The Shrieking Pits of Norfolk

Aylmerton and Northrepps are, by day, perfectly pleasant Norfolk villages a short drive away from the seaside resort of Cromer. Framed by poppy fields and arable farming, these chocolate-box villages conceal an ancient evil, deep within their land.

Known locally as ‘shrieking pits’, these hell dimensions take the form of shallow pits, dug for the purposes of medieval Iron-ore mining and smelting. While these pits are present in a variety of local Norfolk landscapes, it is those at Aylmerton and Northrepps that are known by the moniker of ‘shrieking pit.’

 

It is said that the spectral figure of a woman haunts the five pits at Aylmerton, wailing in search of her lost child. The common story is that the woman’s baby was murdered by her jealous husband, who believed the child not to be his. After killing and burying the child in a pit, he returned to dispatch with his wife. Subsequently, the grieving woman haunts the pit for eternity, searching for her long-dead child. She is said to be tall, clothed in white and wanders and peers into the pits, wringing her hands and shrieking or moaning. It is said that she has been seen at all hours of the day, and is not confined to the typical spectral hours of dusk and night.

The same woman, who is also often described as appearing in a ‘winding sheet’ (a shroud), has been seen roaming around the nearby area of Weybourne. However, the story alters somewhat here; many believe the Weybourne pits to have been created by Cromwell during the destruction of Weybourne Priory.

shrieking-pits-iron-workings

At Northrepps, by the ominously-titled Hungry Hill, the shrieking pits bear the legend of another grief stricken woman.

The Eastern Daily Press reports this legend;

‘It is said that at midnight on February 24, the spirit of a village girl named Esmeralda appears between the veil of the living and the dead. At the age of 17, Esmeralda had fallen in love with a wealthy but untrustworthy young farmer who conducted a secret relationship with her behind his wife’s back.

The local vicar discovered the affair and ordered them to draw it to a close – the farmer skulked back to his wife and, without word from her sweetheart, Esmeralda’s heart broke and she drifted into misery and depression, unable to forget her love.’[1]

While taking a walk one frosty night, the desperate girl threw herself into a pit. An act which she immediately regretted. It is said she called for help for some time, before succumbing to her death. It is said her cries for help can still be heard on February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Aylmerton_Shrieking_Pits

Northrepps not only has the legend of the suicidal teenager, but several other stories of people disappearing into the pits. Aside from a horse and cart, another legend states that the pits are in fact called ‘grave holes’ and that the shrieking came from the souls of long-dead Viking heroes buried beneath the soil.

Previously, the pits have been cited as graves or prehistoric dwellings. An alternative, and more likely, reality is that the pits are the result of medieval iron ore digging and smelting pits from the 9thand 11thcenturies.

 

Nonetheless, the legends prevail, and Norfolk’s shrieking pits continue their wailing. But ghosts or none, you’d do well to mind your step.

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=45616

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolka.htm

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-shrieking-pits-of-aylmerton-and-northrepps-1-5055140

[1]https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-shrieking-pits-of-aylmerton-and-northrepps-1-5055140

Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

Coffin-bell

In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

premature-burial-title-page
Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

safety-coffin-29

Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_coffin

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

Francis Bacon’s Ghost Chicken

With Christmas behind us, New Year on our minds and the lingering scent of roast poultry clinging to the curtains, I have been racking my mind for a seasonal topic.

While spirit snowmen are a thing of horror fiction, it would seem that ghostly chickens have their claws firmly lodged in the niche echelons of British folklore.

Before I am reminded by a helpful reader that ghost turkeys would arguably be more festive, in the true spirit of a family Christmas dinner, I say to you; ‘you get what you’re given’.

Sir Francis Bacon
Sir Francis Bacon

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was an English statesman, philosopher and an early purveyor of scientific methods and reasoned scientific thought. According to John Aubrey’s vivid account, Bacon died as a result of failed experiments In preserving meats.

On a particularly cold night in January, Bacon was travelling to Highgate with the King’s Physician, when he was suddenly struck with the thought of using snow to prevent meat perishing.

Bacon and the Dr Winterbourne were so keen to test his theory that they alighted the carriage, and rushed to a ‘poor woman’s cottage at the bottom of Highgate Hill’, where they purchased a chicken. After delightfully commanding the woman to slaughter, pluck and remove the bird’s innards, Bacon went about filling the carcass with snow.

Shortly after his poultry-stuffing efforts, Bacon caught such a severe chill that he was unable to return home and was laid up in nearby Arundel House. Bacon’s sudden ill health was worsened by his hosts lodgings, Aubrey describing his bed as ‘damp’ and unused for some time; resulting in his death from pneumonia in ‘2 or 3 days’.

Aubrey’s accuracy in his accounts has been criticised for many years, by his contemporaries and modern academics alike. However, this is all immaterial; Bacon is a minor character in this feathery tale.

Since Bacon’s untimely death, there have been multiple accounts of a spectral white bird, resembling a plucked chicken, scuttling around Pond Square, Highgate. The chicken appears to run in wild circles before disappearing into the ether.

In 1943, an account given by Aircraftman Terence Long states how, after crossing Pond Square late at night, he was startled to hear the thundering clatter of a horse and carriage. Following this terror, he found the ensuing silence pierced by the shriek of a bird, after which a chicken appeared, racing in circles, before disappearing.  Similarly, another wartime sighting was recorded by a Mrs J Greenhill who reported seeing the chicken on several occasions, describing it as a ‘large whitish bird’.

In the 1960s, a stranded motorist encountered the same plucked vision, as a chicken appeared, winding in circles, before dissipating into the night air. However, in the 1970s, the bird took the form of the ultimate passion-killer by manifesting directly next to an amorous couple who were intertwined on a park bench.

Rather disappointingly, I have failed to find any especially recent accounts of this spectral fowl, but I live in hope. Perhaps the chicken is finally at peace with its fate. Perhaps the human imagination is a wonderful, if bizarre thing.

In the meantime, here’s a festive thanks to you, ghost chicken, for your part in scientific progress and for the future joy the British people experience, knowing our freezers can be filled to the brim with breaded fleshy offcuts every festive season.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bacon#Biography

 

http://www.haunted-london.com/pond-square-ghost.html

 

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/the-strange-case-of-sir-francis-bacon-and-the-frozen-chicken/

 

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.

Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.

But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.

image
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

 

The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.

The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.

 

There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.

However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.

The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;

 

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. 

…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.

…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.

 

Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.

 

There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.

raynham-hall-main
Raynham Hall

The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.

After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.

Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.

Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.

brownlady_001
Country Life Magazine, 1936

Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.

 

Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.

 

Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.

 

Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.

And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.

 

 

Sources:

 

http://hoaxes.org/raynham.html

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown_Lady_of_Raynham_Hall

 

http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/dorothywalpole.htm

 

https://fern-flower.org/en/articles/ghost-rayham-hall

 

A Short History of British Screaming Skulls

 

While sounding like a high-school punk band, screaming skulls are a not-uncommon element woven through the rich British tapestry of haunted body parts.

Screaming, or more specifically, haunted skulls make their home in several towns throughout England.

These skulls need not necessarily be attached to a body, but rather exist independently from their corporeal form. Rather than aimless haunting, or haunting in more attractive surroundings, it is said that these skulls are emotionally linked to the houses in which they wish to continue to live.

 

Screaming Skulls are most commonly attributed to those who suffered religious persecution during the Henry VIII’s 16thCentury Reformation, or under Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil war in the 17thCentury. Immediately prior to their death/undoubtedly violent murder, all owners of future haunted skulls professed that they wished to be buried within the walls of the house in which they lay. When these wishes were ignored and the persecuted individual was laid to rest in a grave, vault or in undesired grounds, the spirit fought back.

Inhabitants of these houses reported strange noises; bangs, crashes and moans and various ‘unexplained happenings’. Once the houses’ occupants made the connection between the noises and the deceased, they frequently disinterred the skull, returning it to the homestead. While the skull rests in the home, undisturbed (on its shelf, stoop or within its case) all is well, yet once one attempts to remove said skull, supernatural chaos ensues.

 

Should one try to dispose of such a ‘screaming skull’ by any means – via physical destruction, throwing into a river, or even by burial – the skull will always return to its house intact. More often than not, the skull delights in its revenge by not only terrifying the perpetrator, but cursing them with bad luck, a poor harvest or illness.

 

While the UK has several such skulls, below are three of our greatest hitters.

Because if you can’t have a top of the pops style countdown on severed heads, what can you truly enjoy in life?

 

The Bettiscombe Skull

Bettiscombe SkullThe Bettiscombe skull is attributed to an unnamed slave from the West Indies whose unfortunate path led him to Lyme Regis, Dorset. The slave was originally thought to have been brought to Dorset to serve Azariah Pinney, a plantation owner and dealer in the Slave Trade.

As with most apocryphal stories of slaves at this time, it is unclear whether the unnamed slave was a victim of, or perpetrator of, a murder. Nonetheless, the deceased’s wishes were to be buried back in his homeland. These were ignored and this supposed ‘faithful black servant’ was interred at Bettiscombe churchyard, in response to which, his haunting began. Supposedly screams were heard from the churchyard, and bizarre noises emanated from the farmhouse. The disturbances only ceased when the body was disinterred.

In 1872, it was published in Dorset “Notes and Queries” that:

 

The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.”

 

Many attempts were made to re-bury the body, but with little success. Such attempts were so frequent and ill-managed, that after time, only the skull remained. The skull eventually found its resting place back at the farmhouse, in the nook of a staircase.

Or so the legend goes…

In more recent years, the skull was examined by Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons. He deemed the skull as not only female, but pre-historic in origin, most probably a sacrificial victim from an earlier settlement. Yet the legend had laid roots and is well known, and well-minded to this day.

The skull’s – and the Pinney family’s – journey is well documented throughout the years and is well-researched by the Dorset County Museum, whose links I have provided at the bottom of this article.

 

The Tunstead Farm Skull

Tunstead Farm, known locally as ‘Skull Farm’, sits in a quiet hamlet in Derbyshire that dates back to the 13thCentury.dicky2

According to local legend, there are many options as to the owner and ‘haunter’ of the head:

Firstly, a (as ever) unnamed young woman was murdered in the same room as the skull is kept. Secondly, a man named ‘Ned Dixon’, a spurned ancestor of the farm’s owners or thirdly, and most dramatically, a murdered sister.

The most gripping of these potential haunting sources originates with two sisters, both enamoured with the same man. In jealousy, one murdered the other. On her deathbed, the murdered sister proclaimed that her bones would never rest.

As referenced in the blog ‘Ludchurch’ (linked below), the 1895 work ‘Household Tales and other Traditional Remains’ went on to say that:

 

‘Her bones are kept in a cheese vat in the farmhouse which stands in a staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die or are seized with illness.’

 

The skull, nicknamed “Dickie” was also said to be a supernatural guardian of the farmhouse and forces knocking noises to herald the approach of strangers. Supposedly, Dickie’s rappings have also heralded deaths in the family and further issues with livestock.

 

As with most other haunted skulls, all is well unless Dickie is removed, in which case auditory chaos reigns. Superstitions concerning Dickie’s power over the farmland, that in 1870, following issues with a railway company and unsuccessful (on account of Dickie’s intervention) building work, a Lancashire poet wrote:

 

Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’ thee,lad,

An ‘let navvies an’ railways a ‘be;

Mon tha shouldn’t do soa, its to bad,

What harm are they doin’ to thee?

Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’

But leov o’ these matters to th’wick;

They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know-

Dos’t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?

 

After several instances of theft and frenzied return, Dickie remains at the homestead where she occupies her usual spot by the kitchen window.

 

The Wardley Skull

The Wardley Skull has two potential roots – one fanciful, one probable.

Wardley SkullThe less-likely legend surrounds the skull- that it is the cranium of Roger Downes, a shamed member of the family owning Wardley hall who, after escaping a murder trial, drunkenly attacked a watchman who swiftly beheaded Downes with a swipe of his rapier.

(This would be improbable, nigh impossible – hence the unlikely legend.)

The Wardley Skull follows the tradition of persecuted clergy, reportedly belonging to a Catholic priest, Father Ambrose Barlow who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1641. His severed head was subsequently put on display at Lancaster Castle, later being stolen by a Catholic sympathiser and secreted within the walls of Wardley Hall.

The skull lay undiscovered until the 18thCentury where the legends surrounding its power begun to take hold.

It is said that, believing it to be an animal skull, a servant of Matthew Moreton (the then owner

 

of Wardley) hurled the skull into the Hall’s moat. That night, a particularly strong storm broke out. Both the skull and the Hall’s owner were displeased with this turn of events, with the owner demanding the draining of the moat and the safe return of the skull.

Although not open to the public, the Wardley skull remains protected in a niche beside the main staircase, preserved behind glass.

 

While Morris Dancing, Cheese-Rolling and the burning of treacherous effigies atop bonfires have maintained their twee popularity over the years, I put my vote in for the return of a greater British tradition. A good, haunted skull. If anyone needs me, I’ll be disinterring some clergy…

 

Sources/Further Reading:

https://dorsetcountymuseum.wordpress.com/tag/pinney-family/

https://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/places-of-interest-in-cheshire/the-cursed-skull-of-tunstead-farm/

https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/skulls.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=28

http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/screaming-skull.html

http://www.landcas.org.uk/wardleyhall.html

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/screaming-skulls-folklore-fact-and-fiction/

Haunted England – Christina Hole (1940)

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1992)

 

 

Invoking the Owlman

 

The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.

On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.

Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.

The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.

Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects.  He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’

But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.

Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found.  Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’

Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.

The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’

While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.

Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.

To my knowledge, at least.

 

 

Further Reading:

Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014

Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005

The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.

http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/monstrous-tales.html

http://www.paranormal-encounters.com

Satan Speaks: The Devil’s Handwriting

In 1896 John Ashton published his work ‘The Devil in Britain and America’. Within it, he reproduced a curious image from 1532 (some claim 1539), accompanied with the explanation ‘Facsimile of the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.’.

devils-handwriting-scan-2

In Ashton’s introduction, his main gripe with previous works concerning Satanism and witchcraft was that such works were not only repetitive, but that none were illustrated. Thanks to Ashton’s pictoral obsession, this devilish calligraphy was re-introduced to the western world.

Ashton himself was not the originator of the image, merely the reproducer. The writing itself first appeared in Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi’s snappily titled ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas’, which, for non-Latin buffs, roughly translates as ‘Introduction to the language of the Chaldean, Syrian, and Armenian, and the ten other languages.’

Understandably, this is far from being some Encyclopedia Satanica; rather an early (western) study into Syriac and Armenian languages, with a hefty glossary of alphabets and brief studies into the roots of European languages. If you’re so inclined, there are many full, free copies available online. Just remember to brush up on your Latin fluency beforehand.

 

Albonesi’s satanic calligraphy is said to have come about by the conjuring abilities of Ludovico Spoletano, an Italian man of which little else is known. It would seem that Albonesi himself may have encountered the story via his correspondence with the French linguist, Guillaume Postel, with whom he discussed many supposed ‘magical’ alphabets.

It is said that Spoletano summoned Satan himself and asked him a series of questions. The Devil, famous for his consideration and compliance, answered by writing his responses on a piece of paper in his own hand. However, Satan is said to have delivered his answers by levitating the man’s pen and quickly scribbling his answers.

 

The Devil’s answers have never been deciphered as they follow no known, coherent languages. Most notably, the script contains a series of pitchfork characters, some upright, some upturned – which, understandably, has created very powerful images in the thoughts of the devout and occult-minded alike. Contemporary linguists and cipher-enthusiasts have continued to study the ‘devils handwriting’. The writer behind ‘ciphermysteries.com’, interpreted the script as possessing bat-like symbols, in keeping with the devilish theme of pitchforks, and is potentially based on a Latin or Italian root. However, even they conclude that the text makes little sense and may well be ‘nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel’!

 

Ashton himself comments that, although the responses have never been deciphered, he was ‘told by experts’ that ‘some of the characters may be found…(in)…Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara’ (Amhara being an ethnic division within Ethiopia). As interesting as such an Ethiopian root may be, it is his final comment that undoubtedly grips the imagination. Amharic, he adds, ‘according to a legend, was the primeval language spoken in Eden.’

 

While there are many reported instances of man directly communicating with Satan, there are few that have retained considerable interest over the centuries. It would seem that the fact that this (supposed) interaction produced, tangible, physical ephemera has led to the myth’s longevity.

For what may well be a cipher of pure gibberish, the devilish curiosity of Satan’s handwriting has garnered interest for over 500 years. While it may never be deciphered, its hellish place has been truly reserved in paranormal and occult history.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://archive.org/details/devilinbritaina01ashtgoog

https://archive.org/details/IntroductioInChaldaicamLinguSyriacA

http://ciphermysteries.com/2013/03/30/the-devils-handwriting

 

Image courtesy of cipherfoundation.org

Born With a Veil: The Curious Talisman of the Caul

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Like most twenty-somethings, I am in possession of a 100 year old amniotic sac. Thanks to this slice of dried-out tissue, I’ve never feared drowning.

 

As much as I’d adore to leave this post as simply the tag-line alone, I feel some context is needed. 

My preserved piece of amniotic sac is what is commonly referred to as a ‘caul’ and is only marginally weird. Stick with me.

 

A caul is a piece of the amniotic sack that is attached to the baby’s person after birth. Many accounts make particular reference to its presence on a baby’s face; hence, why a caul birth can also be referred to as being ‘born with a veil’. The caul may adhere itself during birth or gestation, but the effect is the same and most ae easily removed by simply peeling it from the baby’s face/person after birth.

Nowadays, a caul birth is incredibly rare, with estimates sitting around the 1 in 80,000 range. Some very patient midwives who endured my questioning all agreed that en caul births are ‘almost always premature births’.

 

A more specialised birth with a similar root name is that of an en caul birth. Despite incredibly rare and requiring specialist intervention, images of such babies are frequently shared across medical social media accounts. An en caul birth is when the child is delivered within a fully intact amniotic sac. Understandably, these images are very striking and are frequently misinterpreted by non-specialised media outlets. It should be noted that as dramatic as these photos are, medical professionals usually rupture the membrane artificially, immediately prior to delivery if it were intact. This means that the baby’s airway would not be obstructed, avoiding further risk of trauma. Understandably, this was not a possibility in years gone by, hence why caul births were infrequent but not completely uncommon.

 

Due to the rarity of caul births, many cultures latched onto the image of the veiled baby and began to view cauls as possessing extra significance or other-worldly powers. Subsequently, cauls were frequently preserved – predominantly by drying and attaching said membrane to a piece of paper, or similar flat surface. Through preserving them, they could be kept upon one’s person for a variety of positive or healing properties.

 

There are varying worldwide examples of superstitions attached to a birth caul, for example;

Roman midwives were known to have taken cauls and sold them at high prices to lawyers as a talisman to aid them in legal victory. In Croatia (supposedly Dalmatia, in particular) cauls were sometimes placed under the pillow of a dying person with the belief that such an act would soothe their passing. In Belgium, it was believed that if the caul was buried in a field, the child would have a long and lucky life, they were also used in potion making in a variety of cultures, mostly for curing diseases such as malaria.

 

Not all preserved birth cauls are presented like my own – my flimsy object d’art is adhered to a piece of paper, which seems to have been the norm for most preserved cauls (from what I’ve seen within the UK). To preserve one in such a manner is incredibly easy, with the midwife requiring to do little other than press a piece of paper across the baby’s face; the caul would then adhere to it and your fibrous keepsake would be removed intact.

 

However, there are some excellent examples of creative caul presentation. The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has in its collection a glass rolling pin from 1855 which once contained a child’s caul. Despite its decidedly domestic purpose, it too was used by a sailor and is decorated with scenes of ships under full sail. A more delicate method of preservation can be found in London’s Victoria and Albert museum. Within its current, displayed collection is a small gold locket with engraving from 1597. Within the heart-shaped locket lies part of the caul of John Monson, who most probably received the trinket as a baptismal gift. This is not to say that Elizabethan baptism gifts were exclusively restricted to bits of desiccated tissue (as delightful as that image may be), as spoons, cups and things made from precious metals were most common.

 

In the UK, as with many other European countries, the caul is most associated with sailors. It has been a long-standing maritime superstition that to be in possession of a baby’s caul is to protect oneself from drowning. Understandably, due to the scarcity of such objects, sailors for centuries have been paying extortionate amounts for cauls, carrying them as added protection on voyages. A sailor, as recorded in Henderson’s ‘Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties’, paid fifteen pounds in the 19th century for a caul which he then kept as a talisman for thirty years.

 

In literature, Dicken’s David Copperfield features a scene where David’s own caul is auctioned – with the character noting that he ‘felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at part of myself being disposed of in that way’ with the caul being purchased by an old woman who ‘never drowned, but dies, triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two’.

 

Despite our modern ambivalence to the whereabouts of a partial amniotic sac, there remains a small group of people who interpret their own caul births as a sign of their special-ness.  This (predominantly online) community collectively refer to themselves as ‘Caulbearers’. This community often see themselves as overly empathetic with the ‘sensation of precognition’ and potentially in possession of an array of (predominantly wet) supernatural abilities; such as the ability to find underground water supplies, predict weather changes, anticipate bountiful catches/harvests etc. Additionally, Caulbearer.org makes the claim that ‘The purpose of the caulbearer is to serve mankind, and to guide men and women to understand themselves and the world and universe within which we live.’

 

Cauls understandably became less prized as the mechanics of birth become less mysterious, however their curious nature still prompts occasional interest. Primarily through nifty lists of famous faces that were once covered by a membrane –

So, I’ll leave you with the fun fact that Napoleon, Liberace, Lord Byron and Sigmund Freud were all ‘caulbearers’, and none of them died by drowning. Coincidence?
(Yes).

 

 

Further reading:

 

www.caulbearer.org

 

http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-sailors-charm.html

 

https://www.babymed.com/labor-delivery/en-caul-baby-birth

 

https://www.popsugar.com/moms/Photos-Babies-Born-En-Caul-41499029

 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O11007/locket-unknown/