Seaton Delaval Hall lies near the Northumbrian Coast, not far from the former mining villages of Seaton Sluice and New Hartley. The house is spectacular, though not excessively large, with a central block flanked by two enveloping wings that reach out and embrace the visitor. It was designed in the early eighteenth century by Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, for Admiral George Delaval. The Admiral never saw the hall completed, as he died after a horse-riding accident before work was finished. Drama and tragedy have always stalked the Delavals, and many strange tales and legends grew up around them, from building a castle in a day, to the macabre tale of the Wallsend Witches, and the tragic story of the white lady of Seaton Delaval.
The White Lady of Seaton Delaval
It is said that the spectre of a lady dressed all in white, or in some versions grey, has, at certain times of day, when the sunlight falls in a particular way, been seen staring soulfully out of a first-floor window on the North front of the house.
Other versions claim the white lady is seen cradling an infant and haunts the nearby family chapel.1
The story is that the son of the Delaval family had a secret love affair with an ‘unsuitable’ girl, possibly a servant. As heir to the Delaval fortune, he was expected to make an advantageous marriage, so his family took steps to end his liaison with the girl. He was swiftly was sent away to the opposite end of the country, never to return. The heart-broken girl pined and died. But her spirit remained, and to this day, can sometimes be seen holding its lonely vigil at the Hall, forever awaiting her lost love’s return.2
It is a tragic and romantic tale, that fits the windswept grandeur of Seaton Delaval Hall. It has also often been linked to a real life Delaval heir who lived in the eighteenth century.
Jack Delaval and the unwilling maid
The White Lady was said to have been in love with John Delaval (1756-1775). John, known as Jack by his family, was the only son of Sir John Delaval, and found himself the accidental heir of Seaton Delaval Hall.
Sir Francis Blake Delaval , Jack’s uncle, had originally inherited Seaton Delaval Hall in 1752. Sir Francis was the original Gay Delaval, infamous for his wild parties, gambling, theatrics, pranks, and sexual liaisons. But even the vast income from the Delaval empire could not keep up with this kind of lavish lifestyle. Sir Francis was soon drowning in debt and forced to hand over his inheritance to his sensible brother John, in return for an annual annuity.
Sir John was an MP and an industrialist, he was the polar opposite of his rakish brother Francis. He was determined that his only son would not replicate his brother’s dissolute behaviour, and tried to stamp this out of Jack through a strictly regulated education. However, it seems that the apple never falls far from the tree, because Jack’s name has forever been linked with another tale of thwarted love and tragic death. However, this tale is considerably less romantic.
Allegedly, young Jack had taken a fancy to a buxom serving girl and decided to exercise his ‘droit de seignior’ and sexually assault her. The girl emphatically rejected his advances and landed him a firm kick in the groin in order to facilitate her get away. Her deftly landed blow hurt more than his pride, and he later died of internal injuries.3 What happened to the feisty servant girl, sadly, is left unrecorded.
Oddly enough, for a young man linked to such unpleasantly vigorous exploits, he was not a strapping lad by any means. Surviving letters suggest he was a sickly, and often peevish boy, and records suggest that while he was definitely sent away from Seaton Delaval Hall, this was to recover from Consumption (Tuberculosis), rather than to escape a mesalliance or to recuperate from an embarrassing injury.4
His obituary in the Morning Post paints a very complementary picture of his character, albeit in the conventional language of the day:
“On Friday last died at Bristol, in the twentieth year of his age, after a severe illness of several months continuance, which he bore with a truly Christian patience, John Delaval, Esq. son of Sir John Hussey Delaval, Bart. whose death is grievously lamented by his most afflicted parents, and by all who had the happiness of being acquainted with him. His manners were so pure, unaffected, and amiable, and his behaviour so engaging and irresistible, that he captured the affections, and was the delight of all that knew him. He spend a precious life of innocence and goodness in this world, by which he prepared himself for the perpetual felicity in the next to which he had been called.”5
Despite this glowing eulogy, the story has stuck, like mud, to Jack’s reputation down the centuries, so much so, that Francis Askham, writing in The Gay Delavals suggests that the Morning Post could have been bribed to keep silent as to the ‘true’ cause of the boy’s death. Askham also quotes lines from The Delavaliad, a satirical poem directed at Sir John, and suggests the poem could hold an oblique reference to the incident with Jack and the girl.
‘And if with foot you kick a ball,
E’en so you may-a Delaval’6
In the context of the poem, the lines could just as easily be talking about the shifting nature of Sir John’s principles in politics, however, it is fascinating to imagine that the story of Jack’s undignified demise might have been an open secret amongst society.
However, it is also worth pointing out that there are no contemporary accounts to suggest that Jack was the victim of his own proclivities and it is just as likely that his posthumous reputation as an unsuccessful womanizer is unfounded.
Jack died in July 1775, at Hot Springs in Bristol. His body was interred at Doddington Church, near Doddington Hall, another of the Delaval family seats. But he was not intended to remain there long.
Sir John was devastated that his only son had died so young, Jack was barely twenty years old.
To assuage his grief, Sir John had a very grand mausoleum built near to Seaton Delaval Hall. It cost the huge sum of £1742.11shillings (about £152,000 in today’s money). However, despite this vast expenditure, he had a falling out with the Bishop of Durham over the cost to consecrate the building.7 In the end, the beautiful structure remained unconsecrated and untenanted, and Jack’s body remained at Doddington. Today, the mausoleum is a blackened and graffitied shell, inaccessible and marooned amongst farmers fields.
Why Jack? Events in Jack’s life were easily grafted on to the tale of the White Lady and her lost lover, the fact that it was known that Jack had been sent away from home suddenly, never to return, may have been used to add a veneer of authenticity to a local ghost story. Such local tales were popular with Victorians.
On the other hand, he also exists in the folk memory of the area as the over-sexed, upper class creep who got his just desserts (and an ignominious death) at the hands of a servant girl. Perhaps this negative story may have something to do with his father being an MP or just a way of local people bringing Bigwigs down a peg or two. What ever the truth of the matter, Jack’s short life will forever been linked to these two very different tales.
All images by Lenora
Asbury, Jonathan, Seaton Delaval Hall Souvenir Guide (National Trust)
Askham, Francis, 1955, The Gay Delavals
Green, Martin, 2010, The Delavals A Family History
The ‘Screaming Spectre’ is one of the most famous hauntings in London. Hundreds of passengers and London Underground employees alike have claimed to have heard a terrifying scream whilst waiting for the last train out of Farringdon Station. Rarely seen, usually only heard, the cry has occasionally led some intrepid soul to go searching for the source of the noise, convinced it is the sound of someone in severe distress, only for them to return confused and empty handed.
The ghost, is believed to be that of a young girl named Ann Nailor, who was murdered, her remains left near the site which later became Farringdon Station.
From the Workhouse to the Sweatshop
Ann Nailor was only thirteen when she was killed in 1758. At the time of her death she was apprenticed out to a millinery in Bruton Street, Berkeley Square, London, along with four other girls; her sister Mary (8), Philadephia Dowley (10), Sarah (Sall) Hinchman (12) and Ann Paul (age unknown). The millinery was owned by Sarah Metyard, a widow with one daughter, Sarah Morgan Metyard, who would have been either 18 or 19 at the time.
Forced to work long hours in a small room, sewing ‘mitts and purses’, poorly fed and only allowed out a couple of days a month, it is pretty obvious the value their mistress placed on her apprentices. They needed to work hard, if they didn’t, they were punished. Ann couldn’t sew as well as the others, she had suffered from a herpetic infection ‘whitlow’ which had led to a finger being amputated. This lack of productivity was reflected in her treatment. She was beaten more often than the others and not given food as regularly. As she became weaker, she was even less able to work and so was punished again. Thus, the vicious cycle continued until reaching breaking point she tried to get away.
Source unknown: 18th century milliners shop.
A Slow, Lingering Death
Ann had tried once before to escape from the Metyards. The second time she only made it as far as the doorstep when she was stopped by the milkman, Mr Brown. She begged him to let her go, pleading that if she stayed, she would be starved to death since she had had “no victuals for so long a time”. Reassuring her that she would not starve, he stood by as Sarah Morgan pulled her inside. Ann was dragged by the neck upstairs where she was held down by the mother on a bed and severely beaten with a broom handle by the daughter. She was then taken up another flight of stairs where she was attached to a door by a string tied around her waist. For three days she was left in this position, unable to sit or lie down. Each evening she was cut down and allowed to return to her room to sleep, on the last day she was so weak that she crawled up the stairs on her hands and knees. According to the other apprentices throughout this time Ann was given neither food or water, was unable to speak and could only groan in agony.
At the end of the third day, one of the girls noticed that Ann was bent over double, no longer moving. Starved, dehydrated, exhausted and badly beaten (who knows what injuries she had sustained), her poor, frail body had finally given up. Death in the end would have been a merciful relief; her pain and suffering were at least at an end, even if her story was not yet finished.
Source: By anonymous illustrators of the Newgate Calendar. Public Domain, via Wikipedia.
Scared the girls called for help. Initially the daughter refused to accept that Ann was dead. Taking her shoe, she beat Ann on her backside and hand, insisting that she would make the girl move. When she could not, she called for her mother to come up and take a look. The mother on arriving cut the string and laid Ann’s dead body over her lap. She then sent one of the apprentices, Sall, to fetch some drops, insisting that Ann was just in a fit and was perfectly fine. This was the last time the girls saw her.
According to both the apprentices at the trial, the Metyards began to act strangely sending them to wash in the kitchen or dining room, instead of in the garret as normal, the door of which was kept securely locked. As to Ann they were told that she was very sick and that they were not to disturb her. Despite putting on a show, taking up plates of food and demonstrating concern for her well-being the Metyards were perfectly aware that they could not keep up the charade indefinitely. At dinner a couple of days after Ann’s death, Sarah Metyard pretended to hear a noise and sent Sall to fetch Ann and bring her down to eat. Sall returned frightened, saying that the garret door was open and Ann had gone. Sarah Metyard just remarked that the girl had obviously run away again and with her history, few would have questioned it.
Despite the evidence, the girls were not convinced. For one thing, Ann had left without her shoes.
The Evidence Hidden
Whilst the Metyards were pretending everything was dandy, Ann’s cold body had lain in a garret room for two days before being moved to a second room. On the fourth day, it was unceremoniously dumped in a box, where it remained for two months.
By the beginning of December, the stench of the rotting corpse had become too much and fearful of discovery, they realised that the body needed to be removed from the premises. The first plan was to burn it but that idea was soon abandoned over fears that the smell of burning flesh would arouse suspicion and on a practical note it would have taken far too long. A decision was made to cut the body up into pieces and dump it. The mother aided by her daughter cut the arms and legs from the body. The trunk and head were stuffed into one bag and the limbs in another. An exception was made for the hand with the amputated finger which was burnt on the fire. Possibly the mother was frightened that the disfigured hand would make identifying the remains easier. On 5 December, Sarah Metyard carried the sacks to the sewer in Chick Lane, over 1.5 miles away. Unfortunately for her, the sewer was overflowing with mud and water and so she just left them in the gully-hole. Afterwards, her nerves shattered, she stopped at a public house near Temple-bar. Mr Inch, the landlord, knew Sarah Metyard well and enquired about the stink (of what would have been a mixture of rotting flesh, bodily fluids and guts) with which she was perfuming the place. Sarah Metyard denied all knowledge of any smell and quickly left the public house after just one drink.
A Gruesome Discovery
Late at night, not long after the body had been left, it was found by a constable and two watchmen whilst on their rounds. The pungent smell which Sarah Metyard had claimed to be oblivious to, had attracted their attention. Examining the bags briefly they ascertained it contained body parts and immediately went to report their find to Thomas Lovegrove, the Overseer of the Parish of St Andrew, Holborn. Despite the lateness of the night (it was about midnight), he ordered the men to get ‘a shell’ from the workhouse and go and gather up the body parts. The head and trunk were found first and then the limbs but despite making a thorough search of the area they could not locate the hands. They then took the remains to the workhouse where they were left until the next day when Lovegrove sent for the coroner, Mr Umfreville. The coroner asked for the body parts to be washed and laid out on a board, ready for examination. The body was identified as having belonged to a young female but the coroner mistakenly assumed that it had been dissected by surgeons and as such declined to summon a jury. The body was sent for burial.
That would have been the end of the story but for the fear and guilt which gnawed at the murderers and which eventually was their undoing.
The Murderers Condemn Themselves
During the years which followed, the mother became increasingly paranoid. She initially refused to let her daughter go out to service, afraid she would reveal their terrible secret.
After two years the daughter did get her wish. A tenant, Mr Richard Rooker, took pity on the daughter and offered her work as a servant at his house in Hill Street. Sarah Morgan gratefully accepted. Despite no longer living under the same roof, the mother’s behaviour worsened and she would regularly turn up at Rooker’s residence, causing a scene and accusing her daughter of being Rooker’s whore. Her aggressive behaviour continued even when the household moved out of London.
Matters came to a head one day when Rooker heard a scream come from the kitchen and found Sarah Morgan badly beaten, a knife discarded on the floor and the mother’s hands around her daughter’s throat. The mother and daughter began to trade insults. The mother called Rooker names and the daughter in turn called her the ‘Chick-lane ghost’ .
This last comment disturbed Rooker and played on his mind. Eventually he confronted Sarah Morgan and she revealed everything to him. Rooker convinced of her innocence, persuaded her to turn her mother in. Rooker sent a letter to the Parish in Tottenham High Cross and finally, Sarah Metyard was arrested for the murder of Ann Nailor. Unfortunately for Rooker he had been wrong, the mother exacted the ultimate revenge and her daughter was eventually taken in for questioning and charged.
On 14 July 1762, the trial for the murder of Ann Nailor was held at the Old Bailey.
Source: William Hogarth The Bench. Fitzwilliam Museum.
The feeling of animosity between the mother and daughter was such that they had to be housed in different areas of the prison, so it is not surprising that at their trial, they turned against each other. The mother throughout repeatedly asserted that Ann had not died under her roof (with the exception of one odd statement later denied, given to the Newgate Ordinary, that the girl had been killed by a falling bed post). She claimed that the girl was of a sickly constitution but had always been treated well and that she had run away, possibly with the milk boy, of whom Ann was fond of.
The daughter insisted that it had been all her mother’s doing adding that her only crime had been to conceal the murder, which she had done out of a false sense of loyalty. She stated that she had treated Ann kindly and had begged her mother to give the girl food. She told the jury that she had warned her mother that if Ann was not cut down from the string she would die and that Ann had still been alive, albeit very weak, when she had been laid on the bed. She also testified that it was only later that her mother had called her up and told her that Ann was dead.
The evidence against the pair was overwhelming and they were swiftly convicted. Sarah Morgan made one last futile attempt to save herself, “she pleaded her belly”. A panel of matrons were summoned to examine her, they found her not to be pregnant and the sentence of hanging was upheld.
Justice for Ann and Mary Nailor
Sadly, it had not only been Ann who had suffered but also her younger sister. Mary had been convinced that her sister had been murdered and freely expressed her views. This signed her death warrant. The child was killed, the body ‘secreted away’. Even without the physical proof, the jury found the Metyards guilty and they were duly charged with a second murder. Her body was never found.
On the morning of the 19July, the women were taken to the execution site at Tyburn. The daughter continued to protest her innocence, accusing her mother of various other nefarious deeds whilst the mother lay insensible in the cart. Sarah Metyard had been wailing that she was unable to eat, maybe she was trying to starve herself before the hanging. Somehow fitting in the circumstances.
Source: William Hogarth – Scanned from The genius of William Hogarth or Hogarth’s Graphical Works, Public Domain via Wikimedia.
A Fair Sentence?
In my opinion the guilt of the mother is indisputable, however, I am less convinced when it comes to the daughter.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Sarah Morgan Metyard, like the apprentices had suffered at the hands of her mother. According to her confession taken the morning of her execution, she listed a number of grievances against her mother. She stated that from the age of eleven, she had been raised in a “scene of wickedness” being forced to steal pewter from the scullery at St James Palace and on one occasion being sent to beg money from her friends on the pretence that she had been abandoned . Although the only other witness was not in a state to refute these claims, it seems strange that she would have been lying, it was not as if she was going to be granted a reprieve and even if they were true it did not excuse what had happened to Ann. Maybe she was trying to gain sympathy but she appears to have been eager to receive the holy sacrament, so why risk her soul?
She also denied hitting Ann, despite the witnesses’ evidence to the contrary, stating that she had never treated the apprentices badly, even on occasion being beaten because of her defence of them. She claimed that when her mother was away from the house, she had often unlocked the garret to let the girls out and had even given them a key to lock themselves back in so her mother would never know. She added that on times she had given the girls “a halfpenny roll; and sometimes a halfpenny; and sometimes other victuals unknown to the mother”. This later assertion was confirmed by Sarah Hinchman.
She also mentioned how she had begged her mother to give the dead girl a decent burial but was ignored, her mother stating that if they did, they would both be arrested as it was obvious to anyone who looked at the body that the girl had been starved.
Source: William Hogarth Rakes Progress detail.
After the murder, the daughter was continuously abused by the mother, confiding in Rooker her desperation and her wish to kill herself if she could not escape her mother’s clutches. In the end she must have been thankful for the lifeline handed to her by Rooker. Did Rooker exploit an already vulnerable girl? Considering, that she most probably was in a relationship with him (otherwise why else would a man have subjected himself and his reputation to such abuse if she was just a servant), maybe, but for a short time he did save her. She always denied that she was sexually involved with him or any man. This then makes her claim that she was pregnant seem ridiculous. Her excuse was that she thought she would get a brief respite and hadn’t realised they would examine her. Yes, this could prove she was a liar or an idiot or equally a desperate young woman clutching at straws.
In my opinion, although Sarah Morgan was culpable and deserved punishment for not having reported the crime, I do not believe the death sentence was warranted. The girl was clearly mistreated both physically and emotionally. Yes, she had beaten Ann, which is inexcusable but possibly she did so out of fear of her mother turning her anger on her. She had obviously been threatened into keeping her mouth shut and forced to assist her mother in cutting up the body. Having to live this type of life must have been hell for the girl, so, for me, Sarah Morgan Metyard was in many ways just as much a victim as Ann and Mary Nailor.
As to the otherworldly scream heard in Farringdon Station, if it does belong to Ann Nailor, then the ghost has wandered as the station is not directly over the area where her body was found and if not, then it makes you wonder what other gruesome discovery has yet to be found.
Source: Tennessee State Library and Archive
Baldwin, W & Knapp, A, The Newgate Calendar Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters who have been Convicted of Outrages of the Laws of England, Volume II, 1825
Ordinary’s Account, 19th July 1762: The Ordinary of Newgate’s account of the behaviour, confession, and dying words of Sarah Metyard, and Sarah, Morgan Metyard, her daughter who were executed at Tyburn, on Monday, July 18, 1762, for the murder of Ann Nailor, https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/print.jsp?div=OA17620719
“Why, my goot Master Oldenbuck, you will only laugh at me. But de hand of glory is vary well known in de countriess where your worthy progenitors did live, – and it is hand cut off from a dead man, as has been hanged for murther, and dried very nice in de shmoke of juniper wood; and if you put a little of what you call yew wid your juniper it will not be any better, – that is, it will not be no worse; then you do take something of de fatsh of de bear, and of de badger, and of de great eber, as you call de grand boar, and of de little suckling child as has not been christened (for dat is very essentials), and you do make a candle, and put it into de hand of glory at de proper hour and minute, with de proper ceremonish, and he who seeksh for treasuresh shall never find none at all”
So, what is the truth behind the mummified hand held in Whitby, why does the Hand of Glory occupy such a precarious position between fact and fiction and why did the myth around the dried and pickled hands of hanged criminals take such a strong hold on the imagination of so many people?
Hand of Glory Recipe
Step 1: Preparation of the Hand
There are quite a few pamphlets that describe how to make Hands of Glory. Certain minor details vary from account to account but overall, the instructions are strikingly similar in detail. The following instructions are taken from the Petit Albert (an eighteenth-century grimoire of natural and cabalistic magic) which cites Émile-Jules Grillot de Givry, a French occultist as its source and from the Compendium Maleficarum, a witch-hunter’s manual written by Francesco Maria Guazzo in 1608.
Sever the hand from the body of a still hanging criminal. Choose the left hand, except in the case when the man is a murderer, then cut off the hand that committed the murder. If this is not known, remove his right hand as this is the hand most likely to have been used.
Remove the hand in the dead of the night or during an eclipse.
Wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well.
Then put it into an earthenware vessel along with zimat (an unknown substance, possibly verdigris), nitre (the mineral form of potassium nitrate also known as saltpeter), salt and long peppers. The contents should be well powdered.
Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days (the hottest days of July and August) until it becomes quite dry (if the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain)
A different method of making a Hand of Glory can be found in the text which accompanied the Whitby Museum’s Hand and which was published in a book in 1823.
“It must be cut from the body of a criminal on the gibbet; pickled in salt, and the urine of man, woman, dog, horse and mare; smoked with herbs and hay for a month; hung on an oak tree for three nights running, then laid at a crossroads, then hung on a church door for one night while the maker keeps watch in the porch”
Step 2: Create the Candle
There are two ways to make a Hand Glory.
The first is to bleed the hand, dry it and then dip it in wax, turning each finger into a candle.
The second is to use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold a candle. The candle must be made from human fat taken from the corpse of the same hanged man and then combined with virgin wax, sesame and ponie. De Givry proposed that ponie was another name for horse dung, which due to its combustible nature when dry would make it a logical choice. An alternative suggestion also put forward is that ponie is a contraction of ‘sisame de Laponie’, in English, Lapland Sesame.
In some descriptions, the hair of the deceased man is used for the wick.
The Perfect Thieves’ Tool
Hands of Glory were most commonly associated with thieves who would harness its power to steal from households.
It was believed that all the fingers and the thumb should be lit. If one finger refused to ignite it was due to there either being less than five people in the house or to one person still being awake. Dousing the hand in milk was the only way to extinguish the flames and render the power of the hand dormant, releasing anyone under its control.
The hand could:
Induce a coma-like state for anyone already asleep in the household.
Open any door, however securely it had been locked and bolted.
Cause the holder to become invisible to others.
Make any person to whom the candle was presented, motionless.
How to Protect Your Home and Property
A household could protect itself from the Hand by rubbing a rather unpleasant and pungent concoction on their thresholds or other parts of the house. The mixture should be composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen and the blood of a screech-owl. As with the creation of the hand, the potion has to be made during the hottest days of July and August.
Historical Evidence for the Hand of Glory
Body parts have always had the reputation of being imbued with special qualities, you have only to look at the reverence that remains of Christian saints are held in. Even today in Africa, body parts are used in witchcraft practices, for instance, male genitalia is the most sought-after human body parts used in traditional witchcraft ceremonies. So, it is easy to understand that in the past, remains were thought by many to have magical qualities and how in their minds, crime, especially terrible crimes would increase the dark power of those remains.
So, what actual historical evidence do we have? The answer is very little. Most of it is either hearsay, second-hand accounts or very obviously fanciful. Hand of Glory stories are most common in Northern England. Robert Southey in his memoirs at one-point talks of assisting in the “definitive judgement” of certain criminals. Before he begins to demonstrate his knowledge, he makes it very clear to his audience that he himself had never attempted to create such an abominable object. He then states that men who had undergone torture confessed to him their use of a Hand of Glory. He says that its purpose was to render people motionless “insomuch that they could not stir, anymore than if they were dead“. He then goes on to describe how to create a Hand of Glory. Unfortunately, the lack of actual details such as where the trials took place and who the men were does call its veracity into question and besides under torture people will admit to anything!
There are also many stories that have been passed down, recounting incidents of the Hand being used. A famous account concerns the Inn of Spital on Stanmore (possibly Stainmore) in Yorkshire. It was said that on a cold October night in 1797, an old female beggar come to the door asking for lodgings. The owner of the inn, George Alderson agreed but stated that the beggar would have to be content with sleeping by the fire in the kitchen. The family then went to bed. Only the maid, Bella remained awake. Something about the beggar’s appearance unsettled her. Pretending to be asleep, she watched the beggar and was shocked to discover that the raggedy old woman was actually a man in disguise. She saw him remove a withered hand from his pocket, as well as a candle. Taking her chance, she rushed to her master’s bedroom but was unable to wake him or his son. On her return to the kitchen, she saw the man open the door and go outside leaving the Hand on the table. Realising that the household was under a spell, she grabbed a cup of milk and poured it on the Hand’s flames. Immediately the household woke and grabbing their guns, they shot at the thief and his accomplice. Knowing their luck had run out, the thief asked for the Hand of Glory to be returned. In answer, the son shot at them again. The Hand remained in the family’s possession for sixteen years. This account was supposedly given to the author by someone who had themselves heard it from the daughter of Bella. Two other Hand of Glory stories from Yorkshire are known; one is from Oak Tree Inn, Leeming (the incident reported to have taken place in 1824) and another earlier tale retold by Sabine Baring-Gould. The heroes of these stories are again female servants who save the families (and their valuables) through their bravery and intelligence.
Whitby’s Hand of Glory
The only surviving Hand of Glory can be found in Whitby Museum. Given to the museum in 1935, it was discovered in a cottage in Castleton by stonemason and local historian, Joseph Ford. Hidden in the wall, Ford identified it based on depictions found in numerous stories.
Often the Whitby example is cited as being proof of the existence of the Hand of Glory but is it really what it is purported to be? As shown above, stories about its existence were widespread and widely believed but could it have just been one of many items such as witches’ bottles and shoes that were hidden in walls to protect against witchcraft, demons and the fey or could it have been the property of cunning folk or ‘witches’? Unfortunately, we will never know.
Witches, Fairies and a Dead Hand
It was not only thieves that were associated with dead hands or Hands of Glory but also witches and fairies. These stories show the power of such objects as well as the fear that they could stir in people’s hearts and minds.
In Ireland ill luck, diseases and ‘curses’ were more commonly attributed to fairies rather than witches. It was generally believed that butter witches used the hand of a corpse to help them produce large quantities of butter and milk. In one tale an old woman asks a fairy how to get more butter and the fairy in response digs up a corpse’s hand and gives it to her to use for collecting it. In another, locals of the parish of Eyrecourt suspect a neighbour of having a dead hand in her possession due to the large amount of milk and butter she managed to produce from only a few cows. Despite the possible benefits of owning a dead hand such as taking a neighbour’s “crops and stock, and maybe breaking them out of house and home”, it was strongly believed that in the end, the hand would become a curse for whoever was in possession of it.
In England, a number of local stories appeared which linked the Hand of Glory to witches. One more light-hearted tale is set in the village of Crasswall in Herefordshire where it was said that a witch made a Hand of Glory from a hanged corpse in order to put a spell on the people who ducked her in a horsepond. The story was told by a woman from the village who remembered it as being one of her great-uncle’s “silly old tales”.
The most famous case concerns the Scottish schoolmaster and convicted ‘sorcerer’, Dr John Fian (alias Cunninghame). Tortured to breaking point and in extreme agony, he admitted to having trained several witches in North Berwick Kirk (many of whom found themselves centre stage in the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials), bewitching townsfolk and raising a storm to sink the ship carrying King James VI of Scotland and his newlywed wife, Anne of Denmark as they returned from Copenhagen and using a Hand of Glory to help him break into a church and perform a service to the Devil.
Further afield in Germany, during their witch hunts in 1588, two women, Nichel and Bessers were accused of witchcraft and the exhumation of corpses. The women admitted to “poisoning helpless people after lighting hands of glory to immobilise them”.
The Hand’s Medicinal Properties
One other curious aspect of the belief in the power of dead hands was that people, despite the objects’ gruesome nature, also associated it with healing. Even in Ireland, dead hands were believed to cure toothache. The hand had to be rubbed against the tooth. For the treatment to be effective for men, they had to avoid shaving on a Sunday.
Hands of Glory were also thought to have healing properties. In particular, they could be used to heal goitre, an abnormal growth on the thyroid gland caused by poor diet and nutrition, by passing the Hand over the swelling. Severed and preserved hands have been found in physicians’ medical bags and collections.
It is fascinating that stories about hands used for similar purposes can also be found in other countries in Northern Europe.
In Switzerland, it was said that the bodies of deceased and unbaptised children should be buried at night so that the location of their graves remained unknown. This was done to prevent the bodies from being mutilated as it was thought that the hands of such infants could open any lock. As in England, it was believed that the number of fingers that were not burning indicated how many in a house were still awake.
Germanic folklore also contained stories of how thieves would make lights for themselves which would cast a spell over people keeping them asleep for however long the candles burned. Known as ‘Thieves’ lights’, these gruesome objects were made from the fingers of unborn children. These infants would have to have been cut from a womb of a thief or murderer who had either been hanged, beheaded or had committed suicide. Specific and strict instructions had to be followed in order to invoke the hand’s power:
Special incantations and spells had to be recited.
The journey must be made along the devil’s roads at midnight.
The journey must be taken in absolute silence.
The same axe or knife that had been used by the executioner must be used to “open up the poor sinner’s belly, take out the child, cut off its fingers, and take them with you”.
The candles fashioned from these tiny hands would ignite whenever their owner wished it and would be quenched in the same manner. The power held by these macabre objects echoes exactly the power displayed by Hands of Glory. To add to the gruesome origin of these lights, it was reported that pregnant women were often sold to or stolen by brigands of thieves.
In West Flanders in the Netherlands, a story persists of how a foot of a hanged man was found in the possession of a thief which he used for the purpose of putting people to sleep. There is also a story from Huy, which bears a remarkable similarity to the Yorkshire tales. In this version, two men request permission to sleep by their host’s fire. The maid not liking the look of the visitors, spies on them. When they believe themselves to be unobserved, one of them, to the maid’s horror, draws a thief’s hand from his pocket. Despite his best efforts, all the fingers burn except for one. Realising that someone in the house was not asleep but seemingly unperturbed they hang it by the chimney and go to the door to call their associates. Failing to wake her master, the maid runs to the kitchen and blows out the candles. In an instant, the men of the household wake up and drive off the robbers.
The Hand of Glory: An Interesting Tale or a Grim Tool
Although it is highly improbable that Hands of Glory were powerful magical instruments, it is more than likely that people did try to make them. There are just too many stories, from too many countries, to dismiss them as complete nonsense. It is a shame that only one has survived as more physical evidence could give us a better understanding of this traditional occult practice. What happened to the others? One possible explanation is that they were buried in secret locations where they could not cause harm and another is that they were simply destroyed. Going back to the introduction and the section taken from the novel Waverley, it is apparent that the author did have knowledge of the Hands although the description given here of their creation is very different from the written accounts that have come down to us. Also, its use to protect secret treasure seems contradictory, it is more likely the Hands would be used to find it instead!
I will leave the last word to Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor (pen name of Richard Harris Barham) who wrote The Hand of Glory, the second of the Ingoldsby Legends.
Now open, lock! To the Dead Man’s knock! Fly, bolt, and bar, and band! Nor move, nor swerve. Joint, muscle, or nerve At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand! Sleep, all who sleep! – Wake, all who wake! But be as the dead for the Dead Man’s sake
Baring-Gould, Sabine: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Rivingtons: London, Oxford & Cambridge, 1868
Guazzo, Francesco Maria: The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
Guiley, Rosemary: The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, Checkmark Books, 2008
 Francesco Maria Guazzo, The Compendium Maleficarum, Dover Publications; Montague Summers edition, 1988
 Hand of Glory: The Dark Secret Of The Severed Hand At Whitby Museum, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, Hand of Glory In Whitby Museum, The History Behind The Hand Of Glory, https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/
Here at The Haunted Palace Blog, Halloween is our favourite time of year and this year we’ve been busier than ever!
As well as our usual super spooky Halloween post, we have not one, but two podcast collaborations coming up for Halloween!
In the summer, Lenora was lucky enough to be invited onto The Newcastle Witches Podcast to record their Halloween Special. The Newcastle Witches podcast examines the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1649-50, in which 14 innocent women and 1 man lost their lives. In each episode Maria and Caitlin talk to the experts on different aspects the witch trials, seventeenth century belief in witchcraft and magic, and the political and social situation in seventeenth century Newcastle. Each episode is dedicated to one of the victims of the trials. For their Halloween Special they asked Lenora to share the folktale of the Wallsend Witches and consider whether it is linked to a real-life alleged witch in Wallsend.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @newcastle_witches_podcast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM The Newcastle Witches Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Lenora was also delighted to be invited back to the Voices from the North-East Podcast for one of their two Halloween Specials. Voices from the North-East is a social history podcast that is doing amazing work to preserve memories of growing up in the North-East of England, so much so many of their episodes are being preserved in the Northumberland Archives. Last year Lenora chatted with Paul about the Wallsend Witches and the Alnwick Vampire, this year Lenora will be talking about the Willington Mill Haunting, in a podcast that will run alongside our Halloween blog post.
Look out for updates on release date on Instagram at @voicesfromthenortheast and @lenora_hautnedpalaceblog the episode will be available from Anchor FM Voices from the North East Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
On 3rd December 1817, Charles Smith was hanged on the Town Moor at Newcastle upon Tyne for “the barbarous and cruel murder of Charles Stewart at Ouseburn Pottery”. 1
The condemned man left instructions that his body be released to his wife for burial. This request was denied, and his body sent to be anatomised at Surgeon’s Hall, Newcastle. So far, so unremarkable. The bodies of many hanged criminals ended up under the anatomist’s knife in Britain at this time. But that was not the end of Charles Smith’s story. The actual fate of at least part of Charles Smith’s body was both peculiar and macabre.
Road to the gallows
The story began the previous year, 1816, when the pottery was declared bankrupt, and a sheriff’s officer was authorised to sell goods to pay off debts. On the night of the 4th of December, Charles Stewart, the elderly Keeper appointed by the Sheriff, was sleeping on the premises, his task, to guard the money from the sale. In the early hours of the morning, he was woken from his slumber by the sound of loud banging on the door. Opening it, he was faced with two ruffians, intent on robbery. He was attacked and beaten severely. Although he eventually managed to summon help, his injuries were too severe and after lingering for several weeks he died on Christmas Day, 1816.
Before he died, Stewart was interviewed and pointed the finger of blame at Irishman Charles Smith, a former employee at the pottery, in a dramatic deathbed confrontation. When accused, Smith denied everything, even though a bloody stick and blood-spattered clothing had been found at his lodgings. Some doubt was cast on Stewart’s ability to identify Smith, and Smith did obtain a brief stay of execution. Ultimately however, Stewart’s testimony, along with some damning circumstantial evidence, and a dash of contemporary prejudice against the Irish, sealed Smith’s fate. He was found guilty of wilful murder and publicly executed the following December. The second assailant was never identified. 2
And so ended the tragic life of Charles Smith.
On 3rd of October 1818 the Durham County Advertiser reported the following curiosity:
“Literary relic – An eminent collector and Antiquarian of Newcastle is possessed of a piece of the skin of the late Charles Smith, executed near the town last year for the murder of Charles Stewart, which he had washed, tanned and dressed for the purposes of binding a large paper copy of the murderer’s dying speech!!!”3
I find the multiple exclamation marks interesting, while the eminent collector might find it acceptable to put human skin to this purpose, the author of the article clearly has his doubts.
The eminent collector and antiquarian in question, was likely to have been John Bell, an avid collector of books and coins, who ran a bookshop on Newcastle’s Quayside.4,5
The practice of binding books in human skin was hinted at in the ancient and Medieval periods. Some examples dating to the 16th and 17th century have survived, but the trend really grew in popularity, amongst certain sections of society, in the 19th century. But what was the motivation behind the practice?
There are several reasons why a book might be bound in human skin. In the early nineteenth century it was occasionally used as a post-mortem punishment for an executed criminal, often adjacent to dissection. Dissection had been an added post-mortem indignity for the executed person since the introduction of the Murder Act in 1752, which allowed the bodies of executed criminals to be publicly dissected (a boon to anatomy schools struggling to obtain cadavers). Both Charles Smith, and more famously, William Burke, half of the murderous duo Burke and Hare, were hanged, dissected, then had parts of their skin removed for book binding.
Binding a book in the skin of the condemned man was a post-mortem mortification with metaphysical consequences. At a time when many Christian’s believed you needed your body to remain whole in order to rise on the day of judgement, having part of your skin made into a pocket notebook or used to bind a copy of your Gallows Speech and clippings about your crime, might well prevent you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven. As an Irish Catholic, this may have been on Charles Smith’s mind when he entreated authorities to release his corpse to his wife, for Christian burial.
The practice of public dissection, in this context, is a cruel and unusual punishment, a staggering display of callousness in disregarding the religious beliefs and dignity of the poor and criminal classes who were most likely to suffer this fate.
Some books purported to be made of human skin were used for political propaganda, such as the unproven rumours that French Revolutionaries set up a macabre tannery at Meudon. The tannery was supposed to have specialised in producing a range of fashionable leather breeches, boots, and book bindings, all using human skin. A copy of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, dating from 1793, and supposedly made of human skin, helped feed into the legend of blood thirsty Revolutionaries tanning the hides of their enemies. This legend was still being taken at face value well into the twentieth century, until academics began to look to the original source of the rumour, the rabidly pro-monarchist Abbot of Montgaillard (or possibly his equally monarchist son). 6,7
The infamous Swaatland parchment claims to be an eighteenth-century artefact, linked to the experiences of the real historic figure Luke Swatland. Swatland was captured by Native Americans, and later escaped and wrote of his experiences. The inscription on the piece of leather states that it was made from the skin of a ‘White Man taken by an Ingen, Scalped and skinned Alive[..]’ it went on to make the false claim that Native American’s were using the skin of Europeans as currency. Following testing by Megan Rosenbloom, the parchment proved to be made from cow hide, and was likely made at a much later date as a piece of racist propaganda to justify the treatment of Native Americans by settlers.8
Going back to the Charles Smith book for a moment, it is not known whether John Bell created the book for his own private amusement or as a commodity to sell. However, the fact that John Bell was a book collector is important, because, in the 19th century, in many cases books bound in human skin were made for collectors – enthusiastic bibliophiles with niche tastes in unusual and rare book bindings.
Collectors of such rare commodities invariably considered themselves to be gentlemen and often they were also medical men, as evidenced by the extensive research of Megan Rosenbloom. Many of the authenticated human skin books originated in the libraries of doctors and surgeons.
Medical men had two things in their favour – access to the raw materials, and clinical detachment.
Anthropodermic book binding can be seen as an example of clinical detachment taken to its extreme, with doctors forgetting the essential humanity of their patients, patient consent not being considered, and the unspoken trust between doctor and patient being breached almost irrevocably.
This idea of the gentleman collector is at odds with the popular image of human skin books. Most people’s first thoughts would probably run to HP Lovecraft’s ‘mad Arab’ Abdul al Hazred and his Necronomicon, and obsessive and insane occultists pouring over Grimoires of arcane knowledge. That or serial killers and Nazis. In short, people you would want to avoid at all costs, not your trusted GP or hospital doctor!
A matter of identity
While the matter of who made books of human skin, and why they did so, is fascinating. The question also remains as to whose skin was used?
Evidence would suggest that it was primarily the skin of the poorer classes, executed criminals and those who died in situations that left their bodies open to exploitation by medical men and collectors.
Very occasionally someone might volunteer, like unlucky highwayman James Allen, who asked that his memoirs be bound in his own skin.9 But that was a rare occurrence – in most cases the skin was obtained without consent or in direct opposition to the wishes of the deceased.
In cases where a book was bound in the skin of a criminal, such as William Burke or Charles Smith, we can be fairly sure of their identity. However, in many cases, particularly where the skin was obtained covertly in a medical setting, this is not possible, the identity of the unwilling donor left, quite literally, on the shelf.
One notable exception to this anonymity was uncovered by Beth Lander, the librarian at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in the United States. She uncovered a tale of medical malpractice from over 150 years ago. In 1868, a young, up and coming doctor named John Stockton Hough, performed an autopsy on a twenty-eight-year-old woman who died of Tuberculosis at Philadelphia General Hospital. During her autopsy, Dr Hough decided to take a macabre souvenir of the event, in the form of skin from the woman’s thighs. He held on to his gruesome treasure for many years, but eventually he found a use for it. Hough had an impressive library, and what better than to use this rarest of materials to bind three of his favourite books – on women’s health (which seems a particularly ghoulish choice). Beth Lander was able to follow the clues left by Hough and identified the woman as being Mary Lynch, a twenty-eight-year-old, impoverished Irish widow. 10
Not everything you read is true
One glaring fact about many ‘human skin’ books is that they do not all stand up to scrutiny, this seems to be particularly common where the subject matter is overtly macabre or has a definite political or racial agenda to promote. This can be seen in the case of the Swaatland parchment, which, upon testing, proved to be cow hide, and this may also be true of the Constitution and Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, linked to the Meudon Tannery, which has yet to be tested.
But why have so many books claiming to be bound in human skin been taken at face value? One reason is clearly that these artefacts exert a morbid fascination. The other reason is that until recently, there was no fool proof, non-destructive way to authenticate them.
Books bound in human skin don’t scream at you, they look like any other book on the shelf. Previous testing consisted of looking at the binding under a microscope to examine the pores of the hide and compare them to human, pig, cow, etc. This method was not always accurate.
More modern techniques such as DNA testing are a no go because the tanning process destroys DNA, while repeated handling of the books over many years risks contaminating the sample and skewing the results.
All of that has changed recently, with the advent of peptide mass finger printing (PMF). This technique requires only a tiny sample of leather and can conclusively determine if a book is bound in human skin. The Anthropodermic Book Project, co-founded by Megan Rosenbloom, is currently testing as many alleged human skin books as possible using this technique. And while many books are not what they claimed to be, many others prove to be the genuine article.11
While unusual cases, like that of James Allen, show that occasionally people did choose this method of post-mortem memorialisation, most did not. Whether the skin of a condemned criminal or impoverished hospital patient, one thing is clear, the men who created these artefacts, did so with little regard to the wishes of the deceased.
This poses the question, should these books remain in museum and library collections? The curating and display of human remains is a challenging subject at the best of times, fraught with ethical, philosophical, and cultural dilemmas.
My view, is that they are a valuable resource that can help us explore broader subjects, such as how attitudes to race and class have changed over time, issues surrounding informed patient consent, and how the medical gaze, taken to its extreme, can depersonalise the patient.
Ultimately, these most macabre of artefacts can provide a window into a different time, a time when respectable gentlemen could blithely damn the criminal and the poor in the afterlife, and hide behind the clinical gaze, in search of that rarest most precious material to bind their books, human skin.
But what do you think?
As it happens, Bell never did bind his book in Smith’s skin, but instead fixed the sample of tanned flesh inside a rather ordinary half-bound volume (a leather spine, with darkly marbled covers), a particularly rare curio amongst newspaper clippings of the trial, commentary, and other ephemera. He even ended the book with a pen and ink sketch of a devil merrily playing the fiddle, above a dangling noose – gallows humour indeed.
The Charles Smith Book is held at Newcastle Central Library, it is available to view by appointment, but is currently featured as part of an exhibition that runs until the end of July 2022.
Edinburgh Surgeon’s Hall displays the pocketbook made from the skin of William Burke.
Sources and credits
I would like to thank Sarah at Newcastle Central Library, for facilitating my viewing of the fascinating human skin book relating to Charles Smith and answering my many questions.
In researching this post, I found the most knowledgeable and accessible writer and speaker on the subject of anthropodermic bibliopegy to be Megan Rosenbloom. I have in particular relied on her excellent book ‘Dark Archives’ as well as several online interviews and articles.
Anyone who went to school in the North East of England will probably be familiar with the famous chorus from the folk-song The Lambton Worm. The song was written in 1867 by C M Leumane and quickly took on a life of its own in popular culture. My own memories of learning it as an eight-year-old, were that I loved the catchy chorus, but there were way too many verses to memorise!
Tales of worms or dragons are not uncommon in British folklore, one only has to think of St George and the Dragon to appreciate how entwined dragon-slayers are in national and regional identity.
But is the tale of the Lambton Worm simply another Dragon Slaying tale, or is there more to it than that?
The Legend of the Lambton Worm
The Legend of the Lambton Worm first appeared in print in 1785. Antiquarian William Hutchinson outlined the folk explanations of the formation of Worm Hill, a glacial moraine, in Fatfield, Washington:
“Near this place is an eminence called the Worm Hill, which tradition says once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors…the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women…” 2
This figure from the distant past was often identified as Sir John Lambton, Knight of Rhodes.3
However, these written accounts draw on older local oral traditions.
Here is my summary of the Legend of the Lambton Worm, as we know it today:
Young Lambton, the heir to the Lambton Estate, was fishing in the River Wear one Sunday, when he should have been in church, when he caught a very strange eel-like creature with a dragons head. Unhappy with his scrawny catch, he blithely discarded it down a well, later known as Worm Well, and went on his merry way. Young Lambton grew to repent of his profane ways, and joined a crusade, leaving his home for many years. The worm, however, did not leave, and was thriving and growing to a prodigious size at the bottom of the well where it was discarded. So much so, that it had to relocate to a larger habitat, choosing first to wrap itself around a local hill, which became known as Worm Hill, and later favouring a rock in the River Wear.
All would have been well enough, had the worm not also had a very large appetite. Cattle, Sheep, and even the occasional child all made it onto the worm’s menu. Consequently, the locals lived in terror of the poisonous and very hungry worm that young Lambton had unwittingly set loose amongst them. Finally, young Lambton returned, a new man, from the crusades and set about righting the wrong he had set in motion in his youth. His initial skirmishes with the worm were unsuccessful until he consulted with a local witch or wise woman.
The wise woman gave him some sage advice on how to tackle the slippery beast, which asides from being extremely dangerous, had a habit of being able to pull itself back together if it was ever cut in half. Following her advice almost to the letter (this will be important later) he donned a suite of armour studded with razors and took on the worm on its home territory, the River Wear. The worm, seeing Lambton as another tasty snack, wrapped itself round the knight, in order to crush him, but was instead sliced and diced, with all of its pieces flowing away in the river, never to reform again. The Worm was dead, and the local people were saved and there was much rejoicing!
All would have been well and good, except for one small omission by Lambton, the witch had warned him that once his mission was accomplished, he must kill the first thing that greeted him on his return home, or else the next nine generations of Lambton chiefs would not die in their beds. Despite taking some precautions, Lambton’s father was the first to greet him on his return, and well, young John couldn’t bring himself to kill his own father, so the curse fell upon the Lambton’s and the next nine generations did not die in their beds.
Tales of Dragon Slayers are common throughout Medieval Britain and Europe. The Northeast of England (taking in Northumberland, County Durham and Yorkshire) has twenty or so tales of Dragons and their slayers, for example, the Sockburn Worm and The Laidly Worm to name but two.4
What has been noted to be different about English, and these Northern tales, is that, unlike many of the European tales, the hero is not seeking to win treasure or maiden fair, but has a more pragmatic aim, often to save the local area from some peril (as in the Sockburn and Lambton stories). 5,6
What is particularly distinctive about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, is that once the hero has slayed the dragon, he does not win maiden fair or treasure, in fact he and his family are cursed for several generations to come.
Unpacking the Worm
There are certain elements in the Lambton Worm tale that are worth unpacking.
Dragons and Worms (terms often used interchangeably in historic texts) can mean different things in different cultures and depending on who is using them (see Miss Jessel’s excellent post for more on Dragons in general). For the Medieval church, dragons often represented evil, but for many noble families they represented valour in fighting, so appear on many family crests.7 They have also been linked to natural and manmade catastrophes, water spirits, and remnants of ancient nature religions (of which more below).
Jeffrey Jerome in Monster Culture considers the monster to be a cultural body. The device of the monster can be used to present a warning (of lines not to be crossed), to reveal a truth, to represent the ‘other’ (both within society or external to it), or to embody a cultural moment (often a moment of change). In killing the monster, the hero reaffirms group identity and order. And of course, as any horror fan will know, even if you kill the monster, it may still return.8
The Legend of the Lambton Worm can be seen to contain many of these attributes.
In folklore, fishing on a Sunday can be seen as shorthand for profane behaviour, young Sir John should be in church attending to his Christian duty. One interpretation of the legend, suggested by Tom Murray and discussed in his interview with James Tehrani, an anthropological folklorist, is that the worm as a metaphor for toxic masculinity. It is Sir John’s own out of control behaviour that has put the community in danger, and only Sir John can defeat it, by reforming himself through Christian duty (going on a crusade) then defeating the very phallic worm on his return.9
This idea of toxic masculinity has something of a pedigree, in 1823, William Hutchinson suggested that worm tales, such as the Lambton Worm, could represent a folk memory of the disastrous Viking raids on the Northeast coast that took place in the eighth and nineth centuries. It could perhaps commemorate a local hero who protected his community from them, or more broadly, show the community dealing with the threat itself, without outside assistance. 10
Water beings and the old religion
Another interesting interpretation of the Lambton Worm is that the worm is a metaphor for the relationship between man and water, and that this is part of a global tradition. Veronica Strang11 sees the popularity of dragons in the Medieval period as linked to the changing relationship with water and nature, new technologies and new social and political organisation both controlled water (e.g., through irrigation) also commodified it.
The Lambton worm is set in the Medieval period, at this time Church felt it was facing an existential threat on two fronts: externally in the form of the Islamic world, and internally from lingering nature worship amongst supposedly Christain communities (evident in the churches concerted effort to rededicate pagan holy wells to Christian saints).
Strang projects that the tale of the Lambton Worm could be read as the story of a local lord who fails in his Christian duty, allows pagan nature worship to flourish in his community, and, metaphorically, poison the well. Only when he has taken up his Christian duty and defeated another set of ‘pagans’ by joining the crusade against Islam, can he return home and re-assert Christianity in his local community. Here then, the worm represents the ‘other’ or pagan, which must be defeated in order to restore the established order. [strang] This potentially also links into the worm’s ability to come back to life, until the wise woman offers her advice to Lambton on how to vanquish it for good, if there was a fear that old nature religion would keep on resurfacing if left unchecked.12
A Local tales for local people
Another important factor in the Legend of the Lambton Worm is that it provides a heroic and ancient pedigree for a prominent local family, the Lambton’s, setting up one of their ancestors as the hero of the hour, protecting his community. It also incorporates tangible local landmarks – Worm Hill in Fatfield, Washington – further fixing the legend to the local imagination.
Jamie Beckett13 has identified the Legend of the Sockburn Worm as a potential inspiration for the Lambton Worm. The Sockburn Worm is attached to the ancient and once powerful Coyners’ family and is a much older tale but running along similar lines. Sir John Conyer’s defeats the dragon and saves the day with his trusty falchion sword. Visible reminders of Conyers bravery and chivalric pedigree remained for all to see in the ‘greystone’ marking the worm’s burial place and the Conyers’ Falchion, still extant today and held in the Treasury at Durham Cathedral (it forms part of the ceremony of enthroning new Bishop’s of Durham to this day).
Beckett sees the rise of the Legend of the Lambton Worm growing out of this tale, and coinciding with the declining fortunes of the Conyers family in the seventeenth century, and the rise of the ancient but not previously powerful Lambton’s from that period onwards. 14
The Lambton Worm and the Radical Politician
Folktales and legends morph and change over time. The Legend of the Lambton Worm is no different. One element of the tale that I certainly grew up believing, was that the Worm wound its tale around Penshaw’s Monument. I’d never heard of Worm Hill or Fatfield. So why is Penshaw’s Monument (or Penshaw’s Folly) come to be intrinsically linked to the Legend of the Lambton Worm?
The simple answer is that in 1867 C.M. Leumane wrote a very catchy tune about the Lambton Worm, forever linking it with Penshaw:
This feorful woorm wad often feed On calves an’ lambs an’ sheep, An’ swally little bairns alive When they laid doon to sleep. An’ when he’d eaten aal he cud An’ he had has he’s fill, Away he went an’ lapped his tail Ten times roond Pensher Hill. [Cj]
The Penshaw Monument, visible for miles around, is a Greek Temple on a hill in Penshaw Village Co Durham. It was built by public subscription in 1844/5 in honour of John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, who died a few years earlier in 1840.
John Lambton was born in 1792, he was Byronically handsome, rebellious, and had suffered many tragedies in his life (his first wife, Harriet, who he married for love, in 1812, died only three years later, they had three children who all pre-deceased him). While he was undoubtedly a tragic and romantic figure, what endeared him to the local population was his politics.
Known as Radical Jack, he was MP for Co Durham from 1812, pursuing radical Whig politics, he was in favour of a number of very progressive reforms such as secret ballots, fixed term parliaments, universal suffrage. Following the shocking Peterloo Massacre in 1819, where a large crowd of unarmed people, campaigning for parliamentary reform, were violently attacked by the cavalry, resulting in many deaths and injuries, Lambton controversially criticised the actions of the establishment in attacking and killing innocent people. He was later instrumental in the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill. All of this made him terrifying to the establishment and beloved of the working classes.
Such was his reputation, that by the 1820’s and 30’s at least three chapbooks existed that told the tale of the Lambton Worm, with the inferred compassion between the contemporary John Lambton defending the poor from political and social oppression, and his Romantic and heroic namesake ancestor, protecting the poor from a dangerous worm, in the distant chivalric past.15
Such was his popular appeal, that a lasting monument, funded by public subscription, was erected in his honour on Penshaw Hill. Tens of thousands of spectators watched as it’s foundation stone was laid in a Masonic Ceremony by the 2nd Earl of Zetland.16
I am drawn to Veronica Strang’s interpretation of the Worm as a metaphor for the church suppressing lingering elements of nature religion in its congregation, whilst fighting off ‘pagan’s abroad. This would seem a good fit if the legend was of Medieval or earlier origin. However, if the tale was created later, then Jamie Beckett’s view that these type of Legends were used by prominent families to establish their pedigree in the dim and distant past, then the legend of the Worm might be best interpreted as a public relations exercise by a family on the rise.
Perhaps more likely, is that it may contains elements both these theories, and others, with the most recent and most popular written iterations of the legend, from 1785 and onwards, being designed to give prominence to the powerful Lambtons, and to handsome, radical, John 1st Earl Lambton, in a fashionably Romantic and nostalgic way.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the worm is still slippery enough to both elude and fascinates us today, like all good folktales, it is alive and well and no doubt, continuing to evolve through the ages with each retelling.
There is undoubtably a lot more that could be said about the Legend of the Lambton Worm, its origin (ancient or otherwise), and its deeper meanings. For anyone interested in finding out more about the Lambton Worm (and other worms, dragons, and water spirits), I have provided a list of excellent sources below.
You can hear The Lambton Worm (C.M. Leumane, 1867) arranged and performed by Geordie Wilson on YouTube, via the link below.
The Lambton Worm composed in 1867 by C. M. Leumane
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Robert Surtees et al, The history and antiquities of the county palatine of Durham 1816-40
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood, The Lore of the Land
Icy Sedgwick, The Lambton Worm and Penshaw Monument
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Monster Culture
Tom Murray, Tracing the Cultural History of the Monstrous Lambton Worm
Veronica Strang, Reflecting nature: water beings in history
Jamie Beckett, The History of the Lambton Worm and Sockburn Worm
Wishing all of the readers of the Haunted Palace Blog a happy holidays, however you celebrate them. If you’re taking it easy this Boxing Day, following a day of over-indulging in festive cheer, why not relax to a spooky tale for Christmas. I’ve been collaborating with Paul from the excellent Voices from the North East podcast again. This time I’m talking about the Legend of the Alnwick Vampire, vampire lore and medieval revenants. And for anyone who listened in to The Wallsend Witches, you’ll be glad to hear I’ve invested in a better mic for this episode!!
This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.
Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.
Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.
Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death  or the gateway to heaven . This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.
Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.
Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.
Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).
Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument .
Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.
Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.
Coats of arms
Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.
The kingdom of heaven.
Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.
As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.
See world, below.
Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed . The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity .
Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.
Memento Mori Scenes
Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!
Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.
Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.
Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.
The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.
Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.
Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.
Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)
The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry .
Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.
Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.
Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven . They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments and often denoted the death of an older person  (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).
Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.
Women in mourning (weepers)
The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).
The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).
This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.
A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.
Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.
Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.