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Do you believe in ghosts? Then attend to my story! But first draw round a good fire, and get company to keep your courage up. Laugh as we may at the idea of ghosts and witchery, people do believe in ghosts, and fear them.
The Victorian era was a time of unprecedented change, for the people living through such turbulent times, as well as for the popularity of ghost stories – in the world of fiction as well as in the real world.
During Queen Victoria's reign, which ran from 1837 until her death in 1901, life was moving at a rapid pace. In Wales, the Industrial Revolution had seen communities transformed beyond recognition, with many leaving their traditional rural homes behind to find work in larger towns and cities. The country's population boomed, and an influx of immigration brought with it new influences and ideas.
The Victorian era was seen as an age of rationality, scientific progress and innovation – the ever-expanding railways enabled people to travel far and wide, the telegraph and telephone allowed for communication like never before, and Charles Darwin published the world-changing On the Origin of Species in 1859.
But it did not do away with paranormal beliefs. Far from it, in fact. Much like Darwin's theory they evolved and, if anything, became more popular than ever.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, considered to be one of the definitive ghost stories of the period, was published in 1843, and advances in the printed press saw a huge increase in demand for sensational spooky yarns to fill the periodicals. At the same time, stories which had previously been more of an oral tradition, such as the old Welsh folk tales of goblins and dragons, began to give way to modern explanations for unexplainable events – from now on, mysterious sounds heard at the dead of night were more likely to be attributed to the troubled spirit of a former occupant than a visit from the mischievous fairy folk, y tylwyth teg.
As we shall see in this book, interest in the paranormal was further bolstered by such factors as the rise of spiritualism, the conditions of living in crowded gas-lit homes, the new terrors which lurked deep underground in the mines, and more than a few practical jokers along the way, all of which played a part in keeping the supernatural firmly in the spotlight.
In this first chapter, we head out into the great outdoors to take a look at some of the strange occurrences which were reported in what are considered to be the more traditional haunted locations – the dark lonely forests, the dreamy romantic lakes, the grand old mansion houses, and the imposing mountains which combined to make up wild Wales.
The two-headed phantom
From Anne Boleyn to the Headless Horseman, spirits with severed heads have been a popular mainstay of ghost stories for centuries.
But in Abersychan in 1856, the opposite appeared to be true. The town's unique ghost, which was said to be 'haunting' the vicinity of the Blue Boar public house, wasn't missing his head – he had gained a second one.
The two-headed entity was described as having a 'hideous appearance', and had 'stricken many of the inhabitants with great terror, especially those whom he has honoured with a visit, or thought worthy of a glimpse of its outline', nearly driving one fearful local to an early deathbed.
In a newspaper report, multiple witnesses claimed that they could 'minutely describe him', and the believers in 'ghostly mysteries' put forward a theory as to his identity, as well as how he had managed to gain an extra head. As one resident explained:
It is the ghost of an old man who suddenly met his death by falling down stairs and splitting his skull. The old man, when living, was an apostate from the Roman Catholic faith, therefore, could not have rest in the other world; consequently, he is a wanderer upon the face of this one. The cause assigned for his appearing with two heads is, that his head being split when dying, could not again be reunited; therefore, they are not really two heads, but two separate halves of the once whole.
The sceptical journalist, unconvinced by this hypothesis, asks, 'Is this the wisdom of the nineteenth century?!!', adding somewhat disbelievingly that those living in the immediate locality are too scared to leave their homes after dark unless 'some urgent necessity compels them'.
In the case of labourer Dan Harley, who is described as a 'true believer in apparitions', an urgent necessity did indeed compel him to stay out after dark one night and, as a result, he came face-to-face with the terrifying entity:
Being delayed from returning home until a late hour, he had no alternative but to pass the haunted spot, or to have a night's parade in the chilly air. Not liking the latter, he determined to proceed despite his dread. He went on courageously until within a few yards of his lodging house, when he fancied he could see something – he paused, and lo! it was no less than the dreaded phantom. He could not speak: neither could he move backward nor forward – he remained transfixed to the spot for several seconds, but as soon as he thought the spectre was disappearing, he made a desperate effort, and reached the house, wherein he repeated undefinable prayers to his preserver. His feelings for the remainder of the night can be imagined better than described. It is certain that he did not enjoy much rest, for he says that he was 'covered all over with fright'.
The next morning, Dan attempted to go to work as normal, but the event had proven to be too traumatic:
On his way he sat down in a fainting state, the fright all over him still. At that time his fellow workman Patrick King happened to come by the place and, seeing his fellow comrade in such a weak state, assisted him home. For several days poor Harley was in a very desponding state. For some time he thought he was going to die, and under that conviction he wished his friends to give to his friend Pat Ring, after his death, the portrait of Ellen, his old sweetheart, which he held in great veneration; also his big pipe and his backey pouch.
Fortunately, he soon recovered – and kept hold of his possessions for a little while longer – but remained convinced of what he had seen that night:
When he is spoken to now respecting his boasted courage, he says, very seriously, that he never was afraid, nor never will be afraid of all the ghosts of the earth or of the spirits of the air; but that such a two-headed monster was enough to put the dread on any man, and no man could help it, and 'Be jabers, I hope it may be the last I may ever see of the lad.'
A wild night by the romantic lakes
The following recollection of a ghostly encounter published in 1895 is an interesting story in and of itself, but what makes it potentially even more interesting is the name attributed to it: W.G. Shrubsole.
While the article does not give any further details as to the author's identity, the Victorian landscape painter William George Shrubsole was known to have been working in Wales during the period, having relocated to Bangor in the 1870s, and his choice of words, as this introduction illustrates, would perfectly fit that of somebody in search of inspiration from the rugged landscape:
I had been staying during the autumn of 188– at a cottage situated on the shores of one of the most romantic lakes in Wales. I grew so charmed with the place that I prolonged my stay until the beginning of December, and was amply rewarded by the wild beauty of effect which the scenery around ever presented.
Little did he realise that, by extending his stay, he would see not only more of the country's wild beauty, but also something of a much more otherworldly nature. The following events, as recalled by the writer himself, took place towards the end of his visit:
On a moonlight night, I became the observer of what to me at the time seemed a strange, but by no means supernatural, manifestation. It was only by the light of what I afterwards heard that my experience assumed the complexion of the supernatural, and as at the time I was unexcited in mind, and not in expectation of any manifestation from another world, I am plunged in difficulties whenever I attempt to account for it by natural causes. Had my mind been in a state of highly wrought tension, I could easily account for the vision, by relegating it to that class of sensory illusions to which we well know mankind is susceptible, and of which I myself have had, on more than one occasion, very striking examples.
Well, then, one evening after supper, at the close of a very uneventful day, I took a walk as far as the end of the lake and back. This was a very ordinary thing for me to do, and on the occasion in question, I lit my pipe, and with a stout stick in my hand, wended my way along the side of the lake, my only companion being a large dog belonging to the house. It was blowing up for a wild night, and now and again a gust swept down from the hollows of the hills with a violence that made me pause in my walk to steady myself and caused the surface of the lake to be whipped into temporary commotion; the moon shone fitfully through the driving clouds and ever and again there came a soughing from the towering crags around, strangely wild and human, as if the spirit of the wind were mourning amongst them.
At last I reached the end of the lake, and giving a long look behind the dark dreary moorland, turned to retrace my steps towards the cottage. For some time I made rapid progress homeward, noting the wonderful way in which the patches of moonlight chased each other up the side of a steep mountain on the opposite side of the lake, until I was nearly half way back to the cottage. At this spot the road formerly went round a point of land jutting into the lake, covered with huge masses of rock piled high one above another. When I reached this place the moon became densely overcast with clouds, and it suddenly grew so dark that I could scarcely see the wall on each side of the road.
The dog was some few yards in advance, and I called him, intending to stop for a minute in order to fill and light my pipe, hoping, too, that the clouds would soon break again. But the dog, instead of returning to my call, gave a short howl, which, a few moments later, I heard him repeat at a greater distance. He was evidently making for home as fast as possible, and I concluded that he must have trodden on something and hurt or cut his foot. Leaning against the wall, I struck a match and shielding it with my body and hands from the wind, succeeded in lighting my pipe, and then again the moon began to break through the clouds, and I paused for a few seconds to watch the light stealing across the water.
Suddenly below me at a few yards distance I saw the figure of an old man, his hair flying in the wind as he stooped forward to lean upon the handle of a spade or mattock. I was startled, for the old fellow came so suddenly into view that it seemed as if he must have dropped there from the clouds. I hailed him with a shout of 'A wild night this' – he gave no reply, but slowly turned his face up towards mine. The moon gleamed out brightly for an instant, and I saw a pair of hollow, sunken eyes set in a face so full of a kind of weary despair – of a hungry disappointment – that I was shocked, and for a moment I had a slight feeling that there was something 'uncanny' in the appearance of this old man at such a time. What could he be doing there? But I had no time to lose; it was getting late, so with a 'Good night' shouted in the local vernacular I turned towards home once more. A few paces further on I looked back, but the old fellow was gone – had probably moved into the shadow of, or behind some of the rocks.
Putting my best foot foremost, I soon reached the cottage and found the kitchen tenanted by three or four people from neighbouring farms. 'Dear me! Mr —,' said the good woman, 'We have been quite anxious about you, sir, since Tos came in without you. Something seemed to have frightened him.'
'Oh! I am all right,' I replied with a laugh. 'By-the-bye, can you tell me who the old fellow is I saw along the shore of the lake with a spade?'
I shall not forget the effect of my simple query. Every eye turned on me with a ghastly stare, the men turned pale, and the woman sank into a chair. One of the men turned to another and in accents that seemed dry and forced said: 'He has seen the digger of Fotty.'
Then their tongues were loosened and a Babel of Welsh arose. In vain I tried to understand what they were saying. I could only catch a word here and there. But they soon departed after many pitying glances at me and much ominous shaking of heads.
Then I learnt the cause of this commotion – I had seen a ghost! The figure of the old man was that of one who had died several years back. During his lifetime he had been remarkable for the penury of his habits, and was said to have on more than one occasion taken the most relentless advantage of people in monetary difficulties; his greedy and miserly habits became a monomania, and this, at last, assumed the form of a hallucination that there was a vast treasure buried at 'Fotty' – the place where I saw him. At all hours the old miser might be seen there digging in different places in spite of wind and weather, and he would often be heard muttering colloquies with someone he seemed to imagine was at his elbow, so it soon got reported that he was in league with the fiend, and he was avoided and detested by the neighbours more than ever in consequence.
At last, one stormy day, a fisherman found the old man's dead body at 'Fotty' with his spade still grasped in his hand. The discoverer ran in alarm to the nearest farm-house to inform the people of the miser's death, and a party of men soon made their way to the spot where the fisherman had left the body; but it was gone, spade and all, and never a trace of it was seen again. Sometime after, what was stated to be the handle of the old man's spade was found in an almost inaccessible hollow of the neighbouring mountains, so it became accepted as Gospel truth that the fiend had carried away the miser's body over the mountains and dropped the spade in the transit. After this a farmer returning home late one night was frightened almost to death by seeing what he took to be the spirit or the miser, spade in hand, at work on his favourite spot. The story got abroad, again and again it was verified, the ghost of the old miser from time to time appeared to several, and seemed to be, as a role, the portent of the direst calamity to each individual who saw it.
This was the story as I received it, and its truth was corroborated by many people living in the locality. Had it been told me before I saw the figure by the lake, I should have simply thought the apparition the figment of my imagination; but at the time I saw the old man, I knew nothing of him or his history, so I cannot account for the vision by any process of reasoning, and I am driven to the conclusion that as Shakespeare says: 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.'
The haunted hiding place
A room in Plas Mawr, 'one of the most perfectly preserved specimens of Elizabethan manor houses now existing in this country', made the headlines in 1893 following the report of a haunted room.
The recently formed Royal Cambrian Academy of Art, an institution for the visual arts in Wales, had based itself at the property in Conwy which contained 'numerous low, oak-panelled, and oak-floored rooms, filled with an excellent collection of oil and water colours, of which the critics speak very highly'.
It drew many visitors to see the art and architecture, but after the publication of the following account, people were soon visiting to see another of its attractions – a ghost.
A member of the public got straight to the point when he brought the haunting to light in a letter to the press:
I wish to make public – for the first time, I believe – an attraction that one almost instinctively looks for in connection with such an old house as Plas Mawr, and that is 'A Haunted Room!' There can be no doubt about it, for I have the story from one who is both an eye and an ear-witness of the fact that one of the rooms in Plas Mawr is haunted.
He explained that the story had been related to him by one of the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art's officials who, on finding the narrator and his companion exploring a particular part of the house, introduced himself with the enticing opening line, 'Ah, you are studying the haunted room, are you?'
At first they laughed, but the official continued, relating his first-hand experiences at the premises:
'Very few people know it,' he said, 'but it is a fact, and it is supposed to have some connection with the priest's hiding place, which is just here,' he added, tapping the wall between the door of the room and the huge fireplace.
Excerpted from "Ghosts of Wales"
Copyright © 2017 Mark Rees.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
About the Author,
One Wild Wales,
Two Haunted Homes,
Three Talking with the Dead,
Four The Victorian Ghost Hunters,
Five Poltergeist Activity,
Six The Ghosts of Industry,
Seven Sacred Ground and Superstition,
Eight Paranormal Hoaxes,
Nine Weird Witticisms,