Great Hawkwell Wood at Hockley was once notorious for its ‘shrieking boy’.

In the wood was an oak tree known as ‘the double tree’ as it divided into two trunks, joining again above the ground. Philip Benton, in The History of Rochford Hundred (1867), says:

The neighbourhood of this tree was believed at one time by the weak and credulous to be haunted, as being at, or near the spot, where a woman is said to have killed her child, and during the night noises were heard resembling ‘Oh mother, mother, don’t kill me.’

People used to come for miles to listen to the ‘shrieking boy’, whose voice would retreat when followed. Various hoaxers, including a ventriloquist, played on people’s fears, evidently for money, and eventually the haunting was looked into, and a nearby pond was dragged.

Finally, a horned owl was identified as the source of the ‘shrieking boy’s’ cries and it was shot. Benton quotes Gilbert White in his Natural History of Selborne (1789) on the subject of owls as saying, ‘I have known a whole village up in arms from the snore and hisses of the white owl, imagining the churchyard to be full of goblins and spectres.’

We do not have to accept the owl story as true: disclaimers attributing what had appeared a supernatural event to natural causes are sometimes built into their narrations by storytellers not wanting to appear credulous.



Haunted England : The Penguin Book of Ghosts – Written by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson
Copyright © Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson 2005, 2008