27 April 2009

The mysterious Mr Tibbet

At the top of Putney Hill in southwest London there’s a large junction where traffic is shunted off to various directions, with the main road continuing along the fringes of Putney Heath and Wimbledon Common until it reaches wealthy Wimbledon Village.  This thoroughfare is the old stagecoach route from London to the south coast, and the city’s traffic has been using it for centuries – but instead of oxen pulling heavy wagons and four-horse stagecoaches, the road now bustles with a multitude of red London buses, articulated lorries, black cabs, and commuters of all varieties. 

In 1969 the authorities sorted out these competing traffic forces by installing a hefty, brutalist construction: a broad roundabout with motorway-style on- and off-ramps and a spaghetti tangle of under-bridges for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through the centre.

The junction is called Tibbet’s Corner.  Well, actually it’s known as ‘Tibbets Corner’ without the apostrophe, but hey, it’s a possessive, surely?  It’s not the sort of place you’d hang around after sundown – there are no houses near the roundabout and the concrete tunnels are DSC08920dark and spooky.  This effect is augmented if you’ve heard the story that in days gone by the site may also have been the home of a gibbet for hanged highwaymen and other criminals.  Nowadays the tallest structures around are the space-age streetlights that hover over the junction like a pod of alien observers.

The volume of traffic and the size of the roundabout that if pedestrians or cyclists want to pass through the area, they have to use its tunnels.  The only leavening of the grim grey decor is the grassy knoll at the centre of the roundabout, a noisy circle of green that is gazed down upon from passing buses but never picnicked upon due to the traffic volume.  The engineers shaped the dirt in the centre of the roundabout into a low hillock, planted a few thin trees, and re-erected an old sign to remind passers-by of where they’re flitting past.

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The sign depicts a skulking highwayman wearing a long-brimmed hat and brandishing a pistol, obviously intent on surprising his next victim.  It was made in 1936 to a design by a Mr L. Hoare of Fulham, who was a student at the nearby Putney College of Art, and celebrates the memory of a famous highwayman who used to frequent the then lonely wastes of Putney Heath in the days before the highways were well policed. 

In the 18th and early 19th century Tibbet’s Corner was a well-positioned spot for such criminal endeavours.  The top of Putney Hill marked the end of dense settlement, with wealthy townhouses straggling out.  It was also the spot at which horses would be tired from lugging their coaches and riders up the steep incline of Putney Hill. 

The problem with the name of Tibbet’s Corner and the highwayman sign is that while the area was definitely the haunt of criminal ne’er-do-wells and malcontents eager to relieve wealthy road users of their watches, jewellery and purses, the fact remains that there is no record of a highwayman by the name of Tibbet operating anywhere near the spot.  Local historian Clive Whichelow points out that it may simply be a case of mistaken identity:

One thing that should perhaps be reiterated is that there never was a local highwayman called Tibbet.  Because of the sign at Tibbet's Corner it is sometimes assumed that Tibbet was the name of the highwayman, but it was the name of the gate-keeper at the entrance to Lord Spencer's estate.  It is thought that the similarity between the words Tibbet and gibbet has led to the confusion (Clive Whichelow, Local Highwaymen, London, 2000).

Another historian tells a similar story:

The heath was certainly frequented by highwaymen, but none were called Tibbet, although a Mr Tebbit lived in one of the gate lodges here (Patrick Loobey, The Archive Photographs Series: Putney and Roehampton, Stroud, Gloucs., 1996)

And if that’s not enough, it might also be worth mentioning that even if there was a highwayman called Tibbet (which there wasn’t), the sign doesn’t actually depict a highwayman anyway.  That term only applies to robbers mounted on horseback.  The pistol-wielding man on the Tibbet’s Corner signpost would’ve been known as a mere footpad – several rungs lower in the criminal food chain than a lofty highwayman. 

(Directions to Tibbet’s Corner by public transport: from Putney take the 39 or 93 bus; from Southfields take the 39 or 493; from Wimbledon take the 93 or the 493).

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