In Glimpses in the Twilight (1885), the Revd Frederick Lee reports that at West Drayton, in about 1749, the inhabitants became convinced that the vaults under the church were haunted. Strange noises were said to be heard, and the sexton of the day, ‘a person utterly devoid of superstition’, was compelled to admit that unaccountable things had occurred. Knockings had been heard from the vaults under the chancel, most often on Fridays, and people from the village used to come to hear them. They were never explained away.
The villagers formed their own theories, some saying that one person had murdered another, then committed suicide, and they had been buried side by side in the same grave (a recipe for trouble). Others said that three people from a nearby mansion had gone together to look through a ventilation grating into the vault and had seen a large raven perching on one of the coffins. This bird was seen more than once by the parish clerk, pecking at the grating and fluttering about inside the vault. On another occasion it was seen in the church itself. The wife and daughter of the parish clerk often saw it. Some bell-ringers, one evening when they came to ring the bells, were told by a youth that a raven was flying about in the chancel. Coming to the church with sticks, stones, and lanterns, the four men and two boys found it fluttering among the rafters and tried to catch it. Having been driven back and forth, and beaten with a stick, so that one of its wings was broken, it fluttered down screaming and they tried to seize it. Although it appeared exhausted and finally in their grasp, all in a moment it vanished.
In 1883, the wife of a former vicar told Dr Lee that she remembered often hearing sounds in the church like the fluttering of a large bird. Dr Lee also heard that, one Saturday afternoon in 1869, two ladies who had gone to the church with flowers each saw a great black bird perched on one of the pews – they thought it must have escaped from the Zoological Gardens or some menagerie. Some identified this bird with the murderer of the first story. Dr Lee heard through a friend from a Mrs White, whose family lived in the district from 1782 to 1818, that:
… the country folks always believed that the Spectral Bird which haunted Drayton Church was the restless and miserable spirit of a murderer who had committed suicide, and who, through family influence, instead of being put into a pit or hole, with a stake through his body at the cross-road by Harmondsworth, as was the sentence by law, had been buried in consecrated ground on the north side of the churchyard.
Fridays (the day the bird usually appeared) were traditionally unlucky, and ravens themselves were not only ominous birds but sometimes also thought to be the vehicles for the transmigration of souls (see MARAZION, Cornwall). These seem sufficient reasons why the raven should be thought to hold the spirit of a murderer, who had been buried, contrary to custom up to 1823, in consecrated ground.