Echoes of the past: Bethnal Green Tube Station


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The Spirits of the Underground


The lawn

Is pressed by unseen feet and ghosts return
Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn
The sad intangible who grieve and yearn

T.S. Eliot

It is often said of London that it is the most haunted city on earth and nearly every place in the city seems to have its own ghost story. At night when you wander around the streets of London with the buildings both old and new towering over you and the shadowy dark narrow alleyways it is not surprising that the mind can sometimes play tricks. It is not only the places above ground which have become the haunts of the spirit world but also the world underneath. Throughout the maze of tunnels and stations which have witnessed countless murders, suicides and fatal accidents many have claimed to have seen something that they could not rationally explain.


The ghost of a faceless woman has been seen walking behind people in the tunnels at Hyde Park Corner; at Farringdon Underground Station people have seen the spirit of Anne Naylor (also known as the ‘Screaming Spectre’) a 13 year old girl whose murdered remains were dumped on the site in 1758[1]; the spirit of the actor William Terris who was stabbed in December 1897 in the Strand and who used to visit a bakery on the site which is now Convent Gardens Station has been often seen dressed in his frock coat and hat walking on the platform; the Black Nun of Threadneedle Street, Sarah Whitehead has been seen at Bank Station and the transparent form of a woman was watched stroking the hair of an electrician in Aldgate Station shortly before he received a 20,000 volt electric shock from which he emerged pretty much unscathed[2].

bg_shortlistcom_bwAt Bethnal Green Tube Station at night tube workers and users have claimed they have heard the screams and cries of terrified souls in fear and anguish. A famous story recounts how a man working late at the station had just watched the last tube leave, turned off the station lights and headed back to his office to finish off his reports when he heard the sounds of children sobbing. The sobbing grew louder and louder and was joined by women’s voices screaming in panic and other noises which he could not identify. The whole episode lasted between ten to fifteen minutes. Terrified he ran out of his office and headed for the exit[3]. It is believed that he had heard the ghostly replay of the last few minutes of life of over a hundred people who suffocated to death at the station on the 3 March 1943.

A Campaign of Terror

_49007208_blitz_bbccoukThe term ‘the Blitz’ was given by the British Press to Hitler’s bombing campaign between 7 September 1940 and 10 May 1941 which aimed at demoralising the people of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Although it actually refers to the UK wide bombing of cities such as Glasgow, Belfast, Portsmouth, Swansea, Hull, Bristol Sheffield, Liverpool etc. all of which suffered horrendous damage and loss of life it is images of London (out of the 43000 civilians killed during this period over a half were in London as well as one million houses destroyed) and in particular the devastation to the East End which has become synonymous with the Blitz!


A Personal Connection

67495927_3fa1e0db5f_b_c1staticflickrcomFor me the Bethnal Green Tube disaster has a more personal connection. My mother’s family came from the East End and my grandmother and her two sisters remembered growing up and living in the area with deep affection. Living close to Bethnal Green Tube Station they often used it as a place of safety during the worst of the bombing. Night after night during the Blitz my family would make their way to a shelter to wait for the all clear signal. One day when the expected warning siren went off, my grandmother along with her sisters and mother started to make their way to the shelter only to have one of my great aunts change her mind and refuse to leave. Tired of spending her nights in the unpleasant conditions of the shelter she decided to take her chance and remain above ground. My great grandmother frightened for her daughter’s safety sent my grandmother up to their bedroom to reason with her. Eventually after a lot of arguing my great aunt was finally persuaded to leave and relieved, they all made their way to the shelter. When they returned the next day their house was gone.


The bomb had gone straight through the centre of my great aunt’s bedroom, the room that she had been stubbornly sitting in only a few hours ago. My family lost most of their possessions including all our photographs but at least they were all alive, it could have been so much worse. Bombed out they were relocated to Epping which at the time was just a tiny rural village with very few amenities. Nowadays people would think it quaint and charming but for my family born in the vibrant, busy and crowded East End it was like being exiled to the wilderness of outer Mongolia. For them as for countless others Bethnal Green Station was a life saver but on one terrible occasion it became a death trap!

A Place of Safety

For some unknown reason one of the most important policy makers for the home front during the war Sir John Anderson seems to have developed a deep aversion to the use of tube stations as shelters despite them having played an invaluable role in the First World War. Maybe he had a bad experience, maybe he had a phobia of being so far underground or maybe he was just concerned at the danger of having such large numbers of people concentrated in so few places. Whatever the reason his policies eschewed the use of the tubes in favour of smaller shelters dispersed around the city.


A back-garden with Anderson shelters.

In January 1924, Anderson then chairman of the Air Raid Precautions Committee of Imperial Defence ruled out the use of tube stations in all future conflicts and on the 20 April 1939 Anderson now Lord Privy Secretary in his report on war shelters refused to reconsider his earlier position. His arguments included the risk of the spread of diseases due to the lack of toilet facilities; the possibility of injury or death from people falling on to the lines and; most bizarrely of all that people would develop a ‘deep shelter mentality’ and feel so safe they would never want to leave (according to my great aunts that was never a realistic concern)[4].

INF3-294_Road_safety_Look_out_in_the_blackout_-_until_your_eyes_get_used_to_the_darkness_Artist_Pat_Keely_wikiAt first the Government’s position was workable as the light bombings during the summer of 1940 meant that the public shelters were not heavily used but as the bombing intensified general opinion began to turn. Ignoring growing public unrest Anderson (now promoted to Minister of Home Security) dug his heels in and issued a joint report with the Ministry of Transport on the 17 September 1940 to warn people not to use the tubes as shelters except in emergencies. Despite all the policies, warnings and reports people used their own judgement and ignored them. Over the night of the 19/20 September determined Londoners took the matter into their own hands and from 4pm onwards hundreds of people in an act of mass disobedience grabbed their bedding and food and flocked down into the tube stations. Faced with a civilian rebellion on such a massive scale, the Government finally caved in and formulated a ‘deep shelter extension policy’[5]. The policy included converting 79 stations including Bethnal Green Tube Station into suitable accommodation with bunks fitted to accommodate about 22000 people, first aid facilities, chemical toilets, 124 canteens and the recruitment of Shelter Marshals as well as reinforcing the underground flood walls.


20:27 – The 3 March 1943

Although the Blitz was considered over by the beginning of May 1941 London still suffered from intermittent raids. To the amazement of the Government Londoners were well informed about British war strategy paying particular attention to the RAF bombing campaigns which would mean German retaliation.

On the evening of the 3 March 1943 Londoners calmly got ready to spend another night in the shelters. Many had the procedure down to a fine art, sending a member of the family down to a ‘bundle shop’ i.e. left luggage store to collect bedding to be taken down to the shelter whilst other members grabbed food and gathered up the children.


Bethnal Green Tube Station had been fitted out in the same style as the other station. To enter the station you would first go down 19 steps to a landing and then another seven to the ticket hall. From there you would take one of the escalators 80 feet down to the platform. There was room for about 7000 people with bunks for 5000 and the remainder having to find a space where they could. In addition the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green responsible for the running of the shelter had even built a hospital and a library.

The siren went off at 20:17 in the evening and people started to make their way through the darkness which was described as like “running through ink[6] to the station. At first everything was pretty much normal at Bethnal Green Tube Station. People started to walk calmly down the 19 steps to the landing taking care as it had been raining and the steps were slippery. Suddenly ten minutes later everyone heard a loud noise which was unlike anything they had ever heard before. Startled and confused a woman with a small child at the bottom of the steps fell. An elderly man behind her lost his balance and fell on top of the woman. This started a horrifying and unstoppable domino effect with people piling on top of each other. Those entering the station were unable to see what had happened at the bottom and continued to push forward making a bad situation even worse as people were lifted off their feet and carried downstairs by the force of the crowd behind. The whole episode lasted only 15 seconds at the end of which all anyone could see was a huge pile of bodies, ten deep, arms and legs entangled with those at the bottom crushed to death “The stairway was converted from a corridor to a charnel house in 10 to 15 seconds[7]. The people already settled in the shelter were completely unaware of the tragedy which was unfolding above them.


The stairs at Bethnal Green Tube station

A Terrible Sight

PC Thomas Penn who was bringing his wife to the shelter luckily arrived too late to be caught up in it but tried to assess the damage. He crawled down over the bodies finding 200 people at the bottom trapped in a small space. He then crawled back out to send a message for help and crawled back down to try to help those trapped. He fainted twice.

People arriving at the scene joined in the rescue attempt. The injured were taken to hospital whilst the bodies were laid out on the pavements. The dead were later taken to the local mortuary at Whitechapel hospital and when that become overcrowded were brought over the road to St John’s Church. The police surgeon told the coroner that he had been amazed that of the 300 people involved not one was found with fractured ribs.

It took a while for the scale of what had happened to sink in. 62 people had been injured; 173 had been killed, 27 men, 84 women and 62 (one casualty died later in hospital from injuries sustained during the crush). The woman who had been at the front of the group survived but her child did not. The youngest to be killed was Carol Geary she was only five months old. The loss of life was horrendous and not a single bomb had been dropped.

The disaster affected everyone involved; those who had been trapped, the rescuers and of course the families who lost their loved ones. For many what they had gone through, seen or heard haunted them and left scars that never healed. One survivor’s daughter recounted how her mother once told her that “every night of her life when she laid down to sleep she heard the cries and screams of everybody”[8].

A Government Whitewash

The news about the disaster at Bethnal Green began to circulate but fearful of the outcome of any investigation and worried how it will affect public morale, government officials decided that the best course of action would be pretty much to hush it up. The press were censored and not allowed to report on the incident for two days and even when they were finally free to print their articles they were forbidden to reveal the actual location of the disaster. Despite trying to brush it under the carpet somehow the Nazis heard about Bethnal Green and decided to use it for their own propaganda purposes claiming that it had been their bombs which had been responsible for the deaths.


The official enquiry

Initially the idea of an investigation was dismissed as being unnecessary with officials agreeing with Sir Laurence Rivers Dunne that it “would give the incident a disproportionate importance and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids[9]. Eventually a short statement was read out in the House of Commons which simply stated that precautions would be taken in the future to prevent anything like it happening again.

Falling on Death Ears

In his book Rick Fountain presents damning evidence against the Government and their policy towards Bethnal Green Tube Station. He discovered letters from Bethnal Green Council to the Local Civil Defence sector of the Government sent shortly before the disaster. These letters shed new light of what was happening behind the scenes. In one letter the council asked the Government to approve plans to alter the entrance to the tube station to make it safer to avoid a bottleneck. The request was refused. Two more letters were written by the Borough Engineer to the Government asking them to approve changes to the station’s entrance and also the staircase including the erection of crash barrier to slow down the movement of the crowds. Both times the Government said no and that a crash barrier was a waste of money.

The day after the disaster, all the changes were implemented.

The letters were hidden under the Official Secrets Act.

The Government placed all the blame on the Council.


Safety measures being put in place, after the disaster.

A Lucky Escape

So what about the strange noise that had startled everyone in the shelter? Most agree now that the sound was the firing of 60 rockets from an anti-aircraft battery gun by the Royal Artillery in Victoria Park. It was a new defence weapon which had never been heard before and should never have been tested in a built up area. One eyewitness, Babette Clarke had missed her bus and so narrowly avoided being inside the shelter, she said “As they went up they whistled like the bombs did as they came down and that’s what caused the pushing because people thought it was bombs coming down”[10].


A Sort of Justice

It was only at the end of the war that the Government faced by mounting public pressure finally agreed to answer questions about what actually happened that night. The Minister of Home Security Herbert Morrison quoted from a secret report – so an investigation had been carried out. Maybe the Government was worried that one day they would be held accountable. The report cited inadequate lighting (the stairway was only lit by one 25 watt bulb), shortage of supervisors and lack of handrails as being contributory factors but stated that it was the “irrational behaviour of the crowd[11] which was most to blame. He stated that the report was originally suppressed as they had been worried that no one would believe the findings.


War Cabinet report

Not everyone agreed with the report’s conclusions. The Shoreditch Coroner Mr W.R.H. Heddy along with other officials stated that testimonies given from witnesses confirm that whilst people were “anxious and hurrying” there was “nothing to suggest any stampede or panic or anything of the kind[12]. The decision to hold the inquiry in secret was also condemned. For me personally it makes a lot of sense. My grandmother and great aunts often told stories about having to find shelter quickly wherever they were when the sirens went off and the impression I got from them was that it was another part of their lives at the time. Although annoying and unpleasant and at times inconvenient, it was what you had to do and you just did it.

I also feel that blaming the shelter wardens for not being on the scene quickly enough to stop it happening was really unfair. They were doing a difficult job in dreadful circumstances. They were also really short of manpower since everyone who was fit was being called up for military service. Accusing these men who (along with so many others) put their lives at risk on a daily basis of being responsible for such a terrible tragedy was in my opinion a travesty of injustice.

A number of lawsuits were made looking for compensation including the well-documented ‘Baker v Bethnal Green Corporation’ brought by a bereaved widow. The decision was made in her favour. A number of similar cases followed. By the beginning of 1950s over £60000 had been paid out.

Finally a Fitting Tribute

If you are going down the steps to Bethnal Green tube station from the south east entrance you will probably not notice a small plaque attached to the overhang above the step where the first woman fell. It is easy to miss and during the weekly rush hour thousands of people pass under it never giving it a second thought. If you do pause for a moment and look you will read the dedication:-



It is hard to comprehend that such a small memorial could be sufficient to remember an event of such magnitude and loss for the tight knit Bethnal Green community and that it was only in 2013, on the 70th anniversary of the disaster that finally the names of those killed were officially recognised. Up until then the memorial service which is held annually at St John’s Church was always taken up with reading out a list of the names. In recent years some amazing people have wanted to change this. In 2007 ‘The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust’ (a link to their website can be found below) was established to raise money for the installation of a much more fitting tribute to commemorate the disaster. Designed by local architects Harry Patticas and Jens Borstlemann the memorial bronze staircase will contain 173 points of light, one for each of the victims.


Why has it taken so long to be acknowledged? It seems to me that it was simply guilt and embarrassment on the part of the Government. In October 1940 Winston Churchill broadcasted on radio this uplifting message “He [Hitler] hopes, by killing large numbers of civilians, and woman and children, that he will terrorize and cow the people of the mighty imperial city…Little does he know the spirit of the British nation, or the tough fibre of the Londoners”[13]. It must have been tough to have to admit after praising the fortitude and courage of Londoners that it was in fact the British Government’s lack of concern for their safety and refusal to take simple measures to protect them that had resulted in an incident which saw the biggest single loss of civilians in the UK in the Second World War.

All I know is that I owe a debt to Bethnal Green Tube Station which protected my family through one of the worst periods in London History but also ironically I owe some thanks to that bomb which destroyed their home but meant that my family was not in that shelter on that fateful day.

Memorial to the Bethnal Green disaster, Stairway to Heaven.


[1] Anne Naylor’s Ghost:

[2] Ghosts of the London Underground:

[3] Bethnal Green Tube Station:

[4] Air raid shelters:

[5] ibid

[6] Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust:

[7] East end memorials:

[8] Woman Campaigns for Tube memorial:

[9] The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster:

[10] Bethnal Green Tube disaster marked 70 years on:

[11] East end memorials:

[12] Bethnal Green Tube Station:

[13] Every man to his post 1940:

Bibliography & Images

Image credits are shown in the alt text of each image.

Anne Naylor’s Ghost:

Ghosts of the London Underground:

Every man to his post 1940:

Deep Level Shelter Tunnels:

The underground at war:

The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster:

Bethnal Green Tube Station:

Air raid shelters:

Bethnal Green Tube disaster marked 70 years on:

World War II Bethnal Green Tube disaster ‘avoidable’:

Woman campaigns for Tube memorial:

East end memorials:

The Bethnal Green Tube tragedy saw 173 people crushed to death – making it the war’s worst civilian disaster. But why was it censored from history?:–making-wars-worst-civilian-disaster-But-censored-history.html

History house – Britain’s greatest wartime civilian tragedy:

Bethnal Green Underground Tube Station, London:

Haunted London Underground:

Rick Fountain: Mr Morrison’s Conjuring Trick: The People of Bethnal Green (deceased) v The Crown Paperback, 2012


Hell-hounds, Hyter Sprites, and god-fearing Mermaids


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Normal for Norfolk

Weybourne_mill_portraitNorfolk is a strange place at the best of times: a famously flat county dotted with windmills, flint cottages and churches; a land of salt-marsh, sea and sky.  Perhaps some of its strangeness comes from the fact that over the centuries much of the land was reclaimed from the sea – land which the sea still coverts.  A place on the margins of sea and land would seem primed for folk-lore and legends, yet it is not as famous for its folklore as, say, the west country.

Norfolk is densely packed with churches and ruined religious houses, as well as hosting the famous Pilgrimage site at Walsingham. Nevertheless, despite the ubiquity of the church in the county’s history and landscape, there are still many strange folk-tales and legends ingrained in the lore of the county.  From ominous black dogs, to admonitory sprites and determined mermaids. Here is a very brief journey through some of those tales.

Black Shuck

Black Shuck3Black dogs abound in British folk-lore, many counties boast their own version of this phantom hell-hound: Guytrash, Trash and Barghuest are but a few of the names it goes by, depending upon the county or region in question.  Even Essex’s famous witch village, Canewdon, boasts a ghostly black dog.  However, it is Norfolk’s lanes, churchyards, salt-marshes and coastal paths, for my mind, which are the natural home of Old Shuck.  Historically, the county also had a thriving smuggling trade, and smugglers were not averse to ‘encouraging’ such beliefs if it made their covert exploits easier to manage by keeping the idle and the curious indoors of a night-time.

Oft described as the size of a calf, this shaggy dog with glowing red saucer eyes, would silently stalk – or even directly confront – the solitary traveler wending his way along a lonely road at dusk.  Sometimes Old Shuck drags a chain, sometimes he is headless; occasionally he comes as a guardian or protector, but most often his presence forebodes ill to the witness and legend says that they, or their kin, will die within a twelve-month.

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published initially in serial form in The Strand Magazine between 1901-1902, helped introduce the idea of the Phantom Hound to a wider public.  Although the story is set on Dartmoor,  and is most likely based on a Devonshire legend relating to one Richard Cabell [1], Conan Doyle did stay for a while at Cromer Hall in Norfolk.  An estate which encompassed a lane supposedly the haunt of Black Shuck – so there is a slim possibility that this may also have proved some inspiration for his famous story.

The origins of the name have been attributed to the Old English Scucca, meaning Devil or fiend [2] or perhaps a Norfolk dialect word ‘shucky’ meaning ‘shaggy’ or ‘hairy’ [3].  As descriptions often refer to the shaggy nature of this particular cryptid or para-canine (as the author of the very informative Shuckland website prefers to call it), this would seem a fairly logical theory.

Some much has been written on Black Shuck that it is impossible to do justice to the subject in so few words, there are excellent websites out there devoted entirely to Old Shuck.  However one cannot avoid presenting the most famous cases of ‘Death by Shuck’ on record…

Abraham Flemming's account of 1577. Taken from

Abraham Flemming’s account of 1577. Taken from

The Churches at Bungay and Blythburgh in Suffolk, were visited by both a terrifying electrical storm and a terrifying para canine, on the 4 August 1577.  Death and destruction followed. The London-based Reverend Abraham Flemming, in his ‘A Straunge and Terrible Wunder’ provided the Tabloid version of events, based second-hand tales (which the locals might just have embroidered – a tad – with each re-telling…)

“This black dog, or the divil in such a linenesse (God hee knoweth al who workesth all,) running all along down the body of the church with great swiftnesse, and incredible haste, among the people, in a visible fourm and shape, passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and occupied in prayer as it seemed, wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant clene backward, in somuch that even at a mome[n]t where they kneeled, they stra[ng]gely dyed.” [4]

Another unfortunate parishioner was left horribly burned.  Famously, scorch marks were left on the church door and were ever after called ‘the devil’s fingerprints’.

Later that day the storm, and the Shuck, reached a church at Blythburgh with similarly deadly consequences.

It has been suggested, quite reasonably, that the fierce electrical storm, occurring at the same time as the appearance of the hell-hound, is the most likely reason for all the death and destruction (especially when the burn injuries of the survivors are considered).  That, combined with the traumatic religious upheavals of the day, might have led the superstitious people of the parish to translate such a terrible catastrophe, caused in a church (surely the safest place they could possibly be), to  be caused by a malign supernatural agency. [5] It may have made the tragedy easier for them to process.

The interest in Black Shuck persists even now, on a recent visit to Norfolk I picked up an entertaining contemporary supernatural thriller, ‘Black Shuck’ by Piers Warren. Set in the salt-marshes around Blakeney Point, the novel successfully evokes the strangeness and remoteness of the North Norfolk coastline, creating a perfect setting for Black Shuck.  Warren uses a version of the Shuck legend that explains Shuck as the loyal dog of a drowned sea-captain, doomed to spend eternity searching the coastline for his lost master.   While his hound isn’t entirely sympathetic, and is in fact, very much in need of some serious Barbara Woodhouse treatment, it is one of the alternative explanations of the Black Shuck.  To see black dogs as demonic hell-hounds, or manifestations of Old Nick himself is not the whole story.  Perhaps Black Shuck is as doomed as those he encounters, perhaps he is just the bearer of bad news and not its cause.  It can’t be much of an after-life for a loyal hound – becoming a terrifying harbinger of doom.

Hyter Sprites

sepia hytersprite2The most mysterious and elusive Norfolk beastie seems to be that of the Hyter Sprite (also known as hikey, hykry, hikra and ikry sprite)[6].  Rather like Shuck, their name may originate in Old English which contains the word ‘hedan’, or perhaps, the Saxon word ‘Hodian’. Both broadly meaning ‘to heed, guard, keep’ or to ‘take notice’/’give attention too’ [7].  This rare sprite is found in Eastern Norfolk and the North Norfolk coast. Most commonly appearing as an admonition to children – ‘if you go out on your own after dark, the hyter sprites will get you’ they are associated with nightfall, woodland and marshes.  Mostly used to encourage children to be safe and behave, with a mild threat implied that the hikeys will get them if they don’t, they do not seem particularly dangerous or foreboding, unlike the often menacing Old Shuck.

They are a creature rarely sighted and with no clear description to fit. The most famous, and likely misleading, description being that given by Dr Katherine Briggs in her 1973 Encyclopaedia of Fairies and based on information provided by Ruth Tongue:

“Hyter Sprites.  Lincolnshire and East Anglian fairies.  they are small and sandy-coloured with green eyes like the Feriers of Suffolk. The assume the bird form of sandmartins.  They are grateful for human kindnesses and stern critics of ill-behaviour [..]the hyter sprites have been known to bring home lost children, like the Ghillie Dhu of the Highlands.” [8]

Others have envisioned them as bat-like creatures.  But always as protective spirits who warn children from danger and were possessed of had bird-like qualities.   However not all descriptions were so favorable, one tale collected by Daniel Allen Rabuzzi during his researches found an alarming description provided by the aged aunt of one informant – the protective little hyter sprite was transformed into ‘a spindley-legged light-footed blooksucker’  that haunted the salt-marshes and kept locals safely in their cottages at night….no doubt much to the benefit of local smugglers.


An unlikely sprite

Oddly enough, there is no definitive description of a hyter sprite.  In fact, Rabuzzi comments that in comparison the many recorded sightings of the supernatural beastie, Black Shuck, there appeared to be few if any recorded sightings of hyter sprites.   This lead him to the conclusion that they were not in any sense a fully fledged fairy folk tradition, but rather were ‘heeder spirits’ that represented a ‘folk-expression’. Primarily used to admonish children and discourage them from taking risks, rather than creating any real expectation of an actual encounter.  A bit like a mildly threatening Easter bunny (and distinctly preferable to spindle-legged blood-suckers, in my mind at least).

The Mermaid of Upper Sheringham

Oddly enough, although considered freakish, mermaids were actually thought to exist within nature, certainly during the medieval period and even beyond (a belief that the showman Barnum famously capitalized on, in the 19th century).

No coastal village would be complete without at least one Mermaids tale… and the Mermaid_Upper Sher2small fishing village of Sheringham is no different.  A mile or so up the hill from the bucket and spade paradise of Sheringham, is the quieter village of Upper Sheringham.  In the 14th century village church, All Saints, is the remnant of a very fishy tale indeed.

The pews in the church date from the 15th century, and the bench ends contain many a fantastical beastie, but one in particular draws the visitor, the pew by the north door is adorned with a somewhat stocky and rather burly mermaid.  Looking distinctly unsiren-like this mermaid is commemorated with an inscribed tale which goes something like this:


A mermaid’s tale

A mermaid decided to visit the parish church at Syringham (Sheringham) and managed to flip and flap her way from the seashore, up the hill to All Saints church in the village of Upper Sheringham.  Some say she came seeking a soul, and so, with her goal almost in sight, she pushed open the north door of the church.  A service was in progress and the beadle, seeing a slippery siren trying to gain admission, somewhat unchivalrously slammed the door in the unfortunate fish lady’s face, exclaiming ‘Git ew arn owt, we carn’t hev noo marmeards in ‘are!’

Not to be deterred – mermaids may suffer from a bit of a bad reputation at times, but they are descended from an Assyrian goddess after all – the mermaid bided her time, and when a suitable opportunity arose, she pushed open the north door of the church and slithered into the pew at the back of the church.   And here she remains to this day.  Whether she gained a soul – or was truly in want of one – nobody knows.

Mermaids, despite their divine ancestry suffered from very bad PR during Christian times, often being used as a symbol of vanity and sexuality, prostitution and earthly vices.  It has been suggested that perhaps the little mermaid in All Saints could commemorate an unwelcome visit to the church by a prostitute [9] however appealing this interpretation is,  personally I think it is more likely just down to the imagination of the medieval carver – either coloured by local lore or on the order of the parish priest, to illustrate a moral tale.

From the ill-omened supernatural cryptid, Old Shuck, to the pseudo real creatures mermaids, and the heeder spirit folk-expression that is the hyter sprite, Norfolk would seem as rich in folk traditions as it is in medieval churches.

All Saints_UpperSher_retrp


Sources and notes

Images – all images copyright Lenora unless otherwise stated. [9]

Pickering, David, ‘Cassell’s Dictionary of Superstitions’ Cassell

Rabuzzi, Daniel Allen, ‘In Pursuit of Norfolk’s Hyter Sprites’  Folklore vol.95 No.1  (1984), pp 74-89 (available on JStor) [2] [6] [7] [8]

Simpson, Jacqueline and Round, Steve, ‘Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore’ Oxford, 2000

Timpson, John, ‘Timpson’s Norfolk Notebook’, Acorn, 2001

Trubshaw, Bob, ‘Black dogs in folklore’ At the Edge archive

Warren, Piers, Black Shuck [3] [4] [5] [1]


Ghosts, deadly judges, and the hanging of cousin Charlotte


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Our Day of Passing – An Anthology of Short Stories, Poems and Essays

Complied by Ingrid Hall and Franco Esposito


Free Kindle Download

King Death


Illustration from Chapter 6: ‘Ghosts’; Our Day of Passing.

Death is a subject that most of us are at least mildly curious about. The fact that it is inevitable and that there is no hiding from it adds to its macabre appeal. I have always had a strange relationship with death and rather than becoming increasingly afraid of it in my middle-age, if anything, I have come to respect the power that it has over us all. You can be the sweetest person ever to walk the earth or a twisted, psychopathic serial-killer…but ultimately that great leveler, Death, will come for you.

The beauty of Our Day of Passing – An Anthology of Short Stories, Poems and Essays is that it has been written from a wide range of authors and poets from around the world. Rather than looking at death from one fixed, religious perspective it contains a full range of opinions proving that when it comes to death, there is no right or wrong answer.

So, whether you are pagan in your leanings or deeply rooted in your Catholic faith, or just like a good ghost story, I am sure that you will find something that will make you not only contemplate your own mortality but embrace your life.


Illustration from Chapter 5: ‘The Immortals’; Our Day of Passing.

Our Day of Passing was compiled by Ingrid Hall and Franco Esposito; edited by Ingrid Hall, Carmilla Voiez and Joanne Armstrong; and has contributions from the following international writers and artists:

Ingrid Hall, Franco Esposito, Dennis Higgins, Virginia Wright, Candida Spillard, Valeri Beers, Dada Vedaprajinananda, Strider Marcus Jones, Adam E. Morrison, Allyson Lima, D. B. Mauldin, David A. Slater, David King, Dee Thompson, Donald Illich, Edward Meiman, Eileen Hugo, Emily Olson, Joan McNerney, J.S. Little, Kin Asdi, Madison Meadows, Malobi Sinha, Marianne Szlyk, Mark Aspa, Mark David McClure, Megan Caito, Michael Brookes, Michael Burke, Pijush Kanti Deb, Prince Adewale Oreshade, Rafeeq O. McGiveron, Robin Reiss, Sasha Kasoff, Stephanie Buosi, Talia Haven.

Our Day of Passing is free to download on Amazon until Tuesday 23 February 2016 and will be available in paperback soon:

Something nasty in the nursery: the truth behind nursery rhymes


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Image: public domain(?)

Image: public domain(?)

We all grow up learning nursery rhymes but how many of us know of the darker, underlying meanings behind some of our most popular and seemingly innocent poems. I remember asking my mother to sing “Seesaw Margery Daw, Johnny shall have a new master, He shall earn but a penny a day, Because he can’t work any faster” not knowing that we were actually laughing about child slave labour in workhouses[1].

Nowadays we have only to open up a newspaper or turn on the television to be confronted with images or articles on social inequality, religious intolerance or political discontent but go back six hundred years and it was a whole different ballgame. It is nearly impossible to stop people from venting their grievances especially when faced with deep injustice but fear of the consequences did shape how they expressed them. One such way was through the composition of punchy verses which on the surface seemed nonsensical but which often contained hidden or barely veiled criticism of prominent figures or institutions which if expressed openly could have had serious repercussions for the teller such as loss of status, property, goods, freedom or life.

Nursery rhymes also served another purpose, the catchy tunes were easy to remember and enabled a largely illiterate population to learn and pass on stories from generation to generation creating and expanding an important oral tradition.

ballad sellers

Ballad singer. image source unknown.

The meanings of some nursery rhymes were ascribed in the nineteenth century; others have verified historical roots whilst the origins of many have been lost due to the passage of time. Despite the disputed background of some of the rhymes, what is not in doubt is that nursery rhymes are one of the most fascinating but neglected body of work in the English language.

Sinister undertones: A look at four nursery rhymes

Ba Ba Black Sheep

Bah, Bah, a black Sheep,
Have you any Wool?
Yes merry have I,
Three Bags full,
One for my Master,
One for my Dame,
One for the Little Boy
That lives in the lane

(First written version known from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c.1744)


Image by Dorothy M Wheeler 1916. Via Wikimedia.

This popular nursery rhyme has suffered a bit of a black lash in recent times. In the 80s and 90s the rhyme was under attack by critics who accused it of having racist connotations. Despite the rhyme’s supporters calling it political correctness gone mad, many groups jumped on the bandwagon insisting that the word ‘black’ should be replaced with other adjectives such as little, big, hopping, pink and happy[2].

In actual fact the poem has no connections with racism at all but is believed to refer to the Great Wool Tax of 1275 which saw the crown for the first time implement a taxation system on what had been up to that point free trade. Wool was probably the most important commodity exported in England at that time and the tax would have dealt a serious financial blow to the small tenant farmers and merchants. The tax per sack of exported wool was set at 6s 8d and the property confiscated of anyone found evading the charge[3].

Illustration for the rhyme from Mother Goose's Melody, first published c. 1765

Illustration for the rhyme from Mother Goose’s Melody, first published c. 1765

In the rhyme ‘master’ refers to the tax given to the king and ‘dame’ to the church. Experts disagree with whether ‘black’ wool was a positive or negative term, as on one hand black wool could not be dyed and so limited its market but on the other hand it had value as it could be made into made into clothing or furnishings immediately without the need for the lengthy dyeing process. The last line refers to the small amount of money (i.e. about 1/3 of the overall profits) that was left for the farmers or shepherds. Interestingly in the second edition of the book the line changes with the message showing even more clearly how dire the situation was for the small cottage industries at that time “But none for the little boy who cries in the lane”[4].

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

Queen Mary Tudor, known as Bloody Mary.

Queen Mary I

Although the precise meanings of some of the lines are disputed it is generally accepted that the rhyme is about Mary Tudor, Queen of England and her reign, which left a trail of blood and fear throughout England. Some experts believe that ‘quite contrary’ is an allusion to her reversal of the political and religious changes brought in by her father and brother whilst ‘pretty maids’ is a reference to the execution of Lady Jane Grey. ‘How does your garden grow?’ is either a mocking reference to Mary’s inability to have children or else alludes to the graveyards ‘garden’ full of murdered Protestants. Given the subject matter of the next line, the latter interpretation seems more likely as ‘silver bells’ is a pretty way of describing thumbscrews whilst ‘cockle shells’ are instruments of torture which were attached to male genitals[5].

Lucy Locket

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,
Kitty Fisher found it;
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon round it.

Lucy Locket.  Image source unknown.

The rhyme refers to a famous argument between two 18th century prostitutes whose spat became the talk of the town and added to Kitty Fisher’s notoriety as one of the most popular, beautiful, desirable and wealthy courtesans in London society[6].

Lucy Locket worked as a barmaid/prostitute in London and on finding out that her lover ‘pocket had lost all his money, dropped him. Despite having been the one to end the relationship, Lucy became incensed on finding out that the popular courtesan Kitty Fisher had taken up with him despite his reduced circumstances. Kitty claimed that she had found him with a ribbon tied around him which was a serious jibe at Lucy since prostitutes kept their money tied around their thigh with a ribbon. Lucy’s anger may have been largely to do with jealous. Kitty being able to take a poor lover was showing London and other women in her profession how financially secure she had become as now she could choose lovers based on her own inclination rather than money.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds via Wikimedia.

Kitty Fisher (born Catherine Marie Fischer) had a number of influential suitors, was a leader of fashion and was painted several times by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In 1766 she married John Norris, the son of the MP for Rye and moved to his house in Hemsted. Unfortunately she died only four months later, aged 25 from either from smallpox, consumption or poisoning from lead based makeup[7].

Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Jack and Jill. Source unknown.

Jack and Jill. Source unknown.

The small village of Kilmersdon in Somerset claims to be the site of the true story of Jack and Jill.  According to local legend in 1697 a young unmarried woman ‘Jill’ fell pregnant. The father of the baby ‘Jack’ was soon after killed by a rock from Badstone Quarry and ‘Jill’ died not long after she gave birth to her son[8]. The phrase ‘a pail of water’ is an old idiom meaning to have sex. The village to commemorate the story has introduced an annual race whereby contestants must run up to the top of the local hill with an empty bucket of water, fill it up and run back down to the school. The winner is the contestant which has the maximum amount of water still left in their bucket[9].

Even though I would love this story to be true, it is generally agreed that the Jack and Jill in the rhyme are King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette who were beheaded during the French revolution in 1793.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (or perhaps it's Sue Perkins and Giles Coren)

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (or perhaps it’s Sue Perkins and Giles Coren)

To make the rhyme more suitable for children another verse was added ‘Up got Jack, and home did trot, As fast as he could caper, He went to bed and bound his head, With vinegar and brown paper’.

Little Jack Horner, a coffin pie and the dissolution of the monasteries

One of the most fascinating nursery rhymes in my opinion is that of Little Jack Horner. Who was Jack Horner? Why was he sitting in the corner? And what is so exciting about pulling out a plum?

Little Jack Horner. Source: Pinterest.

Little Jack Horner. Source: Pinterest.

The ridicule of Ambrose Philips

In 1725, the satirical poet Henry Carey published the following version of Little Jack Horner in his Namby Pamby ballads.

“Now he sings of Jackey Horner
Sitting in the Chimney-Corner
Eating of a Christmas pye,

Putting in his thumb, Oh fie!
Putting in, Oh fie! his Thumb
Pulling out, Oh strange! a Plum[10]

Alexander Pope by Johnathan Richardson (public domain?)

Alexander Pope by Johnathan Richardson (public domain?)

The ‘Little Jack Horner’ that Carey is mockingly referring to is Ambrose Philips, a popular poet and Whig politician. Philips born in 1674 in Shrewsbury spent most of his early career as a fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge before his poems collectively called the ‘Pastorals’ were published in 1710[11]. High praise of Philips’ work and comparisons to Edmund Spenser angered other leading poets of the time in particular Alexander Pope who believed that Philips’ success was due to his obsequious behavior towards his wealthy patrons rather than to talent. The war of words which erupted between Pope and Philips reached such heights that Philips threatened to hit Pope with a rod he kept hung in Button’s Coffee House. Samuel Johnson described relations between the two men as ‘perpetual reciprocation of malevolence’[12].

The use of a nursery rhyme with which to ridicule Philips was particular apt as Philips’ was well-known for composing childish verses to flatter and please his sponsors’ children. The fact that Carey italicized the original words clearly indicates that people were already very familiar with the rhyme. So the question remains if ‘Jack Horner’ was not Ambrose Philips then who was he?

What’s in a name?

Knave of Spades. V&A collection.

Knave of Spades. V&A collection.

In early tales and nursery rhymes roguish, vagrant and ne’er-do-well characters were often called Jack.  A Jack or Knave is also the name of a playing card. The Collins dictionary gives a number of different definitions for the word knave including a deceitful dishonest person; a rogue or rascal and; a male servant. It can’t be a coincidence then that the Jack of the nursery rhyme was believed to have been based on a devious male servant whose behavior helped to bring about the downfall of a well-respected abbot and the destruction of one of the last monasteries of Tudor England.

Many people believe that Jack Horner was in fact Thomas Horner, the steward of Abbot Whiting of Glastonbury. The story goes that the abbot had sent Horner on a mission to see King Henry VIII in London, the aim of which was to try to save Glastonbury Abbey from being dissolved. Feeling hungry on the journey, Horner, who had been sent on his way with a pie, decided to eat a piece of it. To his surprise instead of pulling out the mince filling he pulled out a deed to one of Glastonbury’s smaller properties. On examining the contents of the pie he found a further eleven deeds concealed inside. Keeping the first deed, he delivered the other papers to the king[13]. The abbot was caught in a no-win situation as he could not accuse Horner of theft because then he would have to openly admit to trying to bribe the king giving Henry an easy excuse to charge the abbot with corruption. Horner gained the deeds to the estate of Mells Manor in Somerset where his descendants lived until the beginning of the 20th century[14].

“Take a Legge of Mutton, and cut the best of the flesh from the bone, and parboyl it well then put to it three-pound of the best Mutton suet and shred it very small; then spread it abroad, and fashion it with Salt Cloves and Mace”[15]

The quote above is taken from a 1615 recipe for mince pies. The recipe goes on to instruct the reader to place the mixture in a coffin or divers coffin before baking. The coffin is in fact a dough crust in the shape of a basket or box which was several inches thick and had been cooked for several hours. The coffin was inedible and acted as a container and cooking vessel to keep the meat tender by preventing the juice meat dripping away[16]. Due to the sturdy nature of the pies, people often hid valuable objects such as jewellery, money and important papers in them to stop their possessions falling into the hands of robbers. Therefore it is highly plausible that the deeds to the Glastonbury properties would have been hidden in a mince-pie.

It is also interesting to note that mince pies were considered symbols of Catholic idolatry and were banned under Oliver Cromwell. It was believed that the coffin pastry represented Jesus’ crib!

Glastonbury Abbey: The last monastery of Somerset

“I wish to create a church so beautiful that it would move even the hardest heart to prayer” (unknown architect of Glastonbury abbey)[17]

Glastonbury Abbey. Image from Wikimedia.

Glastonbury Abbey. Image from Wikimedia.

The Benedictine abbey of Glastonbury in Somerset was believed to have been founded in the 7th century by King Ine of Wessex and later expanded by St Dunstan in the 10th century[18]. By the 16th century the magnificent abbey of Glastonbury had become the largest and second wealthiest abbey in England with its estates covering a large swathe of Somerset, a community of 100 monks and an important centre of learning for the sons of nobility.

In 1525 Cardinal Wolsey with the permission of Henry VIII ordained Richard Whiting as Abbot of Glastonbury. Contemporary records show that Whiting was well-respected, held in high esteem and considered a good and honest manager. For the first few years, the abbey and its monks lived in peace and security but with the chaos caused by Henry’s attempts to divorce Catherine of Aragon and break away from the authority of Rome, Whiting knew that it was only a matter of time before Glastonbury would be under attack[19].

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Despite the 1535 Suppression of Religious Houses Act which dissolved the lesser monasteries, for a while Whiting felt safe. Henry repeatedly assured Whiting that the abbey would be spared, a belief strengthened by Richard Layton’s inability to find any evidence of mismanagement in the abbey’s accounts. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only abbey left in Somerset. In September of that year, Cromwell demanded that the abbey be surrendered to him. Whiting refused. In response Layton, Richard Pollard and Thomas Moyles on Cromwell’s orders closed the monastery and the 78-year-old Whiting sent to the Tower to be personally examined by Cromwell.

The Fall of the Abbot of Whiting

“Whose soul god pardon” (Pollard, Royal Commissioner on the death of Abbot Whiting)

The precise charge on which Whiting was arrested has never been known but on the 25 October 1539, Marillac, the French Ambassador wrote

The Abbot of Glastonbury…has lately, been put in the Tower, because, In taking the abbey treasures, valued at 200,000 crowns, they found a written book of arguments in behalf of queen Katherine[20]

Although Whiting was condemned by an Act of Parliament as a traitor to the crown, his fate was already sealed. Whiting accompanied by Pollard returned to Somerset to face trial. On the 14th November, Whiting was sentenced by a jury on the trumped-up charge of ‘robbing Glastonbury Church’. It is interesting that the jury contained none other than his former steward, manager of the household, keeper of the abbey’s accounts and collector of taxes, Thomas Horner. The following day, Whiting along with two of his monks, John Thorne and Roger James were tied on hurdles and dragged by horses up to Glastonbury Tor where they were hung, drawn and quartered. Whiting’s disgrace did not end there. His head was fastened over the west gate of the town and his limbs exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgwater. Even at the end, Whiting never admitted to treason and died a dignified and humble death asking for mercy from god and forgiveness from the king and all men (even those whose actions had led him to the gallows)[21]. After the abbot’s death Glastonbury Abbey was finally destroyed and its stones used for building material.

Quartering a body. Source: Fr Wikimedia.

Quartering a body. Source: Fr Wikimedia.

As with all sites with a traumatic history, Glastonbury is believed to have its own share of ghostly residents. Many of the sightings have links to the abbey these include the ghost of an important monk who has been seen at the abbey; ‘a mad monk who is said to wander the ruins muttering to himself’ and the kind spirit of a monk known as Friar Francis who remains on the site of the former leper hospital where he worked. The George and Pilgrim Hotel is the residence of two ghost lovers, a lady and a monk whose unconsummated love has condemned them to wander the corridors of the pub for all eternity. Lastly the ghost of Richard Whiting has also been seen on a number of occasions on Dod Lane making his final, tragic journey towards Glastonbury Tor[22].

Glastonbury Tor. Source Wikimedia.

Glastonbury Tor. Source Wikimedia.

The enigmatic ‘Little Jack Horner’

The descendants of Thomas Horner have always denied the accusation that their ancestor obtained the rights to the Mells Manor estate by dubious means and there is solid evidence to support their claims. The original conveyance still survives which records Thomas Horner’s purchase of the deeds from Henry VIII at a high valuation which is confirmed by John Leland who visited Horner in 1543 on behalf of the king[23]. Also another rhyme has been discovered referring to the change of hands of the property,

“Hopton, Horner, Smyth and Thynne
When the abbots went out, they came in”[24]

There is even evidence of a Little Jack Horner rhyme being known as early as 1390 and connected to a location in Barnet long before the Horners of Mells enter the picture[25]. If this now seemingly pro-catholic/anti-protestant verse was not originally written to condemn the actions of Henry VIII and Thomas Horner we will never know who the first Jack Horner really was and what the rhyme was about. It is remarkable how six lines of what on the surface is a childish and simple rhyme has been imbued with such deep historic significance and for me the speculation is absolutely fascinating.


[1] Seesaw Marjorie Daw Rhyme,

[2] Ba, Ba, Black Sheep,,_Baa,_Black_Sheep

[3] Sheep in the Cotswolds: The Medieval Wool Trade, Derek Hurst

[4] 10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes:

[5] 10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes:

[6] Kitty Fisher and Lucy Locket:Tawdry Origins:

[7] Kitty Fisher,

[8] The dark side of nursery rhymes:

[9] Jack and Jill Dash,

[10] Nursery rhymes from mother goose:

[11] Ambrose Philips:

[12] Ambrose Philips:

[13] Little Jack Horner:

[14] Mells Manor House:

[15] Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, (1615)

[16] The history of pies

[17] Catholic Quotes:

[18]Glastonbury Abbey – History and archaeology:

[19] Richard Whiting (abbot):

[20] Once I was a clever boy:

[21] The Execution of Richard Whiting:

[22] Halloween: The Ghosts of Glastonbury

[23] Mells Manor House:

[24] Fairy Tale Origins:

[25] Mells village:


Seesaw Marjorie Daw Rhyme,

Ba, Ba, Black Sheep,,_Baa,_Black_Sheep

Sheep in the Cotswolds: The Medieval Wool Trade, Derek Hurst

10 sinister origins of nursery rhymes:

Kitty Fisher and Lucy Locket:Tawdry Origins:

Kitty Fisher,

The dark side of nursery rhymes:

Jack and Jill Dash,

Nursery rhymes from mother goose:

Ambrose Philips:

Ambrose Philips:

Little Jack Horner:

Mells Manor House:

Gervase Markham, The English Housewife, (1615)

The history of pies

Glastonbury Abbey – History and archaeology:

Richard Whiting (abbot):

Once I was a clever boy:

The Execution of Richard Whiting:

Fairy Tale Origins:

Mince Pies: 




















Chillingham Castle – The Ghosts of Motley Hall


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A border stronghold with a bloody history

Chillingham castle_cc_sm

In North Northumberland, within sight of the Cheviot Hills, lies the medieval stronghold of Chillingham Castle. Tucked away on the outskirts of the village of the same name, it is remote and forbidding in aspect. Wild cattle still live in these parts, descendants of the beasts that once roamed the ancient forests of Britain. This was once a lawless land, subject to violent cross border raids during the constant bloody warfare between England and Scotland. It seems peaceful now, but that peace may be deceptive.

View of the Cheviots from Chillingham Castle. Image by Lenora.

View of the Cheviots from Chillingham Castle.

A brief history of Chillingham Castle


Image believed to be Edward I. Source Wikimedia.

Originally a monastery, its strategic location meant that by 1298 King Edward I (1238 -1307) was using the fortress as a staging post for his wars against the great Scottish military commander William Wallace. Known as Edward Longshanks for his imposing height, his brutal Scottish campaigns quickly earned him the sobriquet ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – although ultimately he failed to subdue his northern neighbors.

Things remained turbulent on the borders of England and Scotland and in 1344 King Edward III issued a license to Sir Thomas Grey to crenellate and further fortify the already stalwart castle, turning it into a full quadrangular edifice. The walls, in places, were 10 feet thick.  Such imposing defenses were necessary – in 1537 the castle was besieged again, this time not by the Scots but by another powerful Northern family, the Percy’s, during the ill-fated Pilgrimage of Grace.

The Courtyard of Chillingham Castle.

The Courtyard of Chillingham Castle.

In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England (Edward Longshanks must have been spinning in his grave). His reign heralded a more peaceful co-existence between the two warring nations  and as the seventeenth century progressed warfare and border rieving began to wane. In 1617 King James even stayed at Chillingham on one of his trips between his two kingdoms. In a more peaceful age there was little need for the bleak fortifications of an earlier era, the moat was filled and famous architect Inigo Jones redesigned the North and South fronts. Long galleries, a banqueting hall and a library were added for less martial pursuits. By the eighteenth and nineteenth century the castle was a romantic relic – with gardens landscaped by Capability Brown and Sir Jeffrey Wyatville. Sir Walter Scott found inspiration in the castle (and its wild cattle) in his 1819 novel ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

The fall and rise of Chillingham Castle

The Grey Tomb, St Peters Parish Church. Image by Lenora.

The Grey Tomb, St Peters Parish Church.

The Grey and Bennet families had lived in the castle from the 15th century – the magnificent Grey Tomb in the nearly St Peter’s Parish Church testifies to this long-standing association.  However, by the twentieth century the castle, like so many other grand houses of Britain, was falling into decay.

During World War II the military was billeted at the castle and caused much structural damage.  Even going so far as to strip out the ancient wood panelling.  It would seem that final nail had been driven into the coffin and the Tankervilles ceased to resided in their ancient ancestral home. The castle seemed likely to go the way of many a great house after the War, if not to be demolished outright, then to linger on as a ruinous shell of a once glorious past.  Until, that is Sir Humphrey Wakefield came across the castle and in 1982 and decided to purchase it.  His wife could trace her ancestry back to the Grey family – nevertheless despite this family connection, apparently she had more sense than to live in the very dilapidated until a lot of work had been done to improve it!

Eccentric decor abounds in Sir Humphrey's Castle.

Eccentric decor abounds in Sir Humphrey’s Castle.

Since then the indomitable Sir Humphrey has set about restoring the castle (and stamping his own idiosyncratic style upon it – more a glorious homage to the Ghosts of Motley Hall than National Trust wannabe – and all the better for it!) and it is now open to the public, it is even possible to stay in apartments in the castle. These days one of Chillingham’s primary claims to fame, is that is it purported to be one of the most haunted castles in Britain and consequently prospective ghost hunters can take part in highly entertaining ghost tours and more in-depth all night vigils.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

Famous and infamous ghosts of Chillingham Castle

13_detail from the Grey Tomb

Detail from the Grey Tomb.

Leonora, Countess of Tankerville, had always felt a connection with the spirit world. Even before she had ever visited Chillingham Castle she received a precognition that one day she would be its lady. One morning, whilst staying in France, she dreamed that she was walking up to the castle when a young man approached her saying ‘I have come to walk with you until my brother George is ready.’ Soon George (a recent acquaintance) arrived and the young man disappeared. Leonora went on to marry George, Earl of Tankerville. Later she was able to identify the young man in her dream from a photograph – he was her husband’s brother and he had died two years previously in Afghanistan.

12 soldier

Adapted from an image of WWI officer.

Leonora went on to have several strange experiences during her time living in the castle. From highly personal encounters, such as when she had a vision of an officer friend only to  discover that he had died many miles away, at the very moment he appeared to her; and the dramatically historic, such as when she witnessed a tense Tudor tableau taking place before her eyes. She recorded her experiences in a pamphlet published in 1925, which can be read on the Chillingham Castle Website.

Leonora believed that we all had the capability to tap into the spirit world, but that to do so an individual needed to cultivate understanding of those sense and discipline.  Over the years she is not the only person to have had a close encounter with the supernatural at Chillingham castle.

The Blue Boy/The Radiant Boy

The Blue Boy. Adapted from the Gainsborough painting.

The Blue Boy. Adapted from the Gainsborough painting.

The radiant boy is a phantom that was reputed to haunt the pink bedroom. His pitiful cries could be heard at the stroke of midnight, and he would appear as an orb or halo of blue light, often close to a passage leading to a tower. The glowing figure was then supposed to manifest itself as a little boy dressed in blue. This apparition has been linked to the bones of a child found walled up in the castle. It was during renovation work in the early 20th century this grisly discovery was made. Remnants of mouldering blue fabric were discovered along with the skeleton. After the bones were reburied with due ceremony, the phenomenon appeared to cease. However, recent visitors have claimed to have observed a blue orb in the pink room…

Lady Mary Berkeley

Image purports to be of Lady Mary Berkeley. Public domain(?)

Image purports to be of Lady Mary Berkeley. Public domain(?)

Another famous ghost is that of the tragic Lady Mary Berkeley (died 1719). She was the wife of Lord Grey of Wark and Chillingham (1655-1701). She was abandoned by her faithless husband who ran off with her sister, Henrietta, causing quite a scandal (an account of which is provided in the sources section below). The heart-broken Lady Mary was left with her baby, wandering the halls of the castle, longing for the return of her errant husband. He never returned – and she, apparently never left. Even today visitors to the castle have reported the rustle of silk accompanied by an unearthly chill, which has been interpreted as indication Lady Mary has passed by on her sad vigil. She is said to be buried just beyond the castle in the tiny medieval church of St Peter’s in the village of Chillingham.

The White Lady in the pantry

A thirsty ghost once importuned a footman guarding the family silver, in the white pantry. The unfortunate man was accosted by a wispy lady in white, begging for a drink of water. As he turned to obey her wishes, he suddenly recalled that the pantry was locked (to protect the silver) and that it should have been impossible for anyone to gain entry….on turning back to her, he found she had vanished. It has been suggested that the lady could have been the victim of poisoning…hence her search for water.

The White Lady from The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

The White Lady from The Ghosts of Motley Hall. ITV 1976-1978.

John Sage/John Dragfoot

The Iron Maiden. Image by Lenora.

The Iron Maiden.

One possibly modern addition to the ghostly pantheon of Chillingham is one John Sage, also known as John Dragfoot. A prominent figure in the ever popular ghost tours, he is purported to be a sadistic ex-soldier turned torturer from the days of King Edward I. The tale of John Sage is very detailed and very bloody – replete with devious and cruel tortures, kinky sex and eventual retribution. However the jury remains out as to whether he is a recent invention for the benefit of the tourists or whether he is based on any real person.  It would be interesting to find out if there is any mention of this person in the historical record or local lore.

The castle does indeed have a wonderfully well stocked dungeon – and the addition of a demoniacal evil torturer certainly creates a vivid picture of the horrors such devices could inflict on human flesh. However, I seem to recall reading somewhere (although cannot locate the source) that the devices in the dungeon are not originally from the castle and the chambers were not actually used as dungeons (I may be wrong, but perhaps someone has further information on this…?)

Many other phenomena have been reported at the castle: disembodied voices in the chapel, phantom monks on the Devil’s Walk and malevolent presences lurking in dark chambers…whatever your view of the supernatural, Chillingham Castle certainly has an extensive history of strange phenomena contained within its blood soaked ramparts.

The Dungeon at Chillingham Castle

The Dungeon at Chillingham Castle

Chillingham Castle Ghost Tour

On Halloween, Bonnie and I took a late night trip to Chillingham Castle for the famous ghost tour. We were lucky enough to get Graham Burney as our Paranormal Investigator, (Graham is the founder and Lead Investigator of the Chillingham Paranormal Team and Head Ghost Guide), he and his associate gave a fabulously creepy and eventful Halloween tour. A balance of gory history and paranormal investigation – it was not for the faint hearted! (No, really, I mean it: people were coming over all peculiar and having to leave because they were so spooked by all the things that were going on!)

It is said that the dismembered bodies of witches once festooned this tree.

It is said that the dismembered bodies of witches once festooned this tree.

Our tour began outside the castle, we processed along the Devils Walk and Graham regaled us with dark tales of monks and witches hanged and dismembered in trees. Walking amidst the dark boughs of trees it was easy to believe that spirits and orbs lurked in the arboreal depths of night.

It is said that this is a portrait of a witch who both curses and protects Chillingham Castle.

It is said that this is a portrait of a witch who both curses and protects Chillingham Castle.

The tour took in the dungeons, with a vivid account of how many of the torture devices were employed, and the character of John Sage was introduced in all his bloody in-glory.  Throughout the tour, which included the Edward I chamber, the banqueting hall and Chapel, Graham led the group through various paranormal experiments and seances with varying results. From dark shadows, whispering voices, eerie whistling, growling ghosts to violent crashing noises.  Even a drunken ghost that took a rather shine to Bonnie and after growling in her ear used his spectral powers to make her derriere go icy cold…from the sublime to the ridiculous (???) – we had them all.

By the end of the tour, there had been scares aplenty and a lot of laughter.  Whether you believe that a ghost tour on Halloween night, in a wonderfully creepy old castle, is pure entertainment – or may in fact hold the key to more esoteric things, is of course entirely up to you.  However, skeptic or believer, the Chillingham Castle ghost tour is well worth experiencing and I will definitely be going back for the all night vigil at some point in the new year! (Details of how to book on the Chillingham Castle ghost tours and vigils can be found via the links below).

The truth about orbs…..?

During the whole event I took multiple photos – then some ‘control’ photo’s back where we were staying (and later in my garden at home). The photo’s showed what some may consider to be orbs.  However, as Graham and his colleague on the tour explained, orbs can usually be viewed with the naked eye as well and I can confirm that I didn’t see any orbs without the aid of the camera. (Well, to be fair I was staring at the viewfinder a lot of the time!)

There is much skepticism about the nature and cause of orb images – are they dust, insects, reflections of moisture in the air?  It has also been noted that they are more likely to appear on digital than film photographs, and recently debunked photographs have highlighted some of the idiosyncracies of modern I-phone photographic technology (see the link to The Independent article, in the sources below).

  • For all of the photo’s below I used the flash (if I had thought better of it, I would have tried some without).
  • It was quite a mild night for October, with some moisture in the air.
  • There were definitely some insects flying about.
  • It is likely that inside the castle there could have been dust.
  • I did not observe any orbs without the use of the camera.

On the other hand, I take a lot of photo’s, and I have never had any orb-like images quite like this appear before….

I leave you to draw your own conclusions…

Chillingham Castle by moonlight_sm

Chillingham Castle by full moon. The ‘orbs’ here are caused by the moon’s reflection.


Devils Walk_Orbs_1

Along the Devils Walk, something in the mid/top left?

Devils Walk_Orbs_2

Along the Devils Walk, again, a noticeable ‘orb’ this time on the right.

Devils Walk_Orbs_3

Several less distinct ‘orbs’ on the right.

In the Woods_Orbs_4

In the woods, just past the hanging tree. Possibly something by the tree trunk on the right, and along the path?


In the chapel, not easy to see but several indistinct ‘orbs’ in the top left hand corner of the roof.

Control photo_1

‘Control’ photo – taken on the same night at the YHA, 6 miles away. Possibly an indistinct ‘orb’/insect?

Control photo_2

‘Control’ photo taken during heavy fog, showing the effect of a flash on moisture in the air.


All Image by Lenora, unless otherwise attributed.

Sources [Lady Tankerville’s ghostly experiences at the castle] [Graham Burney – lead paranormal investigator at Chillingham Castle] [the debauching of Henrietta Berkeley] [How image aliasing debunked the Grey Lady of Hampton Court]



The Bloody Code and the Black Nun of Threadneedle Street


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“Criminals do not die by the hands of the law. They die by the hands of other men.”George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman 


Engraving by William Heath (1794–1840).  Image via Durham University 4schools.

Death as a form of punishment has been around for as long as people have existed although the form it has taken has varied with hung, drawn and quartered; boiling in oil; burning at the stake; beheading with a sword and hanging varying in popularity at different times. Hanging for crimes was first introduced by the Anglo-Germanic tribes in the 5th century but was abolished during the reign of William the Conqueror’s and replaced with the more ‘humane’ punishment of castration and blinding for all but the crime of poaching royal deer. Hanging was reintroduced by Henry I and in the 18th century was the ‘principle punishment for capital offenses’[1]. Beheading (last used in 1747 in the execution of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat) was only used for those from the high born classes whilst women found guilty of counterfeiting or murdering their husbands were burnt (witches in England were hung rather than burnt as in Scotland). Burning at the stake was abolished in England in 1790[2]. Public executions were ended in 1868 with the curtain finally falling on capital punishment in the United Kingdom in 1969.

The Bloody Code

by Sir Thomas Lawrence,painting,circa 1806-1810

Sir Samuel Romilly, legal reformer. By Sir Thomas Lawrence via Wikimedia.

“[There is] no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to the law to be punished with death as in England” Sir Samuel Romilly

In 1688, there were 50 crimes punishable by death in English law, in 1765 this number had risen to 160 and astonishingly in 1815 this figure had reached more than 220. The reason for this was a new penal code introduced in 1791 which turned most minor misdemeanors into capital offences. This code became known by the grim nickname of ‘The Bloody Code’ and between its introduction and abolition in 1822 more than 10,000 men, women and children were sentenced to death[3]. The implementation of the code reveals a deep anxiety in the minds of the wealthy and powerful classes to  any threat to their possessions, rights or properties. This anxiety was intensified by the events of the French Revolution which saw the accepted social order turned on its head.

Amongst the usual offences such as arson, murder, piracy, rape and treason were a number which would seem extremely peculiar to us today.

  • Begging in the company of gipsies for a month
  • Malicious maiming of cattle
  • Damaging Westminster Bridge
  • Impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner
  • Strong evidence of malice in children seven to fourteen years old
  • Stealing from a shipwreck
  • General poaching
  • Begging without a licence if you are a soldier or sailor
  • Writing a threatening letter
  • Destroying turnpike roads
  • Stealing from a rabbit warren
  • Pick pocketing goods worth more than one shilling
  • Being out at night with a blackened face
  • Cutting down trees
  • Unmarried mothers concealing a stillborn child

William Hogarth – Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn.  Image via Wikimedia.

Despite the severity of the punishment many people charged with these crimes (with the exception of murder, robbery and burglary) were not executed but instead had their sentences either commuted to transportation or permanently postponed often on the grounds of pregnancy of the offender, benefit of clergy, official pardons or performance of military service[4]. Confusion about punishments and the whims of judges affected the consistency of the rule of law as well affecting the strength of the sentences handed as judges were sometimes unwilling to find a defendant guilty knowing they would be executed[5]. People were in general inured to the death and severity of the punishments handed out to criminals and in a society where children were treated as adults the hanging of Michael Hammond and his sister Ann, possibly aged 7 and 11 respectively at Kings Lynne for theft in 1708 made little impact[6].

The Heinous Crime of Forgery

“[Forgery] the false making or altering of a document, with intent to defraud” Collins Concise Dictionary

In 18th and 19th century law forgery was listed under the category of ‘Deception’ which also included bankruptcy, fraud, perjury and a miscellaneous section which included the illegal procurement of documents such as marriage licences or the unlawful insertion of names into registers. In England the offence of forgery was considered as serious as murder and was treated with the same harshness. Although the early records of the Old Bailey show that many of those convicted of forgery were punished with the pillory and fines later as the Bloody Code legislation was implemented more and more were sent to the gallows.

The earliest cases from the Old Bailey records show that the pillory was initially the punishment of choice for most judges for example in May 1689 a John Ingham was indicted for forging the signatures of two Justices of the Peace. His aim was to obtain the release of an Edward Williams from Newgate. He was sentenced to spend three days in the pillory: the first day at Hick’s Hall; the second at Temple Bar and; the third at Westminster Hall Gate as well as finding sureties for his good behaviour for twelve months[7].


The pillory. Image from Old Bailey Online.

One of the reasons that forgery came to be seen as such a heinous crime was that with the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, the English financial system became dependent on paper credit so any attempt to fraudulently copy or counterfeit documents such as stamps or bonds was perceived as an attack on the very foundations on which England stood. In the 1820s forgery along with arson at the Royal Docks, treason, murder, piracy and burglary was one of the last offences which carried a capital sentence. In 1832 forgery (with the exception of the forgery of wills and certain powers of attorney) was taken off that list by a parliamentary act. Eventually in 1837 all forms of forgery were exempt[8].

The minister, the mastermind and the scammer: Three cases of forgery

William Dodd at Tyburn. Image via Wikimedia.

William Dodd at Tyburn. Image via Wikimedia.

William Dodd – The decadent Anglican minister

William Dodd lived above his means. He enjoyed the good things in life but unfortunately his partiality for fine living resulted in him accumulating bills he was unable to honour. In order to save himself and his wife from bankruptcy he decided to forge a bond for £4200 in the name of a former pupil, the Earl of Chesterfield. All was going well and the banker accepted the bond in good faith. Unluckily Dodd was not the best forger and the banker noticed a blot on the bond and decided to go and see the Earl to get a clean copy signed. Dodd confessed immediately to the fraud and despite a public campaign for a Royal pardon he was hung at Tyburn in June 1777[9]. Dodd was the last person to be hanged for forgery at Tyburn.


Ann Hurle – The master criminal

One of the cleverest and ambitious although ultimately doomed forgery scams was attempted by the 22-year-old Ann Hurle. Her background was sketchy but on the 10 December 1803 she met her friend of six months, a stock broker, George Frenallon at the Bank Coffee House. She persuaded him to obtain a power of attorney for her as she wanted to sell a Bank of England 3% stock which she had been given by a Benjamin Allin of Greenwich. Ann told George that the stock had been given to her as a present in thanks for the good work her aunt, his housekeeper had performed over the years. Once Ann received the power of attorney, she disappeared. On returning with the signed document, she had it witnessed and then took it to Thomas Bateman, a bank clerk at the Bank of England. Bateman who knew Allin’s signature became suspicious as the signature differed from that found on other documents. Despite Ann’s reassurances that the differences were due to Allin’s being over 90 years old, Bateman was not satisfied and he decided to go in person and see Allin. Allin confirmed that the signature was not his. Ann was arrested at Bermondsey and tried and convicted of the charge of attempting to defraud the Bank of England of £500 (which is in today’s money over a quarter of a million pounds). On Wednesday 8th February Ann was hanged near St Sepulchre’s Church[10].

1709 Bank of England Exchequer Bill. Image from Just Collecting website.

1709 Bank of England Exchequer Bill. Image from Just Collecting website.

Thomas Maynard – The shameless scammer

Thomas Maynard was hanged at Newgate on the 31 December 1829. His crime was defrauding His Majesty’s Custom House of the amount of £1973 by counterfeiting a warrant order and fixing the signatures of three Commissioners of Customs to it.  He was also accused of a secondary charge of trying to defraud a Sir William Boothby. Witnesses attested to Maynard’s and his accomplice, Richard Hubbard Jones decadent behaviour after receiving the money. They said that the two men lived extravagantly, showing off their money and allowing women who called themselves their wives to run up huge debts with tradesmen. Both Maynard and Hubbard were arrested trying to travel to France. £280 were found on Maynard and £250 on another unknown man who was traveling with them. Strangely only Maynard was convicted of the crime, for some reason Jones was not tried. Maynard has the distinction of being the last person to be hanged for forgery in England.

Sarah Whitehead:The Black Nun of Threadneedle Street


The Bank of England, Threadneedle Street. Image via Wikimedia.

One of the most famous hauntings in London and the one that always sends chills along my spine is believed to be that of the ghost of Sarah Whitehead, otherwise known as the Black Nun. Sarah’s tragic tale begins in 1811 when her brother, Philip, a disgruntled former clerk in the Cashiers Office of the Bank of England was found guilty of forgery and attempting to defraud the bank. On the day of the trial, Sarah’s friends worried about her reaction kept the news of his conviction from her by persuading her to leave the rooms which she shared with her brother and go with them to their house off of Fleet Street. When her brother failed to return home, Sarah tried to find him. Either her brother had never told her he had left the bank or she had nowhere else to look since she kept going back to the bank in the desperate hope that someone would have heard from him. Eventually either out of annoyance or pity, one of the clerks finally blurted out the truth. The shock destroyed her mind. On her death she was buried in the churchyard of St Christopher le Stocks. When the church was demolished in 1781 in order to extend the bank’s premises, the bodies were re-interred at Nunhead Cemetery. The former graveyard became the gardens of the bank.

There are different accounts of what happened after Sarah was finally told the truth. One version is that she visited the bank every day for the remainder of her 25 years asking politely for her brother whilst another that on her visits she was verbally abusive to the bank’s staff.  A third recounts how she became convinced that the bank had stolen money from her and would demand that they return what they had taken. Eventually in 1818 the bank’s governors tired of her constant presence gave her a sum of money on the provision that she would never come back, a promise she kept.

Even though the precise details of the story vary slightly, the one thing they all agree on is Sarah’s appearance. For the rest of her life she always wore full mourning weeds which consisted of a long black gown and full black veil.

Have you seen my brother?

Sarah Whitehead - The Black Nun of Threadneedle St. Public Domain(?)

Sarah Whitehead – The Black Nun of Threadneedle St. Public Domain(?)

For over the next two hundred years Sarah’s spirit has been unable to rest. She has been seen at the Bank of England itself, at Bank station (where railway staff have recalled how she leaves behind a feeling of terrible sorrow and hopelessness[11]) and in the former graveyard of the church where she was originally buried. Those witnesses who have seen her in the garden have said that she walks hesitantly, groping her way along as if she is blind then she falls to her knees and beats the ground with her fists, crying and shaking violently before she suddenly vanishes[12].

She has been most often seen at night wandering the streets around the bank and in particular Threadneedle Street still intent on finding her beloved brother. She has been reportedly seen by numerous people, some who knew the legend, most who didn’t. People of all ages, beliefs and lifestyles, people alone or with others have claimed to have seen a woman dressed peculiarly in black, walking slowly along the road. It is usually her strange attire which first catches their eye. Sometimes she stops them and with eyes downcast asks politely about her brother. Receiving a negative answer she turns and walks dejectedly away, disappearing from sight. Some people seeing her walk past are overcome by a feeling of intense grief and loneliness and approach her asking her if she needs help. Needless to say she just turns and asks her constant question, ‘Have you seen my brother?’

History or urban legend?

When looking at different websites and accounts of the Black Nun they all give Sarah’s brother’s name as Philip. On one of the websites the blogger states that there is no record of a Philip Whitehead appearing in the Old Bailey. Searching through the online records I agree, there is no evidence of Philip Whitehead but there is a Paul Whitehead aged 36 who was convicted of forgery and sentenced to be hanged. Looking at the proceedings of the trial, certain details emerge which fit with the legend surrounding Sarah Whitehead including the date of the trial, the 30th October 1811 and the fact that Whitehead was a former clerk in the Cashiers Office at the Bank of England. The transcript from the trial records that Whitehead was indicted on six counts of forgery, the main charge being ‘’for feloniously forging and counterfeiting an acceptance on a certain bill of exchange for 87 l. 10 s. with [the] intention to defraud [13]”. Whitehead was hanged at Newgate on the 29th January 1812 in front of a large crowd. He was described as being of ‘genteel appearance’ and who together with the five other condemned men “met their fate with decent fortitude, and when on the fatal scaffold shook hands, after which they were launched into eternity…[14].

Courtroom at the Old Bailey. Image via Wikimedia.

Courtroom scene at the Old Bailey. Image via Wikimedia.

Maybe Paul Whitehead is not Philip Whitehead but if he isn’t then why is there no record of the latter’s trial or maybe the legend of Sarah has been fabricated based on Paul Whitehead’s crime and death. Personally I believe that it was a mistake and Philip is Paul Whitehead and that the story of the historical Sarah is true. I also hope that if her spirit is lost that one day she will be reunited with her brother and finally gain the peace of mind she has been searching for, for so long.


Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, 1928

Tim Lambert, A History of the Death Penalty in the UK,

The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged:

Capital punishment in the United Kingdom

The Bloody Code –

Sir Samuel Romilly, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Samuel Romilly, 1840

Sara Malton, Forgery in Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture, 2009


William Dodd:

The Black nun,!the-black-nun

The Bank of England and the Black Nun:

The proceedings of the Old Bailey:


The Bloody Code,


[1] A Handbook on Hanging, Charles Duff, 1928

[2] Tim Lambert, A History of the Death Penalty in the UK,

[3] The 222 Victorian crimes that would get a man hanged:

[4] Capital punishment in the United Kingdom

[5] The Bloody Code,

[6] The Bloody Code –

[7] John Ingham –

[8] Forgery:

[9] William Dodd:

[10] Ann Hurle – hanged for forgery in 1804:

[11] The Black nun,!the-black-nun

[12] Black Nun of the Bank of England (or, the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street):

[13] Paul Whitehouse:

[14] Newgate:



A little something for Halloween: Last (Dolls) House on the left


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As I won’t be in reach of the internet on the night itself – here is my slightly early offering for Halloween.  Enjoy…

'Strawberry Hill Gothic' style. Image adapted by Lenora.

‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ style dolls house. Image adapted by Lenora.

There has always been something innately creepy about the trappings of childhood – from cursed dolls to self-propelling rocking horses – the contents of the nursery has more often than not been the stuff of nightmare and horror.  Perhaps it is the ease with which such objects of innocence can transform themselves, with only a change in the quality of light or a sense of unobserved movement, into the uncanny or sinister.

Image by Lenora

Image by Lenora

Dolls houses have always held a particular fascination for me, perhaps it is because peering in at the windows of the world in miniature, you cannot help but imagine what dreadful stories might be unfolding behind the twee facade.  I have to admit that as a child, I set macabre tales of grisly murder and haunting in my own dolls house.  Even today, although it is rather a regular sort of faux Georgian dolls house, I still occasionally have the urge to set up seances in the parlour.

WH 3DH 3

Image by Lenora

Household management in miniature

The Stromer House 1639.

The Stromer House 1639. Image source

Originally dolls houses, or baby houses were not for the grubby fingers of childhood, but rather were used as intricate and exquisite objects of display and prestige by royalty and the elite.  Earliest German examples date from the mid sixteenth century, Albert V of Bavaria had one – clearly demonstrating that boys like dolls houses just as much as girls.  By the eighteenth century every self-respecting (or should that read ‘self-aggrandizing’) grandee had a doll’s house.  The more extravagant and palatial the better.  Examples such as ‘Mon Plaisir’ the eighty room mansion created for the Princess Augusta Dorothea of Schwarzburg-Arnstadt were the height of luxury and, costing a fortune, were only ‘completed’ when the money ran out.

As well as ostentatious display many of these baby houses and cabinet houses also had a more practical and educational role in that they represented the ideal of what a well run home should look like.  They were often used as tools to train up wives and maids in household management.  Houses such as the Stromer House, dating from 1639, now housed in the Germanisches National Museum, have an almost time-capsule quality, showing how people lived (or aspired to live) at that period in history.

Creepy children

creepy girlsThe nineteenth century saw children finally get their sticky hands on Dolls houses in a big way, and the creep factor shot up significantly.  However, rather than dwelling on the possessed playthings of whey-faced and sinister Victorian children (far too obvious!) I would like, instead, to introduce possibly the most disturbing incarnation of the dolls’ house that I for one have ever come across….

Frances Glessner Lee – The Original Jessica Fletcher…


Frances Glessner Lee. Image source: Frances Glessner Lee Museum

The twee little old lady with her bun and her spectacles, pictured above making dainty little miniatures, has more in common with Miss Marple than Mary Poppins.  The miniature masterpieces she put together were most definitely not for the nursery.  Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy socialite born with a silver spoon in her mouth, found fame in a most unladylike manner by creating the most macabre miniature diorama’s of death, in meticulous detail.  In so doing she helped to pioneer the importance of legal medicine and forensic crime scene investigation.

The dark bathroom. Image source Death in Diorama

The dark bathroom. Image source Death in Diorama

Born in 1878 in Chicago, daughter of the co-founder of the International Harvester Company, Frances Glessner was brought up to be a gentile young lady.  Trained in feminine arts and the skills required to be a society hostess.  Her wish to go to university was thwarted because it was not considered ladylike.  Her brother went to Harvard, and it was one of his friends, George Burgess Magrath, who fired Frances’ interest in Legal Medicine (what we would not call forensic medicine).

The hanging farmer. Image source Death in Diorama

The hanging farmer. Image source Death in Diorama

In the first part of the twentieth century coroners did not have to be medically trained and the police were largely ignorant of crime-scene investigation techniques.    As a result many murderers were never brought to justice.  As an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes and no shrinking Violet, the indomitable Frances, and her good friend Magrath, set about addressing this problem.   This was made significantly easier for Frances as by 1930’s she had come into her own, well, she inherited her fortune thereby allowing her to pursue her own ambitions, rather than bend to the will of her family.  And of course, being a grand society hostess and a well brought up lady, she managed to fuse her more gentile talents: such a miniature making and dinner party management, with the retraining of the police force in methods of forensic crime-scene investigation.

In the 1930’s she founded the Harvard Department of Legal Medicine, in 1942 was the first woman to be made Captain of the New Hampshire State Police, and as if that wasn’t enough, by 1945 she had instituted Harvard Seminars in Homicide Investigation for leading crime-scene investigators  (it was later renamed Harvard Associates in Police Science (HAPS)). This is where the dinner party skills came in handy – the end of the week-long course was celebrated at the Ritz Carlton with a swanky dinner.  No doubt the grande dame enjoyed being the centre of attention.

Murder in Miniature – the Nutshell Studies of Frances Glessner Lee

Frances Glessner Lee firmly believed that the purpose of crime-scene investigation was to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell,”  and she must have realised that practical experience counts for much more than a week of lectures on the subject.  With this in mind from the she made use of her skills as a miniaturist and her money, to create 20 precise and deadly murder diorama’s, of which 18 still survive in the collection of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Kitchen. Image source: Corinne Botz via 99percentinvisible

The Kitchen. Image source: Corinne Botz via 99percentinvisible

Lee used a combination of actual cases, witness statements, court records and even literature to create individual and obsessively detailed crime scenes in the scale of one foot to one inch.  Jerry Dziecichowicz, interviewed in the Telegraph, stated that Lee had a solution to each scenario in mind, however the importance of the diorama’s goes beyond a mere who dunnit.  They are about a methodical approach to observation – Lee favoured a clockwise spiral of observation – and identifying clues as to the nature of the death: was it murder, suicide, and accident?  It was as important to clear the innocent as to convict the guilty and the lesson was how to read the crime scene effectively.

Image source: Sarah Fask via Baltimore Fishbowl

Three room dwelling. Image source: Sarah Fask via Baltimore Fishbowl

She worked with her carpenter at her New Hampshire farm, The Rocks,  to make the nutshells.  Although she sourced some mass-produced materials, often she made the items herself, often going to obsessive lengths to get them just right.  She put together the dolls and is known to have hand knitted stockings for them using straight dress makers pins.  She also carefully painted their flesh in just the right colours of putrefaction to match the time of their death.

Murder at the parsonage - complete with decomposing flesh. Image source: death in diorama

Murder at the parsonage – complete with knife in ribs, bite marks and decomposing flesh. Image source: death in diorama

Those who attended the seminars, and invitations were highly sought after, were given only 90 minutes to study each scene,  the only tools being a flashlight and a magnifying glass.  Some of the clues were tiny or only observable if you moved items, in one scene, a lady dead in bed can be discerned to have been smothered by a tiny smudge of lipstick on a pillow.  In another, the Cabin, a tiny bullet lodged in a beam is the key to guilt or innocence.  Lee understood the importance of these clues in identifying what the nature of the scene was – looking beyond the obvious to identify whether it was murder, suicide or an accident.

Red Bedroom - a murdered prostitute. Image source - murder diorama

Red Bedroom – a murdered prostitute. Image source – Death in Diorama

Dark Bathroom, detail of vodka bottle and single glass. Image source: murder diorama

Dark Bathroom, detail of vodka bottle and single glass. Image source: Death in Diorama

As much as the nutshell’s were intended to educate, they also inform – about Frances Glessner Lee herself.  They are almost obsessively detailed, she included things that anyone else would have left out – a fire escape and hidden window at the back of the Pink Bathroom are mentioned by Bruce Goldfarb,  assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner at Maryland, and curator of the Nutshells.  Further indications of Lee’s biases are noted by Laura J Miller in her article for Harvard Magazine: most of the victims are white, the majority women, and of the lower classes.  The crime scenes may be objective but the decor and trappings are indicative of Lee’s view of the tawdry lives lead by those marginalised by society who inhabited rented rooms and cheap lodgings.  Alcohol, drugs and prostitution go hand in hand with these brutal deaths.  Miller goes on to say that Lee “disclosed the dark side of domesticity and its potentially deleterious effects: many victims were women ‘led astray’ from the cocoon-like security of the home – by men, misfortune, or their own unchecked desires”

If you want to explore the nutshell studies in more detail I have added a link to the excellent Death in Diorama website below – it is well worth a visit.

From murder in the doll house to a Haunted Dolls House

Queen Mary's Dolls house under construction. Image source

Queen Mary’s Dolls house under construction. Image source The Royal Collection.

Queen Mary, wife of King George V of England, didn’t have a lot in common with Frances Glessner Lee, but one passion they both shared was miniatures.  In the 1920’s Edward Lutyens, the famous architect, was commissioned to create the palatial dolls house, now know simply as Queen Mary’s dolls house, for the lucky monarch.

Perfect in every detail, cram packed with every luxury an early twentieth century royal could want: running water, flushing toilets, and a fully stocked wine cellar, it also boasted an extensive library.  And of course the doll’s house has a dark secret….a murder and a haunting!  Well, no not really, unless you believe MR James who wrote his Haunted Dolls House tale for the Royal dolls enjoyment, knew something we don’t! Based on the Mezzotint, the Haunted Dolls House tells of an avaricious collector who (rather too cheaply) obtains a lovely old dolls house in ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ style that harbours a nasty secret.  And he soon finds himself the helpless witness to a murder and a haunting.

If you fancy a little Halloween ghost story, links to the text and a short film adaptation of MR James Haunted Doll’s House can be found below.

'Strawberry Hill Gothic' style. Image adapted by Lenora.

A little something extra for Halloween…

For Frances Glassner Lee’s murder diorama’s under the magnifying glass, visit:

The dark bathroom. Image source Death in Diorama

Also the website of Corinne Botz, who is behind most of the excellent photographs of the Nutshell Studies out there, and who produced a book on them:

For a tour of Queen Mary’s Doll’s house, inspiration for MR James Haunted Dolls House, visit:

6419513-11_aMR James ghost story The Haunted Dolls House can be found in the Portmanteau of Terror

You can find a dramatization of the Haunted Doll’s House, directed by Stephen Grey and starring Steven Dolton, on You Tube.  Rather like a scary version of Trumpton – this short ‘no-budget’ adaptation is well worth a watch!

Happy Halloween!

Insidious, 2010, Dir James Wan


Diorama Photo’s – most of the photos of the Nutshells used in this post were taken from Death In Diorama, but I’m not who the photographer was.  Diorama operate the following licence:

Pasierbska, Halina, Dolls’ Houses, Shire, 1991

Ramsland, Katherine, ‘The Nutshell Studies of Francesl Glessner Lee’, PDF sourced from the internet.

Miller, Laura J,

Richardson, Nigel,



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:




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