Something happens to me once the clock strikes 12 on 25th December. Maybe it’s a response to the sugar rush that comes from stealing the kids’ selection boxes, but my thoughts turn away from those Christmas lights to the darker side of local history.
I always take my ghost stories and legends with a decent pinch of salt and if they’re served with a measure of good humour too, so much the better. As such, I was delighted to discover a story in the Lichfield Mercury from Friday 2nd September 1932, called ‘The Haunted Secret Passage of Lilleshall’.
In what sounds like my ideal night out, a group of archaeologists and diviners congregated in a candle lit vault next to the so-called dungeon at Lilleshall Abbey. As they waited to hear if diggers had located an underground tunnel, ‘the sounds of the shovels and picks ‘awoke eerie echoes in the leper’s cell above’. The reason for the gathering, according to the BBC’s Domesday Reloaded site, was that in 1928 a caretaker and his family had moved into a cottage on the site and heard ghostly moaning from beneath the Abbey. At first, they attributed the sounds to the men working at Lilleshall Colliery. However, when it was discovered that the mine didn’t extend as far as the Abbey, and the son reported seeing a shadowy figure and the sounds of the pages of a book being turned, they began to suspect a more unearthly cause. A £50 prize was promised by the estate agent to anyone who could locate the subterranean passage the noises were believed to be coming from and people began turning up to try and solve the mystery in a variety of idiosyncratic ways. These included a man with a hazel twig he manipulated between his fingers, a white bearded professor, who refused to communicate with anyone and ‘went around the ruins with a little toffee hammer, sounding the ground at various places’ and an old tutor of the Duke of Sutherland, whose family owned the Abbey until 1917, who was relying on his memory to tell him where the entrance to the tunnel was.
A psychic dental surgeon from Birmingham agreed to spend a night in the dungeon. Surely if anyone was going to find an old cavity, it would be him? However, as dawn broke the following morning, he was nowhere to be found, having fled in terror. Two young men who spent the night in one of the old Abbey cells reported ghostly footsteps and ‘a monk with a high-pitched voice saying prayers in a foreign language’. Although to be honest, that could just have been the frit Brummie dentist running away.
The shenanigans also involved a Mr Noel Buxton, a member of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, who declared he was prepared to stay on-site until the tunnel was found. I didn’t see him when I visited with friends last summer, so perhaps that means it was… The reports at the time are ambiguous – in the Birmingham Gazette on Friday 26th August 1932 it was reported that in a vault next to a dungeon, a diviner received a violent shock which led to the discovery of an underground passage. However, the estate agent said it had not yet been decided whether or not it was the tunnel they were looking for.
Diviner: OMG I did it! I found an underground tunnel!
Estate Agent: Yes…but is it the right underground tunnel?
Diviner: Yes. It is a tunnel and it is underground. Now give me my £50.
Estate Agent: Yes but if it was the right tunnel it would have ghostly monks in and as you can see, this one is phantom friar free. Sorry old chap, better luck next time. Um, please put the stick down…
So, whilst the competition and the talk of haunted dungeons were a clever bit of marketing to attract tourism, it’s fair to say that the notion of a underground tunnel at Lilleshall was not entirely without foundation. As well as the diviner’s discovery, in June 1886, in Eddowes’s Journal, and General Advertiser for Shropshire, and the Principality of Wales, a correspondent writes that his mother, then aged 75, visited the Abbey as a girl and remembered stories of an underground passage said to run from the Abbey to Longford Church, or Longford Hall, and that once a heavy cart passing over Longford Fields broke into it, but ‘it was not explored on account of the air in it being so foul’. Was this the same tunnel that tuned up in the 1930s?
I am genuinely fascinated by the idea of secret tunnels and subterranean passages because everyone else is so fascinated by them! As we’ve discussed before on the blog, Lichfield is apparently riddled with them (as is pretty much every city, town and village in the country) if the stories are to be believed. And that’s the £50 question – are they?
- Fascinating article here from November 2017 about how ten out of twelve water companies in the UK use water dowsing to find leaks and pipes https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/21/uk-water-firms-admit-using-divining-rods-to-find-leaks-and-pipes
- I am available for secret tunnel hunting – you do not have to pay me £50 and I can supply my own toffee hammer too.