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Weird Norfolk: Cutthroat Lane, where a murderer’s body hung for 25 years after his crime

PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 April 2018 | UPDATED: 15:47 21 April 2018

The Cutthroat Lane street sign in Yaxham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Cutthroat Lane street sign in Yaxham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

The road name tells a story – one of a terrible crime from years past, a woman’s death immortalised forever in two words: “Cutthroat Lane”.

The sharp corner in Cutthroat Lane, Yaxham, where the murderer's body was hung. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY The sharp corner in Cutthroat Lane, Yaxham, where the murderer's body was hung. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

But while it is said to be the bloodthirsty murder of a woman which gave the Yaxham lane its name, it is another crime and another criminal which concerns us today, that of James Clifton (also known as Cliften or Cliffen) who was said to have swung from a gibbet on a tree on Cutthoat Lane in 1785 after attacking and robbing two brothers, one of whom later died.

Peter Poulter, writing in The Journal of October 15 1932, takes up the tale: “Cutthroat Drift is a green track: just passable for a car, which turns off the Dereham Road shortly before the sharp corner into Yaxham village. It winds around a little at first, then straightens, and is straight for a long way, rising and falling over small undulations as far as your eye can see… it goes on and on until it bends a complete right angle and joins Mattishall Road.

“Cutthroat Drift is so named because a young woman’s throat was cut long years ago. Then listen to this: just beyond the right angle bend, in a small plantation, years and years ago, the body of a man was hung in chains. This man, as far as one can piece out from history and legend, was not responsible for the murder of the unfortunate young woman. He hung for another grisly tale. His name is popularly supposed to have been Clifton.”

Having enjoyed a skinful of ale at the pub which once stood on Church Lane in Yaxham on February 11 1785, brothers Peter and Henry Seaman began to make their way home across fields which are now Jubilee Park at around 11pm.

According to the Norfolk Chronicle of February 19 1785: “…they were stopped by a foot-pad, [a highwayman who robs on foot instead of a horse] who knocked them both down with a bludgeon. Peter Seaman was robbed of two guineas and a half in gold, and a crown in silver. Henry Seaman was robbed of his hat only.”

Both men were injured in the attack, Peter more seriously. Shortly afterwards, a man entered a pub in Dereham and an officer spotted blood on his frock coat and arrested him – James Clifton was committed him to Norwich Castle on the oaths of Peter and Henry Seaman and several other witnesses.

Mortally wounded, Peter clung to life for a few days and then died, leaving Clifton – who had previously been imprisoned on one of the Thames hulks at Woolwich when overcrowding at Newgate Prison forced the authorities to turn old merchant ships moored on the Thames into makeshift prisons – facing a murder charge.

Sent to Thetford for the Lent Assizes, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death on March 21 1785.

The Norwich Mercury of March 26 reported: “As soon as the judge had passed the awful sentence of the law upon him, said, ‘I am to be hanged on Wednesday, but if I was to die this minute, by God, I am not the man’ at same time rapped his knuckles on the bar with the greatest violence.”

Executed three days later at Norwich Castle, Clifton’s body was taken back to Yaxham the next day and placed in a gibbet and then strung more than 30 feet in the air from a tree on Cutthroat Lane and the edge of Babley Moor to act as a deterrent to would-be criminals.

“Hundreds of the country people came to see the ghastly spectacle, and the result was that for many weeks the vicinity resembled a fair,” wrote the Norwich Mercury, “on Sundays particularly, booths were erected for the sale of drink, and there were some very hilarious scenes.

“The remains hung for 25 years…schoolboys used the corpse as a target, and boasted that they had ‘chipped a piece off Cliften’.”

Years later, the field in which Clifton had been hung was ploughed and his skull was found – stories passed down through generations recall villagers passing the skull from hand to hand in wonder, a grisly relic of a dark night in Yaxham’s past.

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