31 October 2023

Three ghost stories
with family links
and an old school link
for this Halloween

A tower in the Moat House, the former Comberford home on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … who was Emily in the tower and did she die in a fire? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

This evening is Halloween, and I have fond memories of the Halloween games we played as children.

But, frankly, I am a sceptic when it comes to ghost stories. I am much more in fear of the real spectres that haunt our world today, from wars and mass killings in the Middle East, Ukraine, Russia and Yemen, the rise of the far-right across Europe and racism and antisemitism around the world, and the prospect of Donald Trump returning as President in the US, to the run-down and neglect of the NHS, the institutional lack of compassion for refugees and asylum seekers, and the drip-drip feed, day by day, of sleaze and corruption in the Tory Party.

These are the real, living ghosts in my world today.

On the other hand, I have never been afraid of the day. I look forward to All Saints’ Day tomorrow and All Souls’ Day the day after, and the vestry prayer I always used after services when I was in parish ministry prays: May the divine assistance remain always with us, and may the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace and rise in glory.’

However, there are three ‘ghost stories’ that remain with me from childhood, two from family stories – the three knocks at the door at Comberford Hall, and the ghost of Emily in the Moat House, Tamworth, and one from school days – the foxes baying at night on the lawn in front of Gormanston Castle.

‘Three knocks are always heard at Comberford Hall before the death of a family member’ … family lore recorded by Robert Plot in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, Three knocks at Comberford Hall:

One of the vignettes and stories in history and folklore recorded by Kate Gomez in her book The Little Book of Staffordshire (Stroud: The History Press) is the belief or superstition: ‘Three knocks are always heard at Comberford Hall before the death of a family member.’

It is a story that was first recorded, as far as I know, by the 17th century historian, Robert Plot (1640-1696), the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Robert Plot was born in Sutton Barne in Borden, Kent, in 1640 and was educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford (BA, 1661, MA, 1664, DCL, 1671). He became the first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and Professor of Chemistry in 1683, after Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) persuaded Oxford University to design a museum around and for his collection. The museum was first located on Broad Street.

Although Plot’s beliefs about alchemy have been discredited, his views and values are stereotypical for his time. He was an early historian of Staffordshire, and he published The Natural History of Staffordshire in Oxford in 1686. It was Plot’s second book, following The Natural History of Oxfordshire, published in 1677.

Plot began to work in earnest on Staffordshire in 1679. His studies of Staffordshire were instigated at the invitation of Walter Chetwynd of Ingestre Hall. But Plot’s principal reason for selecting Staffordshire was in honour of his patron, Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum, who was born in Lichfield in 1617.

Plot travelled throughout Staffordshire. By early 1681, and had prepared an accurate map of the county. He received extensive support and co-operation from local landowners. The book was progressing well, the illustrations were in hand, publication was imminent, and there were many illustrious subscribers, including Sir Christopher Wren. The chapter layout was similar to that for The Natural History of Oxfordshire, although the content was treated in more detail.

This detailed research led to a delay, however, and that delay was extended by Plot’s appointments as Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and as Professor of Chemistry. The book was finally published in April 1686. Critics say the book was more philosophically based than his first book and to be his greatest achievement during this period.

Plot’s work on Staffordshire combines scientific enquiry with local folklore to provide an intriguing account not merely of the county’s natural history, but also its geology, pre-industrial manufacturing and culture during the 17th century, and Plot details the natural curiosities he found in Staffordshire.

In his Natural History of Staffordshire, Plot records this superstition about ‘the knocking before the death of any of … the family of Cumberford of Cumberford in this County; three knocks being always heard at Cumberford-Hall before the decease of any of that family, tho’ the party dyeing be at never so great a distance’ – Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford, 1686), pp 329-330.

Plot also recalls that when a burbot, a rare fish, was caught at Fazeley Bridge in August 1656, Colonel William Comberford had it drawn from life and placed the drawing in Comberford Hall.

In his Natural History of Staffordshire, Plot describes a double sunset viewable from Leek, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, well dressing, and, for the first time, the Polish swan, a pale morph of the mute swan. His description of pottery-manufacture in Burslem, North Staffordshire, is also of interest.

Plot dedicated his Natural History of Staffordshire to James II and in 1688 he was named Historiographer Royal. His ambition to continue the multi-volume series for all England was, however, never realised. He died in 1696.

His story about the three knocks on the door of Comberford Hall became a popular about 100 years later in journals, magazines and history books. But by then the Comberford family had long left Comberford Hall.

The Moat House, the former Comberford home on Lichfield Street, Tamworth … who is the girl in ‘Emily’s Room’? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

2, Emily in the Moat House:

Some people claim the former Comberford family home at the Moat House in Tamworth is a truly haunted house, with there are claims in some circles that house of a long history of paranormal activity and reports of ghostly encounters.

The Moat House on Lichfield Street was built by the Comberford family of Comberford Hall in 1572. The family entertained Charles I in the Tudor-style house in August 1619 while he was Prince of Wales. Since then, the house has been an asylum for local middle-class women, a night club, a restaurant, a bar and wedding venue.

Legend has it that the Moat House has a resident ghost called Emily, a young girl who has spooked many staff and customers over the years. A room on the third floor is known as ‘Emily’s Room’ and local lore identifies her as a young girl.

Those who are interested in ‘ghost hunts’ and the ‘paranormal’ claim there are documented reports of ghostly figures, slamming doors and poltergeist activity.’ These claims led to the Tamworth Herald reporting that ‘Tamworth is haunted according to TV’s Yvette Fielding and her team of paranormal investigators on Most Haunted.’

In Part 1 of the programme on the Really channel, they investigated the stories of a knife narrowly missing someone in a kitchen and of a little girl being kept in the house. Part 2 continued their investigation into unexplained activity at the Moat House.

In some accounts, Emily is known instead as Amelia. It is said that her ghost walks the third floor corridors in the Moat House. These stories say she was locked in the tower by her father and died in a fire started by a burning candle.

There is evidence of a fire, but there no evidence that it was in that location, or that anybody died in it. Although the girl is said to have died in a fire, the stories vary about whether she was killed in the blaze or she jumped to her death.

But then, death, fires and unusual family stories are normal in a house that is more than 450 years, such as the Moat House, and in families as long-tailed and as old as the Comberford family. But why should they be interpreted as ‘paranormal’?

Certainly, there is no genealogical or historical evidence in any source of a girl named Emily in the Comberford family, or that she was locked away in the Moat House by her father.

3, The foxes at Gormanston Castle:

The carved coat of arms of Lord Gormanston in the great hall in Gormanston Castle includes a fox as the crest and as a supporter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

When my brother and I were at school in Gormanston in the 1950s and 1960s, we were warned not to go into the Yew Tree Walk. The Yew Tree Walk, which is over 300 years old, probably dates from the late 17th century, when the Gormanston lands were restored to the Preston family after the Caroline restoration.

Local legend and popular tales given currency in my schooldays say one Lord Gormanston created this sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister in the late 17th century to appease his daughter and to persuade not to become a nun.

We were warned against going into the yew trees not because anyone feared we might see the ghost of the would-be nun, but because some monks were afraid schoolboys would smoke there and set the dry ancient trees on fire.

On the other hand, as schoolboys we were fascinated by the story of the Gormanston foxes, and dared each other to listen out for their baying.

Georgina Jane Connellan, second wife of the 14th Viscount Gormanston, carved the large oak piece on the chimney breast in the Great Hall, decorated with the coats-of-arms of the families who were intermarried with the Prestons of Gormanston. The shield immediately above the Gormanston coat-of-arms is flanked with her initials, ‘GG.’

The coat of arms of Lord Gormanston she scarved in the great hall includes a fox as the crest and as one of the supporters.

According to legend, when the head of the family is in his final hours, the foxes of Co Meath, except for nursing vixens, make their way to the door of Gormanston Castle to keep vigil until he has died, in thanksgiving for the deliverance and protection from marauding predators of a vixen and her young by an earlier Lord Gormanston in the 17th century.

They are said to have made their appearance on the castle lawns prior to the deaths of Jenico Preston, 12th Viscount Gormanston, in 1860, Edward Preston, 13th Viscount Gormanston, in 1876, and Jenico Preston, 14th Viscount Gormanston in 1907.

The legend was so popular that the student magazine was named Tally Ho!

It is curious then that the second wife of Nicholas Present, the present Lord Gormanston, is named Lucy Arabella Fox, daughter of the English actor Edward Fox. An earlier Lord Gormanston’s care for foxes led to the story of the Gormanston foxes, but, ironically, Edward Fox has marched in support hunting rights. Even more spooky and more frightening than any ghost stories are his support for UKIP and his involvement in the Brexit campaign – and UKIP and Brexit are going to haunt generations to come.

One Lord Gormanston is said to have created the sculpted yew walk as a triangular-shaped cloister to appease his daughter and dissuade her from becoming a nun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (156) 31 October 2023

Saint Thomas’ Church, once part of Saint Thomas’ Hospital … its history is intimately linked with Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Last Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XXI, 29 October 2023). The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (31 October 2023) remembers Martin Luther, Reformer, 1546.

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

Throughout this week, with the exceptions of All Saints’ Day (Wednesday 1 November) and All Souls’ Day (Thursday 2 November), my reflections each morning this week follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Southwark;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

A 19th century drawing of Saint Thomas Church, Southwark

Saint Thomas’ Church, Southwark:

Saint Thomas Church, Southwark, which now houses the Amazing Grace bar and restaurant is a stone’s throw away from London Bridge station, nestled right in between the Shard and Borough Market in Southwark. The former church dates back to a church that was part of the original Saint Thomas’ Hospital.

An early hospital for the sick and the poor was founded within the precincts of the Priory of Saint Mary Overy, now Southwark Cathedral, around the time the priory was founded in 1106. It was maintained by a small community of brothers and sisters following a monastic rule. Later, it was said the hospital was founded as an adjunct of the priory by Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162-1170. It was named in his honour after he was canonised in 1173.

The hospital building was severely damaged during a disastrous fire in the Priory in 1213. Amicius, who was Archdeacon of Surrey in 1189-1215, was the warden of the hospital at the time. The canons immediately erected a temporary building for the poor at a little distance from the priory, and while the priory was being rebuilt they held their own services in the chapel of the new hospital.

Peter des Roches, Bishop of Winchester, added to the endowment of the hospital, and built a new house, moving the hospital from ‘Trenet Lane’ in 1215 to Saint Thomas Street in Southwark, where it was said the water was purer and the air more healthy. The new hospital, also dedicated to Saint Thomas the Martyr, was built by 1215.

The mediaeval pilgrimage to Canterbury honouring Saint Thomas Becket began in Southwark at London Bridge and coaching inns such as the George. It is celebrated in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The hospital provided shelter and treatment for the poor, sick, and homeless. When Bishop Asserio visited the hospital in 1323, he admonished the master of the hospital for the irregular lives led by the brethren and sisters. They were ordered to follow the rule of Saint Augustine, and the master was to eat with the brethren.

Like many English religious houses, the hospital, suffered at the time of the Black Death. Walter de Marlowe, brother of the hospital, obtained a dispensation from illegitimacy from Pope Clement VI in 1349 so he could be appointed the prior or master. The petition said mortality among the brethren had left no one so fit to rule as Walter.

Richard Whittington, four-times Lord Mayor of London and known in folklore for the tales of Dick Whittington and his cat, endowed a lying-in ward for unmarried mothers in the 15th century.

The hospital or conventual precinct had become a parish by 1496.

A letter from Sir Thomas More dated 16 March 1528 to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Bishop of Winchester and Archbishop of York, mentions the hospital of Southwark, then in the Diocese of Winchester, anddescribes the master, Richard Richardson, as old, blind and feeble.

Matters did not improve with a new Master. Richard Layton, the Dean of York and monastic visitor, wrote to Thomas Cromwell on 26 September 1535, saying he was going to visit ‘the bawdy hospital of St Thomas.’ Although Layton’s choice of language was usually coarse and untrustworthy, his reference to the hospital seems justified, and the master Richard Mabbot was both lax in discipline and bad in personal character.

In a complaint to Sir Richard Longe and Robert Acton in July 1536, nine parishioners of Saint Thomas’ accused the master and brethren of the hospital of maintaining improper characters within the precincts, refusing charitable relief to the sick and even to those willing to pay. As examples, they said a poor pregnant woman was denied a place and died at the church door, while rich men’s servants were readily taken in. They children were refused baptism until the master was paid 3s 4d.

The master was accused of quarrelling with the brethren and sisters, even in the quire of the church. Referring to the services in the church, they complained that the usual three or four sermons in Lent had not been preached, there were seldom two masses a day, and at times they had been forced to seek a priest in the Borough to sing High Mass.

They said the master had closed the free school that was part of the hospital, although was £4 a year was provided for its maintenance. They accused him of ‘filthy and indecent’ conduct, said he openly kept a concubine, that he behaved as ‘lord, king and bishop’ within his precincts, and that he sold the church plate, pretending it was stolen.

Despite this, the hospital was the place where one of the first printed English Bibles was printed in 1537. This is commemorated by a plaque on the surviving wing in Borough High Street.

In all, 24 priors, masters, wardens or rectors served from the time of Archdeacon Amicius in 1213-1215 to Thomas Thurleby, who was appointed in 1539 and surrendered in 1540. The monastery was dissolved in 1539 during the Tudor Reformation, the hospital was surrendered by the Master in 1540, and it was closed.

However, the City of London was granted the site with a charter from Edward VI, and the hospital reopened in 1551. The cult of Saint Thomas Becket had been abolished in 1538 during the Reformation, and the hospital was rededicated to Saint Thomas the Apostle. It has remained open ever since.

The present church was built by the Hospital Governors and desiged by Thomas Cartwright in 1703. It had a garret that was called the Herb Garret in 1821. In the same year, the Old Operating Theatre was built in the Herb Garret.

Saint Thomas’ was declared redundant as a church in 1899 and the parish merged with Saint Saviour’s, which became Southwark Cathedral in 1905.

For a time, Saint Thomas’ was used as the Chapter House for Southwark Cathedral. In the late 20th century it was used as an office by the Chapter Group, an insurance company.

When the Jubilee Line extension was built in the mid-1990s, the church was damaged and was declared ‘at risk’ on the English Heritage register. It was renovated in 2008-2009 and it became the headquarters of the Cathedral Group, a property development company, in 2010. It opened in October 2021 as Amazing Grace, a bar, restaurant and music venue.

The renovation of the old church includes the addition of striking lightning, a green tiled bar and 3D visuals. The work included inserting a higher level mezzanine over the galleries, a partially raised floor in the church and subdividing the basement for restrooms and the restaurant kitchen.

Many of the original features in the building have been restored, including four tall, stained glass windows with glazing bars and red rubbed brick dressings; the exterior brown-red brick with stone dressings; the interior panelled galleries with oak mouldings; and the wooden reredos or altarpiece which features fluted columns with Corinthian capitals and a pediment topped with a crown motif flanked by a unicorn and lion.

As for Saint Thomas’ Hospital, it moved from Southwark in 1862, when the site was compulsorily purchased to make way for building Charing Cross railway viaduct from London Bridge Station. The hospital was temporarily housed at Royal Surrey Gardens in Newington (Walworth) until new buildings were completed near Lambeth Palace in 1871.

Today, Saint Thomas’ Hospital is a large NHS teaching hospital in Central London, and administratively it is part of the Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust, together with Guy’s Hospital, King’s College Hospital, University Hospital Lewisham and Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

The Operating Theatre of Saint Thomas’s Hospital was operational from 1822 to 1862. It was uncovered in the church attic by Raymond Russell in 1957. It is said to be the oldest surviving operating theatre in England, and it is now a museum that is accessed by a narrow tower staircase.

The plaque in Southwark commemorating Saint Thomas Church and an early English Bible (Photograph: Simon Harriyott, CC by 2.0/Wikipedia)

Luke 13: 18-21 (NRSVA):

18 He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

20 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Saint Thomas’ Church stands between the Shard and Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayers: USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is inspired by a Reflection – ‘He restores my soul’ – by Revd Dale R Hanson, introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (31 October 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

We pray Lord for any tough decisions we are currently facing. We offer these up to you Oh Lord, grant us your wisdom.

The Collect:

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life
and the word of his kingdom:
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued tomorrow

The pilgrimage to Canterbury honouring Saint Thomas began in Southwark inns such as the George (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The tower of Saint Thomas is dwarfed by the height of the Shard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)