I said, when I was beginning to tell the tale, that some of the more remarkable features of the story were based on fact, and suggested that people might like to guess what they were.
They were not the basic features of the story. The idea of two women living together, one of whom was quite prepared to carry a gun, come from the book – Hermsprong, published in 1796, where the wonderful Miss Fluart first came into being.
I have discussed highwaywomen in a previous blog, and as loyal men took to the road during the aftermath of the civil war, the idea of a tough woman doing so was plausible at least. Smugglers certainly used ghost stories to keep people away from some parts of the coast.
One real oddity I mentioned at the beginning of part 2, was the curious fact that county maps in England and Wales never interlinked. Even if the same mapmaker, made maps of adjacent counties and at the same scale, the county boundaries never matched!
However the really weird facts concern the ghost!
I have based Lady Susanna Sterling on two notable West Country ladies, Lady Howard (unidentified) rides in a coach pulled by horses that are sometimes headless. She collects the souls of the dead and, on at least one occasion, deliberately hunted down an evil-doer.
‘About a century ago, a certain George Mace, of Watton, was the ring leader of a gang of’ local poachers. One night he and his followers met near the Hall and arranged to split up into small bands for the night’s work. They were to meet again before the moon went down in a shed behind the Hall. At the appointed time all came to the shed, with one exception-Mace. The poachers waited for a considerable time but their leader did not appear. At last, when they were becoming both angry and alarmed, they heard the sound of approaching wheels and saw a coach drive up to the door of the Hall. It was more brilliantly lit up than any natural coach of those days. They saw its steps let down, its door opened and shut again with a bang, though they could not see by whom. No sooner had the door closed than the lamps went out and the coach itself vanished utterly and without a sound. The frightened men knew they had seen the Spectral Coach but they could not tell for whom it had come. They were not left long in ignorance. Next morning George Mace’s dead body was found lying’ outside the Hall on the very spot where the coach had waited. Dr. Jessop’s informant said there was nothing to show what had killed him. There were no marks of violence on his body nor any signs of sudden illness. His time had come, and he had been fetched away by a Power which even the boldest poacher cannot hope to defy.’
However my main source for the ghost was to be found in Mrs Susanna Gould, known as Madam Gould.
‘She was a woman of very strong character who ruled her dependants firmly and was reputed to be absolutely fearless; during her last illness she refused to go to bed, and died in her chair on April l0th, 1795’
Nearly seventy years after her death the estate was inherited by her great-nephew, the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould. He was fascinated to discover that, not only did he have a family ghost, but it was one that took an active part in caring for her descendants and the estate.
‘When one of Baring-Gould’s children was ill, the nurse was roused from sleep one night by a knock on the door and a woman’s voice saying: “It is time for her to have her medicine.” Opening the door she saw no one, on another occasion she entered the room where the children were asleep, to see a tall woman in old fashioned clothes bending over their bed.’
And on another occasion.
‘One old woman told Baring-Gould that as a girl she had stolen some apples from the orchard. Her pockets were full and she had one in her hand when she saw Madam Gould, all in white, standing by the gate and pointing to the apple. The terrified girl flung it away and ran to a gap at the other end of the orchard. But the ghost was there before her, pointing to her pocket, and there she stayed until all the stolen fruit was thrown down on the grass.’
But there were problems with having a ghost in the family, which gave me the idea for the opening of the story.
‘In 1864, a man returning from Tavistock by night saw the white-clad ghost at the mouth of a mine-shaft, and broke his leg whilst scrambling hastily over the opposite hedge. Baring-Gould relates that this nearly cost him and his wife a meal. The man’s sister was cook to the Rector of Bratton, and when she heard that the Baring-Goulds were coming over, she refused to cook for any member of that family because Old Madam had caused her brother’s accident.’
All the quotes come from Haunted England by Christina Hole, published in 1940.