Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Ricketts Ghost Story

November l5th, 1830.—Mrs. Hughes told me the other day that she was writing the particulars of the Ricketts ghost story, as she had heard it related in her infancy by Mrs. Gwyn,* who had been an eye, or rather ear, witness. The story was alluded to; her aunt stopped the speaker, and begged she would wait till the child was gone to bed. She was not to be so put off, and when the orders for bed were issued she contrived to conceal herself behind the curtain: there she remained undiscovered till the tale had advanced to the hoarse voice, when her terror was so highly excited that it totally overcame her dread of punishment, and she rushed from her place of concealment, falling flat on her face. These circumstances of course strongly impressed all the incidents on her ardent mind, and thus she related them to Sir Walter Scott,** premising that Mr. Strong, who was chaplain to Shipley, Bishop of Saint Asaph, had, when at Twyfbrd and in its neighbourhood, frequently heard the legend told in the same manner.

She likewise says she has heard the story, exactly the same, from the Duchess of Buckingham. The house alluded to is situated between Alton and Alresford. My story says*** that Mr. Legge, related to Lord Stawell, was a very atrocious libertine. He was aided and abetted in all his evil practices by an old butler named Robin, who was distinguished by a remarkably deep-toned hoarse voice. Mrs. Legge was known to be very unhappy and very ill-used, and was seldom seen by the neighbourhood, who were deterred from visiting at that house by the character of its master; but it became known that a younger sister of Mrs. Legge came to visit her, and in process of time a criminal intercourse was suspected between her and her brother-in-law; a child was said to have been born, and destroyed by the agency of the butler.****

So far I am correct in my remembrances, but I am not clear as to the death and dispersion of the guilty trio. I think, however, that old Robin came to an untimely end, and that. Mr. Legge grew disgusted with the house and left it. Be that as it may, the house was to be let, and was hired by Captain Ricketts for the reception of his family during his long absence from England, either on the East or West India Station.

When he sailed, Mrs. Ricketts, with three young children and a very small establishment, removed to her new residence. I do not precisely remember how long it was before her quiet was disturbed; but I think it was only a few days after her arrival that, sitting alone in the evening about nine o'clock, she was startled by the singular terror expressed by her cat; the animal started from her slumbers on the hearth, made a piteous cry, and after running about the room as if wishing to escape, darted to its mistress, and rolling itself up in the train of her gown, lay there panting and exhausted.

Mrs. Ricketts was rising to summon a servant when her ear was struck by a tremendous noise in the room overhead; it had the sound of tearing up the boards of the floor with the utmost violence, and throwing them about. In a moment the servants, alarmed, rushed into the room. Mrs. Ricketts, who was a woman of a resolute spirit, headed the party to explore the room from which the sound appeared to proceed, but on entering nothing was seen, and the operations seemed to have been shifted to another apartment. The whole house was searched without effect, and the noise continued a considerable time, varying its apparent station as it was approached.

The next night the annoyance was renewed, and after the floor-breaking ceased, three voices were heard distinctly—that of a female and two males; one of these so remarkably hoarse and dissonant, that one of the servants, who was from the neighbourhood, exclaimed, ' That is like the voice of wicked old Robin.' The female seemed to plead in agony for some boon; one of the men seemed to answer in a mournful grave tone, and the deep hoarse voice sounded angrily and positively. No distinct words could be made. out, but now and then the voices seemed so close that, as old Mrs. Gwyn described it, 'you would have thought that by putting out your hand you would have touched the speakers;' to this succeeded a strain of soft aerial music, and the whole ended by a series of dreadful piercing shrieks, altogether not occupying less than half an hour.

Next day the whole establishment gave warning, and were reluctantly dismissed by Mrs Ricketts, who took the precaution of making them sign their names as witnesses to a short account which she noted in a book, in which she afterwards kept a regular journal of the transactions of each night, continuing the practice of making every servant she dismissed (and she seldom prevailed on one to remain long with her), as well as the few guests whom compassion for her forlorn state induced to come to her, sign their names for a testimony of what they heard—for nothing was ever seen.

I am not sure whether these horrors were repeated every night, but certainly so frequently as to leave Mrs. Ricketts neither peace nor quiet, and to produce agitation which affected her health. She had been in this state more than a twelvemonth when Mrs. Gwyn came to pay her a visit. She was much shocked at the altered appearance of Mrs. Ricketts. She had flattered herself that the accounts which she had received from her friend were exaggerated. However, when the usual period arrived, the whole routine went on, and Mrs. Gwyn was terrified to a degree which left her only in astonishment that Mrs. Ricketts could have endured so much and so long.

I remember her saying that the first burst of noise was as loud as if three or four carpenters had been employed: the whispering conversation often seemed to be close to her ear; and the soft music she compared to the tones produced by a then celebrated player on the musical glasses (Cartwright); the shrieks which closed the whole so sharp as to rend the ear. I remember the comparison the more distinctly, because I had been taken a few days before to hear the performance of Cartwright on the musical glasses.

Indeed every particular of Mrs. Gwyn's narration is as vividly present to my imagination as if I had only heard it an hour ago; and the frequent repetitions I have since heard of it from my two aunts, who were also her auditors, have engraved every iota on my mind.

Mrs. Gwyn, though very sufficiently scared, would have remained with her friend the few days she had promised, if her maid, a valuable faithful servant, had not been made so ill by terror that she could not in common charity oblige her to remain after the second night, when a repetition ensued. She therefore pursued her journey, after having added her signature to the book, which she described as then containing many pages. I remember that my aunt asked her whether Mrs. Ricketts would publish this book, and she replied that, should her friend survive Sir John Jervis (afterwards Lord St. Vincent) and Colonel Luttrell (afterwards Lord Carhampton), she believed it was her intention to do so. Mrs. Ricketts died some years ago at a very advanced age.

Mrs. Gwyn then went on to relate the substance of a correspondence which she kept up with Mrs. Ricketts, recording a circumstance, which took place not long after she left her. The bedroom which Mrs. Ricketts occupied was separated from the nursery by a wide passage, the doors of the two rooms being exactly opposite. Mrs. Ricketts slept alone, and had a light burning on the hearth. One night, soon after she was in bed, she heard a heavy foot leap (as it seemed to her) from the window seat and walk slowly to the side of her bed, where it stopped.

The curtain was drawn on that side, and she instantly threw herself out of the opposite side next the door, and standing in the doorway to prevent anyone from escaping, called for the nurse. The alarm was instantly given. While the nurse remained with her mistress upon guard, the nursery-maid summoned the rest of the servants; a strict search was then made, but nothing could be found to account for the sound which had roused Mrs. Ricketts.

Next day an old carpenter of the neighbourhood desired to speak to her, and to mention a circumstance which had occurred during the residence of Mrs. Legge. He said he had been employed and well paid by old Robin, the butler, for a job which was done in his presence and after every other person in the house was asleep. It was to take up a plank in one of the bedrooms, and saw away a joist so as to give room for a small deal box about two feet long, which the old butler deposited under the floor, and then the carpenter restored the plank and joined it as well as he could.

He said he had been sworn to secrecy, but as the parties were dead and gone, he thought he might safely mention a circumstance which he could not help believe might have some concern with the disturbances.

Mrs. Ricketts made him lead the way, and he went to her apartment, and lifting up the carpet at the very spot where it appeared to her the heavy step paused, he showed her the joining of the plank: by her desire it was taken up, and the joist, according to his account, was found removed, and an empty space remained sufficient to contain such a box as he had described. If it had been there, it had been removed ; no trace of it remained. You may suppose what the box was suspected to contain.

The only other event I recollect was the return of Sir J. Jervis to England, his visit to his sister Mrs. Ricketts, his grief at finding her in such a state of health and nerves, and his determination to remove her from a place where he was convinced there was some foul play. He took upon himself the risk of the displeasure of Captain Ricketts, who had expended a large sum in settling his family, and whose apprehended censure had deterred his wife from quitting the residence where he had placed her.

Sir John would not even suffer his sister to sleep another night under the roof, but removed her and her children to a farm-house in the neighbourhood, with every servant belonging to them. He determined, with his friend Colonel Luttrell, to watch through the night, and detect the imposture which be was convinced had been carried on.

The ground-floor consisted of a large hall and two parlours, one on either side: in these parlours the friends, well armed and lighted, established themselves, and at the usual hour the noises began. They both rushed into the hall, each angrily accusing the other of an attempt to play a foolish trick; but as soon as they met they were aware the noise proceeded from other quarters; the plank-tearing, the whispering, the soft music, the shrieks went on in the usual succession, and after an active search all over the house they were obliged to acknowledge themselves baffled.

Mrs. Ricketts never returned to the house except for a few mornings, which were devoted to packing, &c. &c. One of these mornings she sat down to rest in the housekeeper's room; her brother sat with her, leaning against a large press which had just been emptied of its contents. They were both startled by a noise close to their ears, which she compared to that of dry bones rattling in a box. Sir John threw open the door of the press, exclaiming,' The Devil is here, and we shall have him:' however, nothing appeared, and this forms the last link of my chain.

A young friend, who saw much of Lord St. Vincent in his latter days, told me he was extremely angry whenever the subject was alluded to; and Mrs. Gwyn said Mrs. Ricketts was ever averse to the discussion, though she never refused to answer any question that was put to her.

And now having told my tale, I must protest my utter disbelief of any supernatural agency. Had I written this during the first fifteen, nay, perhaps twenty, years of my life, I could not have made any such declaration; for this story was the nightmare of my existence, from the age of eleven to that of discretion— if I ever have attained that happy period. I consider it as one of the best planned and executed deceptions I ever heard of, for whatever purpose it might have been wrought. I do not believe the plot has ever been discovered, though the general idea is, I think, that it was to further the purposes of a gang of smugglers.

Editor’s notes
* One of the beautiful Misses Horneck, Goldsmith's friends. She married Colonel Gwyn, and died at a very advanced age in 1840. She was a strong-minded and clear-headed, woman.
** The story is slightingly mentioned as wanting evidence in
Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, p. 348. In writing these Letters, Sir Walter evidently laboured under the apprehension of being suspected of undue credulity; and the book has consequently been pretty generally set down as a failure.
*** The speaker is Mrs. Hughes throughout.
**** This imputation is not confirmed by the family annals. The lady died in 1763.

The daughter of Mrs. Ricketts married the seventh Earl of Northesk ; and I learn from her grandson, Vice-Admiral the Honourable Swynfen Carnegie, that the foregoing narrative substantially corresponds with the traditional impressions of the family ; except that a box containing the bones of a child was found in the spot indicated by the carpenter, and that it was Captain Luttrell, R.N., who watched with Lord St. Vincent. Admiral Carnegie says that neither of them would state what passed in their presence or hearing, but that Lord St. Vincent insisted on his sister's quitting the house immediately. The mystery has never been cleared up, and the site of the house is now a cultivated field.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a famous story - almost as well-known as that of Borley Rectory. The house described was in Hinton Ampner, Hampshire. In other accounts, apparitions were seen by Mrs.Ricketts and servants - a woman in a taffeta dress, and a man in 'drab' (grey). I was under the impression that the story was given credence, due to Mrs.Ricketts' general integrity. A photo exists of the present house, taken from the site of the haunted one.

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