The Ellesborough Happening

church ghost_1_pinch_sunWhen well-known children’s author Alison Uttley – creator of many well-loved characters, ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ in particular, was asked in 1949 to write about her adopted home county of Buckinghamshire, she did so with a passion. She said, “This county of Buckinghamshire is the epitome of England, and the way of living is that of country people and I have fallen in love with its beauty and changelessness.” (Uttley, A., Buckinghamshire, Robert Hale, London, 1950.p. ix)


Now almost seventy years later, a great deal has changed, but her description of Ellesborough’s church, St Peter & St Paul, remains true. “There is something stark and grand about its outline against the sky,” she said, and indeed there is. (ibid, p.205)

When she approached the church all those years ago, from the Aylesbury road, she conjured up quite a remarkable image. From afar, she likened the view “To a stone ship, riding a green sea, poised on a curving green wave in the distance.” and she saw it also as, “a place of extraordinary life.”(ibid p.205)church_elles
Photograph by Rob Farrow: St Peter & St Paul: Ellesborough

She was aware that this fine church had long been thought to be haunted but found this to be of no particular surprise, commenting, “One can well imagine men coming back to that resting place under the Chilterns.
Beacon Hill is behind it, towering over it and on a shoulder of Beacon Hill is Cymbeline’s Mount.” (ibid p.205)
So, is there evidence to support the return of departed souls to this “resting place under the Chilterns”?
Photograph by Mick Finn Cymbeline’s Mount, Ellesborough 

At the time of Uttley’s visit, the vicar, the Reverend Norman White, was keen to emphasize that they were standing on the Icknield Way. thought to be the oldest road in Britain and Uttley herself commented, “It compels by a latent vigour from the centuries of the past” (ibid, p.205). In some ways, this echoes Uttley’s literary gem from 1939, ‘A Traveller in Time.’Alison_Uttley_5 Such a prehistoric pathway would have seen many lives come and go, but are such ancient travellers (or even more recent) still to be encountered today? The answer appears to be yes.
Certainly there are records up to the 1970’s of a figure in medieval costume walking slowly across the nave towards the far wall of the church. He was first recorded as being seen in the 1940’s by the church organist a few years before Alison Uttley’s visit.

The organist was practicing for a Sunday service when he noticed the heavy church door opening and shutting and then saw an extremely tall man dressed in fourteenth century clothing, walk slowly through the church. The man disappeared behind a corner pillar and failed to re-emerge.

When the organist investigated, there was absolutely no one there. This pattern continued, but always at times when there was only ever one other person in the church. So it could never be corroborated.

Another incident in the 1970’s, in Norman White’s time, was the appearance to the parishioners of a young woman dressed in white, walking ceremoniously through the church only to disappear near a door at the southern end.

The Reverend himself spoke of how he saw her moving slowly away from the alter steps before fading from view. There was a theory that she was a parishioner in love with Robert Wallis, rector of the church in the seventeenth century, but the origins and details of the story is now lost in time.

I spoke with local historian John Vince, who knew Norman White very well, about this sighting of which he had spoken quite openly. John was clear on one thing, “If Norman said he saw it, then he saw it – he was a very rational, objective man,” said Mr. Vince firmly.

I was fortunate to speak with the Revd David Horner who was Norman White’s successor. What he told me, confirmed that there was something supernatural associated with the church – an apparition – possibly of a woman, but in black rather than white. He knows because he experienced it outside the church in the early 1980’s. This is the Revd David Horner’s story as told to me:

“On a pleasant evening in 1980. I set off from the rectory to take evening service at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish Church of Ellesborough. The rectory was only a couple of hundred yards from the church but the latter half of the walk was a very steep footpath, the church being on the top of a small hill.

I had just got to the steep bit when I saw in front of me – about 30 yards in front – a person dressed in a longish black coat also walking up the path. From the appearance of the person from behind, I thought it was a lady who was always on good time for the service and who sang in the choir, known to everybody as ‘Auntie Nellie’.A_2 I though I’d try and catch up with her to greet her but then the unexpected happened. I was within four or five yards behind her when the person simply vanished.”

David was, of course, astonished – this happened on a open pathway on a clear summer’s evening right in front of his eyes – she just disappeared.

“I can remember it today as clearly as I saw it on that evening so long ago,” he told me. But his story does not end there.

“About a week later, my son Stephen said to me, ‘Dad you won’t believe what I’ve just seen up on the path to church.’ I bet I will I answered.”

Stephen had seen what appeared to be a figure in a cloak on the same path who also faded from sight and, until they swapped stories, they did not know of each other’s separate encounters, but as David confirmed to me, “He had seen the same as I had.”

David thought long and hard about this experience and wondered if it is connected with a local story he was told about the ghost of a clergyman who had supposedly committed suicide there. He feels what he and Stephen saw was the picture of a “happening” involving an extremely strong emotion such as that immediately before and leading to a suicide.

” I believe that such an emotion can create an imprint on the atmosphere around where that emotion happened and that emotion can invade the mind or spirit of some people who are receptive to that kind of thing.”

David is right in that there is no doubt that ‘sensitives’ do exist who claim to be able to tune into past events that have such strong emotional ingredients. David and Stephen certainly qualify and perhaps you do too?

Maybe you should visit a certain church at Ellesborough on a summer’s eve!








Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Drayton Parslow and The Salden Pond Ghost

pond_3_agedHere is a piece of entertaining folklore from my own county of birth, Buckinghamshire in England. I do hope that you’ll find the authentic Buckinghamshire dialect used in this tale adds to its folk heritage which dates from the 1920’s and particularly so as it involves an equally traditional ghost – one with its head tucked underneath its arm.

Headless ghosts, with or without a misplaced head, are an essential ingredient in certain folklore and supernatural tales. Indeed, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series gave an additional twist to the headless ghost genre with the creation of Gryffinder’s resident ghost – Nearly Headless Nick. The forty-five blunt axe blows of his botched execution left his head attached by a mere flap of skin and sinew, leading him to lament, “My faithful old head, it never saw fit to desert me.

Humour, it seems, remains a close companion of what is clearly a terrible fate and in the English county of Buckinghamshire, skilled linguist and folk-lore researcher, Horace Harman, discovered the tale of the Salden pond ghost just down the hill from village pub which again takes on a certain light touch, especially when recounted in the local dialect which was Harman’s specialty. [1]

The following story is from a much longer conversation recorded by Harman in 1929 on a stormy night in a pub in the small village of  Drayton Parslow, Buckinghamshire.
drayton p

This photograph was taking during the 1920’s by the Reverend David Sheppard.

Here we meet  Jim and Chawley – two wonderful Buckinghamshire characters discussing the Salden pond ghost. It is written in dialect form and I realise this  presents an interesting challenge but it certainly flavours the humour in a way that would lost otherwise.

Chawley: “What a night! ‘Tis as dark as pitch. I a jes come up the road and I dint know how to find mi way. I got in the hedge once or twice as I was a-trying to git out a the way a the pond. This is, I think, about one a the darkest nights as ivver I was in. I could jist see the trees in the hedgerows agenst the sky, and what with the wind a-blowin in the branches and the noise they made, I felt quite creepy as I come up. I shoont like to git fur afeeuld to-night.”

Jim: “You ought to goo down to Sauldin [Salden] an a night like this. That’s wheeur you ought to goo, and then ood see summut.”

Chawley: “What?”

Jim: “Sauldin’s a rum ole pleeace, Sauldin is,’Tis a rum ole pleeace, I tell ye!”

Chawley: “What do you see?”

Jim: “Why, an ole fellur with his feeace under his arm – he comes out an a night like this, I tell ye, ’tis a rum ole pleeace.”

Chawley: “A you sin him?”

Jim: “Ant I begad – many a time.”

Chawley: “What does he do?”

Jim: “Well I ull tell ye. When you git down tuther side a Sauldin pond on a night like this, and you be a-gooin an the road, thaiur’s  an ole fellur as comes and walks by yur side – thaiur he is a-gooin and by the side a ye, and thair’s he old feeace under his arm a-looking at ye all the time, and he keeps an till he gits to a certain pleeace and then he leeaves ye. He walks by yur side all the time and nivver speeaks.”

Chawley: “Don’t ye crack him an the head wi yur stick?”

Jim: “No begad; I allus let him alooan; these things be best let alooan. Beside, he nivver hurts ye. Many a time has he bin by mi side and he nivver does nauthing. If ye were to follur him, I rickun he ood taiak ye to a pleeace wheeur thaiur’s a pot of money or summut like that; but thaiur ‘aint anybody has got the pluck to goo wi him.”

Chawley: “When did you see him fust?”

Jim: “One dark night when I was wi ole Tom Kirk. We were an tuther side a pond when ole Tom says to me, ‘Look out Jim, heear he is!’  And thaiur he was too, a-walkin’ by the side an us. My heear stood on end and lifted mi cap right up.
I tell ye I had got the wind up properly. There he kep an by the side an us with his old feeace under his arm a-lookin’ at us.”

Chawley: “What did ole Tom do?”

Jim: “Nauthin. All he said was. ‘Let him alooan. Taiak no no-atice an him.’ Ole Tom had sin him many a time, so he was quite used to him. He lived just tuther side a the pond and had walked the rooad all the times a night, so he dint mind him. I ull taiak ye down to Sauldin pond one a these dark  night. Will you goo?”

Chawley: “Yis, I ull. What’s the time?”

Jim: “Why gettin’ an.”

Chawley: I shull have to make a move.”

Jim: “So shull I.”

Chawley: “I hope I don’t meet the ole fellur down the road.”

Jim: “He dooant get as fur as this. We ull goo down to Sauldin pond one a these nights and ull show ye him.”

Chawley: “I shall taiak a good stick.”

Jim: ” You leave him alooan: he won’t hurt ye. If you got a-meesin him aboot, thaiurs no tellin what he ood do!”

Chawley: “Well good night all.”

Jim: “Goodnight. Keep yur eyes open when you’re gooin down. Look well into the hedge.”

Chawley: “Goodnight Jim, Shant believe these things you a told us tonight.”

Jim: “Pleease yurself. They all be true.”


[1] The above extracts are reproduced with thanks to Harman, H., Buckinghamshire Dialect, Hazell, Watson & Viney Ltd: London & Aylesbury, 1929.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Night Lambourn Town Was Set on Fire

carter_fire oneWander through the churchyard of the ancient parish church of St. Michael and All Angels in the historic English town of Lambourn, Berkshire, and you’ll discover a curious tombstone – a tombstone with a message.

Beneath this tombstone lie the remains of John Carter who was the last man in England to be executed for arson. He didn’t merely set fire to hay-ricks, farm cottages or wagons, as many disgruntled farm labourers were want to do when laid-off work through the introduction of new farm machinery and low wages, but he set fire to his home town of Lambourn.

carter_lambourn redl lion


So significant was his crime to all those souls who learnt about this wanton act, over five thousand people turned up to witness his death on the scaffold set on the roof-top of Reading gaol on March 16th 1833.
carter_reading gaol_1

The deterrent of the noose and ‘the drop’ would normally be the end of the line with his body limed and interred in an unmarked grave in unholy ground within the prison precincts – but John Carter is buried in his home churchyard on consecrated ground. When you read the message on his tomb you’ll see why.
[Now weathered and worn – I’ve reconstructed the exact message on Carter’s headstone]
It was clear from this message, that this thirty year old married farm labourer with two young children was being used by the civic authorities of Lambourn as a deterrent to the increasing number of arson attacks throughout the country as discontent with rural poverty and unemployment continued to rise.
Senior Bow Street runners from London’s law enforcement division were finding themselves commandeered around many English counties, investigating a variety of arson attacks throughout the 1830’s.
carter_fire three
Indeed, in sentencing Carter to death, the judge claimed it was a long premeditated scheme on the part of Carter to throw the country into “a state of alarm and panic.”
In fact it was a curious moment because the local Berkshire Chronicle following the arson attack on Lambourn on November 19th 1832, later apologized to its readers for not being able to report on these fires “in the interests of justice.” It was rumoured that there were London strangers asking questions in the town about the labouring men working there. Local people were puzzled that a quiet and sober unemployed agricultural labourer such as John Carter was in any position to “throw the country into a state of alarm and panic.”

The destruction caused by fire can be devastating at any time but in a location of thatched cottages, stables, and wooden barns packed with straw, it is particularly disastrous.
On the evening of November 19th 1832, about 7.30 pm, two fires broke out at almost the same moment. One at the Red Lion Inn in the centre of Lambourn and the other at Mr. Spicer’s Malthouse Barn about 400 yards distant. The flames had shot up in an instant and, at the Red Lion, killed valuable horses and a sporting dog in the stable.carter_fire twoThere had been a coursing meeting that day and the animals’ owners were dining at the Inn. The other fire at Spicer’s barn near Crowel Corner, was about to reach the adjoining outhouse stacked up to fifteen feet high with straw. Several passers by alerted others, the church bells were rung, and everyone, including John Carter, rushed to fight the blaze that threatened to destroy everything. It was agreed by all that if the night had not been calm, damp and misty, the whole place would have been burnt down.

George Green, a local labourer who lived in a part of Lambourn known as ‘The City‘, had been passing Crowel Corner that evening and had seen John Carter reach his hand into the thatch of the outhouse and shamble away.
Thirty minutes later the blaze was visible.
Green challenged Carter and said to him “John this is a bad job” Carter said the fire shouldn’t have broken out for another two hours, at which Green replied, “For God’s sake John hold thy tongue.” Carter replied, ” So I will,” and they both joined in the battle to save Lambourn from certain destruction.

Another labouring acquaintance of Carter, Robert Chivers, was also fighting the fire – a fire he knew would happen!
Only hours before he had been given a cloth packet containing a crude incendiary device with an agreed plan that while Carter set fire to the Red Lion, and Mr. Spicer’s premises, Chivers would set a third fire going in Mr. Child’s pigeon house about 220 yards away. This would certainly have sealed Lambourn’s fate but a pang of conscience led Chivers to throw his device away.
John Carter                                                            Robert Chivers

Mr. Child, who lived in the Malthouse, paid Chivers and Carter and other labourers who assisted in fighting the fire that night for their hard work in saving Lambourn from destruction.
This was a strange irony because it was said that the firing was a plot to raise labourers’ wages. According to Chivers, Carter had said to him that he did not think there would be better times in Lambourn until there was a good fire.
Similar fires at Bedwyn in Wiltshire gave credence to the theories of plotting and there, once again, strangers appeared in the village. It turned out however, that the strangers were two very senior Bow Street runners, Ruthven and Stevens, working undercover to locate the arsonists. They were told to leave no stone unturned and in Lambourn it was said there was a man who made incendiary devices  for arsonists.  This was know in criminal circles as “making a match.”

It was the curiosity of Mrs. Pheobe Hall which provided the critical evidence when at about 8.45 am on the morning after the fire she saw something on the ground opposite Mr. Gearing’s brew house which she said “looked like a poultice off someone’s thumb.” She handed it to Mr. Spicer who took it to the Rev. Hippisley who handed it to Ruthven. It was the incendiary device Carter had given to Chivers who had discarded it without using it.
With the assistance of a Lambourn magistrate the Rev. Hippisley, Ruthven and Stevens successfully apprehended eight labourers in Lambourn and at least four in Wiltshire.
Of the eight detained in Lambourn, three were taken to trial, and the others,temped by a reward or immunity against prosecution, gave evidence against them.
The indictment ran to ten counts and John Carter was charged with the plotting, planning and manufacture of incendiary devices and with committing arson.
Henry Rider and William Winkworth were indicted as accessories ‘before the crime was committed

Rider had apparently said to Carter that he’d give him a quart of beer for a good fire, while Winkworth was claimed to have commented that he would have set the Malthouse on fire if he lived as near to it as Carter did.
Chivers had become the main prosecution witness against Carter. There were no defence witnesses.

Rider and Winkworth were acquitted and Carter alone found guilty. Carter had hoped for a sentence of transportation, foolishly commenting that he was looking forward to a new life across the sea, but the judge had other ideas.
He was of the opinion that those acquitted were just as guilty and that they needed, “a lesson for the future”
That lesson was to be Carter’s execution.
Carter claimed that others – he wouldn’t name – had drawn him into this and that there was a Lambourn man – a mystery “match maker” – who was never identified.
Just as the trap-door opened and John Cater dropped to his death at the end of a rope at noon on March 16th on the roof of Reading goal, a mystery arsonist struck  – firing an extensive fir tree plantation at Mortimer village – eight miles south of the Reading scaffold where Carter was left hanging.

No-one was apprehended but I suspect they got the message – after all, it was carved in stone for all to see.




Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Devil’s Den, Marlborough, Wiltshire

The Devil’s Den, Marlborough, Wiltshire
April 13, 2014 by sunbright57

The Journal Of Antiquities

The Devil's Den, Wiltshire (Dixon-Scott) The Devil’s Den, Wiltshire (Dixon-Scott)

OS grid reference: SU 1521 6965. In a field on Fyfield Down 1 mile east of Marlborough, Wiltshire, stands the prehistoric burial chamber known as The Devil’s Den or Clatford Bottom Stone, a Neolithic monument from 5,000 years ago that is also known as a Dolmen (stone table). To reach the site head north on the footpath from the A4 (Bath Road) opposite Clatford village and near the “private” entrance to Manton House Estate, then after about 950 metres via west to the monument on Fyfield Hill which is in a little valley. They own much of the land on this side of the road, so keep to the footpath if possible. The town of Marlborough is 1 mile east on the A4, while Avebury is 2 miles to the west. Nearby, to the east stands an ancient mound which has given its name to the town of Marlborough. You may well come…

View original post 402 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Force of Truth: Aston Sandford & The Spirit of Thomas Scott

original image by David Hawgood

South of Haddenham, in the Buckinghamshire village of Aston Sandford, lies the parish church of St. Michael and All Angels. Like most ancient churches in England, some aspects of the building, such as the nave, date from the twelfth century, while others, such as the chancel, are from a century later. The main church fabric was restored during Victorian times.

What makes this Buckinghamshire limestone church unique, however, is not only its size – it’s one of the smallest churches in the country – but  it also lays claim to being the smallest haunted church in England (I’m waiting for all the  other claims to pour in now I’ve said this).

SCOTT_RECTORYBuckinghamshire, Aston Sandford Rectory, 1836

The rectory is much more recent, built in the early nineteenth century by a remarkable person whose ghost is now said to continue to attend evensong, standing beside the pulpit.

The Revd Thomas Scott was a strong religious force to be reckoned with in eighteenth and nineteenth century Buckinghamshire and features alongside the ecclesiastical historical significance of the legendary John Newton and William Cowper of nearby Olney – particularly in terms of spiritual awakenings and fervent evangelical commitment.

Ordained in 1772, Thomas Scott was first a curate in the parish of Stoke Goldington and then in Weston Underwood, moving to Ravenstone where he began a correspondence with the ‘Amazing Grace‘ hymn writer John Newton.


John Newton [1725-1807]


Thomas Scott [1747-1821]

However, Scott envied the extraordinary preaching powers of Newton whose Olney church was constantly packed with villagers flooding in to hear his passionate sermons.

According to ecclesiastical researcher, D.B. Hindmarsh;
“After months of anxiety over his ineffectual pastoral ministry, and remorse over the levity with which he entered holy orders, Thomas Scott shuts himself up in his study with his Bible, the works of Richard Hooker and other Anglican divines and by Christmas 1777 argues himself into evangelistic conviction.”  [1]

The result was a new passion for spirituality and a deeply felt autobiography called, ‘The Force of Truth: An Authentic Narrative‘  published in 1779 while he was curate of Ravenstone and Weston Underwood. In this book, he revealed himself as a man in an awful state of mind; a man who entered holy orders with little regard for them, actually calling himself “a dangerous heretic”.

In the book’s preface, he makes a very direct claim which I find very inspiring:


He revealed his strong dislike for prayer on the one hand but his enjoyment of sin on the other along with his serious neglect of his parishioners. He tells us from the heart that the following admission affected him very much and provided a crucial  spiritual turning point;


scott couple

The neighbour who walked so far  to visit the couple and give them solace, comfort and his blessings was indeed Mr. Newton.

From this  experience emerged a newly committed, fervent preacher eventually able to take over from Newton in Olney and then spent time with him in London founding the Church Missionary Society. When he became Rector at Aston Sandford in 1803, Scott brought so much energy, commitment and deep evangelical passion to this small village and its tiny church, it seems it became almost impregnated with his presence and his determination never again to neglect his parishioners.

During the eighteen years he spent in this small Buckinghamshire village he became that church and when he died in 1821, he was buried beneath the alter.

Since that time he has been seen by a variety of parishioners at evensong dozens and dozens of times appearing as an apparition beside the pulpit. Witnesses I have spoken to confirm he remains visible for some minutes before gradually fading away, yet all have failed to capture his appearances on film.

Speaking a little while back with the Reverend David Horner  responsible for the Anglican parish of St. Peter and St. Paul in Ellesborough, Buckinghamshire – he has been witness to similar apparitions that occur at his church (I’ll save those for another blog) but from these experiences, he told me that it was his belief that passionate, powerful emotions, such as the burdensome guilt expressed by the Revd Thomas Scott, can create an imprint on the atmosphere around  key locations that perpetuates some form of supernatural imagery after death. [2]
Scott’s burial place beneath the alter no doubt has great significance and ‘The Force of Truth’ well and truly keeps his presence in this unique Buckinghamshire location.

In another publication Scott called: ‘Essays on the Most Important Subjects in Religion, (1809) he really makes clear why he might still be at one with his church and his parishioners
scott quote

Read at :


 Meanwhile, the Reverend Thomas Scott awaits your attendance at evensong



[1] Hindmarsh, D.B., ‘The Olney Autobiographers’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, CUP, 1998

[2] Kidd-Hewitt, D., Buckinghamshire Stories of the Supernatural, Countryside Books 2008.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Wizard Palmer And The Hand of Glory


Open lock
To the Dead Man’s knock!
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!—
Nor move, nor swerve,
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
Sleep all who sleep! — Wake all who wake!—
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake.’

Magic – and the claim to practise it – is one of the most enduring of all mysteries. Does magic exist? Are there real witches and wizards, or are we taken in by myth, legend and scam? Enchantments, spells, potions, and talismen draw us into stories of the age-old battle between good and evil. Are they just tales, or do they contain some elements of truth? It seems that such confrontations really do happen, and in certain English counties and villages, we can find evidence.

This is the tale of the spell of the dead man’s hand associated with the English village of Winterbourne and a legendary Berkshire Wizard known as Wizard Palmer of Boxford during the early nineteenth century.

Our familiarity with fictional wizards such as J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard, Harry Potter, can blind us to the fact that wizards really did exist alongside the enduring cult of witchcraft and witches and many people today still claim such roles for themselves.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 1951 that British laws against witchcraft were fully lifted, and, as late as 1944, there was a trial at the Old Bailey under the original Witchcraft Act of 1735, in which a Scottish woman – Helen Duncan – was convicted of being a witch – the last woman in England to be so labelled and prosecuted. She received nine months imprisonment in Holloway.


Wizards of past times were also referred to as cunning men, and under that name they would offer advice and guidance to those seeking remedies against misfortune and the unwanted attentions of the supernatural. The practice could involve both curing and cursing and was accepted by many village communities as traditional, rural, folk magic. also called cunning craft.

As a practising Berkshire wizard, John Palmer would be asked to exorcise or banish ghosts, and, as a cunning man, to supply the descriptions of thieves who had stolen villagers’ property. For a fairly hefty fee of around two shillings, the victim of a theft could obtain a consultation with Palmer in his cottage by the River Lambourn, and by cunning means Palmer would write down the necessary description of the thief or thieves for the victim to trace. If the property had been lost rather than stolen, he could advise the owner where they might find it again.
Wizard Palmer’s cottage, Boxford, Berkshire.

By the late 1830’s Palmer had gained a reputation for solving mysteries in the English county of Berkshire. For example, he was purported to have banished a shadowy, animal-like figure that haunted a derelict cottage by Wickham church, terrorizing the villagers. Legend has it that he ordered heavy chains  from nearby Newbury, chained-up the cottage, and contained the spirit within.

By cunning, it is said, he traced a person responsible for the mysterious severing of barge ropes along the Thames at Reading in 1841. He is also recorded as upsetting many people in Welford when he cast a spell to silence the church bells because they got on his nerves and found himself evicted from his cottage by the squire for doing so – brave squire!

However, Palmer is best remembered for his role in successfully breaking the spell of the dead man’s hand. This happened in the Berkshire village of Winterbourne and involved  a gruesome device of the ‘dark arts’ known as A Hand of Glory.

Firstly we need to know how such a device as the hand of glory was actually created and all the magical powers it claimed to provide  [1].
Many claims to mysterious powers are associated with the scaffold and its grim product the dead body of a recently hanged or beheaded criminal. Such a body – or perhaps its fresh blood – was said to have mystical properties, and all over the world examples can be found that testify to this belief.
In many English counties, parents would attempt to take children onto the scaffold to have the hand of the corpse, (damp with ‘death sweat‘) rubbed against their skin as a cure for scrofulous diseases.
Women would do the same in an attempt to remove unsightly wens, cysts or warts. Fresh blood from such a corpse was greatly prized in Germany, for example, where executioners in the 19th century made money by selling blood-sodden handkerchiefs and in France, a miracle ointment was made from the fat of the executed.

In many cultures, including the U.K, keeping the fingers and thumbs of thieves as a talisman was believed to improve trade for a shopkeeper. Keeping a small bone in a purse was thought to stop it ever being empty. Even the rope that had choked the life  from the criminal was claimed to have magical properties and would often be sold by the inch after an execution.
However, these nineteenth century customs and many more besides. pale into insignificance when compared to the hand of glory. For such a device you needed to cut the hand from a freshly executed corpse, usually the ‘sinister hand’ which is the left-hand. More valued was a male hand (left or right) which was cut off at the wrist during an eclipse of the moon – but this was a rare and valuable commodity indeed.

It then had to be wrapped in fabric taken from the corpse’s shroud – a mort cloth – and squeezed hard to remove all of the blood and other bodily fluids. Once expunged it was placed in an earthenware jar with powered zimort (cinnamon), saltpetre, salt and special long peppers – all powered and dusted over the hand. After leaving it to marinate for at least fifteen days, it had to be allowed to dry in August sunshine, or possibly – if you were a wizard like Palmer or indeed a witch – you could dry it without it burning by using a cauldron  with flaming vervain and ferns [2]
GLORY WITCH_1To make it work for you, you then needed some fat – ideally from another executed felon or, if not possible, when you remove the hand, cut out the stomach lining of the corpse you obtained the hand from, i.e. human tripe as well as some of his hair mixed with ‘ponie’ (dung), sesame and virgin wax. From this you forged a candle with hair as a wick.

The most wicked and abhorrent recorded cases of such hand of glory candle-making, used the finger of an unborn child, cut from the mother’s womb. Using the hand of glory as a candle holder with the candle or finger wedged firmly and heat-welded between the stiff, lifeless grey fingers, you were now in a position to enter a house by the glory’s candlelight.

This candlelight was only for you as the protected holder of the talismen – lighting your way whilst at the same time casting a spell of deep slumber over the inhabitants. If anyone was still awake they would remain motionless, in a trance until you were gone – they became totally blind to their surroundings and more importantly to you as the hand of glory candle-bearer. You were then able to remove all the possessions you wished without being disturbed. Some robbers preferred to wax the fingers and the thumb of the hand itself and set all of them alight. If the thumb refused to light, it was a warning that someone was not asleep or had not yet fallen under its power after you had recited the entry spell.

‘Open lock
To the Dead Man’s knock!
Fly bolt, and bar, and band!—
Nor move, nor swerve,
Joint, muscle, or nerve,
At the spell of the Dead Man’s hand!
Sleep all who sleep! — Wake all who wake!—
But be as the Dead for the Dead Man’s sake.’

You would need to add:

Hand of Glory shining bright lead us to our spot tonight,
Bind all in sleep those now asleep. Bind awake those now awake.’

For a gang of thieves – the leader holding the glory might use another version of the spell:

‘O Hand of Glory shed thy light;
Direct us to our spoil tonight.
Flash out thy blaze, O skeleton hand,
And guide the feet of our trusty band.’

Cottage and farmhouse burglaries were a common occurrence across England as various rogues and vagabonds made their way from village to village, intent on stealing valuables in the dead of night. A series of such burglaries in the Winterbourne area lead the villagers to suspect the use of a hand of glory. Too many groggy villagers that had not been drinking cider and wine to feel that way, were being robbed. Not one of them heard, saw or suspected robbery – yet their valuables had disappeared – some not even known about until they went to check on their secret hiding places.

Wizard Palmer was consulted and he was able to offer some remedies to those wishing to protect themselves from robbery by a hand of glory thief. He told them to smear their thresholds with ointments made from the blood of screech owls or the fat of white hens. These were ‘warning’ ointments said to counteract the spell that rendered people motionless, but the only sure way was to ambush the robbers and extinguish the flame of the hand of glory with a bucket of ‘blue’. Nowadays, we call this skimmed milk!

This was the only substance capable of putting out its gruesome light and rendering the hand of glory useless until a new candle was inserted and lit. But Palmer needed information about when a robbery using such a device of the ‘dark arts’ was to take place. His skills of cunning were supplemented by the less mysterious technique of employing informers to lurk about spying on others and ‘eaves-dropping’.

This in itself was a tricky and risky business because during the 1840’s, lurking outside other people’s houses and cottages in order to overhear conversations by windows, walls and eaves was a criminal offence and you could be imprisoned for eavesdropping, and possibly ‘burnt in the hand’ with a white-hot poker so others would know – when you were released from goal – not to trust you.

Palmer, nevertheless, had his eavesdroppers and information reached him about “..some family men who had been marking a crib in the wild, which they were about to prig with a glory.” Palmer’s knowledge of this language used by criminals known as flash or can language, told him that a gang of thieves (family men) had been watching (marking) a house (crib) in the village (wild) which they were about to rob (prig) with a hand of glory (a glory).
See my blogs:

More work by his informants identified a farm just on the outskirts of Winterbourne near Westbrook.
GLORY FARM_SKETCHPalmer recruited a local village lad called Will Chamberlain who he judged could resist the power of a hand of glory long enough to defeat it. Some say he put a spell on the boy to make him immune.
glory-cottagePalmer and the boy hid in the farmhouse kitchen while the occupants feigned sleep. Will secreted himself by the kitchen door, a bucket of blue by his side, while Palmer crouched further back to get a clear view of the approaching intruders and to judge the correct moment to break the spell of the dead man’s hand.

As the night deepened, they heard approaching footsteps and a soft glow appeared at the farmhouse door, which swung open to the chant

‘Hand of Glory shining bright lead us to our spot tonight,
Bind all in sleep those now asleep. Bind awake those now awake.’

At Palmer’s precise command and just as the farmhouse threshold had been breached by two intruders, one of them holding their precious hand of glory in front of him, Will Chamberlain sprang forward and emptied the bucket of blue directly over the ‘glory.’ It fell to the floor, its thieving light extinguished and the two robbers, one also armed with a pistol, fled into the night.

It was all over in seconds – Palmer recognized the intruders who fled and would deal with them at first light with the watchmen, Meanwhile he took charge of the glory, and a much enhanced reputation as the Wizard of Boxford who rescued a village from total plunder. His fee was pretty much enhanced as well.

When J.K. Rowling wrote about her wizard hero, Harry Potter, accidently materializing in Borgin & Burkes, a shop specializing in the dark arts in Knockturn Alley, he saw a long coil of hangman’s rope, a staring glass eye, human bones, some evil-looking masks, a rusty spiked instruments and ‘a withered hand on a cushion.’ A hand of glory, no less. [3]

As I gaze at a real, grisly, withered and wrinkled, dirty-grey hand of glory preserved for all to see in Yorkshire’s Whitby Museum, I wonder if this could possibly have seen criminal service in a certain Berkshire village and encounted a real wizard, Wizard Palmer.GLORY_WHITBY

No one knows what happened to Wizard Palmer; he disappeared some time in the 1850’s, although not totally without trace. There is a tale about an old wooden post at Welford that was known locally as Palmer’s Post.

Legend has it that he had driven out an evil spirit from a local farmer’s son and nailed it to this post with a spell. Fanciful perhaps but very soon after the M4 motorway was opened in the 1970’s, stories began to surface about mishaps, silly accidents, cracks in a bridge, police cars and an ambulance suffering complete electrical failures. It was only later that it was spotted that all these events had occurred around the original location of Palmer’s Post, long since felled and its foundations buried under motorway concrete.

Old wizards are not that easily dismissed.


1] For a detailed account of how to make a Hand of Glory, see, Kidd-Hewitt, D., The Cato Conundrum, Publish Nation, 2016: [Amazon e-book £2.99] Paperback available (389 pages)GLORY_SPELLS_2




 [2] Kidd-Hewitt, D., ibid pp. 18-20; 192-4;  247-5

[3] Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Bloomsbury Press, London, 1998, (see pp 43/4)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Accidental Thoughts

On a nice cold morning ...It’s early.

Dawn has just broken and I am sipping hot tea and gazing at the wonders  of an icy morning from the warmth of my study.

Not that long ago I would be steeling myself for a daily motorcycle trip into London from this relaxing village idyll and forced to endure such inhospitable conditions.

Wrapped and cocooned like Wells’s invisible man and venturing out to the bitter cold of a frosty January morning now seems as if it happened to someone else.

The searing cold of a winter motorcycle ride cannot be described. You have to experience it.

Such dressing-gown, tea-sipping thoughts lead to one particular January morning around twenty years ago this very day.

Whatever the weather, the early stages of the ride to work took me through villages I never tired of seeing before the inevitably clogged arteries into London came into view and concentrated traffic weaving manoeuvres took over any thoughts of viewing the passing scenery.

I had always enjoyed circling around the village pond at Holmer Green, acknowledging the handful of stalwart bus travellers waiting at the bus shelter opposite.

This particular day I must have leant a little too far over as I approached the pond. Anyway, I hit black ice and then began the most extraordinary feeling.

I had this heavy motor bike lying on top of me, one leg trapped underneath, yet there was no weight. I remember sliding effortlessly towards the frozen pond as if showing off a new trick to my morning audience at the bus stop. It had a strange exhilaration to it.

I did not feel injured and just waited for it to end.

I had no means of controlling my trajectory.

End it did, balanced on the edge of the pond, cracking the icy rim so water began to creep across and leak into my trapped left boot.

Hands reached down and around, pulling and heaving and I was soon upright, safe and gazing gratefully at my bus stop regulars turned rescuers.

At that very moment, all turned on hearing the approaching bus. The engine gave an uncharacteristic roar, then went eerily silent, then came the crash.

It skidded on the same black ice that had welcomed me but instead of heading for the village pond the single-decker smashed into the modest wooden bus shelter, splitting it into matchwood. “My God,” someone cried, “we would have been killed.”

Horrified nods and murmurs of agreement all round.

“You saved our lives,” said a lady and hugged me, before they all went over to assist with the new accident.

I did not set out that day to save lives.

I did not engineer such an icy trick, but still cannot shake away the thought – was it meant to happen?

The phone’s ringing.

Damn, it’s startled me back to the here and now.

Before I pick it up to begin this new day of writing, I gazed up at the wintry sky.

It seemed the right thing to do.







Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment