Passenham is, or was, much haunted. Frightful shrieks were said to be heard coming from the millpond: these are the screams of a woman called Nancy Webb, who, finding herself pregnant, threw herself into the race and was crushed to death by the mill wheel.
At the bottom of the mill dam may be ‘laid’ another ghost. Jack Gould writes that his early youth was spent in Passenham, where in the 1920s he heard talk of ‘Bobby Bannister’, who, though Gould never heard of anyone who had actually seen him, was used as a bogey to frighten naughty children.
‘Bobby Bannister’ was a historical person, Sir Robert Banastre, Head of Household to Kings James I and Charles I. His bust presides over his burial place in the chancel of the parish church. A fervent Anglo-Catholic, he rebuilt his ‘faire chauncel’ in 1626 in sumptuous style, with fine woodwork, wall paintings, and a roof painted deep blue and studded with golden stars.
But despite Sir Robert’s munificence to the church, he left behind an evil reputation. In a manuscript believed written by a William Druce at the end of the nineteenth century, Banastre is said to have been owner of the manors of Passenham and Furtho, who pulled down both villages except for the churches and a farmhouse or two, to render his estate exempt from paying Poor Rates. In a versified account of his legend, we hear that he died in mid deathbed confession, with his sins upon him, and soon after his death:
… rumours strange, about were noised,
Of howlings heard, a figure seen,
In armour clad, who walked the green
And verdant meadow late at night,
Causing the villagers much fright.
As Sir Robert’s funeral procession approached the church, the bearers of his bier were aghast to hear a familiar voice saying ‘Steady! Steady! I am not ready!’ Hastily they opened the coffin, but as the corpse bore the signs of death, closed it again and proceeded to the church. But at the church porch the voice came again: ‘Steady! Steady! I am not ready!’ During the service, a series of bizarre accidents occurred and above the ensuing hubbub they heard again: ‘Steady! Steady! I am not ready!’
Hurrying through the service, they placed Sir Robert’s coffin in his tomb. But after that, the villagers became afraid to go out at night:
For scarce would even shadows fall,
And darkness close round the Churchyard wall
Than dashing along at a desperate pace,
(None e’er saw the driver’s face)
Was a coach and four with a headless team …
Oh! Who is it … utters that piercing scream
‘Steady, steady! I am not ready!’
Finally, things got so bad that the parson’s wife said he should apply for a faculty to hold a service to lay the ghost beneath the mill wheel till Doomsday. Soon bishop, canons, and rural dean all arrived and, when the time came for Sir Robert’s nightly appearance, began to read the service. At that, the ghost rose up and promised, if they stopped exorcizing him and let him work out his penance, he would never plague the village again. So the bishop bade the spirit depart in peace. ‘Sir Robert’s ghost then took its flight; / No one has seen it since that night.’ A penny pamphlet of 1856, however, gives a different ending, saying ‘six men, eminent for piety, were required to lay his spirit, once and forever afterwards, in the bottom of the mill dam.’
In T. H. White’s version, ‘Bobby Bannister’ has not been laid and still haunts the area:
Then there was Robert Bannister, the huntsman … He rides with his whole pack of hounds in full cry … and marks to ground by his grave. He broke his neck out hunting, and was dragged home dead by a frightened horse with his foot in the stirrup. So now he rides like that, a rattling skeleton behind a fiery horse, and the neck is out of joint. It is a fine sight, with the pealing of the hounds and the jolting of the bones, on a roaring north-westerly night of windy December.