Part one: The Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall – who was she?


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This is a two-part post, examining the history, legend and paranormal sightings of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.  Part one examines the historical basis of the legend.


Raynham Hall in Norfolk is one of the oldest buildings in the county and has been the home of the Townshend family for nearly 400 years. Built in 1619 by Sir Robert Townshend and believed to have been designed by Inigo Jones, the Italian style palatial mansion originally sat in an estate of 7000 acres[1].

The Hall is also the setting for one of the most famous hauntings in England as well as a photograph which for many people proved the existence of ghosts.

Witnesses have reported seeing the ghostly figure of an aristocratic lady wearing an old-fashioned brown dress at various locations in the house but in particular in the upstairs corridor, on the grand staircase and in one particular bedroom.

The Legend of the Brown Lady

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand for Country Life in 1936.

The Brown Lady, captured by Cpt Provand for Country Life in 1936.

The Brown Lady is believed to be the spirit of Dorothy Townshend, the second wife of Lord Townshend, sister of the famous Whig politician and first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and aunt of the prolific writer, historian and politician, Horace Walpole.

The story goes that Dorothy fell deeply in love with the young Lord Charles Townshend who returning her feelings asked her father, Robert Walpole, for her hand in marriage. Robert who was also Townshend’s guardian refused to give his permission afraid that people would think that he was using his guardianship for his own self-interest.

Heart-broken, Charles shortly afterwards married Elizabeth Pelham, daughter of the 1st Baron Thomas Pelham of Laughton. Elizabeth died in 1711 leaving Charles a widower with five surviving children. He was eventually reunited with Dorothy and the two married in 1713.

What Charles did not know was that during the time they had been apart, Dorothy had an affair with the notorious Lord Wharton (father of the infamous Philip, first Duke of Wharton, founder of one of the earliest Hell-fire Club’s). When Charles eventually found out, he flew into a terrible rage. Locking Dorothy in her rooms, he forbade her from ever seeing her children again. Dorothy remained imprisoned for the rest of her life until her death in 1726 reportedly from smallpox[2].

Variations on a theme

Other versions differ slightly, in particular when it comes to Dorothy’s death. One story purports that she died of a broken neck after falling or being pushed down the stairs whilst another insists that the funeral in 1726 was a sham and that Dorothy died years afterwards.

Whatever the truth behind the manner of Dorothy’s death, the one point these stories all agree on is the belief that Dorothy never really left Raynham and that her spirit wanders the Hall looking for the children she was so cruelly separated from.

A Gothic Nightmare or a Misjudged Marriage

otranto1933-correctionWith the publication of Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ in 1764, Britain fell in love with a new genre of literature – the Gothic novel. Early gothic stories included elements of ancestral curses, rambling castles with hidden passages and supernatural elements. The gothic fever which gripped the nation was insatiable and new writers emerged on the scene such as Ann Radcliffe, author of the ‘Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) “who introduced the brooding figure of the Gothic villain…a literary device that would come to be defined as the Byronic hero[3]. Later during the Victorian period the gothic genre developed culminating in some of the most famous books ever written such as Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte); Frankenstein (Mary Shelley) and Dracula (Bram Stoker). These together with novels such as The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins) and The Rose and the Key (Sheridan Le Fanu) which tapped into a growing fear amongst women of being locked away by ruthless mercenary male relatives and a fascination with the supernatural may have contributed to the rise of the Brown Lady legend.

Image via Gutenberg Press.

Image via Gutenberg Press.

Gothic elements abound in the Brown Lady tale; there is the violent husband; the beautiful wronged woman locked away; the charming but devious villain who defiles a virtuous young woman; the manipulative wife who helps her husband in his schemes; an old house; a suspicious death.

Was there any truth in the stories and rumours surrounding Dorothy Walpole life and death or were various strands of the story twisted and moulded into a gothic tale? Does the historical evidence support the legend? Is it possible that the greatest politician of the era would have allowed his sister to be locked away or possibly murdered without batting an eyelid? Was Charles Townshend really so cruel and despotic? There are so many questions unanswered.

Introducing The Principle Players…

Lady Dorothy Townshend (née Walpole)

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

Lady Dorothy Townsend nee Walpole

Dorothy ‘Dolly’ Walpole was born on the 18 September 1686 at Houghton Hall in Norfolk to a wealthy landowning family. She was the thirteenth child of Mary Burwell and Colonel Robert Walpole, a Whig politician who represented the district of Castle Rising.

Little is known about her early life but at some point she fell in love with her father’s ward, Charles Townshend. As previously mentioned, her father turned down their request to marry[4]. Dorothy would have been about 10 or 11 years old at this point. Although that seems really young to us now, in the 17th century the legal age for marriage was 12 for a girl and 14 for a boy. In practice even if a match was made at such an early age, consummation of the marriage did not occur until a few years later.

Houghton Hall.  Image by Lenora.

Houghton Hall. Image by Lenora.

Raised in a family deeply involved in politics, it is highly probable that she mixed with important Whig politicians and their families including Lord Wharton. The story of Dorothy’s affair with Wharton is seen as the catalyst for the events that followed with some even suggesting that the relationship may have been resumed after Dorothy’s marriage to Townshend. Although the evidence does suggest that Dorothy did have a mild flirtation with Wharton whether or not the relationship went any further will never be known.

Two years after the death of Townshend’s first wife in 1711 Dorothy finally got her wish and with the permission of her brother, Robert Walpole, married her first love Charles Townshend in a magnificent ceremony at Raynham Hall. During their thirteen years of marriage they had seven children with six reaching adulthood.

Not much is known about their marriage but in 2009 in an interview given by Lord Raynham to BBC Norfolk he refuted the idea that Dorothy had been ill-treated “People said that Dorothy was locked away and badly treated, but in the 1960s we uncovered paperwork and medical reports suggesting she had a happy life and was much loved[5].

Most of what we can gather about Dorothy’s personality and life can be found in the remarks made by her contemporaries when they heard about her death from smallpox. One commentator describes her as an elegant and accomplished woman with engaging manners whose death is a great loss to her husband and family[6] and who used her influence to keep the peace between her husband and her brother. Another stated that she was “generally and justly lamented for her uncommon merit and the accomplishments that adorned her mind as well as her person[7]. Lastly in a letter to Mr Walpole, Lord Waldegrave expresses his sadness at Lady Townshend’s death and recalls how on a trip to Hanover where she accompanied her husband as part of the king’s party she acted “with so much good humour, into the ways of the country, that she pleased everybody to admiration[8]. It is really hard from these comments to see this Dorothy as the same Dorothy who was so violently abused that she was locked away and possibly murdered.

Lord Charles Townshend (2nd Viscount Townshend)

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

Charles Townsend, 2nd Viscount Townsend by Godfrey Kneller.

Charles Townshend was born on the 18 April 1674 and succeeded his father to the peerage at the early age of thirteen. He was educated at Eton College and then at King’s College at Cambridge and as he grew up became deeply involved with the Whig cause. In November 1708 he was promoted to Captain of the Yeoman of the Guard and helped to negotiate the Treaty of Utrecht. He was favoured by George I and his standing with the king only increased when the policies he formed helped to crush the Jacobite Rising in 1715 resulting in him being given the position of Secretary of State for the Northern Department. With the exception of a brief period when he fell out of favour with the king, he held the position of Secretary of State for the rest of his political life and remained at the forefront of politics until differences of opinion with Sir Robert Walpole led him to abandon politics and retire to his estate at Raynham Hall, where he lived until his death in 1738[9].

In the story of the Brown Lady, Charles Townshend is portrayed as a violent man who had trouble controlling his temper. A description of Townshend the politician states that he “was frank, impetuous and overbearing, long accustomed to dictate in the cabinet and fond of recommending violent measures[10]. The picture that emerges of Townshend is of a wily, determined and intractable man who could be ruthless when he had to be  – but that could describe any politician, no man could reach such a powerful position in that tumultuous climate by being a soft pushover.

On his retirement from politics, Townshend became heavily involved in agricultural developments. He became the champion of turnips as a new winter fodder crop for cattle and introduced large-scale turnip production on his estate. As a result he was given the name of ‘Turnip’ Townshend.

Raynham Hall, seat of Charles Townsend. Image via Wikimedia.

Raynham Hall, seat of Charles Townsend. Image via Wikimedia.

Again the evidence from contemporary sources contradicts the image of an abusive and evil husband. He is described as having retired with a “most unsullied character for integrity, honour and disinterestedness, and gave several striking proofs that he could command the natural warmth of his temper” and that his hospitality endeared him to his neighbours and the dignity of his character earned everyone’s respect[11].

The question is would Robert Walpole have allowed his sister to marry a man with such an unpleasant character? Possibly, Walpole himself had a difficult relationship with his first wife and is known to have treated her badly, and the marriage did cement an alliance between two exceptionally powerful men and two important families. It is also more than likely that Walpole held a traditional view of a woman’s place i.e. the husband was responsible for his wife and that no one else had the right to interfere in their personal affairs. It is interesting that Townshend’s jealously of Walpole rising above him led to a permanent rift between the two only after Dorothy’s death. It might be that the loss of their intermediary left no-one to hold the now fragile alliance together, (often families fall apart when an important member dies). There is no evidence that their arguments were caused by Walpole blaming Townshend for his sister’s death and would have Walpole allow his sister to be held prisoner for years? It seems unlikely but then again no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors.

Lady Lucy Wharton

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

Lady Lucy Wharton by Godfrey Kneller. Private Collection.

Lucy Wharton was the second wife of Lord Thomas Wharton and heiress to the vast Rathfarnham estates in Ireland. She was the daughter of Adam Loftus, 1st Viscount Lisburne, a man who was described as hot-tempered, a compulsive gambler and a heavy drinker[12].  Worth £5000 a year, Lucy married Wharton shortly after the death of his first wife, Ann in 1685.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (who had an affair with Lucy’s son, Philip) was not a fan of Lucy describing her as well suited to Lord Wharton, “unfeeling and unprincipled; flattering and fawning, canting, affecting prudery and even sanctity, yet in reality as abandoned and unscrupulous as her husband himself[13].

Not only did both Lady Wharton and her husband turn a blind eye to each other’s affairs but Lady Wharton was not above helping her husband to seduce innocent girls “his character was so infamous, and his lady’s subservience so notorious, that no young woman could be four and twenty hours under their roof with safety to her reputation”[14].

One of the stories about Dorothy is that somehow Lady Wharton was responsible for entrapping her at Raynham Hall. The origin of this story may stem from an episode which occurred during Dorothy and Wharton’s brief flirtation before her marriage when Lady Wharton lured her to the Wharton’s London residence knowing that it would ruin the girl’s reputation. Apparently Robert Walpole heard a whisper that something was in the air and stormed over to the house and removed his sister by force.

Eventually Lord Wharton became tired of his wife and banished her to a small brick tower in the garden of his mansion at Winchendon in Buckinghamshire[15]. So in a strange way she was banished to some sort of gothic residence but not as a prisoner!

Lord Wharton

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

Honest Tom Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton.

Lord Thomas Wharton was born in August 1648 to a wealthy and powerful family. Wharton was a clever and distinguished Whig politician and virulently anti-Catholic. He sided with the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, in his campaign to be named as his father’s heir in place of the Catholic James II and was instrumental in William, the Dutch Prince of Orange being crowned as king rather than as a consult to Mary. He was also behind the Hanoverian accession and involved in the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland. Despite his decadent ways and occasionally falling out of favour (i.e. Queen Ann disliked him intensely especially after the Barrington Affair when he along with some friends broke into the church and relieved and defecated on the altar and pulpit), he somehow always managed to rise to the top.

Wharton was a libertine, a brilliant swordsman, a debaucher and when he needed to be a manipulative liar. He was sarcastically nicknamed ‘Honest Tom’ as it was believed that no one could trust him “of all the liars of his time he was the most deliberate, the most inventive, and the most circumstantial”[16].


In 1673 he married Ann, granddaughter of Anne St John, the Dowager Duchess of Rochester. It comes to something when probably the most notorious libertine of the age, the Duke of Rochester actually tried to prevent his beloved niece from marrying Wharton. Ann was bookish, clever, a poet and a writer, completely different from Wharton. Neglected by Wharton, in favour of his numerous mistresses, she died in intense pain and misery from syphilis. It is rumoured that Wharton refused to tell Ann that he was infected.

Wharton’s mercurial character was one that aroused deep hatred in some, admired by others and definitely not a man to offend. To the Tories he was almost a satanic figure. Jonathan Swift, whose deep animosity towards Wharton increased when Wharton passed him over for preferment, wrote a number of pieces on the ‘diabolical’ Wharton and called him “the most universal villain I ever knew[17].

Wharton died in 1715 and left his son by his second wife, Philip as his successor. Swift’s wish that “May it please god to shorten the life of Lord Wharton, And set up his son in his place[18] eventually came true but if his hope was that the son would somehow atone for the father he would have been sadly disappointed as Philip earned a reputation which equaled and maybe surpassed that of his father as the founder of the Hellfire Club.

In many ways Wharton does fit the image of the Gothic villain; dynamic, charming and dangerous but then again being a drinker, gambler and libertine in the 17th century was like wearing flared trousers in the 70s, nearly everyone was doing it. Was Wharton worse than others – maybe, maybe not! It is probably best to leave the last word on Wharton to an anonymous source who wrote,“A monster, whom no vice can bigger swell, Abhor’d by Heaven and long since due in Hell”[19].

So was Dorothy the tragic victim of a vicious plot? – I leave it to people to draw their own conclusions!


In part two of the Mysterious Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, Miss Jessel will examine evidence for the sightings of her wandering spirit, and will consider whether the famous Country Life photograph, believed by many to provide proof of the existence of ghosts, can be taken at face value. 


Florence Marryat, There is No Death, 1917

Henrietta Hobart, Duchess of Suffolk: Letters from 1712 to 1767 with historical, biographical and explanatory notes

William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808

M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909

John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

Raynham Hall,

The vast history of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

The Whartons of Winchendon,

Raynham Hall,

Dorothy Townshend,

The Brown Lady,

Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton,,_1st_Marquess_of_Wharton

Charles Townshend, 3rd Viscount Townshend,,_3rd_Viscount_Townshend

Raynham Hall,

Gothic Literature,


[1] Raynham Hall,

[2] The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall,

[3] Gothic Literature,

[4] Dorothy Townshend,

[5] The vast history of Raynham Hall

[6] William Coxe and Horatio Walpole: Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole – Volume I, 1808

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Raynham Hall,

[10] M. Townshend, Townshend – Townshend: 1066-1909, 1909

[11] ibid

[12] John Harold Wilson, Court Satires of the Restoration, 1986

[13] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[14] The Brown Lady,

[15] Norman Milne, Libertine and Harlots, 2014

[16] The Whartons of Winchendon,

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] ibid



Strawberry Hill Gothick: the art of gloomth and the beauty of horror


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Strawberry Hill – a dream of gloomth

Strawberry Hill from the south.

South View of Strawberry Hill.

Miss Jessel and I recently had the opportunity to coordinate our haunted schedules and take a trip to Twickenham to visit one of the most unusual and, to my mind, beautiful houses in England.

Strawberry Hill is a unique building in English architecture – one that fits nowhere comfortably.  It is not a castle, nor a venerable ancestral seat, nor yet is it a picaresque folly or a classic English Villa.  What is, is drama, theatricality, the promise of dark mysteries and unfolding horror….In short, Strawberry Hill is as idiosyncratic, affected and inspired as the extraordinary man who created it.  A man who, saturated as he was with the gloomth and venerable barbarism he made fashionable, let his Gothic architectural masterpiece inspire his Gothic literary masterpiece…and thereafter spawn a whole genre of Gothic literature and popular culture.

Horace Walpole (1717 -1797): connoisseur, writer, art critic and gossip

Horace Walpole by Image by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

Horace Walpole by Joshua Reynolds, 1756. Image Wikimedia.

It is hard to read any history or biography concerning the eighteenth century without coming across some usually acerbically witty observations from Horace Walpole.  A voluminous correspondent, writer and art critic, he was deeply concerned with recording events around him, seeing on the spot observations as valuable tools for historians.  From the Coronation of George II to the Cock Lane Ghost, Walpole was there to offer his spiky comments to his correspondents and to posterity.

He was born in 1717 into the powerful elite of eighteenth century society. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was, in all but name, Britain’s first Prime Minister.  This is proved extremely beneficial for Horace, as his father ensured he never had to work by granting him 3 lucrative sinecures.  His mother, Catherine Shorter, whom he is said to have taken after, was from a family of eccentrics.

Walpole's parents (the frame is a 3D photocopy of the original).

Walpole’s parents, hanging in the Blue Bed Chamber (the origial frame was re-created on a 3D printer).

Like most of his contemporaries Walpole rounded off his formal education with a Grand Tour to the continent.  From 1739 -1741, accompanied by his friend, the poet Thomas Gray, he traveled to Italy.  Temperamentally very different: Gray liked to spend hours studying historical sites, while Walpole preferred living it up and partying on down, they soon fell out [1].  This tour, and its cultural influence was to have an important impact on his later ideas for Strawberry Hill as he endeavored to re-create the ‘gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals’ at home.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

English tourists on the Grand Tour, 18th Century image. Source BBC.

Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

Horace Walpole, by Rosalba Carriera. Source Wikipedia.

By 1747, Sir Robert had been in his grave for two years, leaving Horace, his youngest son the lease on a London property and enough money to begin looking about for a country retreat. Nothing as grand as Houghton Hall where he had grown up, but something more bijou and compact. A bachelor pad, but with enough space for the chi-chi little house parties that Walpole was so fond of throwing.  It had to be somewhere fashionable, after-all Walpole was a man of taste and refinement, and it had to have good transport connections to the capital with its social and political scene.

At that time Twickenham was being what we would now call gentrified.  By the time Walpole went house-hunting, Twickenham’s rustic cottages had been transformed into stylish English Villa’s (such as the classically elegant Marble Hill, home to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, and long-suffering mistress of George II)  and real estate was in seriously short supply. Walpole was lucky though, and snapped up the last vacant plot – Chopp’d Straw Hall – from one Mrs Chenevix, a luxury ‘toy’ woman (think uber-posh geegaws for the very rich, rather than Barbie dolls and teddy bears for the proletariat).  This image of the house as an exquisite toy seemed to tickle Walpole and he often referred to his home in those terms:

“It is a little play-thing of a house that I got out of Mrs Chenevix’s shop, and is the prettiest bauble you ever saw.”

He was to spend the next fifty years adding and elaborating on the original house – as Maev Kennedy wrote, Walpole achieved a:

‘spectacular conjuring trick [..] [a] miniature medieval castle wrapped around a modest little country house.’ [2]

How not to build English Villa – throwing away the rule book


Plate showing ‘the five orders’ from a book by da Vignola. 16th Century. Source Wikipedia.

From Palladio to Inigo Jones and Lord Burlington, by the eighteenth century the prevailing architectural fashion was Classical: symmetrical, ordered, regulated by the ‘noble rules’ and harking back to the roman country villa [3].

When Walpole chose to buck the trend and go Gothick, he was not the first. Vanbrugh and William Kent had been earlier trailblazers.  Where he was different was in using actual architectural examples to create a new Gothic building.  He was not adding a sympathetic extension, or restoring an existing Gothic building like Vanbrugh and Kent had done.  He was taking research and turning it into a reality, twisting the invariably Classical  English Villa into something more organic, more irregular, dramatic, more English.  And it was completely at odds with the dominant Classicism of the day.  As Michael Snoddin, curator at the V&A commented:

“The most striking external feature of Strawberry Hill was its irregular plan and broken picturesque silhouette.” [4]

It must have seemed shocking to his neighbors!


Yet, despite its oddity, it also fitted with the sensibility of the eighteenth century perfectly, the Picaresque movement was popular at the time, and the very nature of eighteenth century style was very feminine – think Rococo curves.  It also tapped into the growing interest of Antiquarians in the Medieval past of Britain, whilst not omitting modern conveniences, as Walpole was at pains to point out:


The Tribune, where Walpole displayed his most valued treasures.

“In truth, I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinement in luxury.  The designs of the inside and outside are strictly ancient, but the decorations are modern.”

There was almost a national pride in the resurgence of the style – something that would become more pronounced in the 19th Century when the Victorian’s enthusiastically embraced the Gothic style of architecture.  Walpole certainly appreciated that England’s Medieval heritage needed to be preserved, and this is typified in his method of using actual examples of medieval decoration and interior design.  His preferred period was the Perpendicular period of 1330 – 1550, and this is evident at Strawberry Hill [5].

According to Anna Chalcraft and Judith Viscardi:

“Horace Walpole used new materials, had amazing ideas, but utilized these to reinvest the past with excitement.  Both Georgian and Victorian Gothic architecture grew from a style which recalled the past but which was also the epitome of modernity.” [6]

Hence the term Strawberry Hill Gothic, or Gothick with a ‘k’ was coined,  to distinguish this modern Gothic from true Gothic style.

Tromp L'oeil detail in the Entrance hall, from Prince Arthur's tomb at Winchester.

Detail of the Entrance hall wallpaper, a design taken from Prince Arthur’s tomb at Worcester cathedral.

My Fellow Goths

The Stunning Long Gallery

The Stunning Long Gallery

Although Walpole was the driving force behind Strawberry Hill, he also deferred to and acted upon the decor and design suggested by his Committee of Taste, his ‘fellow Goths’.  Membership varied over the years but the two most prominent members were John Chute, who specialized in early buildings, antiquarianism, and heraldry; with Richard Bentley influencing interiors, furniture and decoration.


Together Walpole and his Committee created a theatrical experience using a range of techniques: use of light (the windows are slightly larger than might be expected), the absence of light (blue glass and stained glass give a wonderful Gloomth to many of the rooms), use of vivid colour and rich gilding (one can only imagine how gorgeous the Long Gallery must have looked by candle-light – with its gilded fan vaults ablaze and casting eerie shadows on the walls).

Many of the rooms are vivid hues – the Blue Bed Chamber, the Rich Red of the Long Gallery, the purple of the Holbein Room. – while some rooms are muted – the entrance hall and staircase, the trunk-ceiled passage setting a more sombre scene.  Whereas today, the sheer peacockery of the place removes any sense of dark mystery or foreboding, in the eighteenth century the impression would have been quite different.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

The Glorious Gloomth of the Library.

As Chalcraft and Viscardi note, Walpole used illusion to create a mood for each room – nothing is quite what it seems. Plaster, wood and paint imitate stone carvings, giving, as Sally Jeffrey observed, an almost illustrated delicacy to the building reminiscent of its academic sources [7]. Throughout the building, the vistas are carefully planned, the visitor moves through the house in a particular way,  the design and layout is immersive, intended to alter the mood of the viewer, or focus their attention on a particular object or scene.  Today, the house is sparsely furnished, but in Walpole’s day it was crammed with the six thousand objects he had collected, each placed for maximum impact and each with its own story to tell.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

From darkness into the light. Planned vistas in Strawberry Hill.

No surprise then that the house has always attracted visitors, Walpole was even occasionally run out of his own home by the massed hordes of upper crust sight-seers, and he would retreat to a cottage nearby.  However, oh the whole he seemed to have rather enjoyed the attention, even going so far as to create rules for visitors and issuing the very first country house guide in 1774, for their edification.

Walpole's rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

Walpole’s rules for visitors to Strawberry Hill.

 The Castle of Otranto

Of course, the fame of Strawberry Hill also lies in it being the inspiration for the tale cited as the first ever Gothic Horror story – The Castle of Otranto.

On 9th March 1765 Horace Walpole wrote to the Rev William Cole:

” I waked one morning in the beginning of last June from a dream, of which all I could recover was, that I thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story) and that on the uppermost bannister of great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour.  In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate…” [8]

Staircase and Lantern. Image by Lenora.

Staircase, designed by Richard Bentley and inspired by Rouen cathedral, and the supposed setting of Walpole’s dream.

And so the Gothic Horror Genre was born. The story is rather like the house itself, which is not quite what it purports to be.  in 1764 Otranto was launched onto the reading public as an ancient Italian Tale, discovered in a remote library and translated by the antiquarian William Marshall.  Once its warm reception had been assured, subsequent editions named Walpole as the author.

Unfortunately, rather like the house itself, the tale has lost some of its sense of dread and mystery over the years, leaving a theatrical, slightly breathless melodrama in its stead: death by gigantic helmet, portraits coming to life, a rotting corpse hermit with a message from beyond the grave and swooning maidens aside, the tale does lay out the standard tropes enthusiastically adopted in later Gothic tales.  There is a cursed noble family, a long-lost heir, a doomed highborn beauty.  Earthly moral peril and otherworldly threat create dynamic tension and heighten the drama.

Mario Praz, in his excellent introduction to the Penguin edition, despite acknowledging The Castle of Otranto  to be the first of its genre, sees it as a rather weak example of  Gothic horror, noting somewhat dismissively that like Strawberry Hill itself, Otranto was merely – ‘Rococo in Gothic disguise’.  [9]


Walpole’s source of inspiration? Carceri series, by Piranesi. Image public domain, via Wikimedia.

Despite the modern criticisms, in the Eighteenth century the tale was a ‘best seller’. The popularity of the Castle of Otranto may seem to be a paradox in the Enlightened eighteenth century.  However, the century that prided itself on the rational and scientific progress was also a century that saw more and more people becoming urbanized and losing their connection to the countryside in the wake of ‘progress’.  Almost as a counterbalance to things becoming to rational and to classical, there was a growing interest in the picturesque and in Britain’s medieval past as people yearned to rediscover and reconnect with the chaos of nature.

In literature De Sade and in art Piranesi tapped into and exploited this desire for primordial chaos and destruction.  As Praz explains, a sensibility grew up where horror became a source of delight – charm and repulsion were combined and “the ‘beautiful horrid’ passed by insensible degrees into the ‘horribly beautiful'” [10]

Walpole can be seen in his creation of Strawberry Hill  and his writing of The Castle of Otranto successfully tapping into the zeitgeist of the mid-eighteenth century and in doing so became both a fore-runner of the Gothic  literature so popular later in the century and of the Gothic architectural style so beloved of the Victorians.

The armory from the staircase.

The armoury from the staircase.  A great plumed helmet, reminiscent of Otranto, can be seen in the middle arch.

So, despite Walpole’s fears that ‘My buildings are paper…and will all be blown away in ten years after I am dead’ both of his great works, Strawberry Hill and The Castle of Otranto, have survived the centuries to become culturally significant landmarks.

Strawberry Hill today

After Walpole’s death in 1797, Strawberry Hill suffered a checkered fate with some sympathetic and some not so sympathetic custodians.  Sadly, the famed collection was broken up and sold in the 1840’s.

The Waldegrave Wing.

The 19th Century Waldegrave Wing.

Restoration, and hand woven bedsheets.

Restoration in progress – hand-woven sheets are laid out on the table.

By 2004 Strawberry Hill was listed as endangered by the World Monument Fund.    But, thanks to the Strawberry Hill Trust the house was saved.  The Trust are restoring the house to the state it was when Horace Walpole lived in it, so the colours are vivid and the textiles fresh.  The visitor may sometimes have difficulty telling what is ‘real’ and what is a reconstruction, but the overall effect is glorious and I feel sure Walpole would have approved.

It is the 300th anniversary of Horace Walpole’s birth next year, and as part of the celebrations the Trust planned to try to reunite Horace Walpole’s lost collection with Strawberry Hill.  Bringing together hundreds of items from all over the world is a huge undertaking, and now it looks like this won’t happen until 2018.  However, it should be well worth the wait.

To find out more about visiting Strawberry Hill, you can find their website at:

To find out more about the Walpole Collection, visit the Lewis Walpole Library:


 Sources and notes

Images:  By Lenora unless otherwise stated. [1]

Chalcraft, Anna and Viscardi, Judith, 2011, ‘Strawberry Hill Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle’ Francis Lincoln Ltd [5] [6] [7] [and most quotes from Horace Walpole]

Fairclough, Peter, ed. and Praz, Mario, 1986, ‘Three Gothic Novels’, Penguin [8] [9]

Jeffery Sally, ‘Architecture’ in Ford, Boris, Ed, 1995, ‘The Cambridge Cultural History of Britain Vol 5 Eighteenth Century Britain’, Cambridge University Press [3] [7]

Kennedy, Maev, 25 Feb 2015, ‘Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s fantasy castle, to open its doors again’ , The Guardian. [2]

Walpole, Horace, republished 2016, ‘A Description of Strawberry Hill’ The Strawberry Hill Trust. [4]




Blogger recognition award 2016


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Blogger recognition award 2016


Well, what can I say! Thank you Angry Scholar for the nomination!  P.S. Jeff,  I nicked the logo from your website,  love the way the image was saved with the name ‘bra readjusted’, has a sort of comfy, yet supportive feeling about it – rather like the feeling of receiving a Blog Recognition Award nomination ;0)


Scenes at Haunted Palace upon hearing of the nomination. Oh Ok, really it’s one of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python illustrations, all giphied up by some techie person from t’internet.

For those of you, like me, who may be unfamiliar with the world of Blog Awards and Nominations, here are the ‘rules’ for this one:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Attach the award to the post.
  3. Give a brief story of how your blog started.
  4. Give a piece of advice or two to new bloggers.
  5. Select 5 other bloggers you want to give the award to.

Here goes.  First up: thank you, Angry Scholar!!!

I’ve been a fan of the Angry Scholar Blog for some years now.  Erudite and witty, it covers folklore, horror and gaming.  Fab site – go follow it!

How The Haunted Palace Blog began…

800px-Turner_Alnwick_Castle BW

‘Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;

[…]         Quoth the Raven “stop pratting around and write a blog about history and the supernatural, and maybe base it on some references to Edgar Allan Poe, ‘cos he’s, like, super-cool.”’

skull and ratOK so that is not really what happened, I love history, folklore and the supernatural, in short, anything a bit dark or macabre.  I also have a fondness for Edgar Allan Poe, and The Haunted Palace as a title for a blog seemed to work. After all, a palace has many rooms, so I could get away with writing pretty much anything I fancied.  It was nice (and kind of surprising) that other people wanted to read it as well.  After a little while, I also persuaded my good friend, the excellent Miss Jessel, to become a regular contributor.  And the rest, is as they say history. (Well, it would be, wouldn’t it?)

To those just starting out, the best advice I can give, is the most cliched.  Write about what you love.  It doesn’t necessarily matter if you don’t know everything about a subject – because you end researching things more anyway when you begin to blog.  Plus, if you stick to subjects you are really in to, you won’t run out of ideas, you won’t get bored, and you won’t get hung up on how many followers or readers you have.

My second piece of advice is to Never. Ever. Write about the Highgate V@mpire  Not Ever.

My Nominations for the Blogger Recognition Award 2016

Multo (Ghost) Wonderful blog dedicated to ghosts in folklore, myth and literature.

Story Smitten Enticing extracts and snippets from the author’s Paranormal Mystery Thrillers.

Ed Mooney Photography Moody and evocative black and white photography of Irish Ruins (with plenty of history and folklore as well).

Madame Guillotine the Blog of author Melanie Clegg, who describes herself as ‘an authoress of novels of POSH DOOM, history geek, Versailles obsessive, Paris lover, historical fiction writer,‘ the site that made me want to start a blog.

Echoes of the Past Photo Blog of keen photographer Lynne, from my favorite part of the world, North Norfolk.

So there you go, that is my contribution to the Blogger Recognition Award 2016.

Lenora and Miss Jessel at The Haunted Palace Blog.

creepy girls


The end of the affair: have the remains of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck finally been discovered?


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Thanks to Lenora, I have learnt that some bones have been found at Hanover Castle which are believed to be the remains of Count Philip Christoph von Konigsmarck. As a postscript to my earlier piece on the Konigsmark Affair, I have summarised the newspaper report as best I can (my apologises for any inaccuracies in my summary).

The original article by Isabel Christian and Simon Benne appeared in Hannoverlche Allgemeine on 26/27 August 2016.  To read the article in full, in the original German, please click on the link given below:-

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

Leineschloss. Image via Wikipedia.

During renovation work at the German Parliament on the 11th August 2016, construction workers found the remains of a human skeleton. The German Public Prosecutor’s Office now suspect that the remains could be the bones of Count Philipp Christoph Königsmarck whose disappearance over 300 years ago at Leine Castle in mysterious circumstances made it one of the most puzzling unsolved murder cases of the 17th century. The initial examination carried out at the Hanover Medical School (MHH) revealed that the bones may be several hundred years old. But it is also possible that the remains are of another unidentified individual. In the middle ages, a Franciscan monastery existed on the present site of the Landtag. Later, the Welfs had their family vault beneath the chapel of Leine Castle. The building was damaged in the war and when the ruins were later incorporated into the State Parliament in 1957, royal coffins were found in the crypt’s mausoleum.  So it is more than possible that the bones could belong to a friar or were simply missed when the other bones were removed and reburied after the war.

Professor Michael Klintschar, Director of the Institute for Legal Medicine at the MHH, is cautious about the finds saying that their initial examination was at the request of the police and their remit was to verify whether or not the bones were over 50 years old. Based on their findings they can confirm that the bones are far older than 50 years old but for now can’t draw anymore conclusions.

Further investigation needs to be carried out and so the remains will be taken to the Institute for Historical Anthropology at the Georg Albrecht University in Göttingen, Germany where they will be examined using the latest forensic technology. Scientists from different disciplines will be brought together to work on this important project. Thomas Schwark, Director of the Historical Museum said that it will be sensational if the bones turn out to belong to Königsmarck, as the Königsmarck affair has captured the imagination of so many people including authors, historians and song writers. The museum director of the Schloss Herrenhausen, Salazar has also confirmed that if the bones are genuine a Königsmarck exhibition would be considered.


A Dangerous Liaison: The Murder of Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck


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A Scandalous Family


The Dashing Philip Christoph von Königsmarck. Residenzmuseum Celle 20160708.

The Swedish Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck was born on the 4 March 1665. The Königsmarcks were of Brandenburgian extraction with an intriguing history of their own. Philip’s grandfather was Field Marshal Hans Christoff von Königsmarck who is best remembered for the part he played in the unsuccessful Battle of Prague in 1648[1]; his elder sister Maria Aurora later became the mistress to Augustus II the Strong of Poland; his other sister Amalia Wilhelmina was a ‘noted dilettante painter’[2], amateur actress and poet and; his brother Karl Johann became notorious as the architect behind the assassination of Thomas Thynn, the husband of his alleged lover Lady Elizabeth Percy in 1682.

At the court of Charles II

Evidence from the period reveals that by the age of 16 Philip Christoph was well-established at the court of Charles II. The court of Charles II infamous as a centre of hedonism, decadence and promiscuity, a place where “court life…often turned on the intrigues of lovers and the machinations of mistresses” and “favour depended more on a ready jest and brazen effrontery than on talent or political ability[3] must have been a fascinating place to grow up in. Philip who was described as dashing, charming and handsome would have fitted in perfectly and it is easy to surmise that he must have been extremely popular with the ladies of the court. His acceptance into the inner court circles meant that he had gained the favour of the king and would be one of the first to hear any pertinent gossip and political news.

Hieronymus Janssens, Charles II Dancing at a Ball at Court, c. 1660, RCIN 00525.

Charles II Dancing at a Ball at Court, c. 1660, Hieronymus Janssens, RCIN 00525.

The assassination of Mr Thynn

On the 12 February 1682 Thomas Thynn was killed whilst riding in his carriage along Pall Mall. His assailants Christopher Vratz, John Stern and Charles George Borosky were soon after arrested along with Karl Johann von Königsmarck who was believed to have orchestrated the murder. Königsmarck was assumed to be the lover of the wealthy heiress Lady Elizabeth (Bette) Percy who had been forced by her family into marrying Thynn – a man she considered odious. At the time of the murder Lady Bette had escaped to Holland and was living in The Hague. It was generally believed that Königsmarck was seeking to free Bette from her marriage and then claim her for his wife.

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

Thomas Thynne. Image source unknown.

The evidence suggests that Philip must have been aware of his brother’s intentions. The two shared a friend and aide in Frederick Hanson who also acted as Philip’s guardian whilst he was in England. Hanson ran errands for Karl including checking daily for news about the ship on which Borosky was travelling, purchasing a sword for Borosky and even finding out for the Count about the legal implications of killing Thynn in a dual[4]. At his brother’s trial Philip confessed that Karl had returned secretly to London ten days before the murder as well as confirming that a bill of exchange for one thousand pistols had been sent to England. Although when questioned he supported his brother’s claim that the money was for the purchase of horses for the siege of Strasburg he also admitted that only one had been bought so far[5]. It will never be clear if Philip played any active role in Thynn’s murder but it is also really hard to believe that he was not covering for his brother.

A fateful meeting

Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard

The beautiful Sophie Dorothea, Princess of Hannover by Henry Gascard.  Image source Wikipedia.

The scandal of the murder, trial and subsequent suspicious disappearance of his brother might have been the reason behind Philip leaving England shortly afterwards. It may have been that feelings were running high against the Königsmarck brothers and it was advised that Philip would be better off out of harm’s way. In any event Thynn’s murder was a turning point in Philip’s life leading to his first meeting with the 16-year-old Sophia Dorothea of Celle.

It is not surprising that they were attracted to each other, Philip was handsome and Sophia was beautiful with thick dark hair, an ivory complexion, an attractive figure and a flirtatious, charming and vivacious manner[6]. They had little reason to believe that their brief and innocent flirtation would have such far-reaching consequences for both their futures.

A tempestuous marriage

George I, Elector of Hanover

George I, Elector of Hanover. Image source Wikipedia.

About five years later, Philip and Sophia were reunited. In the interim Philip had made a name for himself as a soldier and Sophia had married her cousin George Louis, heir to the Principality of Lüneburg.

Sophia’s marriage was extremely unhappy. On being told whom she was going to marry she reportedly screamed “I will not marry a pig snout”[7], threw his miniature across the room and fainted. He was equally unimpressed by his future bride. He considered it an insult to marry a woman who had been born out-of-wedlock. Sophia’s background was complicated.

Her father, George William had fallen in love with his mistress the beautiful Eleonore d’Esmier d’Olbreuse despite being promised in marriage to Princess Sophia, daughter of the Palatine King of Bohemia. Determined not to marry Princess Sophia and refusing to give up Eleonore he agreed to renounce his claim to the Duchy of Hanover and hand it over to his ambitious younger brother Ernest Augustus. In return George William promised never to marry, meaning that any children he had would be illegitimate and would therefore have no claim to the Duchy. For a time, George William adhered to the agreement but in the end increasingly concerned about his daughter, Sophia’s legal status he decided to try to remedy the situation and in 1666 (a year after Sophia’s birth) he declared that his morganatic marriage to Eleonore was in fact legal and recognised by the church and law of the land. This announcement alarmed the rest of his family but as no male offspring was forthcoming, the marriage and Sophia’s legitimisation were accepted[8].

Eléonore d'Olbreuse,

The Glamorous Eléonore d’Olbreuse, Image source Residenzmuseum Celle.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that Princess Sophia had been in love with George William. The anger she felt at being thrown over affected her feelings and behaviour towards her niece, Sophia Dorothea, despite the fact that she did not actually like her own son. She famously said about him “George Ludwig, the most pigheaded, stubborn boy who ever lived, and who has round his brains such a thick crust that I defy any man or woman ever to discover what is in them.”[9] George Louis seemed to go out-of-the-way to make Sophia Dorothea’s life miserable. He constantly berated her for her lack of etiquette and breeding, was physically abusive and flaunted his extremely ugly mistress, Melusine von der Schulenburg in her face.

It was in this hostile environment that a lonely and unhappy Sophia Dorothea was reunited with her former admirer Philip Christoph von Königsmarck on the 1 March 1688.

A love affair

The Meeting. JH Fragonard. Frick Collection NY.

The Meeting. Jean-Honore Fragonard. Frick Collection NY.

The renewal of the relationship seems at first to have been facilitated by Sophia’s brothers-in-law who appear unlike their brother to be fond of their sister-in-law. They saw that Philip’s visits cheered her up and so helped to arrange their meetings.

It was only in 1690 after Philip returned from fighting in the Peloponnese in the service of Ernest Augustus, Elector of Hanover that the relationship seems to have intensified. In order to separate them, Philip was sent to join the Hanoverian Army in their war against Louis XIV, probably on the orders of Sophia’s father-in-law. Any request for leave was constantly turned down leaving no opportunity for Philip to return and see Sophia. In the end in desperation Philip left without permission and made his way to Hanover. He was absent for six days and on his return he was punished and exiled[10].

On hearing of his wife’s supposed affair, alleged indecent behaviour and the forbidden visit of Philip, George Louis flew into a violent frenzy. Confronting her they argued with Sophia retaliating by insulting him over his mistress. Seething with anger he grabbed at Sophia hitting her until she was covered in bruises and tearing at her hair pulling it out by the roots. She only survived because their servants finally managed to drag him off her.

‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’

-William Congreve

With Philip banished, Sophia’s position became even more precarious. Treated as a prisoner, she was constantly watched, probably by her lady-in-waiting, the scheming, petty and unpleasant Countess Clara von Platen who was at the time the mistress of Elector Ernest Augustus. Unfortunately Clara had also had a brief affair with Philip and was deeply jealous of Sophia[11].


The vindictive Countess Clara von Platen. Image source Wikimedia.

In June 1694, Philip received a message to come and meet with Sophia at Leineschloss Castle. The note Philip assumed had come from Sophia but it could just as well have been written by Clara on behalf of the Elector and George Louis.

What happened over the night of the 1/2 July 1694 is not known but one version is that Philip was prevented from leaving, trapped and attacked after having seen Sophia. Despite being outnumbered and fighting valiantly he was inevitably overpowered. As he lay dying Clara got her chance for one last act of humiliation and revenge by grinding her heel into his mouth[12]. She then arranged for his body to be deposed of. His final resting place is unknown to this day; his body could have been thrown into the River Leine[13] or as some claim hidden in either the palace latrines or under the corridor floorboards and then covered in lime.


Assassins. Image Source: The Draftsman’s Contract. 1982. Dir Peter Greenaway.

On discovering that her brother was missing his sister Maria Aurora asked Elector Frederick Augustus I to help find Philip and if dead to help with any inheritance issues[14]. She sounds a bit cold and no records remain to indicate that she kicked up much of a fuss. Maybe she found out what had happened and decided it was in her best interest to stay quiet. There is an unlikely rumour that George Louis boasted about the murder as well as the more plausible rumour that two of the murderers eventually confessed to their crime.

The Princess of Ahlden

 Ahlden Castle in Celle . Image source Wikimedia.

Ahlden Castle in Celle (c1654). Image source Wikimedia.

The day after the murder, George Louis accused Sophia of malicious desertion – giving credence to the argument that she had intended to leave with Philip. Whether or not she had planned to leave is unknown. If the note Philip received was from her then it is possibly that Sophia had asked him for his help; if the note was from Clara then any decision to leave would have been made by Sophia on the spur of the moment but it is also equally likely that Sophia was never going to leave and that the letter had been forged in order to give legitimacy to George Louis next move.

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

Sophie Dorothea and her children. Image source Wikimedia.

Sophia was sent to Ahlden Castle in Celle where she remained a prisoner for the next thirty years. Forbidden from seeing her two children and her father and with her marriage dissolved she spent the rest of life in isolation until her death on the 13 November 1726. All traces of her were removed from Hanover. It was as if George Louis was trying to erase Sophia from existence. On her death George refused to allow any sign of mourning, appropriated all her property which she had left to her children and kept her body for six months in a casket in the cellar of Ahlden refusing to allow her to be buried[15].

She did get a sort of posthumous revenge. While she lay dying, bedridden and in extreme pain she sent a letter to George, now George I of England cursing him. Terrified, he remembered a warning given to him by a gypsy i.e. that he would die within a year if he did anything to cause the death of his wife. Strangely enough he did die seven months later during a trip back to his beloved Hanover, four weeks after he had finally agreed to Sophia being buried at Stadtkirche alongside her parents.

A platonic relationship or torrid affair?

The Lovers. Image source Prometheus Art dealers.

The Lovers. Image source Antiques Atlas website.

The numerous love letters held now in the archive at the University of Lund have often been cited as being definitive proof of the passionate love affair of Philip and Sophia. The authenticity of this collection of letters is now being questioned with some experts believing they were forged in order to blacken Sophia’s name[16]. If the letters are fakes then a shadow of doubt could be cast on the question of the nature of their relationship. Were they lovers or did they share a deep and close platonic friendship? Did Sophia commit adultery or did their relationship remain unconsummated? Sophia, herself was surprisingly evasive on the subject. When given the chance to be reinstated as the wife of George I of England (as he later became) she answered “If what I am accused of is true, I am unworthy of his bed, and if it is false he is unworthy of mine”[17].

History’s great romance

Nobody who knows me would ever accuse me of being a romantic but I do hope that Sophia did have a loving relationship with Philip as she deserved some happiness after being married to George I. As Philip’s remains have never been discovered, the last few moments of his life will always be shrouded in mystery. Whether true or not the relationship between Philip and Sophia is seen as one of history’s great love stories with Count Philip Christoph von Königsmarck memory living on in folklore as a tragic romantic figure who risked everything for love.


Tragic lover, Sophia Dorothea. Image source The Peerage website.


Tragic lover, Philip. Image source The Peerage website.


[1] Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

[2] Amalia Königsmarck:

[3] Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II:

[4] Nigel Pickford: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn, 170

[5] Ibid, 223

[6] Sophia Dorothea

[7] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

[8] George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg:,_Duke_of_Brunswick-L%C3%BCneburg

[9] Sophia Dorothea

[10] Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

[11] Who Murdered Konigsmarck?:

[12] ibid

[13] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[14] Maria Aurora von Königsmarck: Königsmarck

[15] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

[16] Philip Christoph von Königsmarck:

[17] Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):


Philipp Christoph, Count Of Konigsmark:

Clara Elisabeth von Platen:

Sophia Dorothea (1666-1726):

Hans Christoff von Königsmarck:

Amalia Königsmarck:

Lord Rochester and the Court of Charles II:

George William, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg:,_Duke_of_Brunswick-L%C3%BCneburg

Sophia Dorothea

Maria Aurora von Königsmarck:

Sophia Dorothea of Celle:

Nigel Pickford: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn, 2014





Screaming Skulls – folklore, fact and fiction


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Screaming Skulls – a very British Tradition


Screaming Skull, 1958, director Alex Nicol. Wikimedia

Tales of screaming skulls punctuate both the folklore and the ghost literature of the British Isles. From benevolent guardian spirits bringing luck to the household to vengeful spirits tied to a location for all eternity, promising doom and destruction should their mortal remains ever be disturbed. England, is dotted with many manor houses and farmsteads with such tales -but what is their origin?  Are they comparatively recent – many tales cite the seventeenth century for their origin – or do they have more ancient antecedents?  The tales were both relished and embellished by the Gothic-loving Victorians and later writers – how much influence have those literary tales of screaming skulls had in shaping the living folk tradition?

How to spot a screaming skull

So, what exactly is a screaming skull and what are their defining characteristics?

Firstly the term screaming skull, with all its supernatural and dramatic connotations, is unsurprisingly the product of literature. In folklore they are categorised as guardian skulls – the embodiment of the luck of a household or family – which, frankly, sounds a lot less sensational and a lot more, well, protective.

David Clarke in his PhD thesis on Head Cults [1] proposes the following characteristics, common to most traditions:

  1. A Dwelling place has a human skull which has been kept for hundreds of years in an important part of the house, in a specially made wall niche, on a prominent windowsill, or beside a hearth;

  2. The origin of the skull in unclear, but in oral tradition the date when it took up residence is often placed outside living memory, between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, usually as the result of violence, for example murder or execution;

  3. Under no circumstances must the skull be removed from its resting place in the building, this being emphasised in all the stories as the most important theme;

  4. If the skull is disturbed then outbreaks of paranormal, poltergeist-like phenomena will plague the residents of the house until the skull is replaced in its favourite place.

Three tales of screaming skulls: Anne Griffiths, ‘Owd Nance’ of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

Burton Agnes Hall. Image by Lenora.

I have to admit that my first introduction to Screaming Skull folklore came from a Misty annual in the 1980’s- and it resulted in me pestering my dad until he took me to Burton Agnes Hall.  I still have the old guide-book and one solitary grainy old photograph I took at the time (see above) as well as a lingering sense of disappointment that I didn’t get to see the infamous skull itself, which is walled up in a secret location within the hall.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts.

Anne Griffiths, by Geehearts (Burton Agnes Hall).

Folklore has it that the three Griffiths sisters, Frances, Margaret and Catherine (known by her baptismal name as Anne), caused Burton Agnes Hall to be built during the closing years of the reign of Elizabeth I.  Just before the hall was completed, the youngest sister, Anne, was returning from a visit to a family in a nearby village when she was attacked and left for dead by a gang of ruffians.  Brought back to her beloved hall, her dying wish was to remain there after death; she claimed to her sisters that she would not rest ‘unless I, or part of me at least, remain here in our beautiful home as long as it lasts’[2]. She pressed her sisters to agree that once she had died, they would remove her head and keep it on a table in the hall.  However, unsurprisingly, they buried her intact in the local churchyard.

Shortly afterwards, strange things began to happen within the Hall, loud crashes and bangs were heard, poltergeist activity erupted in the depths of the night. The family was terrified and recalling their broken promise to Anne, they set out to make amends.  The coffin was duly opened and what they found shocked them – Anne had preempted them. Although her body remained well-preserved, to their horror they found that her head was now detached and bare of all flesh – only a grinning skull remained.   Anne had her will in the end, and her skull was set upon a table in her beloved hall. Peace reigned once again at Burton Agnes Hall…..well, for most of the time – it is said that Anne, also known as Owd Nance, still walks in October, the month of her supposed demise, and her presence is often felt in the Queens Chamber at Burton Agnes Hall, to this very day.

The Vengeful Slave of Bettiscombe Manor, Dorset

fig443_Bettiscombe Manor2

Bettiscombe Manor. Image source: British website.

Bettiscombe Manor is the ancestral home of the Pinney family, and is built on very ancient ground.   The story goes that one Azaiah Pinney was due to be hanged drawn and quartered for his part in the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.  A swift bribe ensured he was instead whisked away to the colonies, to be an indentured servant in the Caribbean.  Clearly being a man of sterner stuff, Azaiah eventually became a rich plantation owner on the Isle of Nevis.  Many years later a descendant of Azaiah,   returned to Bettiscombe in the company of a negro slave.


The Bettiscombe skull beneath the gaze of a Pinney. Image from

The slave, used to tropical climes, was not much taken with the wind and rain-swept Dorset landscape and was soon on his deathbed.  His dying wish was that his remains be returned home for burial and added to this entreaty was a warning not to fail him ‘if his wish were to be ignored, then the house would have no peace.’ [3].  Well, the canny Pinney family were not about to go to the expense of repatriating the remains of a negro slave, and the man was duly buried in the local churchyard.

Soon the dark chambers of Bettiscombe were disturbed by unearthly screams and unexplained happenings, something was terribly amiss.   The broken promise was recalled and the unfortunate slave’s remains dug up.  His bones were brought to the hall and at once the disturbing phenomena ceased.  Only his skull now remains, and was set in a niche in a chimney up in the attic.  Should anyone be foolish enough to try to remove it from its favourite resting place –

‘it is said to scream and cause agricultural disaster if taken out of the house and also causes the death, within a year, of the person who commits the deed.’ [4]

 A rake or a martyr – Wardley Hall near Manchester

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Old Postcard of Wardley Hall.

Two stories exist to explain the mysterious skull of Wardley Hall, and they could not be more different.  The first claims that in the reign of Charles the II, one Roger Downes was a notorious rake and libertine.   One night in 1676, Downes was walking on London Bridge with some acquaintances, when he boasted that he would attack the next person he met – he was as good as his word, killing an innocent tailor.  Unfortunately for the young blade, his next intended victim, a Thames water man, was no pushover and not only got the better of Downes, but succeeded in decapitating him and tossing his body into the Thames.  In a macabre twist, his severed head was returned to his sister at Wardley Hall (one can’t help imagining her reaction upon opening the parcel…).

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

Rakes duelling. Image source uncertain.

The head was duly buried but then the boisterous bachelor took haunting the hall in order to convey his displeasure at being displaced.  Consequently his skull found a permanent resting place in a niche on the stairs – and harmony returned to Wardley.

However in 1799 when Roger Downes coffin was opened – his head was found to be firmly attached to his body!

The alternative origin story of the Wardley Hall skull, is that is belongs to one Father Ambrose Barlow, a Catholic Martyr – and this is the view of the Catholic Church.  Wardley Hall is now the home to the Catholic Bishop of Salford.  Perhaps this is why the story of the libertine Roger Downes exists – as cover for the real provenance of the skull as a Catholic relic?

Skull of St Ambrose

Skull of St Ambrose.  Source: Visit Salford website.

During the seventeenth century, what with the Reformation and the gunpowder plot,  it was not such a good thing to be seen to be a Catholic.  However, certain parts of the country still held enclaves, Lancashire being one.   Ambrose Barlow was said to have been conducting a Catholic Mass on  Sunday 25th of April when a mob, lead by a protestant preacher, carried him off to gaol.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 10 September 1641.  As was the custom, his head was displayed (as a warning to the others) and was set upon a spike in Manchester.   Eventually the head was saved from this ignominious fate by a Catholic sympathizer and returned to Wardley Hall, to be revered as a holy relic.  It was lost for a time, then rediscovered in the 1740’s and the screaming skull legend swiftly began. In 1782 Thomas Barritt wrote:

‘From time out of mind the occupiers of Wardley Hall have had a superstitious veneration for the skull, not permitting it to be removed from its place on the topmost step of the staircase.  There is a tradition that if removed or ill-used, some uncommon screaming and lamenting is heard, and disturbances take place in many parts of the house.’ [5]

In order to ensure that the skull was secure in its tenure, its continued presence was even a condition of the lease [6]. All of which shows how quickly Skull legends could arise, as Clarke notes, the thirty years between the rediscovery in the 1740’s to the recording of the account in 1782, is hardly ‘time out of mind’!

From Guardian Skulls to Screaming Skulls

The origin of the skulls is often lost in the mists of time, and as the Wardley Hall Skull demonstrates, there may even be conflicting stories associated with them within the oral tradition.  Tradition places the origin for most of them as between the fifteenth and seventeenth century – with the Civil War being oft cited.

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

The Screaming Skull and other Mysteries by Peter Haining

As far as written accounts go, it would seem that the phenomenon was first recorded by Antiquarians in the seventeenth century.  Further accounts were recorded in the eighteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Screaming Skull legends became part of the popular culture. Writers such as Judge Udal’s 1872 work ‘Notes and Queries’ first brought the Bettiscombe skull to popular attention and inspired a number of other writers to follow suit.   Often these accounts were inaccurate (three sisters did not build Burton Agnes Hall, and it is even doubtful as tp whether Anne Griffiths actually existed) and rather on the dramatic side, emphasizing the supernatural phenomena associated with the skulls.  It was from these accounts that the ‘classic screaming skull’ story became fixed in the public imagination and in the literature. Including that of F Marion Crawford whose supernatural tale ‘ The Screaming Skull’, published in 1911, was inspired by the Bettiscombe Skull.

Earlier accounts had focused on the Skulls apotropaic qualities, their protective magic or ‘luck’ for a certain location or family, later tales focused on a more purposeful and romantic ideal of vengeful spirits of those who died violently. Such examples as those at Burton Agnes Hall and Bettiscombe Manor fit the ‘classic’ mold perfectly, with their wronged spirits tied to a place for eternity – and their noisy disapproval if anyone should dare to move them.  It has been noted by Gillian Bennett that once these tales were recorded, they became fixed and immutable, unlike the living oral tradition that had been repeated and elaborated on for many centuries.  Nevertheless because these artifacts do indisputably exist, they still form part of a living folk tradition.  Examples of this can be found at the Pack Horse Inn, Bury, Lancs, where Skull behind the bar (origin unknown) has, in recent years, developed a reputation for being cursed and causing supernatural events.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

Celtic stone head. Image via Wikimedia.

In 1996 Clarke recorded a gazette of 32 English Guardian Skull legends, noting that although many were missing, and 7 (including the Burton Agnes skull) had been walled up, 10 remained on display.  Such visible reminders of our own mortality coupled with their link to supernatural phenomenon make them a magnet for stories and legends.

However, considering that the actual evidence for supernatural events, and the famed screaming, is relatively hard to pin down, it might be that the skulls do represent some earlier tradition.  Possibly not stretching back to Celtic head cults as has been suggested (Jennifer Westwood cited in Clarke) –  there is little surviving evidence for Guardian/screaming Skulls in Celtic regions of the British Isles (baring outliers) [8].  Nevertheless such an early origin cannot be entirely discounted – Mysterious Britain also cites some evidence of ancient Celtic traditions surviving in remote communities. In addition to this, two of the skulls, Dickie of Tunstead Farm and the Bettiscombe Skull have been dated to prehistory, and are likely female not male.  Clarke has suggested that it is possible some remnant of a Guardian Skull/Genius Loci concept lingered in certain parts of England.  He cites evidence in that many areas where the legends occur, place names have Celtic origins. And he points to the specific places skulls are often displayed – facing doors, on window sills, at hearths or rafters.  Liminal places and entry points for  malevolent spirits.

It is also hard to ignore the veneration of skulls and bones in Christianity as demonstrated in the reverence for saints relics, a more acceptable form of ancestor worship to the Church, perhaps.

An alternative, could be more metaphysical than supernatural.  Many of the Skulls are said to date from the sixteenth century.  In the late Elizabethan and Jacobean world there was a flowering of metaphysical contemplation of mortality and the vanities of life, both in art and literature.  Could some of these skulls represent Memento Mori from the Jacobean Cult of Melancholy?  The skull was certainly a popular emblem at the time. Is it possible, that once the the original contemplative purpose of the skull was forgotten, stories and legends of a more supernatural bent grew up around these objects?  People have long been fascinated with human skulls, as the seat of the soul and offering a possible link to the other world.

By Philippe de Champaigne - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

‘Vanitas’ c1671 by Philippe de Champaigne – Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

What ever their true origin, and it could well be a blend of ancient and more modern traditions, the Screaming Skull remains an evocative element of British folklore.

For a classic take on the screaming skull legend in literature, you can read F Marion Crawford’s ‘The Screaming Skull’, inspired by the screaming skull of Bettiscombe Manor….

Sources and Notes

Clarke, David (1999) The head cult : tradition and folklore surrounding the symbol of the severed human head in the British Isles. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield. <> [1]-[5] and [7] [4] [8] [6] – F Marion Crawford 1911

Clandestine Marriages: Five tales of abduction from the 17th and 18th centuries


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Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Lovelace and Clarissa Harlowe. Wikimedia.

Nowadays the idea of anything being clandestine suggests something having an unsavoury, grubby and secretive undertone but in the 17th and 18th centuries many couples preferred to have a clandestine marriage. Tens of thousands of couples from all walks of life were legally and respectably married in clandestine ceremonies.

Clandestine marriages were recognised in Canon Law as long as the ceremony was performed by an ordained clergyman. A clandestine marriage had a number of advantages over an official marriage for instance it did away with the need for publishing banns and buying a licence making the ceremony cheaper and quicker, the betrothed couple were not restricted to marrying in their own parish, if need be the date could be backdated to cover an unplanned pregnancy and couples could be married away from the public eye as well as interfering relatives. This type of marriage could be especially convenient for foreign couples who had just moved to England and as yet were not registered in a parish or soldiers and sailors on limited leave[1].

A number of places became well-known centres for clandestine marriages including All Hallows Church in Honey Lane, St Pancreas in Soper Lane, Mayfair Chapel (which tried to encourage business by having as a centrepiece the supposedly embalmed corpse of the wife of the parson[2]) and the notorious area of the Fleet.

Under The Rules of the Fleet

Strangely enough the Fleet Prison was one of the most popular settings for clandestine marriages in the 17th and 18th centuries and whereas elsewhere this type of marriage was seen as perfectly reputable, Fleet marriages were often viewed with suspicion.

Prior to the law of 1711 (which closed a quirky loophole in the law) marriages took place in the prison chapel. The prison was well set up for the celebration of nuptials with the happy couple able to enjoy a range of facilities including a tap-room, coffee-house, public kitchen and eating room and even a sports area which had been built to accommodate the hundreds of visitors the prison attracted each week[3]. As with all prisons at the time bribery was rife and anyone willing to pay could do as they pleased. This ensured that the prison wardens and clergy for the correct fee would obligingly look the other way if the marriage was in any way dodgy.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

The Fleet Prison. Image Wikimedia.

When the prison was finally banned from holding marriages, business just moved outside its walls to an area which for some bizarre reason fell beyond the jurisdiction of the church but was still classed as being under ‘the Rules of the Fleet’. This unsavoury neighbourhood which had sprung up allowed prisoners to live in lodgings outside the prison compound as long as they paid the keeper a fee for loss of earnings[4]. The taverns and coffee houses such as the Bull and Garter, The Great Hand and Pen and The Star took full advantage of the new business opportunity and turned themselves into extremely profitable ‘marriage houses’ (half the marriages in London took place in the Fleet)[5]. These marriage houses used any means possible to encourage business and some even had their own in-house clergyman such as Dr Gainham who could be found at the Rainbow Coffee House[6].

Touts were employed to harass and persuade visiting couples to pop into their marriage house for a quick ceremony and even single gentlemen were approached – I guess that there must have been a pool of potential wives that you could marry at short notice!

It is not surprising then given the character of the place, the booming marriage industry and the fierce competition amongst around 80 disgraced clergymen at a loose end and living in the area, that everyone involved was prepared to turn a blind eye to unwilling participants or repeat customers.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Fleet Street Marriage. Via Wikimedia.

Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753

The passing of the Marriage Act proposed in 1753 by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and implemented the following year put an end to clandestine marriages. From then on it was illegal to get married without bans or a licence, girls under the age of 21 had to get the permission of their parents or guardians and the marriage itself had to take place in an Anglican church (Jews and Quakers were exempt). Verbal and written contracts were no longer accepted as legal evidence of marriage. Couples had to register their marriages in a parish’s register and the signatures of the bride and groom had to be witnessed[7].

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

Lord Hardwicke. Image Gretna Green Website.

This Act would have appealed to Daniel Defoe and other like-minded individuals who believed that prior to this “a gentleman might have the satisfaction of hanging a thief that stole and old horse from him, but could have no justice against a rogue for stealing his daughter” [8] and who had to confine his daughters to their chambers to prevent them from being abducted by “rogues, cheats, gamesters and such like starving crew…”[9].

It took six days for the new legislation to be passed as there were influential opponents of the law who believed that all that was needed was a tightening up of the current system and better record keeping. The politician Henry Fox was concerned that the delay which publishing banns and obtaining a licence created might even ruin some women. He believed that some rogues would convince their intended wife to compromise herself and then drop her before they got to the altar. The Act was also accused of being used to protect the insular nature of the aristocracy by barring new blood and commoners from entering its hallowed circle and some worried that the law would prevent children from being legitimised[10].

The downside of the current system was the few but distressing cases of forced marriages of young girls in particular heiresses and the numerous cases of bigamy which came up regularly at the Old Bailey. Although these cases gave weight to the necessity of the Act, the MP Charles Townshend questioned those who regularly spouted these examples. He believed that the legislation was an overreaction and asked his peers to consider that although forced marriages were scandalous and “a public evil. But how rarely do such infamous marriages happen, especially with respect to those that are under age”[11].

How often did these sorts of marriages really occur is difficult to gauge. Forced marriages did happen but in reality Charles Townshend was correct and these incidents were rare. Nevertheless the damage and distress they caused their unfortunate victims should not be underestimated.

The notion that an unscrupulous and undesirable suitor could persuade or force a wealthy young heiress into an unsuitable marriage against the wishes of her family generated a high level of paranoia amongst the aristocratic and wealthy classes. Older relatives trying to pre-empt and restrict inappropriate behaviour in their female offspring recounted to them cautionary tales of the perils of abduction and impulsive marriages.

eighteenth century painting

The Bolt by Fragonard.

Elizabeth Malet

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

Elizabeth Malet by Peter Lely.

“Here, upon my [Samuel Pepys] telling her [Lady Sandwich] a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away.”[12]

The abduction of the wealthy heiress Elizabeth Malet on the 26

May 1665 scandalised London and infuriated King Charles II who quickly signed a warrant for the arrest of Lord Rochester. Sent to the Tower and later to sea, it seems that Rochester’s had not abandoned his matrimonial plans as in January 1667 he again ran off with Elizabeth (this time with her consent). They married in a clandestine ceremony at Knightsbridge Chapel against the wishes of her father, John Malet.[13]

Bridget Hyde

Bridget was the daughter of the acknowledged beauty Mary Hyde and the wealthy Sir Thomas Hyde. On the death of her father shortly after she was born, Bridget became an heiress worth £100,000 and a pawn in her relatives’ tug of war game.

NPG 5568; The Family of Sir Robert Vyner

The Family of Sir Robert Vyner (Bridget is on the far left). Image NPG 5568;

In 1674, Mary became seriously ill and Bridget now aged about twelve was sent to stay with her mother’s sisters, Susan and Sara in Hertfordshire.  Her aunts had not done quite as well in their marriages as their successful sister, marrying two brothers of the name Emerton who worked as bailiffs on the Hyde estate[14]. Aware that Bridget’s step-father, Robert Vyner was hoping to marry Bridget to the son of Lord Danby (in return for a cancellation of his debts which were the result of lending money to Charles II) and afraid for their own livelihood, Bridget’s aunts decided to marry her to her cousin, John. Probably presenting the marriage in the form of a game, Sara and Susan convinced Bridget to go through the ceremony which was conducted by the morally challenged priest, John Brandling. When Vyner found out about the marriage he was furious seeing all his plans falling apart. Determined not to be bested by his wife’s deceitful relatives, Vyner took the case to the Ecclesiastical Court to have it declared null and void. In the meantime Bridget returned to her step-father’s care but her estates were awarded by the Court of the King’s Bench to Emerton. The case lasted six years!

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe - Louis Edouard Dubuf

Lovelace Abducting Clarissa Harlowe – Louis Edouard Dubuf

For some reason, Bridget seemed to attract trouble like a moth to a flame. Whilst the legality of her marriage was being debated she became the subject of a second marriage plot. One fateful night, Vyner invited a man known as Henry Wroth to dinner at his house in Ickenham. On finishing his dinner Wroth repaid his host’s hospitality by pulling out a gun and absconding with Bridget. Wroth with his ‘unwilling bride to be’ headed towards Richmond where he had a ferry waiting for them. Vyner pursued and Wroth was arrested. Bridget was unharmed except for losing an amber necklace and a hankerchief[15].

In 1680 the Ecclesiastical Court finally came to a decision and announced in favour of Emerton (possibly due to the key witnesses being unable to testify as they had been excommunicated) [16]despite the fact that the marriage was conducted without the consent of the Bridget’s guardian, Vyner or even Bridget herself. The story did not end there as Danby was still determined that Bridget would eventually marry his son. For the next two years Danby and Vyner entered into negotiations with Emerton. All Emerton had ever really wanted was financial compensation in order for him to renounce the marriage. Thinking that things were progressing far too slowly, Viscount Dunblane decided to matters into his own hands and eloped with a this time willing Bridget to St Marylebone Church (another notorious location for clandestine marriages). The Ecclesiastical Court ever mindful of their own interests, suddenly decided that the marriage with Emerton was not legal!

Although it is sad that even after all this, Bridget did not have the fairy tale ending she deserved (as in a few years Dunblane had run through all his wife’s fortune forcing her “to part with all her plate”) she did in a way finally get the man she wanted as shortly after their marriage it was reported “The Lord Dunblane is dancing with his mistress day and night, and she dotes on him.”[17]

Pleasant Rawlins

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

Contemporary pamphlet from the abduction trial. Source Heineonline.

In 1701, the seventeen year old heiress, Pleasant Rawlins was arrested for an imaginary unpaid debt of £200 trumped up by a Haagen Swendsen, a German adventurer whose advances Pleasant had previously rebuffed.

Seized under false pretences, Pleasant was taken first to the Star and Garter in Drury Lane and then moved to The Vine in Holborn where Swendsen’s accomplice, a Mrs Baynton convinced Pleasant that she would be incarcerated in Newgate if she refused to go through with the marriage. Now more afraid of being murdered by her captors than worried about imprisonment, a terrified Pleasant reluctantly agreed to the union and was married to Swendsen in the Fleet Prison.

When Pleasant’s horrified family finally found out what had happened to her, Swendsen and Mrs Baynton were arrested and the marriage ruled illegal. Swendsen was found guilty and hung but a pregnant Baynton escaped the death penalty[18].

Mary Wharton

The Honourable James Campbell of the Clan Campbell was an officer in the Royal Scots Army and the British Army, politician[19] and unsuccessful kidnapper. In November 1690 Campbell conspired with Sir John Johnson to abduct the thirteen year old daughter of the late Philip Wharton (cousin of Lord Wharton) worth £1500 and heiress to Goldsborough Hall in North Yorkshire from outside the home of her mother in Westminster.

Image by Hogarth.

Image by Hogarth.

Her aunt and cousins who had been in the coach with Mary testified in court that after having returned from dinning with a Mr Archibald Montgomery in Soho they saw a coach drive hurry past them. On stopping, three men jumped out and in the process of forcing Mary into the six horses coach knocked the footman down and pushed one of her cousins into the gutter. Mary was taken to Watson the coachman’s house where despite being in tears and protesting she was coerced in to marrying Campbell. Disturbingly evidence from the Old Bailey trail also suggests that she tricked into sleeping in the same bed as Campbell by his female accomplice, Mrs Clewer[20] (whether or not Mary was raped by Campbell can’t be ruled out but is not inevitable as often girls married before their 14th birthday would sleep in the same bed as their husband on their wedding night but actually consummate the marriage a few years later).

The next day Campbell compelled Mary to write a reassuring letter to her aunt telling her that she was happily and safely wed and that they would soon visit. Whilst Mary and Campbell were having breakfast, Mary felt ill and was taken to an apothecary where her family finally found her and removed her from Campbell’s clutches by order of the Lord Chief Justice.

Although Johnson was convicted of abduction and sentenced to death, Campbell escaped due to a plea of ignorance of English law. Apparently in Scotland at the time abduction was a conventional method of obtaining a wife and he was falsely led to believe by Johnson that such practices were also accepted in England. Even though his excuse was accepted as reasonable by the powers that be it does sound a little dubious to me.

The marriage was annulled on the 20 December of that year and Mary later married her guardian, the son of her aunt. Hopefully after undergoing such a horrible ordeal Mary went on to have a happy and successful life.

Sibble Morris

The evidence given in the case of Sibble Morris is particularly disturbing and heart-breaking and does clearly reveal how vulnerable young girls could be.

On the 5 March 1728, Sibble Morris and her maid Anne Holiday were paying a second reluctant visit to a Mrs Hendron. On the way they met two acquaintances of theirs, Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson who told them that Mrs Hendron was not at home and was instead visiting a house in New Round Court in the Strand. They convinced Sibble to accompany them there. On arrival they all entered the house and made their way to a shuttered candle lit room filled with a number of people including a Mr Richard Russel (who Sibble had met only once on the previous visit to Mrs Pendergrass’ house and whom she believed to be a wealthy merchant) and a clergyman.

Frightened and wanting to leave both Sibble and her maid were pulled into the room and the door closed behind them. Mrs Pendergrass told Sibble that it was no use screaming as no-one would hear her. Despite the fact that the girl was young only about 16 years old, was in a near faint and had to be held up throughout the ceremony and could not speak, the clergyman seemed not to notice anything amiss. Even when questioned in the trial he maintained his innocence and stated that he was under the impression that he was marrying a gentleman to a servant and that she was just overcome by the whole situation.

After the ceremony, “Hendron and others dragg’d her [Sibble] up Stairs to a Bed-Chamber, which was also shut up with Shutters, and Kitty Pendergrass and Peggy Johnson, pulled off her Cloaths by Force, Hendron holding her Hands; and that one Mrs. Rigy was there present while all this was done, that they forc’d her into Bed, and that Hendron held her down in Bed”[21] and waited until Russel joined them.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

Futile Resistance by Fragonard.

It was only on the following Thursday that Sibble’s father heard about the marriage from a man who had pretended to be a friend of Russel. On hearing the devastating news Mr Morris confronted his daughter, who in her distress admitted that it was due to fear and shame that she had not told him what had happened. Mr Morris refused to speak to Russel who on hearing that a warrant for his arrest had been issued, fled.

Throughout the trial, Sibble maintained that she had never at any point agreed to the marriage. Russel’s female accomplices were found guilty of aiding and abetting a kidnap and rape and sentenced to death but the incompetent, oblivious and brainless clergyman (if you can believe he really did not know what was going on) was let off[22].

To love, honour and OBEY!

What did Hardwicke’s law really achieve? Girls were still forced to marry men they abhorred and detested just now they did it with their parents or guardians’ blessing. The main objective of the Act was never the welfare of vulnerable young girls but the protection of a family’s property by placing complete control on where it would be bestowed in the hands of the heiress’s parents or guardian. Girls lost any power or control they may once have had over their own lives and became just a pawn in their family’s dynastic game of chess. Any chance of escaping their family’s clutches and marrying their own choice of husband was now cut off (although the long shot of Gretna Green was still available).

In an ironic way if one of the aims of the Marriage Act was to protect women it did so by imprisoning them within their families and making them even more vulnerable to forced marriages then before.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.

The ambitious mother and the obliging clergyman by Charles Dana Gibson.


Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester:,_Countess_of_Rochester

Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys

Georgian London: http://www.georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?

Fleet Prison:

The Fleet Prison:

From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde

Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions

James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan):

John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690:

Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728.

Guardian Shorts: A Marriage Proposal by Sophie Ward

The History of Parliament:

Jacqueline Rose: Godly kingship in restoration England: The politics of the royal Supremacy, 2011


[1] Georgian London: georgianlondon/post/494612709431/fleet-marriages

[2] Marriage among Londoners before Hardwicke’s Act of 1753: when, where and why?

[3] ibid

[4] Fleet Prison:

[5] Full text of “The history of the Fleet marriages [electronic resource]

[6] ibid

[7] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

[8] Daniel Defoe: Conjugal Lewdness or Matrimonial Whoredom

[9] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde:

[10] From Fleet Street to Gretna Green: The Reform of “Clandestine Marriage” under Lord Chancellor Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753,

[11] ibid

[12] Samuel Pepys, Diary of Samuel Pepys, Entry on the 28 May 1665

[13] Elizabeth Wilmot, Countess of Rochester:,_Countess_of_Rochester

[14] Nigel Pickford: The Sad History of Bridget Hyde:

[15] ibid

[16] Nigel Pickford, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynne, 2014

[17] ibid

[18] Naomi Clifford: Two 18th-century bride abductions Naomi Clifford

[19] James Campbell (of Burnbank and Boquhan):

[20] John Johnson, William Clewer, S – C -, Grace Wiggan, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 10th December 1690:

[21] Mary Hendron, John Wheeler, Margaret Pendergrass, Miscellaneous > kidnapping, 1st May 1728.

[22] ibid

Naughty Nuns and Frisky Friars: Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club


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Sir Francis Dashwood worshiping Venus, with the Earl of Sandwich reflected in his halo.By Hogarth.

Philip, Duke of Wharton was the trailblazer of all things Hell-fire, with his notorious  Hell-Fire Club of the 1720’s.  But his was by no means the only Hell Fire club, nor the most famous spawned in the enthusiastically libertine eighteenth Century.  In the 1740’s a club was formed that became infamous as THE Hell-Fire club.  A secret cabal made up of the landed elite and political opposition – a shadow government in waiting; rumored to hold secret Satanic rituals in a secluded abbey and nearby caves, engaging in blasphemous orgies where members, dressed as friars and nuns, met in all manner of fornication and adulteries. Eventually they took power in the ministry of Lord Bute, but soon over-reached themselves, and were ultimately betrayed by one of their own.  Oh, and there was also a baboon involved along the way, as if all that wasn’t enough.

Sounds like the perfect template for a Hell-fire Club- except that this particular Hell-Fire Club, wasn’t quite as devilish as it’s reputation suggested…and it’s founder was no latter-day Wharton, brilliant, bitter and blasphemous – nor yet some Georgian Crowley figure – he comes across as rather more, well, jolly.  A traveler to foreign parts, a fan of dressing up, a bit of a practical joker,  with a mixed up view of religion.

The King of clubs: Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-1781)


Sir Francis dressed to impress, at the Divan Club.

The mark of a gentleman in the eighteenth century, was to be clubbable.  Societies and clubs sprang up like mushrooms in this very sociable century – if you had a particular interest, you could bet your life there was a group of like-minded fellows meeting in a tavern near you, on the second Tuesday of every month.   If you couldn’t find a club to suit you, you could start your own – no matter what your tastes ran too.

Sir Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer, was no stranger to this eighteenth century trend.  In 1732/3 after traveling in Italy and meeting the formidable Lady Mary Wortley Montague, he founded the famous Dilettante Society.  Later, following a sojourn in the Ottoman Empire, where he again crossed paths with Lady Mary, he founded the Divan Club, which ran until about 1746.  Later still, he founded the little known Lincoln Club which ran from the 1750’s to the 1770’s.  These clubs focused on an aesthetic appreciation of the ancient and the exotic, ladies could be members.  Fine dining and fancy dress were the order of the day (although there are no records of whether Lincoln green was required dress for the Lincoln Club) and there was much imbibing of alcohol, one would imagine.

During his Grand Tour to Italy, Sir Francis got about a bit, he flirted with Jacobitism and meet with the Bonny Prince himself;  he is also said to have developed an antipathy towards the more excitable aspects of Catholicism at that time, due in part to an over-zealous tutor.

Madonna della Misericordia (detail), 1418-1422 by Pietro di Domenico da Montepulciano, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon.

Penitents scourging themselves.  Detail of Madonna della Misericordia, 1418-1422 by Pietro di Domenico da Montepulciano, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon.

A penchant for irreligious practical jokes may also have emerged during this trip. That doyenne of eighteenth century gossip, Horace Walpole, recounted one such (likely apocryphal) incident in which the young Sir Francis attended a solemn candlelit ceremony in the Sistine Chapel, in which penitents were offered token whips to scourge themselves of sin. Showing a thoroughly wicked sense of humor and a flair for the theatrical, Sir Francis disguised himself in a night watchman’s cloak, then leaped out on the unsuspecting faithful. Striding up and down the dimly lit aisle of the chapel cracking a horse whip he managed to scare the bejezus out of the penitents, who thought the very devil himself had put in an appearance…

The Order of the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe

Back in England,  having established himself as a man who was well-traveled, with a passing interest in the occult (his library contained a number of occult texts), irreligious by nature, fond of dressing up and keen on forming clubs, Sir Francis went on to form what would become one of the most notorious clubs in the eighteenth century.  It was founded in 1746, and began life as Order of the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Monks or Friars of Medmenham.  However posterity erroneously remembers it as The Hell-Fire Club.

West Wycombe, glimpsed through the trees.

West Wycombe Park, glimpsed through the trees. (Image: Lenora).

Like many private clubs at the time, it began life in a pub, the ominously named George and Vulture tavern at Cornhill in London.  The private meeting room is said to have boasted a ‘Rosicrucian lamp, a large crystal globe encircled by a gold serpent, tail in its mouth, crowned with silver wings’ [1].  The club proved popular, and Sir Francis soon sought to acquire more private accommodation for his illustrious members.  Taking the club out to Buckinghamshire and his newly leased property of West Wycombe.  The first meeting of the brotherhood was said to have taken place on Walpurgis night, 1752, much to the annoyance of Sir Francis’s prudish wife [2].  Eventually, due to spousal pressure (?)  the club began looking for more exclusive and more atmospheric premises.

Medmenham Abbey and the Gothic Revival


Print of Medmenham Abbey

In the mid-eighteenth century all things Gothic were making a comeback, scholars and antiquaries were bringing ancient England into the public consciousness.  Initially, as an architectural style, it was mocked as being in rather vulgar taste, something popular with ‘new money’ and rather going against the Classical tide of the century.   It was not until Horace Walpole created his Mock Medieval Masterpiece at Strawberry Hill, that it became truly acceptable to the Bon Ton.  To Sir, aka, Saint, Francis and his merry band of fornicating friars, a picturesque Gothic pile was just what the Order ordered.

The Mausoleum, funded by George Bubb Doddington. Image Lenora.

The Octagonal Mausoleum, featured in many Hammer Horror films. Image Lenora.

Medmenham had been a Cistercian Abbey, originally founded in the twelfth century.  Like many such religious houses, it fell foul of that jolly old wife-killer, Henry VIII, and was sold to the Duffield family who remodeled and rebuilt it over the centuries.  Sir Francis leased the Abbey from the Duffield’s in 1755 and began renovating the property to suit his peculiar tastes. He repaired the ruined cloister, tower and chapter house, a refectory, dining room and common room and catered for the ‘private devotions’ of the monks by providing them with their own ‘cells’.  The ethos of the club was proudly inscribed above the main door ‘Fais ce que tu voudras’ – that ever popular Rabelaisian dictum ‘do as you will’ – thereby leaving no doubt as to the philosophy of its founder.

Harpocrates. Image via wikimedia.

Harpocrates. Image via wikimedia.

Secrecy and voyeurism were also part of the ethos – the refectory was presided over by Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence and Angerona, the Roman goddess of secrecy.  Apertures in the anteroom adjacent the dining room allowed secret observations.

The costumes of the monks were described by Horace Walpole, who visited the abbey in the 1760’s.  He described the chapter house as being decorated by prints of monks and nuns, pegs on the walls held their costumes: white hats, jackets and trousers, a red hat for the Prior.  Looking, he thought, rather like the costumes of boatmen.  Hardly the robes of Satanic devil-worshipers.

Fais ce que tu voudras: Do what thou wilt


The Secrets of the Convent c1763.  Trustees of the British Museum.

But what did the monks actually get up to?  Was there any evidence of actual Satanic practices, or was it all just posh boys putting it about?  There is little evidence of any really Diabolical practices, most of this comes from later rumors.  Many of the documents relating to the club have been lost, the cellar book survives, and is a great source for identifying meetings, and prospective members, but has little on the actual ‘doings’ of the club.

Horace Walpole, following his visit to Medmenham Abbey, reported on the practices of the Monks:

“practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church, sufficiently informed the neighborhood of the complexion of those hermits.”

Sex and wine certainly seem to have been a major part of the rituals – even the landscape was sexualized.  The gardens included a Temple of Venus and Parlour of Venus as well as statues of Pan and Priapus – perfect for a club dedicated to divine procreation.  One dramatic feature, described by Burgo Partridge in his ‘History of Orgies’ was:

‘[Dashwood] had laid out one part of the gardens i the shape of a woman, with much suggestive grouping of pillars and bushes, an expensive smutty joke which could not be appreciated fully until the invention of the aeroplane.’

Dan Cruikshank, in his book on Georgian London, considers the possibility that Sir Francis may have been aware of antiquarian and later-day Druid, Rev William Stukeley and his theories about fertility rights and the Mother Goddess at Stonehenge.  Stukeley re vivified the Druid movement, and interest in a pre- Roman Britain, naming himself Chief Druid in 1722.


Cruikshank considers it is possible that Sir Francis, in the design of his gardens at West Wycombe and Medmenham, might in fact have been aiming less for a smutty joke, and more at a nod towards the Goddess.  Another alternative he considers, could be that the Order in fact represented a humanist tradition, questioning traditional morality and the confines of the established religion of the time… either way, he is impressed with the result, stating:

‘They [the gardens] remain an outstanding example of the libertine vision of antiquity, a perfect fusion of nature, the classical world, ancient British traditions and virtually ungoverned sexual encounter.’ [3]

The Rakes Progress by Hogarth.

The Rakes Progress by Hogarth.

Who were the Monks and Nuns of Medmenham?

Paul Whitehead, Secretary of the Club.

Paul Whitehead, Secretary of the Club.

Sir Francis was the founder, but did not always act as the Abbot, this role seems to have been rotated amongst members of the inner circle.  The loyal Paul Whitehead, known as The Aged Paul, was club steward, George Bubb Doddington was also a key member (and a bequest from him funded the completion of the octagonal Mausoleum).  Later members include the notorious John Wilkes, whose political spat with fellow monk, and founding member, the Earl of Sandwich, would expose the activities of the club to censure and cement its notoriety in the public imagination.

Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart, bought by the National Portrait Gallery. Click for full picture. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, London

Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart. NPG.

There have been many suggestions of other possible members, some more likely than others and encompassing both the famous and infamous of eighteenth century ‘celebrities’.  From Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the USA and fan of the madness inducing glass harmonica, Chevalier D’Eon the sexually ambiguous cross-dressing French Spy, and George Selwyn the eighteenth centuries own necrophiliac ‘gentleman sadist’, to name but a few.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague, in Turkish Dress.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague, in Turkish Dress.

Ladies were also reported to be members, with the Lady Mary Wortley Montague being perhaps the most illustrious.  She was certainly a member of Sir Francis’s other clubs, however it has been suggested her membership may have been honorary due to her advanced age, and the fact that she spent much of her time abroad.  It was rumored that many noble ladies attended the club in disguise, in order to conduct affairs, and it would seem likely that many of the members would have brought their mistresses to partake of the delights of Medmenham.  It also seems likely that Sir Francis was shipping in the creme of societies courtesans to act as naughty nuns.  The beautiful Fanny Murray, famed courtesan and former mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, was almost certainly a member.

Fanny Murray by Thomas Johnson. Via Wikimedia.

Fanny Murray by Thomas Johnson. Via Wikimedia.

That Devil Wilkes – the beginning of the end

John Wilkes by Hogarth.

John Wilkes by Hogarth.

The Medmenham Set have sometimes been seen as a sinister political cabal, pulling strings and being implicated in all manner of conspiracies.  In fact, many of them did eventually take a role in government, in the ill-fated ministry of Lord Bute.   The Friars certainly attracted many of disaffected ‘opposition’ during the period of Robert Walpole’s ‘Robinocracy’.  The eventual undoing of the club occurred during a political cat-fight between the Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes (a hell-raiser and famously known as the ugliest man in Britain).

Now for the baboon story. Some say, Earl Sandwich had a bee in his bonnet about John Wilkes following an incident involving a baboon dressed as the devil.  John Wilkes is alleged to have hidden the baboon in a chest, releasing it mid ceremony in a pant-wetting moment for the Earl of Sandwich.  (Alas, this story seems to originate in a pornographic tale called ‘Chrysal: the adventure of a golden Guinea’ in 1766 and is unlikely to be true…although oddly enough the club may have actually owned a baboon).  In any event, the antipathy between the two spilled over into the a very public political antagonism which got dirty very quickly. Sandwich tried to get Wilkes expelled from parliament because of his connection with a pornographic poem, ‘Essay on Woman’, even going so far as to read out selected saucy passages to suitably horrified/titillated MPs. Wilkes struck back in 1763 by writing of the antics of the Friars and exposing them to the full glare of public opprobrium:

‘The favourite doctrine was not penitence, for in the centre of the orchard was a grotesque figure, and in his hand he had a reed stood with flaming tips of fire.  To use Milton’s expression, Pente Tente (penitence) or Peni Tenti (erection).’ [4]

Wilkes also hinted that Pagan practices, by way of some form of English Eleusinian Mysteries dedicated to the Bona Dea (good Goddess), were performed.

It was now open season for speculation, an updated version of Chrysal came out in 1766 elaborating and embroidering upon Wilkes’s revelations, and so the Hell-fire reputation began to form…and fiction became accepted as fact.

‘Every sacred right of religion was profaned, hymns and prayers were dedicated to the Devil ‘ the monks, it was alleged carried out  ‘gross lewdness and impiety’

The club limped on for a while, but political scandal and public censure took its toll.  Curious tourists visited the Abbey post-Wilkes.  But the memory of the Friars of Medmenham lived on, in fiction and the popular imagination.  What was probably posh boys having naughty boozy weekends with perhaps a little light paganism thrown in, became the stuff of Hell-fire legend and infamy.

It seems fitting to end on a poignant little tale, in 1781 the ghost of ‘Aged Paul’ (Whitehead), whose heart was interred at the famous octagonal Mausoleum, appeared at West Wycombe and was seen beckoning and signalling.  Dashwood’s own sister was a witness to this manifestation.  It is said that upon hearing of the apparition, Sir Francis knew it was his loyal old friend come for him, and he died soon after. One can only hope that they continue their carousing in spirit. [5]

The Mausoleum, where the heart of Paul Whitehead was interred. Image by Lenora.

The Mausoleum, where the heart of Paul Whitehead was interred. Image by Lenora.

Sources and notes

Arnold, Catharine, ‘City of Sin, London and its Vices’, 2010, Simon & Schuster. [1] [2]

Ashe, Geoffrey,  ‘Sex, Rakes and Libertines, The Hell-fire Clubs’, 2005, Sutton. [5]

Cruikshank, Dan, ‘The Secret History of Georgian London’, 2010, Windmill Books. [3]

Dashwood, Sir Francis, ‘The Dashwoods of West Wycombe’, 1987, Aurum Press.

Lord, Evelyn, ‘The Hell-Fire Clubs, Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies’, 2008, Yale University Press. [4]

Image sources

Garden: Citation: Jason M. Kelly, “A Nymphaeum and a Temple to Venus in an Eighteenth-Century English Garden,” Secrets of the Hellfire Club Blog (8 March 2012), …



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]