Devilish Denham ? Surely not 🎃👻🎃
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Autumn, the harvest season, has arrived and in normal years would bring the prospect of celebrating various fun festivals with friends and family. In 2020 with the Covid-19 virus still around families and villagers are looking for new activities to enjoy while remaining safe from infection. As Halloween approaches, displays of carved pumpkins and scarecrows may still be possible. In this post, we consider the origins of this October festival, look back at some of the reported fun from other years and ghostly village tales.
The story of Halloween
There are assumptions that we in the UK have simply adopted Halloween from America where it is a major festival. However, its roots, in fact go back about 2000 years to the Gaelic festival known as Samhain. Samhain marked the halfway point of the year between the light of summer and the dark of winter. It was the end of the growing season and it was believed that at this time, at the end of October and the beginning of November, spirits could pass easily between this world and the next. It was a time for remembering ancestors, inviting their spirits back to the family home while trying to keep the more harmful ones away. For protection from harm it was customary to wear costumes and masks of evil spirits. There were communal bonfires to ward off evil spirits and feasting for all, with the less well-off receiving food left for the departed. Home fires were lit from the embers of the communal ones for added protection.
The Christian festival of All Saints or All Hallows followed by All Souls days on the first two days of November replaced the Celtic festival of honouring the dead. The night before, All Hallows Evening (October 31st), was regarded as the time when evil spirits would return to earth and as with the pagan tradition, dressing up was regarded as a form of protection preventing the wearer from being recognised. Lanterns were lit to ward off evil spirits. Hence the tradition of hollowing out vegetables such as turnips, potatoes or pumpkins and placing candles inside. These are often referred to as Jack O’ Lanterns, supposedly originating from an Irish legend about a man nicknamed ‘Stingy Jack.’ This is how the story is told on the history.com website -
“According to the legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.
“Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.
“Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
During the time of the famine in Ireland in the 1840s, large numbers emigrated from Ireland to America taking their traditions with them. Carving pumpkins coincided nicely with harvest time in America. By the end of the 19th century Halloween was celebrated across America.
Halloween in Britain today is celebrated in ways very similar to those in America except that here all the outfits are of witches, ghouls, ghosts and other similarly horror characters. Today, children ask for treats, which are usually sweets or money but unlike in America the goodies are for them and not for charity. Most householders have sweets ready to hand out thereby avoiding being tricked in some way by the children. The phrase ‘trick or treat’ is probably 20th century American but the tradition is very much old world, not new. For safety reasons, parents often accompany their children hovering at the gates of neighbours who have usually agreed to their visit. These days in the UK, hosting an adult Halloween party is popular.
It has been difficult to find many experiences local to Denham of these customs prior to the 1980s. Those interviewed recall little other than attending the occasional party and “bobbing” for apples. This is a game of trying to grab an apple with the teeth from a bowl of water thought to have been originally a match-making game but in living memory no more than a game of fun.
We do have one more detailed recollection Halloween in Denham. Alastair recalls:
“The autumn meant Halloween to me and has always been a favourite. Going trick or treating around the village, always pretty dark, was such fun if scary. One of the houses in Ashmead Lane had a doll in an upstairs window and we were too scared to shine a torch up there. Somehow, I loved being scared by the tales we were told. At cubs I remember dressing up as a vampire with lots of effective make-up. I really looked good until we played apple bobbing and all the make-up was washed off.”
There was one occasion when Alastair was about six years old and, dressed as a frightening ghoul, opened the door to the would-be ‘trick or treaters’. As the door creaked open, the visitors were far more frightened than the householders and their screams could be heard all down the street. On another occasion, when much older, he put on his Michael Myers outfit and his friend put on the Scream mask. They then proceeded to the cinema in Gerrard’s Cross and infiltrated all sorts of rooms including the projection room terrifying and amusing an assortment of employees and cinema-goers. Returning to his friend’s car they discovered the keys well and truly locked on the ignition so spent the next two hours - in full costume - unpicking the lock etc to get in. Succeeding, they drove to the cinema in Uxbridge and waited for people to come out of the latest Halloween film showing. They then lurked about the stairs and car park, appearing from behind pillars much to the delight and amusement of all. Those who had just seen the character on screen were apparently very appreciative of the surprises and double takes they caused. Both remained in character and used all the appropriate mannerisms.
Ghostly Village Tales.
As might be expected of a village with so much history, Denham has no shortage of ghostly stories. Here are a few. Please add your own with a ‘Comment’ or by email to email@example.com.
Is that a girl or just a shadow ?
“Although no one in the family has seen it, rumours have it that there is a girl or
woman ghost who has been seen walking in the house. Twice, people who previously lived here and stopped by for a visit have mentioned this.”
The ghost left
“I reluctantly acknowledge that we did have ghosts. Shortly after we first moved in, we moved a bookcase in front of the door which had been the main door to the street. As we began some remodelling work, men’s glasses and telephones went missing and no one admitted to taking them. And again, about 16 years later, I was in an upstairs bedroom in an old four-poster bed by myself and my dogs. I distinctly recall being awakened by a sudden coldness in the room when a figure appeared at the bottom of my bed. The dogs and I were terrified as I tried to determine whether it was a light shining in the window? Was I awake or not? It happened quite often after that first time…this appearance of a figure (probably a man) with long hair, dressed in a long old robe! This apparition went on for several years and during that time, I wondered if I should engage the figure in a conversation…but was advised never to do so.” Sometimes it was a guest of ours who prayed that the ghost would go back to where it came from. That night, there was such a horrific sound…so loud that it almost shook the house…it wasn’t a scream, but rather a loud eerie noise…and the ghost disappeared. To date, it has not returned…perhaps not talking to it was good advice.”
The lonely child
“It seems the birth of our son in 1977 ended the “presence” of two ghostly spirits: I recall when I would sit in my special chair in the living room, I sensed something passing in front of me…enough to move the air. My husband admitted that several times he had sensed someone following him while he was in the garden. We don’t believe in ghosts, but we both admit there seems to be no other explanation. Perhaps the children we know were here in the 1700s were lonesome…until our son was born.”
Electra and the pianist
“Over the years we have had various encounters with ghosts. The majority of these interactions have ranged from slightly eerie to funny with only the occasional heart-thumping fright.
“The ghost we encounter most is a mischievous entity we have dubbed ‘Electra’ due to her love of messing with electronics. Once in the middle of the night a radio was suddenly on, its volume loud, making it sound like a group of people were in the house. Early one morning my husband and I were startled awake by a long disused VCR whirring in fast-forward mode — with no tape inside. Set alarms don’t go off and lights flicker for no apparent reason. Nothing sinister, just annoying.
“Occasionally a second spirit, definitely not Electra, will make a visit. This one likes to play the piano. A number of times I have questioned the children over breakfast asking which one of them had been up in the middle of the night practicing the piano. It was never them. And usually they had heard the music as well — assuming it was the other sister doing the playing.
“When one daughter was around 10 yrs old one of her friends came over to visit. As the little wisp of a girl excitedly voiced her hope to encounter one of our ghosts— the lights in the room we were standing in flicked off, plunging us into darkness. Our little guest was absolutely thrilled. The execution was so perfect we credit the elderly gentleman wearing an army uniform often found in the corner of that particular room.”
The woman in the window
Our son is convinced that he saw the figure of an elderly lady in the window of the old farm building when it was certainly unoccupied. He was so sure that he gave her a wave - and sure enough, she waved back.
The Denham Place Exorcisms
And we can conclude these tales of things that go bump in the night with a story for which there is historical record.
Elizabethan England was a deeply divided country. Protestantism has been spreading throughout Europe during the 16th century and Elizabeth’s father King Henry VIII had established himself as head of the church in England replacing the Catholic Pope. His daughter, Mary, who took the throne in 1553, tried over her five year reign to return the country to traditional Catholicism with a series of executions and burnings of “heretics”. Elizabeth, her half sister who succeeded Mary in 1558 then tried to steer a thin line between Catholicism and Protestantism and, with the help of a network of spies and informants, was successful at least in keeping her throne until her natural death in 1603. Economically, the country prospered from the explorations of the merchant adventurers she encouraged and the threat of conquest from Catholic Spain was seen off.
But threat from within, from both from the Catholic faithful and from Protestant extremism was never far from the throne. Catholic plotters were not above trying to scare people way from their Protestant beliefs and back into the Catholic fold by preying on their superstitious fears. Such a plot came to Denham in the winter of 1585/86.
A small group of Catholic conspirators led by John Ballard and Anthony Babington (of a family within the ancestry of the teller of this tale) plotted the assassination of Elizabeth and her replacement by her Catholic cousin Mary, then Queen of Scots. Restoration of traditional Catholicism following the assassination would require the support or at least the acquiescence of the people and so there began a clandestine campaign to alarm the people against maintaining the Protestant faith. The history of these events written by Samuel Harsnett in 1603 has the title “A Description of Egregious Popish Impostures to withdraw the harts of Her Majestie’s Subjects from their allegance and from the truth of Christian Religion professed in England under the pretence of casting out devils.”
Harsnett tells how a Jesuit priest, name of Edmunds alias Weston, whose very presence in England made him liable to arrest for treason before he even started on the capital offence of conducting exorcisms, nonetheless by some means persuaded six of our local forbears to submit to the considerable horrors and pains of exorcism as they claimed to be the victims of demonic possession. The exorcisms took place at the stately residence of the Catholic merchant adventurer Sir George Peckham, Denham Place. Four at least were mere teenagers, Sara Williams (15) and her sister Frideswid (17) both Protestants and local servants and Annie Smith and Richard Wainey, both 18 year old Catholics. All four subsequently confessed to faking. The records of the other two are lost.
The exorcisms attracted large crowds to Denham, amongst them no less than Thomas Babington himself, to witness all kinds of vile and disgusting manifestations of demonic possession heavily accented with condemnations of Elizabeth and her courtiers as the Devil’s faithful servants. It was Mainey who put on the finest show before finally causing his possessor, a demon by the name of Modu, first to present for the crowd an enactment of the seven deadly sins, and then to turn on the priestly conspirators exposing their fraudulent intent. The Denham Exorcism conspiracy of course promptly collapsed. Elizabeth’s spymaster, Thomas Walsingham, had been watching the conspirators’ antics for some time. The Jesuit Weston found himself entertained behind bars for 10 years at Her Majesty’s pleasure and Babington, the traitor, suffered the worst excesses of Elizabethan execution. As for Denham Place, that was forfeited to the Crown to repay Sir George Peckham's debts. Elizabeth had no reservations in foreclosing on the property to recover what she was owed. in 1595 Elizabeth favoured Sir William Bowyer by granting Denham Place to him. Deprived of his estate in Denham Sir George Peckham died in 1608.
So ended Denham’s infamous brush with the Devil’s dark forces. By comparison, its ghosts seem to be a docile bunch.
Samuel Harsnett’s book and its description of the exorcisms is believed to have been a significant influence on William Shakespeare, especially in his presentation of madness and demonic possession in King Lear. How good it would be to see, one day a performance of Lear on the Village Green where no doubt the crowds once stood to watch the also acted displays of devilry.
The Celtic roots of Halloween - https://www.newgrange.com/samhain.htm
British Library website - https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-declaration-of-egregious-popish-impostures-by-samuel-harsnett-1603
Cover photo of the Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures - The British Library