily, but the feeling was tangeable.
    At this point I suffered a feeling of disorientation, a giddy light headed sensation.
    I pressed on towards Wollaston, or so I thought. But 15 imnutes later arrived back at the A449!
    I have no idea how I turned around and had no sense of this happening at the time. Needless to say I did not try again and walked home along the main road though Stourton.
    At the time I had no knowlage of William Howe or any ghosts linked with the site, neither would I call myself a beleiver in such things. Although what I felt in there has made me question those beliefs.
    Whatever happened in my personal opinion something malaevolent exists in there. No idea what, William Howe? Maybe. If anyone has any further infomation relating to this place please let me know.
    Thanks Jerry 07739288202

  2. Hi Jerry ,
    Thanks for your story, I had my first look at Gibbet Lane and the surrounding area of the A449 last Sunday It still felt eerie to me in the warm sunlight, I certainly would not wish to tackle it in the dark, knowing what I know now.

  3. Haven’t been that way for many years. Walked through there at night with friends (which came out “fiends due to a typo!) a couple of times back in the early 70s. Don’t know that I’d fancy it on my own.
    The point of this is that wasn’t there something in the “Black Country Bugle” in the 70s about a skeleton which had been found buried at the place which I remember as a sort of high point in the lane on a bit of a bend? About where your experience happened anyway. There was speculation that it was Will Howe’s remains, as if I remember right there was something about the skeleton having been staked down with iron, which was apparently done with the remains of gibbeted criminals.
    Can’t remember much now. Someone else may know more.

    1. Hi Dave thanks for getting in touch, regarding William Howe, (my namesake) he first came to my attention when I was given The History of Wolverhampton by Mander and Tildsleys as a birthday present in the late 1960’s and an article of the Kinver Murder was in it. As you said there have been numerous articles regarding the foul deed itself, and the ghost of William Howe in the Black Country Bugle over the years and my post was based on one of those articles.
      It was only when my grandson prompted me to do a little Ghost tale for Halloween that I recalled this incident and I thought it would be of some interest Now finally after all these years I have been over to Whittington to examine the scene. for myself. More on this later.

  4. Thanks for the feedback on this. Over christmas I did pluck up the courage to go back. Although in the day and with my dog!
    Freezing cold and crisp sun was out.
    This time I walked in from the Wollaston side, past the sewage works.
    Taking this route brought me quickly to the spot where I had my experience. I did seem very quiet and you don’t seem to have any bird song in the area at all.
    My dog did not want to hang around and headed on towards the A449 end. I called him back but he decided to just sit about 400 yds ahead and wait for me.
    I’ve had him 10 years and this was a first. Really not sure if any link to the last time, but this was surely out of character.
    Thanks to Billy and Dave for the info. Although I don’t expect I’ll ever really get to the bottom of what happened. One thing is certain though I’ve no plans to go back at night alone!!

  5. We from the Black Country Paranormal Society, have been investigating Gibbet Lane now for a a good many years. We’re not prone to flights of fancy. But, we have experienced some strange phenomena whilst investigating the lane. I’ve heard someone walk up behind me, and when I turned to speak to them, no one was there. I and other team members have heard our names being called. My brother took a photo which we presumed went wrong because the flash did not go off. When in fact when we got it onto the computer, we could make out a pair of eyes. If you track down the Black Country Paranormal Society facebook page, the picture is on there. My wife and two other team members saw a mass type figure, that they say looked like an heat haze pass across the lane in front of them. The lane is well worth a visit and a good place to to investigate for any paranormal group. Just be careful though. You will need to wear good sturdy shoes along with good torch to negotiate the lane safely of a night. Happy hunting!

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