Jabez Allies, writing in 1852, recalled a tradition of his boyhood, which on his evidence seems to have been current in the eighteenth century:
I well remember, in my juvenile days, hearing old people speak of a spectre that formerly appeared in the parish of Leigh, in this county, which they called ‘Old Coles’. They said that he frequently used, at dead of night, to ride as swift as the wind down that part of the public road between Bransford and Brocamin, called Leigh Walk, in a coach drawn by four horses, with fire flying out of their nostrils; and that they invariably dashed right over the great barn at Leigh Court, and then on into the river Teme. It was likewise said that this perturbed spirit was at length laid in a neighbouring pool by twelve parsons, by the light of an inch of candle; and, as he was not to rise again until the candle was quite burned out, it was, therefore, thrown in to the pool, and to make all sure the pool was filled up …
The ghost that haunts a particular stretch of road and the ghost laid in a pool have many parallels, but this particular haunting has a slight basis in history. The manor of Leigh, which belonged to the abbots of Pershore, at the Dissolution of the Monasteries came into the hands of the king. In the reign of Elizabeth I it was sold to Edmund Colles, a county justice, whose family had been tenants of the estate since the time of the abbots. But they were soon to lose it at the hands of another Edmund Colles, the first Edmund’s grandson, who sold it to meet his debts, and who is generally identified as the ‘Old Coles’ of the story. Remorse for severing a centuries-old family connection may have been deemed the cause of Edmund’s restless spirit – but in his day any unpopular landowner might be remembered as a ghost of the worst description.
A crime is sometimes laid at Edmund’s door as a cause of the haunting, but Allies says nothing of this, so it may be a later addition. In this version, it is said that the sale of his house and land was not enough to clear his debts, so he turned to robbery. One dark night, knowing that a friend of his would be riding home from Worcester to Cradley with a large sum of money, he ambushed him on the road, clutching at the horse’s bridle to drag it to a halt. But the man slashed with his sword at the masked robber’s arm, and broke free. Reaching home, he was horrified to find a severed hand still entangled in the bridle, and even more horrified to recognize on its little finger the signet ring of his friend Colles.
Next day he went to Leigh Court, where Colles, whose hand was indeed severed at the wrist, confessed his crime and begged to be forgiven. The friend willingly forgave him, and Colles died soon after from loss of blood.
Quite apart from its place in local tradition, this story is of interest to folklorists because the severed hand caught in the bridle foreshadows the plot of two modern urban legends well known in Britain and America. In one, some louts try to hijack a car while it is waiting at traffic lights, and one has his fingers torn off when it accelerates away; the driver later finds them caught in the radiator grille or some other part of the car. In the second tale, a one-handed maniac with a hook is about to open the door of a car where two courting teenagers are sitting when they unexpectedly drive off; when they get home, they find his hook dangling from the door handle.
The unfortunate Edmund may be seen in Leigh parish church – one of the twelve children surrounding his father William’s tomb. The tithe barn over which Old Coles used to drive his coach and horses is still standing at Leigh Court Farm. At about 141 feet (43 m) long and 35 feet (10.7 m) wide, it is the world’s largest timber cruck-barn, built around 1300 as a storage barn for Pershore abbey. As both a Grade I listed building and a scheduled ancient monument, it is maintained and managed by English Heritage.