One of the finest tales of ghost-laying in the region is shared between Bagbury on the English side of the Border, and Hyssington, just across the border in old Montgomeryshire (Wales). There are two excellent renderings of it dating from the Victorian period. One was told to Charlotte Burne, the great collector of Shropshire folklore, in 1881 by an old farmer named Hayward; Hayward had heard it some sixty years previously from the parish clerk of Hyssington, who claimed to remember the blind parson who was responsible for laying the ghost. The other version was printed earlier, in 1860, by the antiquarian Thomas Wright.
Both versions agree that the story starts in Bagbury, with the death of a particularly wicked farmer or squire (neither his name nor his dates are given) who made his men work over hours, swore at them, and gave them nothing to drink. Charlotte Burne was told that ‘he had never done but two good things in his life, and the one was to give a waistcoat to a poor old man, and the other was to give a piece of bread and cheese to a poor boy, and when this man died he made a kind of confession of this.’ His spirit reappeared in the form of a huge, savage bull which haunted the farm, terrifying people with its flaming eyes and sharp horns, and roaring ‘till the boards and the shutters and the tiles would fly off the building, and it was impossible for anyone to live near him’. Some called him the Roaring Bull of Bagbury, and others the Flayed Bull, for the phantom creature was said to be skinless. He also occasionally appeared in human shape, as a ‘black man’ (demonic, presumably, rather than of African descent). Late one night a servant was alarmed to see the locked back door burst open and the black man walk through the kitchen and out by the front door, which also opened of its own accord, though locked; the servant relocked both doors, but the same thing happened again and again, all through that night. To put an end to this reign of terror, an exorcism was required.
According to Wright’s version, people came to Bagbury from miles around and, led by a single parson, surrounded the Bull and drove him towards Hyssington, and finally into the church there, while the parson read texts to him all the way, and the Bull continually grew smaller and tamer. But it was a slow process, and night came on, and there was only one candle stump available. When it burned out, and the parson could read no longer, the Bull (which by then was no larger than a dog) started to grow again till it filled the church and burst the wall. But next day the parson and people returned with plenty of candles, and this time they made the bull so small that they could bind him up in a boot.
They then buried him deep under the door-stone, where he lies to this day. There are believers in this story who affirm that were the stone to be loosed the bull would come forth again, by many degrees worse than he was at the first, and that he could never again be laid.
In the other version of the tale, that given to Charlotte Burne in the 1880s by Farmer Hayward, a whole group of parsons, nine or twelve of them, assembled in Hyssington church for the exorcism, carrying lighted candles. But the Bull ‘made a great rush’ and every candle but one was blown out, the exception being that of one old blind parson who, knowing what was likely to happen, had put his candle inside his top-boot. The others relit their candles from his, and then, despite the Bull’s attacks (which made the wall crack), they resumed the praying.
Well, they got the bull down at last, into a snuff-box, and he asked them to lay him under Bagbury Bridge, and that every mare that passed over it should lose her foal, and every woman her child; but they would not do this, and they laid him in the Red Sea for a thousand years. I remember the old clerk at Hyssington. He was an old man then, sixty years ago [1820s], and he told me he could remember the old blind parson well.