Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Ilkeston Giant: The Life of Samuel Taylor

Stanton Cemetery is just a short walk away from where I live, but it was over a year and a half after we moved to Ilkeston that we actually made a pilgrimage to visit one of the town's most famous residents – the Ilkeston Giant.

Samuel Taylor was born in Little Hallam on 4th June 1817, and christened on 16th October at St Mary's Church, Ilkeston.  His father, another Samuel, was a farmer, standing at the impressive height of six feet nine. His mother Ann was a more modest five feet, but it was clear from the start that Samuel junior was going to take after his father. By the age of ten he was nearly six feet tall, and at fourteen measured six feet ten. His height continued to grow, and finally in adulthood Samuel Taylor was seven feet four and a half inches tall.

It was upon visiting a fair at Castle Donnington in 1832 however that Samuel realised his true calling. In his own words:

“I entered the exhibition – a curtain was drawn, and discovered a man, perhaps about six feet three. All eyes were turned upon me. I stood beside the giant, and made him look very insignificant.

He was much chagrined at my intrusion, as he called it; became very violent, and struck me. Now, I was quite a youth – only sixteen, and he a man of thirty. I had never fought, and was always inclined to be peaceable, but the blow seemed to arouse the man within me. I madly attacked my rival, and notwithstanding his superior weight and strength, I succeeded in making him cry peccavi.” 

Samuel Taylor

Taylor was duly hired to replace the man he had beaten, and remained with this fair for many months, travelling around the country. His new employer had a daughter however, and Samuel fell in love. She was a glass blower, and very good at her act, and returned Samuel's feelings. Her father however was not happy, and Samuel was told to move on.

The couple were not to be thwarted and eloped to Montrose – although her father followed, and even had their luggage seized, he came around when he realised that his daughter consented to the match and didn't pursue an arrest. His unwilling father in law eventually came round to them, taking Samuel back to work for him and even giving the newly weds five pounds as a gift.

The Taylors had an interesting time of it over the following years. They first set up their own show together but it was not very successful; Samuel then started work with a railway company but found that did not go so well either. Finally he made the decision to go back to performing, and took his fair back on tour. This time things went better and they amassed some money; with their savings Samuel bought a pub in Manchester and set up business there. It was soon clear that they were losing money again, and finally the couple went back to their fair, and the Giant to the work he loved. 

Although he travelled around the country, Samuel Taylor had a great fondness for his hometown of Ilkeston and often returned there, one such visit being in 1869 when he brought his own show to the Ilkeston Statues Fair. His acts included a crying crocodile, a golden boa constrictor, and the Mrs Taylor Glass Blowing Exhibition by his wife. When it came time to leave the town each time he was said to have had a habit of looking back, keeping on looking until it finally disappeared from view.  

In 1875, tragedy struck. Samuel Taylor had an accident whilst preparing his fair to leave Oldham; he slipped and fractured his thigh. He was admitted to hospital in Manchester and appeared to be improving, when a sudden and unexpected relapse occurred. The Ilkeston Giant died on 3rd June, 1875. He was fifty-nine years old, and was survived by his wife and two sons.  

His coffin was taken by train to Ilkeston (in the days when the town had not one but several stations) where it was met by the local brass band. The bells of the church were muffled, and Samuel Taylor made his final journey from the Independent Chapel to Stanton Road Cemetery.

And so:

"After many vicissitudes in life, the towering form of the Ilkeston Giant, cut down at the comparatively early age of 59, now rests amid the bones of those who delighted in their life-time to do honour to a man "mighty in stature", honest in purpose, and grateful in heart."

Visitors to the cemetery today can spend a while with The Giant in his final resting place. Restored and rededicated in 2008 in a ceremony with Robert Lindsay (another of Ilkeston's famous ex-residents), Samuel Taylor's memorial reads:

"In loving memory of Samuel Taylor, The Ilkeston Giant, Height 7' 4". Died June 3 aged 59."

Quotes from Edwin Trueman's History of Ilkeston.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Vanishing Laird

For this week's Wednesday Weirdness I am delighted to welcome Ailish to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful with a tale of a Vanishing Laird! 

The last owner of Pitsligo Castle in Aberdeenshire was Alexander Forbes, the 4th Lord of Pitsligo. Born in 1678, he was a well-educated man and a bit of an alternative thinker of the time. For a while he ran a Mystery School, possibly based on his study of Quietism, and he was also an early advocate for the education of women and girls.

He was a staunch Jacobite and took part in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 despite being sixty-seven years old and asthmatic in 1745. After the defeat at the Battle of Culloden he was a wanted man and went into hiding.

And here is where he vanished, from the government troops at least. Lord Pitsligo spent three years hiding in the lands surrounding his castle. He secreted himself away under the low arches of the old bridge at Craigmaud and also lived in a cave somewhere along this stretch of coast:

The Laird was well loved, no one gave him up despite the bounty on his head, and stories of him abound. It is said that he dressed as a beggar and met the soldiers who were searching for him several times, once leading them right to his cave. In church he was seen to sit with a bearing of great dignity and to take on a radiance that affected all those in the building.

He finally retired to his son's house at Auchiries near Rathen, but even there he was not left in peace. A visitor to the house had a dream that the place was surrounded by soldiers. Unable to sleep or rid her mind of this image she got up and looked out the window to discover the dream was true. The Laird was quickly hidden in a small recess behind an old lady's bed. The room was searched, the poor lady was examined to make sure she was not a man in a woman's nightdress and The Laird had an asthma attack. The old lady feigned a coughing fit to hide the wheezing and Lord Pitsligo evaded capture once again. He then requested the soldiers be given some ale and bread as they were only men doing their duty.

He died on the 21st of December 1762. His remains are housed in the Forbes vault at Peathill Kirk, just up the hill from his castle.

He was also a writer! His lengthily titled work, 'Thoughts concerning man's condition and duties in this life, and his hopes in the world to come...' is available here as a free ebook. It includes a review by Sir Walter Scott and a biography. Picture below from the National Library of Scotland. There are more pictures of the Castle and Kirk on my own blog here.

Ailish Sinclair spent the earlier parts of her life dancing around and encouraging others to do the same. She now lives beside a loch with her husband and two children, surrounded by castles and stone circles, where she writes and dances (yes, still) and eats cake. Follow her on Twitter here

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

On The Stage: Jane Wenham The Witch of Walkern

I am very excited to say that I have now booked tickets to see the fabulous new play, Jane Wenham The Witch of Walkern at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in October!

As most of you know by now, Jane Wenham is a particular favourite "witch" of mine, and a chapter of Accused looks at her story in detail. It was a great treat therefore to learn of the play, and needless to say I'll be sharing my thoughts on the performance afterwards! 

Jane Wenham The Witch of Walkern is:

A gripping and haunting new play about sex, fear, religion and magic, from the BAFTA-winning writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz. After decades free from witch-hunts, Walkern’s cunning woman Jane Wenham is blamed for a tragic death – and charged with witchcraft. A terrifying ordeal begins, as the village is torn between those who want to save her life, and those who claim to want to save her soul. Inspired by events in a Hertfordshire village, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s beautiful, throat-catching new play is alive with the mysteries of nature, sex and the supernatural, and blasts society’s hunger to find – and create – witches.

Running from 21st to 24th October, tickets are available now from the West Yorkshire Playhouse box office, online or by phone on 0113 213 7700

As an additional treat, I've also booked to attend the talk Witch Hunts: Now and Then at the Playhouse on 23rd October at 6pm. Lasting an hour,  tickets are £3 and can be booked here

Can't make it to Leeds? Check out the other venues where you can catch the magic of Jane Wenham. 

For some witchiness to whet your appetite in the meantime, read more about the story of Jane Wenham here and here.

For updates and information on the production and other great theatre, follow the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Out of Joint Theatre on Twitter. 

Monday, 10 August 2015

Framed for Murder: The Witch of Wapping

Joan Peterson of Shadwell, Middlesex, inhabited a hazy area occupied by many in the 17th century. On the one hand, she was a cunning woman or "white" witch, her charms and powers used to help those who were ill or to recover missing or stolen goods. On the other, she was capable of causing the very suffering she was called upon to relieve, a vengeful and dangerous woman to those who crossed her.  

In Joan's case, this blurring of roles would prove to be fatal, and in 1652 she found herself in court on two indictments. The first that:

She had conspired with another Gentlewoman to administer a potion or posset, to the Lady Powell (living at Chelsea) who soon after the drinking thereof died.” 

The second involved a Christopher Wilson with whom she had quarrelled. Calling upon Joan in desperation when taken ill, Wilson had agreed to pay her fee but, once cured, went back on the deal. Joan had been blunt when telling the man just what she thought of him, vowing vengeance if he did not pay her what he had said. Sure enough, Wilson received his comeuppance:

...and very suddenly after he fell into very strange fits, and for twelve hours together would rage and rave like a mad man, and afterwards for twelve hours more would flabber out his tongue; and walk up and down like a meer changeling.” 

Whether she had indeed spoken the words against Christopher Wilson could be contested, but it appears that, in the matter of Lady Powell's death, Joan was innocent. The lady in question had been in possession of a great fortune when she died, and there was a bitter battle taking place between her niece, Anne Levingstone, and one Thomas Crompton.

Crompton had  inveigled his way into Lady Powell's affections, splitting her from her husband before hiding the older woman away in Chelsea. In so doing, Crompton had gained control over Lady Powell's estates and finances, and was set to inherit a great deal when she died. Things did not go as planned, however, and through the machinations of concerned family members, Lady Powell was reconciled with her husband before his death, and went on to leave her money and estates to Anne Levingstone instead. 

Already in possession of a great deal of her wealth however, Crompton was not to give up without a fight. In January 1562, Joan Peterson was approached   and offered one hundred pounds to say that she had provided Anne Levingstone with “certain powders, and bags of seeds, to help her in her law suits, and to provoke unlawful love.” The implication was that Lady Powell's affections had been gained by unfair means, but Joan refused, leaving those who plotted in a dangerous situation. 

Deciding Joan knew too much, Crompton and his "confederates" decided upon a new and deadly plan. On 7th March they went to Wapping, where they obtained a warrant from a Justice of the Peace. The substance of the warrant was the arrest of Joan, and also permitted the searching of her house. Nothing was found, but, not to be dissuaded, Joan was taken before the magistrate and examined regarding whether she had used witchcraft against Lady Powell. Joan was adamant that she had not, and that she had not even heard of this Lady Powell, though she admitted that Crompton's woman had been to see her and asked her to swear against Anne Levingstone. 

Dockside, Wapping

Joan's body was searched for signs that would confirm her status as a witch, but nothing incriminating was discovered, and Joan was released on bail. This was not the end of the matter, as on 14th March she was taken in again for further questioning. Everything was tried to get her to confess, including the promise that they wished only to catch Anne Levingstone for her crime, and it was not Joan's life they were after. 

Joan remained steadfast in her reply, and repeated that she had never heard of Lady Powell and did not know her, and as for Anne Levingstone, she had not seen or heard from her in about a year. This then led to more searching, in a “most unnatural and barbarous manner.” This time, it was told to the Justice that there had been found “a teat of flesh in her secret parts more than other women usually had.” This was enough for Joan to be taken to New prison and then on to Newgate.  

Her case was heard at the Old Bailey on 7th April, taking up the majority of the day. Evidence was heard from many against Joan, whilst those who might have spoken in her favour were forcibly dissuaded from entering the building to give their testimony in her defence. 

Some of the evidence given against Joan survives on record. When a neighbour's child fell sick, it was thought Joan was to blame.  There was such fear for it's life that the child was watched both day and night, and while neighbours were watching so the exhausted parents could rest, something strange occurred. Around midnight, a large black cat approached the cradle and began to rock it. The animal vanished when threatened with the fork for the fire, only to return again an hour later. This time, the other woman in attendance kicked the creature, only for it to disappear again, leaving the woman with a leg that was swollen and sore.

Frightened, both left soon after, and on their way home met a baker who shared a strange tale. He had just seen a great black cat which had frightened him enough to make his hair stand on end. On hearing this, the women told him what they had witnessed, and the baker said he was certain that Joan Peterson had bewitched the child.

Those closer to Joan spoke against her; her own maid testified how she had been lying with her mistress one night when Joan Joan told her that a squirrel would come to her – it would do no harm, however, and the girl was not to be afraid. As midnight approached, sure enough, a creature that looked like a squirrel joined them on the bed, the girl frozen with fright as the animal and Joan carried out a conversation that, although overheard by the maid, could not be recorded as she had been so bewitched as to not remember it afterwards. Joan's own son who was around seven or eight, inadvertently confirmed this when, quizzed by some friends from school about his mother and her strange behaviour. The boy responded that Joan was able to do the things she did because a squirrel taught her how to do things.

Despite evidence of a rigged jury and coerced witnesses, Joan was acquitted of aiding in the death of Lady Powell, but found guilty of harming Christopher Wilson, and was sentenced to hang on Monday 12th April, 1652.

The Faithful Scout for 9th-16th April, 1562 tells the tale of Joan's execution:

This day was execution day for London; three suffered, two men, and one woman; the men were sentenced for horse-stealing; the woman was condemned for witchcraft, and seemed to be very much dejected, having a melancholy aspect: she seemed not to be much above 40 years of age, and was not in the least outwardly deformed, as those kind of creatures usually are Being brought to Tyburn, and the Rope put about her neck, she was urged to discharge her conscience; whereupon she replied, that they were but flesh and blood as she as, and therefore should receive no satisfaction concerning her proceedings: Her end was as miserable as her life abominable; for when the Minister exhorted her to repentance, she cried out, away with this babbling fellow.”

Joan was not the only one to cry out at her own fate; there were plenty afterwards who spoke of foul play in the matter. Anne Levingstone brought a case to court not long afterwards against Thomas Crompton and his conspirators, citing her damages at the grand sum of 20,000 pounds. The battle for Lady Powell's estate continued for the next decade, until matters were resolved by Act of Parliament on 19th May, 1662. 

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Wednesday Weirdness: The Green Ladies Enigma

For this fortnight's Wednesday Weirdness slot I am very pleased to welcome M J Steel Collins to The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful, with the intriguing and decidedly spooky legend of Green Ladies...


Green Ladies are to be found the length and breadth of Scotland, but are fairly scarce elsewhere. They are a particularly tragic variety of ghost; their colour is something of a mystery. Dane Love postulated that it may be because they were wearing green tartan plaid when they died, though that seems somewhat unlikely, which Love himself admitted. Curiously, green is also a colour associated with fairies – the enchanted ‘Witchin’ Claith’ woven by the little folk in Scottish folklore being that colour. Bad things befell those who wore clothes made from the material.  

A common theme to Green Lady legends is that they are the ghosts of women who died when love went wrong. Either they were elite young ladies who fell in love with a man of a lower social standing, their love affair being forbidden by aghast fathers, brothers or other guardians. Or they were dissatisfied married women, who found a bit of excitement in illicit extra-marital affairs. Sometimes these had the added bonus of the wife finding their one true love – who definitely wasn’t their husband. Whatever the situation, it often ended with a sticky end.  

Not all Green Ladies are believed to be ghosts, but elementals such as Glaistigs and Gruagachs. Glaistig is a name given to various kinds of entities: a mortal woman who has been enchanted with fairy nature; a shape-shifter; an evil water elemental; a human/horse hybrid with grey skin – the list is extensive. They vary from being malevolent to benign, some with a mischievous streak, who might also share a similar role to the Banshee. Gruagachs are occasionally mixed up with Glaistigs. These tend to be creatures, with yellow hair, which look after cattle. They are also fond of children, and in some places entrusted with their care whilst parents carry out chores. Gruagachs appreciate offerings of milk for their effort, which is often left in a stone. If this is forgotten, chaos unfolds! In some instances, Gruagachs are male rather than female.

Sundrum Castle in Ayrshire is said to boast a Green Lady, though the story is rather vague. She is believed to be a wife of the Hamilton family who owned the castle. When the castle was a hotel, my Gran had a few run ins with the ghost when employed on the housekeeping staff. The Green Lady would mess up the bedding on a freshly made bed in the short second my Gran had her back turned. Just as well my Gran was quite used to ghosts, having had a few encounters through her life. 

Comlongon Castle

Another famous Green Lady is the ghost of Marion Carruthers, who haunts Comlongon Castle in Dumfries and Galloway. Marion had fled to Comlongon, seeking refuge from an arranged marriage. Though her uncle, who owned Comlongon, sheltered her, Marion believed forced marriage to a man she didn’t love was inevitable, and threw herself from the castle tower on 25th September 1570. Her little seen ghost can occasionally be heard crying, or felt touching people’s faces. 

The Green Lady at Dunnstaffnage Castle in Oban is thought to be a Glaistig. Poltergeist phenomena are linked with her appearances, which are also regarded as an ill omen. Her disembodied footsteps have been heard roaming the castle, and she is also wont to throw people from their beds. Quite a wakeup call. Another famous Green Lady can be found at Fyvie Castle is reputed to protect the family. The owner of Balgonie Castle was told by the bride of a wedding party held at the castle, in Fife, that she saw the resident Green Lady when visiting the castle as a six year old. The tale of this particular green lady is vague.

Newton Castle

At Newton Castle in Blairgowrie is a Green Lady that has all the classic trappings of a good Scots folk story. Lady Jean Drummond was in love with a Laird from the neighbouring castle, but his passion for her died out. Desperate to win her back, Lady Jean consulted the local witch. The old woman told her that to win her love back, Jean ought to wear the ‘Witchin’ Claith of Green’, which was woven by the fairies. To get this, Jean was to cut grass from the Kirkyard, and tie it with plaited reed to a branch taken from the Rowan tree on Gallows Hill. Then she was to sit on the Corbie Stane at the River Ericht. This she did, spending the night with her eyes closed, and listening to the sound of tinkling voices, and the soft brush of hands against her body. In the morning, Lady Jean found herself dressed in a green gown, made from cloth woven by the fairies overnight.  

Eventually, Lady Jean won her true love back and they were married at Newton Castle. While the couple took their vows, the groom felt his bride’s hands turn deathly cold and saw her eyes vacant and glazed. She let out a cry and fell down dead. Lady Jean was buried on Knockie Hill. Each Hallowe’en, her gravestone rotates three times, and she floats down to Newton Castle. Her singing can be heard from the tower. In the end, it turned out the old witch omitted to mention that wearing the ‘Witching Claith of Green’ could be detrimental to one’s life.  

M J Steel Collins is a folklore geek hailing from Paisley in Scotland. She is Scottish Editor for The Spooky Isles, and Folklore Editor for the Modern Scotsman. Follow her on Twitter and check out her blog at Ghostly Aspects. She is writing her first book.