Tarrant Gunville

This village can boast of a vivid ghost legend recorded in the 1880s, the modern versions of which have developed hints of vampirism. The ghost is that of a certain William Doggett who in the eighteenth century was the steward of Eastbury House, the seat of Lord Melcombe. According to the traditions recorded by John H. Ingram in 1884, Doggett had long been defrauding his employer, and when this was found out he shot himself in one of the rooms of the mansion, leaving an indelible bloodstain on its marble floor. This, as local historian Edward Griffiths has pointed out, is chronologically impossible, for Eastbury House was demolished between 1775 and 1782, and its supposedly defrauded owner, Lord Melcombe, had died in 1762, whereas the date of death of Doggett himself was 1786. But tradition insisted that his ghost continued to haunt the area, headless, driving round the park in a phantom coach – which some said was drawn by headless horses and driven by a headless coachman. When this arrived at the mansion, Doggett would dismount and re-enter the house, where he would shoot himself once again, in the same room as before.

Taken alone, these rather commonplace details would not explain why Doggett’s ghost appears in several modern books on the supernatural. But Ingram’s informant, a Miss M. F. Billington who collected local folklore, had also heard something more striking from her own informant. About forty years previously, in 1843–5, the old parish church had been thoroughly repaired and restored, and in the course of the work some old vaults were demolished. Miss Billington said:

The old man who told me much of this story, said it fell to his share to pull Doggett’s vault to pieces. They found the self-murdered man’s body in a fair state of preservation, and the course of the bullet from the jaw through the head was distinctly visible. The old man described him as ‘a short, ginger-haired man’. His legs had been tied together with a broad yellow ribbon, which was as fresh and brightly coloured as when it was buried. My informant added that he had abstracted a piece of the ribbon, and a lock of the hair, which he had kept as curiosities for many years and much regretted that he had not got them still to show me.

This account, it should be noted, is not presented as supernatural; it is not uncommon for bodies in vaults to be ‘in a fair state of preservation’, and the old man who saw the corpse expresses no surprise at the presence of the ribbon, only at its freshness. Tying feet or legs together was a normal procedure in laying out a corpse. Some later writers, however, found these details reminiscent of vampire beliefs from south-east Europe, which became known in England through literary channels in the nineteenth century. Charles Harper, for instance, in 1907, declared that ‘the credulous country folk averred that he was a vampire’; A. D. Hippisley Coxe repeated this claim in 1973 and also speculated that the ribbon was an attempt to prevent Doggett from walking after death. There is no necessity for such a dramatic interpretation.

Another line of development in recent decades is signalled by a version collected orally by Kingsley Palmer in the 1970s from an informant who, after speaking of the phantom coach, ended with ‘quite some time ago blue ribbons were found on one of the tombs in the churchyard. They were thought to be the driver’s garters.’ This seems to be influenced by versions of the modern urban legend of the Vanishing Hitchhiker, where some item of clothing left draped over a tombstone is subsequently discovered and serves as proof of the ghost’s reality.



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

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