The Phantom Coach of Rastrick House

In 1942, one Miss E. Canziani of Palace Green in Kensington, responded to a survey of phantom coaches in England, conducted by the Journal of the Folklore Society, with information that such an apparition was associated with Rastrick House. Sadly, she either provided no further information or else it was not published, and it is not clear what connection Miss Canziani had with Rastrick. Nonetheless, the phantom coach is an extremely common motif in English ghost-lore—the Folklore Society survey recorded more than sixty examples—and comparison with some of the more extensively documented cases across the country offers a basis for conjecture.

As Folklore Society luminary Christina Hole wrote in her study, Haunted England, “Sometimes it (the phantom coach) comes to fetch away the dying; sometimes… the already dead use it in their perambulations about the roads and fields of their old home… It is always black, and so are the driver and his horses. Often both are headless. It appears suddenly on the roadway and moves very fast and usually without noise… Like most apparitions of its kind, it is an ominous thing to meet, and often serves as a death-omen, for those unlucky enough to encounter it… Sometimes the spirit of an erring human being is condemned to drive between two points in expiation of a sin”.

Considering their attributes and the fact that coaches did not become ubiquitous until the Sixteenth Century, Hole suggests that in many cases, phantom coaches may have been an evolution of an older, pagan belief in the Wild Hunt which thrived across north-western Europe in the early medieval period. This company of demons and unquiet souls once rode furiously through the night skies and to witness the Wild Hunt similarly portended misfortune. As such perhaps the phantom coach associated with Rastrick Hall never had any distinct identity of its own and was simply an anoynmous superstitious motif associated with tragedy, much like the guytrash.

However, Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood go on to add, in The Lore of the Land, “The hallmark of phantom coach stories is that, if not anonymous, they are usually attached to landed proprietors against whom some kind of grudge is held”. As such, it may be possible to study the history of Rastrick House to identify the occupant of its coach. It is not clear when the hall itself was built, but probably it was sometime during the Seventeenth Century, for the Rastrick family, who lived there for several generations until 1772. Sadly the building was demolished in the mid-Twentieth Century to make way for the Foxcroft estate; only the gatehouse still stands, on the corner of Field Top Lane.

If the phantom coach was connected to one of the Rastrick family, then the likely candidate seems to be William de Rastrick, who live during the second half of the Seventeenth Century and into the first half of the Eighteenth. Certainly he seems to have been the only member of the Rastrick family to have achieved any measure of notoriety during his tenure of Rastrick House. He is noted in one source as, “a defender of the Protestant church… who spent his great estate in support of the war and King William III”, doubtless referring to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the Nine Years War with France (1688-97).

Thus, William de Rastrick was a staunch Anglican—in a district rife with Non-Conformism—who diverted his wealth from local development into a war whose popularity rapidly diminished as it dragged on, and to assist a foreign monarch whose support dwindled significantly following the death of his English wife, Queen Mary II, in 1794. Although we are unlikely ever to know for certain, he seems the most likely candidate to be reviled in the local folk memory and consequently accoutred with a phantom coach following his death. One can only wonder if such a spectral vehicle has ever been seen racing through the precincts of the Foxcroft estate in recent years?

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