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Blood and spooks

Gallows

Several years ago I was invited to go to the Blood and Transplant Centre which was in operation on Barrack Road and give a talk to the staff during their lunch hour. After the talk I was asked if I would like to take a tour round the building, to which I eagerly agreed. 

At that time the building was then split into two functions. Firstly for the collection and processing of donated blood and secondly the testing of organs which had become available for donation.

As part of the tour I was taken onto the upper floor which opened out into huge laboratory with windows which overlooked the car park at the front of the building. I was told that this was the laboratory which tested any organs which became available prior to being offered for transplantation in Newcastle. As these organs could become available at any time, staff were on hand 24 hours a day to receive and process them. This was an area which staff didn’t like to frequent during night time as strange things kept happening in this room.  In addition to unusual noises and footsteps, small pieces of equipment often were seen to fly across the room and dark shadows were seen when there was nobody else there. The staff didn’t know the reason for these nocturnal sightings and I said that it was probably because the building and car park next to it occupied the site of Gallows Hole where many a felon met their fate. This was the site of Newcastle’s public gallows.

The gallows was constructed with two upright posts set firmly in the ground with a beam across the top. Local records in 1616 show Newcastle authorities making use of half a ship’s mast and two trees to replace the Town Moor Gallows at a cost of 37s 6d.

In the 18th century hanging was a crude process. There was no trapdoor that would provide a drop to break the neck of the condemned man or woman. The hangman tied the hands and arms of the prisoner to prevent any attempt to escape or interfere with the execution. The rope was fastened to the crossbar with a noose at the other end. A ladder was placed against the crossbar and the prisoner mounted the ladder. The executioner followed and fixed the noose around the neck of the condemned. He then returned to the bottom of the ladder and turned it so that the prisoner swung under the gallows hanging from the rope. Hence the expression ‘turned off’ that appeared in so many press reports on executions. The effect was death by strangulation, which could be long and painful. The body of the prisoner was left hanging for at least one hour and checked for signs of life before taken down.

If there was no court order, which ordered the body to be gibbeted or passed to the surgeons for dissection, the body would simply be handed over to the next of kin or friends for burial.

About the author

Pat Lowery

Pat has been a member of the Lit & Phil for over 20 years, is also a Newcastle City Guide and originally devised the guided tours of the Lit and Phil. Last year she was voted onto the board of the Lit & Phil and is chair of the Volunteers Committe.

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