When I was told the story of a carved wooden stay busk showing a man hanging from a gibbet, I knew I wanted to put my own twist on it and include it in one of my books in The Royal Station Master’s Daughters series.
I heard about it from antique dealer Graham Peters who discovered this unique object in the bottom of a box of powder flasks he bought on Ely market.
‘It shone, there was something magical about it. I didn’t know what it was,’ Graham recalled.
If you zoom in the picture closely, you can see that the bottom half has lettering that reads, John Shilling who was gibbeted March 31, 1786, with the initials M.J. and the date 1795 beneath it.
Curiously, the top part includes the carving of an animal, which could be a pig judging by its curly tail, below which is a woman and a man holding a shepherd’s crook, and the initials W.A. and the 1795 date again. There are carvings on the back of it too clearly showing a galleon ship.
I saw the 11 inch stay busk for the first time last week. It is thick and bulky and intended to fit into a corset; it is impossible to imagine it being comfortable for the woman when it was placed between her bosom.
It was also regarded as a love token, but who would give a love token with a man hanging from a gibbet with an iron frame clasped onto his head?
Graham has investigated the macabre story behind it and discovered that John Shilling was an itinerant labourer who was involved with a huge smuggling gang on the north Norfolk coast. He killed a man called John Raven who was a carrier from Burnham Market and this was the crime for which he met his grisly fate.
Graham says, ‘When I was doing my research I wondered whether someone called Michael Adkins had married John Shillings’ girlfriend who might have been pregnant at the time of his death because later, in 1810, a John Adkins Shillings was hanged for murder, the same as his father. It makes you think.’
Whatever the truth behind it, the carvings on the eerie relic made my spine tingle. I sensed it carries back luck, or a curse, which I allude to in my story line about it in The Royal Station Master’s Daughters at War,
The stay busk is sitting on my desk as I write this and I feel I must return it to Graham asap – and hope no misfortune befalls him!