Ewell Gallows

Evidence for the former existence of Ewell Gallows ?

Portion of the 1802 Enclosure Map - click to enlarge
Portion of the 1802 Enclosure Map - click to enlarge

English Heritage's noting in relation to Pastscape Monument No 400880 is of a possible barrow site at Ewell on the Dead Hills, a field name which otherwise could refer to a gallows which formerly stood there. [Surrey Historic Environment Record SHER 1113]

The meadows between Epsom Road and West Street, near the parish boundary with Epsom, are known as the Dead Hills or Furze Hills. A suggestion in Salmon's Antiquities of Surrey that there may have been barrows containing burials here was reported by C.S. Willis, author of A Short History of Ewell and Nonsuch.

In Aubrey's Antiquities of Surrey, Vol. 5 (1718) it is stated that according to a "local tradition there were 7 Churches and Assizes kept here. Some footsteps of these things remain as names of places where dead men's bones have been taken up; and this District and Visitation of the Clergy is called the Rural Deanery of Ewell, which argues this was some considerable place before the incursion of the Danes: for there must be some grounds for such names as these, Church-Field, Gallows-street-Lane, Gallows-Green, Dead-Hills." John Aubrey's Perambulations or Survey of the County of Surrey had been started in 1673 but not in fact completed by him: much of the material was incorporated by the antiquary Dr Richard Rawlinson and bookseller Edmund Curll in Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey. Cloudsley Willis explained, on page 21 of his history, that the information about 'Assizes" had come from Mr John Evans, the Vicar of Ewell in 1718 and went on to discuss the different meanings which could be derived from the word.

The late Miss Margaret H Glyn tells us in 'The Topography of Ewell' from The Register or Memorial of Ewell that West Street was known as Gallows Street until the 19th century and before the mid-16th century it was known as Gallows Lane for part of its length. Gibraltar had formerly been known as Gallows Green.

Cloudesley Willis claimed that gallows stood to the north at the east end of Mr George Goodship's cottages at Gibraltar, which he described as a 'dead end'. [The three freehold messuages known as Gibraltar Cottages* were acquired by Arthur Henry Goodship, beer-house keeper of Gibraltar, in 1914.] It seems most unlikely that there were gallows there in the 18th century and other elements in Mr Willis's story appear fanciful.

In conclusion, English Heritage remark on vague accounts of human bones having been discovered in the triangular area formed by East Street, Epsom Road and the Epsom - Ewell boundary. Certainly in Surrey Archaeological Collections Vol. 35, at page 121, a discovery has been reported of "Cinerary urns buried in the brickfield of Stone and Co Ltd, near Ewell boundary at 'Half-mile Bush' on the Epsom and Ewell road" [Surrey Historic Monument Record SHER 1105 - English Heritage Monument 400858] - very close to the tip of Dead Hills. It appears to the present writer that the field-name is more likely to relate to folk-memory of, or discoveries from, a Roman cemetery at the parish boundary not far from Stane Street [SAC Vol. 94, page 240].

Extract from the 1866 OS Map - Click to enlarge
Extract from the 1866 OS Map - Click to enlarge

Exploring Surrey's Past defines 'gallows' as "A structure used for execution by hanging, usually made of two upright pieces of wood and a cross piece from which the noose was suspended. Gallows were often located at the edges of towns, by roads, or in prominent locations (such as hilltops), where victims could be seen, to act as a deterrent."

Whilst direct evidence is lacking, the western end of Gallowstrete would have fitted the common situation for a place used for judicial executions. The Assize of Clarendon in 1166 firmly established the procedure to be followed regarding crimes, especially the use of the grand jury system. If, therefore, any reliance can be placed on the hearsay cited in Aubrey and Assize Courts were actually held at Ewell during the Medieval period gallows could have been set up there for the execution of those found guilty of capital offences.

In a document from the reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1509) from Westminster Abbey Muniments, translated for Merton Historical Society in relation to 'Morden Fee in Ewell', refers to Richard Vynes holding "in Lyngcroft, four acres of land which formerly were of the said Thomas de Codyngton and they lie next to the royal road called Gallowstrete that leads from Ewell to Epysham and land of John Exham...on the east part.." This would have related to the area noted on the map incorporated in Mr Willis' book as 'Lymecroft', otherwise 'Lyncroft', the great common field which once covered the area between West Street and Chessington Road from Spring Street to the parish boundary. The terms via regia and via publica appear in the Domesday Book of 1086 whilst strataregia, related to a 'street', came into use during the 12th century. After the Middle Ages, a King's Way would have been one of some importance with someone established as having responsibility for its maintenance as distinct from a lesser road (via communa).

Although, therefore, West Street now peters out in a footpath to a bridge over the railway, it could earlier have provided a route to Epsom around marshy ground. In Ancient Epsom, the common fields and ancient roads, Reginald White suggests a route [that he incorrectly associates with The Portway] which, having left West Street "and, passing to the N. of the present S. W, railway, went direct by Epsom Court, then the manorial demesne, to Pound Lane." Nothing of the sort appears on maps of the area from the 18th century or in the O. S. published in 1819 and a way would have needed to be found skirting three watercourses feeding the Hogsmill river through land that has been developed as the Longmead Industrial Estate. On the 1802 Enclosure Map of Ewell, however, there is a hatch, or ancient gateway, in the parish boundary fence exiting Plot 413. A path may also be seen turned northwards through Plot 414, 'In the Marsh', to another exit, heading, it would seem, to the Chessington Road. By the 1866 Ordnance Survey a barrier had been created by the railway track with a crossing from the hamlet of Gibraltar leading to a footpath then running along field boundaries towards Epsom town centre. C S Willis describes the probable route, in reverse, thus: - "Windmill Lane, leading from the direction of Epsom Church to Half-mile Bush and on to Gibraltar, is one of these boundary roads; beyond the level crossing, where it meets West Street, it is found as a deep green lane [sunken road of some antiquity] called the 'Slip', which continued by the side of a mere known as Punch Bowl to the present Chessington Road. Patterson's Roads [from the 18th century] show it as the main road out of Ewell to the west."

On a modern map the "Dead Hills" are represented by a development between West Gardens and the parish boundary together with Glyn School and its playing field. The ancient trackways adjacent to the parish boundary are represented by footpaths beside Sainsbury Supermarket to Fairview Road and round to Hessle Gardens.

Brian Bouchard © 2011


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