In 1681, Joseph Glanvill published his treatise Saducismus Triumphatus, ‘Saduceism Defeated’ – meaning by ‘Saduceism’ the doctrine of the Sadducees mentioned in the New Testament, who denied that there is an afterlife. In this he defended the reality of the supernatural with well-attested accounts of apparitions, demons, and witchcraft. Among them was the story of the ‘Drummer of Tedworth’ (as Tidworth was spelled at that time).
Just twenty years earlier, in March 1661, John Mompesson of Tedworth, a magistrate, confiscated the drum of a vagrant called William Drury who had been wandering about for some days, beating his drum and demanding money from the town constable. The drum was later taken to Mr Mompesson’s home while he was away in London. Strange noises were heard that night, making Mrs Mompesson think there were burglars in the house. On his return, John Mompesson too heard ‘thumping and drumming on top of the house, which continued a good space, and then by degrees went off into the air’, and knockings on the external walls of the house. A few weeks later, the trouble shifted indoors, to the children’s room:
It … vexed the youngest Children, beating their Bedsteads with that violence, that all present expected when they would fall in pieces. In laying Hands on them, one should feel no blows, but might perceive them to shake exceedingly … After this, they should hear a scratching under the Childrens Bed, as if by something that had Iron Talons. It would lift the Children up in their Beds, and follow them from one Room to another …
During the time of the knocking, when many were present, a Gentleman of the Company said, Satan, if the Drummer set thee to work, give three knocks and no more, which it did very distinctly and stopt …
Another night, strangers being present, it purr’d in the Childrens Bed like a Cat, at which time also the cloaths and Children were lift up from the Bed, and six men could not keep them down … After this it would empty the Chamber-pots into their Beds, and strew them with Ashes, though they were never so carefully watcht. It put a long piked iron into Mr Mompesson’s Bed, and into his Mothers a naked Knife upright.
Poltergeist phenomena continued for two years. Meanwhile William Drury had been caught thieving, and sent to prison in Gloucester. One day in 1663 he asked a visitor if he had heard about the drumming at a gentleman’s house at Tedworth. Yes indeed, said the visitor. ‘Aye,’ said the drummer, ‘I have plagued him, and he shall never be quiet, till he hath made me satisfaction for taking away my drum.’ This was reported, and as a result the drummer was tried as a witch at Salisbury:
The fellow was condemned to Transportation, and accordingly sent away; but I know not how (’tis said by raising Storms and affrighting the Seamen) he made shift to come back again. And ’tis observable, that during the time of his restraint and absence the House was quiet, but as soon as ever he came back at liberty, the disturbance returned. He had been a Souldier under Cromwell, and used to talk much of Gallant Books he had from an odd Fellow, who was counted a Wizzard.
The case roused great interest. Glanvill was himself one of those who went down to Tedworth while the trouble was at its height and heard scratching noises in the children’s room; since he could see their hands, and since there was no animal in the room, he ‘was then verily perswaded, and am still, that the Noise was made by some Daemon or Spirit’. Others were sceptical; it was noticed that when a Commission of Inquiry was sent from London by Charles II to investigate, nothing happened while they were there. John Aubrey recalled that Sir Christopher Wren observed that the knockings only occurred if a certain maidservant was in the next room, and that the partitions were only of thin board.
Despite its first publication in a context of theological debate, the tale has proved widely popular and appears in many books on supernatural lore in Britain.