Monday Morning Ghost 3 – The Grey Lady of Ightham Mote

Image by Richard Croft

Ightham Mote is a picturesque country manor house near Sevenoaks in Kent, but as with many of these old houses, looks can be deceiving.

Ightham Mote was built in 1340, and was home to the Selby family from the late 16th Century to the middle of the 19th Century. Over the years, it has had many owners, ranging from medieval knights to Tudor courtiers and high-society Victorians. Ightham Mote was given to the National Trust in 1985, and it is now open to the public. It is a Grade I listed building, and considering the way each new owner has added something new, it is believed to be a startling visual history of architectural developments throughout 700 years of British history.

So the story goes, in the 1870s, the owners grew tired of an unearthly chill in the tower bedroom. Normal heat couldn’t overcome it, and eventually workmen were hired to investigate. During their work, they uncovered a small space behind the wall panels – the space was occupied by the skeleton of a woman seated in a chair.

Who was the woman? She is believed by many to be Dame Dorothy Selby. A diehard Catholic, she’d learned of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. She sent an anonymous letter to her cousin, Lord Monteagle, and told him not to attend Parliament on 5th November. Unfortunately the letter was intercepted, the Plot was thwarted, and the conspirators caught. Dame Dorothy’s intervention was discovered, and friends of the Plot walled her up in a secret room and left her to die. If the story is true, then she remained behind the wall for over 260 years. However, many experts believe this tale to be utter hokum, based on a misinterpretation of her memorial at the local church. After all, records state she died in March 1641 – some 35 years after Guy Fawkes was executed.

So if it isn’t Dame Selby, who is it? Another tale dates back to 1552, starring the then occupant, Sir Thomas Browne. Allegedly, he murdered a serving girl and hid the body inside the walls, although if you believe another story, Sir Thomas’ priest was involved in a sordid affair with the servant. After the prist committed suicide, Sir Thomas bricked up the servant.

No matter who the poor woman was found within the walls, the chill continues to haunt the tower to this day. The Grey Lady is unlikely to be the only unlucky ghost wandering the halls of Ightham Mote. The crypt is below the water level of the moat, meaning that prisoners kept there could be disposed of by opening a sluice gate. If that wasn’t enough, there was also a trapdoor added during the Wars of the Roses in the floor of a tower room where suspicious visitors would be dropped into a dark hole and left to starve. The room above the main gate is said to be haunted by the ghost of one such visitor.

If you’re in the area, Ightham Mote is well worth a visit. You can find out more information on the National Trust website.

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Monday Morning Ghost 2 – Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms

Image by Richard Webb

My first Monday Morning Ghost saw me choose a spectre from my most recent home, in London. This week, I’m coming back to my ancestral home of the North East, and introducing you to the Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many major cities had assembly rooms to provide an elegant location for their high society to gather and enjoy genteel forms of entertainment, such as balls and concerts. They were one of the few public places to which women could gain admittance, although unmarried women would require a chaperone. The assembly rooms of towns such as Bath were immortalised in the fiction of writers such as Jane Austen, where the buildings also hosted “marriage markets” as rich parents sought to marry off their offspring.

Newcastle upon Tyne was no different, and the city’s Assembly Rooms are located in a fabulous Georgian building on Westgate Road. Designed by William Newton, they opened in June 1776, on Midsummer’s night (surely a magical night, if ever there was one). The inscription on its foundation stone, laid in 1774, reads “Rooms dedicated to the most elegant recreation”. Indeed, in the past, the assembly rooms have played host to concerts by Strauss, Liszt and Rachmaninov, and Charles Dickens’ amateur theatre group staged three playlets here. Royal visitors have included Edward VII, George VI, and Elizabeth II.

Of course, few buildings of such an age escape having ghost stories, and the Assembly Rooms are no exception. Legend has it that on December 31, 1777, a rowdy group of wealthy patrons were celebrating the New Year. The drink flowed and the behaviour became increasingly bawdy, until one of the young men ordered his wife to dance naked for his boorish friends. This being the eighteenth century, a wife was little more than her husband’s property, and she did as he demanded. Sadly the shame and humiliation was too much for her, and she threw herself from the musician’s gallery in the ballroom. This might sound a little melodramatic to us, but social standing was everything to the upper classes.

Staff at the Assembly Rooms have heard the rustle of a taffeta ball gown, and the Grey Lady often announces her presence with the scent of lavender. The double doors open and close on their own, but are too heavy to be blown open by a draft. On Halloween in 2000, a radio crew were terrorised by unexplained noises and knockings while trying to record a special on the haunting. Another group of investigators experienced changes in temperature, balls of light that moved on their own, and electronic equipment that turned itself on and off. Research into the identity of the lady has proved fruitless, and there is no way to substantiate the legend, but it would certainly seem that there is a sad lady haunting such an elegant building.

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Monday Morning Ghost 1 – Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

I haven’t really been doing much with my Fowlis blog, which is very remiss of me (and something for which I’ve received more than my share of reproach from the delightful Cavalier) and I’ve decided to start running a weekly feature, looking at British ghosts! After all, I’m working with a paranormal investigations company, and I’m researching the representation of haunted houses for my PhD, so it seems a fun thing to do.

For my first feature, I’ve decided to take a trip back to London, my former home for seven years, and have a look at the Black Nun of Bank…

Nowadays, there is no crime in the United Kingdom that carries the death penalty, but during the 19th century, it appears that all manner of crimes could be punishable by death. In 1812, a former Bank of England employee named Philip Whitehead was hanged for forgery. That would be bad enough, but his sister Sarah was not informed, presumably to spare her feelings. One day, she arrived at the Bank and asked to speak to her brother, only to be told of his fate by a clerk ignorant of her identity. Sarah didn’t take the news particularly well, and she would visit the Bank every day, asking to see Philip. Sarah always dressed in black, and wore a black veil, earning her the nickname “The Black Nun”. If the clerks turned her away, she would accost customers instead, always asking for her brother. Eventually the Bank officials tired of her behaviour, and in 1818, they paid her to stay away. Reports suggest that she did so for the remainder of her life.

When Sarah died in 1840, she was buried in St Christopher-le-Stocks’ churchyard, which later became part of the Bank’s gardens. She was once seen pounding the gravestones with her fist in the churchyard, while she has also been sighted down in Bank underground station. One worker believed he’d spotted an old lady in the station, and given the early hours of the morning thought she’d been locked in, only for her to disappear down a corridor with no exit. Knocking has also been heard inside empty lifts after the station has been closed. Whenever Sarah is seen, she is still dressed in black, and still seeking her brother.

Now, Sarah has occasionally been referred to as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, but this in itself is actually incorrect – the title does in fact apply to the Bank itself.

The Bank of England has been located on Threadneedle Street since 1734. The street itself has been so named since 1598 – previously, it was part of Broad Street. The Bank was founded in 1694, during the reign of William III, making the Bank the first private national bank in the world.. War with France was draining William’s coffers, and two merchants agreed to found a national bank that could lend money to the Government. This money was to be used to finance the war, while the interest on the loan would be paid using taxes on alcohol and shipping.

Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger! Cartoon by James Gillray

But how did the Bank get its unusual nickname?

In 1797, James Gillray produced a satirical cartoon that portrayed the Bank as an old lady dressed in bank notes and sitting on a chest of gold, while William Pitt the Younger makes unwanted advances. A financial crisis was raging, and gold was not being used to back the issue of paper money. Titled “Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street in Danger!”, the cartoon is often believed to have been inspired by Richard Sheridan, Member of Parliament and playwright, who referred “to an elderly lady in the City of great credit and long standing who had made a faux pas” and “had unfortunately fallen into bad company”. Such a catchy name obviously stuck.

Personally, I prefer to refer to Sarah as the Old Lady. I’ve never seen her myself but if you ever find yourself in the area, and a woman in a black veil stops you to ask after her brother, at least now you know who she is!

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