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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
And even ghost dogs.
Try them and see ghosts in your own home.
In an earlier blog I mentioned what was possibly one of the few true stories of a Highwaywoman, now for some whose reality is much less certain.
I first came across the most famous of all legendry highwaywomen in Haunted England by Christina Hole (1941), a fascinating collection of traditional ghost stories, which includes the tale of the wicked Lady Ferrers.
Markyate Cell, near Dunstable, was long haunted, and perhaps still is, by the ghost of the “wicked” Lady Ferrers. She is said to have taken to highway robbery in the seventeenth century from sheer love of excitement and power. She used to leave the house by a secret way at night and ride about disguised as a man, robbing such belated travellers as were abroad on Watling Street and killing those who showed signs of resistance.
She had a secret room prepared against emergencies which was reached by a concealed staircase in the kitchen chimney. Here she fled one night, after being badly wounded in a fight, and died at the foot of the staircase. Her body was found there next morning, and after her funeral the staircase was bricked up. But if the family hoped the curious circumstances of her death would be forgotten, they were disappointed.
Her ghost haunted the neighbourhood, sometimes swinging on the branch of an old tree under which she was supposed to have buried the proceeds of her robberies, sometimes riding along the roads or over the tree-tops. She was also seen near the kitchen chimney and in various parts of the house. Like Peg O’Nell, she was regarded as the author of every local misfortune, and three serious fires in the house were ascribed to her.
Historians have pointed out that, for example, Lady Ferrers never lived in Markyate Cell, and though she had owned the property it had been sold years before she died. However folk tales have never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story and this is a good story. It was read by a, sadly almost forgotten but very fine, novelist Magdalen King-Hall. Inspired by the tale she wrote Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945), this novel was dramatized as The Wicked Lady a classic 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood (and a very poor 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway).
This tale includes one detail that is to be found in most stories of Highwaywomen, and which I think almost guarantee’s its fictional nature, she is supposed to have dressed as a man and ridden a horse. Whilst cross dressing is, of course, perfectly possible, riding astride is more doubtful. If she had learnt to ride she would naturally have been taught to ride side saddle, riding astride is a very different skill. To learn this would have taken time, and would have to have been accomplished in secret.
This is just one of the reasons I find the following story doubtful.
Oxford Journal – Saturday 23 July 1763
We find the following extraordinary Letter in the London Chronicle of this Day:
SIR, July 19
You may depend on the Truth of the following Robbery. – Last Friday a Gentleman and his Lady were attacked on the Harrow Road by a supposed Highwayman, who demanded their Money with the usual Imprecations, making them dismount. The Gentleman, after delivering his Money, imagining all was over, was going to remount, when the Robber unbuttoning, shew’d herself to be Woman, and insisted he should go into yonder Lane to her a Favour; which being backed by his Lady, he withdrew with her. Being under a thick Hedge, the real Highwayman made his Appearance, and insisted that the Gentleman’s Spouse should retire with him for the fame Purpose, saying, One good Turn deserves another. All being reconciled, they were about part, when our former Highwayman whisper’d the Gentleman, that she heard the Ticking of a Watch when under the Hedge; and should be glad if he would make her a Present of it: which with some Reluctance he did. We hear these Blades are of the Hatters Gang; and that the Posse of a certain Magistrate is now in Pursuit of them. I am your constant Reader and humble Servant, R. C.
An extraordinary letter indeed.
I think I should return to the ghost of the wicked Lady Ferrers
The last record of her appearance being early in the present (20th) century, when she was seen by a number of people at a parish tea. One cannot help wondering whether this manifestation does not go to prove the survival of a sense of humour in ghosts; it is difficult to imagine Lady Ferrers taking an interest in anything so humdrum as a parish tea except from a desire to frighten the company.