Galley Hill, on the outskirts of Luton, is a site with a grim history. Long ago in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was used as a burial ground for local witches. It was also a place of public executions and it was on this hill that the town authorities built a gibbet, as a warning and deterrent to local criminals, particularly thieves.
Luton was a town that travellers passed through on their way to London, but some residents found easy pickings after the travellers had visited the many taverns!
Thieving was not good for the reputation of the town and the authorities wanted to encourage travellers and make an honest living, selling food and drink to passers through. The town needed a deterrent.
The gibbet was built next to the road leading into the town and could be seen against the skyline for many miles. It consisted of a wooden post with an arm, from which hung the bodies of those who had been sent to the scaffold for theft or violence. The Luton magistrates ordered that the bodies of executed criminals be soaked in tar for three days, before being bound in chains and hoisted onto the gibbet. This was to ensure the bodies would swing in the wind for months before they rotted,
The local magistrates believed this served as a grim warning to all those considering a life of crime.
In the 18th century, the gibbet did its job well enough; criminals were hanged and dangled in chains; travellers returned and the town did a roaring trade.
Then one dark night, a fierce storm swept over Luton. As the gale blew and lightning flashed, the gibbet stood out black against the skyline. Suddenly, there was a deafening clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning hit the gibbet, splitting it with a shattering crack and setting it ablaze. A towering pillar of flames leapt up from the gibbet.
The good folk of Luton gathered and gazed in awe and fear at the fire and soon they had reason to wonder, for something was seen dancing around in the flames and smoke.
The apparition took shape; it was a huge howling black dog. It leapt about in the flames until the fire died down and only the glowing embers remained. Then the apparition gave a terrifying howl, leapt onto the ashes and vanished.
Nobody was certain what the strange dog-like creature was, or how it could defy the flames, but everyone had felt the evil force. Why else would the animal delight so much in the burning bodies of wicked criminals?
At odd intervals after that night, particularly on stormy nights, the black dog would reappear at Galley Hill as if guarding the old gibbet and its secrets. It was said that the hound would collect the souls of the wicked men that passed that way, and no thief or robber could safely venture onto Galley Hill.
People travelling through Luton also occasionally saw the terrible animal. Some said the enormous black hound was as big as a pony, others that it was an indescribable animal, with glowing red eyes and a sinister howl.
It was even said that the creature would block the roads and wise travellers would turn round. Unwise travellers ventured forward and, like the thieves and robbers of old, were never heard of again!