The Woodhouse Moor Ghost

At the time of our story Woodhouse Moor did not present the “muddled and meddled” appearance it now presents. It was then very much as nature had left it. Not blessed with a superabundance of earthy soil, it still struggled, in the teeth of the fierce gales from the west and the north ― which sweep over it at times with relentless violence ― to afford a restricted nutriment to the gorse bushes and half-starved trees which here and there dotted its undulating surface. It also afforded precarious sustenance to the numerous geese, goslings, fowls, horses and donkeys which were depastured upon it, by some unwritten but prescriptive ” right of common” which belonged to the residents in the neighbourhood. We say “belonged,” though the right was more than once questioned before the Leeds Corporation stepped forward and, with the object of settling the difficulty, cut the gordian knot by purchasing the moor, and dedicating it to the public service for ever.

When our story had its brief history in the traditions of Woodhouse, the moor was badly lighted, badly drained, untended and uncared for, and was altogether in a state of vagabondish independence that delighted the hearts of the semi-gipsy population which battened on the fringes of the common, and appropriated the lower part of it to their own wild devices of profit and enjoyment. Certainly the moor was intersected by one great thoroughfare – that stretching from Leeds proper to the township of Headingley – but with this exception the cottages on the lower and the Ridge side of it were only approached with difficulty, over the vagrant paths and passages, and especially in wet weather, when that part of the common was no better than a swamp; and respectable house-occupiers, who had found breezy homes in that quarter, were greatly concerned how to reach again the confines of civilisation without being either engulfed in the morass, or bespattered with mud and boggy soil up to their necks.

It was when Woodhouse Moor was in this condition ― a common uncommonly dirty, disagreeable and dilapidated ― that our ghost story came into public existence. James Lee, a substantial yeoman, then resided in Brambles Cottage, a neat little domicile on the north-east side of the moor, and in a locality now occupied by several rows of cottages ― his nearest neighbour being Mr. Henry Spence, a retired cloth dresser, who lived in a good house closely adjoining the present White Heifer tavern. Mr. Lee was blest with a charming daughter, Eleanor Lee by name, but who was more affectionately and familiarly known as Nelly Lee; whilst Mr, Spence rejoiced in the possession of a son, called Richard, Now Richard was a steady but somewhat self-conceited young man, who assumed important airs because of his comfortable worldly position as a commission agent, and also because he had been systematically spoiled and humoured ever since his birth. Nelly, on the other hand, was a fine well-grown girl, who had been rather more than superficially educated, who professed a fair share of common sense and intelligence, and who was, in addition, so exceedingly fond of music that she not only took a leading part in the congregational singing at the Methodist chapel in the adjoining street of St. Luke’s, but was also in great request at school and amateur concerts.

Now it had for years been the leading ambition of the elders in the Lee and Spence families that they should be more nearly allied by marriage, and this earnest hope appeared to show signs of realisation when it became known that Richard Spence was paying his attentions to Nelly Lee. Though the Spence family attended church and the Lee family the little Bethel, it was often found that Richard Spence was among the congregation at St. Luke’s Reformers’ Chapel, though whether it was because he was fond of real hearty congregational singing or of Nelly Lee ― who always appeared in the prominent singing pew in front of the organ ― it is not for me to say. But it is certain that he always gallantly squired Miss Lee home after the services, and was always ready to escort her either to flower show or concert in the bargain. Nelly was not, of course, insensible to the assiduous attentions paid to her by young Richard, and if her heart was not yet fairly caught her feelings were flattered and her courtesy developed by the ardent warmth and sincerity of his devoirs. As the winter season of the year 186― approached, concert giving set in with unusual severity in Leeds, owing to the fierce musical war that was then raging between Mr. Robert Turton and Miss Dock, the two opposing maestros. Miss Nelly, who possessed a sweet though not powerful voice, had early associated herself with the Turtonites, by whom her vocalism was much admired. In November a grand miscellaneous concert was given in the Music Hall by Mr. Turton, and in this entertainment Miss Lee not only took part in two trios, but was also persuaded to undertake a solo, and this none other than ” Angels ever bright and fair,” from Handel’s Theodora. The hall was crowded; and Nelly, who was suffering greatly from nervous timidity, did not display her musical talent at its best until after the trios were over. But in these concerted pieces valuable assistance was rendered her by her intimate friend, Miss Bella Snowden, the contralto, and Mr. Herbert Bracken, the tenor. The latter was a comparative stranger to Nelly. She knew him only as a member of the Choral body, though she also was aware that he lived at Raghorne, on the opposite side of the moor to her father’s house. She had also ascertained that he was serving his articles with his father, a lawyer, and that he was just about to go up to London to pass his examination.

Herbert Bracken, who was a tall, handsome young fellow of two and twenty, had noticed that Miss Lee suffered greatly from the excitement consequent upon a first public appearance, and did not further embarrass her by preaching up courage or philosophic forritude. On the contrary, after the second trio was over, he escorted her to her seat on the orchestra, and contented himself with calmly and quietly complimenting her on the success which had attended her performance. In the course of the interlude which followed, Nelly regained her composure, and when she was again led to the front by Mr. Turton for her sacred air, she felt fully equal to the spirit of the occasion.

The result was that the spirit of resignation and cheerful hope which the piece so expressively portrays was rendered with an appreciative religious type of execution which evoked a profound sensation in the audience. There was no encore, no disturbance for the moment of the delicious impression that had been created; but when the fair girl was handed back to her place the enthusiasm which had been so long repressed burst all bounds, and the hall rung with the plaudits of the excited audience.

After that evening Nelly began to feel more decidedly interested in Herbert Bracken. In her heart of hearts she could not help comparing him with Mr. Richard Spence, much to the disadvantage of the latter. And so it came to pass that a mutual affection sprung up between Nelly and Herbert, much to the annoyance of Miss Lee’s parents, as well as those of Richard Spence.

When it first became evident to the respective heads of families that Nelly was becoming attached to Herbert Bracken, the first obstructive step adopted by them was the one of disparaging that young fellow’s candidature. It was pointed out to Miss Lee that Herbert was a wild young scamp, that be was attached to a roving band of medical students who played games of deep mischief on and about the moor, that though he might have a taste for music it had not endowed him with many other humanising influences, that he was known to smoke cigars and even short cutty pipes, and that it would not be contrary to the truth to affirm that he might occasionally be found at the Oak Inn, Headingley, indulging either at bowls or billiards. But all these not carry any weight with them to Nelly Lee. Interview after interview followed, and it was not long before emotionally-sincere views of affection had been plighted by the lovers. Then the devoted pair had to resolve themselves into an important committee of ways and means. At first this committee was limited to two members, but as its deliberations were not attended by discriminative and prudential discussion, it was judged advisable to extend its area. The first new deliberant called in was Bella Snowden, and a very faithful and discreet coadjutor they found her. Next was summoned to the board a clever maiden aunt of Nelly’s. This was Miss Ann Lee, who, although she had been wrecked on a lee-shore herself ― speaking in a marriage sense ― was still one who took a deep interest in promoting the matrimonial engagements of her friends. Now Miss Ann Lee lived at Lilac Cottage, near Hunslet Moor, and being a person who was liberally endowed with worldly substance as well as cosy personal attractions and warm family affections, her odorously-named cottage at Hunslet naturally became a haven of rest for all the distressed squires and damsels who were honoured with her acquaintance. One afternoon early in December, at this estimable lady’s residence, a conspiracy of deep cunning and ambitious consequences was entered upon, but it was so sacredly protected by secrecy that we do not feel ourselves warranted in disclosing the plot at this stage of our narrative.

Suddenly a great change came over the social atmosphere of Woodhouse Moor. At first a mere matter of rumour, the idle tale gathered strength and consistency as it spread. But as its dimensions enlarged so did the alarm of the residents. It was some time before the rumours reached the point when the could be openly broached. The old-fashioned terror of witches and warlocks had not yet died out of the land, and certainly had never become extinct in the half-gipsy encampment on the moor. By day, at church and chapel door, as well as at the shop and the mangle, old wives alarmedly hinted at weird and uncanny things they had seen and heard in the purlieus of the moor. What these goblin imps were after, or what was the material shape they assumed, was not very clear. On the contrary. One peculiarity, however, marked these warlock outbreaks of a character so decidedly humorous that the inference was irresistible that the evil thing whatever it really was ― was more of a Puck than a demon. For it was told that drouthy matrons were robbed of their bottles of gin; maliciously-disposed gossiping wives thrown down in their pattens, and their mouths forcibly closed by wheaten-paste or doses of blacking; and thirsty sons of Adam waylaid on their road from the White Heifer and deposited in the nearest horse-trough. Mrs. Molly Brown, a regular mischief-maker on the Carr, was taken bodily off her feet by the goblins and deposited on Squire Lee’s dungheap near the byre. Sammy Swilltub, a determined toper, had been one night carried up to the Headingley-road, and there heaved into the half-empty well near the police-station, where he was found an hour afterwards by a “bobby,” and charitably extricated. These instances will sufficiently typify the character of the attacks made by the goblins. But when sober-minded people came to hear the detailed statement made by Richard Spence, they were perfectly staggered. Richard deposed that he was in the habit of visiting regularly at Mr. Lee’s house, and that on one occasion after he had indulged in a glass of currant wine, he was proceeding homewards along Church Gate, when he became aware of a couple of sprites who were waiting upon his footsteps. He declared these imps of darkness were some seven feet in height, paced along by his side without any noise of footsteps, were breathing forth fire and sulphur, aud were evidently embued with supernatural strength, for after carrying him nearly a dozen yards, they swung him into the air with such malicious propulsion that, when he descended, he found himself on the grave of a newly-interred infant in St. Luke’s church-yard. Richard further declared that as he fell he heard a horrid scream of laughter, and a sepulchral voice warning him against going to “court” Miss Nelly Lee any more, on fear of consequences. The testimony of other witnesses was to the effect that the lower portion of the moor was almost nightly disturbed by sounds and sights of a character too dreadful for human endurance. It was asserted that the whole of the surface of the common was lighted up by nearly a score of ghostcandles, which dandered about and flickered with extremely eccentric divergence of movement, though no doubt seemed to be entertained that they were beating time to some infernal ghost-melody. The general opinion also seemed to be current that there was a directing spirit, or “chief devil,” under whose orders the rest of the warlock crew madly and wantonly disported themselves. This “chief” among them was asserted to be a ghost of supernatural stature, wearing a conical hat, at the peak of which there flared a phosphorescent light, and the angles of whose body were also sharply defineil by lines of fire. This primary spirit of evil was described as having a most diabolical cast of features, the saucer-eyes being lit up by unlawful lights, and his weird-looking locks, moustache, and beard being similarly illuminated.

At length so intolerable became the ghost nuisance that respectable householders prepared to evacuate their tenements in that quarter. Mr. Lee was one of the first residents who suffered by the ghost-panic. He remembered the jaunty behaviour of ” Spring-Heeled Jack ” and the stories about the nightly incursions of the ” boggards,” in times long past, but was unable to imagine what had led to the conversion of Woodhouse Moor into a kind of modern Brocken, where witches of a more recent fashion of style kept up an eternal Walpurgis-night. Not the least part of the annoyance was that the enjoyment of his family circle was almost entirely broken up. He could not persuade any of his own friends to come and partake of his hospitality, and the social board was consequently nightly deserted. The only exception was Bella Snowdon, who found her way still regularly to Brambles Cottage, and whose merry laugh was a cheering though only temporary antidote to fear. The most surprising instance of all in connection with these mysterious visitations was that neither Bella nor Nelly appeared to be in the slightest degree frightened about the goblins. On the contrary, they were so little penetrated by superstitious alarm that they were in the nightly habit of walking over the moor in the direction of Headingley, and of returning smelling most confoundedly of spirits, phosphorescence, and sulphur. In fact, to the rest of the alarmed family, they almost appeared to transport all the vile smells of the devilry from the outside to the inside of the house.

As Christmas approached, Mr. Lee’s perplexity and apprehension became more painfully intensified. One night, when the family were assembled round the supper table, the worthy yeoman poured out the whole of his troubles on the ghost question, and at length became so pronounced in his fear as to offer a large proportion of his fortune to anyone who would rid him of the elfin rows and rackets that disturbed his peace of mind as well as his rest. Nelly, who was listening with considerable interest and some amount of concern to her esteemed father, here ventured to make a suggestion. She said that she had heard there was a wise woman, who lived near Pinder Fields in Wakefield, who had a reputation for exorcising ghosts, whether spirits of evil or of good, and that, if the proposal met with her father’s approval, she, Bella Snowden, and Aunt Ann Lee, would go over to that once merry town, and see what the oracle in question had to say on the delicate yet aggravating and alarming subject. Mr. Lee at first decidedly objected to such a proposed consultation, partly on moral and partly on physical grounds. But though he emphatically declared that he did not himself believe in. either ghosts, warlocks, or witches, he was evidently in such a disturbed mental condition that his wife, as well as his daughter, urged him to consent to the uncanny expedition. After making many arrangements with the view of securing complete immunity from any perilous consequences, Mr. Lee gave his reluctant assent to the proposition, and Miss Bella Snowden was then escorted on her way homewards by Nelly Lee, after promising to meet her feminine friends at the Great Northern Railway Station at ten o’clock on the following morning.

The next day was the 24th December, and Nelly and her two friends duly departed on their important mission. Night came, but they did not return, and the Christmas-eve rejoicings passed off without their accustomed participation. Singularly enough, too, the evil spirits of the moor did not that night indulge in their accustomed riotous revels. Towards noon on the following day, as the Lee family were about to sit down to their Christmas dinner, a carriage, in which were a couple of sprightly grey horses, drove up to Brambles Cottage, and there shortly alighted therefrom in a high state of interesting excitement, our friend Nelly, Miss Bella Snowden, and Aunt Lee, and — Herbert Bracken. It was at once observed that the party were sporting wedding favours, and the happy secret at once disclosed itself.

“Father and mother,” cried out Nelly, with bright dew drops of tears swelling over her eye lids, ” forgive me, and give me and my husband your blessing,”

“Yes,” said Bella, “the visit to the wise woman has been successful, and has resulted in the addition of an affectionate son to your happy family.”

“And one,” cried Herbert, “who will guarantee that the Lee family and Brambles Cottage are no more troubled with the ghosts that have so long disturbed Woodhouse Moor. Pray forgive us, Father Lee, we could not help it.”

Mr. Lee looked with some evidences of emotion at the happy group before him, then took his daughter to his arms and kissed her, following up that action with a similar compliment to Miss Bella Snowden. and Aunt Lee, and finishing by shaking hands with Herbert Bracken.

Then they all sat down to the cosy and comfortable family dinner.

Is it needful to say another line? If some of our readers are wishful to know more about the warlocks and ghosts that had flittered their brief time on Woodhouse Moor, it is only necessary to add that they were composed of a merry and mischievous band of medical students, that Herbert, their friend and companion, was the presiding devil; and that his sole object in thus disturbing the peace of the inhabitants of that lonely district was that he might have the pleasure of winning an angel to his loving arms. In this he succeeded, and though the Brackens are again flourishing on the Moor, the corpse-lights and ghosts are now things of the distant past

A. Howlett (The Yorkshireman, Christmas Number 1878)

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