For several generations the owners of this manor house near Bridport (who, until recently, were the Pinney family) have declared that its luck depends on a certain skull, the true age and history of which is unknown. The house itself was built around 1694, replacing an Elizabethan one. The skull was first described in 1847 by Mrs Anna Maria Pinney; it rested on a beam in an attic, near a main chimney, and she was told it brought good luck ‘and while this skull is kept, no ghost will ever invade Bettiscombe’. Later, a niche was made for it in the attic; by the 1980s, it was being kept in a cardboard shoebox in the study, but still fairly close to a chimney. This may well reflect old customs, for when objects credited with magical powers of protection are hidden in buildings, they are often in the brickwork of a chimney, or in the roof-space, to guard these vulnerable points from supernatural attack.
J. S. Udal, a Dorset antiquarian, wrote to Notes and Queries about the skull in 1872, saying it had remained in place because of a belief ‘that if it be brought out of the house, the house itself would rock to its foundation, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.’ In a further letter he added that he had been told it was the skull of ‘a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property, a Pinney, who, having resided abroad some years, brought home this memento of a faithful follower’. Udal’s informant was an eighty-year-old woman who had often stayed at the manor in her youth and had ‘learnt and treasured up the legend’.
Later sources identify this Pinney as Azariah Pinney, transported to Nevis in the West Indies for supporting Monmouth’s rebellion in 1685; he bought a plantation, and returned home a rich man early in the eighteenth century. Unlike Udal’s informant, these sources say Pinney brought the black man to England alive, as his servant. Here he soon fell ill, and asked that his body be taken back to Nevis after death. His request was ignored, and he was buried in the local churchyard; at once, the house was plagued with bad luck and ghostly noises. The body was exhumed and decapitated, and the skull placed in the attic with instructions that it must never be removed; oddly, this put an end to the trouble.
In the 1880s, Udal re-examined the skull, concluding that it looked like a woman’s, not a man’s (as was confirmed by scientists in 1963); indeed, some informants told him it was the remains of a woman imprisoned or murdered in the attic. He also recorded a story that one of the owners had thrown the skull into a pond, but a few days later went stealthily to fish it out again and put it back in its place, for, though he was embarrassed to admit it, he had been ‘disturbed by all kinds of noises’.
Meanwhile, other outsiders had been taking an interest. In the 1880s, Udal noted that ‘the legend has gained both in volume and romance. It has now, I understand – and this without any justification from local sources – gained the reputation of being a “Screaming Skull”.’ This term has since become firmly established; one farm worker in the 1960s claimed that he used to hear it ‘screaming like a trapped rat in the attic’. Further variations developed in the twentieth century. Some now say the servant was beaten to death by his master, or imprisoned in a barred recess by the fireplace; some believe that the skull sweats blood before national calamities.
Possibly, it could be prehistoric – a curio from some local archaeological dig. Whatever its true origin, it still features prominently in local tradition, journalism, and TV documentaries.