- by Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library
Last Monday, I accepted an invitation from Bob and Jacki Lawrence of the East Leeds History and Archaeology Society to speak at their monthly meeting, and decided to take along one of my favourite items from our Local History collection as my inspiration.
Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book was compiled by Charles Lindley Wood, the 2nd Viscount Halifax and an avid collector of ‘true’ ghost stories. Born in London in 1839, he had a long career in the English Church Union and held Yorkshire estates at Hickleton and Garrowby. His son Edward (who went on to become a notable Cabinet minister) inherited the reputedly haunted Temple Newsam House in 1904 – a situation that delighted the elderly ghost-hunter, who believed it might finally afford him the genuine brush with the supernatural he had always craved. (Accounts differ on whether it did or not… More on that later!)
The evening began with an atmospheric article from the Yorkshire Evening Post entitled “The Spectral Shades of Templenewsam: Investigation of Legends of the Old Mansion” from 1923. The author, named only as SJP, prowls the darkened halls of the house in search of apparitions, assessing each room’s ghostly potential:
“The blue damask bedroom is another haunted chamber. It was here, so the story goes, that Viscount Halifax had a visitation. Whether it was a vision between sleeping and waking his Lordship does not attempt to say, but he states that he saw, as clearly as ever he witnessed anything in his life, a woman with a blue shawl over her head pass silently behind the dressing table from one door of the room to another. And the rooms on either side of the blue room were empty… The room itself is vacant now, save for the old four-poster bed.”
Further tales of ‘somewhat gruesome’ goings-on at Temple Newsam were provided by extracts from the memoirs of Lady Mary Meynell. Her autobiography Sunshine and Shadows over a Long Life (available in our Leeds collection) devotes several pages to unexplained screams in the night, mysteriously ringing bells, and whispering sighs in the long gallery. But it’s also a wry account of life in a huge old house before modern-day heating:
“No words can say how cold that enormous old house was… The old fireplaces with their huge open chimneys swallowed all the heat of the big fires heaped in them, and roared up the chimneys which equally smoked down them, and many times have I seen the carpets rising in billows from the draughts, and the wind howling round the walls.”
Before leaving Temple Newsam and its various chills behind, however, I thought it time to open Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book itself. Drawn from his notebooks and letters, this was published in 1936, proving so popular that it was followed by a second volume the following year. All of Halifax’s favourite spooky tales are collected within, including such offbeat accounts as The Vampire Cat and The Corpse that Rose. The one I chose is called Here I Am Again! and, like his own encounter it takes place in a dimly-lit bedroom in the middle of the night. Unlike Lord Halifax’s, however, the visitor is anything but benign:
“Suddenly, there appeared at my bedside the phantom of either an old man or woman, of dreadful aspect, who was bending over me. That I was wide awake is beyond all question. I at once became cataleptic, unable to move hand or foot. I could only gaze at this monstrosity, vowing mentally that if I ever recovered from this horrible experience I would never dabble in table-turning, planchette, etc., again, for here was a real materialization and the reality was too terrifying for description.”
A Leeds theatre playbill from our collection provided the inspiration for the next segment, a gruesome tale of misfortune called The Mistletoe Bough. You can see the full details of the 1850 Princess’ Theatre production via our Leodis Playbills website; but Samuel Rogers’ poetic take on the story of a young bride who hides in an old oak chest during a game of hide and seek captures its grim conclusion perfectly:
There then had she found a grave!
Within that chest had she concealed herself,
Fluttering with joy, the happiest of the happy;
When a spring-lock, that lay in ambush there,
Fastened her down forever!
(from Ginevra, 1822)
You can also watch a charming but bleak little 1904 silent film version of The Mistletoe Bough courtesy of the British Film Institute. Who knows… perhaps Lord Halifax caught it on its original release.
Our last ghost story of the night was The Man in the Iron Cage, which I picked because it seems to have had a special relevance to Lord Halifax. Not, I imagine, because of its unusual setting (a run-down garret in Lille, northern France) but because, at the age of 94, he asked for it to be read to him on his deathbed by his friend and biographer, JG Lockwood. It’s a surprisingly unpleasant tale of a house haunted by the sound of ‘slow, dragging footsteps’, and its unusual feature is that it’s told across two separate accounts from unrelated sources – something that makes it unique among the contents of the Ghost Book. Perhaps Lord Halifax viewed it as his most compelling piece of evidence of the existence of ghosts… and, as he reached the end of his life, a reassuring hint at the possibility of continued existence on some other plane.
And what, finally, of his own supernatural encounter back in the blue room at Temple Newsam? Lockwood (who also wrote the introduction for the second volume of the Ghost Book) states that Lord Halifax “was never quite sure that he had not dreamt the apparition”. But Temple Newsam’s housekeeper, Mrs Pawson, who was interviewed in the Evening Post in 1926, claims that he was convinced, and quotes him as saying: “I believe in the ghost, and I tell people about it myself”.
Whatever the truth, Lord Halifax certainly did enjoy sharing his ghost stories and, thanks to his son’s book and an enthusiastic crowd, he was able to go on sharing them on a dark January night in Leeds, eighty years after his death.