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…