Beacon Hill in Penrith is one of those places you might like to avoid at Halloween. For, says local tradition, your nose may catch the noisome odour of rotting flesh before coming upon the gruesome sight of a man’s body rotting in a gibbet hanging high above the town.
One dark Tuesday night in November, 1766, a butcher called Thomas Parker was on his way home after a very good day at Penrith market. He stopped off at the Cross Keys pub in Carleton, where he had a jolly old time downing lots of beer and treating all his friends. Eventually, the pub landlord realised that Parker had had far too much and stopped serving him, offering to put him up for the night to sleep it off. Parker refused, and set off to walk the last couple of miles back to Langwathby.Parker never made it home. His body was found the following day not far from the Cross Keys, by the junction between the Langwathby and Beacon roads. His purse had been stolen, and he had been beaten savagely. Investigators weren’t slow to realise that the likely perpetrator was someone in the pub who had seen Parker’s lavish spending and two local men were soon identified; a man known only as Lee1, who had already fled to Yorkshire, and Thomas Nicholson, Parker’s godson.
Nicholson was tried at Carlisle and sentenced to be hung and gibbeted near the spot where the murder had taken place. And so it was that on August 31st, 1767, Thomas Nicholson was hanged in front of a large crowd and his body placed in a gibbet – a ghoulish construction made from iron strips and chains, designed to hold the body in a life-like pose as it rotted away. For seven months, Nicholson’s body hung in the gibbet, crawling with maggots and picked over by carrion birds, until it blew down. The people of Edenhall, perhaps feeling compassion for the man’s local relatives, gathered Nicholson’s bones into a winding sheet and buried them nearby.
Lots of people hereabouts will tell you that Wordsworth, who spent some of his childhood in Penrith, saw the gibbeted corpse as a young boy. I’m afraid this isn’t true; a closer reading of the 1799 part of The Prelude makes this clear. He says that he found himself in an area…
‘…where, in former times
A man, the murderer of his wife, was hung
In irons. Mouldered was the gibbet-mast;
The bones were gone, the iron and wood;
Only a long green ridge of turf remained
Whose shape was like a grave.’
The poem states clearly that he was looking at the old post which used to hold the gibbet; the gibbet itself and the bones were no longer there. Even the ridge of earth was only like a grave, not actually a grave. You’ll note that he also says the murderer has killed his wife, not his godfather. Wordsworth will have heard the story of Nicholson’s execution as a youngster and seems to have muddled it up with another event which happened at Hawkshead, where he lived for a while after leaving Penrith.
The popular location for our ghostly apparition is the Beacon at Beacon Hill; the Beacon itself is a small sandstone tower which would have been there in Nicholson’s time. But the Beacon is no gallows: it was where, for many centuries2, fires were lit to signal that danger approached. It was heavily used when Penrith and the Eden Valley suffered regular attacks from marauding Scottish reivers.
The actual site of Nicholson’s execution was on an eastward spur of Beacon Hill, near Cowdraik Quarry. This piece of high ground, which is now very popular with climbers, would have been clearly visible from the Cross Keys Pub and the site of Thomas Parker’s murder.
In a curious little postscript, until the 1820s, the initials, ‘TPM’, cut into the turf, were visible near this site. Locals say that this was a memorial to the murdered man: ‘Thomas Parker Murdered.’
Nicholson was not the only man to be executed on the hill. Twenty years before Parker’s murder; seven Jacobites caught fleeing back to Scotland were hung, drawn, and quartered here in 1746. I’ve been unable to find out the exact site of these executions, but it will not have been the same bit of the hill as Nicholson, as records make it clear that his execution site was chosen specifically because it was the nearest high ground visible from the site of the murder. On the same principle, perhaps the Jacobites met their deaths close to the Beacon that had been lit the year before to warn of their arrival, in full sight of the threatened Penrithians in the town below.
So, is the famous ghost near the Beacon on Beacon Hill one of the executed Jacobites? Perhaps the identity is not as important as the fact that the hill has seen quite a number of horrible deaths. That’s the reason that, even now, locals sometimes refer to it as ‘Gallows Hill’.
- Lee was later hanged in York for other offences, having confessed to his part as Nicholson’s accomplice in Parker’s murder.
- Some websites written by various branches of the local authority say that the Beacon may go back to Roman times. I can’t substantiate this (and neither can they!), but the 1719 tower was definitely built on top of a previous tower which was around in the 1500s. I’ve also read that it was in use in the 1200s, which makes sense in Penrith history.
I’m just offering a list of books this time, as many accounts are garbled and plainly inaccurate.
History of Penrith by William Furness (1894)
History of Penrith by J Walker (1858)
Ghostly Cumbria by Rob Kirkup (2011)
Legends of the Lake Counties by Gerald Findler (1967)
Wordsworth’s Revisionary Aesthetics by Theresa M Kelley
Oxford Authors William Wordsworth, ed. Frank Kermode