Scrooby is a country village in the north of the county of Nottinghamshire.
Just to the north of the village, a toll-house used to exist on what was then called “The Great North Road”.
On July 3rd 1779, it was the scene of two truly horrendous and violent murders.
In this largely rural and peaceful community, the tolls were always collected by Scrooby’s toll-bar keeper, William Yeadon. On the date of the slayings, William Yeadon, was being visited by his middle aged mother, Mary Yeadon. This particular evening, he had been playing cards with John Spencer, a man from the village of North Leverton with Habblesthorpe. After the Yeadons had gone to bed, however, Spencer returned to the toll-house in the early morning and attempted to steal the money that had been collected as tolls the previous day. Gaining re-admittance to the building under a pretence that a drove of cattle wished to pass that way, Spencer then tried to carry off the strongbox under the cover of darkness, but unfortunately for everyone concerned he made far too much noise. Later it was thought that he had carelessly rattled the coins in the old wooden box too loudly. Mary and William were made immediately aware of what Spencer was trying to do, but the latter reacted with extreme violence…
“In a most barbarous manner he fractured their skulls by repeated blows with a heavy hedge stake.”
Spencer seized the money and then made the best of his opportunity to ransack the house. The murderer was interrupted by travellers as he dragged one of the bodies across the road to dispose of it in the nearby River Ryton. He was arrested shortly thereafter by a search party, but managed to escape. After he was apprehended for a second time, Spencer was taken to Nottingham and put on trial soon afterwards at the Shire Hall in High Pavement.
There was, of course, only one possible outcome, and Spencer was duly found guilty, taken on foot up to Gallows Hill and hanged on July 16th 1779.
That was not the end of it though, as the rest of his sentence was that Spencer be taken to the scene of his crime in Scrooby, and
“to have his body hung in chains with the hedge stake in his right hand… near the place where the awful deed was perpetrated, on the gibbet post, near the Scrooby Toll-Bar”.
This was after his corpse had been liberally smeared with pitch and tar.
These gruesome steps were taken “in accordance with the express words of his sentence”. More horror was to follow however, as I discovered as I sat one evening flicking through my back copies of “The Armagh Guardian” newspaper. In the June 9th 1846 edition I found an interesting account which was itself quoting the “Doncaster Chronicle”…
“After the lapse of a few weeks, a party of soldiers conveyed a deserter passing by the place, the sergeant fired his carbine, loaded with ball, at the corpse, and hit it, which caused a stench, almost unbearable for several days afterwards. The circumstances becoming known, the party was followed, and the sergeant taken, and on being subsequently tried by Court-martial he was found guilty and degraded on the ranks. Years rolled on, and the body gradually became less and less, until nothing was left but the chains which originally shackled it, and these in course of time fell and were secretly conveyed away. For several late years the post, with its withered and weather-beaten arm, was the only vestige left of that deed of blood which sixty-seven years ago filled the minds of the inhabitants of the surrounding districts with horror. But Time, which levels all terrestrial objects with his corroding breath, had for years past been gradually gnarling this once loathing stump to its core, and on the 15th of April 1846 actually accomplished his task, and it fell to rise no more.”
On the other hand, what is reputed to be the upright of the ancient Scrooby gibbet is currently preserved in Doncaster Museum.
Not surprisingly, after the murderer’s decaying body had been left dangling for so many years…
“the creaking cage and bleaching bones occasioned the haunting of the place by either disturbed spirits, or morbid sight-seers”
The hill, in Spencer’s honour, still keeps its name of “Gibbet Hill”. Nearby is the modern “Gibbet Hill Lane”. Nowadays, of course, Spencer’s rotting bones have been replaced by an owl sanctuary and a garden centre. What may conceivably have been the original toll-house, the scene of this dastardly crime, is still visible on the A638 leading north from the village, just before its junction with the green road.