During the Lancashire cotton riots in 1878, a young sub-altern was garrisoned with his company at Samlesbury Hall, near Blackburn. In the early morning he was awakened by the sound of a woman crying bitterly in the corridor outside his room. He got out of bed to investigate but could find no one; the next morning he mentioned this to his host and hostess and saw the look that passed between them. He had witnessed the White Lady of Samlesbury Hall.
In 1926, when he was an elderly Colonel, he wrote to the London Morning Post and told them the whole story. In view of the years that had passed, the Colonel may have misremembered the details when he wrote his letter, but he certainly experienced something that morning which he was never able to satisfactorily explain.
In I960 the papers again carried reports of strange happenings at Samlesbury Hall and on the road close by. Several motorists had reported seeing a woman dressed in white at the roadside – some stopped to offer her assistance or a lift, others saw her walk into the road and were sure they had hit her, only to be shocked when they realised that she wasn’t really there. A couple walking their dog saw a woman in a light-coloured coat walking towards them – she passed them without lifting her feet, in effect walking straight through the dog’s lead. A bus driver stopped at the bus-stop outside Salmesbury Old Hall to pick up a lady in a white coat, who had promptly disappeared. The driver had then had an argument with the conductor, who swore no-one had been waiting at all.
It is assumed that all these incidents were sightings of Lady Dorothy, the White Lady of Salmesbury Old Hall, although the staff at Samlesbury Hall claim never to have seen the White Lady and are sceptical of her existence.
In the 16th century, Samlesbury Hall was the seat of the Southworth family, who were Catholics. Like many Lancashire families, they risked their lives by giving sanctuary to priests hiding from the authorities. Sir John Southworth supported Mary Queen of Scots and wished to see her reinstated on the throne. His nephew John was ordained as a priest and later canonised as the last Catholic to die for his faith in England. His son Christopher was an equally devout defender of their faith and it is he who is the villain of this piece, for unfortunately his love of his religion caused him to turn against his two of his own family members: Jane, and Dorothy. He conspired for Jane to be tried as a witch and he also murdered Dorothy’s Protestant lover.
Jane came to be tried as a witch in 1612 because she began to show signs of taking up the Protestant faith. In all, nine Samlesbury people were accused of witchcraft, three of whom, Jane Southworth and Janet and Ellen Bierley, were taken to Lancaster to be tried. The case was regarded as so important that it was tried in the same assize session as the infamous Pendle witch trial.
The main witness was a simple girl of 14, Grace Sowerbutts of Samlesbury, the granddaughter of Janet Bierley and the niece of Ellen. Grace accused all three women of bewitching her so that she began to waste away and she said that her grandmother Janet had turned herself into a black dog which had walked on its hind legs and tried to talk Grace into drowning herself. All three women were accused of taking Grace to a twice-weekly Sabbath on the banks of the River Ribble where they were joined in their demonic parties by ‘four black things, going upright, and yet not like men in the face…” Fortunately, the judge found Grace’s statements hard to believe and cross-examined her. Under pressure, she admitted that she had been persuaded to denounce the women by Christopher Southworth. Jane and the others were acquitted and Christopher’s plot against his own sister-in-law was foiled.
Christopher’s treatment of his sister Dorothy was to prove even more tragic. Dorothy fell in love with a young man of the de Hoghton family, from nearby Hoghton Towers; he would have been suitable enough had he not renounced his faith in favour of the Church of England. Dorothy’s father strictly forbade the union but true love never will be denied and Dorothy and her lover continued to meet and planned an elopement. Unfortunately Christopher became aware of this plan, ambushed de Hoghton and his attendant and murdered them outside Dorothy’s bedroom window. Dorothy witnessed the awful deed, threw herself from the window and was killed. Another version of the story claims that Dorothy was sent away to a convent on the continent and there went mad with grief and died.
Credence was lent to this story in 1826 when road construction work near the Hall uncovered two human skeletons. Unfortunately, the Southworth pedigree shows that Sir John had no daughter named Dorothy. Perhaps she may have married into the family, in which case she would not have been recorded in the pedigree. Not far away is – or was – Old Pleasington Hall, and a daughter of the family there was called Dorothy. This Dorothy married a Southworth, then a de Hoghton, then Thomas Ainsworth, who was likewise a Protestant. On the other hand, it was not unusual for families to arrange for any member who had transgressed beyond forgiveness to be totally excised from the records. But despite the difficulty of proving exactly who the White Lady is, if you should be driving down the A677 past the beautiful black and white building that is Samlesbury Hall, be aware that if you see a lady dressed in white standing by the roadside, she isn’t really there . . . particularly if the month is August, for this is the anniversary of her death.
Another ghost haunts the interior of the Hall; a male ghost who apparently prefers blondes, who feel a gentle tug on their hair. The ghost is thought to be Joseph Harrison who bought the Hall in the 1860s. Just after Christmas in 1878, learning by letter that his bank holding all his monies had collapsed, he killed himself with one shot to the head.
When another Lord of Samlesbury died, a man-servant was appointed to stay with the body in the Old Hall before the Lord’s burial in the churchyard. During the night, the servant awoke to the sound of piano music in the room below, a mournful dirge accompanied by screams of sorrow. The music repeated at intervals and did not finally stop until daylight came. Needless to say, the servant refused to spend another night in the Old Hall.
The bells at Samlesbury Old Hall also have a habit of sounding all by themselves. One employee half a century ago was often disturbed by the courtyard door bell ringing, when no-one was waiting outside. On one occasion he was upstairs by a window and so was sure that no-one had come up the drive to the Hall, but he still went to open the door when the bell rang – only to find no-one there.
The Hall was bought in the 1920s by a Preservation Committee, who soon noticed that the line of old room-bells had a habit of ringing on their own. A member of the committee was walking past the row of bells one day when one of them rang, but on investigation he found that only two other people were in the building and neither was responsible. On another occasion the caretaker was showing some visitors around the place and as they approached the oriel window, one of the room-bells rang. One of the visitors investigated, sure he would prove a natural cause, but he could not. Then, as they descended the stairs, another of the party saw a woman wearing an old-fashioned dress, her hair loose, with an odd faintness to her appearance. Assured that no-one of that description was actually in the building, the party left convinced they had seen the famous White Lady.
Finally, inside Samlesbury Hall there is a 14th century Green Man, carved into one of the stair panels on the outside of the staircase.