THE GHOSTS WHO SHARE MY HOUSE
A woman hanged for poisoning her husband. A little girl drowned in the pond. When BEL MOONEY researched the history of her new she discovered ...
LIKE all the best ghost stories, it began with a stranger knocking on our door over a year ago. Her name was Mrs Penny Deverill and she was asking permission to take a photograph of the old farmhouse, a corn mill until 1904, that my husband and I had moved into a few months previously.
Surrounded by packing boxes still, and deafened by the sound of carpentry, I only halflistened to her explanation that she’d discovered that an ancestor was poisoned by a daughter of the house.
Mrs Deverill, it transpired, had written a privately-printed novelisation of the story and sometimes gave talks on the subject to W.I. groups, so wanted the snap. She kindly gave me a copy of her book, but, busy settling in to my new abode, I put it to one side.
Yet as the house slowly became our home, and we made our own changes but kept old details, something about the story she had told me haunted my thoughts.
I began to wonder about all those who had lived here before me — the romances, the sorrows, the dramas of their lives that had been played out here, with the old stone walls around me their constant backdrop.
Even now, I find my imagination conjuring up the daughter in question, Rebecca Worlock, as a little girl in long petticoats toddling into the room where I’m writing. The beams over my head were probably old even then — when the 19th century was young and Rebecca was carefree and innocent. Before she met her terrible end at the gallows in 1820.
Does the spirit of Rebecca ever come back to the home where she was born, raised and happy — before being hanged for the murder of her husband, Mrs Deverill’s ancestor, ‘with malice aforethought and at the instigation of the devil’? And does little Mary Cater, the daughter of a family who moved to the house later, who drowned in our mill pond in 1858, still cry for help under the shadow of the trees?
Oh yes, the history of your house can affect you in more ways than you expect, if you care to uncover it.
It was another house altogether that led me to research the history of my current home. I heard that the couple who bought the wonderful, 300year-old (but unlisted) hill farm where I had lived for ten years with my ex-husband had finally managed to get permission to raze it to the ground, to build an ultra-modern home.
All that history — the cumulative total of many generations’ lives imprinted on ancient stone walls — destroyed.
I was heartbroken. And angry, because I believe we are mere custodians of old buildings and the landscape which surrounds them.
YOU CAN alter them, yes — but have no right to tear them down, just because you can afford to. So I vowed to honour the history of my present home — halfway between Bath and Bristol — by finding out as much as I could about its past.
To help, I called on the services of Melanie Backe-Hanson, professional house historian for the grand old firm of estate agents ChestertonHumberts — who know that old properties are given added value when buyers know something of the stories they hold.
Melanie’s new book gives tips on how to get started, as well as fascinating case studies, and she treats researching old houses as an adventure, which it certainly is. We met at the Gloucestershire Archives and the first thing she asked was: ‘What do you want to know?’ ‘Everything,’ I replied. But it’s not that easy. There we were, side by side, looking at a mountain of ancient documents she had extracted from the archives, filled with tiny, crabbed handwriting.
I started by asking how to find out the names of the four fields we own. Easy! She showed me how to call up the tithe maps, locate where the fields are numbered and then consult the separate document, which lists names, owners, rents and so on.
I was thrilled to get a result. Now, instead of ‘ over there’ we can say ‘ in Home Field’ — just as they always did.
It immediately intensifies my sense of belonging. Looking at old maps with Melanie, I could see how the place worked, when the mill building (now a romantic ruin) stood opposite the house we live in and the diverted river turned the ten-foot-high water wheel.
The prosperous people who owned it for generations — the Flowers — clearly had a sense of status and owned many acres. I was desperate for evidence of when the house was built and (after two days of research in Gloucester and Bristol) we found out that somebody recorded accounts for the building of a mill in 1603-4, even though the actual documents eluded us.
So, because there was only one mill recorded in the Domesday Book entry for the village, people must surely have been living on this spot for hundreds of years, even if our house is mostly 17th century.
It all adds up to what the Romans called the genius loci — the spirit of place — the magic which those with no sympathy for old buildings can’t understand.
I handled t he old documents, painstakingly deciphering l egal depositions, notes on the height of the weir (still here, now a ruin) and census names and ages of the house’s inhabitants — all recorded in spidery pen and ink.
More and more, I feel part of a long line of people who have given birth, grown, played, l oved, quarrelled, enjoyed family celebrations, sickened and died on this patch of limestone, with the river running through it. These are all the ghosts of the house and I’m happy to live with them.
But what of Mrs Deverill’s tale of the murder of her great, great, great uncle? Nothing in the archives we consulted.
As a bona fide house historian, natu-
rally Backe-Hansen believes in personally going to record offices whenever you can. If you’ve never done it before, don’t worry because the knowledgeable staff are helpful — and once you get going it’s like a glorious treasure hunt.
BUT web-based research can be very useful, too. And — bingo! — tucked away i n the online records of the Harvard Law School Library I found a record of ‘the trial of Rebecca Worlock at the Gloucester Assizes on Monday, August 14th, 1820, for murdering her husband by mixing arsenic with beer.’
A few clicks, then the whirr of the printer — and it’s mine.
The riveting account of the trial sends me back to the lovinglyresearched amateur book, which I finally read. If only Penny Deverill hadn’t fictionalised it! Because the actual story contains enough drama.
I can easily visualise the horror on the face of respectable and wealthy Mrs Mary Flower, sitting in this house, when she was first informed that her daughter Rebecca had been arrested for murder ... Rebecca’s f ather Lamorock Flower (all the first-born Flower sons had that strange name) had died in 1797 when she was 13 and six years later her mother Mary, aged 40, married a 25-year-old man — who must have had his eyes on the mill as well as the widow.
It’s impossible to believe that Rebecca approved — especially as her young stepfather soon became caught up with costly legal disputes.
I bet there wasn’t much attention paid to the young woman and she wanted to escape.
Perhaps that’s why, just four years later, she married Thomas Worlock — who was very much her social inferior.
She was used to a large comfortable house, with a family income from the mill and the vast acres; her new husband was the son of a slaughterman and owned no land at all.
The ill-matched couple moved to a humble cottage just over the hill on Oldland Common.
Thirteen years and three children later, Rebecca slipped arsenic into Thomas’s beer, causing him to die in agony. It’s said that he was a violent drunkard and the marriage was always tempestuous.
In her confession, just before the gallows, she said he had been jealous and ‘repeatedly called her the most opprobrious epithets’.
But perhaps she was unfaithful — who can know what goes on between a husband and wife?
One thing is certain — there’s nothing new about unhappy marriages. Between 1800 and 1868, of 206 females hanged publicly in the British Isles 42 met their fate for murdering their husbands.
Arsenic, commonly used as rat poison, was the favourite murder weapon for wives who wanted to dispose of troublesome spouses — which is why women weren’t allowed to buy it on their own. But it was easy to take somebody into the druggist with you — which is what Rebecca did. She asked a stranger, Mary Jenkins, to go with her for ‘two pennyworth of something to poison rats with’.
Mary Jenkins’s evidence in court was damning: ‘On leaving the shop, the prisoner told her that it was not to kill rats, but that she had a hell of a fellow at home, whom she meant to do for.’ The opportunity came when Thomas came home tired and thirsty after walking 30 miles that day and sent his oldest child, 13year-old Mary Ann, to the Chequers Public House (which is still there) for a jug of beer.
She took the jug, went for the beer — but when she returned home, her mother took the jug from her and sent her off to look for her brother and sister. That was the fateful moment when Rebecca put the white power into the beer.
They all came to the Assizes to give evidence against her — the woman who sold the poison, the witness to the purchase, the girl who drew the beer, the publican himself, the neighbour young Mary Ann called when she heard her father tell her mother ‘you have done for me’ and various medical men.
The court was packed to hear the jury return their verdict of guilty after just seven minutes.
Rebecca Worlock’s last words in public were: ‘Oh my poor children!’
Two days later she was hanged in front of a huge, rowdy crowd and her body cut down and given (final horror) for dissection.
THE last person to speak to her was the vicar of our village, who (it’s officially recorded) ‘brought home with him several little presents for her children which she requested he would give to them on his return’.
Wondering what pitifully f ew possessions the condemned woman might have had to give, I start brooding about those children. Because nobody took care of them.
Two months after their mother’s execution, Mary Ann and her little sister Honor were sent to separate orphanages in London.
The boy, John, remained in the village, reliant on parish handouts and gradually getting into trouble with the law.
But where was grandmother Mary when all this was happening? Sitting in this very house, with her young husband, listening to the mill wheel turning as ever — and turning her back in shame.
Didn’t she ever recall nursing her daughter in the upstairs room where she was born? Watching her play? It makes me quite angry to think about it.
You might ask, what’s the point? But house historian Melanie Backe-Hansen and I agreed (after two days of research that could have stretched into weeks) t hat you do begin to f eel strangely close to these longdead people.
You imagine what it would have been like to be them. And it makes you feel closer than ever to the place you have all ‘shared’. After all, when I walk along the edge of the River Boyd, I am looking at a landscape they would have immediately recognised. That tall Scots Pine by our barn would have been a sapling, but the house and outbuildings more or less the same. When I stand in one of my favourite spots, gazing at the dark water of the mill pond, I think of little Mary who — I found out from some earlier research — tumbled i n and drowned.
I feel pity for the grieving mother, Elizabeth Cater, who only survived her by two years — after which the stricken family understandably moved away to Cardiff.
Knowing such stories is not spooky or morbid, but allows me to acknowledge the importance of those ordinary — and extraordinary — lives.
That’s why I encourage people to do a little historical digging about the house — or street or area — they live in. Who are the ghosts that share your house? You never know — discovering their names from old records may make you love your home even more.
As I do. So I will call the fields by the ancient names and my husband is restoring the old outbuildings using traditional lime and oak and we will take great care of the homestead — for the sake of all who were here before us, in this house of spirits.
HOUSE Histories — The Secrets Behind Your Front Door by Melanie Backe-Hansen is published by The History Press at £16.99.
Foundations: Bel Mooney traced the history of her farmhouse