Dead Gorgeous: the life and death of Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby


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Lady Digby“…if she had been in those times when men committed idolatry, the world would certainly have renounced the sun, the stars and all other devotions and with one consent have adored her for their goddess.”[1]

As an acknowledged beauty of the Stuart Age, with a slightly suspect reputation, it was to be expected that scandal and gossip clung to Venetia Stanley’s name. However it was her mysterious demise – which led to suggestions of suicide and allegations of murder, and the obsessionally morbid devotion displayed by her husband after her death, that would ensure her lasting fame.

Sexual adventuress or secret bride?

Venetia Stanley had had an effect on men from the moment she was born. She was born in 1600, in Tong Castle in Shropshire, into a well-connected family. Her father was Lord Edward Stanley and her mother Lady Lucy Percy, co-heiress to the vast Percy fortune. When Lucy tragically died, Lord Stanley had the young Venetia sent away rather than have her presence a constant reminder of his lost love, Lucy.

Growing up in the countryside, at Enston Abbey in Oxfordshire [2], the young Venetia’s star burned bright.  Gossipy polymath John Aubrey, writing several decades after Venetia’s death, wrote of her early life:

“ seems her beauty could not lie hid. The young Eagles has espied her, and she was sanguine and tractable, and of much suavity (which to abuse was a great pittie)”[3]

I’m no expert on the idioms of seventeenth century speech but it sounds rather like Aubrey is suggesting that the young Venetia might just have been a bit of a flirt.


Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby. By Henri Toutin, painted in 1637 (after her death). Via Wikimedia

After Oxfordshire, she decamped to London where she continued to make a stir everywhere she went. In the debauched Stuart Court beauty was everything and young Venetia had it all – perfectly meeting the ideal of the Stuart age with her fine dark locks, alabaster complexion, languid ‘come to bed’ eyes, and as Aubrey so nicely puts it, her ‘bona roba’, her curvaceous figure.

The Stuart Court was a place of great sexual license, but barring one or two privileged exceptions (such as the notorious Countess of Somerset) that license tended to be issued to men only: randy cavaliers could bed whom they pleased with little fear of tarnishing their reputation. The sexual politics of the time was not quite so tolerant of female rakes; money and social standing could offer some protection to a young adventuress but gossip and scandal could be cruel bedfellows.  Venetia was not immune to slander, both during her life and even decades after her death.

Aubrey, generally the most quoted source for her life, claimed that Venetia was the mistress of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset, and had children by him.  In his Brief Lives, Aubrey states that Sackville paid her £500 annually – no mean sum. However, Aubrey is not necessarily the most reliable source, writing decades after her death and often reporting gossip and hearsay as fact. Another possibility is that Venetia’s reputation as a courtesan may be in part due to the fact that her marriage to Sir Kenelm Digby in c1625 was kept secret until after their first child was born [4].

The Ornament of England

Sir Kenelm Digby

Sir Kenelm Digby, c1632, after Van Dyck. Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Kenelm was the son of Sir Everard Digby who was executed following the Gun Powder Plot.  He was a scholar, philosopher, courtier,alchemist, privateer, and general all round clever-dick given the somewhat pompous epithet “the ornament of England”.

“Sir Kenelme Digby was held to be the most accomplished cavalier of his time. [..] He was such a goodly handsome person, gigantique and great voice, and had so gracefull Elocution and noble address, etc., that had he been drop’t out of the Clowdes in any part of the World, he would have made himself respected.  But the Jesuites spake spitefully, and sayd ’twas true, but then he must not stay there above six weeks.'”[5]

I can’t help but think that Aubrey seems to take sly delight in spiking this unctuous description with a little acid.

Theories as to why the pair might have kept their marriage a secret abound: from Sir Kenelm’s mother disapproving of her prospective daughter-in-law’s libertine life-style or considering her a penniless gold-digger to fears that Venetia would be cut off from her father’s will should she marry against her family’s wishes.

65558-1292581897_chastity crushing cupid NPG

Chastity crushing Cupid, Anthony Van Dyck, National Portrait Gallery.

Whatever the truth behind the rumours, Sir Kenelm appears to have loved Venetia deeply and she him.  He commissioned many portraits of Venetia, both during her life and after her death. One such portrait entitled  ‘Chastity crushing Cupid’ – could be perhaps interpreted as a bit of PR for his wife’s reputation as a sexual adventuress.  Aubrey suggests Sir Kenelm was well aware of the gossip surrounding his wife’s (lack of) virtue and claims he said “..a wiseman, and a lusty could make an honest woman of a brothell-house” [6].  For a man who went on to write incessantly about his love for Stelliana, aka Venetia, in his Private Memoirs, it would seem quite a harsh thing for him to say of her.

Even Aubrey concedes that Venetia transformed from mad-for-it party girl to virtuous wife and mother with ease. However the slight twist in the tale of the stolid church-going matron.  Venetia was an avid, and it would seem, successful gambler, and it is alleged she funded many of her good works through her winnings…so perhaps a little of the wild-child remained after her marriage.

Lead Powder and Viper Wine


Lady Elizabeth Pope, c1615,  sporting pale complexion and rouged lips and cheeks, and a vast amount of bosom. Robert Peake, via wikimedia.

Several years of happy and uneventful marriage ensued, Venetia and Sir Kenelm had four sons and seemed ready to slide into comfortable middle age.  Hermione Eyre, author of Viper Wine, a novel about Venetia, suggests that far from being a time of placid contemplation of impending old age, Venetia may have found the transition from youth to middle age extremely difficult.

As a celebrated beauty seeing her charms fade as the years passed, living in a society that judged women on their looks (sound familiar, anyone?), she could easily have fallen back on cosmetics and potions in a desperate bid to preserve her looks.

Certainly the fashionable women (and men) of the Stuart Court were not shy about slapping on the make-up.  Pale complexions and acres of bare bosoms were enhanced and perfected with ceruse a mixture of finely ground lead powder and vinegar. A tracery of pale blue veins might be drawn on to imitate the translucent skin of youth, a lead comb could darken the eye brows. Spanish wool, or Spanish paper (a cloth impregnated with cochineal) was used to colour the lips and cheeks [7] and all of this could have been held in place with a varnish of egg white.  The look would seem to be porcelain doll… with a whiff of omelette…

Ladies might go further than the surface and could take any number of miracle beauty preserving potions…such as Viper wine…filled with such hearty ingredients as baked viscera of vipers (yummy) such concoctions could claim near miraculous effects:

“This quintessence is of extraordinary good virtue for the purifying of the flesh, blood and skin” and “preserves from grey hairs, renews youth, etc” [8]

As Hermione Eyre points out, ladies regularly using lead as their cosmetic of choice would quickly ruin their complexions and must have been willing to try pretty much anything to improve them.   Venetia was certainly a big fan of Viper wine and had been drinking it, so Aubrey claims, at the behest of her husband for a number of years.

Sleeping Beauty….is dead

On the morning of the 1 May 1633 Lady Digby’s maid entered her bed chamber to wake her mistress for her morning ride.  Sir Kenelm had spent the night tinkering in his laboratory until the early hours, he had slept there rather than disturb his wife.  It was he who was disturbed however, by  “That shrill and baleful sound expressing her heavy plight struck my eares.” when the maid screamed in horror upon finding her mistress dead in her bed.  She was only 33.

Sir Kenelm was distraught, Venetia lay in her bed exactly as she had laid down to sleep the night before, a faint blush on her cheek, looking as though she might wake up at any moment.  What he did next may seem strange…he called an artist.  Within two days of Venetia’s death he had Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599 -1641) come and sketch the corpse of his wife, as it lay, in her bed.  He also had casts taken of her head, hands and feet.

Portrait of Death: Lady Digby on her Deathbed

On her Death Bed by Van Dyke

Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait is either tender and seductive, or slightly creepy and stalker-ish depending on your view-point. Portraits of the newly deceased were not unheard of in the Stuart Age, and later, the Victorians were famous for their morbid family portraits of dead relatives. But from a modern perspective at least, the realisation that the subject is in fact dead, is enough to jar the senses and the sensibility. In the modern age we have become so separated from death and the dead, seeing their images mainly in news footage and usually connected with violent or tragic events. This is different, this is not a celebration of the corpse, or a quick snap-shot for the family album, it is a meditation upon death. Sleeping beauty has entered into that long good night that beckons us all.

Suicide, Murder or Misadventure?

Even in the seventeenth century, an age when death came regularly to the young and apparently healthy, suspicions were raised about Venetia’s sudden and mysterious demise.  Poison was suspected but was it suicide, murder or over indulgence in viper wine?  Aubrey reports that gossips said:

“Spiteful women would say it was a ‘viper husband’, who was jealous of her, that she would steal a leap.” (have an affair).

There was also the curious suggestion that Digby was given a letter by the maid, just before Venetia’s death, in which Venetia had enclosed paper that might be of interest to him…what that paper may have been has never been discovered [9].

V0017985 Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne(?). Oil painting by a Flemis Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne(?). Oil painting by a Flemish painter, 17th century. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne(?). Via Wikimedia

An autopsy was ordered by Royal Command, and the famously rotund Dr Theodore de Mayerne was called in.  Digby insisted she had always been healthy, but did take Viper wine for headaches. Upon opening her head the good doctor found “but little brain” and it has been inferred from that, that the cause of death may have been a cerebral haemorrhage.  However due to the time that elapsed before the autopsy was carried out it is likely that the results may have been invalid [10].  Hermione Eyre proposes the theory that the viper wine itself may have killed Venetia.  She showed the recipe to a doctor who said:

“this type of “beauty potion” usually works, if it works, by blocking the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, which can be toxic in the wrong doses. “Hence ‘deadly’ nightshade,” he said. Viper Wine’s herbal elements – not the snakes, which are incidental – could have been used to dilate the pupils, vasodilate the cheeks leading to a healthy blush, and promote euphoria, but if she drank too much, it could have been fatal.” [11].

So was it suicide, murder or misadventure? Personally I don’t think she committed suicide, she was a devout Catholic, attending Mass daily. She would surely have regarded suicide as a sin and a bar to heaven.  I don’t think the evidence supports the theory that that Sir Kenelm poisoned her. His eccentric and obsessive behavior after her death does not necessarily mean a guilty conscience, it could just have been how he coped with the such a devastating and unexpected loss.  On balance, I like the viper wine theory proposed by Hermione Eyre.  If not the Viper wine specifically, one of the other deadly cosmetic ingredients could easily have been the silent killer in this case. However after the passage of time, and the possibility that Venetia simply had some underlying medical condition, it would seem that the true cause of Venetia Stanley’s death will likely never be proven.


Sir KD 3970402594_61d4ac9505The final word should perhaps go to Sir Kenelm, unable to forget the beautiful wife whose sudden death shook his world to the foundation, he retreated to Gresham College and led the life of a scholarly hermit.  He kept the portrait with him for many years, until he lost it during English Civil War.

“This is the onely constant companion I now have…It standeth all day over against my chaire and table …and all night when I goe into my chamber I sett it close to my beds side, and by the faint light of the candle, me thinks I see her dead indeed.” [12]

Sources and notes

Aubrey, John, Brief Lives, available online via Gutenberg Press [1] [3] [5] [6]

Digby, Sir Kelemn, Private Memoirs/Stelliana available on Google Books [2]

Downing, Jane, 2012, Beauty and Cosmetics 1550 – 1950, Shire Library [7],-lady-digby,-on-her-deathbed/ [11] [8] [10][11] [4] [9]



Scratching Fanny the Ghost of Cock Lane


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English Credulity or the Invisible Ghost 1762

English Credulity or the Invisible Ghost 1762, artist unknown.

Scratching Fanny the ghost of Cock Lane was the veritable wonder of the age, or at least a Grub Street media sensation for a few months in 1762. This was a tale with sex and subterfuge, debts and defamation; of a man accused of murder from beyond the grave and a household turned upside down by poltergeist activities. Methodists and Anglican’s went head to head on the existence of the paranormal; celebrities flocked to witness the phenomena even the famously irascible lexicographer Dr Johnson became involved.    As QI quite pithily put it ‘The Age of Reason was put on hold for a few months'[1]

Flatmate wanted – apply Cock Lane


19th Century illustration of Cock Lane

Richard Parsons and his family lived in a house on Cock Lane, a shabby chic area of Smithfield, London. To his neighbours Parsons was a respectable church clerk; however he also liked a bit of a tipple and was not terribly good with money.  That his best friend James Franzen ran the local boozer, the Wheatsheaf, probably didn’t help keep Parsons either sober or in funds.

Fate it would seem was being kind the day that Parsons path crossed that of a genteel couple in need of lodgings.  A deal was struck, and Mr William Kent and his wife Frances moved in to Cock Lane.  Fate must have been in a really good mood that day because it also turned out William Kent was a usurer and readily loaned 12 Guineas to the insolvent Parsons, to be paid back 1 Guinea a month thereafter.  What could possibly go wrong…

Secrets and lies

Canaletto couple small

Detail from a Canaletto painting. Source, internet.

At first Parson’s and Kent must have got on, because Kent soon confided in him that he and his ‘wife’ Frances, Fanny, were not actually married – Kent had been married a few years earlier to her sister Elizabeth Lynes. They kept an Inn and later a Post Office in Stoke Ferry in Norfolk; when Elizabeth had a difficult pregnancy Frances had moved in with them to help out.  Elizabeth died, swiftly followed by the child, but Frances stayed on for a while as a housekeeper.  Soon the grieving husband was seeking solace with his supportive sister-in-law.  Things got quite hot and heavy.  Kent even traveled to London to seek advice on the prospect of marrying Frances, but Canon law at the time would not allow it.

The lovers would seem to have been thwarted. Kent moved to London in an attempt to remove himself from temptation, but Fanny was having none of it and wrote a stream of passionate letters to him.  Kent swiftly succumbed and they soon were living together in London, and masquerading as man and wife (which an offense at the time).  The Lynes family, it seems, were far from happy about this liaison. Parsons, it would seem, was now privy to some quite sensational information about this genteel young couple cosily cohabiting under his roof.


The first installment of the haunting began in 1759 when William Kent was out-of-town.  Fanny was pregnant and wanted company in Kent’s absence so Parson’s 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth stayed with her, sleeping in the same bed.  It was at this time that both heard strange knocking and scratching noises coming from the wainscot.  Initially Mrs Parson’s attributed the noise to the cobbler next door but when the noises continued on a Sunday – when he was not at work – the inhabitants of Cock Lane began to wonder if more sinister agencies were at work….

The situation took a dramatic turn when James Franzen, land lord of the Wheatsheaf and boozy buddy of Parsons turned up at Cock Lane one day to visit the absent Parsons.  He was the reluctant witness to a spectral glowing figure in white shooting up the stairs.  Parsons who (rather conveniently, to my mind) had been coming home at the same time, corroborated the story.

Messengers from beyond

In the eighteenth century the rising tide of Methodism was creating a very populist version of Christianity that was Very Enthusiastic, people actually Got Excited at meetings, Methodists even entertained the idea of spiritualism and messages from beyond the grave.  Just the kind of anti-establishment shenanigans that would smack of Popish superstition to any right-minded mid-eighteenth century high church Anglican.

It in the spirit of the age, therefore, that Mr Parsons began to look for reasons why the ghost was pestering his family.  Surely it had an important message to impart to the living?  The theory was soon put forward that it was Kent’s first wife Elizabeth, returned from the grave to accuse her faithless spouse of murder!

Is it worth mentioning that at about this time, Parson’s had defaulted on his debt to the accused Mr Kent?…And their relations cooled still further when Mr Kent instructed his solicitor to sue Mr Parsons for the recovery of that debt…who would be surprised if Mr Parson’s tongue was soon wagging about that supposedly respectable couple who were actually living in sin…

Fanny Scratching


19th Century illustration of the room where the haunting took place.

The Kent’s moved out, but their troubles were not over.  The heavily pregnant Frances succumbed to smallpox and died on 2 February 1760.  She laid to rest in the vault of St John Clerkenwell.  Even though they were not married they had made their wills in each others favour, so Fanny’s not inconsiderable funds passed to William Kent, much to the chagrin of her family.  Kent was making enemies…..

In January 1762, at about the same time that Kent’s solicitor successfully recovered the debt owed by Parsons, Cock Lane was again the centre of supernatural phenomenon.  Subsequent lodgers had been chased off by nocturnal knockings and scratching sounds.   The young Elizabeth Parsons was reportedly subject to fits and convulsions.  The family was at their wit’s end.

Mr Parsons called in John Moore a local rector, follower of Methodism and sympathetic to the idea of spirits.  It was soon diagnosed  that the spirit now haunting Cock Lane was that of Fanny Kent herself come to accuse William Kent of her murder. Through a series of seances it was established that William Kent had poisoned her Purl (an herbal drink) with arsenic and this, not smallpox, had killed the unfortunate Fanny.   There were plenty of people ready to believe this allegation – Fanny’s sister Anne, for one.  Still niggled at the terms of Fanny’s will Anne claimed that the coffin procured by William Kent had been screwed tightly down so that nobody could tell if signs of smallpox were present on the body.

Grub Street scoop

Despite the eighteenth century’s fondness for reason and general air of enlightenment, there was still nothing folk liked better than a good ghost story.  A ghost story based on a sex scandal and an allegation of murder was even better, add in a hysterical prepubescent girl as the focus of the haunting and you were on to a winner.

Parsons was not slow to cash in, holding nightly seances for a paying crowd.  Soon Cock Lane was the destination for sensation hungry Londoners, noble and commoner, credulous and skeptical alike.  Thanks to Grub Street and the tireless self promotion of Richard Parsons and his supporters, poor Frances went down in history as ‘Scratching Fanny’.

Horace Walpole

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds

Horace Walpole, effete and often acidic observer and pronounced skeptic, witnessed the Cock Lane haunting, as did Oliver Goldsmith and various members of the nobility.

William Kent, only found out what was going on through the sensationalist media reports that abounded and would probably have disagreed with the saying that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’.   Horrified, he swiftly called upon John Moore, Parsons firm supporter, and was able to impress Moore as a respectable and honest man (and one not afraid of litigation).

Kent and his supporters even attended the seances in order to deny the allegations against him.  At one such seance on the 12 January, Parsons 12-year-old daughter Elizabeth, the focus of the haunting, was publicly undressed and put to bed in front of a group onlookers, while another relative, Mary Franzen, ran about the room calling for Fanny to come forth.  When this failed to entice the spirit, Moore cleared the room and was able to persuade the reluctant spirit to attend before allowing the onlookers back in.  During the subsequent communications Kent felt compelled to defended his innocence against the ghost’s accusations exclaiming ‘Thou art a lying spirit…thou art not the ghost of my Fanny.  She would never have said such a thing.'[2]

The Media sensation caused by the Cock Lane Haunting, heightened by nightly seances held for throngs of onlookers, was not just jolly spectral japes, it had created a dangerous public mood.   The mob wanted blood – Kent’s blood.

Who you gonna call?  A lexicographer – obviously


Dr Johnson, by Joshua Reynolds

With the skeptics and the believers skirmishing in the press and the angry mob howling for Kent to be hanged for murder, the Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Fludyer, was forced to take action.  The veracity of the ghost would be tested by a specially selected Committee lead by Rev Stephen Aldrich, vicar of St John’s Clerkenwell.  Perhaps  it’s most famous member was the legend that was Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler not just of A dictionary, but of THE dictionary.  Surprisingly enough Samuel Johnson for all his enlightenment credentials, was actually rather interested in ghosts, and in fact, was ribbed mercilessly for his involvement in the Cock Lane Haunting for some time afterwards.  Nevertheless he left a vivid account of the Seance held on 1 February 1762:

‘On the night of the 1st of February many gentlemen eminent for their rank and character were, by the invitation of the Reverend Mr. Aldrich, of Clerkenwell, assembled at his house, for the examination of the noises supposed to be made by a departed spirit, for the detection of some enormous crime.  About ten at night the gentlemen met in the chamber in which the girl, supposed to be disturbed by a spirit, had, with proper caution, been put to bed by several ladies.  they sat rather more than an hour, and hearing nothing, went downstairs, when they interrogated the father of the girl, who denied, in the strongest terms, any knowledge or belief of fraud.  The supposed spirit had before publickly promised, by an affirmative knock, that it would attend one of the gentlemen into the vault under the Church of St. John, Clerkenwell, where the body is deposited, and give a token of her presence there, by a knock upon her coffin; it was therefore determined to make this trial of the existence or veracity of the supposed spirit.  While they were enquiring and deliberating, they were summoned into the girl’s chamber by some ladies who were near her bed, and who had heard knocks and scratches.  When the gentlemen entered, the girl declared that she felt the spirit like a mouse upon her back, and was required to hold her hands out of bed.  From that time, though the spirit was very solemnly required to manifest its existence by appearance, by impression on the hand or body of any present, by scratches, knocks, or any other agency, no evidence of any preternatural power was exhibited.  The spirit was then very seriously advertised that the person to whom the promise was made of striking the coffin, was then about to visit the vault, and that the performance of the promise was then claimed.  The company at one o’clock went into the church, and the gentleman to whom the promise was made, went with another into the vault.  The spirit was solemnly required to perform its promise, but nothing more than silence ensued: the person supposed to be accused by the spirit, then went down with several others, but no effect was perceived.  Upon their return they examined the girl, but could draw no confession from her.  Between two and three she desired and was permitted to go home with her father.  It is, therefore, the opinion of the whole assembly, that the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause.’ [3]

The Mystery Revealed, 1762, attrib Oliver Goldsmith.

The Mystery Revealed, 1762, attrib Oliver Goldsmith.

In February further tests on the Parsons child were carried out, some produced characteristic knockings and scratching, but as soon as measures were taken to ensure Elizabeth’s hands and feet were in view, all supernatural phenomena ceased.  She was also observed, on one occasion, hiding a small piece of wood about her person.  Some felt that this action was precipitated by the girl being warned her father would be sent to Newgate prison if the ghost was not proved to exist.  It was concluded that Elizabeth’s actions had been carried out at the instigation of her father.

With the publication of the snappily titled “The mystery revealed; containing a series of transactions and authentic testimonials: respecting the supposed Cock-Lane ghost: which have hitherto been concealed from the public.” (attributed to Oliver Goldsmith) debunking the haunting as a hoax, things were looking bleak for the Cock Lane Ghost.

One final macabre turn happened on 25 February when Kent, accompanied by a group, had Fanny’s coffin opened in order to put paid to rumours that her body had been removed to prevent the ghost from knocking.  The body was definitely still there and John Moore was so horrified he was moved to print a public retraction.

Kent strikes back

Vindicated by the Commission and with the ghost pronounced a hoax, Kent now sought legal redress.  After all, the episode had publicly damaged Kent’s reputation and ultimately, had the ghost’s supporters been vindicated, could very well have cost him his life as well.  The Five people were charged with conspiracy including Richard Parsons and John Moore.  Moore and another of the accused paid Kent a considerable sum in compensation and avoided jail.  Parsons was not so lucky and after three stints in the public pillory, during which the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the crowd treated him kindly and even raised a subscription for him, he was sentenced to two years in prison. [4]  Elizabeth was not charged, and seems never to have been visited by the ghost again.

Hogarth puts the Cock Lane Ghost in the pillory

Hogarth puts the Cock Lane Ghost in the pillory


It was reported in the mid-nineteenth century that an artist, J W Archer, visited the vault at St Johns and was shown an unmarked coffin said to be that of Scratching Fanny.  Upon opening the casket he is said to have found the well-preserved body of a handsome woman, with no visible mark of smallpox.  Sounds a bit suspicious right?  Arsenic, after all, is said to preserve corpses  (it was even used to embalm bodies in the nineteenth century until it was discovered to be highly dangerous) [5]. Maybe there was some truth in the allegations….? Kent certainly got through a lot of wives – he was onto number three before Fanny was cold in the grave, and he always seemed to end up with the money….  who knows.  However, call me skeptical, but J W Archer was producing illustrations for a book called ‘Memoir so extraordinary popular delusions’ by Charles Mackay which included the story of the Cock Lane Ghost….perhaps it was all just a bit of marketing hype?

All in all, it would seem to me that perhaps Horace Walpole got to the heart of the matter when he summed up the Cock Lane Haunting as:

“a drunken parish clerk set it on foot out of revenge, the Methodists have adopted it, and the whole town of London think of nothing else.” [6]

Hang on..did I just hear a scratching noise……?

Sources & notes

Kelly, Ian, ‘Mr Foot’s Other Leg’, 2012, Picador [4] [5]  (parts i – iv) [2] [6] [1] [5]

Book Review: Pagan Portals: Hedge Riding by Harmonia Saille


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Pagan Portals: Hedge Riding by Harmonia SailleHedge Riding

I have to make an embarrassing admission here, despite having read a couple of books on hedge witchcraft, I somehow never came across the term ‘Hedge Riding’; hedge diving  – yes – but that is a different story (and I hasten to add, not one usually found in books on esoteric themes!)  So it was with great interest that I picked up Harmonia Saille’s concise volume on that very subject (Hedge riding – not hedge diving – are you still with me?)

Anyway, digression aside, this is a very enjoyable and informative little book that packs a lot of useful and practical information into a small number of pages.  A great jumping off point for further study, this book introduces the reader to the tradition of Hedge Riding – an important aspect of Hedge Witchcraft.

The author explains how Hedge Riding can be used by the solitary practitioner to travel to the upper and lower realms to gain spiritual knowledge and connect with spirit guides.  She provides a concise description of the nature and structure the realms, from the divine spirit guides of the upper realm, through the middle every day realm the lower realm inhabited by animal guides, to the under world inhabited by the souls of the dead.

The author also delves into the history and place of Hedge Riding within Shamanic, historic and literary traditions.  She even manages to gently touch on the sometimes thorny issue of whether it is more appropriate to work with local deities and fauna or non-local traditions you may feel particular affinity with.  The book also contains a wealth of practical advice and personal recollections about embarking on Hedge Riding journeys.

There is a great quote in an old-ish Doctor Who episode “A door, once opened, may be stepped through in either direction” – it seems the same caveat could apply to  hedges as well  – from the outset the author is at pains to emphasize that it requires years of experience and a pretty thorough understanding of Shamanic practice before attempting this….however she does a good job in providing the reader with enough information and step by step guidance to set out safely on this fascinating and universal path.

Harmonia Saille photograph from Moon Books websiteHarmonia Saille has been practicing hedge witchery for 15 years, has authored a number of books and articles on the subject and also runs practical workshops.  She has also lectured on Modern Pagan Witchcraft at a UK university.

Pagan Portals: Hedge Riding by Harmonia Saille is published by Moon Books and is available on their website and Amazon:

More info about Harmonia Saille can be found at:



Whitby Goth Weekend April 2015


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Whitby Goth Weekend.

SMCH_3Anyone who has had a good poke around on this blog probably knows that I absolutely LOVE Whitby Goth Weekend.  Having missed a couple of events over the past year or so I was all set to head off to the home of Goth for the Halloween WGW last year when disaster struck.  Boggle Hole YHA inexplicably decided to cancel all of their bookings over that weekend at the last minute.   Of course by that time there was no accommodation left within a 20 mile radius of Whitby ….Grrrr didn’t they know I needed my Whitby fix?

Anyway, patience was finally rewarded, and this weekend I got to stay in Abbey House (my favorite YHA – right next to the Abbey ruins and St Mary’s graveyard) and wander about a variety of historic settings in Whitby dressed in full Victorian Goth regalia and enjoying some fantastic bands in the evenings.

This years events are special because Whitby Goth Weekend is celebrating its 21st anniversary.  Jo Hampshire probably never imagined how her alternative music festival would mushroom over the years.  These days the Music festival element can seem a little swamped by all of the weekend Goths, Victorian enthusiasts and the ever-growing steam punk invasion, but for those who still remember the original raison d’être for the weekend there were some fantastic bands on at the Spa Pavillion including Abney Park, Jordan Reyne, Manuskript, The Chameleons, Doctor and the Medics and The Damned (to name but a few).

Anyway, here are some of my photos of this weekends event…

First glimpse of the Whitby Abbey.

First glimpse of the Whitby Abbey.

St Marys Churchyard and the 199 Steps

St Marys Church, Whitby

St Marys Church, Whitby

Couple in St Marys Churchyard

Group in St Marys Churchyard

The Woman in Black

Steampunk Piratical types



Heading down into the Whitby from St Mary's

Heading down into the Whitby from St Mary’s

Down in Whitby town

Steam punk general

A First Class Steam punk general

spinal column_sm

The proud owner of possibly the coolest wheelchair ever.

The proud owner of possibly the coolest wheelchair ever.

A group of intrepid steam punks outside the penny arcade.

A group of intrepid steam punks outside the penny arcade.

Whitby Goth Weekend Saturday Night at the Pavillion

Saturday night at the Spa Pavillion - Jordan Reyne

Saturday night at the Spa Pavillion – Jordan Reyne


Jordan Reyne

Jordan Reyne



A Night Walk

View of Whitby


The path through the churchyard that leads to the Abbey

The path through the churchyard that leads to the Abbey


All photographs by Lenora

Whitby Goth Weekend Music Festival


Book Review: Trees of the Goddess by Elen Sentier


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Trees of the Goddess by Elen Sentier

Image taken from Moon Books website

Image taken from Moon Books website

Trees of the Goddess is a great little book, in only 101 pages Elen Sentier manages to introduce the main concepts of Ogham, the Celtic tree alphabet, and its application within the British Shamanic Tradition.

The book provides a primer for tree magic, and provides an explanation of the cycles of the sun and moon before covering the Ogham alphabet and ending with a series of deceptively straight forward sounding exercises and rituals.

As someone only vaguely aware of Ogham and aware of it only in the context of archaeological inscriptions, it was truly absorbing to find out more about the deeper more esoteric side of this alphabet.   The book sets out the 13 months of the year, alongside the Ogham symbol and the corresponding British tree.  A wealth of practical information such as etymology, history, identifying features of each tree,  medicinal uses and folk-lore  is complemented by thoughtful reflections on the deeper concepts at play within this tradition.

The influence of Robert Graves ‘The White Goddess’ is evident and where the author deviates from traditional she clearly indicates it and explains her reasoning. The author seems well aware of the academic debate about the origins and usage of Ogham and while acknowledging this debate, keeps wisely to her own path.

The writing style is fluid and engaging with occasional joyful bursts of very earthy wisdom.  All together I thoroughly enjoyed this book. For a very small book, clearly designed as an introduction to the subject, I felt that it packed in a lot of useful information. I can imagine dipping into this book again and again.  It certainly made me want to dig deeper into this area of study.

Elen Sentier.  Image from Moon Books website.

Elen Sentier. Image from Moon Books website.

Elen Sentier grew up on Dartmoor and the edge of Exmoor.  She grew up steeped in the British Native Tradition and now writes eloquently on the British Shamanic Tradition – both fiction and no fiction.  Trees of the Goddess is part of the ‘Shaman Pathways’ series published by Moon Books.

Trees of the Goddess by Elen Sentier is published by Moon Books and is available on Amazon:




Review: Thinking with Anne Armstrong: Witchcraft in the North East During the 17th Century by Prof James Sharpe


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A Full House

XIR109478 The Witches' Sabbath (oil on canvas) by Goya y Lucientes, Francisco Jose de (1746-1828) oil on canvas Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid, Spain Giraudon Spanish, out of copyright

The Witches’ Sabbath (oil on canvas) by Goya.

Newcastle University hosts a number public lectures as part of their Insights Series. I was fortunate enough to attend last nights lecture by James Sharpe, Professor of Early Modern History at the University of York, and author of a number of influential works on historical witchcraft (listed at the end of this post).  Whether it was simply down to the continued fascination historical witchcraft still holds on the popular imagination, or the exuberantly tabloid headline from the local newspaper a few days before, the lecture hall was packed to the rafters.

The talk was a lively and fascinating look at how witchcraft expressed itself in the North East of England, and whether in this region witchcraft was distinct from the rest of England. Professor Sharpe covered a lot of ground, in what is a very complex subject, in only an hour.  The talk highlighted some of the advances in the study of historical witchcraft in the past thirty years, some of which cast into doubt some of the received wisdom regarding the witch craze. Here are some of the elements of the lecture that I found particularly interesting.

The influence of Scotland in North East England

Burning a witch at the stake.  16th Century European Woodcut

Burning a witch at the stake. 16th Century European Woodcut

One of the determining features Professor Sharpe identified in possibly distinguishing North East witchcraft and witch hunts from the rest of England,  may have been the region’s proximity to Scotland.  In Scotland, Prof Sharpe noted that there had been an aggressive Reformation which when coupled with a de-centralised judicial system (where the local laird or lawyer could be responsible for prosecuting accused witches, possibly for financial gain) may have created an atmosphere in which witch hunts thrived.  Historical records suggest 2000 witches were executed in Scotland (preferred method: burning), as compared to 500 recorded executions in England (preferred method: hanging) – basically you were 12 times more likely to be executed as a witch in Scotland than in England.  I have to say, I was surprised by the comparatively low figures for executions for England (and even Scotland) – Professor Sharpe quoted figures of 40,000 executions across Europe during this period (80% of which were women). There may be many people particularly in the Pagan community who may strongly disagree with these numbers; but it is worth considering that however many were actually executed, the fact that anybody was persecuted or executed for witchcraft is in itself a tragedy.

One possible example of the influence of Scotland on the North East of England can be found in a rather chilling footnote in relation to a case tried by the Ecclesiastical Courts in Berwick in 1599. A man was accused of fornication, his wife was accused of witchcraft, he was let off,  she was burned at the stake over the border in Scotland.  But perhaps Berwick, with its constantly shifting border was a special case.

The Newcastle Witch Trials

Nevertheless, Newcastle has the dubious honour of being the scene to one of the largest witch hunts in England in the seventeenth century (only Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in Essex and East Anglia could boast a higher head count).  Perhaps this was indeed down to the proximity with Scotland.  And, lets face it, the authorities in Newcastle called a Scottish Witch Pricker to examine the accused witches – so there must have been links.  Professor Sharpe took the time to explain the famous image below which shows the Newcastle Witches being hanged.


The Newcastle Witches being executed by hanging. On the left is the bell-ringer who called for people to make their accusations while on the right, the witch pricker is being paid.

Anne Armstrong and the Witches Sabbat

Clearly the lecture was leading up to the eponymous heroine Anne Armstrong. In 1673 Anne Armstrong gave a startling account of a witches Sabbat to Northumbrian Magistrates, the account is utterly unique in English witch trials.

Anne Armstrong accused Anne Baites of Morpeth of bewitching her and of attending Satanic meetings at what is now the Wellington Pub in Riding Mill.  Anne also accused three other women of supping with ‘theire protector which they called their god in the Riding house.’  Anne’s account contains classic continental elements of dancing with the devil (in this case unusually called ‘protector’), shape-shifting, and an attempt to incriminate large numbers of others (both named and by description) as being present at the Sabbat. Interestingly the deposition also contains one of the earliest uses of the word Covey/Coven (a term only in use for about 10 years in Scotland/England at that time).

V0025811ETR Witchcraft: witches and devils dancing in a circle. Woodcut,

Early woodcut of a witches Sabbat

As quoted in the Evening Chronicle[1] Professor Sharpe said of Anne’s account:

“One of the big things that witches were meant to be doing outside of the UK at this time was having meetings where they got together in large numbers, they would fly there, have sex with the devil and eat the bodies of babies.

“It was a Satanic gathering.

“But this part of witchcraft is absent from England at the time, apart from in the case of Anne Armstrong.”

Frustratingly the historical record is fairly scant as to who Anne was, although it does appear that she lived in Birchen Nook near Stocksfield in Northumberland and was a servant girl at Burytree House.  Professor Sharpe considers that the evidence suggests she was quite young – probably a teenager – which fits the profile for a lot of accusers.  Her vivid account of a Witches Sabbat provides tantalising glimpse into the mind of a young girl who tried to start a witch hunt and it generates so many questions.  Was she local or did she come from Scotland? (Armstrong is a name found on both sides of the English/Scottish border).  How did a young servant girl in the North of England come up with this very continental account of a Sabbat? Was the reference to the Devil as ‘protector’ a sly dig at Cromwell The Lord Protector(!) We will probably never know – as Professor Sharpe commented – the historical record for this period of North East history is very patchy indeed.  One thing is for certain though, what ever other regional/national similarities or dissimilarities, this account of a Witches Sabbat is unique to the North East.

The difference between English and European Witch Hunts

One of the issues that came up in the lecture was: why wasn’t the continental model adopted in England and why didn’t the English witch hunts reach the staggering proportions of those elsewhere?   The view proposed was that England had certain differentiating features:  it was, officially at least, a protestant country and this may have made the parodying the Catholic Mass in a Continental Style Witches Sabbat less likely (a by-product of this would be fewer opportunities for the accused to counter-accuse and cause trials to mushroom as they did in Europe).

In relation to Scotland, England’s reformation had been gentler; and unlike Scotland, England had a centralised judicial system peopled by trained judges. In addition to this serious charges of witchcraft were tried in secular not ecclesiastical courts.  All of these factors combined to create a climate where, despite the belief in witchcraft being almost universal, there was less willingness for those in control to let witch hunts get out of hand.  In fact, Anne Armstrong’s colourful accusations did not result in the accused being executed.

Altogether, this was a fascinating lecture providing much food for thought.  On a parting note, one of the most poignant elements of the evening was seeing the burial list from St Andrew’s church in Newcastle; the list that named those executed for witchcraft in 1650 and who were buried in the Churchyard not a stones throw from where we were sitting.  England may not have had the large-scale witch hunts seen on the continent, or in Scotland, but that should not diminish the individual and communal tragedy that each of those names represented.

St Andrews BW

St Andrews Church, Newcastle. Last resting place for many of the Newcastle Witches. Image by Lenora.

The lecture was recorded and should be available soon on the Newcastle University Website or via itunes:

Books and Articles about Historical Witchcraft by Professor James Sharpe

Instruments of Darkness; Witchcraft in England 1550 – 1750 (1996)
The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: a horrible and true Story of Football, Witchcraft Murder, and the King of England (1999)
Witchcraft in early modern England (2001: second edition in preparation)
In Search of the English Sabbat: Popular Conceptions of Witches’ Meetings in Early Modern England

Other sources—8581831 [1]



Boulton and Park: a tale of Victorian cross-dressing


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Picking up Boulton and Park

Fanny-and-Stella_N_MckennaAs some of you may know, I have been a little pressed for time this year what with one thing and another, so for a well-earned break I recently took myself off to my local bookshop and decided to see if anything took my fancy. Needless to say I did not come away empty-handed (although empty was probably a good way to describe my bank account afterwards). It was on this foray that purely by chance I picked up ‘Fanny and Stella’ by biographer Neil McKenna. Mainly, I have to admit, because the cover image had more than a passing resemblance to Emily and Florence of Little Britain fame.

‘Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England’ is a rippingly good read, by turns high camp, archly knowing, tragic, joyful, and utterly gripping from start to finish. McKenna has such a lively style of writing, getting into the mindset of all of his ‘characters’ often to great comic effect, yet not omitting the sometimes eye-watering details of their lives.  ‘Fanny and Stella’ reveals and revels in a vibrant Victorian sub-culture of cross-dressing ‘He-she ladies’, their amorous beaus and the ‘moral majority’ that was by turns horrified and fascinated by them.

Matt Lucas and David Walliams as unconvincing transvestites Emily Howard and Florence Rose from Little Britain

Matt Lucas and David Walliams as unconvincing transvestites Emily Howard and Florence Rose from Little Britain

So, for your delectation, here is a brief jaunt through the lives of the glorious and irrepressible Fanny and Stella.

A Decidedly Theatrical Nature

Ernest Boulton was often mistaken for a woman in mens clothes.

Ernest Boulton was often mistaken for a woman in mens clothes.

From an early age both Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park exhibited a decidedly theatrical bent. Ernest was born in 1848 in Tottenham, son of a stockbroker, and grew into a beautiful boy, so beautiful that he was often mistaken for a girl. In fact he soon found that dressing up as a girl suited his style admirably. His doting mother considered it quaint and playful when he impersonated maids and even loaned him dresses, kept a photo album and joined in when his theatrical friends began calling him Stella. Little did she know that her blue-eyed boy was out on the ‘pad’ nightly, finding pleasure (and extra income) in the arms of rugged chaps from all classes of Society. Stunningly beautiful, Stella lived up to her name and became something of star of the cross dressing demi-monde. Willful, mercurial and petulant Stella was definitely high maintenance – nevertheless she eventually captured the heart of a peer of the realm, Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton and was able to restyle herself, Lady Clinton.

Fanny, standing, Lord Pelham Clinton, sitting and Stella kneeling.

Fanny, standing, Lord Pelham Clinton, sitting and Stella kneeling.

The imperious Fanny Park

The imperious Fanny Park

Frederick Park was born in the same year as Stella, son of a respectable Judge. Never a match for Stella’s extraordinary good looks, she made up for it with style and attitude. Fanny, as she became known, was imperious and haughty with something of the air of a duchess about her – and was fond of littering her speech with French phrases.

By the 1860’s Fanny and Stella had found in each other devoted sisters. Together they formed a theatrical duo. Stella would invariably play the beautiful ingénue, often bringing the audience to tears with her lovely singing voice, while Fanny would excel as the imperious, often comic, matron. Together they flirted, flounced and trolled their way around the West End of London with a band of equally flamboyant confederates such as The Comical Countess and Carlotta Gibbings.

Wild cross dressing balls were organised in particular, by Carlotta, who later turned out to be a very good friend to Fanny and Stella when things turned sour.  In fact one of London’s most famous male prostitutes of the day, Jack Saul, in his Sins of the City of the Plain (an early work of homosexual pornography) provides a vignette of Lord and Lady Clinton en amoureux at one such ball held at Haxell’s Hotel.

Fanny, right, and Stella, left, in theatrical mode.

Fanny, right, and Stella, left, in theatrical mode.

A night at the opera

All might have carried on quite spiffingly for the flamboyant duo and their trail of lovers.  After all, London’s theatre land was full of eccentric, outre people out for a good time: the respectable classes rubbed shoulders (and other things) with ‘gay’ ladies (high-end female prostitutes), male prostitutes, men in drag and ladies dressed as gents. Unfortunately for Fanny and Stella, their very overt behaviour seems to have touched a nerve with Victorian Society (usually fairly good at living with double standards where sexuality was concerned).

As Neil McKenna so succinctly put it

“As sodomites, especially as effeminate sodomites, disguised as women, and prostituting themselves, Fanny and Stella and everything they stood for touched some of society’s deepest and darkest fears of dirt, degeneration, syphilis, excrement, poverty, violence and empheminisation.” [1]

On 28 April 1870, after a particularly drunken and lascivious appearance at the Strand Theatre, Fanny and Stella, accompanied by Hugh Mundell (one of their beau’s) were nicked by the police and hauled off to face charges.


Fanny and Stella arrested at the Strand Theatre

Fanny and Stella arrested at the Strand Theatre

The arrest caused a sensation, equal parts horror and fascination.  The public was morally outraged and strangely titillated.  The unfortunate pair was dragged off to jail and subjected to a humiliating examination carried out without their consent, to ascertain if they had committed sodomy (which was at that time a crime).  The following day, at Bow Street Magistrate they were brought before the judge still in their female finery.  Huge crowds gathered outside the court and the newspapers eagerly reported on every salacious detail.

But Fanny and Stella were not hung out to dry.  Their good friend Carlotta Giddings moved quickly to try to protect them, she had shared lodgings with them and set to work removing evidence from their rooms, she also visited them in jail and brought mens clothing for them so they would appear less more conventional at their next appearance (much to the disappointment of the public who had come to gawp).

The Trial

After several terrible months in prison Fanny and Stella were released on bail and it was in May the following year that the trial was commenced.  They were charged alongside a number of others, some of whom had legged it well before the trial.  Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton, with whom Stella had lived as man and wife,  may be seen as a tragic fatality of the trial. He was said to have died of Scarlet Fever on the day he received his subpoena, but he may have committed suicide to escape the stigma of a trial for sodomy.  McKenna reports that at the time many people thought his death had been faked and he was in fact living abroad, one can only hope.

The Trial, Stella centre, Fanny, right.

The Trial, Stella centre, Fanny, right.

Many witnesses were brought to trial to testify to the louche and raucous behaviour of Fanny and Stella, to demonstrate that these individuals habitually dressed as women and entertained men. The prosecution even pandered to the sensational element of the trial by bringing in Fanny and Stells’s extensive wardrobe of female dress (which oddly enough also included a false beard!)

Police raid Fanny and Stella's wardrobe.

Police raid Fanny and Stella’s wardrobe.

However, with a strong defending council in the form of Mr George Lewis, the prosecution was in the end ripped to shreds.  Not only that, but an alarming level of police corruption was revealed as well as  what could have amounted to an establishment sponsored conspiracy to make an example of Fanny and Stella as a threat to the morals of the nation (and as a warning to the others perhaps?)

One of the key pieces of evidence against the pair came from Dr Paul, with his specialism in identifying the signs of sodomy.  He had examined the behinds of the Boulton and Parks on the night of their arrest, and found unequivocal evidence of dastardly doings. For the trial further medical experts were brought in to back up these claims.  However, by the time the veritable coach party of eminent physicians got to poke and prod at the fundaments of the unfortunate duo, several months had passed thereby giving ample time for any physical evidence to become less obvious. This left the charge of sodomy very hard to prove.

Although sodomy was definitely illegal, simply dressing up as a woman and parading around the West End flirting with men was not actually a crime – however much the ‘moral majority’ might have wished it to be. After all, although Fanny and Stella dressed as women, they often made it very clear that they were in fact men so they could hardly be seen to by trying to trick unsuspecting men into committing the crime of sodomy against their will. Unlike Emily Howard’s constant refrain of ‘I’m a Lady’ in Little Britain, Stella actually wrote to one of her suitors, Hugh Mundell, explicitly stating that she was a man dressed as a woman (this did not put off this keen individual, he still fancied the pants of Stella, such was her charm).

This left the prosecution with the unenviable task of trying to make the nebulous charge of conspiracy to incite sodomy stick, as McKenna noted:

“Not to put too fine a point on it, the case against the four young men was all at sea…..Instead of being tried for the crimes they had committed, these four young men were on trial for crimes they had yet to commit, for crimes they might have thought about, or talked about, or imagined for a moment in their mind’s eye – or not, as the case may be.” [2]

As McKenna points out, this kind of unlimited thought policing was enough send a nervous shiver down the spine of a number of those present at the trial – ‘moral majority’ included.

The Verdict

With the prosecution in tatters, the tide turned in favour of Fanny and Stella (especially after a sterlingly sentimental performance by Stella’s devoted mother as a witness for the defence) and in the end the jury took only 53 minutes to acquit them of all charges.  They were free.

The Final Act

Despite their victory in the courts, both Fanny and Stella left England and headed, separately, to New York.  Continuing in the theatrical professions they found some measure of success but never achieved the stardom they had craved.

Sadly, both died young and probably as the result of syphilis. Fanny died at only 33 years of age, but she did find some kind of happiness across the pond. Stella carried on a trooper until long after her beauty had faded, and died in 1904 at the age of 56.

As part of the sometimes painfully slow road to toleration and acceptance of alternative lifestyles that many people in the west now take for granted (although a significant number still rail at), theirs is a tragi-comic operetta of a tale well worth recounting. Fanny and Stella chose to live their lives the way they (and a significant number of others at the time) wanted to, rather than acquiesce and live the narrow life prescribed for them by Society. They faced opprobrium and censure with great spirit and remained true to their own natures helping to pave the way for those that came after them and for that they should be applauded.  As Fanny in haughty duchess mode might have said – vive la difference!

Sisters:  Fanny and Stella

Sisters: Fanny and Stella

Sources & Notes

McKenna, Neil, 2013, Fanny & Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, Faber & Faber Notes: 1 [280] 2 [289]
Wikipedia, Boulton and Park, accessed 29/12/14
A Gender Variance Who’s Who,, accessed 29/12/14
Off the Pedestal,, accessed 29/12/14
Penny Dreadful account of Boulton and Park,, accessed 29/12/14

Kagyu Samye Ling: A little piece of Tibet in Scotland


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Wat Po Thailand, image by Lenora

Wat Po Thailand

A number of years ago (more that I care to remember) Miss Jessel and I had the good fortune to go traveling around the world for a year.  Our peregrinations took us from the familiarity of the Classical world as expressed in the temples and architecture of Greece, Turkey and Israel, to what was for us at that time the less explored and more ‘exotic’ world of Asia.

I recall being captivated by the fantastical temples of Thailand, India and Nepal.  The shapes, colours and fantastical beasts and carvings. These structures made a lasting impression on me in a way that the safe and over-familiar iconography and structures of European Christianity did not.

One of my regrets was that at the time my budget would not extend to a trek from Nepal to Tibet, little did I know that many years later I would find a small piece of Tibet transported much closer to home.

Sukhothai Historic Park, Thailand, image by Lenora

Sukhothai Historic Park, Thailand

On a damp day in late September I happened to be over the border in Scotland.  Suddenly I found myself walking along a driveway lined, somewhat incongruously, with small Buddhist shrines.  Intrigued by this development I continued walking and soon found myself in the heart of a Buddhist Community in the middle of the Scottish Borders.  It was quite bizarre and utterly enchanting – in a Brigadoon-esque kind of way!

The road to Samye Ling.  Image by Lenora.

The road to Samye Ling.

Nestled in the Esk Valley, in the ruggedly beautiful border country between Scotland and England sits the Tibetan Buddhist monastery – Kagyu Samye Ling.  It was the first Buddhist Centre established in the West – way back in 1967 a time when many in the West were seeking alternative spiritual systems – and it currently  has a thriving community of around 60 people .

The garden shrine

Samye Ling garden shrine viewed from the driveway.

There are a number of aspects to the Centre – the beautiful gardens not least of its attractions, but the most striking part has to be the Temple itself.  It is approached down a long enclosed corridor that terminates in a large stained glass window.  Stepping out of the enclosed corridor into the daylight the visitor finds themselves in a vast courtyard facing the impressive temple building. On the day I visited its jewel like colours and intricate workmanship provided a stark contrast to the grey Northern skies.

The slightly dreamlike corridor that leads to the temple.  Image by Lenora.

The slightly dreamlike corridor that leads to the temple.

Stained glass window at the end of the corridor.  Image by Lenora.

Stained glass window at the end of the corridor.


Samye Ling Buddhist Temple.  Image by Lenora.

On leaving the corridor you are met with the imposing Samye Ling Buddhist Temple – a blend of the modern and the ancient.

Dragon details

Detail from the temple doors.

More details from the temple doors.

More details from the temple doors.


And again…

Perhaps the most moving moment of my visit was when I was standing alone in the silence of the temple, awed by the beauty of the astonishingly ornate and gilded interior.  From the silence rose a curious thrumming and fluttering noise, as I looked about me I located the source of the disturbance: a Robin had flown in through an open window and was joyfully oblivious of the fact that he was hopping about behind the rope barrier separating off the most sacred area of the temple (had he not read the polite notice ‘please do not cross the rope barrier’?)  His total disregard for human protocols seemed a perfect sly dig from Nature – a gentle reminder that however ingeniously humans can express their sense of the spiritual in art, literature or words, Nature  will always, effortlessly, do it better!

Anyway, here are a few more of my photographs from extrordinary Kagyu Samye Ling…Enjoy

Buddha of the lake

Scottish garden

A typical Scottish garden…?

Goddess in the pond20140927_135952Garden_shrineStatue in pond

Votive offerings

Votive offerings tied to the branches of a tree

East meets West:  Tibetan prayer flags and Celtic clooties/rag offerings.

East meets West: Tibetan prayer flags and Celtic clooties/rag offerings.

Kagyu Samye Ling Buddhist Centre welcomes visitors – Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike – and runs a number of courses on meditation, Yoga and other subjects.  You can find out more on their website

All images copyright Lenora.




A little something for Halloween, or ‘Sleep Tight – Don’t let the bed bugs bite”


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The Upper Berth₁

From Punch Magazine 1891

From Punch Magazine 1891

There is nothing more enjoyable during the long cold winter evenings then sitting down and scaring yourself witless reading a good ghost story. It was during one of these rare moments (granted it wasn’t evening, cold or winter but I was by myself!) that I began to re-read one of my favourite ghost stories, ‘The Upper Berth’ by the American writer, F. Marion Crawford. Apparently I am not alone in my feeling that this is one of the creepiest stories ever written. Rumour has it that the master of the ghost story, M.R. James also found the story pretty darn scary. In brief, the story is recounted to a group of friends by the main character, Brisbane who tells them what happened to him whilst travelling to England aboard the Kamtschatka and his grisly experience of the ‘dead thing’ in cabin 105. Below is a brief extract.

“Have you a room-mate?”

“Yes; a deuce of a fellow, who bolts out in the middle of the night, and leaves the door open.”

Again the doctor glanced curiously at me. Then he lit the cigar and looked grave.

“Did he come back?” he asked presently.

“Yes. I was asleep, but I waked up, and heard him moving. Then I felt cold and went to sleep again. This morning I found the porthole open.”

“Look here,” said the doctor quietly, “I don’t care much for this ship. I don’t care a rap for her reputation. I tell you what I will do. I have a good-sized place up here. I will share it with you, though I don’t know you from Adam.”

I was very much surprised at the proposition. I could not imagine why he should take such a sudden interest in my welfare. However, his manner as he spoke of the ship was peculiar.

“You are very good, doctor,” I said. “But, really, I believe even now the cabin could be aired or cleaned out, or something. Why do you not care for the ship?”

“We are not superstitious in our profession, sir,” replied the doctor, “but the sea makes people so. I don’t want to prejudice you, and I don’t want to frighten you, but if you will take my advice you will move in here. I would as soon see you overboard,” he added earnestly, “as know that you or any other man was to sleep in 105.”

“Good gracious! Why?” I asked.

“Just because on the last three trips the people who have slept there actually have gone overboard,” he answered gravely.

The intelligence was startling and exceedingly unpleasant, I confess. I looked hard at the doctor to see whether he was making game of me, but he looked perfectly serious. I thanked him warmly for his offer, but told him I intended to be the exception to the rule by which everyone who slept in that particular state-room went overboard. He did not say much, but looked as grave as ever and hinted that, before we got across, I should probably reconsider his proposal. In the course of time we went to breakfast, at which only an inconsiderable number of passengers assembled. I noticed that one or two of the officers who breakfasted with us looked grave. After breakfast I went into my state-room in order to get a book. The curtains of the upper berth were still closely drawn. Not a word was to be heard. My room-mate was probably still asleep.

the upper birth

As I was reading, I started to think about all the ghost stories both fiction and real life testimonies where the haunting takes place in a bedroom. Often the occupant lies shaking with fear as footsteps and voices are heard in the room; bed coverings are removed by unseen hands; objects are moved; beds are rattled and oppressive figures are felt standing over the bed, at the foot of the bed or scarier still in the bed.

This again led my thoughts on a new trajectory. With all these haunted bedrooms, has anyone ever changed the furniture, and if they have, has the haunting ceased? Are the hauntings rooted to the place or linked to the furnishings? There are numerous stories about haunted possessions such as mirrors, dolls, teddy bears and paintings, so why not a bedroom suite!

A portal to hell?

Image from wikimedia

Image from wikimedia

It is not surprising that bunk beds are considered sinister. It is strangely unnerving to be lying in bed and not be able to see the other person. You can hear noises and see movement but in general, whether or not you are in the lower or upper bunk the other occupant can feel like a disembodied presence. One of the most famous cases of a haunting is believed by the family to have been caused by a cursed bunk bed.

In the spring of 1986, Allen Tallman along with his pregnant wife, Debbie and their two children, Kenny and Mary Ann moved into a house in Larrabee Street, Horicon, Wisconsin. Initially all was peaceful but in 1987 inexplicable incidences started to occur. Doors would close on their own; footsteps were heard; a radio dial moved on its own; chairs rocked and a basement window was removed and placed on the floor. The children repeatedly became sick and the family started to suffer from terrible nightmares. Kenny and Mary Ann also testified to seeing a strange hag-like figure in the bedroom. Kenny’s description of the figure appeared in a newspaper,

I saw an old lady standing in the door of my room. A little old lady, really ugly, with long black hair and a glow about her like fire.”₂

On the TV show ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ Allen Tallman related how he finally had enough of the situation and challenged the presence to a fight. Shortly after this, he was returning home from work in the early hours of the morning when he saw what he describes as something glowing “…inside the garage, an orange red. There were flames coming out of the overhead door. There were two eyes in the windows.” Terrified he ran into the kitchen where he was attacked. His words had obviously angered the spirit who he heard whisper to him once when he was sleeping on the floor of his daughters’ room “you’re dead”₃. Pastor Wayne Dobratz was brought in to investigate and concluded that the presence was not only evil but demonic. Finally the family had had enough and left their house never to return.

The house on Larrabee Street. [image from]

The house on Larrabee Street. [image from]

The family strongly believe that the source of the haunting was that of a second hand bunk bed which they had bought in February 1986. The bunk bed was moved into the girls’ room in the May of that year and it was in that room that the children and relatives saw the figure of the old woman (it would be interesting to know if the basement window was removed whilst the bunk bed was being stored there!). The bunk bed was eventually disposed of and buried in a landfill site. What is fascinating is that despite the local legend which surrounds the house no subsequent owner has ever reported anything sinister or supernatural and the family themselves have never experienced any other supernatural incidents. This does support the Tallman’s view that it was the bunk bed and not the house that was cursed.

The curse of the cot

Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor – the cradle on the left is said to rock by itself

There is a well-known superstition that parents should never place their baby in a cot or use a mattress or blanket which is second hand. Many people strongly believe that these objects can be either haunted or cursed with the spirit of a new born who has died threatening the life of a living child. One woman describes how shortly before she gave birth she was given an old white wicker crib. The first night it was in the house she was awoken by the sound of a baby crying. She finally realised that the sound was coming from the crib. Believing the crib to be haunted by the soul of a dead child, she placed it in the attic and bought a new basinet. This did not stop the haunting cries which continued to be heard even during the day. The sound was so loud that “My mother and even the neighbors heard the shrill cries coming from my house and thought I had given birth prematurely.”₄ In the end she sold the crib and never found out what happened to it.

Maybe that is one of the reasons why I found it so hard to find the stories I was looking for.  People who have bought beds with an ‘unusual’ history normally want to sell them on quickly and decide to omit certain details that could make potential buyers think twice. The exceptions seem to be people who become fascinated by their strange beds and keep them in spite of their history or people who have lived with the objects all their lives and have become used to them.

The haunted four poster


Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor,

Haunted chamber in Chambercombe Manor, complete with fourposter bed and haunted cradle (it is said to rock by itself)

I came across one such story submitted by an Australian teacher to a website on ghosts and mysteries (website link is shown below). In his post he describes how his neighbours at that time bought an antique four poster bed. Strange things began to happen. At first it was just that the cat would not sleep on it, then they noticed a cold damp patch at the end of the bed, later they both began to sense a presence sitting on the bed. They sold it on to a second hand dealer. The author continues that twenty years later he happened to read about a couple who had bought the exact same bed and had experiences similar to that of his old neighbours

“However, they found it fascinating rather than scary. They kept the bed and slowly the haunting progressed. Finally, they were able to make out the form of a woman sitting on the end of the bed, and hear her sobbing. Fascinated, they began the task of tracing the provenance/history of the bed. Back they went through several owners. And yes, all had similar experiences. They included my neighbours from the 1970’s and most, like them, had sold on the bed without telling anyone of the haunting. Further back they researched, through more people. Finally they found a gruesome story involving the bed. A young woman had been attacked, viciously stabbed, and bled to death on the end of the bed…The last couple felt sympathy rather than fear for the young woman’s ghost and decided not to try and get rid of it.”₅

The Great Bed of Ware


The Great Bed at V&A Museum ©V&A Images

The Great Bed at V&A Museum ©V&A Images

Lastly I wanted to write about a very special bed whose history has been well documented and has been a source of wonder for me ever since I saw it on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The beautifully carved oak bed is thought to have been made in the late 16th century by Jonas Fosbrooke, a German craftsman for an inn in Ware, possibly as a publicity stunt. The enormous bed is over three meters wide and weighs about 641kg and is believed to be able to easily accommodate four couples. It is first referred to in 1596 by a German prince staying at the White Hart Inn.  During its long history the bed moved around between five inns in Ware, The White Hart, The George, The Crown, The Bull and the Saracen’s Head. In 1870 the bed was bought by Henry Teale and taken to Rye House, Hoddesdon, as a visitor attraction for his pleasure garden.

Although large beds were not uncommon in public houses where space was at a premium and men often slept in the same bed to save money, the Ware bed had to have been unusual considering how famous it became. Its fame was such that it was even mentioned by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night when his character Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware”. It was also referenced in Ben Jonson’s 1609 play ‘The Silent Woman’ and in George Farquhar’s 1706 play ‘The Recruiting Officer’. There is also a story which appeared in the London Chronicle in July 1765₆ about how in 1689 the bed became the subject of a bet when 26 butchers and their wives agreed to spend the night in it! Not sure how they would have physically managed that but it would have sure given a different meaning to the expression ‘sleep tight’.

The bed is reputedly haunted by the ghost of its maker. It appears from all accounts to be either a snobbish or prudish spirit, depending on which story you wish to believe. One version is that the ghost takes offence to any person of a rank lower than royalty sleeping in the bed and the other that he dislikes couples having sex in the bed. Whenever such a ‘despicable’ act would occur he was reported to take direct action to put a halt to their amorous activities by pinching the couple until they stopped (he must have been furious with the butchers and their wives!).

Ware Drama Society in the Great Bed of Ware, 1964 [Image from]

Ware Drama Society in the Great Bed of Ware, 1964 []

Last thoughts before I say goodnight!

Night time when we are surrounded by darkness and silence is when we feel at our most vulnerable. It is the time when people are alone with their thoughts. Fears, sadness and anxieties built up through the day come to the surface and prey on unguarded minds. It is also the time of the witching hour when it is believed that the veil between the unseen and seen world is at its thinnest and people are most susceptible to demonic and unnatural forces.

If you then start reckoning into the mix the number of deaths, both natural or through murder or suicide that take place in beds; the countless cases of invalids lying in bed, often alone for hours, maybe thinking unpleasant or depressive thoughts and scenes of jealousy and anger as wives and husbands have discovered their adulterous spouses, it is not then unexpected that so many ghost stories take place in bedrooms. What is strange is how few stories both fictional and ‘real’ seem to exist about haunted beds as opposed to haunted bedrooms. It could be that unlike more portable items such as mirrors, rocking chairs and paintings in many cases it is just more convenient to sell bulky antique beds with the house or it could be as I previously said that people just prefer to remain quiet when selling dubious bedroom suites.

Despite how fascinating this topic is, I would just give a word of warning, if you are out looking for a bed, maybe play it safe and head to Ikea!


James McBryde’s 1904 illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad from M R James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Some ghost stories for Halloween…

You can find the F Marion Crawford’s terrifying tale ‘The Upper Birth’ in full, along with several other spine chilling tales, in the Portmanteau of Terror section of this blog.  Enjoy….

Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween!


  1. The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
  2. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost),
  3. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost),
  4. Real Haunted Beds;
  5. The haunted bed,
  6. History Extra: The Great Bed of Ware,


  1. The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford
  2. News from the Spirit World, Haunting Tales: Ghost of Larrabee St. (Tallman’s Ghost);
  3. Real Haunted Beds;
  4. The haunted bed;
  5. History Extra: The Great Bed of Ware;
  6. The Great Bed of Ware;
  7. Ware, Hertfordshire;,_Hertfordshire
  8. Local Legends;
  9. 10 objects believed to be haunted;






Freedom by Luna Ballantyne – 50 Shades meets the Newcastle Witches


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Freedom by Luna Ballantyne

10687939_826441087408888_7700292095574105890_oThis is just a quick shout out for my good friend Luna Ballantyne (aka Ingrid Hall) who is launching the first in her new series of erotic time-slip novels this weekend.

As Zara sets out on her ‘Freedom’ night – to celebrate her divorce from staid ex-husband Pete – she finds herself tangled up in the web of the mysterious ‘Max’ aka the Bastard of Bilbao. Pulled from the flames of a burning pub by a mysterious stranger Zara is whisked away on a raunchy week-long sexual odyssey of self-discovery. Zara soon finds that there is more to her rescuer than meets the eye. Raunchy sex, time-travel and a twisted love that stretches back into the dark days of the Newcastle witch trials – Zara’s life will never be the same again as she looks beneath the mask of the time-traveling highwayman.

The first in a series of erotic fiction, Freedom introduces the character of Giraldo de Logrono otherwise known as the Bastard of Bilbao a swashbuckling adventurer, sexual mercenary and time-traveling highwayman.   As the series unfolds, so does Luna’s unique take on the Newcastle witch-trials: as it is only by traveling through time seducing strangers that the highwayman can break the curse laid on him by the beautiful witch Elizabetha, and hope to rescue her from her fate at the hands of the evil witch-pricker!  Serious history it’s not, but it’s fun, fast paced and sexy!

Join the launch party on Twitter – October 19

If you want to join the fun this weekend, Luna will be having an over 18s only launch party on Twitter, complete with adult games and the chance to win some suitably naughty prizes.

Join Luna Ballantyne on Twitter for her Launch Party this weekend: October 19 between 4-6pm GMT. Use hashtag  #thehighwayman to join in the games.

You can also find Luna Ballantyne on Facebook







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