Halloween tales: Ghost stories of 19th century Lancashire

To mark Halloween local historian Keith Johnson delves into the archives to revisit some of Lancashire's most terrifying tales from a long lost 19th century book of ghost stories

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 30th October 2018, 5:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 30th October 2018, 5:38 pm
The Headless Woman
The Headless Woman

Inevitably the coming of Halloween in Lancashire brings thoughts of ghosts and spirits and boggarts which would delight in sending a shiver down your spine. Many of them are familiar to us being mentioned annually when this festival of fright occurs. Nonetheless, others are less familiar, having been lost in the eerie mists of time. Back in 1878, when James Bowker published his ‘Goblin Tales of Lancashire’, he recalled a number of ghosts and ghouls. While much centred on tales of fairies and pixies there was among the manuscript some haunting tales.

The ‘Headless Woman’ encounter that befell Gabriel Fisher after leaving the White Bull in Longridge was among them. Striding out to Tootle Heights and beyond on a moonlit night, with his faithful dog beside him, he came upon the shadowy figure of a woman carrying a basket and clad in cloak and bonnet. Once level with the haunting figure the dog let out a loud howl and fled down the hillside. Quickening his pace Fisher was horrified when a severed head came rolling past him. Managing to sidestep the head he ran quicker than ever before, only drawing breath when he reached his cottage home.

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Graveyard where the Spectral Cat roamed

The ‘Shrieker’ is another haunting spectre recorded by Bowker, telling of a sturdy young fellow who, after leaving Chipping and the inns therein on a snow covered night, beheld a hideous figure with a black shaggy hide, and huge eyes closely resembling orbs of fire. He at once knew it was the ‘Shrieker’ who legend claimed was the ambassador of death. The gliding figure seemed to mystify him for a while before he broke into a run.There is also a tale from Leyland long ago at a time a church was being built upon a field close by a graveyard. When stones from within the foundations went missing continually overnight the builders were puzzled. Baffled by the mystery a priest and a parishioner spent a night on watch. As the midnight hour approached both men gazing intently, saw a huge cat, with great unearthly looking eyes, and a tail with a barbed end. Without any seeming difficulty this ferocious looking animal took up a large stone and hopped off with it, returning almost immediately for another. This strange performance went on for some time, with the two observers being almost petrified. Unfortunately, the priest’s companion resolved to intervene and, with a cudgel, struck the cat a heavy blow. Unperturbed the cat sprang upon him and fixed its teeth to his throat leaving a blooded corpse as it fled into the night. The creature became known as the ‘Spectral Cat’.

In those far gone days, when Ulverston was part of Lancashire, there was a fearful tale told by the tenants of Plumpton Hall. One November night when all had gone to slumber they were awakened by the sound of the hammer on the old clock striking the 11th hour and the echoes of loud thuds, as of a heavy object bumping upon the stairs. It was not the first time this had occurred and the quaking occupants of the bed chamber hid their heads beneath the bedclothes, for they knew it was an old fashioned oak chair on its way down the noble staircase, sliding from step to step as though dragged along by an invisible being. If anyone had dared to follow that chair into the parlour they would have seen besides a fire blazing in the grate a beautiful woman with an infant at her breast. Year after year the haunting scene was repeated and chair, child and fire were seen by many a weary wayfarer, drawn to the house by the glow of the fire through the window panes. Tradition tells of one wanderer who, coming upon the scene and finding his pleadings for food and shelter ignored, had loudly cursed the woman within who appeared to turn a deaf ear. The seated figure then turned the light of its wild eyes upon him and next morning the poor wretch was discovered gazing fixedly through the window, with a terror-stricken look on his face and hair that had turned white through fear as he was discovered petrified.

At a time when Hoghton Tower was no more than a noble ruin, Bowker wrote a haunting tale surrounding a young man named Edgar Astley who had arrived at Hoghton in mourning after the loss of his sweetheart who had not only rejected him, but had died soon after her nuptials to his rival. Dressed in sable garments he had the air of one bereaved. His behaviour aroused the curiosity of the servants as he often spent hours sat beneath a giant oak and they observed strange coloured lights burning in Edgar’s room at dead of night. Unable to repress their inquisitive nature they spied upon him through knot holes in the oak door of his chamber. Edgar could be seen sat at a little table with an old black book open before him and in his hands a tall brazen cup from which flames of many colours danced as he spoke words beseeching his lost love to return. One stormy night, when whirling leaves danced around the ancient oak, and the household had retired early, only Edgar and another were awake. In his chamber a lamp was burning and Edgar pored over the pages of the book before uttering the words ‘The time draws nigh, and once more we shall meet!’ He then gathered some articles together and stepped out of his room, down the old staircase and out into the night. He was greeted by a cold blast of wind, which shrieked around him, and as Edgar battled with it a servant emerged from the shadows and joined him. The pair picked their way along the path until they reached the oak tree, where Edgar with a short wand drew a large circle around the two of them. He then placed a little cauldron on the grass filling it with red powder, which immediately blazed forth a steady flame. The old mastiffs chained under the gateway began to howl as Edgar struck the ground three times with his wand crying out for his love to return to him.Hardly had he spoken when a figure of a beautiful child appeared and floated around the circle. The servant sank to his knees as the figure vanished and once more Edgar’s voice cried out for his love and thunder and lightning filled the air as flocks of birds flew across the gardens. He prayed that the spirit of love conjure up his will and as he concluded his beseeching a thick mist gathered opposite him, and slowly the outline of a beautiful human face, with mournful eyes, could be discerned. Clad in the garments of the grave, the betrothed of Edgar Astley appeared before him. He gazed upon her as though entranced and as he extended his arms to embrace the beautiful phantom it vanished and pealing thunder broke forth. The occupants of the mansion had been disturbed by the violence of the storm and they rushed forward to see Edgar leaning against the oak tree, his eyes fixed in the direction of where his betrothed had appeared and as they led him away the light of reason seemed to have deserted him. Edgar had been terrified out of his wits, while the domestic servant retained his faculties and never tired of telling of the visit of the spirit beneath the old oak tree.

Haunted staircase at Plumpton Hall
Hoghton Tower