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Romancing the Gibbet

In this haunting Halloween special, Steve Poole from the University of the West of England takes us behind the scenes of 'Romancing the Gibbet'. Fusing historical research and poetic response this unique project revisits sites of extraordinary public punishment in Georgian England.

Dark tourism in rural England

Ralph Hoyte and I first came up with the idea for 'Romancing the Gibbet' in 2014 and pitched it to the very first Being Human festival. The premise being: Ralph is a poet concerned with embedding language in landscape, a situated poetry working in tandem with the experience of 'place'. I am a social historian interested in the representation of emotional trauma in the historic environment. What might we make if we worked together? In 2014, Ralph was developing digital conversations between the Romantic poets Coleridge and the Wordsworths in the late 18th century and I was completing some research about the extraordinary and occasional practice of hanging criminals at remote rural crime scenes in the same period. In many cases, the executed body was then left to slowly decompose in an iron gibbet cage suspended high over the landscape.

Listen to Ralph and Steve talk through 'Romancing the Gibbet'.

Fusing historical research and poetic response

Traditional histories assess the evidence surrounding events like these but struggle to represent their emotional and affective impact on the environment in which they were staged and in the consciousness of the people that witnessed them. We wondered whether a fusion of historical research and poetic response, cast as a situated performance piece close to an execution site could get us (and a local audience) closer to understanding the process as it was conceived by contemporaries – as a deep and indelible mark on the collective memory of a community. So, augmented by a live soundscape created by the environmental artist Michael Fairfax, we staged two bespoke Being Human performances along these lines at Warminster, Wiltshire (where two men were hanged on a hill overlooking the town after murdering a farmer and his servant in 1813) and at Nether Stowey, Somerset (where a man was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1789). Built around lengthy balladic interpretations, these went down astonishingly well and attracted a brilliantly mixed audience of local history buffs, creative writing fans and curious local residents. Our next objective was to make some more permanent immersive landscape interventions, adapting the performance pieces and making them more accessible. Ralph and I had both worked a lot with creative digital audio as an interpretation tool so we next threw that experience into building four geo-located ‘Romancing the Gibbet’ app downloads. We added two new poetry commissions: a fratricidal killing in the estuary at Avonmouth in 1741 and the murder of a labourer on a hill overlooking Chipping Camden in 1772. These immersive landscape trails are designed for use with smartphone and headphones in the environment they commemorate. They are not linear guides and they do not offer ‘information’ as such, rather we see them as situated sound pieces triggered by past events.

A man in a suit reads from paper on a music stand

Creative collaborations

At this year’s Being Human festival we’re sharing this work and inviting audiences and communities in each of the four locations to engage with historical discussion, sample performance pieces and specially laid out audio trail tasters. Why have we stuck with this project for five years now? Partly because we are still learning how our understanding of the world, and what it is to be a human in it, is affected by a finely tuned balance between reason and emotion. Historians haven’t always found it easy to work with imaginative reconstruction, with empathy or with feeling - but here was an historical practice deliberately designed to traumatise, to emotionally scar and to change for generations the ways in which the landscape was read and understood. What’s more, 18th century people often used poetry themselves to record them, perhaps because rational explanation was never quite enough. For heritage interpretation, making sense of emotional currents and their relationship to the conventional archive, material culture and the natural world seems to me absolutely vital. And working collaboratively with creative partners like Ralph has changed the way I think as an historian. Creative and even-handed co-production between artists and academics can provoke people to think differently about the past and to ‘remember’ or ‘know’ things in different ways. Collective memories, tied to place, may reveal themselves in evidence-based research, but they may also emerge in myths, fictions and folklore. Poetry works with the spectral traces of a half remembered, part imaginary past and is quite at home in it. But it is no less ‘authentic’ for all that.

'Romancing the Gibbet' took place between 14 and 23 November 2019 at four locations across the west of England. 

Main image: The highwayman Dick Turpin, on horseback, arrives at a tree from which two bodies have been hanged. Lithograph by W. Clerk, ca. 1839. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY