This episode is the first of two looking at some legends from the nearly 2000 year old city of Manchester, The Venice of the North, Cottonopolis, Madchester, with a name seeming likely to originate with a word meaning u0022Breast-like hillu0022.
“Which, on a closer examination, presented the frightful outline of a human skull!”
A second episode featuring tales from Manchester.
Three stories with a particular emphasis on the post-mortem, with a light dusting of Boggarts and faeries to keep things interesting.
There’s a very picky skull, a very strange clock, and a very scary funeral.
It also features the first kind of true story ever to feature on the podcast.
“I would like to live in Manchester, England. The transition between Manchester and death would be unnoticeable”Mark Twain
Stories in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The stories in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the stories, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
The Skull of Wardley Hall
Maria Downes was a member of a rich Northern family, who lived in the grand Wardley Hall in Worsley, on the outskirts of Manchester.
Though the year was 1638 Maria was almost as much into mail order packages as your average working from home Amazon-reliant middle class household in 2021. Though delivery times were much greater then.
A package had arrived for her from London. Which was not unusual. What was unusual was that she had no memory of having anything of such size on order. Ah well, maybe a gift from an admirer or some such.
She took it into the house from the courier, set it down on a surface, got distracted and promptly forgot about it.
We take a massive chronological leap in the narrative here – more than a hundred years in the future antiquarian Thomas Barritt is making his way back from Wardley Hall with a couple of friends. They’ve just had a very interesting day out visiting the house.
And they’ve acquired a most fascinating artifact for their collection. An artifact they were specifically told not to take. But these are Englishman during the age of Empire: dishonesty and theft run thick through their blood.
As they set off back to Manchester the sky over Wardley hall begins to darken in a distinctly ominous fashion.
At the house the lack has been discovered.
“Those bloody antiquarians! Find them, find them now or we’ve all had it!”
And in a great rush servants and masters alike left the house…. Fleeing out into the great storm that’s now raging all around, desperate and determined to find the damn antiquarians.
We’re back in 1638 and just to make things complicated we’re a month so earlier and on London Bridge.
Roger Downes is out celebrating hard with his friends. Roger is celebrating because the justice system has done exactly what it was designed to do, which was to let him, a rich nobleman, off completely scott free following his murder of a low born man a few weeks before.
He killed him on a drunken bender, and he’s not even sure why. Perhaps just to watch him die.
To his considerable surprise the Watch had arrested him. And he, Roger Downes, had been thrown into prison! For a brief period he’d even been concerned. But connections at court had resulted in all charges being dropped. And now he was full of life and drinking heavily again.
His band of sickeningly wealthy reprobates were crossing London bridge when a fight broke out. Between whom is not exactly clear. Another group of passing nobles? Some poor people they’d been mocking. Between themselves?
What was clear is that very soon the Watch were on the scene.
Roger Downes was full of a sense of power and invulnerability – first from the dropped charges and then enhanced when he easily felled a man with his rapier.
When he saw the watchmen approaching him the blood soaked man giggled and charged. “You can’t touch me! I’m Roger Downes!” he cried.
The Watchman, a trained military professional who didn’t know Roger from Adam, made a single clean powerful stroke with his halberd. And with that he neatly separated Roger’s wealthy landed head from Roger’s wealthy landed body.
Cut to Maria a few weeks later, with that package, which she’s finally remembered. She picks it up from the table, opens it curiously.
On seeing the contents looking back on her with its dead eyes she drops it. And she screams and screams and screams.
When she recovers from the shock she takes the skull of her brother and buries it in the grounds. The process of grieving can now begin.
But the horror is just beginning. For a day later she is making her way up the main staircase of Wardley Hall and her eyes rest on a little niche. It’s always been there. But now there is something there. The skull she’d buried. Sitting there in the niche. Grinning.
At first Maria thought it was some sick prank by someone who had observed her, but it very swiftly became apparent that something far more supernatural was occurring.
For the skull was buried again and again it it reappeared. If it was simply taken away and not buried then a storm would arise around the hall which would only subside if it was returned to its niche. Again and again she tried.
There seemed no end to the curse and eventually in desperation Maria smashed her brother’s skull to pieces. Later she’d try burning it in the fire. And smashing it again. As might be evident from the preceding paragraph none of it worked.
However destroyed the next day the skull was in its niche again.
So they tried bricking up the hole. The bricks were on the stairs the next morning, the mason’s hands were wracked with a white hot pain.
And so, eventually, options exhausted, they left it there.
We jump forward again to the eighteenth century. Higgins and his friends are sitting in a warm tavern enjoying a hearty meal and discussing the days events and future plans to generally pillage anywhere and everywhere, in a gentlemanly way.
Outside a storm as wild as Manchester has ever seen rages. Raindrops bounce hard off cobbles, the wind rips tiles from roofs and sends them spinning to the street below, thunder crashes and forks of lightning angrily strike the city.
Having eventually tracked the miscreants down to their usual haunt a search party from Wardley Hall burst in, and make straight for the antiquarians. Screaming over the sound of the deafening thunder they demand. “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH IT?!”
Later, after Thomas Barrit’s companion had fessed up to moving the old white bleached skull from its niche in the house and after it had been returned to its proper place and the fearsome storm had finally subsided, Barritt would write sniffily in his papers about the event.
“This storm might have happened had the skull never been removed, but it serves to keep alive the credibility of the tradition, and the credulity of its believers”.
As for Maria: she was so horrified by the whole turn of events that she lived a short lonely life, never marrying. On her death the Wardley hall passed into other hands, complete with its skull. Contained with the deeds to the hall was a condition that the skull never be moved, in an attempt to protect future owners.
Today Wardley Hall is the official residence of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Salford.
The skull of Roger Downes is still in its niche. And all is at peace.
At least until some arrogant and sceptical fellow thinks he knows better than to listen to such superstitious rubbish.
And then… who knows what will happen?
The New Hartshead Boggart
For years, centuries even, the little hamlet of Hartshead had been plagued by the supernatural – boggarts walked the dark lanes, grindylows lurked at the bottom of murky pools.
The ghosts of suicides shrieked in the night and evil witches flying through moonless skes. And, naturally, nut nans terrorised any child who would stray on to an orchard.
To a very great extent the people of the area had become inured to the terror of such things. For they knew well their ways and what they must do to keep out of harm’s way. What routes to avoid, what charms to say, when to make the sign of the cross. And they so incorporated such protections into their lives, so much so that they just became another part of the daily routine.
When word reached the people that a new phantom had been sighted though. Well that was a different story. They had no idea of what it was capable of and how to avoid it.
Old John from Three-Lanes End had seen it first. Four black cloaked pallbearers, carrying a coffin between them, walking down a long lane at midnight.
A boggart burial perhaps? And if that was the case then perhaps it would not come again, hoped the locals. But twas not to be. For a week later the fiendish funeral was spied again in the same lane, and a third time one night soon after that.
The nerves of the village folk were shredded: people were sure to get home well before dusk and even in the day they took highly circuitous routes and illogical detours to avoid the long lane which the procession had seemed to make its own.
There was just one conversation on everyone’s lips when they met early in the evening, in the local pub: who was going to deal with it?
Several candidates were suggested – the schoolmaster with his knowledge of Latin and Geometry was an obvious choice. But he excused himself on the declared grounds of not being able to speak boggart and on the undeclared grounds of being pants wettingly terrified.
It was a trend – as all those whose names came up provided reasons why they definitely shouldn’t be the one, but not because they were afraid, but just because of some other highly specific reason.
It was when the people were sitting around contemplating the unfortunateness of all this that the Rector from Ashton strode into the pub.
He was an educated man from outside Hartshead and, while very good with God and generally respected, he had some funny views when it came to the things that haunted the night. To-wit he held them as “poppycock, codswallop, balderdash” and other such archaic synonyms. Which was odd when they were very clearly all around the district.
Just as his parishioners feared he pronounced as such on the news of this new boggart that had them all in such a worry, dismissing their worries as nonsense.
But on the plus side the doubting rector was worried about his flock. And he was willing to put his money where his mouth is and see what was up with this boggart once and for all.
A win-win situations as far as the locals were concerned – at best the Rector would confront the boggart and defeat it with the power of almighty god. At worst he’d find out about the very solid reality of the supernatural, and stop criticising them for believing in it!
The Rector was a man of his word and that very eve he took off to the lane where the boggart had been seen.
Wrapped in heavy clothing against the bitter cold he carried a walking stick, a lantern and a length of twine.
He had a plan to see if this boggart was really all that it seemed. Sometime before midnight he stretched his twine across a narrow section of the lane and tied it to the hedge at either end.
Then he covered up his lamp and crouched down behind the hedge to wait.
Time passed slowly. The Rector was on the verge of giving up for the night when he heard a series of crunching footsteps from down the lane.
He peaked out of a hole in the hedge and, somewhat to his surprise, saw that here it came. Four dark cowled figures, bearing a great pall covered coffin between them, walking steadily down the lane. Faces, if they had them, were concealed.
Perhaps just about now the Rector was beginning to regret his bravery. But it was too late for that for the figures were nearing the wire.
The Rector’s breath caught in his throat as they approached.
And then there came the startled cry as the lead bearer’s foot made contact with the unexpected obstacle. And as he tripped he lost his grip on the coffin which slid from his grasp and in short order his companions tumbled under the shifting weight of it, with a huge cacophony of distinctly human shouts and curses, interspersed with a surprising bleating.
The commotion inspired the rector, adrenaline coursed through him, and up he jumped walking stick in hand, pulling the shade from his lantern to illuminate the scene and shouting “Ah Ha!”
It was clearly men in front of him, mortal human men, still dangerous and terrifying creatures of course but as the Rector had suspected, not a supernatural bean about them.
The men, shocked, slightly injured from the falling and generally confused thought that they were the ones seeing a ghost! They picked themselves up as best as they could and fair fled back down the lane into the night. Leaving the coffin on the floor.
The lid had slid off and by the light of his lamp the Rector could see the contents. A sheep.
It had all been a front for sheep napping! Mystery solved. A proper scooby doo! The Rector felt very proud of a job well done.
And that’s the end of the story – the Rector’s views on the mystery of the supernatural weren’t challenged. The residents of Hartshead were grateful, and perhaps they learned a valuable lesson about man being the real monster or something, though of course they just had to keep contending with all their usual boggarts.
And I for one am very impressed by the people who, living in a world crawling with genuine supernatural threats, would choose to disguise themselves as one for the purposes of stealing sheep. Foolhardy but certainly brave.
The Manchester Mummy
This story is a bit of an unusual one in that it actually happened. Sort of.
Now the details at the start of the story are not correct to life in their particular but what is certainly true is that the preserved body of Hannah Beswick, a well to do eighteenth century Lancashire woman, did end up displayed as a mummy in a nineteenth century Manchester museum. Which is pretty odd.
It was the mid eighteenth century. And rich single woman Hannah Beswick was terrified of being buried alive. Taphophobia is the technical term for it. It apparently happened more regularly then you might think back then, and the very thought of it sent Hannah Beswick into a state of blind panic.
Luckily she had a solution – Dr Charles White, physician to the Beswicks, was left strict instructions in her will. He could have a great deal of money if he made sure Hannah was never buried, and that he check on her periodically for signs of life.
“Never” seems a quite unnecessarily long amount of time here. Surely till the point of death by dehydration or starvation would have done for her anyway?
But it wasn’t to matter much anyway as Dr White, who was it seems somewhat of a connoisseur of the macabre already, chose to interpret this request in a somewhat baffling manner.
For on her death he cut open the corpse, emptied it of most of its organs and stuffed it full of preservatives. Hannah had been very dead to begin with and was, if possible even deader afterwards.
Then he sowed the corpse back up with its brand new innards and swaddled the whole body in bandages, except for the face, which he left peaking out.
A fine specimen for his collection. But White went much further than that. For he stuffed the whole body in a grandfather clock, itself viciously disembowelled.
The body was concealed within the clock and a small curtain was drawn over the area where the clock face once was and wherein Hannah’s post mortem grimace could now be found.
And I can only assume it was a hilarious joke to ask a new guest the time, at the very specific kind of parties that the Doctor hosted.
Oh, and to add a little bit of further ridiculousness to the whole situation once a year Dr White would gather witnesses, pull back the curtain and check Hannah’s breathing with a mirror.
All in accordance with regularly checking on her as per her will. Each year the pronouncement was the same: still dead. By this point the alternative would be pretty terrifying.
Eventually death came for Doctor White as well, and when it did what to do with Hannah’s cadaver became a bit of a conundrum.
It was bequeathed to another Doctor who, for very understandable reasons, wasn’t too keen on having a mummy in a clock anywhere near him. He had the bright idea of donating it to the new Manchester Natural History Society Museum. And some bright spark there thought she’d go very well with the mummies that had recently been acquired (read: looted) from Egypt and Peru.
But she needed out of that clock. And so into a new glass coffin she went. And she was apparently a bit of a hit.
For fifty years or so Hannah resided in the museum. What exactly caused a change is not quite clear, but some people most likely felt some disquiet about displaying such a recently mummified body, that wasn’t of a foreigner.
So it was over a century after her death when her wishes were finally disregarded and she was buried in Harpurhey Cemetery. And if she was buried alive by this point she was really really unlucky.
Because of the unusual situation no less a figure than the Home Secretary had to give his consent before she could finally be laid to rest.
And so ended the strange afterlife of Hannah Beswick.
Well.. almost… for some say her ghost frequents the factory where her house once stood. Long black dress, walking through walls, the whole thing.
And presumably very pleased to have not been buried alive.
Wardley Hall Skull
You can find the take of the Diocese of Salford on the skull story on their website here: Diocese of Salford – Wardley Hall.
The take away really is that it belonged to St. Father Ambrose Barlow and not Roger Downes, as the story would have it. Father Ambrose was a Manchester born monk and catholic priest who lived from 1585 – 1641, at a time when being Catholic was highly illegal and very dangerous.
But Ambrose was dedicated to his faith. He preached to a local flock of faithful Catholics for a time, but eventually the inevitable occurred and Father Ambrose was captured by a mob, thrown in jail in Lancaster castle and executed.
And his skull ended up in that most unusual of locations where it remains till this day.
In 1970 Ambose was declared a saint a long with a number of other Catholics executed during the English reformation. A so now his skull is a proper Catholic relic of a Saint and martyr, the kind of relic common in catholic countries but very unusual to find in England.
(Photo credit top left image of Wardley Hall Keith Williamson, CC BY-SA 2.0)
If you happen to want more information about Screaming Skulls across the UK then this website gives a summary of a few: Burials and Beyond – A Short history of British Screaming Skulls
I touched briefly on Thomas Barritt during the Skull story. He’s an interesting character for sure, with his love of antiquarianism, his saddlers shops and his cork leg.
If you want to know more about him there’s a whole youtube series on him by Dr Peter N. Lindfield that starts off with the video below:
Alas despite much searching I didn’t turn up any public domain images of the mummy itself so instead feast your eyes on weird as hell Charles White, and a mummy unwrapping party, which was a whole thing.
This is really nothing to do with the podcast episode and not even mentioned on it. However when looking for public domain images of a ghostly funeral (which sadly I did not manage to do) I went down a bit of Wiki hole on the Santa Compaña (The Holy Company), sometimes known by the more evocative names hostis antiquus (ancient host) and As da nuite (The Night ones).
This is a northern Spanish legend which tells of a parade of candle carrying souls of the dead, who wander a parish after midnight visiting the homes of those who are soon to die.
There are a few similarish stories in UK and Irish folklore, but the Santa Compaña is particularly distinguished by being led by a living person, in a trance. They are an unwilling, unknowing participant, cursed to lead this parade in a trance each night.
The living leader carries a cross and a cauldron of holy water and if they can somehow hand over the cross and cauldron to another who has the misfortune to witness the company then they can escape the curse. But if not they will waste away and eventually die due to the burden of the night time activity.
Most people cannot see the dead – just the mortal leader, though there are a few exceptions for those generally more in touch with the spirit world.
It certainly like mental or physical illnesses with no known cause have helped form the legend, though that is but one interpretation and element to it.
Anyway not super relevant to Manchester but I did some reading on it, so thought I’d share!
- Tradition of Lancashire Vol 2. John Roby
- Lancashire Legends, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson
- Ghosts of North-West England, Peter-Underwood – You’ll have to buy this if you want it. I don’t really recommend it.
- South Manchester Supernatural – Works of John Higson collected by Simon Richard Young – One of my few still in copyright sources. You’ll have to buy it if you want, however you can search down all the individual references at archive.org by searching for John Higson instead, but the book’s a short convenient collection
The main story told on the podcast is taken from: The Black Knight of Ashton – William E. A. Axon, with other bits and piece mentioned taken from Higson’s wider writing
- BBC News article on Hannah Beswick
- University Histories – The Manchester Mummy
Musical credits for Episode 34: Manchester Unite-Dead
Intro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Outro and various incidental music by the highly excellent Mitch Keely and Josh Newman
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
This tuning is so dramatic
Wind on my legs
Hide and seek
Ben Von Wildenhaus
Week Twenty five
Kevin Macleod (incompotech.com)
Railroad’s whiskey co
The joint is jumpin