16 March 2014


David Clarke. Scared to Death and Other Ghost Stories from Victorian Sheffield. ACM Retro, 2013.
Many books of local ghost stories consist of either vague rumours of the “it is said” variety, or tales of “vigils” held by organisations with strange sounding names, usually accompanied by a tame psychic or two. Not so this book, in which folklorist, historian and journalist David Clarke shows how it should be done.
Clarke combines accounts from the local newspapers of the period, increasingly opened up by the British Library’s excellent newspaper site, with the works of the Victorian folklorists and alongside his own expertise as a local historian. The book is well illustrated with period photographs. It provides a valuable portrait of a community where beliefs are in transition, from the largely rural folklore of boggards, barghasts and Gabriel hounds to such new movements as Mormonism and Spiritualism.

The latter two are at the centre of the story which gives the book its title; the death in February 1855, apparently by the shock of seeing a ghost in a cellar, of Hannah Rallison, a 48 year old labourer’s wife. This ghost had first been seen by Harriet Ward, a 31 year old shopkeeper’s widow who had dabbled in Spiritualism and had recently converted to Mormonism, in the cellar of the family she was lodging with. This spectre at first appeared to be motivated by the need to show where buried treasure was laid, a traditional ghost story motif, later on the ghost became a murder victim out for revenge. Another classic motif and, of course, basically the same one that led to the birth of the spiritualist movement. Harriet Ward became involved in 'telepathic' communications with the said ghost, and in many ways seems to have been a prototype of the ghost hunting psychic of modern time.

In what was a fairly typical experience of the time, the area, Campo Lane, became filled with flash mobs, including the local muggers. There were a number of such incidents in Sheffield in the Victorian period, and dealing with ghosts, real, imagined or fraudulent seems have been such a regular experience, that on his retirement as the doyen of Sheffield police force, Detective Inspector Jacob Bradbury was described as “a scourge of apparitions ... who won’t let a poor ghost live in his division”.

It is not surprising that among the apparitions haunting Victorian Sheffield was our old friend Springheel(ed) Jack, whose chief local hangout was at Broomhill Park. Clarke notes wryly that Jacks legend grew so in the local area, that one Internet site has him jumping over a 1960s tower block! Perhaps more surprising is that Sheffield had its own version of the Devil’s Hoofprints, in the garden of a Loxley solicitor, Mr Blackwell, a couple of months after those in Devon.

Clarke’s portrait of Victorian Sheffield could stand in for many of the northern towns of the period; many of the inhabitants were first or second generation migrants from a countryside that was still easily accessible, and from which the old beliefs, documented by local folklorists such as Sydney Oldhall Addy, Henry Tatton and John Holland, had yet not been completely eliminated by the elementary schools and the railways. What Clarke shows is that there really isn’t a clear distinction between modern 'urban folklore' and the folklore of tradition; nor have there really been any ccult revivals' because the thing never went away. Fairies and witches become boggarts; boggarts become ghosts and poltergeists, which in turn become aliens, just as jack o'lanterns become airships and then spaceships.

Highly recommended not only to Sheffield folk but to all interested in ghost stories, folklore and the history of urbanisation. It would nice to see this book inspire others to do similar studies of their own towns. -- Peter Rogerson

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