Category Archives: Ghost story

The Lamplighter – A Ghost Story for Christmas

I like Jesty Court, and wouldn’t want to know anybody that didn’t, I will tell you why later. It is a small square, tucked away in a corner of London that is hard to find. It’s not that maps avoid it, it’s just that the street pattern around it is surprisingly confusing.

It is lined with elegant houses, built at the beginning of the century before last, has a neat garden in the middle, and the surrounding road is lit with old gas lamps, very old gas lamps. As you walk round the square you will see that most of the houses have blue plaques on them, telling of the great and the good who once lived there. Though in Jesty Court it is seems that it was just the great who lived there were all very good, notable doctors, philanthropists, reformers – on one corner there was a name I half recognised, when I looked him up I realised where I had seen the name, and what had happened in that house.

Nearly two hundred years ago a group of serious and good men met here, to change the government, to change the country, in time to change the world. Not by violent revolution, but by argument, peacefully, and they succeeded. They reformed how parliament was elected, then in the new reforming parliament they did wonders, they abolished slavery, they began to reform working conditions, end child labour, end cruelty to animals, and even create parks and gardens in towns and cities.

It was one dark night, in the reign of good King William, that the leader of these men, who is best known for the tea created for him (and he was prouder of that than anything else he had done) stumbled as he made his way to his carriage.

“You need proper lights here, a lit street is a safe street. I will help if you wish.”

They did wish, the men who had helped people throughout the world, now helped themselves, as well as anybody else who entered Jesty Court. The pavements were dug up, pipes were laid, and gas lights spread their glow over the square.

A Lamplighter was appointed, Thomas Crowther was his name in the records of the Gas and Light Company, but everybody called him Old Tom and everybody liked him. As he lit the lights in the evening his ‘Evening Sir’ or “Evening Ma’am,” greeted men returning from their labours, or couples leaving for the theatre or dinner with friends. Children loved to watch the lamps being lit, the gentle pop as he applied the flame, then watch with wonder the light’s growing brilliance. To his friends, and he considered everybody in Jesty Court his friends, he would repeat the saying, ‘A lit street is a safe street,’ and so it was, until tragedy struck.

It was a frosty morning, just before Christmas, a maid, opening the shutters was the first to see. Lying in a pool of light, under one of his lamps, Old Tom lay. It wasn’t certain if he had fallen from his ladder, or there was another, darker, reason for his death, but the whole square was in mourning. The residents paid for his funeral and, in a tiny, dark, churchyard they paid for his gravestone. ‘A lit street is a safe street’, was his epitaph.

.

I had listed the story amongst the many tales I knew of Old London, and would have thought no more about it, until I was in an old library, I won’t say where, when in a serendipitous moment I mentioned Jesty Court to the librarian.

“Oh yes, I saw the name somewhere recently.” He pulled out two or three box files, then one labelled ‘Dicken’s Forgeries.’

“We have a number of them, all are very bad, some even pornographic. But this one is different, it purports to be a draft of a short story or magazine article, but ..” He paused, and handed me the envelope, “Read it and see what you think.”

It was a large brown envelope, with a library reference number neatly written in the top right-hand corner. Then, under it, was a pencilled scrawl, ‘Jesty Court?’ and below that something that made me gasp. ‘A lit street is a safe street.’

I knew that Charles Dickens was fascinated by London and its people, he explored it, walked the streets at night, sometimes with his friends in the police, sometimes alone. The tales he heard he wove into his wonderful novels, but of Jesty Court, he had said nothing.

On foolscap paper someone, early last century I guessed, had typed out this story.

‘Mr Field [Inspector Charles Field] had suggested that I visited Jesters Square at night. “No need to be alarmed there, we rarely bother to go there, safest palace in London.” When I asked why I should go there, he replied, “Speak to the old lamplighter if he is there, he has a tale or two that will amuse you.”

I knew Mr Field too well to doubt him, so a few nights later I made my way to the Square. It is a very pleasant spot, the leaves had begun to fall from the trees and my feet rustled in them as I walked across the garden, at first there was no sign of anybody there, but when I had reached the far side, I turned and saw a figure under the light where I had first entered the Square. I retraced my steps, but when I was halfway across a noise distracted me for a second, when I turned back the figure had vanished. I walked to where he had been standing, but there was no sign of anybody, looking around I saw the figure again, where I had been standing when I first saw him.

I began to walk towards him again, then, just as before, he vanished. I muttered under my breath, imprecations against Inspector Field for sending me on this wild goose chase.

“Know Mr Field do you, come and sit down then.” The voice was a strange hoarse whisper, it sounded as if the speaker was right beside me, whispering in my ear. Startled I looked around and saw a man some ten yards away, seated on a bench below one of the gas lamps. I couldn’t see his face as he was wearing a broad brimmed hat which shaded it. He had a long brown coat on and a ladder was propped up on the lamp behind him.

Good evening” I began, but he interrupted me.

“Good evening to you Mr Writer.” I was surprised but he continued, “Yes I know who you are, and as Mr Field will vouch for you, I will tell you a tale or two. Told you this was the safest street in London I reckon.” I nodded, “Tis now, but didn’t use to be.”

[He then repeated the tale of how the gas lamps had come to the Square and the death of Old Tom]

“Dreadful.” I muttered, “A terrible accident I suppose.”

“Doubt that.” He continued, “A couple of months later a pair of rogues entered the Square, well known to the Runners they were, had tools with them. Later their friends said that they had cased a house in the Square months back but had been prevented from burglering it.”

“Did they rob it?”

“Oh no,” The old man whispered, “They found them the next morning, fallen down the area steps into the cellar of one of the houses, both dead.”

“Did they break their necks?”

“Yes, but not in the way you would think, the bags that they had their tools in, somehow they caught on the railings and round their necks. Found them hanging there, as neat as if they had been turned off at Newgate. Justice it was.”

“You think they had killed Old Tom.”

“Yes, I do. And more than that, since then the wicked have been wise to keep out of the Square, it’s the lights. ‘A lit street is a safe street’.”

“You must be proud of your calling then, keeping the lamps lit.”

“Oh someone else lights the lamps now, I just keep an eye on them, and on the Square and everybody who comes here.”

“But” I turned to look at the lamp, but the ladder had vanished, turning back the old man wasn’t there either. Shaken I rose and begun to hurry out of the Square. Suddenly the whisper was in my ear again.

“No need to hurry, safest place in London this is, and it is my task to keep it that way. But Mr Writer I would be grateful if you don’t go putting me in any of your stories.” As he spoke I wondered how he would know. He seemed to guess what I was thinking and said.

“I belong to this Square, and I like the light, I seem to get me strength from these lamps. But I know the dark as well, and the Dark of London is old, very old, Dark speaks to Dark as the saying is. If you were to tell anybody, at least in a way they might believe, I will know soon enough.”

I was silent, as I left the Square I turned back, Old Tom stood under a gas lamp. I touched my hat in acknowledgement, he replied in a similar fashion.’

I carefully returned the papers to the envelope, then behaved very improperly and rubbed out the pencil inscription before returning the envelope to the box file. Thanked the librarian and said that I didn’t think the story had anything to do with Jesty Court, and left.

.

I had, of course, visited Jesty Court several times after dark and, although it was certainly a surprisingly peaceful place, seen no sign of Old Tom. I don’t know if I really expected to. I did, however, write about Jesty Court, and the story connected with the installation of the lamps, and one day got a letter from a resident of the Court thanking me. Apparently my article and the link to the great reformers had been added as ‘additional material’ to the bid to get the lamps listed as being of historic importance.

I met up with her and learnt of the attempt of the council to ‘update’ the old gas lights.

“They said new lights would be safer, but that is nonsense of course, the young woman who was attacked, she said the lights almost followed the man as he ran away. She could seem him very clearly.”

This was surprising as everybody had told me how safe Jesty Court was.

“Oh it is, of course, and nobody got hurt, apart from him. It seems the woman was crossing the garden as she knew how safe the garden was supposed to be, when the man went to grab her.” My friend smiled, “Fortunately he had picked the wrong one to attack. She fought back breaking his nose and kicking him where it really hurt. He ran, and this is odd as she said he seemed to be running from someone and it wasn’t her. She stood, shocked, as he ran across the garden and down Grey’s Place. Then she heard the noise of the accident.”

“Accident?”

“Yes, he ran straight out into traffic and was hit.”

“Was he killed?”

“No, both legs and his pelvis were broken. He had attacked other women before, and will spend his prison sentence in a wheelchair, he may never walk properly again.”

I wondered at this story, of course, and tried to get more details, but there was little more to find out. Then, just before Christmas I was talking to a television producer I know, he had made several ‘real life’ documentaries, filming emergency services at work. He had produced one based around a police station close to Jesty Court. He too had heard of the attack, and added,

“The stories are true, by the way, the Court is incredibly safe. Very little crime ever reported there, probably due to the fighting gas lamps.”

I looked bemused, he laughed and replied.

“It’s an odd story, we couldn’t include it for several reasons. One evening a police car stopped at the end of Grey’s Place as a number of teenagers ran out, they were terrified and most had cuts and bruises about their heads. They couldn’t say anything sensible so they were bundled down to the station where they said they had been attacked by the gas lamps. Apparently they had started throwing stones at the old lamps, when the lamps started throwing stones back!

The police thought this was funny as well, and naturally suspected they had taken some drug or another. But as no crime had really been committed, they called their parents to come and collect them reckoning, probably correctly, that they would get worse grief from their parents, that they would from any court.”
He paused, “However one parent’s reaction was odd. He was angry, but not because of the suspected drugs. ‘You know about that place,’ He said to his son, ‘You must never go there, it’s not for the likes of us.’ I wondered at this, but couldn’t ask him about it, as father and son ran quickly out of the station.”


These stories, and the cases I found in the council archives, of people complaining they slipped and fell, often spraining or breaking ankles, in the square, made me think. And when I read how, when these cases were investigated, the pavement was clean and level and that none of the people who complained lived there, made me want to return to Jesty Court.

It was cold when I entered the Court no one seemed to be about as I walked into the garden then, on the far side, I saw a figure in long coat and broad brimmed hat, standing in the light of one of the lamps. I shivered, and it wasn’t from the cold. I slowly walked towards him, suddenly something distracted me for a moment, and he vanished. Turning, I wasn’t surprised to see the same figure under the light where I had entered the garden. I decided not to approach but said softly,

“Old Tom, will you speak to me?’

“Better take a seat then,” came a hoarse whisper in my ear. Turning I saw a figure on the bench under one of the old lamps. He was just as had been described, in a broad brimmed hat which shaded his face and a long brown coat.

“Cold night.” I began.

“As it was when it began.”

“A long time ago?”

“A very long time, as you have guessed.” He paused and added, “I think I must thank you, for two reasons.” I must have looked puzzled as he continued. “For helping the good folk here keeping the old lamps burning, and for not mentioning me in your writings.”

“How did you know?” I began, then remembered and added, “Dark speaks to Dark.”

He nodded, “I would prefer it if I wasn’t well known, those that need to know, know.” I didn’t say anything and he continued. “Those stupid kids, I gave them a fright, but one of their father’s was even more frightened.”

“The one who said that the Court ‘wasn’t for the likes of them’?”

“Yes, they are members of an old London family, a very old family. Long time ago many of then rode in Jack Ketch’s cart to Tyburn Tree, or took the long voyage to Botany Bay. They know they are not welcome here.”

“So you protect the Court.”

“I try to, when new people come here I take a look at them some, the good hearted, are welcome, most are neither one thing or another and I just hurry them along, they can come here to work or visit, but never stay. Some are black hearted, they leave very swiftly.”

“With sprained limbs or broken bones.”

He nodded, then looked at me, his hidden eyes seemed to bore into me. I felt he knew all about me, all and any secrets I had were laid out before his long dead gaze.

“Well done Mr Writer, you are welcome here, when you decide to live here it will be a pleasure to look over you and yours.”

“But ..” I paused and changed the subject, “Do you do that to everybody who comes here?”

“Yes, not perhaps like that, but then you know who I am.”

“But what about when the woman was attacked.”

“I must have been getting old, I was a little slow that evening, but I would have got him before he hurt her. Didn’t need to though.” I could hear the pleasure in his voice, “It was lovely to see her move. After what she did to him I didn’t like to punish him too much.”

“But he might not walk again!” I gasped.

“He’s still alive, isn’t he? After what he was planning to do to her, I was very kind to him.”

I was silent, then I suddenly realised Old Tom had vanished.

As I left the Court I turned back, there he was under one of the lights, he touched his hat and I seemed to hear his voice again.

“A lit street is a safe street”

This tale was suggested by my son, the artist, who wrote;

“I was having a thought about a ghost story, figured you might be able to flesh it out. So my idea was of the ghost of a lamplighter, who was now trapped and only visible in the light of streetlamps.”

So here is the tale, with his illustration.

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The Coachman’s Promise – A Ghost Story for Christmas

Part 1 Nancy’s Promise

The weather had changed and it was wet and cold as the coach made its way across the moors towards Leeds.

“No passengers today.”

“Who would want to be out today?” Said Tom miserably.

“Perhaps there will be somebody wanting to stop the coach.”

“In this weather, not even a highwayman would be out.”

The guard nodded and they continued their wet way across the moor. Suddenly the mist in front cleared for a moment and they saw a figure standing by the road. As they slowed the guard said, “She looks too poor to be a passenger.”

“If she wants a ride we will take her up. No one should be outside in weather like this.”

“You’re too good.” The guard grunted.

Then there was cry from the coachman. “Nancy!” He threw the reins to the guard and slid to the ground. As he approached the woman she recognised him and covered her face.

“Nancy, what has happened to you?” The young woman just sobbed. Tom almost had to lift her into the coach, which is when he saw she was carrying a baby.

He wrapped a blanket around her, then climbed back onto the box and drove on.

“That was Nancy?” the guard said in amazement.

“Yes, she looks very bad, and she has a child.”

“But why did you help her?”

“She is ill, no Christian could leave someone out in this weather, not if they could help them.”

“But you were going to marry her, then she ran off with another man two weeks before your wedding. Don’t you care?”

“Of course I care, I care for Nancy. I wanted her to be happy, but now she needs my help and I will do what I can.”

“You’re a better man than I am Tom Blakeborough.” Added the guard, as they swung into the inn.

There were passengers waiting for them, so they couldn’t stop long. Tom carried Nancy inside and told the landlady to care for her.

“I will be back tomorrow and pay what’s due then.” He called as he drove away. “Like a true good Samaritan,” the landlady said, as she went to settle Nancy in a warmed bed.

The following day Tom returned, to grave news. “The baby died during the night, and I doubt that she is long for this world.” Said the landlady, leading him upstairs. “She knows she is dying, and is desperate to see you before…”

Tom entered the warm room, a fire was burning and Nancy was wrapped up in the bed. She turned her pale face to Tom, and gave a weak smile. “I’m glad I got to see you one last time.” She whispered, “I want to ask for your forgiveness.”

“There is nothing to forgive.” He replied.

“Yes there is, the man I left you for was a rogue. After a few months I found out that he was a highwayman and was already married. I left him, he was angry and came after me, but was killed in a brawl before he could find me. When I discovered he was dead, I decide to return to my parents, that was when you found me.”

“I am glad I did.”

“I am too, I am happy I can see your kind face one last time.” He tried to say something, she shook her head weakly.

“Tom, I am dying, I know that. I also know something else, I want to tell you something that you must keep secret and only tell to your son.”

“I don’t have a son.”

“But you will, and he too will be a coachman, as will his son and his grandson as far as I can see. And to all of you I make this promise, when you are in greatest need, when speed is of the essence, especially when a life hangs in the balance, I will come to you. I will take the reins and guide you safe through storm and snow.”

She fell back on the pillow, he bent to say something, but realised that she could never hear anything again. He kissed her cold forehead and left the room.

Mail Coach in a Snowstorm c.1835-40 by Charles Cooper Henderson 1803-1877

Part 2 The Pardon

“He’s innocent!”

The word ran round the inn, and out into the street. The two men were surrounded by well-wishers, but they were still worried. “We have the pardon, but we need to get it to Durham.” He said to the innkeeper then, looking up at the church clock, added. “In under ten hours!” A mutter went round the crowd, to get to Durham in so short a time, that was nigh impossible. What use was the pardon if it arrived too late, an innocent man would hang.

The innkeeper had run to the stables at the back. “Tom Blakeborough.” He shouted, “You’re needed.”

Tom looked up. “But I only just got in!”

“A pardon has just arrived for George Hutton. But it’s got to get to Durham by tomorrow morning. You’re the finest coachman in Yorkshire, and with what’s coming.” They looked to the north, the sky was already dark with the approaching storm.

“Aye, I’ll try.” Tom replied bluntly. Four horses were harnessed up, and less than half an hour after they had arrived the men, and the precious pardon, began their journey.

Seven miles out the rain came down, heavier than he had ever seen, he could hardly see beyond the leading horses head. He had no choice but to slow the coaches pace to a crawl, one of the passengers opened a window, doubtless to ask why he had slowed, took one look at the weather and shut the window.

Tom was concentrating on his rain-soaked horses, when he felt a touch on his hands, he looked down to see a thin, pale hand. Beside him sat a woman, there was a sudden flash of lightning and he saw it was Nancy, Nancy whose new-dug grave he had stood beside two years earlier.

The pale figure gently took the reins from his unresisting hands, and cracked them. The horses sprang forward into a gallop, they couldn’t see but were more terrified of what was driving them than the featureless road ahead. Tom clutched onto the box, it was all he could do to hold on, but Nancy just sat calmly urging on the horses. Inside the coach he could hear the men shouting, but ignored them as he could do nothing, just sit and watch a long dead woman drive his coach into the jet-black night.

He knew they drove through villages, as he saw the occasional light from a window, he heard the sound of the wheels change as they crossed the moors, but it was not until a very grey dawn broke could he get any idea of where they were, and by the time it was fully light he could see the great bulk of Durham Cathedral.

As they entered the city he felt the reins placed in his hands, he turned to thank Nancy but she just smiled and vanished. After this it was a blur, they drove towards the prison, the crowds were already gathering, there were cheers as the pardon was rushed inside, a purse of gold was pressed into his hand, and he finally drove to the inn where he could see his horses settled and collapse into a bed.

He didn’t speak of Nancy then, not for a year, until he told the pretty daughter of the Durham inn keeper, on their wedding night. She kissed him and said, “I saw you as you drove into Durham, I saw the lady beside you, she smiled at me, that was when I knew I should marry you – as she wished it.”

When their son was learning to drive, he told him about Nancy. Though he never saw her, he told his son in turn, as Nancy had predicted all his descendants drove coaches. As horses gave way to petrol and diesel, the story continued to be passed down, father told son, told daughter.

3 Snow Baby

Ambulance woman 2

The paramedic recognised the signs, he couldn’t deliver the baby, they had to get the mother to hospital. If they didn’t, and soon, the mother might, and the baby would, die.

It had been clear when they had arrived, but by the time they had got her into the ambulance a foot of snow had fallen, the wind blew flurries of snow into the ambulance as the driver shut the door. Tamsin walked to the cab, she was having trouble seeing the gateposts of the farm, and how she was to see the road across the moors in this weather, she had no idea.

She opened the door and was about to climb in, and stopped in shock. In the driving seat was a thin young woman in a long, old fashioned, dress. For a moment she just gaped, then suddenly remembered her grandfather’s story.

“Nancy?” She gasped, the woman nodded. With a mixture of fear and wonder Tamsin ran round to the other side and climbed in, as soon as she sat they were off. She could see nothing, just snow in the ambulance’s headlights. She held onto her seat belt as the ambulance raced across the moors, swinging round corners heading straight up steep slopes. It didn’t skid or slide but drove smoothly across the snow and ice covered roads.

As her initial terror subsided, she turned to watch Nancy driving the ambulance. She sat there, hands on the wheel, looking forward. Tamsin found herself wondering how a woman who had died more than two centuries earlier had learnt to drive, then laughed at such a silly question. She was in an ambulance, being driven in impossible conditions, by a ghost who had made a promise to one of her ancestors.

Suddenly they were driving through a village, she knew where they were, it would normally take about half an hour driving to the hospital. But now? The blizzard hit again, and everything vanished, she looked across at Nancy who looked back at her and gave her sad little smile.

Then suddenly the snow cleared again and she realised that, impossibly, they were less than half a mile from the hospital. She radioed ahead, checked on the patient, her colleague was amazed that they were there so soon. Nancy swung the ambulance into place, the door at the back opened, nurses rushed to lift the woman out. Tamsin turned to thank Nancy, but she had gone.

A day or two later a nurse called and said that someone wanted to see her in maternity. Surprised she went to the ward to be greeted by a young mother, still pale, with a little baby in her arms.

“I want to thank you, if it hadn’t been for you we would both have died.” Tamsin thanked her, and tried to pass it off, but the mother became very serious.

“I haven’t given her a name yet, and I feel that it is somehow very important. What’s your name, I would like to call her after the person who saved her life.”

Tamsin hesitated for a moment, “Nancy, I would love it if you called her Nancy.”

“Thank you Nancy.” The mother said softly as she bent over her baby girl.

.

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This tale is based on fact, or as much fact as any ghost story can have. The story of Tom and Nance, her betrayal, his kindness, her promise and her subsequent help were recorded over a hundred years ago. As for the later tale, well after the first Tom’s death Nance never reappeared though some of his descendants were sure she would come again, if the situation warranted it. I just made that part of the tale come true.

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A Ghost in the Garden

I was trying to find out about early nineteenth century plant labels (I will tell you why another time), when I came across an interesting name, a name associated with ghosts in the garden.

Now I don’t mean ghosts like the young lady, wearing a long white dress,  who I saw one late summer evening, long years ago, walking across an old garden in Bristol. She stepped behind a clump of shrubs and vanished. I hope she walks there still. I can think of worse ways to spend your afterlife than walking though English gardens in the summer twilight.

 

No this ghost is very real.

 

At the beginning of the last century lived Ellen Willmott, she was a great gardener. One person dubbed her “the greatest of all living women gardeners”, though none would agree with that now, simply because the remark was made by Gertrude Jekyll, who was the greatest of all women gardeners.

 

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Ellen Willmott was a great gardener. She was also a notable garden writer, writing for magazines like ‘Country Life’. In the course of her journalism she visited many gardens, up and down the land, nervously welcomed as everyone wanted a good review from Miss Willmott, and all dreaded a bad one.

 

And then – after a few years gardeners everywhere began to notice a new flower appearing in their herbaceous borders, a straggly blue flower with spiky leaves. Then it was realised that the flowers began to make an appearance a year or so after a visit from Miss Willmott. She never admitted it, but people though that she had a secret pocket full of the seeds, which she discretely scattered in the flowerbeds as she bent to admire a particular flower.

 

It is for this reason that Eryngium giganteum is now known as;

Miss Willmott’s ghost

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A Light in Dark Places

He struck the chisel with the wooden mallet, carefully. There was hardly any light as there was firedamp in the mine. Any flame or spark and the explosion would be devastating.

Then he saw it – a flame. It was approaching, he had nowhere to run, he shouted.

“Stop! there’s firedamp, stop!”

The flame approached, he continued to scream, the man was trying to shout something but the miner didn’t hear, as he fainted in terror.
He came too to see his vicar looking down, by the light of an impossible flame burning in – the world’s first safety lamp.

Firedamp, which mostly consisted of methane, was a terrible danger in early coal mines. It was highly inflammable, and as candles were the only way of lighting mines, the cause of many disasters.
After a terrible explosion which killed over ninety miners in 1812 the Rev. John Hodgson, vicar of Jarrow, campaigned for a safe way of lighting mines. The challenge was taken up by Sir Humphrey Davy and George Stephenson, in 1815 the two men had come up with similar solutions. It was whilst demonstrating Stephenson’s light that my tale took place.

 

This is in response to Charlie Mills flash fiction challenge, In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a chisel. Use chisel as a noun or a verb. Hope you enjoy it.

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The Village Snowbound – The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

A little while ago my brother posted one of our father’s poems, illustrated with some recent photographs, I have decided to do something similar, as our village is snowbound like the village in the poem – there the similarity ends – I hope!

 4

 

The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

 

For many years, according to an old New Forest Legend, there stood at the crossroads, known as Marlpit Oak, on the high plain between Sway and Brockenhurst, a great double-armed gibbet. Visible for miles around, and frequently bearing a grisly load, it must have been a fearful sight, brooding over the remote and lonely countryside. It was, therefore, a matter of widespread satisfaction when, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the gibbet was at last demolished.

However, superstition was very powerful in those far-off days and strange stories soon began to circulate among the Forest people.

2

When I was young and not long from school
Like all braggart youth I was brazen and brave,
And I laughed him to scorn and called him a fool
Who spoke of the dead that returned from the grave.

 

‘When they are dead, they are dead -so much mouldering day’
‘And he who says not is drunk or insane!’
And the wager seemed nought in the bright light of day
To spend that night, alone, by the knoll on the plain.

 

By the time evening came and the winter sun set
In a great blood-red glow over Wilverley Hill,
Every soul in the village had heard of the bet,
And my arrogant heart had felt the first chill.

 

For I knew the story, like all of us there,
Of the Marlpit Oak Gibbet which, many years gone,
Had stood, high and grim, in the very place where
I’d boasted I’d spend the whole night alone.

6

A hillock of bare earth is all that remains
Standing just a few yards from the well-trodden way
Which, crossing the miles of gorse-covered plain,
Brings the traveller at last to the village of Sway.

 

Even in Spring, when the moorland glows gold,
And the warm-scented furze calls the foraging bees,
The ground at this place stays mortally cold
And no skylark nests here, no pony takes ease.

 

No sun-loving lizard, no close-crouching hare,
No adder, loose-coiled, seeks this chilly mound.
No beast of the Forest, no bird of the air,
No grass, gorse or heather, is here to be found.

 

And a tale was told by the old men of Sway
Of a travelling merchant who would not take heed,
Who had to reach Lyndhurst by early next day
And who swore his two pistols were all that he’d need.

 

They said he was found with his hair turned quite white,
Eyes fixed and staring, and mouth open wide,
Silently screaming at some ghastly sight,
And no mark on his body to show how he died.

4

Just tales? Superstitions of foolish old men?
But my heart filled with terror that pride would not show,
And I drank deep and waited the dread moment when
Someone would say it was time now to go.

 

Too soon came the moment, and into the night
Drunken and singing we lurched through the snow,
All close round the lantern, whose pale yellow light
In the menacing darkness cast scarcely a glow.

 

And I sung the loudest of all of us there,
And shouted with laughter at each feeble jest,
And I threw out the challenge that I didn’t care
If the Devil himself came -I’d soon give him best!

 

And then we were there, and the merriment died
As, suddenly sober, we stood in the snow,
But still I obeyed my obstinate pride
And in confident tones urged the others to go.

5

The sound of their voices died quickly away,
The gleam of the lantern was soon lost to Sight,
As they hurried thankfully back home to Sway,
To bolt cottage doors and to shut out the night.

 

The air, when the snow stopped, was bitterly cold,
The darkness intense, the stillness profound,
And the whole world was silent as, no longer bold,
I fearfully stood by the old Gibbet mound.

 

Trembling, I looked to the left and the right,
While the terrible cold froze me through to the bone,
Then I suddenly knew, though no soul was in sight,
That, beyond any doubt, I was not alone!

 

How can I describe that unreasoning fear,
That primitive terror no thought can prevent,
Of knowing that someone, or something, was near,
And directing at me its evil intent.

 

Filled with blind panic, I turned and I fled,
Stumbling and sobbing and cursing the night,
Until, just as my strength was beginning to ebb,
Far ahead I discerned a faint glimmer of light.

3

Faltering now, and filled with despair,
Like a desperate fox hunted over the moor,
Heart beating wildly, and gasping for air,
I staggered at last to the furze-cutter’s door.

 

Exhausted, defeated, I sank to my knees,
A pitiful, tremulous, cowering wreck.
And then, with infinite horror, I felt
Long bony fingers encircling my neck.

 

I remember no more -I fainted away
With that fearful pressure unbearably tight,
And they say that I lay there, half-dead, half-alive,
Till the furze-cutter came in the grey morning light.

 

I’m told that for weeks I was kept to my bed,
Mumbling and muttering and never quite sane,
Then at last came the Spring, and with it my strength,
And I became part of the village again.

7

But the fear has remained, throughout my long life,
And I sometimes awake in the depths of the night
And though it be Summer my blood turns to ice,
And I cry out in terror as reason takes flight.

 

I was only a boy but my memory stays clear
Of that dreadful night, now so far and remote.
But you don’t believe me? Then what is this scar,
This ring of dead flesh like a noose round my throat?

 

And who among you, on this black Winter night,
When the fog is so thick and the village snowbound,
Will go out from his house, leave the fire and the light,
And keep vigil, alone, by the old gibbet mound?

 

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How to See Ghosts – A Victorian Guide

Many Victorians were fascinated with the supernatural, so it is hardly surprising to find a book describing ways to see ghosts. The only thing unusual about this volume is that it works!

I was immediately attracted to the title, Spectropia or, Surprising Spectral Illusions. Ghosts Everywhere, and of Any Colour.

The book attacks ‘modern’ superstitions.

It is a curious fact that, in this age of scientific research, the absurd follies of spiritualism should find an increase of supporters; but mental epidemics seem at certain seasons to affect our minds, and one of the oldest of these moral afflictions — witchcraft — is once more prevalent in this nineteenth century, under the contemptible forms of spirit-rapping and table-turning. The modern professor of these impostures, like his predecessors in all such disreputable arts, is bent only on raising the contents of the pockets of the most gullible portion of humanity, and not the spirits of the departed, over which, as he well knows, notwithstanding his profane assumption, he can have no power.

One thing we hope in some measure to further in the following pages, is the extinction of the superstitious belief that apparitions are actual spirits, by showing some of the many ways in which our senses may be deceived.

After a very interesting discussion of the physiology of the eye, as understood in 1865, it describes the phenomenon of Afterimage, and how it can produce ghosts.

To see the spectres, it is only necessary to look steadily at the dot, or asterisk, which is to be found on each of the plates, for about a quarter of a minute, or while counting about twenty, the plate being well illuminated by either artificial or day light. Then turning the eyes to the ceiling, the wall, the sky, or better still to a white sheet hung on the wall of a darkened room (not totally dark), and looking rather steadily at any one point, the spectre will soon begin to make its appearance, increasing in intensity, and then gradually vanishing, to reappear and again vanish; it will continue to do so several times in succession, each reappearance being fainter than the one preceding. Winking the eyes, or passing a finger rapidly to and fro before them, will frequently hasten the appearance of the spectre, especially if the plate has been strongly illuminated.

The colours in the plate will be found to reverse themselves in the spectres, the spectres always appearing of the complementary colour to that of the plate from which it is obtained. Thus, blue will appear orange, and orange blue, &c.

Many persons will see one coloured spectre better than the others, in consequence of their eyes not being equally sensitive to all colours.

Now for some pictures.

picture 2

 

As an apology for the apparent disregard of taste and fine art in the plates, such figures are selected as best serve the purpose for which they are intended.

 

picture 1

 

picture 4

 

picture 3

 And even ghost dogs.

picture 5

Try them and see ghosts in your own home.

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 4

The Reckoning – Explanations and Conclusions?

Miss Fluart woke late, the sun was well up as she sipped her tea and read the various letters that had been delivered. There were letters from Sir Charles Campinet and another magistrate saying they would wait on her later in the day, there was a more official, but very gracious letter from the local Riding Officer delighted to have a large consignment of smuggled goods to collect, and an obsequious letter from a local lawyer, agreeing to everything the ‘honoured lady’ was suggesting.

As she was reading the last Charlotte came in, she was still very sore, but had insisted on getting up as she wanted to see the fun. She settled gratefully on the sofa and read through the letters. The last surprised her until she was shown the parchment covered book. Miss Fluart then took it away, and retuned empty handed.

“I have put it somewhere safe, I will say more when the men have gone.”

The Riding Officer was the first to arrive, he brought a wagon and Miss Fluart told Watson to oversee the unloading of the coach. After he left she brought his receipt to the two ladies.

“He says there will be a big reward for all the smuggled goods, at least forty guineas.”

“And it will be yours Watson.” Said Maria to her shocked maid. “Miss Sumelin and I will be rewarded in other ways, so we have decided that this money would be yours.” Watson left, babbling her thanks, delighted and even more devoted to her amazing mistress.

“What am I getting Maria?” Asked Charlotte from the sofa.

“Wait and see my dear,” Miss Fluart replied, “The gentlemen are here and they will want an explanation.”

Sir Charles and Mr Saxby, the other local magistrate entered the room. Miss Fluart rose to greet them and Charlotte apologised for not rising.

“My dear young lady,” Said Sir Charles, “After such a shock and injury should you not be in bed when you may be cared for and leave this unpleasant business to us?”

“Sir Charles, I have suffered more from falling off my horse. Despite what your philosophy might teach, we young ladies do not wish to be wrapped in cotton wool all the time. Also I was as much involved in this matter as Miss Fluart and should be here.”

Sir Charles shook his head, but sat down as Miss Fluart took several papers from the table.

“I first heard of this supposed ghost when the vicar’s cook refused to cook me dinner, because it had frightened her husband. Like most people I thought that he had been drunk, but soon discovered that many more were seeing the ghost coach. This began to cause me a great deal of embarrassment as people seemed to think I was responsible, so I began to investigate. Amongst the various stories I soon realised that there were some that seemed to refer to a real coach. This coach was only seen on little used roads that ran from the coast inland, and I asked myself why this should be, then realised that the obvious answer was free traders.”

the-smugglers

“Why did you not come to us?” asked Mr Saxby, “With that information we would have sent out the dragoons.”

“With respect what use would they have been?” Replied Miss Fluart. “The dragoons idea of secrecy is to shout once rather than twice. Everyone, including the smugglers, would hear them coming three or four miles away. That is all those who would not have drunk so much out of fear of the ghost that they couldn’t sit in the saddle. There were only three people I had any confidence in to help me hunt down whoever was taking my great-aunt’s name in vain, my maid, my friend and myself. So we set a trap and caught a ghost.” She paused, “But sadly the men escaped, I would love to have them in prison as one of them shot at Miss Sumelin.”

“Was the coach the only vehicle you saw that night?” Asked Sir Charles.

“Why?” replied a puzzled Miss Fluart.

“Because four men have been found dead this morning, all of them have been crushed by a broad wheeled cart, so it couldn’t have been your coach. One is a known smuggler, two are petty criminals who have both been before the bench on more than one occasion, whilst the fourth is unknown to us, but had a French made coat and a plan of Plymouth in his pocket.”

“A Spy?”

“Most likely and we suspect these men were the ones who escaped from you last night.”

“We certainly never saw a waggon or cart, I was more concerned about getting Charlotte home. Did John Taylor see anything?”

“That fool, no he saw nothing at all.”

“Well, the deaths of those men is a mystery that will probably never be solved.”

“Very likely, now tomorrow I will send a man to collect the coach and horses.”

“You will not Sir Charles, the coach is mine.”

“Come madam, how can you suggest such a thing. It was clearly made to scare people and was used in a criminal conspiracy.”

Miss Fluart smiled sweetly. “I have here a letter from a legal gentleman, well known to you both, who tells me that the coach was built for a number of local worthies, who intended to present it to me as a mark of their esteem. It was being ‘tested’ in secret and was apparently misappropriated by the smugglers.”

“Tested indeed,” snapped Mr Saxby, “You know who was behind the whole operation. You must tell us at once, or you will be liable.”

“Liable for accepting a valuable gift. I think not.” She replied. “Anyway I am sure there will be no more smuggling runs like that again, indeed I rather suspect that smuggling will also be much reduced locally.”

“Do you really mean to keep it then.” He was getting angry now,

“Yes, and Mr Corrow it acting for me in this respect.”

“Corrow, he is a rogue. He was a rogue when he worked for Lord Grondale and he is a rogue now.”

“Oh no, Mr Corrow is a kind and generous gentleman. As soon as he heard what had happened he not only informed me that the carriage was intended for me, but personally offered to recompense Miss Sumelin for the damage to her riding habit.”

“So Corrow is the gentleman. I think we should take a close look at him.”

“But please wait until the mantua-makers account is settled.”

Sir Charles laughed, “ Come Saxby, you must see that Miss Fluart has this well in hand. Even if we were able to convict, I am sure that whoever is concerned is powerful enough to escape with a fine smaller than that which they are paying to these gallant ladies.”

His companion nodded, Miss Fluart rose and handed Sir Charles a thick package.

“And here is something that might make interesting reading if anything untoward were to happen.”

He rose too and bowed.

“Such as a mantua-makers account not being settled.”

“Exactly,” she replied, curtsying. “Now gentlemen I must ask you to leave, Miss Sumelin is still unwell and needs to return to bed.”

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Over supper, Charlotte said,

“You said nothing about Lady Susanna?”

“No, it would have confused them, ghosts don’t fit into the philosophy of Sir Charles.”

“But it was her, wasn’t it?”

“Oh yes, I think she was as irritated by people pretending to be her as I was. She was appearing around the house as her first priority was always to protect her family. Then when you were shot at she got as angry as I was and you can guess the rest.”

Charlotte was silent, thinking of what those wicked men must have endured, being hunted by a spectral coach, she was sure Lady Susanna would have wanted them to be terrified.

 

Later, when she was in bed, Miss Fluart came to say goodnight, Charlotte looked up at her friend and said.

“You said that Lady Susanna got angry when I got shot because her first concern was to protect her family.”

“Yes my dear.”

“But I am not family.”

Maria Fluart bent and kissed her friend on her forehead.

“But you are my dear, you are.”

But Charlotte was already asleep.

 

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 3

The Hunt is On.

The path led from the village, across the field, over the common and onto the moorland. It had once been a favoured route for young couples, there were plenty of places where two people could ‘get comfortable’ as the saying went, but over the past two months it had lost its popularity, few people wanted to risk meeting the ghost coach. Despite this the sight a young woman on the arm of a young man still wasn’t that unusual, but if their appearance wasn’t strange, their conversation was.

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“Aren’t you even going to give me a kiss?” The young man asked, almost plaintively.

“Of course not.” The young woman replied, “we are only here to keep a lookout. You know what my lady wants, and you are being paid.”

“But it’s been three days now, I don’t think anything is going to happen.”

“That certainly won’t.” Nancy Watson caught the young man’s hand as he tried to get too close and twisted it. He cried out, then to his amazement, she wrapped her arms round him hard and screamed.

“What the…” he gasped, then was pulled back by Nancy as the coach galloped past, he turned to look and screamed as well. The galloping horses had no heads.

Nancy pushed the man away.

“All right Bob, you can go home now.”

“But, but that was the ghost coach.”

“Of course it was, what do you think we have been looking for these past few days.”

There was the sound of a shot, far away.

“Oh, they have caught them.”

“Who have the ghosts caught?” said Bob in terror.

“No Miss Fluart and Miss Sumelin have caught the ghosts.”

Bob looked in terror at the sturdy maidservant, who was looking up the path. She was holding a pistol in her hand.

“I will just wait here in case any try to escape this way, you can go home now.”

He ran.

 

Miss Fluart waited in the shadow cast by a tall tree beside the old road. She had been alerted by Nancy’s scream, her hiding place had been chosen deliberately, at the top a short, steep slope. As she expected the coach horses had slowed on the slope and were only walking slowly at they came over the brow. She rode out into the moonlight and took her position in the middle of the road. The coach approached her slowly, when it showed no sign of stopping she fired a single shot into the air. Her horse skipped a little and the coach stopped. She dropped the old gun she had fired, and drew a deadly looking duelling pistol from her pocket. She pointed the long barrelled weapon at the headless coachman and said calmly.

“Now we will try an experiment. I will count to five, then I will shoot you. If you are a ghost it will do you no harm and I will come and greet my great aunt. If you are a man and don’t want to be turned into a ghost you will remove that silly mask, now – ONE.”

As the coachman scrabbled to remove the mask a voice from inside the coach shouted.

“Drive on, ignore her, drive on or I will shoot you.”

“But its Miss Fluart,” called the coachman.

“I don’t care who it is, drive on.” An arm holding a pistol was stuck out of the coach window.

“Don’t be cruel to the coachman.” Said Miss Fluart, “he isn’t sure if you would shoot him, but he knows that I would. Well done John Taylor.” She added looking up at the coachman who had now removed the mask, and was looking down in terror, his eyes flickering from Miss Fluart to his employer and back again.

“I wonder if Sir Charles knows what his coachman gets up to at night?” She turned to the coach and ordered the occupants to get out, slowly two men stepped out, the second one had just put his foot on the ground when there was a shout behind her.

“Stop that and drop your gun.”

Miss Fluart didn’t move, but said calmly.

“Thank you Charlotte, how many are there.”

“Two,” her friend replied, “they were on the back of the coach and dropped down when it stopped, then crawled round to try and take you from behind.”

The two men stepped forward to join the others, Charlotte stepped out of the shadows, she was holding another pistol, her green riding habit had rendered her almost invisible.

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“Now I guess you are free traders, I don’t mind you avoiding the revenue, I don’t approve of giving money to the government if I can help it, they only waste it. But I am not having you taking my family name and frightening my neighbours with it. So I am going to let you run away and never do it again. John drive the carriage to my house then run home. You rest can take off your shoes and stockings and go. If you don’t I will take you to the magistrates.”

The two men whom Charlotte had stopped pulled off their shoes, dropped them and ran. One of the men from the coach tried to say something, but his companion stopped him, bent as if to unbuckle his shoe, then turned, a small pistol in his hand, and fired.

Maria’s horse shied, she fired but her shot went wide, the men now ran. Maria went to draw her second pistol but a moan made her stop. Looking down she saw Charlotte lying on the road.

She slid from her horse and bent to help her friend, John Taylor had also slid from the box, taken the coach horses heads and grabbed the reins of Miss Fluart’s horse.

“How is she?”

“I’m all right.” Charlotte tried to rise and winced. “I think I have twisted my leg in the fall. The ball has torn my skirt though.”

She up looked at her friend and gasped, she had never seen Maria like this before. Her face was suffused with anger.

“John take Charlotte home, if any further hurt comes to her I will kill you.”

“Yes miss.” He said, terrified.

“What are you going to do?” Gasped Charlotte.

“They tried to kill you.” Snapped Maria, “I am going to kill them.”

Charlotte tried to grab her arm but Miss Fluart was already scrambling back onto her horse. She was just settling in the saddle when there was a noise, and another rider galloped up. Charlotte looked around to see the rider, the stopped in surprise, John Taylor stood, half bending as if to help her, but frozen to the spot, his eyes glazed and sightless. She then looked up at the strange woman, who was wearing a broad brimmed hat, and looked somehow familiar. The woman rode up to Maria, and placed her hand on hers. Charlotte suddenly saw the gloves, and realised who she was.

“Hold niece, you stay here.”

“But they hurt Charlotte.”

“Stay with your friend, she needs you. This hunt is mine.”

Stunned Miss Fluart stopped as the strange woman rode off, as she passed through the shadow cast by the large tree she seemed to fade and, on the other side of the tree, Charlotte could have sworn she saw an old-fashioned coach head off in the direction of the escaping men.

Who was that?” asked Charlotte quietly.

“I think we both know.” Replied Maria, “So now to get you and this carriage home.”

She went to help Charlotte to get into the coach, as Charlotte stepped up she gasped.

“No thank you, I will ride on the box. It smells like a tavern.”

Maria looked inside, there were brandy barrels filling up most of the floor, packets smelling of tobacco up one side, and smaller packets tucked into every available crevice. The only space left was just big enough for the two man who had shot at Charlotte. As she looked around she saw a thin, parchment bound book tucked into the pocket on the door. She slid this into her own pocket, then went to help John lift Charlotte onto the box.

Back home they found that Nancy had only just returned, having seen no sign of the men, Charlotte was lifted down and Nancy helped her into bed. The horses were stabled and the coach locked up. John Taylor was ordered to walk home carrying a letter for his master. Maria then went to study the book. It was late by the time she had finished, she then wrote several letters and left orders that they were to be delivered as soon as it was light. She was smiling as she went to bed, one ghost at least had been laid.

3-writing-1819-ackermanns-fashion-plate-36-evening-dress

To be continued

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations – Part 2

Investigating the Impossible

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Two weeks later, Charlotte Sumelin walked straight into the dining room and found Miss Fluart bent over the table, which was covered with piles of papers and large scale maps of Devon and Cornwall.

“Why cannot cartographers agree where the county boundary is?” She muttered, “At no point do these maps agree, and they are supposed to be drawn at the same scale.”

“I have no idea.”

Miss Fluart spun round, her mouth dropped open. For the first time in her life Charlotte saw her friend truly surprised and shocked. She stepped forward and hugged her.

“I told you I would be back in two weeks.”

“And I was going to wait another week before I came to rescue you?”

“ You have taught me too much, I’m not like Caroline Campinet, needing to be rescued by a gun wielding young lady.”

“You can wield your own gun?”

“You know I can, but happily I didn’t need to, I was a dutiful daughter until early this morning when a chaise arrived at the front door. It had been quite difficult to persuade the inn to send it, I was quite cross that my father had expressly forbidden them to supply me with a vehicle.”

“So?”

“It is amazing what the promise of an extra half-guinea can do. So here I am, so you don’t need to worry any more. Now what are all the papers covering the table, are they plans for rescuing me?”

“No, those plans are lodged in my head.” Replied Miss Fluart, surprising herself by blushing slightly. Recovering quickly she continued, “These are all the sightings of the ghost coach. I wrote to all the local newspapers asking for them to send me details of any sightings that were reported to them. Also Watson has been invaluable, gossiping with everybody at the local markets. Knowing that she works for me people have loved trying to terrify her with all the stories that are going around.”

“There seem to have been a lot of sightings, your ancestor can certainly travel.”

“Yes, but far fewer when I disregard all those I think are rubbish. Men who have drunk too much, silly servant girls needing an excuse for not getting back when they should, and so on. Then the ones I suspect having something real behind them I have had to divide into two groups. The first group, and the most widespread, describe a carriage driving across the moors, with a headless coachman and pulled by headless horses.”

“And those are the ones you suspect are real!” said Charlotte in amusement, “Headless horses driven by a headless coachman.”

“Yes, now listen to this one. The Exeter Mail sent it to me. Someone seems to have taken down the report verbatim. The coach was seen by Timothy Manners.”

“But he’s an idiot.”

“True, in all but one respect – horses. I wouldn’t trust him on anything, apart from horses and anything to do with them. Now listen, it’s just like him, always sounds a little drunk.” She took the paper and read.

‘It was Tuesday, was coming back from the races, had done quite well so was rather late, good moon though. Coach on old hill road, funny that, never take a coach up there myself. Good coach though, looked like one of Hills, had his strapping, had crest I knew. Miss Fluart, good filly though beyond my touch, like her friend, good fillies both. Horses odd, matched greys, no heads, odd, would have asked coachman, no head either. Very odd.’

“What do you think?” Asked Miss Fluart, but Charlotte was giggling.

“Are we a matched pair of fillies?”

“From him that’s a compliment, as I said he only knows about horses. From any other man that would have been insulting, but from him no. But his account is interesting. If we forget about the headlessness what he saw was a coach made by Hills of Exeter drawn by four matching greys.”

2-stagecoach

“But what about the headlessness?”

“Pale horses, coachman with a pale greatcoat, then the heads of men and horses covered with black cloth or something similar. Even in moonlight they would appear headless.”

“So they are real, but why go to all that trouble?”

“ I have an idea, but there are the other sightings as well, and for these we have a witness who cannot be doubted.” She pulled on the bell-pull, and Watson entered. “Sit down and tell Miss Sumelin what you saw that night.”

“Yes Miss,” the maid began, clearly very excited to be the centre of attention. “I had been at Sir Charles Campinet’s where his head housemaid is getting married and he had allowed there to be a feast in the servants hall. I had gone…”

“Let me guess, to see if you could hear any more stories of the ghost coach.”

“Yes Miss, but there were none worth listening to, only Bill Mathers, and he was drunk when he told the story and probably drunk when he claims it pushed him into a ditch. Well, it was just dark when I started walking back, I had crossed the great field, and was on the lane leading up to the house when I saw it, the coach.” She paused dramatically. “It was driving down the cross road towards the ford, there was no driver and it was pulled by four black horses.”

“Did they have heads?”

“Yes miss, and tails as well. But the coach was a funny thing, a big box on four wheels, just like the one in the back of the picture of my lady, not like a modern coach at all.”

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She continued in the same vein for a few minutes before Miss Fluart thanked her and sent her away.

“What do you think?” She asked. Charlotte, who had been looking at the portrait of Lady Susanna, and discovering that there was a tiny, picture of an old-fashioned coach in the background, replied.

“I suspect she saw something and it got confused with this image she had seen in the portrait.”

“Perhaps, but I went down to the ford the next morning. No wheeled vehicles had passed that way in the previous two days.” She paused, then continued, “But the first coach is a different kettle of fish. I think I know what it is up to, and hopefully where to find it. Would you like to go ghost hunting?”

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The Phantom Coach, or Miss Fluart’s Relations

Readers of my blog will remember the intrepid Miss Fluart, who was created back in the 1790’s and about whom I have woven additional tales. This is another contribution, part of which is based on fact, I will tell you what if you manage to read to the end of the tale.

1-claude-joseph-bail-setting-the-table

A Ghost spoils Dinner

“I’m not making dinner for that woman!” The cook turned and marched out of the kitchen, slamming the door as she left.

The vicars wife turned to the frightened maids.

“Just serve what cold meat there is, that will have to do.” She waited to help the terrified girls as upstairs her husband was trying to explain what was happening to his guests.

“I am afraid that our cook is refusing to cook dinner for you.” He said to Miss Fluart.

“And she called you names.” Added the vicar’s daughter.

“Oh dear, what have I done now?” asked Miss Fluart.

“It isn’t you.” Continued the vicar, clearly rather embarrassed, “It is your great aunt Susanna.”

“My great aunt,” gasped his guest, “but she has been dead for nearly a hundred years. I was looking at her monument in the church last Sunday, a wonderfully inaccurate piece of stonework.”

“She is a ghost, and frightened Cook’s husband so he fell in a ditch and injured his leg. That’s why Cook is angry with you.” Anna, the vicars daughter, added excitedly.

“That will do miss.” Said her mother rising, and leading her unwilling child from the room.

“I am afraid it is true, that is what Cook has said.” Continued the vicar.

Miss Fluart nodded, “The phantom coach, I suppose? I didn’t think it had been seen for years?”

“And I don’t think it has been seen now.” He replied, “I suspect that he had taken too much drink, fell in the ditch and didn’t want to admit to his wife what really happened.”

They left soon afterwards, as soon as the carriage turned out of the vicarage drive, Charlotte Sumelin, who had been, rather unsuccessfully, trying to hide her curiosity, burst out;

“What was that about! Your great aunt is a ghost!”

“Yes.” Miss Fluart sighed, “though I suspect that the vicar is right, the man had simply drunk too much. I wish he really had seen her, I would love to meet her.”

Charlotte looked at her friend in wide eyed amazement.

“You would like to meet your great aunt – who is a ghost.”

“Oh yes, when we get home I will tell you all about her.”

As soon as they entered their house, Maria led Charlotte to an upstairs room. On the wall was a painting of a woman dressed in a riding habit, seated on a bench. She had a broad brimmed hat and was holding elaborately embroidered gloves, a riding crop – and an old fashioned pistol!

“Meet Lady Susanna Sterling, my great, or should it be great-great, aunt.”

They watched as a servant took the picture down and carried it into the parlour, finally Miss Fluart began.

“It was about a hundred and fifty years ago, during the great civil war. As parliament was taking control of this part of the country, there were various risings against the new government. These were all put down, but one of the last involved Lady Susanna’s nephew. He was imprisoned in Taunton Castle and sentenced to death. His mother begged Lady Susanna to try and intervene, so she went to Taunton, there she was approached by the governor of the Castle who offered to release her nephew for money!”

“Did she pay?”

“Of course.” Maria replied, “such arrangements were common then. No one knew which side would eventually win, and people in authority wanted to have friends on both sides, and if you could make money out of it so much the better. So Lady Susanna handed over five hundred pounds, the nephew was released, and immediately left for France. Then a few days later all the prisoners were pardoned and released, the governor had cheated her.”

“I imagine she was angry.”

“She was livid, but there was nothing she could do, at least not legally.” Miss Fluart paused dramatically, “So she turned highwaywoman.”

“What!” Charlotte was both shocked and amused.

“Turned highwaywoman, she first stopped the governor, and got back the money she had given him. Then she robbed other men who were friends of the governor. Soon the tale of the mysterious highwaywoman spread, but they never caught her, she had various secret ways into this house. Then after the king returned she allowed the story to get out. There were ballads and tales written about her, she never admitted anything but it was all true. Then when she died, the ‘Virtuous Ornament of Womankind’ as it says on her monument, was given the dead coach to ride.”

“Do you think it’s true?”

“Oh, I am sure she was a highwaywoman.”

“And a ghost?”

“I suspect not?” Miss Fluart sighed. “but I wish she was. I doubt we will be hearing any more of Lady Susanna and her coach.”

Within two weeks Miss Fluart knew she was wrong, the coach and Lady Susanna were being seen across half of Devon and Cornwall. Some of the reports were clearly fictitious but others seemed to come from respectable people, in one case a physician and a clergyman. Also, to her irritation, the old ballads were being resurrected and reprinted, her maid returned with several from the market in Tiverton. And people began to look askance at her.

“People either think I am wicked because Lady Susanna’s ghost is walking or pity me for having such a terrible relative.”

“And you aren’t wicked, at least not for that reason.” Giggled Miss Sumelin, “and you certainly don’t think that she was at all terrible.”

“Quite right, my dear.” She replied, “I think the best thing is to keep quiet and hope it blows over soon.”

It didn’t, and the next day proved it. Charlotte received a letter.

“It’s from Harriet, she says mama isn’t feeling very well, and wants to see me. I will have to go.”

“Do you believe her?”

“Of course not.” Replied Charlotte, “I don’t think mama has felt well in all her life, it’s the way she has of making sure her family does what she wants. I think that it is my father, he has heard the stories of the ghost and no longer thinks that you are a suitable person to be my companion.”

“Did he ever think that I was a suitable person?”

“No, but this affair gives him an excuse to take me away from you. I must go though, I will do my best to be back in two weeks.”

2-edmund-blair-leighton-straying-thoughts

Maria Fluart watched the chaise depart sadly, she wondered when and if she would ever see her friend again. If she had been a melancholy female she would have burst into tears, and ran to her room and refused to leave it. But melancholy didn’t make up any part of her nature, she allowed herself one tear, wiped her eye, and went to her desk. She knew what she had to do, to both sort out the problem and hopefully win back her friend and companion from her irritating father. She sat down and wrote several letters, then called her maid.

“Watson, I want you to post these letters, then I have another task for you.”

Nancy Watson, who had worshipped Miss Fluart ever since the memorable day when she drew a pistol on Lord Grondale, bobbed a curtsey and listened wide eyed and open mouthed to her mistresses instructions.

To be continued

 

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Filed under Georgian, Ghost story, Historical tales