Within the ancient village of Alton, on the road towards Great Gate and Cheadle, on top of an elevated spot is a place known as ‘Gallows Green’.
This was the place that local criminals and those found guilty were to be punished or hanged, a practice that took place here for centuries.
It is said the gallows and the use of this place was instigated by the local noble landowners who had just built Alton Castle, Bertram de Verdun.
There are many places within England which bear the name of an ancient site for the gallows within towns and villages and several within Staffordshire.
The site was probably chosen, as was customary, slightly out of the centre of the village but within easy walking distance to allow residents and local people to view the punishments, which they would undoubtedly have done as a form of entertainment throughout the medieval period.
There is now just a solemn commemorative stone on a small island at the convergence of two roads. This stone is flanked by several large ‘marker’ stones which have certainly been here for a number of centuries and have most likely born witness to most gruesome goings on at this place throughout the years.
It isn’t known how many people were hanged or executed here but the number would most certainly be in the hundreds. A pre erected scaffold would have been situated within the adjacent field or atop of the mound where the commemorative stone now rests.
The place has a strange air about it with a curiosity felt that this was the site of great suffering at one place in time.
As someone was led out of the village, brushed through the ancient stone style and knelt on one of the rocks which remain on the site, these bleak, windswept fields would have been the last things they saw.
The site was also chosen due to its relative high positioning and next to two of the main roads into the village. This would act as a warning and deterrent to visitors or those passing though as much as it would to locals who were only too aware of the threat of the noose dangling at the entrance to their village each time they travelled by.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, execution sites across the continent were increasingly situated in fixed locations, with those sentenced for capital offences being condemned to die ‘at the usual place’ at sites such as this.
However in England, between 1720 and 1830, nearly 200 people were hanged on specially erected scaffolds near the scene of their crime, quite often on remote hilltops. Their purpose was to act as exceptional spectacular warnings—particularly to rioters—and to spread the message of law and order in often isolated rural areas.
The most enduringly desired artefact from the execution site, and the one most controlled by the executioner, was the hanging rope. After all, it was, by custom, the hangman who paid for it from his fees. It had been much sought after for centuries for healing.
The rope was a prominent part of British folk medical and magical tradition, as England was the main hanging country in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. Just as people came to hangings to feel the touch of the hanged man’s hand for swellings, so they also came to obtain a bit of the rope for the cure of ague, epilepsy and other ailments.
One woman travelled fifteen miles to attend the hanging of the highwayman, Nicholas Mooney, in 1752, and so obtain a section of the rope. John Brand remembered attending a hanging at Newcastle later in the century and witnessing several men climb the gallows after the body had been cut down to obtain pieces of the cord that remained.
A month after the notorious poisoner, William Palmer, was hanged at Stafford prison in June 1856, a Scottish newspaper reported that a man from Dudley, where the hangman George ‘Throttler’ Smith resided, had recently arrived in Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire, selling pieces of the rope at five shillings an inch.