Sad, Sinister & Strange (death, crime and mystery in Victorian Plaxtol): part two

Plaxtol has ghosts. How could a place of 1,000 years’ human habitation not be haunted by memory and myth? Many of the legends are well-known: Sir Harry Vane, pacing the pleasure grounds of Fairlawne with his severed head in his hands; or the spirit of a murdered man which frequents Sheet Hill in the form of a white cow with red eyes. Tales of the supernatural exert a powerful draw, but to the best of my knowledge the following has not been told in Plaxtol for many years. Whilst not a ghost story in the strictest sense, it is certainly spooky enough for this time of the year.

Imagine a fine Saturday, the last in April 1889, at the end of a week which began with Easter. Plaxtol is bright with spring flowers (narcissi in the cottage gardens and primroses in the hedge-bottoms), the many acres of orchards are sheets of pink and white blossom, cuckoos are calling repetitively from the alders by the Bourne and green woodpeckers are laughing in the woods. At around one o’clock, the dinner hour, Plaxtol Street is quiet. Two or three men are emptying some barrels in the road, across from the grocer’s shop kept by Solomon Knowles and his wife, Louisa. Mrs Knowles is alone in the shop, perhaps totting up how many oranges are left from last week’s delivery, whilst the couple’s eleven-year-old daughter, Evaline (known as Eva) is just outside, possibly perched on the low wall of the yard to The Papermaker’s Arms, the alehouse beside the shop [1], and busy with a stick of barley-sugar, a doll, a book or even a slate, for she is an intelligent child who has attained Standard V in reading, writing and arithmetic at the village school [2].

Two ladies in elegant day dresses come walking by, engaged in the distribution of books to the subscribers to Plaxtol’s circulating library. They are Miss Anna Dalison, a spinster of 31, and her cousin, 17-year-old Kathleen Violet Sinclair, who stays often at the elegant Dalison family home, Hamptons, some two miles away. They are familiar figures in Plaxtol and – after perhaps admiring their Spring attire for a moment – young Eva goes into the shop to tell her mother, ‘Two of the young ladies have just gone down.’

Fashions for 1889
Fashions for 1889

As Anna and Kathleen walk on, they meet Mr Charles Williams, a Plaxtol tailor, whom they have both known by sight for many years and who did some work for Kathleen around twelve months ago. Originally from Herefordshire, the tailor cuts a striking – some say peculiar – figure: tall, with oddly refined features, customarily dressed in a light-coloured, tight-buttoned coat. He has with him a little girl of about eight, a stranger to the ladies, who believe Mr and Mrs Williams to have no children of their own. The little girl seems eager to take Williams’s hand, but he will not let her. He raises his hat to the ladies pleasantly enough and they wish him a ‘Good morning,’ but as they pass on Kathleen cannot help remarking to her cousin at Williams’s refusal to take the child’s proffered hand.

But the day is fine and the ladies have their errand to complete before returning to Hamptons, perhaps for a late luncheon of cold meats and early salads and an afternoon’s rest. They certainly think no more of the encounter until the following Monday, April 29, when someone tells them that Charles Williams has died. Anna Dalison, naturally surprised, exclaims, ‘How awfully sudden it must have been! Kathleen and I met him in the street on Saturday.’

How much more shocked she is to hear the reply: ‘Impossible, he never left his bed after Wednesday.’

Charles Williams had fallen ill on the evening of April 23, the Tuesday immediately after Easter. By the next morning he was too ill to leave his bed. Pneumonia developed, typically causing him to suffer severe chest pain and coughing, rapid, insufficient breath and a fever with chills. By Saturday, when the final crisis was on him, he would have been more or less delirious. Two doctors attended him that afternoon, but held out little hope for his recovery. He died on Sunday evening.

Anna Dalison had not heard of Williams’s illness before this. Perplexed by the news and by their encounter, she asked about the little girl – the child she had not seen before or since – and was told that she was a niece of Mrs Williams’s who had been living with her aunt and uncle for a while.

The ladies must have been chillingly mystified by the strange turn of events. But the supernatural tale was about to take another turn.

Returning from his London office to his home at Claygate in the neighbouring parish of Shipbourne on that same Monday evening, Mr John Alfred Hind, monocled barrister-at-law and a former captain of the London Irish Volunteers rifle regiment, heard the day’s gossip from his wife, including the news that Charles Williams had passed away. Hind was amazed, exclaiming, ‘But I only saw him a day or two ago!’ His wife pressed him on the point, and together they pieced together the following facts.

On the morning of the previous Friday, April 26, Hind had walked to Plaxtol to post a letter. In School Lane, just after passing the house known as The Pinnacles, he noticed a figure walking towards him. Being short-sighted, Hind was at first not sure what he saw, but he put up his eyeglass and perceived that it was Charles Williams, who had approached him with unnatural suddenness. The tailor was in his usual light-coloured coat and greeted Hind in his usual way, although Hind did notice that he looked ‘extremely ghastly and ill.’ Neither man stopped and Hind naturally thought no more of the incident until his wife told him of Williams’s illness and death.

Anna Dalison and Kathleen Sinclair were sufficiently intrigued by their own experience to pay a visit to Mrs Knowles on Tuesday, April 30. In the Knowles’s parlour, Kathleen Sinclair noticed a photograph of a dozen Plaxtol men, and unerringly identified Charles Williams among them. Mrs Knowles, being a practical woman, believed at first that the ladies had mistaken the date and were thinking of their walk in Plaxtol on April 18, before Easter, when Williams (perfectly fit and well) had visited her shop with his niece Hilda Mary, but on thinking further she recalled that the ladies had already passed below the shop door, going downhill, before Williams and Hilda Mary went out and turned uphill towards home, which made a chance encounter unlikely. Her idea was in any case debunked further by the confident intervention of young Eva, who said that as she was walking home from school on April 18 she had seen Miss Dalison, Miss Sinclair and ‘a gentleman’ further down the street, but had then come in to her mother at the shop and found Mr Williams there with Hilda Mary; she recalled that he was buying an orange for the little girl. Eva was quite adamant that the ladies had had no gentleman with them when they passed her on Saturday, April 27.

'A School Girl' by George Clausen (1889)
‘A School Girl’ by George Clausen (1889)

It happened that Mr and Mrs Hind at Claygate were acquainted with the Dalison family, and on Wednesday, May 1, their daughter, 13-year-old Margaret, was a visitor at Hamptons. Rumours were certainly circulating already, but this gave an opportunity for stories to be compared. And so convincing did the details then appear that on the next day one of Anna Dalison’s sisters wrote down the account that Anna had told them and Anna put her signature to the notes with the comment, ‘This is a true account of what I saw.’

We do not know how the story reached the ear of the Society for Psychical Research. The Society had been founded in 1882 by Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Henry Sidgwick, three Cambridge academics. Events of this type were bread-and-butter to the Society. Gurney and his co-authors had already published a book entitled Phantasms of the Living, enumerating similar ‘crisis apparitions’ and their possible explanations under chapter headings such as ‘The Theory of Chance-Coincidence,’ ‘Visual Cases Occurring to a Single Percipient,’ and ‘Collective Cases.’ One of their working theories was that manifestations of spirits to more than one person at the same time – the so-called ‘collective cases’ – might be attributed to hallucinations communicated from one person to another by means of telepathy.

It was Gurney who recruited the Reverend Alfred Trimble Fryer to the Society, on Fryer’s condition (as Fryer wrote in 1905) that:

the Society would not attempt to prove the supernatural, by which I meant that I was willing to assist in the examination and classification of physical and psychical phenomena connected with ghosts, dreams, etc, solely as terrestrial events, and without reference to the ends such things may subserve in the spiritual sphere or the life beyond the grave.

Fryer had become a staunch and busily active member of the Society, and on June 10 he visited Plaxtol to examine the witnesses as to events there. As was his usual practice, Fryer submitted written questions to each of the witnesses and pieced a report together from their written replies, for submission to the Society’s Journal. He noted with care Mrs Williams’s account of her husband saying, ‘I feel so strange, there is only my frame lying here … I never seem to realise I am in my own room.’ But for the Society the major points of interest were these: firstly, that this had been one of the fascinating ‘collective’ cases and, secondly, that the ladies had seen the child, Hilda Mary, alongside her uncle. How, they wondered, was it possible for their hallucination to contain a child which neither of them had seen or heard of before?

But what remains unclear from Fryer’s report is this: was little Hilda Mary’s spirit really a part of her uncle’s own manifestation, or was the flesh-and-blood child simply another witness to the hallucination, so convinced by what she saw that she tried to take the hand of a man who was not there?

Happy Hallowe’en!


[1] The Papermakers’ Arms which stands in Plaxtol Street now was completed in 1902, on a site close to the old inn.

[2] Six standards had been established by the 1872 Elementary Education Act for England and Wales, and were in place at Plaxtol’s National School. Standard V was the second-highest level of attainment.

Picture credits:

  • The featured image is of the top of The Street, Plaxtol in 1901 © Plaxtol Local History Group.
  • The fashion plate from a periodical called ‘The Season’ was sourced on Pinterest.
  • George Clausen’s ‘A Schoolgirl’ was sourced from the Tumblr account, Books and Art.

© New Moons For Old, 2015


New Moons For Old

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