I recently visited the Staffordshire village of Colwich. It’s a lovely place but as is my wont, the outcome of the outing is a tale of murder and mystery.
We start our story in May 1977, when a member of the congregation of St Michael’s and All Angels took a walk through the churchyard and almost disappeared into an unmarked vault. The vicar at the time was the daring David Woodhouse who decided to descend into the dark depths to discover what, or who, was down there. Inside the vault, he found two skeletons and whilst there is nothing unusual about bones beneath a graveyard per se, there was something not quite rite about these burials. Skeleton One lay in a coffin and Rev Woodhouse mentions two odd things about it. Firstly, a small hole in the skull and secondly, the finger bones were disarticulated suggesting that this may have been a victim of both murder and grave robbery. The strangeness doesn’t stop there though as the remains of Skeleton Two are described as surrounding the coffin containing the first. One of the keywords for me here is ‘remains’, suggesting to me that this corpse may not have been complete when it was interred here.
The vicar’s theory was the vault was built for a wealthy family who fell on hard times and were then unable to afford a memorial to the two individuals resting in peace (or more aptly in one case, pieces) within it. Everyone seemed satisfied with this explanation, the hole was bricked up and, as far as I am aware, no-one has ever thought anymore about it until I read about the mysterious vault and started doing a bit of digging that is…
Back now to 18th July 1773 and a woodland just outside of Stone, Staffordshire where John Challenor and his son, also John, are working together. The two men have just eaten lunch when an argument flares up and John Jnr throws the iron cooking pot at John Snr’s head. It’s thrown with such force that once of the metal legs pierces the older man’s skull. He dies three days later and his son is sent to gaol for parricide. On 23rd August 1773 John Challenor Jnr is executed and his body taken down and hanged in chains at a spot near to the scene of his crime.
I don’t think you need to be DCI Barnaby to work out the links between this high-summer murder and the skeletons below ground at Colwich. The hole in the skull of Skeleton One clearly corresponds with the fatal injury sustained by John Challenor Snr. What’s more, the lack of a coffin together with the seemingly jumbled and incomplete nature of Skeleton Two is in keeping with a body that’s been gibbeted and later cut down and hastily buried, although not seemingly not quickly enough to prevent time, the weather or macabre souvenir hunters from starting to take their their toll. Perhaps it was the Challenors, who not only had a very literal reminder of the skeletons in their family closet displayed for all to see at a spot near Stone, but who may also have been concerned that without a Christian burial of sorts, their relative would not be resurrected to heaven but condemned to eternal damnation. Was it enough to save John Challenor’s soul though?
Thanks to information provided by Fulford Parish Council I believe I have located the place where his body was hung in chains. On their website they say ‘On the left of Hilderstone Road when travelling towards the ‘Wheatsheaf’, and just a short distance from Spot Acre cross roads, is a stand of Beech trees known locally as ‘The Rookery’. According to local lore the gibbets used to stand here, hence the overgrown lane which runs down past Idlerocks to Moddershall being called Gibbets Lane’.
Now, as regular readers of the blog will know, I love ghost stories but if you Scooby Don’t, then stop reading now as the next part of this story requires a little belief in such matters. You see, Stone lore also tells of a boggart which haunts these parts. And what on earth is a boggart I hear the non-northerners amongst you ask? Well, you know us Lichfield people love a dictionary and so I’ve looked it up in the OED and found the following definition: “A spectre, goblin, or bogy; in dialectal use, esp. a local goblin or sprite supposed to ‘haunt’ a particular gloomy spot, or scene of violence”.
Could the the boggart be the unquiet spirit of John Challenor? I mean it doesn’t get much more gloomy than having your corpse displayed on a gibbet does it? If the naysayers are still with us at this point I’m sure they’re saying, well, nay way but I’m tempted to head over there to see if I can find any more answers. In 1933, a Mr P C Dutton of Stone told members of the North Staffordshire Field Club that the boggart took the form of a dog or a calf and so this may involve me quizzing the local cows and canines to see if they’re the spectral incarnation of an 18th century murderer. More Doctor Doolally than Doolittle I know.
On a slightly more serious note, I am increasingly keen to not only share the stories which give us a sense of place but to bring something along to the party as well. I hope my version of events has given people some food for thought but as we know from the iconic Marmite, when it comes to a Staffordshire legend there is always a risk that some people might hate it 🙂