31 October 2023
Three ghost stories
with family links
and an old school link
for this Halloween
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.
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.
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:
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.