Heads may roll as church declares a skull amnesty

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The Independent Online

A sobering monument may soon be in place for all those who are tempted to commit the crime of cattle-rustling in the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster.

A sobering monument may soon be in place for all those who are tempted to commit the crime of cattle-rustling in the South Yorkshire town of Doncaster.

Legend has it that three skulls, which hung from a parish church lychgate in the town's outlying village of Hickleton from around 1880 until four years ago, belonged to rustlers and were a warning to others of the crime's consequences.

The skulls had achieved a ghoulish kind of immortality in their resting place until 1996, when thieves jemmied out the metal grille and perspex screen behind which they rested, stole one of them and damaged another.

The skulls of the men - who were believed to have been hung for their crimes in the village's Hangman's Lane before decapitation - were then removed to storage within the church and have not seen the light of day since.

Now the skulls may be back. An appeal was launched at the weekend to raise, by next summer, the £50,000 which is needed to repair them and rebuild the lychgate at the church, St Wilfrid's.

The church's Father, Anthony Delves, also declared a skull amnesty in the hope of retracing the two remaining skulls' partner in crime. "We're hoping it may come back - no questions asked," he said.

His efforts to secure an alternative skull have proved complicated though. "It would be difficult, legally, to get a new one," he admitted. "I would appeal to anyone who has a skull to donate it."

The church and local parish council are hopeful of winning National Lottery money to help their restoration efforts. Their impetus has been increased by the need to restore the oak-framed stone lychgate itself, which stood at the 9th century church's entry before it was moved more than a century ago and is now crumbling away.

"We certainly need some substantial outside support," said parish councillor Graham Green. "There are only 250 people in the village and 50 of those are in an old people's home."

There is also the prospect of moral support from Lord Halifax. St Wilfrid's used to be the estate church of his family which still owns land locally.

A new gate at St Wilfrid's will also include the chilling words which were inscribed into stone beneath the skulls: 'Today for me, tomorrow for thee.'

"The words could mean that death comes sooner than you think or it could have been a warning to rustlers," said Father Delves. "We don't really know anything about the skulls but fiction is often more interesting than the truth."

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