The Guytrash, Brighouse

One of the most common motifs in English ghost-lore is the phantom black hound: in North Yorkshire it is known as the barguest; in Lancashire as skriker; in Cumbria as the capelthwaite; in Somerset as the girt-dog; in Devon as the yeth-hound; and—most famously—in East Anglia as Black Shuck. The motif has been exploited extensively in literature: Charlotte Brontë references the belief at a pivotal scene in “Jane Eyre”; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle built an entire novel around the belief with “The Hound of the Baskervilles”; while J.K. Rowling has recently introduced a new generation to such lore through the Grim in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”.

In the West Riding of Yorkshire, the phantom black hound was known as the guytrash or padfoot—for convenience this former term will be used here. Most towns and villages in the county had a guytrash—sometimes even individual streets could claim their own spectral canine guardian—and Brighouse was no exception. Sadly, however, details of the tradition in the town are sparse: it is only mentioned in passing by Joseph Lucas in “Studies In Nidderdale” and Samuel Dyer in “Dialect of the West Riding of Yorkshire”—published in 1882 and 1891 respectively. Fortunately, however, we can fruitfully reconstruct the legend from comparable traditions elsewhere.

In an unpublished fragment written in 1837, Branwell Brontë describes the guytrash around his home in the Worth Valley as “a spectre not at all similar to the ghosts who were once alive, nor to fairies, nor to demons” which typically appeared as “a black dog dragging a chain”. Another source claims that the guytrash was “the size of a small bear, black with shaggy hair and large eyes like saucers”; it “uttered a roar unlike the voice or any known animal” and walked with a distinctive “shog…shog…shog” sound.

Discussing the tradition in 1888, the antiquary Charles Hardwick notes “when followed by an individual (the guytrash) begins to walk backwards with his eyes fixed full on his pursuer and vanishes at the slightest momentary attention”. He adds that the guytrash was often seen to disappear into rivers and other bodies of water; whilst “at other times he sinks at the feet of the person to whom he appears with a loud splashing noise, as if a heavy stone was thrown in a miry pond”. The antiquary speculates that the dialect name “guytrash” might even be an onomatopoeic representation of this characteristic sound.

The guytrash was a source of considerable dread to the uneducated classes of the 18th and 19th Century and William Harbutt-Dawson noted that in Skipton “nothing more effectively cleared the streets than the report that t’guytrash was out”. If an unwary traveller encountered the guytrash, the fiend would often pursue its victim and sometimes cause bodily harm. Rev. Alfred Easther records the story of an Almondbury resident who was followed by the local guytrash as he was fetching home a pail of milk one evening. As the unfortunate man reached his house, he was seized by a paralysis in his arms and only just managed to get through the door before the beast was upon him.

On other occasions, the guytrash caused no harm itself but appeared as an omen of death or misfortune either for the witness’s family or some local worthy. Charles Hardwick writes, “(the guytrash) generally appears to one of the family from which death is about to select his victim and is more or less visible according to the distance of the event”. As a death-omen, the guytrash is perhaps a descendent of the Gabble Ratchets: an airborne flight of baying hell-hounds whose passage over a house similarly portended the proximity of death. This tradition was probably itself a descendent of pre-Christian traditions such as the Anglo-Saxon Wild Hunt or the Celtic Cŵn Annwn.

Sadly, there is no surviving record to suggest which specific places Brighouse folk once believed to the guytrash to haunt. Typically, however, the most likely places to an encounter such beasts were areas that could be described as “liminal”—i.e. borders, boundaries and thresholds. Folk religion perceived such spaces holistically; liminal regions were not merely physical/geographical borders but also spiritual ones—at which denizens of the Otherworld could cross into our own. Examples in England include gateways, ruins, crossroads, wasteland, churchyards, bridges, wells, parish-boundaries and so forth; all of which attracted rumours of the supernatural over the centuries.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of guytrash-lore is the fact that whilst a large black dog was its favoured incarnation, it was essentially “protean”—i.e. exceedingly variable; readily assuming different shapes or forms. Sometimes it appeared as a goat or a bear, but on other occasions its guise was infinitely more bizarre: Branwell Brontë notes that the Worth Valley guytrash sometimes adopted the aspect of “a flaming barrel bowling across fields”; it was once reported as a rolling woolpack in Almondbury; whilst around Todmorden it was seen as a dirty white rag hanging from a thorn tree—which in a cotton-weaving milltown must have made walking after dark a terrifying undertaking!

Although we do not know which areas of Brighouse the guytrash once haunted, its favoured shape in the town has fortunately been recorded: a local man named Sam Blackburn told Samuel Dyer that in his home town the guytrash appeared as “an evil cow”! Whilst the image of burly mill-workers cowering from supernaturally malevolent cattle may strike some as regrettably Pythonesque, it is scarcely more absurd than the good folk of Elland cowering from a spectral mouse at Long Wall—which as an omen of misfortune was essentially the local variant of the guytrash. Equally, residents of both Cowling and Rochdale were once afraid of a phantom rabbit!

By the late 19th Century, the vast majority of correspondents who related such traditions to industrious Victorian folklorists were adamant that the guytrash was a thing of the past and had been seen for the last time a generation ago or more. Discussing the guytrash than once haunted the outskirts of Bradford, William Cudworth wrote that it “left Horton when the district was incorporated, as it had grown jealous of the policemen”. Other sources claimed that the fiend had retired following the introduction of street-lighting, or because modern agriculture had destroyed the thickets in which it liked to hide. Whatever the reason, few feared molestation by the guytrash anymore.

Sterne Bridge, Copley

This location is somewhat beyond the usual remit for this website; however, I wrote the piece for my forthcoming book, Haunted Halifax & District, but was ultimately unable to include it due to the constraints of the word-limit. Therefore I am publishing it here so that my efforts were not wasted. And Copley isn’t that far beyond the lower reaches of the valley.

For centuries, a wooden bridge of this name carried Hollas Lane across the River Calder at the site of an ancient ford. It was named after the landowners, the Sterne family of nearby Wood Hall. Between 1724 and 1730, the young Laurence Sterne, resided at this house in the care of his uncle, whilst attending a local grammar school; he was later to find fame as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in nine volumes from 1759 and now widely regarded as the “first modern novel”. There is record of “a secret chamber and a tradition concerning a ghostly visitor” at Wood Hall, but unfortunately further details have not yet come to light.

Sadly, Sterne Bridge was rebuilt in concrete in 1914 and again in 2012, on a much larger scale, to carry a new road as part of Calderdale Council’s controversial Copley Valley regeneration scheme. Whatever associations this Brutalist edifice might conjure, it is unlikely that Romantic verse is amongst them. Nonetheless, William Wordsworth immortalised a tradition connected with Sterne Bridge in the poem Lucy Gray, composed in 1799 and published the following year in the second volume of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth’s literary heir, Matthew Arnold, described the work as “a beautiful success”, whilst the influential critic, A.C. Bradley, thought it showed a “visionary touch”.

The poem describes the last hours of Lucy Gray, a sweet and solitary child who was sent by her father to light her mother home on a snowy December afternoon. But as she descended from the moors, she was overtaken by a blizzard and never met her mother in the town, nor returned home that night. The following day, her parents began a frantic search of the route she would’ve taken; they found her footprints, still faintly visible in the snow, and tracked them down the hillside, to the middle of a wooden bridge where they abruptly disappeared. Wordsworth ends the poem with a characteristically Romantic flourish, suggesting that Lucy’s spirit still haunts that fateful crossing:

“Yet some maintain that to this day
She is a living child;
That you may see sweet Lucy Gray
Upon the lonesome wild.
 
“O’er rough and smooth she trips along,
And never looks behind;
And sings a solitary song
That whistles in the wind.”

Although Wordsworth does not mention any locations in the poem itself, he later appended a note stating, “It was founded on circumstances told me by my sister, of a little girl who, not far from Halifax in Yorkshire, was bewildered by a snowstorm”. It is likely that Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, heard the story as a child living in Halifax. Following the death of their mother in 1778, William was sent to boarding school, whilst Dorothy was entrusted to the care of their mother’s cousin, Elizabeth Threlkeld, who live over a draper’s shop in Southgate. Although she left in 1786, she referred to Halifax as “that dear place which I shall ever consider as my home” and returned to visit “Aunt Betsy” several times over the years. William even accompanied her on one visit in 1807, when they stayed at Mill House in Triangle.

The fact that the setting of Lucy Gray is so closely associated with Sterne Bridge locally suggests the oral tradition which Dorothy Wordsworth communicated to her brother endured in Halifax for many years, independently of the poem. Of course, we might wonder if Lucy’s ghost was part of that tradition, or if it was just a typically Romantic flourish to round off the work. In his later note, Wordsworth adds that Lucy’s body was subsequently discovered in a canal lock nearby, which tends to support the former possibility: a life tragically cut short was often a candidate for post-mortem return in folk-eschatology. Even if it was Wordsworth’s invention, it clearly fed back into the local tradition, as one source mentions “vigils mounted by local residents” at the bridge on wintry December nights.

Copyright Alexander P. Kapp and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Coldwell Hill, Southowram

One day in 1896, labourers quarrying stone around Coldwell Hill—on the north side of Southowram, overlooking the Shibden valley—made an unexpected and macabre discovery. Buried deep beneath the field, they uncovered a stone vault containing an unusually large coffin, and within, the well-preserved skeleton of an adult male with “an exceedingly good set of teeth on the upper jaw”. A plate on the coffin lid bore an inscription informing them that they had stumbled on the resting place of “Jonathan Walsh—Born 1741—Died February 11th 1823—Aged 82 years”.

Although the history of Calderdale is not exactly short of colourful characters, few seem quite so Dickensian as Jonathan Walsh, who once owned the now-demolished Coldwell Hill and Lower Dove House farms at Southowram. A landowner, money-lender and textile manufacturer, Walsh was notorious in the district for his eccentricity, meanness and temper. Caroline Walker, resident at Walterclough Hall during his later years, bluntly refers to him in her diaries as “an old usurer” and “extremely importunate”.

Walsh indulged in frequent bouts of litigation against his neighbours, and was believed to spend at least a hundred pounds a year pursuit of this passion, a considerable sum at that time. It was said that he would “rather spend a pound for law than a penny for ale”. He was also known to ride around the area on a mule, bearing a whip which would be used on anybody who displeased him, whilst his speech was so uncouth and haranguing that Dr. Henry Coulthurst, the esteemed Vicar of Halifax from 1790 to 1817, used to hide if he saw the man coming. The clergy were apparently a favourite target for Walsh’s ire.

Perhaps his animosity towards organised religion accounted for his unusual mode of burial. Rather than choosing to be interred in consecrated ground, he left instructions that he should be laid to rest on his own property. Thus, after his death at a house on Horton Street in Halifax, the pall-bearers set out at midnight, carrying Walsh’s coffin back to his home at Southowram. As he had been a man of some considerable stature—well over six foot tall, by all accounts—it cannot have been an easy task to haul that burden up Beacon Hill, some years before the construction of the Godley Cutting.

Walsh’s inhumation was conducted by candlelight at four o’ clock in the morning, and in further defiance of religious convention, he’d directed that he be buried with his head to the east. The spot he had chosen was in the corner of a field near where Pump Lane meets the ancient holloway variously known as Dark Lane, Magna Via or Wakefield Gate, still a well-used route into Halifax at the time. His wife had previously been buried in the same field; however, Mr. Walsh had also given instructions that he was to be planted in the opposite corner!

The reason Walsh had selected for his grave a spot so close to the former highway seems typical of his perverse character. In 1924 (whilst wondering whether Walsh’s biography had been related to Emily Brontë in 1837 when she taught at Law Hill School nearby), the venerable Halifax historian T.W. Hanson noted: “The old packhorse road passed through his land, and Walsh was provoked many times because the weavers and others would trespass over his fields instead of keeping to the road. Tradition says he was buried close to the road so that his ghost might haunt the travellers”.

Sadly, no sightings of Jonathan Walsh’s irate revenant have been recorded, but it seems inevitable that for some time after his interment, the superstitious locals will have regarded the area with dread, especially as the grave was on unconsecrated ground. For instance, Philip Ahier mentions that during the Nineteenth Century, a stretch of woodland near Kirkburton was avoided by locals, who feared they would meet the ghost of a woman who had received an unconsecrated burial there. Perhaps it was not just the construction of the Godley Cutting which caused Wakefield Gate to fall into disuse…

However, it seems that the local folk Jonathan Walsh so despised had the last laugh. Although Walsh’s land originally passed to his grandson, it was eventually absorbed into the Shibden Hall estate and then leased to the quarrying company, Maude & Dyson. Following the discovery of Walsh’s mortal remains in 1896, the enterprising firm saw no need to respect the dead and instead, placed the bones on public display, charging the public two pence each to inspect them. Over the following days, thousands of people visited the grisly attraction, until finally the skeleton was “kicked to pieces by drunkards”.

Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part Three)

Okay, this entry doesn’t actually contain any new information but that’s because all such material can be found in my recently published book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place”! This is doubtless an act of shameless self-promotion on my part but in these days of dwindling marketing budgets, what else is a poor author to do? Plus, if I can’t hawk a book I’ve written on my own blog, where else can I? I hope, however, that many regular readers of this site will find the tome extremely informative and as such, I pray nobody will mind me bringing it to their attention. To purchase a copy, please click here or on the cover image further down the page.

According to a review in Northern Earth Magazine Issue 129, “Kai Roberts unravels a highly tangled skein of fact, folklore, paraphenomena, assumption, reinterpretation, vampirism, ego and propertarianism to seek a single unified theory of Robin Hood’s supposed resting-place in West Yorkshire. It makes for an entertaining read, all backed up by thorough research and organisation of the material”.

And from the March 2012 issue of Valley Life: “Folklore enthusiasts will find much that enlightens and informs in a carefully researched book that examines every fact and fantasy connected with Robin Hood’s death. A little light reading it certainly is not but the reader who persists will, at the close of the last page, be able to claim an encyclopaedic knowledge of a British icon that still intrigues and enthrals to this day.”

Below, you’ll find a chapter breakdown, whilst here’s the blurb from the back cover:

“In the modern era, the narrative of Robin Hood’s death is increasingly one of the least familiar aspects of the outlaw’s legend. It is all too commonly assumed that as Robin Hood is a legendary hero in the vein of King Arthur, there must be numerous sites that claim to be his final resting place. Yet this is not the case. Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire is the only place that has been repeatedly associated with the outlaw’s grave, in terms of both documentary sources and material remains, over several hundred years.

Studying Kirklees and the various legends to have grown up around it allows us an insight into the reciprocal relationship between people and place. Of particular interest is the extent to which the state of Robin Hood’s grave in the modern era and all the associated disputes have determined the interpretation of the paranormal phenomena witnessed in the vicinity of the site today. In this regard, it is a study in modern myth-making.”

Chapter One

A detailed examination of the narrative of Robin’s death from the earliest medieval ballads to romanticised Victorian sources, observing variations and continuity especially regarding the role of Kirklees Priory and the legendary location of the outlaw’s grave.

Chapter Two

A history of Kirklees Park from its earliest occupation during the Iron Age and Romano-British period, through the life of Kirklees Priory during the Middle Ages, the estate’s subsequent possession by generations of the Armytage baronetcy and its sale in recent years.

Chapter Three

A history of the monument known as “Robin Hood’s Grave”, endeavouring to show that whilst its origins may be shrouded in mystery it is far more than an 18th Century folly and interrogating the reliability of much of what has been written about the site since the 1600s.

Chapter Four

A discussion of how the narrative of Robin’s death and the material presence of a “grave” at Kirklees has been used to support arguments for the outlaw’s historical existence (or otherwise) over the centuries, including some comments on the character’s mythic aspects.

Chapter Five

A history of public interest in the site of Robin Hood’s Grave, from the Armytage’s early exploitation of the site to their disinterest in the late 20th Century and refusal to permit access, resulting in the controversial campaign of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society.

Chapter Six

A digression chronicling the events at Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s, in order to provide a valuable comparison with later occurrences at Robin Hood’s Grave and introduce readers to the colourful characters of Bishop Sean Manchester and David Farrant.

Chapter Seven

A study of the reputed paranormal activity around Robin Hood’s Grave, from 17th Century folklore to the range of contemporary reports, with reference to the involvement of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society and the site’s role in the decades-old Manchester/Farrant feud.

Chapter Eight

An examination of the psychogeogaphical landscape of which Robin Hood’s Grave has become an important part, encompassing Castle Hill, Hartshead Church, the Three Nuns pub, the Brontë family, holy wells, Luddites, dragons, ghosts and a brief history of ley-lines.

Chapter Nine

A survey of folklore pertaining to Robin Hood elsewhere in the Calder Valley, with particular reference to its connection with sites of topographic or prehistoric significance, introducing a tentative hypothesis regarding what this might tell us about the monument at Kirklees.

Chapter Ten

An analysis of the sociological, psychological and folkloric processes which have influenced perceptions of Robin Hood’s Grave, introducing the reader to concepts such as fakelore, legend-tripping and ostension, and the roles they have played in the site’s curious history.

Finally, the acknowledgements were omitted from the book in error. They are published below until such as time as they can be included in a future edition.

For information and advice: Paul Bennett, Anna Best, John Billingsley, Calderdale Libraries, Jon Downes, Corinna Downes, David Farrant, Catherine Fearnley, Barbara Green, Michael Hartley, Anthony Hogg, Gareth J. Medway, Bishop Sean Manchester, Andy Roberts, Paul Weatherhead and West Yorkshire Archive Service.

For moral support and good sense: Jim Firth, Mark Firth, Tom Firth, Patrick Green, Mark Howells, Helen Roberts, Pat & Derek Roberts, Phil Roper, Samantha Rule and Quentin Whitaker.

The Gabble Ratchets

In his Memoranda for 2nd March 1664, whilst living at Coley Hall, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote: “There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches (sic) by this country-people, the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them the persons that see them die shortly after, they are never heard but before a great death or dearth.” Heywood is keen to point out, however, “Though I never heard them”.

The phenomenon known variously as the Gabble Ratchets or the Gabriel Hounds was not unique to the lower Calder valley. It was notorious throughout England, although primarily concentrated and surviving longest in the northern counties. The tradition was still familiar to the Cumbrian poet William Wordsworth in 1807. One of his sonnets from that year contains the lines “For overhead are sweeping the Gabriel Hounds / Doomed with the imperious lord, the flying hart / To chase forever on aerial grounds”.

Given the geographical range of the belief, the exact nature of the Gabble Ratchets varied somewhat. In his Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England of 1879, folklorist William Henderson described them as “monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse the air, and are often heard although seldom seen.” However, Henderson goes on to add “In the neighbourhood of Leeds the phenomenon is… held to be the souls of unbaptised children doomed to flit restlessly around their parents home”.

In all traditions, they were thought to portend death or disaster. As spectral hounds, they were believed to be hunting the souls of the newly dead. Indeed, the term “Ratchets” may be derived from the Old English word “ræcc”, meaning a dog that hunts by scent. “Gabble” is probably just an onomatopoeic representation of the noise they made. One source from Sheffield informed Henderson that “the sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles on the foot of a race, but not so loud and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural”.

It is thought the Gabble Ratchets may be derived from the Celtic Cŵn Annwn (Hounds of the Underworld), mentioned by the Sixth Century Welsh poet, Taliesin. The Cŵn Annwn were similarly imagined as a pack of spectral hounds, led by a black horned figure. Equally, there are correspondences with the Germanic myth of the Wild Hunt, who followed in the wake of the god Woden. The Wild Hunt was also known in some parts of southern England, where it was led by Herne the Hunter or even the Devil himself.

Belief in the Gabble Ratchets was dismissed by learned authorities as long ago as 1686. For instance, Robert Plot, first Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, believed their infamous cacophony to be nothing more than the cries of migrating geese. An ornithologist writing to Notes & Queries almost two centuries later concurred, identifying them as “bean-geese, coming southwards in large flocks on the approach of winter from Scandinavia. They choose dark nights for their migration and utter a loud and peculiar cry”.

Published in: on May 22, 2011 at 10:58  Leave a Comment  
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The Headless Hound of Toothill Hall

Set in extensive grounds at the junction of Toothill Lane and Huddersfield Road, a building was first recorded at Toothill Hall in the 16th Century and the Toothill family as early as the 1300s. The name of the area derives from the Old English for “look-out hill”, suggesting human activity had existed there since before the Norman Conquest. It certainly makes a fine site for a watch post, commanding extensive views up and down the lower Calder valley. Although it seems likely that the Toothill family were the founders of the Hall, it has been occupied by a diverse succession of people over the centuries and the current edifice was constructed by Quaker philanthropist Thomas Firth in 1823 and later, divided into two in 1957.

In Legends and Traditions of Huddersfield and Its District, Philip Ahier recounts a curious legend associated with Toothill Hall and the surrounding area. He was told that during the English Civil Wars, it was home to a young cavalier who was in love with a daughter of Newhouse Hall, located just over a mile away on the other side of Felgreave Wood at Sheepridge. This girl, Sybil Brooke, was held to be a great beauty and had many suitors in the locality, but only the cavalier of Toothill found his affections reciprocated. However, her father did not approve of the match, despite also supporting the Royalist cause in the Civil Wars, and so forbade the lovers from meeting, confining his daughter to the Hall.

Nonetheless, the young cavalier was determined and devised a means by which he and his beau could communicate still. He would attach a message to the neck of his hound, who then sped through the woods by moonlight to be met by Sybil at the kitchen window of Newhouse Hall. The girl would then send him back to his master with a message in return. This method proved successful for a period of time, but one fateful night the hound discovered not Sybil Brooke at the kitchen window, but her enraged father. Such was his anger, he took his sword and with a single blow, cleaved the dog’s head from its body, slicing the letter it carried in two in the process. The hound then turned tail and scampered headless through the woods.

Upon hearing of the fate of his faithful messenger, the Toothill cavalier is supposed to have been so incensed that he changed sides in the Civil Wars, swearing his allegiance to Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, just to spite the Newhouse patriarch. Meanwhile, on moonlit nights in autumn, the apparition of a headless hound is still said to roam through Felgrave Wood and back to Toothill Hall. Anybody who witnesses this phantom is supposed to suffer grave misfortune. This aspect of the legend has much in common with the widespread “black dog” motif in English folklore, known variously as black shuck, barguest, guytrash and skriker. Hence, it may be that the story was grafted on to explain a much older folkloric tradition in the area.

A variation on the legend appears in the mid-19th Century, when a phantom dog with the head and beard of a man was believed to haunt Felgreave Wood (today bisected by the A641 between Bradley Bar and Huddersfield). A woman named Elizabeth Haigh is reported to have fallen into a deep swoon upon witnessing the monstrosity and was not found until the following morning. Ahier suggests that the origin of this adaptation may lie in Felgreave Wood’s reputation at the time for plentiful game, especially pheasant and hare. The gamekeepers probably traded on the existing legend to deter poachers, and to reinforce it further may have taken to donning furs and crawling on all fours through the undergrowth.

Although Newhouse Hall lies firmly within Kirklees and the Colne Valley and so beyond the remit of this site, due to its connection with the Toothill legend it seems worth recounting here that the Hall also has its fair share of ghosts. Following the brutal intervention of her father, tradition claims that Sybil Brooke lost her reason and pined away in the upper rooms of the house, which her ghost still stalks to this day. Maids in the 19th Century claimed to hear the rustle of silk along the corridors at night and one often complained of being “clutched by an unseen hand”. Meanwhile, in one particular bed in an upper chamber, guests were often disturbed by a thing that crouched heavily on the legs of the sleeper, only to disappear as soon as a light was kindled.

Elizabeth Rayner, Clifton Woods

Even today, violent death in a small community tends to leave a substantial psychic scar and it is not surprising that a brutal slaying committed in Clifton in the early 19th Century remained ingrained in the folk memory for many decades after the fact. The murder in question occurred sometime between nine o’ clock on the night of New Year’s Eve 1832, when the twenty year old victim, Elizabeth Rayner, was last seen, and three o’ clock on the following day, when her corpse was discovered by three children, including her younger brothers John and Simeon.

According to a report in the Halifax Guardian dated 6th January 1833, the body was found in Clifton Wood, only two hundred yards from her home on Well Lane, a point which some sources locate near where Westgate turns onto Coal Pit Lane. Her throat had been cut, possibly by a left-handed assailant. However, no murder weapon was ever discovered and an inquest held several days later at the Armytage Arms by local magistrate, Sir George Armytage (of Kirklees Hall) established the circumstances of death but failed to identify a culprit.

Despite a reward of £200 being offered for information, nobody was ever prosecuted for the crime. Yet both local and family tradition hints at suspicious circumstances surrounding this failure to bring the murderer to justice, perhaps even a conspiracy. A curious fact of the case is that whilst Liz Rayner was unmarried, she was discovered to be pregnant when they examined the body. Rumours abounded that the identity of the murderer was well known amongst the community but for whatever reason was never officially revealed.

In a recollection of his childhood in Clifton during the late 19th Century, published in the Brighouse Echo on 4th October 1957, local worthy Albert Baldwin relates how many years after the murder, a relative of Liz by the name of Jack Rayner (possibly the brother John who found the body) ran a sweet shop from a cottage on Towngate. He often used to regale customers with the story of the murder and how he recalled hearing a “soughing noise like the squeal of a hare in distress” around the time when the killing must have occurred.

Baldwin explains that the spot near where the body was found was still regarded with anxiety by local folk, many of whom had not the courage to pass by it along Coal Pit Lane after dark. Given that this must have been so many years after the event, it cannot have been from fear that the murderer was still at large, but rather that the spot was considered to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of the murdered girl. He also mentions that a strange sound like the “squeal of a hare in distress” was often heard in the vicinity and regarded with some dread.

Even more curious is an apparition which has been encountered by at least five of the descendants of Elizabeth Rayner’s brother, John, and which was last seen at a house in Bradford Road during the mid-1980s. It is described as tall, cloaked silhouette, not unlike the figure on the Sandeman’s Port logo minus the hat. Given the attire of the figure and its connection with the family, some of the witnesses have speculated whether it might not be the spectre of their ancestor’s murderer, continuing to victimise the Rayner lineage even in death.

Anna Best’s book “Borrowers of the Night: The Clifton Wood Murder” contains a much greater wealth of detail concerning the incident. More information can be found on her blog, whilst her book is available here.

Published in: on August 4, 2010 at 10:03  Comments (1)  
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Tag Cut, Cromwell Bottom

Prior to the completion of stretch of the Calder and Hebble Navigation canal between Elland and Brighouse in 1808, barges on the River Calder would navigate meanders by temporary “cuts”. Tag Cut at Cromwell Bottom, constructed to provide water access to Elland Stone Mill, was built in 1770 but appears never to have been used. Today, its remains form part of the Cromwell Bottom nature reserve, running just below the railway line and Strangstry Wood.

During the early 20th Century the area was a popular beauty spot but the site was forgotten for many years whilst the area was used as gravel pits and then for landfill. However, the cut still holds water and whilst it has the appearance of being stagnant, there is actually a slow flow which contributes to the diversity of wildlife habitats. It’s one of the most important sites for dragonflies in damselflies in West Yorkshire, with at least ten different species recorded, not to mention herons, kingfishers and a range of flora.

It is certainly an atmospheric place. Due to the area’s history as a landfill site – including for highly alkaline fly-ash produced by the now-demolished Elland Power Station which once stood nearby – the trees cannot put down deep roots in the shallow soil and so appear stunted and unusually contorted. Meanwhile, the water in the cut is tinted orange on account of iron oxide and clay leaching through the soil from old workings at the disused Calder Mine on the hillside above.

It is not known why the cut was never actually used. It may be that it was simply superseded by the Calder and Hebble Navigation. However, a much more sinister possibility is that the area was once haunted by an apparition called Tag, a headless ghost who drove a carriage pulled by a two-headed horse down the length of the cut from a secret passage leading to Elland New Hall. It is even reputed that a room in the hall once went by the name of Tag Chamber.

An article in the Halifax Evening Courier & Guardian dated 6th August 1938 records the experience of one woman who often stayed at New Hall in the early Nineteenth Century. One night she was so disturbed by mysterious crashes emanating from Tag Chamber that she fled the building, believing it to be the sound of Old Tag setting out on his nocturnal travels. Nothing could persuade her to sleep at New Hall again for many years.

Meanwhile, an article in the Brighouse Echo dated 29th October 1971, speculates: “Has anyone seen a headless horseman recently? There is a local legend that such a gruesome apparition can be seen on windy nights galloping past Cromwell Bottom or along Elland Lane at the bottom of Lower Edge. The most likely origin of this tradition is a bitter dispute that occurred some 600 years ago and which has become known as the Elland Feud.”

Such an origin for the tradition would be very satisfactory indeed but on closer inspection it seems unlikely. Whilst New Hall became the home of what remained of the de Eland family after the Feud through marriage to the Saviles, at the time of his murder Sir John de Eland the Younger still lived at Elland Old Hall, sited on the other bank of the Calder to Tag Cut and New Hall, and it thus seems more likely that any such apparition would be associated with Old Hall instead.

Robin Hood’s Grave, Kirklees Park (Part Two)

STOP PRESS: My book “Grave Concerns: The Follies and Folklore of Robin Hood’s Final Resting Place” has now been published by CFZ Press. It examines the history and legend surrounding Robin Hood’s grave at Kirklees in great depth. More information can be found here and the book can be purchased by clicking here.

Link to Part One

Located in the dense woodland of Kirklees Park, the site of Robin Hood’s Grave has always been a locus of superstition and myth. Whilst in recent years, the stories have become more lurid, the earliest tales recall some of the most venerable traditions of British folklore. In his 1730 work, The Ancient and Modern History of the Famous City of York, Thomas Gent claims that in years gone by the gravestone was removed by one of the local gentry for use as the hearthstone in his manor. However, on the morning following its installation it was discovered “turned aside,” something that occurred on three successive occasions until it was returned to its original position. Meanwhile, the reason the stone was enclosed by railings in the late 18th Century was to deter navvies working in the area from taking chippings from the stone, which they believed worked as a cure for toothache.

Such stories are very similar to those attached to numerous prehistoric standing stones and other megalithic sites across Western Europe, leading some to speculate that the original stone of Robin Hood’s Grave may have been a much earlier monolith which was adapted to a new tradition. This process is not uncommon in the Calderdale region, where a number of ancient geomantic sites have become associated with the outlaw, who is sometimes regarded by folklorists as a medieval folk-memory of a pre-Christian deity. One such example is Robin Hood’s Penny Stone, a rocking stone at the centre of a lost stone circle near Wainstalls, that local folklore holds was thrown there by Robin from across the valley. He is often portrayed as a giant of enormous strength in legends of the region, which supports the notion that older pagan legends have been transposed into his name.

The first published hint of a long-standing local belief in darker supernatural forces around the grave comes from Land of Lost Content: The Luddite Revolt by Robert Reid, in which the author writes: “The Armytage family lived over the brow of the hill on a splendid site once occupied by Cistercian nuns. It was called Kirklees. There was more than an insularity which set the mansion apart. There was a mystery about it which local people only reluctantly tried to penetrate. The mystery was helped physically by the thick shroud of trees that surrounded the place and was sustained by local tales of ghosts of prioresses and nuns and or the death of Robin Hood whose grave is so imperturbably marked as lying within Kirklees grounds in spite of any facts which might suggest to the contrary.” This has become a much quoted passage and appears to have greatly influenced subsequent belief attached to the site.

A number of local stories concerning apparent paranormal activity in the area have been collected over the years. One of the earliest oral recollections dates to 1923 when John Hill, a tenant farmer living in the gatehouse where Robin is supposed to have died, returned from a nearby pub one night and reports to have seen a shadowy figure wielding a bow in the upstairs window. In another account, local musician Roger Williams claims to have been walking through the woods near the grave when he encountered the apparition of a woman with mad, staring eyes on two occasions in 1963 and 1972. Then there is the testimony of journalists Judith Broadbent and Sue Ellis who visited the grave to write a feature for Yorkshire Life. Whilst there, Broadbent experienced the sensation of being pulled to the ground and immediately afterwards, Ellis was seized by a mysterious paralysis which lasted for weeks.

However, things get much murkier when the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society enters the equation. The Society was founded in 1984 by local resident Barbara Green and over the years they have tirelessly campaigned for access to the grave, much to the chagrin of landowner Lady Armytage. Facing repeated obstruction in their reasonable desire to visit the site, its members were forced to engage in trespass and whilst this was a last resort, the parallels with Robin’s own behaviour in the face of aristocratic opposition were not lost on them. In this correspondence there is a hint of a phenomenon academic folklorists have dubbed ostension, whereby an individual closely associates themselves with a legend, often to the extent of re-enacting its narrative. The Society’s attempts to promote the grave increasingly became a crusade against class privilege and the ensuing lack of diplomacy on both sides served to muddy the waters further.

The majority of supernatural activity recorded at the grave in the past two decades comes from Barbara Green herself and other members of her organisation. As president of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, she would already have been well acquainted with the rumours surrounding the grave and quite probably the passage from Land of Lost Content. Moreover, not only have many of her visits been illicit and in the dead of night, but Green is also a believer in the paranormal. It’s not too disingenuous to suggest that these facts may have coloured her perception of the site and her claims must be treated accordingly. One such example is her account of a night in April 1990 when she was holding a vigil at the grave, only to be overcome by a profound sense of dread and see a red-headed man accompanied by a black shape amongst the trees, which she speculates may have been the spirits of the Prioress and her lover, Red Roger of Doncaster.

However, Green’s experiences look positively sensible when compared to the assertions of Reverend Sean Manchester and the case of the Kirklees Vampire. Manchester is an ordained priest and an alleged descendant of Lord Byron, but perhaps he is more notorious as the United Kingdom’s most prominent and apparently entirely sincere vampire hunter. He rose to tabloid fame in the early 1970s during the infamous Highgate Vampire hysteria and his feud with rival investigator David Farrant which was at the centre of those events persists today. It seems Manchester had already identified Robin Hood’s Grave as a potential source of vampiric activity, arguing that both the outlaw and his murderer could be candidates for the undead. The former because he had been buried in unhallowed ground and the latter due to the means by which she’d dispatched her troublesome cousin.

It is therefore hardly surprising that when Manchester made his visit to the grave – coincidentally also in April 1990 – he claims to have found all the signs of a vampire infestation. These included occult symbols scrawled on the gatehouse; the mutilated carcass of a goat in the woods, seemingly drained of blood; and claw marks in the earth around the grave itself. Whilst they were at the grave, Manchester writes that he and his fellow “researchers” heard a terrifying wailing sound and one of his companions claimed to have seen the spectre of a darkly-clad woman who suddenly turned into a crimson-eyed demon. The self-styled vampire hunter then proceeded to drive back these forces of darkness, bearing his crucifix aloft and intoning “Behold the Light!”, dousing the area around the grave with holy water before they left. His account of the incident can be found in his Vampire Hunter’s Handbook.

Barbara Green invited Manchester to act as the patron of the Yorkshire Robin Hood Society, a role he held until the two fell out over Green’s refusal to expel a member who Manchester believed to be a Satanist. In what was surely a calculated snub, when Green relaunched the Society in recent years, Manchester’s arch-enemy David Farrant had taken over the role of patron. Since this time, Manchester has attempted to discredit Green (and naturally, Farrant) at every opportunity, even going to the extent of denying that he had ever propagated the myth of the Kirklees Vampire, despite that chapter in his book. Meanwhile, Green is satisfied that all paranormal activity at the grave has ceased since an exorcism performed there with Farrant and others on 20th April 2005. One suspects, however, that the centuries-old reputation of the site and the internecine squabbles of its would-be protectors will not be laid to rest so easily.

Bradley Wood and Shepherds Thorn Lane

Bradley Wood is a forty-five acre tract lying in the triangle of hillside between the River Calder, Huddersfield Road and the M62. The land in this area was once owned by the monks at Fountains Abbeys in North Yorkshire, who established a bloomery (a specialised type of iron working) in the woods here. In later centuries, like so many places in the region, the landscape was exploited by small-scale open-cast mining and these were briefly reopened in the General Strike of 1926 by locals eager to secure fuel supplies at a time when they were extremely scarce. However, since 13th June 1942 the woods have been home to the West Yorkshire County Scout Campsite, possessing an extensive range of accommodation and facilities which has seen it visited by scouting organisations from across the world.

On Shepherds Thorn Lane which runs down to meet Bradley Wood from Huddersfield Road, it is possible still to see the arched cellar of an old packhorse inn. Such an inn would once have been a well-frequented watering hole on the main route over the Scammenden Moors to Lancashire and a Brighouse Echo article dated 6th August 1982 tells how it was once the favourite haunt of a local girl who often enjoyed dalliances with the packhorse drivers there. However, the landlord of the inn also had designs on the girl and in a fit of jealousy, murdered her in the very cellars whose vault can still be seen. Thus, her restless spirit, the White Lady of Bradley Wood, still haunts that spot today. However, the story’s apparent efficacy in keeping scouts in bed after lights out may lead you to suspect its authenticity.