Old Mother Leakey’s Ghost

Towards the end of April, I fancied sampling some of the delights of traditional English May Day revels, and headed off to the seaside resort of Minehead in Somerset. Here, May Day has been celebrated for centuries by the ceremonial parade of an ancient Hobby Horse. The Minehead Hobby Horse, or ‘Sailor’s Horse’ as it is known locally, makes its first appearance outside a quayside pub on the evening of 30 April. Then at 5am on May Day it sets off from the harbour and is carried through the streets, accompanied by eager followers, folk musicians, and an unceasing drumbeat. Its perambulations continue for the next three days, with a detour one evening to nearby Dunster Castle.

The precise origins of the custom are uncertain. An older generation of folklorists would have classed it as a primitive survival of pagan rituals, but others suggest the custom arose from an attempt by 18th century sailors to raise money (the Horse’s followers now collect for local charities). But at least one local tradition recorded in 1855 avers that it commemorates a phantom ship that once entered Minehead harbour, or alternatively an abandoned vessel like the Mary Celeste.

For seekers after ghosts, Minehead is best known for the strange story of the phantom of a 17th century woman – ‘Old Mrs Leakey’, or ‘Old Mother Leakey’. The story is nearly 400 ears old, but only in recent decades has  it been openly re-connected with one of the greatest British ecclesiastical scandals of the 17th century.

In life, Old Mother Leakey was Mrs Susannah Leakey who lived with her merchant son Alexander and his family in a house by Minehead harbour. The house is still there, and was extended later to incorporate a fisherman’s cottage. Although Mrs Leakey was considered a kindly and charitable soul, following her death on 5 November 1634, she took an exceedingly vicious and malevolent turn, returning as an evil spirit, intent on wreaking harm and being the centre of attention.

Dressed in a black gown, she haunted not only her son’s house but also the town and the fields at large. Her troublesome spectre became notorious for kicking a local doctor who was crossing a stile, but far worse was to come. Notably, she haunted ships and boats owned by Alexander that were bound for Ireland. She appeared on top of masts and rigging and blew a whistle. Storms would be raised and the vessels sunk, and although no lives were lost, her son suffered. Her ghost also manifested at her old home to the terror of Alexander’s family, though the only person – with one exception – who could actually see her was Alexander’s wife, Elizabeth.

The exception was Old Mrs Leakey’s little granddaughter, aged five or six, who cried out one night that her grandmother was attacking her. Before any of the family could intervene, the wicked spirit snuffed out the life of the poor child, strangling her in her cot. Only after the murder does anyone seem to have asked Old Mrs Leakey why she caused so much mayhem. Elizabeth questioned the ghost when it manifested as an image in a mirror and in reply was instructed to go over to Ireland to convey a message to Joan, Old Mrs Leakey’s eldest daughter. (Why the spirit did not pass on the message directly is a mystery). Joan was the wife of John Atherton, the Bishop of Waterford, who was originally from Somerset.

The message that Elizabeth was to take for Joan was that her clerical husband must repent of his sins or he would hang. Elizabeth commented that the Bishop was an important man and hardly likely to pay attention to her (particularly if she revealed the message came from a child-killing ghost). Elizabeth also raised the obvious objection that Mrs Leakey’s penchant for sinking ships would prevent her from ever getting there. However, Mrs Leakey promised to cease sinking ships for 30 days, allowing Elizabeth to travel to Waterford, where she duly delivered the message to Bishop Atherton. Elizabeth was received very coolly, the Bishop remarking that if he was to hang at least he wouldn’t drown. He then sent her packing.

On returning to Minehead, Elizabeth was met by local magistrates alerted to her strange behaviour and intent on interrogating her. She steadfastly declined to pass on the message imparted to Bishop Atherton, declaring that it could only be revealed to the King. Finding that their threats and inducements drew a blank, the justices called for support.

If Elizabeth’s story of the ghost was a tactic to attract attention, it certainly succeeded. The peculiar affair sparked interest at national level, from the Privy Council and the highest ranks of the Church. In February 1637 the Bishop of Bath and Wells presided over a Commission to inquire into the child-killing ghost and Elizabeth’s actions. The Commission was not convinced by the witnesses, including Elizabeth herself. The report, endorsed by Archbishop Laud, concluded: “Wee doe believe that there was never any such apparition at all”. However, this verdict may have been a convenient tactic, covering up Bishop Atherton’s scandalous behaviour, and did nothing to quell suspicions. Certainly, despite the Commission coming down firmly against manifestations of Old Mrs Leakey’s post-mortem return, belief in the phantom remained firm in Minehead, passing into local legend, and ultimately into print.

Sir Walter Scott indirectly helped promote  her legend with a line in his poem Rokeby: ‘How whistle rash bids tempests roar’. This obscure reference might have been missed, had not Scott provided a lengthy footnote explaining that: “The most formidable whistler that I remember to have met with was the apparition of a certain Mrs Leakey…” An earlier poetic reference might be Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s female “Nightmare Life-in- Death” female who “thicks men’s blood with cold” and who “whistles thrice” in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge resided close to Minehead in the village of Selworthy (and was famously interrupted in his dream-inspired composition of Kubla Khan by a person from Porlock).

Walter Scott later provided a full version of the Mrs Leakey legend (though with names spelt differently) for readers of his Letters On Witchcraft And Demonology (1830), probably re-enforcing lingering local traditions in Somerset. After many re-tellings, it is perhaps understandable that the ghost story had diverged widely from its historical basis. The story was still circulating in the 1920s; on All Soul’s Day 1927, the Morning Post stated: “When the wild November winds are whirling round the cliffs of North Hill and sailing craft are straining at moorings in Minehead’s little harbour, children keep indoors at night for fear of meeting Old Mother Leakey”.

Versions of the story have appeared since, for instance in Elliot O’Donnell’s Haunted Britain (1948) and Peter Underwood’s Gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971) – where I first read it, although Underwood decided to omit it from his later Ghosts of Somerset. However, the full story of the facts which lay behind Mrs Leakey’s ghost with its mysterious message has been omitted from popular re-tellings, with many authors either being unaware of the ultimate fate of Bishop Atherton, or tactfully avoiding it; for Atherton did indeed hang as predicted by the ghost, in December 1640, following a trial filled with scandalous revelations.

The facts were also known to many later generations of religious writers and scholars, but many also elected to suppress the precise details either through distaste or to protect the sensibilities of their readers. Others, more forgiving, chose to concentrate on the confession and penitence that Bishop Atherton showed in prison awaiting execution. For although acquitted of embezzlement, the Bishop was convicted of sodomy with a male servant, a capital offence until the 19th century (the servant was also executed). The repentance of the Bishop on the eve of execution became a classic of penitential literature, a tool to bring sinners back to the faith. The Bishop traced his sins back to the collapse of his moral character occasioned by his “Reading of bad Books, viewing immodest pictures, frequently Plays, Drunkenness etc.,” which “enticed him to his acts”.

It appears that the popular mind wiped from folkloric memory the matter of the homosexuality – or bisexuality – of the Bishop and replaced it with another sinful act and crime, in which the living Old Mrs Leakey was complicit. This was that the Bishop had fathered an illegitimate child in Barnstaple with the knowledge of Old Mrs Leakey. After the Bishop had duly baptised the infant Mrs Leakey then killed it, and the body was burned on charcoal. Whilst ghost story writers recalled this crime, they did not mention acts of buggery.

It was not until the 20th century that an attempt was made to re-unite the fragments, with the a study published by folklorist Theo Brown in a chapter in The Folklore of Ghosts (1981), following an examination of documents in the Public Records Office.

Brown made clear that her principal interest was folklore, not the Bishop’s misdeeds. Since then, the changing cultural ideas concerning ghosts, possible conspiracy theories and the eruption of the Atherton scandal amid the social and religious turmoil of the 17th century have all proved attractive to professional historians. Thus the whole story has been the subject of an excellent study under the sceptical eye of Professor Peter Marshall in Mother Leakey and The Bishop – A Ghost Story (Oxford University Press 2007), which suggests that at its heart was a family blackmail plot that went wrong.

As well as examining facts derived from the surviving historical documents, Prof Marshall scrutinises the continuing legendary life of Mrs Leakey’s ghost, taking up the issues identified by Theo Brown and their local impact. His study shows how, in the popular mind, the ghostly Old Mrs Leakey took on an existence independently of the respectable religious interpretations of the sinful Bishop and his repentance before execution. He shows how later generations made both religious and political propaganda from the story while playing down or ignoring the ghostly aspects.

In the process of writing his book, Prof Marshall visited the Leakey family’s old home on the quayside, which had been turned into a sweetshop – ‘Old Mother Leakey’s Parlour’ – in the 20th century, but which he now found had been turned into tearooms. However, he stopped his historical and cultural pilgrimage at the very threshold, neglecting to actually venture within. Had he done so, he might have discovered that contemporary beliefs in Old Mother Leakey’s ghost are still alive, with claims that she is still actively haunting the teashop.

On my visit to Minehead I found the building concerned, operating as the stylish Quayside Tearooms, though still acknowledging its earlier status as Old Mother Leakey’s Parlour. Over an excellent cheese ploughman’s lunch, I was told by the couple who run it that ever since they moved in six years ago there have been strange noises in the building.

These have included footsteps crossing an upstairs room as well as repeated bangs and thumps. As with many hauntings, the worst was endured when they first moved in, but they recur periodically, along with object movements, most recently the throwing about of Coca Cola cans. The disturbances are attributed to Mrs Leakey at work in her old home. They have their own ideas about the villains of the piece and own a copy of Prof Marshall’s book. Thus we may not have heard the last of Old Mrs Leakey.

Perhaps in the final analysis, the phantom provides an example of the continuing divide between popular and official or establishment culture, regarding attitudes towards the supernatural or paranormal. Over the generations, ‘respectable’ opinion treated ghosts with disdain, whilst romantic and popular culture embraced them. (See Roger Clarke, ‘Ghost Mobs’ and the same author’s 2012 book A Natural History of Ghosts for further examination of this historic division on ghosts in Britain).

The authorities found notions of Old Mrs Leakey’s child-killing, whistling ghost distasteful, sensationalising an already scandalous case that brought disgrace and capital punishment down upon an establishment figure. Equally, the popular audience eager for retellings of the ghost story did not want to know the details of the sex life and practices of a Protestant bishop. Indeed, Theo Brown admitted, “I am fascinated by Old Mrs Leakey”, but expressed her distaste in having to detail “her deplorable family and Atherton”, and for “digging up ancient scandals better forgotten”. Or perhaps, as M R James put it in 1931, the one thing that you have to keep out of a good ghost story is sex because of its tendency “to spoil the whole business”.

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