With evenings drawing in and Halloween around the corner, thoughts turn to ghost stories and folk tales. This month’s blogpost is a collaboration with Huntingdon Drama Club. The poems below were used for their original devised production performed during the Bridge Festival earlier this year, based on local history and folklore.
The poetry will introduce you to monstrous dogs, nefarious spirits, a murderer most foul and their innocent victim. We will also delve a little into the stories and facts behind the tales.
With no further ado, grab your torch, pluck up your spirits and venture out into the night…
The Monstrous Myth of the Beastly Black Shuck
“He takes the form of a huge black dog, and prowls along dark lanes and lonesome field footpaths, where, although his howling makes the hearer’s blood run cold, his footfalls make no sound.”
– W. A. Dutt, “Highways & Byways in East Anglia”, 1901
Softly along the lamp-lit street
Trod a single pair of feet
The misty air was fresh and sweet
As a man breathed in the night.
The sky was shrouded with a starry gown,
As the sleepy townsfolk bedded down
Across the bridge and into the town
Walked a man in the night.
Off the road and onto track
On he walked not looking back
Deeper now into the black
Blinded by the night
Onto the common by the hill
Upon which stood the silent mill
And through the fog he felt the chill
Stumbling in the night
As the darkness took its hold
Suddenly he did behold
Burning eyes of red and gold
Vision of the night
Before the man could scream or stir
The Black Shuck shook its ink dark fur
Demonic dog; unholy cur,
Terror in the night
The beast opened its gaping maw
And from its throat came a deep roar
Which sounded across fen and moor
Echoing in the night
Back it drew across the fen
Immortal hound and fiend to men
Until the day it returns again
Bringing death by night
The story of a monstrous black dog, the very sight of which causes death or ill luck, is common across East Anglia, with hundreds of sightings across Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. The shuck itself varies in size from a cat to a cart horse but generally speaking it is the size (and shape) of a large dog, black and shaggy with glowing red eyes (although some sources claim it only has one eye). The first recorded sighting is from 1127 in the Peterborough Cathedral chronicle;
“the hounds were jet black with eyes like saucers and horrible. This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough”
Interestingly, there are accounts of the Black Shuck as both a dangerous harbinger of death and a saviour, leading (or chasing!) lost travellers from the fens back onto paths, attacking would-be criminals and on one purported occasion in the 1930’s scaring a man off a road moments before a car with no lights passed along it.
The most famous sighting was not in Huntingdonshire at all but in the quiet Suffolk village of Bungay. On the 4th August 1577, during a great thunderstorm, a giant black dog burst into the church, slew a man and a boy and then collapsed the steeple, the beast than fled across the fields to Blythburgh where it passed between two grown men breaking their necks as it passed. The beast supposedly left his burnt mark on the church door and the event is remembered in local folk rhyme;
“all down the church in midst of fire, the hellish monster flew, and, passing onward to the quire, he many people slew”
It is easy to put these events down to a superstitious mind and, in the midst of a great thunder storm, apportion the blame to a lightning strike. This would explain the sundered steeples and deaths at Bungay, lighting strikes can also cause broken bones perhaps explaining the unfortunate men at Blythburgh and the burnt marks on the church door.
It is also possible there was a giant black dog. Excavations in 2014 at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk revealed the skeletal remains of a dog, estimated at being 7 foot nose to tail and weighing upwards of 14 stone. The remains were dated by pottery sherds to the 1500’s…
The Tragic Tale of Poor Mary Ann Weems
“Ere Crime you perpetrate survey this Stone, Learn hence the God of Justice sleeps not on his Throne, But marks the Sinner with unerring Eye”
– Inscription on the Grave of Mary Ann Weems
The Dead are full of stories
For those who stop to listen
One voice above others
Begs to be heard.
Not so long ago, she lived in these parts
Trod the streets that we pass without thought
Mary Ann Sawyer, our tragic ancestor
I pluck her tale from the remains of her soul
As we turn our eyes
Towards the past.
’Twas the cruellest of Fates which led Miss Sawyer
To her courtship of Thomas Weems!
She – modest girl of “unprepossessing appearance”
He – burly brute “of strong build and rough exterior.”
What lies love weaves across our eyes!
Alas! – we all are prey to the poisons of romance – which overrides reason.
Whispers of conception swept throughout the town
Landing upon the ears of authority.
Thomas Weems – found, arrested, forced into wedlock.
Curse that rain-swept day in 1818
When Mary Sawyer became Mary Weems!
Months passed, no child forthcoming.
Curse the wicked twist of fortune
That ignited the lustful eye of Thomas Weems upon Maria Woodward.
And curse especially the reluctant husband, whose mind soon turned towards
Plots! Connivance! Deception!
How best could Thomas Weems extract himself from his marriage?
Vile bewitcher of women, Thomas Weems!
Draw in and face your deed.
Confess to your lies and your villainy
Tell of how you knelt before your wife
Humbly begged forgiveness
Pleaded for a new beginning.
How poor Mary’s trusting heart leapt at her husband’s words
Believing this wretch reformed.
Weems, you hound!
Will you tell of how you led your wife into a field?
How you broke bread together
For the very last time
Of how you squeezed your hands around her throat
And rasped “Now I am going to be the death of you!”
Your foul fingers pressed upon the pure flesh
Of a lady who had done you no wrong
You crushed her throat
As she crumpled in your arms
A flick of the wrist, one brief callous movement
You tossed her corpse upon the ground
Disposed of, abandoned, forgotten.
Recognition grew of your evil
As you were seized from your path
The Day of Reckoning was at hand.
Judgement arose like terror in the night
Cowed before justice, your countenance –
Grotesque and shrivelled and puny –
Trembled before the eyes of your jury
Your weakness exposed
As you slumped on the stand.
For one hour, you swung from the scaffold
Then wrenched down and placed before
The cool gaze of Science – that we might understand
The mysteries of this deviant corpse
Electrical charges pulsing through your body
A galvanic hell
Thrashing and jerking in violent spasms
Eye to heel contorting – what powerful agony!
Can we hope that your soul also felt it?
Can we hope that Thomas Weems suffers still?
Can we hope that justice chains him to his crime
That he may never find peace
As the shards of Mary’s shredded spirit
Flutter in the breeze.
Not a single soul is lost
for you may never bury the past –
Carried upon the Wisps
As they duck and shimmer and twist
The events in the poem are very much true to the events as they occurred. Mary Ann Weems (nee Sawyer) was a Godmanchester girl who fell in with Thomas Weems, a man of “strong build and rough exterior”. Following reports that she was made pregnant by him the parish authorities forced a marriage, however no child arrived. Whether Mary faked her pregnancy or miscarried, none can say, but finding himself with an unwanted wife Thomas left Godmanchester where he met another woman. Three years later he returned to Mary, convinced her he was repentant and following a quarrel on the road to London took her into a field outside Wendy (now Wendy-cum-Shingay near Royston) and strangled her there.
The body was found and returned to Godmanchester, where so many people came to view her corpse that it was displayed in its coffin on the table by the parlour window; it is believed that this was at what is now The White Hart. Mary’s body was interred beneath a very fine gravestone in Godmanchester churchyard raised by public subscription with a warning for the local youths as to what may occur if they were not careful…
Thomas Weems was soon caught, tried at the Cambridge assizes and hanged for murder at a few minutes past noon, 6th August 1819, but it didn’t end there. At this time the barely understood science of electricity was being investigated across Europe, with experiments involving running currents through dead animals and men to see what happens occurring.
By 1.45pm Thomas Weems’ body was in the anatomy theatre in the Botanical Gardens, where various professors were waiting. After an hour of running currents through various parts of the body a more formal dissection took place the next day to which the public were invited. Even then Thomas Weems was not interred in his tomb, well not entirely. A square of skin was cut from the body and sent to the university bookbinders to bind a book for the Christopher Wren library, the volume may well still be there today…
The Long Lost Legend of the Will O’ The Wisps
“will-with-a-wisp … a kind of device of the evil spirit to draw human beings from the road they were pursuing into some frightful abyss of misery; and there leave them without any hope”
– R. Parry: “The History of Kington”, 1845
Faerie lamp, fen flame
Jack-o-lantern, ghost light
Elf torch, Travellers bane
Witch fire, Pixie light
Will o the wisp.
He missed the last bus
Its an hours wait for a taxi
“Well, It’s not that far to walk”
Google maps and bright torch to hand
“Follow St. Christopher’s drive for 1/3 of a mile..”
Heading out past slumbering homes
Street lights at wider intervals
Nights gloom creeping in,
Before the last light,
Serene, alone, the end of the town, the last house, the boundary
Walking fast on the dark lanes
Not that far to go,
Passing high, dots of planes, reminding him that he’s alone
Amongst the stars, and soaring planes
One more light woven in nights cloak
Battery low, “well not far now”
No signal, “I’ll pick it up soon”
Torch splutters, batteries going
Phone dying, location not found
What’s in the dark?
“There’s nothing there”
“It’s just branches catching at my hair”
“Those are the eyes of rabbits”
“There’s nothing out here tonight but me”
How wrong can a person be?
In the distance dim light
Blinding in that velvet night
“Must mean a house right?”
People, tea, a fire bright
A lift on home
But a young man alone,
“Anyone could live there”
“But, anyone could be out here”
A moments indecision,
Climbing up and over hedge
Off the path, over fen
Leading on and on again
Far from road, and into mud
Scratching thorns drawing blood
“Who’d live out here so far”
He asks, wiping blood with his cuff
“How do they get here in their car”
Then goes out
A cry starts,
“What the hell do I do now”
Turning round to find his path
Nothing to show where he’d been past
Turning round, and round again
Edge of fen
Police requests for information
“Went missing on the night of..”
The posters say
TV adverts, Radio, Facebook shares
To find them
The old men grumble
Nursing their pints on a winters night
They ain’t missing,
Least nowhere they’ll be found
Only a fools out there of a night
Only a fool will follow the lights
Faerie lamp, fen flame
Jack-o-lantern, ghost light
Elf torch, Travellers bane
Witch fire, Pixie light
Will o the wisp
Will O’ The Wisps, also known in Latin as “ignis fatuus” (fool’s fire) and across East Anglia as “The Hobby Lantern” or “The Lantern man”, are a common legend in any area with marsh, fen or swamp. They occur across the United Kingdom and Northern Europe and as far as afield as South America and aboriginal Australia!
According to legend, these lights are either souls turned from heaven and forced to walk the earth for their unrepentant behaviour, or mischievous fairies with stolen torches or lanterns, hence other regional names include “Jack o’ Lantern” and “Kit with the Candlestick”.
They are commonly held to be malevolent, delighting in luring travellers off paths or roads and out to drown in the hidden depths, whilst some legends say they lead travellers to great treasures if you are brave enough to follow them (a somewhat dangerous contradiction in intent!). In Huntingdonshire the will o’ the wisps are a passive light, a false beacon whilst across the border in Norfolk “the lantern man” was a more proactive danger, chasing down lights at night and attacking anyone who failed to show respect by whistling or mocking him.
Scientifically speaking, the the likeliest cause of these sightings is down to the nature of decomposition of plant and animal matter in waterlogged areas. As the dead matter decomposes under the water it releases methane, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and phospines. These phosphines are flammable toxic gases which when combined with methane and oxygen produce a dense white glowing cloud which would appear to hover over where the dead matter is decomposing. The lights going out would be explained by the air or water being disturbed as a person approached cutting off the methane and phosphines and putting out the light.
Maybe safest not to follow the lights either way…
Do you know any other local folklore or ghost tales? Please feel free to share them with us via Facebook, email or comments below!
We’ll be continuing to work with Huntingdon Drama Club next month as we have guest blogger Michelle Gibson telling the history of the Drama Club in celebration of their 75th anniversary this year! Watch this space…
The Monstrous Myth of the Beastly Black Shuck – Victoria Calleway (née Spurway)
Victoria Calleway is a very amateur historian indeed but learnt to be discerning about her sources through her English Literature and Theatre degree. Incidentally, these are a few of her favourite things, along with board games, cheese, and her cats, Asparagus and Macavity.
The Tragic Tale of Poor Mary Ann Weems – Michelle Gibson
Huntingdon-born and bred, Michelle is involved in a couple of local community groups, one such being Huntingdon Drama Club. A staunch admirer of the arts, she has been an avid reader since childhood and includes writing and acting amongst her other interests.
The Long Lost Legends of the Will o’ the Wisps (and additional notes) – Matthew Calleway
Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.
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