The Dark Conjurer of Batcombe

Batcombe church, Conjurer Minterne

I had been a rogue; worse some might say. Though in my defence, neither a murderer, nor snitch, nor liar, and my philandering was nothing to dwell upon — an honest thief you might say! Indeed, my career had not been of an entirely villainous order; though, I had seen fit to trouble the magistrate on two occasions.

But this was the city of London – wicked and corrupt, and spawning the likes of I. It had required far less time than I had served at His Majesty’s pleasure to conclude that it was no longer the place for a man of my considerable talents, for a better man at a lock or window you couldn’t find. When the key turned in its iron mantle, I was off like the wind.

The Prisoners’ Aid Society found me a job, on board a ship, coal trimming. I’ve never trimmed a scuttle full of coal, and as for a life on the ocean wave why, I’d much rather walk the plank! (I get seasick you see, even if I so much as think of taking a walk on a pier.) So I said “Thank you, but no,” and, getting a few tools together, I looked round for a job in my own line. But, as I had refused Society’s offer, the police were very anxious to know what exactly I did intend to do, and there wasn’t a minute of the day and night that there wasn’t somebody in “plain clothes” hovering about, watching me. So, when my last bob was spent, I beat if for the sticks.

Now, as house-breaking was my game, I had to choose carefully, well away from your average copper, and in an area where property was not so close together as to cause a swarm if there was a holler. So, with the smell and taste of London behind me, I set off for Dorsetshire where I knew there to be an assortment of villages ripe for busting. But it was hard work — all I got for my trouble was plenty of grub and any bits of clothing I wanted. Everybody in the country seemed to sleep with their cash-box and jewel-case under their pillow, and I never was a man to make any fuss or disturbance.

So here I was, on this November evening, tramping the Dorset hills without a bean in the world. It was a fair beast of a November evening, too. Dark, wet and cold. The road appeared to follow the edge of the downs, for, far away below, I could see the twinkle of a light here and there, but to the left there was nothing but the darkness and the rain. I was very wet and very tired, but the cursed road seemed to stretch on endlessly, without any sign of a shelter. Continue reading

The ‘ghost village’ of Tyneham, a story of sacrifice…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tyneham stands as a defining example of the term ‘ghost village’. It was once a quiet little place, nestled on the Dorset coast; a quintessential chocolate box scene of a church, a school house and tidy lines of cottages. However, in 1943, the residents of the village were asked to leave so that the army could use the area for training. At the time, the folk received a promise from the government that once the war had ended they would be allowed to return. Sadly this did not happen; the promise was never honoured. Years passed, and the villagers accepted, sometimes grudgingly but always with a sense of honour in sacrifice, that they would never return. After years of neglect the church and the school house have been restored and are now museums. If you happen to be venturing nearby then I recommend that you visit. The derelict buildings have a distinct presence about them and are a reminder of some of the many home sacrifices that were made for the war effort.

Over the years, the plight of Tyneham has continued to touch me; and the more I investigated its history, the more I felt compelled to write about it. And so, using the writing genre I know best – the ghost story – I’ve tried to convey the sense of duty that comforted and supported these people in their valiant efforts to help Britain win the war. The resulting story, Return to Tyneham, can be read here:

https://freakyfolktales.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/return-to-tyneham/

Return to Tyneham

Return to Tyneham, a ghost story

Tyneham telephone box
Prickling with nervous energy, the small hands reached for their coats, prising them from the upturned pegs that began and ended each and every school day. Equally routine was the jostling for position in the march out of the school house: a shimmering line of tanned satchels rubbing and coaxing leather; a sea of untidy bodies threading their way through the grey-lit hallway; and there, next to the bright red telephone box, the perennial mores were to cease: the tiny uniformed children thronging, waiting for a call; one that would tell them to leave behind their old lives and all that they knew. But this was no ordinary evacuation, for the bombs had rarely threatened to disturb this peaceful haven in the Purbeck Hills; instead, the land had been taken from within. Whilst the radio buzzed with sightings of the wings of the Luftwaffe eagles, it was the khaki conversation of the Nissan huts that had ultimately decided their fate. And four years after the war had begun, on a bitterly cold day, the Creech village postmaster had delivered to each household the letters that brought the unwelcome news of evacuation.

As the Grebbel children huddled together, they looked up at the flags, fluttering around in the tireless wind, and soon they thought of nothing but snow and Christmas. Though barbed wire had become a familiar sight in the landscape, as had the tank traps along the coast, the community had come together to celebrate with defiant vigour throughout each of the war years. But now, with the impending scattering of families across the coastal hills, there would be little to rejoice.

Daphne Grebbel looked commanding behind the wheel having taken driving lessons and tractor maintenance courses in the early years of the war. The army had told her to be gone by Christmas; they had planned to put guns on the ridge behind the house and fire over it. No information had been conveyed personally; just letters, all formal, all paying little heed to the efforts she had made to double her output for the war whilst maintaining a meagre living for her family. And all this accomplished in the shadow of loss.

Their relocation was to be a brand new house near Lulworth but one entirely impractical for a family who had spent generations milking cows and tending crops. The official line was that places were hard to find; and so they were ‘politely’ informed that as they were unable to accept the offer, relocation had now become their responsibility. Left with little choice, they would have to be ‘taken in’: Mrs Grebbel’s aunt owned a smallholding near East Holme and there they would hope to grow fruit and veg, keep some chickens and run a couple of pigs or sheep. Not ideal, but it would do.

As the van approached, Anne and Harry picked up their coats and bags, and readied themselves for the big day. Although they had been aware of the plan to evacuate and re-house the village for some time now, its shadow had rarely touched them; when they had seen an angry crowd gathered outside the Post Office arguing with army officials two days before, they had swept its significance aside and considered it to be just the war effort ‘gone wobbly’.

Jumping into the cabin, the day felt like any other: fighting over scratchy blankets on leather seats that smelled of stale dog was the norm; but today, their sibling squabbles came to a sudden halt when each had turned to see the back of the van piled high with the entire contents of their home.

Tyneham church
Anne nestled against the door and gazed up the hill. “Mummy, can we stop at the church please? I’d like to see the sign one more time before we leave.”

Harry sighed, his lip curled. He was angry. ” You’ve seen it before. Why bother?”

“Hope — it gives me hope that one day we’ll come back,” retorted Anne, sharply.

“Of course we’ll come back,” interjected Mrs Grebbel. Her tone was soft and soothing; but there was something in her eyes that stole away the note of promise. “A few months and it’ll all be over. We’ll back home in no time.”

The van stopped beside the tiny church and Anne dashed up the path, hoping that the sign had been replaced by another announcing the evacuation to be one elaborate joke. But it was still there. Of course it was. She sighed gently and read aloud, ignorant to the presence of any audience:

Please treat the church and houses with care; we have given up our homes where many of us lived for generations to help win the war to keep men free.

We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.

Tyneham church door
Though the board had been nailed to the church door only a week before, Anne had read the sign countless times; and each time it had left her with a remarkably different feeling. There had been rumours: some warned that once belongings were packed up, homes tipped up and turned out, backs turned away, it was the very last they would see of their beloved little village; but today, Anne’s heart was brimming with hope: she knew that one day they would all return. Continue reading

The ineffaceable stain (The legend of Eastbury House)

Eastbury House, Dorset

Precised from John H Ingram: “The Haunted Homes and family traditions of Great Britain” Gibbings & Company, London, 1897.

Eastbury House near Blandford in Dorset, owing to the galaxy of famous names surrounding its story, must take a prominent place among the haunted homes of the country. Its career as a residence was short but brilliant.

Eastbury was begun by Lord Melcombe in 1718. The park and grounds were laid out on the same magnificent scale as the house, no expense being spared ; trees half a century old, and some tons in weight, were transported bodily from distant woods and replanted at Eastbury.

In 1763, a change came over the scene, and Eastbury House was destroyed even more rapidly than it had been created; all the rooms were dismantled, and the splendid furniture scattered to the winds. Twelve years later the ruin was consummated, the house being pulled down, and the beautiful and costly materials disposed of.

The ghostly legend attached to the house is said to be firmly believed in by the inhabitants of Grenville and its neighbourhood, and is to the following effect.
Lord Melcombe advanced considerable sums of money to his steward William Doggett. The greater part of this loan Dogget is said to have parted with to a brother, who got into “difficulties” and was utterly powerless to repay it. In course of time Lord Melcombe required repayments of his money, and Doggett, unable to comply with the demand, was reduced to great extremity.

The only expedient Doggett could find to meet his liabilities was to appropriate some of the building materials and sell them on his own account. Shortly before Lord Melcombe came down to receive his money, Doggett’s courage failed; probably he had a much smaller sum with which to repay his master than he owed; he could not pay him, and, therefore, shot himself.

It was in a marble-floored room that Doggett committed suicide, and it is said the stains of his blood are still visible. One might say that the stains of murder or suicide are ineffaceable!

Since this tragedy, Doggett’s ghost has lingered about Eastbury, and the tradition is that, headless, he drives about the park in a spectral coach and four driven by a coachman in livery. The troubled spirit appears to derive a bitter satisfaction from contemplation of the decayed grandeur of the once proud house, now reduced to scarcely a shadow of its former grandeur.

But it is many years now since the apparition has made itself visible, though the taint of ghostly inhabitation still clings to the remaining wing of the house. On dark nights, when all else is still, mysterious movements are heard, the doors open and shut unaccountably, pointing to the interference that the troubled spirit has not yet served its term of earthly wanderings.

Eastbury House, Dorset

John Daniel returns

St Mary's Church, Beaminster

I, David Harbin, a pupil at Beaminster school, hereby testify that I am a true and honest witness to the events of the 22nd of June, 1728.

I am one of twenty boys benefiting from the charity of our much missed benefactor, the late Mrs Tucker, whose will has provided for us to the sum of £20 a year, derived from the income of her farm at South Mapperton. A portion of the fund provides for a schoolmaster, one who has been most effective in teaching me to read and write — not to mention, taking care to develop my manners; though his tendency to catechise me in a most peculiar manner is certainly unprecedented, but one that I have no wish to make complaint of.

We are schooled in the upper room of an annex attached to the southwest corner of St. Mary’s Church, which is the location of the events I hereby describe.

For those unaware of the long-held customs and traditions of our school, the closure of the schoolroom follows a rather tiresome procedure: every Saturday, the key of the room is delivered to the clerk of the parish by one or the other of the schoolboys. In recent months, that duty has fallen upon myself.

On the Saturday in question, I had handed the key over as usual, then followed my master to dismiss the boys. However, having overseen their passage from the church one half hour earlier, I noticed, with some embarrassment, that eight of the boys remained, loitering within the churchyard where they were involved in a game of ball. It was just about noon. I questioned the boys regarding their reasons for staying — the lads appeared somewhat nervous — and I was soon informed that they were waiting for four of their number who had re-entered the school in search of old pens.

With this, I felt it important to ascertain if there was any impropriety in the aforementioned activity. Walking towards the church, I was startled to hear much commotion; the four boys having emerged from the church appearing shaken and drawn. After recovering their breaths — they had obviously been running at quite a speed — they revealed the source of their distress: they had each been frightened by a sharp, metallic sound emanating from the chancel, something they described as resembling the repeated striking of a brass pan. The four immediately ran to their friends in the churchyard and told them of it.
After much searching for rationality, they came to the conclusion that someone, quite probably a fellow pupil, had secreted himself inside the church in order to frighten them; and deciding upon this, I joined their number in returning to the school to discover the boy’s identity; but our search was in vain, for there was not a soul hiding within.

As the boys returned to their sport (and I to my studies) via the worn steps that ran rigidly into the churchyard, we all heard a second burst of discordance, undoubtedly louder than the first for it had broken through the walls of the church. Terrified at this, we ran round the church, and when at the west door, we heard what seemed to be the sound of someone preaching, soon followed by another sound, that of a congregation singing psalms. Both of these noises lasted but a short time.

With the impetuosity of youth, unencumbered by self-doubt, the lads soon resumed their sport, whilst I remained close to the church. After a short time, one of them went into the school to retrieve his book; but seconds after the boy’s entrance, we heard a most appalling shriek, followed by a moment of whimpering. What this boy revealed, after he had returned to the churchyard as distraught as those who had gone in search of pens, was a most chilling experience: passing through the nave, he had seen a coffin lying on one of the benches, only about six feet away. Astonishing as there had not be a funeral that morning; nor would there be one tomorrow.

Alarmed by such a solemn statement, I took to the door of the church, whereupon a throng of twelve surrounded me, and as God is my witness I saw with my own eyes the scene previously described to me; a coffin sat upon a distant bench, with its lid open, and there, worse still, the apparition of John Daniel, who had been dead more than seven weeks, sitting at some distance from the coffin, near to the chancel. I am now aware that only six of us were witness to the said phantom, and it is my conjecture that all did not see the apparition because the door was so narrow that we could not all approach it together. The first who knew it to be the spectre of our deceased schoolfellow was Daniel’s half-brother, and he, on seeing it, cried out, ” There sits our John, with just such a coat on as I have ” — (in the lifetime of the deceased boy the half-brothers were usually clothed alike), — “with a pen in his hand, and a book before him, and a coffin by him. I’ll throw a stone at him.” The other boys attempted to stop him, but he threw the stone, as he did so saying, ” Take it ! ” upon which the phantom immediately disappeared.

The immense furore this created in the place may only be imagined. Despite our tender ages, ranging between eight and twelve, we were all magisterially examined by Colonel Broadrep, and all agreed in what we had seen, even to the hinges of the coffin ; whilst our descriptions of the coffin tallied exactly with that the deceased boy had been buried in. One of the lads, Samuel Coombe who saw the apparition was not quite twelve years of age, and was a quiet dispassionate lad for his age ; he enrolled in the school after the deceased boy had left it and had never seen Daniel in his life-time. The boy, on examination, gave such a vivid account of the deceased, and took especial notice of one thing about the spectre which the other boys had not mentioned, and that was, the body had a white cloth bound round one of its hands. The woman who had tended the corpse of John Daniel for interment declared on oath that she took such a white cloth from its hand, it having been placed around the boy’s hand as a bandage about four days or so before his death.

It is only now that the full details of John Daniel’s death have been revealed to me. His body had been found in such aberrant circumstances: lying in a field, a few hundred feet from his mother’s house; and thereupon had been buried without an inquest, in event of his mother alleging that the lad had been prone to fits. After the appearance of the spectre, the body was disinterred, a coroner’s inquest held, and a verdict returned to the effect that the boy had been “strangled.” This verdict appears to have been mainly arrived at in consequence of the declarations of two apparently upright and trustworthy women that two days after the corpse was found they had paid their respects only to discover a black strip of cotton or other material round its neck ; and likewise of the joiner who put the body into the coffin, who had seen dramatic marking of the neck, as if some sort of tourniquet had been applied. A surgeon who gave evidence could not or would not positively affirm to the jury that there was any dislocation of the neck.

This is all I have to say on the matter for as far as I have learnt, no steps have been taken to bring anyone to justice on account of the suggested death by violence of John Daniel.

The Flames of Stalbridge Manor – a ghost story

The Flames of Stalbridge Manor

An extract from The Flames of Stalbridge Manor:

‘Instinctively, I turned and there before me was the most horrific vision. For it was just that, a picture of intense suffering but one completely noiseless as if it were a silent dream. The flames leapt around the woman, ripping holes through her torso, lifting and wrapping the strands of her hair into a glowing ball of fire. I could see her lips contort as if to scream but no words came forth, only a splatter of fire upon flesh. I grappled with the beam behind me as if to force myself away but I was gripped by fear and found myself bound by the spectacle. The burning figure approached reaching out towards the beam that supported me, but without firmness she passed through it toppling into the void. I turned to see the flames extinguish in the darkness leaving no trace of the poor woman. Suppressing a shriek, I fell to my knees, peering at the open doorway, watching it shut violently upon itself.’

The Flames of Stalbridge Manor

The Flames of Stalbridge Manor

I had met Mrs Crowley on three occasions and expected our next encounter to run upon similar lines; but this was not to be. On entering the room, all swish from the multitude of silk and other fabrics beneath her riding coat, I could tell she had no wish to dwell upon trivial matters.

She approached holding the hem of her skirt and briskly made her comfort on the seat beside me.

“Good evening to you Alice, shall we start with tea before I reveal all?”

I was now familiar with her informality and playful tone though not entirely comfortable with it.

“It’s lovely to see you again Mrs Crowley. The children, are they well?”

“Yes, yes, all happy. But it’s you that concerns me.”

I had little clue to what she was referring to and shifted nervously in my chair.

She paused and released her grip on the teapot.

“A holiday! That’s what you need.”

The comment took me by surprise as I had not expected the conversation to turn in this direction. I searched for a suitable response but neither facial expression nor words came to mind, though I was certain at least one was expected.

Mrs. Crowley paused, her brow furrowing momentarily at my immediate vacancy, then she proceeded to elaborate.

“I recall you mentioned that you and the children had not had a holiday since you lost your husband. This somewhat resonated with me — I myself have not had a break in a considerable time; and only a handful of times to my London residence since Albert passed these ten years gone.”

As she spoke, her fingers nervously twisted the beads of her necklace tugging them in quick succession along the thread.

“It occurred to me that this might be a fortunate coincidence: two people in much need of new surrounds. As you are well aware, this is a large house and one that requires constant tending and management. If I am to be elsewhere then I leave in confidence that the tending part is more than adequately covered by the servants and the management by Mrs Ingram our housekeeper. Nevertheless, it is a concern to me that most of the house is absent of life; I should like to leave knowing that it is not just the staff who will be lifting the shutters at the light of day and closing them when it darkens.”

Unconsciously, I had edged my chair a little closer to hers. The candles clustering around our corner of the room cast the face of my companion in varying degrees of light and shade. Stabs of white brilliance came from the silver rings on her upraised hands that caught the flickering light. I looked upon her and considered her ageing beauty: her dark hair unbound, falling upon and caressing the shoulders of a velvet dress trimmed with Mechlin lace. Continue reading