Monday, 25 June 2012

The Ghosts and Folklore of Knutsford, Cheshire.

Knutsford is situated on the Cheshire Plain close to its neighbouring communities of Alderley Edge and Wilmslow.  It is recorded in the William the Conqueror's Domesday Book of 1086 as Cunetesford ("Canute's ford").  King Canute (Knútr in Old Norse) was the king of England (1016–1035) and later king of Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden as well. Local tradition says that King Canute forded the River Lily, which was said to be dangerous then, here.  This is feasible as the River Lily, until given a channel to run in, meandered over the valley floor and fed into the mere in an area still known as The Moor creating quite a marshy area.
There is a wide selection of pubs and restaurants which makes Knutsford a popular destination for dining and drinking.  The two main town centre streets, Princess Street (also known locally as Top Street) and King Street lower down, known as Bottom Street, form the 'hub' of the town.  At one end of the narrow King Street is an entrance to Tatton Park.  The Tatton estate was home to the Egerton family. 
Ancient towns have their own folklore, and Knutsford is no exception.   One tale tells of an elderly lady who was buried in the Old Churchyard at Knutsford, with the unusual stipulation that a small sack of unshelled hazelnuts be placed beneath her head.  Unfortunately the nuts proved to be uncomfortable, so she turned in her coffin.  As this made no difference she arose from her grave one moonlight night, and proceeded to crack and eat the hazelnuts while seated on her own tombstone.  She then folded the sack for a pillow; retired to her coffin and troubled the mortal sublunary world no more.  But unnoticed one nut had rolled away; it sprouted, grew, fruited and thereafter its own nuts attracted the attention of local truants.

Naturally Knutsford with its narrow streets that still follow the old medieval layout has its fair share of ghosts.  The 300 year old Lord Eldon public house is reputed to be haunted by Annie Sarah Pollitt, Knutford's first May Queen and daughter of James Pollitt the landlord in the late19th century.  Witness reports tell of seeing an apparition that wears clothing dating from the 1800’s, flickering lights, moving objects and an unidentified cold breeze.  Staff have reported sightings of the white shade in the lower rooms, even the landlady, Laura Scullion, from 1999 - ?, has glimpsed the white figure.  She had been sceptical about the myth when she took over the pub but stated to a Warrington Guardian reporter in June 2001, "We had just closed for the night and I was standing at the bar with a barman when the white shadow of a woman moved across the bar and into the tap room."
On the M6, that runs close by the town, a terrified driver reported a glowing white lorry that charged towards him travelling the wrong way down the motorway.  The driver pulled onto the hard shoulder and closed his eyes, he even felt the HGV drive past, but when he looked into his rear view mirror immediately afterwards, there was nothing there.  On another road, this time Tatton Mile, the road running next to Tatton Park, at approximately 22:30hrs on the 19th October 2009 a driver, driving with his full beams on, spotted the figure of a man standing in the road with his hand out as if he wanted the car to stop.  As the car drew closer, the figure vanished, causing the driver to swerve out of shock.
An older story takes place close to the old turnpike on the A537 from Knutsford to Chelford in the 1800s; it was around midnight when a group of three people passed the gatekeeper in a horse-drawn gig.  The gatekeeper noted that the young man in the centre was being supported by the other two.  The next day a dead body was found by the road at Ollerton; the clothing and soft hands suggested someone of some social standing.  The clothes were retained as evidence for many years but the identity of the body was never discovered.
The story has passed into local folklore and appears in Henry Green's 1869 History of Knutsford; a sequel to this event appears in Cheshire Notes and Queries for 1889.  Albert A Birchenough recalled his experience when in October 1872 he had been walking to Chelford; he had been halfway through his journey having just passed Norbury Booths.  It was a Sunday clear night with a starry sky and the countryside was silent when coming from behind him he heard the rattling wheels of a horse drawn conveyance.  He moved aside to let it pass, but it stopped some 20 yards behind him.  Hearing the sound of voices and two or three persons jumping down he turned and went back to ask for a lift, but there was nothing there.  A short while later a passer-by came from the direction of Chelford, this allowed Birchenough to enquire if there were any turnings nearby.  The reply was 'no' and the stranger put the noises down to the possibility of them having been created by poachers.  A sensible enough answer perhaps, but it did not explain why Birchenough had heard a gig.

However the most famous, or at least most notorious, apparition is that of Edward Higgins. He lived for some time in Heath House in what is now known as Gaskell Avenue, which is just a few  doors beyond  the house where  famous  Victorian  novelist  Elizabeth Gaskell once lived  as announced
by the wall plaque. Gaskell wrote about Higgins in her short story The Squire's Tale, as did Thomas de Quincey in Highwayman.
"Squire" Higgins as he was known to his friends in the local gentry, appears to have been of good birth, and on moving from Manchester, took up residence in Knutsford, Cheshire around1756, where he was accepted by the community as a gentleman of reasonable means.  
He cannot have been short of money for he bought number 19 which is situated opposite the Common, the house was at the time covered in ivy and known as the Cann office as it had once been the place where scales and weights were tested.
His origins are obscure, but what is known is that in 1754 he had been convicted of housebreaking in Worcester and sentenced to transportation for seven years to the American colonies.  However shortly after his arrival in Boston, Higgins stole a large amount of money from the house of a rich merchant, bought himself a passage home and was back in England within a few months. 
       The marriage of Edward Higgins, Yeoman, and Katherine Birtles, spinster, is recorded in the parish church register on April 21st, 1757, where she signed her name as ÒKathruneÓ.  It is not known whether this was a normal spelling at the time or if she was illiterate.  At this time wives were not expected to be particularly inquisitive about their husband's business affairs, and Katherine was probably happy to believe that Edward lived on the rents from properties he owned in various parts of the country.  Higgins is recorded as a fit and athletic man who rode to hounds, owned several horses and was reputed to be very fond of his five children.  As was befitting a man of his standing Higgins and his wife dined with their neighbours and so become familiar with the layout of his hosts’ homes, this enabled him, at a later date, to sneak back for a spot of burglary
On one occasion Mr. and Mrs. Higgins were guests of Samuel Egerton, at his Oulton Park house, while playing an after dinner game of whist Higgins took a fancy to a jewelled snuff box which was lying on the table.  As the roads back to Knutsford were dark and dangerous the Higgins’s were staying the night; while the household slept; one guest crept into the host's dressing room and took the snuff box which he then hid outdoors for retrieval later.  Naturally the theft was discovered the very next morning; Higgins summoned all the servants and had their rooms searched.   There was, of course, no question of searching the guests’ rooms for ladies and gentlemen did not do such a thing.  Mr. Egerton was grateful for Higgins’ prompt action even though the box was not found.

Higgins, apparently, was never one to resist an impulse; he was wandering along the Rows in Chester late at night when one opportunity presented itself in the shape of a ladder that some workman had left against the wall of a house in Stanley Street.  He climbed into a bedroom of a young woman who lay asleep after returning from a ball to discover her jewellery scattered on the dressing table.  Higgins calmly pocketed his booty, held his breath when the girl turned over in bed, and then made his escape.  Years later he was to confess, "Had she awaked I would have had no choice but to murder her."

Burgling the homes of his Knutsfordian friends was not Higgins’s solo source of ill-gotten income, when the nights were amenable he would muffle the hooves of his horse, so as not to disturb the neighbours, and would head out to the Chester Road where he would hold up a coach or two.  Part of the road between Knutsford and Chester had been turnpiked; the private company charged with collecting the toll had greatly improved the old muddy wagon track consequently traffic on the turnpiked carriageway was increasing.  This was too good an opportunity for Higgins to allow to pass by and he found it easier to hold up a coach than to burgle a house as travellers usually kept a few guineas handy to surrender to the first "gentleman of the road" who stopped them.
Higgins’s  base  of  operations  for  his  highwayman exploits was the coaching house, the Royal George Hotel, what better place could there be for a highwayman to assess the likely bounty carried by a coach then the very establishment where the passengers alighted for a spot of refreshment. 
Higgins  almost came  unstuck after a ball  at the Royal  George Hotel;  he  had seen  Lady
Warburton of Arley wearing expensive jewellery and decided to waylay her carriage as she journeyed home but her Ladyship recognised him and asked why he'd left the ball so early.
Higgins is said to have murdered an old woman on one of his ‘rent collecting’ jaunts.  He returned from Bristol with hundreds of her Spanish dollars but as Spanish dollars began circulating in the North West the fable says the highwayman told a local gossip in a Knutsford pub about someone being robbed in Bristol.  The drinker, who prided himself on hearing any news first in the town, soon became suspicious of Higgins.  Higgins left Knutsford hurriedly in late 1764.  He had been tracked back to the town after robbing a house in Gloucester and was arrested in his own home by the local constables.  He asked leave to prepare a few items to take with him and was allowed to go upstairs, the constables never saw him again.  It is said Higgins escaped through a secret passage that lead onto the Heath.
Leaving his wife to sell the house and follow him, with the instruction not sell the board, which hung over his dining room fire place that had painted in gold letters 'Do Not Steal' Higgins set up a house in French Hay, near Bristol and again lived as a gentleman, this time calling himself Edward Hickson.
Highwayman Higgins’ luck finally ran out in 1767 when having told his wife he was "collecting the rents" he travelled to Wales.   After breaking into a house in Carmarthen Higgins was spotted by two butchers who were suspicious of his being abroad so late at night.  It is said that Higgins put up a good fight but their dog got the best of him.  Unable to protest his innocence having been caught with a piece of the broken key, the other piece of the key being still in the lock, and other items from a chest in the house he had robbed in his pocket Higgins was put under lock and key in Bristol.
Here Higgins was identified as an escaped prisoner but he tried to get out of it by handing over a fake official pardon.  The authorities realised that it was a forgery and his fate was sealed; Higgins was sentenced to death.  While waiting for his sentence to be carried out he wrote, "I beg you will have compassion on my poor disconsolate widow and fatherless infants, as undoubtedly you will hear my widow upbraided with my past misconduct.  I beg you will vindicate her as not being guilty of knowing about my villany."
Squire Higgins died on the gallows at Carmarthen on Saturday 7th November, 1767.

It is said that in the dead of a dark and moonless night Higgins can still be seen riding his horse through the streets of Knutsford on his way to visit a chosen house or, if off on one of his highway visits, searching for a likely looking coach to stop and demand coin of the realm from its occupants.    On occasion late night revellers, while making their way home along the narrow streets, have seen and heard a phantom coach moving over the cobbles outside the Royal George Hotel. This too it said to be Higgins, this time off on one of his ‘rent collecting’ excursions.

Now let’s look again at some of the Knutsford ghosts; Knutsford is in a low lying area full of meres, (bodies of open water, often slow moving and deep), marshy areas and small rivers, when the weather conditions are right these give off vast amounts of mist, some light, some not so light and more often then not white.  As for the tale of the ghostly figure seen on Tatton Mile, we have a tired driver in the late hours of an October night with his head lights fully on.  Was it really some spectral hitchhiker or a trick of the mist and light on tired eyes with a little bit of pareidolia thrown in for good measure?
In the case of the ghostly HGV wagon, that stretch of the motorway is known to be affected by fog and mist, could it not be the same although no time of day is given for the event.
The ghost of Annie Sarah Pollitt; we have a 300 year old building, this in itself will lend to creaks and draughts, the flickering lights could be tired wiring, a bad change over at the generator or even a faulty bulb.  Again the apparition is seen late at night; could it be tired eyes, a drift of mere mist invading the building, or even having drunk a spirit or two too many?
As for Highwayman Higgins; ghostly coaches travelling over the cobbles of the Royal George, or the sound of a late night goods train, for these move along the line that runs through the valley bottom much later into the night than the passenger services do, (this was a regular occurrence particularly when ICI had a big works on the outskirts of Knutsford), distorted by the open moor then the confines of the narrow streets combined with a little mist and a few beers? 
And, while it may sound sceptical to some, we must bear in mind that, not only are there quite a few busy little pubs in Knutsford, but a portion of the town’s income is based on tourism and what brings tourists better than a ghost or two?

Around Haunted Manchester,  Peter Portland.   Publishers AMCD.

1 comment:

  1. I just enjoyed reading about the ghosts of Knutsford, especially the story of Highwayman Higgins!