Bungerley bridge, spanning the River Ribble near Clitheroe, replaces an old ford with stepping stones, the setting for a legend. In their Lancashire Folk-Lore, compiled in the 1860s, John Harland and T. T. Wilkinson mention it twice. The first time, they say the place is haunted by a ‘malevolent sprite’ who assumes many forms:
He is not known by any particular designation, nor are there any traditions to account for his first appearance; but at least one life every seven years is required to appease the anger of the spirit of the Ribble at this place.
In their second passage, the malevolent spirit has changed sex and acquired a name, ‘Peg (or Peggy) of the Well’ (i.e. a well in the grounds of Waddow Hall, beside the river). She was held responsible not only for drownings but for any other fatal accidents in the vicinity. A focus for the legend was a battered headless statue which stood (and still stands) beside Peggy’s Well. They write of it:
There is a mutilated stone figure by the well, which has been the subject of many strange tales and apprehensions. It was placed there when turned out of the house at Waddow, to allay the terrors of the domestics, who durst not continue under the same roof with this mis-shapen figure. It was then broken, either by accident or from design, and the head, some time ago, as is understood, was in one of the attic chambers at Waddow. Who Peggy of the Well was, tradition does not inform us.
Some years later, another Victorian collector, William Henderson, was told that Peg was the ghost of a servant girl at Waddow Hall. One wintry night she was sent out to draw water from the well, or (in other versions) from the river itself; she slipped on the ice and broke her neck (or fell in the river and drowned). She had initially refused to go, saying she was afraid of falling, but her mistress just said, ‘Get along with you! And may you break your neck indeed!’ From then on, every accident, sickness or other misfortune at Waddow Hall, and indeed throughout the district, was blamed on Peggy’s ghost. This is now the standard version of the story.
As for the statue itself, Harland and Wilkinson were told that it was originally a Catholic image of some saint, brought to Waddow Hall after the Reformation but regarded by later owners with ‘distrust and aversion’ and so banished to the well. They were also given an amusing account of how it lost its head. At one time the Hall belonged to a Mrs Starkie, who had a great admiration for Puritan preachers – a detail which would point to the seventeenth century. She had sent for a preacher to exorcize her ten-year-old son who was thought to be either possessed by a demon or tormented by Peggy. The night was stormy, and the preacher had not arrived. She sent servants to look for him, fearing he might have fallen in the river, as indeed he had:
In a few minutes two trusty men-servants returned, panting under the huge weight of the dripping parson. He told his tale. ‘Tis Peg’, she suddenly exclaimed, ‘at her old tricks! This way, all!’ She hurried from the apartment, rushed into the garden, where Peggy stood quiet enough near a spring, and with one blow of an axe, which she had seized in her passage, severed Peggy’s head from her body.
By the end of the nineteenth century, further elaborations were being reported. The Yorkshire folklorist Thomas Parkinson, writing in 1889, said it was believed that ‘Peg O’ Nell’ claimed a life on ‘Peg’s Night’ every seven years (he does not say what date this is), and that people would deliberately drown an animal to placate her, otherwise some human being would surely die in the river before morning. He tells of a young man who arrived at dusk and insisted on crossing the ford, even though the locals warned him that this was the fateful night, and that no animal had yet been drowned; a sudden rush of water swept his horse downstream, and both horse and rider perished.