By Kate Gomez
At Halloween, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to be at its thinnest. As such, it’s a perfect time to share stories about some of the spirits that are said to have haunted this ancient city of ours over the years.
Yeomanry House was built in the early eighteenth century opposite St John’s Hospital on the site of the Old Culstubbe Hall. In 1896, the Friary Girls school moved into the building, having outgrown its old premises on Market Street. Boarders at the school often told their teacher that they had heard a baby crying in the night and would ask her if they could see the child. Yet there was no baby anywhere on the premises. Although tempting to chalk this up to the vivid imagination of schoolchildren, it’s interesting that previous occupants of the building, including Captain Webster, an Adjutant of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, also reported hearing the cries. An explanation for this haunting was that a servant had murdered her child, but whether there is any truth to this story, or whether it was fabricated to add weight to the story, we will probably never know. Yeomanry House was demolished in 1925. Did the ghost disappear along with the building, or are these pitiful cries still heard in that area late at night?
The Friary School is also associated with another supposed haunting. After leaving Yeomanry House in 1921, the school occupied the buildings which are now used as Lichfield Library. At the west end is ‘The Bishops Lodging’, once part of the Franciscan Friary dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538. Some of the old pupils from the school recall stories of a mysterious figure haunting the grounds, passing through the stone archway which now stands in the college campus. Is this the spirit of one of the grey friars returning to disobey the king’s orders? Or perhaps it is Richard the Merchant, whose grave was disturbed in the eighteenth century and whose faded fourteenth century tombstone can still be seen today, embedded in the walls of the building.
The cellars at the library are said to be connected to a network of tunnels that supposedly runs beneath the city. A stretch of tunnel leading from here to Sandford Street, is reportedly haunted by a young girl, who is believed to have been trapped down there. Some say she was playing truant and hiding in the tunnels when workmen came to seal up the entrance, others say that the roof collapsed and rescuers were unable to save her. One of the entrances to the tunnel may be beneath a sixteenth century building on Sandford Street, where former owners have reported that their dogs would refuse to go down into the cellar, and tell tales of poltergeist activity and strange shadows within its timber framed walls.
The nearby Kings Head pub on Bird Street, thought to date back to 1408, is said to be haunted by a young woman who worked as a maid at the pub, and lost her life during a fire. Likewise, a presence is said to be felt at a building on Breadmarket Street where, in 1873, a blaze claimed the lives of three generations of the same family, as they slept above the premises of their clock and watch making business.
In the eighteenth century, two well-known Lichfield residents told their own versions of what once seems to have been a well-known story. David Garrick mentioned a supposedly haunted spot known as Bessy Banks’ Grave on ‘The Dimble’, which he described as ‘a sunken road leading north from Lichfield where two trees form an elegant arch over a stream’. Anna Seward wrote a poem for her friend Honora Sneyd, from the spot, and according to her, it was ‘the grave of a suicide’. The poem begins, “It suits the temper of my soul to pour/Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower/Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears/Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years/Slung her dire cord between the sister trees/ That slowly bend their branches to the breeze/And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form/From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm.”
Some years later, another poem on the subject was published by Frederick Price. In this version, entitled ‘The Circuit Lane’, Bessy is found drowned and her grave described as a green mound where four cross roads meet. A place known as ‘Bessy Banks Grave’ can be found marked on early nineteenth century maps of Lichfield, and the place name was still in existence as late as 1914, when the Lichfield Mercury carried an advertisement for the sale of land at Bessy Banks. However, it seems that the true origins of the story and the identity of Lichfield’s love-desperate maid were lost long ago. In 1805, Lichfield printer and bookseller, John Jackson, described the place as, ‘once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy (sic) is said to have fallen victim to hapless love’. The place name and its provenance may have disappeared, but has the ghost of Bessy Banks vanished with them?
Another tragic female, in the form of a lady dressed in a white nightdress is said to have been witnessed wandering the lanes and fields of Leomansley. Possibly related to this are the reports of a spectre in the area that local historian John Jackson investigated in the 1930s. Mr Jackson described how in the late eighteenth century, considerable alarm had been caused when several people passing by the site of the ancient manor at The Abnalls had witnessed an apparition. Mr Jackson visited the site at midnight on several occasions to see if this phantom would materialise but reported that the closest thing to a ghost he saw was weird forms in the trees and bushes created by the dim light, and on one occasion the gentle waving of a white nightgown pegged on a clothes line. It may not be haunted, but traces of the moated medieval manor house can still be seen in a field at the edge of Pipe Green.
Having read these tales, do you believe that the old residents of Lichfield sometimes return to walk amongst us? If you need further convincing, perhaps you should join one of the Gruesome and Ghostly tours taking place in Lichfield this Autumn. Details can be found on the www.visitlichfield.co.uk website, or via the Tourist Information Centre at the St Mary’s Centre on Market Square.
The History of The Friary School by Helen Mullins
History of the City and County of Lichfield and History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Lichfield by John Jackson
Mystical Happenings by Carol Arnall
The Poetical Works of Anna Seward with Extracts from Her Letter and Literary Correspondence
Lichfield Mercury Archive
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