The Despicable Dunsdons of Fulbrook
3 March 2021 (Updated 29 December 2022)
The picturesque village of Fulbrook, a mile north of Burford, was the birthplace of three of the Wychwood forest's most notorious robbers.
The Dunsdon brothers, Tom, Dick and Harry, used a cottage across the country border in Icomb, Gloucestershire as a base from which to commit a number of crimes in the Burford area.
They specialised in burglary, theft and highway robbery, once holding up the Oxford to Gloucester coach and stealing £500 (a lot of money in the 18th century).
The Dunston's final score
The Dunston brothers are perhaps best remembered for the crime that eventually led to Dick's death. The trio had planned to rob Tangley Hall but, unbeknownst to them, had been overheard discussing their plans over a drink at one of their favourite inns, the Bird in Hand at Capp's Lodge (an inn no longer in existence, and not to be mistaken for the present day Bird in Hand at Whiteoak Green).
When they arrived at the manor the occupants were expecting them!
The brothers arrived at the manor planning to force open the 'judas hole' (a square hole in the door used to allow the occupants to see any visitors outside without opening the door itself) so that Dick could reach his arm in and unlock the door from the inside. Unfortunately for Dick, both the butler and a local constable were waiting on the other side of the door with a rope at the ready.
As soon as Dick got his arm through the hole, the rope was slipped over Dick's groping hand and his arm tied to the inner door handle. To his horror, Dick was trapped!
Dick cried to his brothers for help. The people inside the manor heard a voice shouting 'Cut! Cut' and there was the sound of the blow of a sword against the door, followed by a scream.
Rather than cutting the rope that bound him, Dick's desperate brothers had severed his arm clean off! Leaving the arm still tied to the door, Tom and Harry managed to get Dick onto his horse and away, leaving a trail of blood behind them.
Dick was never seen again and presumably died of his injury. His brothers were finally brought to justice following an incident during the Burford Whitsuntide Festival in 1784, which took place close to the aforementioned Bird in Hand inn. An argument with the pub landlord turned violent, and one of the brothers fired his pistol at him before being overpowered by onlookers and arrested. The two were sent to Gloucester where they were tried and hanged, their bodies being returned to be gibbeted near the scene of their crime.
Possible gibbet sites
Accounts of the exact location where the brother's bodies were gibbeted vary. According to Westwood and Simpson's The Lore of the Land, the location was Habber Gallows Hill, just off the present day A424.
However, Dr. Katherine M. Briggs's Folklore of the Cotswolds, Christine Bloxham's Folklore of Oxfordshire and June Lewis-Jones Folklore of the Cotswolds all agree that the gibbet location was an oak tree near the scene of their crime at Capps Lodge near Fulbrook on the A361. The tree in question (pictured above) is still marked 'Gibbet Tree' on both Ordnance Survey maps and Google maps today!
Bloxham adds that the initials 'H.D.' and 'T.D' and the date 1784 were carved into the tree and that locals from Fulbrook and Burford would congregate at the tree on Sunday afternoons to see how much of the bodies were left! Apparently the rotting bodies became such a tourist attraction that it began to cause a nuisance and according to Lewis-Jones, the Capps Lodge location was also where the bodies were eventually removed to and buried.
The ghosts of the Dunsdons
Another legend about the Dunsdon brothers is that their ghosts haunt another of their favourite drinking establishments, the former George Inn in Burford.
Apparently, the man tasked with transporting Tom and Harry's bodies back to Oxfordshire after their executions stopped off at the George Inn for a drink en route, thus unknowingly returning the pair to one of their favourite 'haunts'.
It seems that while their bodies were carried on to their final resting places elsewhere, their spirits may have remained in the inn. The strange sounds and inexplicable happenings that have been reported in the building since the 18th century have been attributed to the restless ghosts of Tom and Harry!
- 'The Lore of the Land' by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (ISBN: 0141021039)
- 'Folklore of Oxfordshire' by Christine Bloxham (Tempus Publishing, 2005, ISBN: 9780752436647)
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by June Lewis-Jones (Tempus Publishing, 2006, ISBN: 9780752429304)
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine M. Briggs (B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)