The Tale of Fox Robin

Westleigh

St Peter’s Church, Westleigh

In Westleigh, Greater Manchester, Fox Robin is a well-known name. Fox Robin was a farmer and Fox Robin Fold was his farm; the land was bought in recent years by Westleigh High School and is now the site of art rooms, language rooms and a humanities department. The old farmhouse which once stood here is all but forgotten, but the name is remembered in the name of one of the new buildings; Fox Robin Building.

Fox Robin himself was a crotchety old farmer; he was bad-tempered, selfish and not without his violent side, if the stories are to be believed. For there are plenty of stories.

The only visitors Fox Robin allowed to visit him were Widow Peggy Farrington and her son Roger and that was only because Peggy was his housekeeper and Roger his farm servant. Fox Robin had never married and his only relations were cousins and half-cousins whom he never saw, having long ago upset them all one way or another. He knew, though, that they would soon rally round if they heard he was dead, for he was sure they were waiting impatiently to inherit his house and whatever riches he had managed to tuck away.

One day, Fox Robin brought home a coffin and laid himself out in it, on his bed. Finding him thus, Peggy sent young Roger running to call for his cousins. A funeral was quickly arranged and the burial carried out and back to Fox Robin’s house came all the cousins, intent on searching the place for hidden treasure. They were no sooner inside the house, however, than they all ran away again – for there was old Fox Robin himself, sitting by the fire smoking his pipe. The coffin they had buried had been full of nothing but stones.

Within a year Fox Robin did actually, really, die and young Roger called the cousins together again. This time the cousins made sure Fox Robin was really dead, nailed his coffin shut themselves and kept watch over it until it was safely buried in the churchyard. Back they went to the house, sure that this time the place and all its contents were theirs for the taking. Not so! A lawyer met them at the door and informed them that Fox Robin had left all his land and possessions to young Roger and his mother – unless any of the cousins could raise enough money to pay off the mortgage. The mortgage was three hundred pounds, which was far beyond their reach. And so the cousins inherited nothing.

However, the fact remained that the hefty mortgage must still be settled. How could young Roger and his mother be expected to manage it? Manage it they did, with the help of Fox Robin’s ghost, who appeared to Roger several times before he realised that maybe he should not simply run away, but watch the ghost carefully. The ghostly Fox Robin led young Roger to a particular old oak tree and pointed to it meaningfully. Roger dug down to the roots and there he found a great box, which he carried home. When Roger and his mother Peggy opened the box, they found it was full of gold pieces. It was Fox Robin’s treasure, which he had so carefully hidden from his grasping cousins. Roger and his mother were easily able to settle the mortgage and they lived in the farmhouse for the rest of their lives.

A slightly different version of the story of Fox Robin and his treasure tells how he dug his own grave, intending to bury his treasure there, thus keeping it away from his relatives. He worked for so long that he fell asleep in the deep hole and was discovered by the innkeeper, who immediately ran to tell everyone he knew that Fox Robin was dead. Then he ran swiftly back to the open grave, where Fox Robin strangled him and buried him, along with the treasure, in the grave. The villagers who came to the churchyard saw nothing but a filled-in grave, but they believed Fox Robin was there under the mound of earth. When Fox Robin walked into the Inn, therefore, everyone ran away, sure they were seeing his ghost!

After his death, Fox Robin’s ghost continued to be seen, sometimes, walking the paths from the Inn to his farmhouse. It was said that he was also to blame for the state of some of the villagers, who, after spending all evening in the Inn, arrived home rolling drunk and covered in grass stains and scratches. It was all the fault of Fox Robin’s ghost, they said, who had dragged them through a hedge, backwards.

Whilst researching this story, another Fox Robin Fold came to light – in Pontefract in Yorkshire. This is quite a coincidence as Fox Robin is hardly a common name – I wonder if similar stories are attached to that place?

This article was first published on http://www.folklorethursday.com 2017.
Posted in Local Legends, Manchester, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Park Mistress of Hornby Park

Hornby Park © Copyright Gordon Hatton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

This little ghost story has some folk elements which are hard to ignore. A woman named Meg Brackin was out in Hornby Park one evening, looking for kindling for her fire. She came across another woman and wondered what she was doing there, as the day was ending and it would soon be dark. She spoke to the woman, who then came close to her and took hold of her hand – and that was the beginning of a dreadful experience for poor Meg.

An old poem, in local dialect, describes how the strange woman in a white dress (who was in fact a ghost) gripped Meg’s hand tightly and led her on a break-neck journey through the Park, ignoring pathways and plunging through brush and brambles without stopping even to drink at the stream. Indeed, Meg grew so thirsty that as the night wore on she was obliged to drag the hem of her dress through the dew-soaked grass and suck the moisture from it. The ghost would not let Meg rest until daylight came again – at which point she vanished. It is said that Meg had always been a well-covered lady, but after the awful experience of running about the country all night, she was thin.

The white lady, known locally as the Park Mistress, is believed to be the ghost of Lady Harrington, who was, allegedly, a murderess. We are not told who was the victim of her murderous tendencies; perhaps she was in league with Lord Monteagle, who allegedly murdered her brother?

However, Meg Brackin certainly lived; the records show that she was born in 1745, and died in 1795.

Image © Copyright Gordon Hatton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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Fairies in Sacks – Poachers Beware!

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In his book Welsh Folklore, published in 1887, Elias Owen mentions the following story from Llandrillo in Denbighshire:

Nearby was a little valley called Cwm Pennant, after the river which ran through it, and the valley was believed to be the home of fairies. One day, two men were otter-hunting in this valley when they saw a little red creature run across a field and hide in some tree roots on the riverbank. They were doubtful that this was an otter, as to their knowledge otters were never red, so they decided to catch the animal alive, so they could examine it. One of them covered one hole under the tree roots with a sack, whilst the other poked a stick down another hole, until at last something rushed out of the first hole and was caught in the sack.

The men began to carry the sack home but were very surprised when they heard a little voice saying “My mother is calling for me; oh, my mother is calling for me!” In their surprise they dropped the sack and out of it came a little man, dressed in red – obviously a fairy – and he ran away.

I was thrilled to read this tale, because a very similar story can be found in Lancashire – in two different places. The first story is set in Hoghton, in an area where the old and well-used rabbit warrens were once home to many fairies. Once there were two poachers who knew this area well, but they had been caught poaching once too often and their dogs and their nets had been taken from them. Undeterred, they went rabbit-hunting again, with only a ferret and a couple of sacks in which to store their booty. They knew the best place to hunt and so it wasn’t long before their ferret had rooted out the inhabitants of a warren and with their sacks over the entrance holes, it was a simple job to catch their quarry. However, they could not see exactly what they had caught.

They were walking home, with the sacks slung over their shoulders, when one of them heard a voice from his sack calling out, ‘Dick, wheer artta?’ At once another voice called out from the other sack; ‘In a sack, on a back, riding up Hoghton Brow!’  Shocked, the poachers dropped their sacks and ran away.

Next day, they retraced their steps and found their abandoned sacks, neatly folded by the side of the road. And that was the end of their poaching days; the sacks were used for potatoes and the men went back to earning an honest living with their weaving looms.

And here’s the same story, set in Barley. A pair of poachers once caught a couple of fairies. One night, they had crept to a rabbit warren, put their sacks over the rabbit holes and left them there until they could tell by the feel that they had caught something. They tied the necks of their sacks, slung them over their backs and set off for home. Walking back up the steep hill to Barley, they remarked to each other on the noise their catches were making and then were even more astonished when the squeaking noises coming from their sacks turned into little voices! One voice called out, ‘Where arta? Where arta?’ And the other answered, ‘Here I am, in a sack, going over Barley Brow!’ The poachers dropped their sacks and ran.

Isn’t that marvellous? I am quite used to finding the same story told in towns which are just a few miles apart, but to find this one in Lancashire and then hundreds of miles away in Wales, brings me great delight. I can only hope you find it just as interesting!

Image Melanie Warren all rights reserved.
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Weir… and perhaps a witch…

Weir, Bacup

In Weir, an area of Bacup, there was once a young woman who was married to an old man and dissatisfied with her lot. When night came she would steal away from her husband’s bed and go wandering, but where she went was a mystery.

A neighbouring farmer was suffering nightly visitations from someone – or something – that would overturn milk cans and steal the cream. One night he stayed awake with his son, determined to catch the thief. In the early hours of the morning, a black cat crept in through a window and the farmer and his son attacked it energetically with pots and pans. At last the cat, battered and bruised, managed to escape.

Next morning, the old man made no comment as he watched his young wife bathing her cuts and bruises. He had a feeling she would never be wandering abroad at night again.

© Copyright robert wade and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
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A Boggart Did It – Proved In Court!

boggart

In 1869, a court in Blackburn pronounced, amazingly, that a boggart had been responsible for breaking numerous windows in the Union Buildings. A respectable-looking man called George Hindle had been accused and taken to court. The court heard how windows had been broken by stones every night for several weeks, to the great expense of the residents. The disturbance had been so bad that a reward was offered to anyone who could reveal the assailant, who had always vanished before he could be spotted.

Finally, George Hindle was arrested by PC Livesey, who had been instructed to keep the buildings under constant watch. His evidence was that he had seen Hindle go into his brother-in-law’s house, from where he sent a stone flying at the opposite house. A moment later, Hindle came out of the house and picked up the stone again. However, that was the only point at which the Constable could say he had actually seen Hindle with a stone in his hand – not actually in the act of throwing it, but with it in his hand.

Hindle vehemently protested his innocence. He said that the stone had been in his hand because the Constable had asked people to collect the offending stones and give them to him as evidence. He said that, despite his innocence, he would rather pay the costs of the broken windows than be standing where he was that day; in court. In his defence, it was pointed out that the reward money had been doubled by the prisoner himself and, moreover, windows in his own house had been broken by the mysterious stone-thrower. Also, since Hindle had been in custody, more windows had been broken. Witnesses were also brought forward who said that they had been standing with Hindle when stones had come through their own windows – it could not have been he; it must have been a boggart.

Incredibly, the end result of this court case – which caused much laughter in the court-room – was that the magistrate had no recourse but to pronounce that a boggart had indeed been responsible for breaking the dozens of windows! George Hindle was released without charge.

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Bramall Hall – Moved by the Fairies!

geograph-2013249-by-Bob-Abell

Bramall Hall, on Hall Road in Bramhall, is several centuries old. Parts of the building date from the late 1590s. A short distance from the hall is Crow Holt Wood and this, so the legend says, is where the builders originally intended the hall to stand. However, night after night the foundations were moved by fairies until the builders had no alternative but to build the hall where it now stands. It is surprising to find this folk-legend attached to Bramall Hall; such stories usually feature churches, not residential buildings. It is also odd to see it attached to a relatively recent building when such legends usually date from the 11th or 12th century. The prosaic truth is that Crow Holt Wood was the site of an earlier hall – ditches have been found which indicate an ancient moat, which must have encircled a building.

The legend about fairies may be a recent invention, but what of the tradition which says that Bramall Hall is visited each New Year’s Eve by the Red Rider; a ghost clad in a red cape, on horseback? He is said to be the ghost of a real horseman who visited the hall in the 1630s. He was given food and shelter but next morning he had disappeared, leaving the owner, William Davenport, dead on the floor.

An old ballad tells of another ghost who haunts one of the bedrooms here; Alice, or the Maid of Bramall Hall. She was eagerly awaiting the return of her lover from Spain, so was naturally horrified when his horse arrived at the hall without a rider. Her lover’s body was soon discovered in Macclesfield Forest, murdered by highwaymen, and when his body was brought to the hall Alice broke down in grief. She mourned him until she died and still haunts the room where she eventually gave up her life.

An alternative story about Bramall Hall’s female ghost says she is Dame Dorothy Davenport, wife of the above-mentioned William, the original builder of the hall. Her bedroom is so badly haunted that it has earned the sobriquet of The Ghost Room. Visitors to this room sometimes hear rustling skirts or feel a hand on their shoulder – at least one visitor has even heard a voice saying ‘Hello’. A shadowy woman has also been seen in the Plaster Room, passing through the wall into the Withdrawing Room next door.

So many ghosts in one building! And there’s also something lovely outside; on the oldest part of the building, on the oldest part of exterior masonry, is a green man.

Image © Copyright Bob Abell and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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Blackley Hall and Old Shay’s Ghost

blackley-hall

Blackley Hall was a large and ancient manor house dating from Tudor times but by 1760 it was no longer used as one large family home. Separate parts of it were rented out by the Scholes family, who owned it. The building, which stood where the Rochdale and Middleton roads now cross, was torn down around 1815 but even though it cannot be visited, its story is included because the ghost who haunted there was so famous.

Early in the 18th century there was a rumour that the lately deceased wife of one of the tenants, Mrs Shay, had been murdered and the assumption was that her husband, Old Shay, was her murderer. Soon it was also rumoured that the ghost of ‘Old Shay’s wife’, as she was commonly known, was haunting the hall, rattling crockery and door handles and walking the rooms at night accompanied by her small black dog.

One of the tenants of Blackley Hall was Mr Nicolson, a schoolmaster, who ran a school in part of the hall and lived there in a room himself. He was the first to report having seen the ghost but in the years that followed many people living nearby claimed to have seen Old Shay’s wife, both in the hall and outside in the grounds. The reports continued until 1815, when the hall was sold to a Mr Grant, who demolished the whole of the dilapidated building in order to erect a print shop. This business passed from hand to hand but never prospered and in 1839, the print shop itself was demolished.

Old Shay’s wife was never seen again… but she was certainly blamed for other hauntings as time went on.

In 1852, the Manchester Courier carried a story about an ‘extraordinary superstition’ at Blackley, describing how the village people believed Old Shay’s ghost had taken up residence in a very old building next to the White Lion pub. The Whitehead family had lived there for almost a year but during the last six weeks they had been troubled by strange noises; a clucking hen, or a far-off train whistle and, in particular, a screaming sound which occurred whenever anyone stood on a specific flagstone in the kitchen. This noise was so disturbing that Mr Whitehead felt compelled to uproot the flagstone and start digging – and several feet down he discovered a large jug, which turned out to be filled with quicklime and bones. Naturally, the bones were assumed to be human.

As neighbours heard about the disturbances, they offered theories to explain the jug full of bones, some suggesting it must have been the hidden remains of a murder victim but most assuming that the ghost of Old Shay’s wife must have taken up residence in the house. Indeed, a certain Mr Horrox, who had once lived in the house, said that he had twice seen the ghost of a woman. Other neighbours contributed similar stories and some said that the house had been haunted for many decades.

Spurred on by the beliefs of his neighbours, Mr Whitehead continued to dig up his floor, even removing the cellar steps in the process until a very large hole had been excavated measuring some sixteen feet long and five feet deep. Despite his herculean efforts, nothing more was found. However, the unearthly disturbances continued, including one occasion when a boiling kettle was moved from the fire to the middle of the room and left on the floor.

The story spread abroad and someone even called in an astrologer from Manchester, who brought his crystal ball and magical texts, but his ‘investigation’ served no purpose other than the entertainment of the many curious onlookers.

Oddly, the newspaper report stated that Mr Whitehead himself was not at all frightened by the occurrences and was determined to find an explanation for them. However, that did not dissuade the neighbours who still claimed that it was surely all the work of a boggart, or Old Shay’s wife herself.

The report ends by commenting that the story was attracting visitors to Blackley from far and wide, and local pubs were making a fortune…

Image Courtesy Victorian Web http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/manchester/22.html
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