EWELME - A ROMANTIC VILLAGE ITS PAST AND PRESENT. ITS PEOPLE AND ITS HISTORY.
GHOST STORIES, FAIRIES, THE WITCH, VILLAGE TRAGEDIES AND CURIOUS CUSTOMS.
Ewelme has had its ghosts, as may well be imagined. No Kings or Queens seem to have re-visited their old haunts, but there is a story of William de la Pole having appeared without his head in the Cloisters, and Duchess Alice was seen by the village school-mistress of our day - a tall lady veiled in black coming out of the manor gates and then disappearing: she was also seen wandering in the church-yard by one of the ladies of the manor.
Of more modern psychic happenings, a curious experience was recounted by the solitary, Paget, whom I have already mentioned. (He was careful to explain that although it occurred in the evening after dark, he had only partaken of a single glass of whiskey!) As he was crossing the bridge over the cress-beds at the bottom of the village, he was seized by a sudden cold feeling of fear. His flesh crept and his hair literally stood on end when he saw a huge dark shape emerge still darker out of the surrounding night and gradually tower over him till it reached a gigantic size. Although it seemed a shapeless mass, yet its effect was of some enormous slow-moving hairy animal which gradually glided past him till it vanished into the hedge and not till then could he find his legs again when he ran as hard as he could back to his own quarters. No one could explain the apparition though the villagers would shake their heads when the place was mentioned; they would not pass it alone at night and the cress-men too are said to have seen strange things there.
Two little girls, also told me that about 2 o'clock one afternoon when playing on the sane bridge, one of them saw a misty white shape on a nearby apple tree. She called out to her companion - “ Milly, here's a ghost! ” and they both ran to see, but as they came up to the tree they were very frightened when they saw the white shape fade slowly away. They screamed with terror and ran home and told their mothers they had seen a ghost. Again no explanation is forthcoming.
Two other strange stories were told me by a leading farmer, bedridden when I knew him and long since departed, - a matter-of-fact man, typical of his occupation, and one of the last people one would suspect of having seen a ghost. The first story is probably explained by the appearance of an astral body through telepathy. It happened when my friend was a lad, working under another farmer in the neighbourhood. This man had gone to market to sell some sheep about which he was anxious and left them in charge of the boy. About two hours after his master had left he suddenly saw him standing by the sheep quite close. The lad was just about to speak, when the figure vanished. He then ran in to the farmer's wife, and asked her if the master had come back early from market. “ No ”, she replied emphatically, “ certainly not ”. And sure enough, late that evening her husband cane home well-satisfied, having sold his sheep to advantage just about the time of his appearance in his own farm field.
My friend's second story is this. When he was a young man he was much shocked by seeing a work-man killed by falling over the edge of a gravel-pit on the road to Ewelme.
One night about a fortnight later as he was passing the place, he saw the whole thing again as it happened, with the man's dead body, lying with face upturned, at the bottom of the steep pit. Hardly believing his eyes, he went nearer, struck a match and bent down to examine the man's face, when the scene vanished at once before him. A possible explanation is that the reproduction of this scene so vividly impressed by horror on my friend's retina was called to life again on the same spot.
Rumbold's copse, a lonely rather grim little thicket, at the corner of the Ewelme-Britwell road, was also reputed to be haunted, for two suicides had died in that same small wood.
When we were at Ewelme, the power of the witch to work evil was still firmly believed in and a story was told as a positive instance of the havoc wrought by a witch's curse.
There was a family afflicted in an especially cruel way, Munday by name, consisting of an old mother with six sons, each one of whom when he came to manhood, was struck down by a mysterious disease, which palsied their limbs and finally rendered them helpless, blind and deaf. At the time we knew them, only one surviving son, the youngest, was left, the other five had all died after years of suffering. It was whispered in Ewelme that an old witch, powerful for evil, had lived in the village and that the mother (Mrs Munday) had in some way offended the old woman, who had publicly cursed her as she came out of Church on her wedding-day, saying she should have six sons, but that each one should be “ withered and blasted before he reached manhood .”
The saying came all too true, though her daughters (and she had two) were exempted from the curse. In any case, the evil, even if it worked itself out of their bodies, left their spirits untouched, for all these men, like their mother, were the most wonderful examples of resignation and cheerfulness in affliction it is possible to imagine. Both mother and sons found the source of their faith in a large old family Bible, which was read daily in their home, and was in very truth “ a light unto their paths ”.
An amusing instance of belief in the powers of evil was shown at a Christmas Party given by the ladies of the Manor, when an old village widow, who was invited, finding that a conjuror was part of the entertainment, quickly made her exit in horror, saying sternly to her hostesses as she hurriedly left - “ I've had no dealings with the devil as yet, in all my life, and I never will do so now, to be sure ”!
To turn to a pleasanter side of the supernatural; belief in the Little Folk, the Fairies, still lingered on in Ewelme and I knew a dear old couple, the Tanners in the Cloisters who claimed to have seen the Little Folk dancing on the Common round the Fairy-Rings, of which there were always several, green and
well-marked, among the rough tussocky grass of the rest of the Common. This old couple shyly told me one day, how on going out together to the Common one summer's night they had seen the Fairies dancing on the ring. When I asked them if the Fairies wore green (the Fairy colour) they at once answered “ Oh, no, they had little white shirts! ” Asked about their height, they said “ they were quite small about as tall as a man's finger ”. (This description coincided curiously enough with the account of Fairies seen by Conan Doyle's little god-daughters and was verified by photographs.)
My small pupil, Molly Oakes, eight years old at the time and a very downright truthful unimaginative child, when she knew you well enough would whisperingly confide that she knew there were Fairies because she had seen them dancing in the springs at the head of the water-cress bed by the King's Pool. “ They were such pretty little things .” she said, “ and all dressed in white and very tiny, not much bigger than my finger ”, which bore out completely the old pair's testimony.
To return to the Tanner couple in the Cloisters - they were a real Darby and Joan and had never been parted during their seventy years span of marriage. They had kept the charming simplicity of childhood and could neither read nor write. But they found all their satisfaction in each other, and the old wife confided to me one day that “ he (her husband) was her only friend and she had no need of others ”. This devoted pair were the same age and died on the same day and had the distinction of a double funeral - so that even in death “ they were not divided ”.
CURIOUS CUSTOMS IN EWELME
Plough Monday was still kept when first we went to Ewelme, and a curious ceremony of beating the ivy on the Church-yard walls to hunt sparrows was carried out by the youths of the parish at night.
Christmas decorations always stayed till Candlemas. May Day was kept by the girls as a real festival and a decked-out doll was paraded as May-Queen in a garlanded “ pram ”, and old May songs were sung, including “ Here we come a'maying ”, “ Good morrow ladies and gentlemen ”. “ Harvest Home ” was celebrated by a dinner in a great barn, attended by all the men of the Parish. Pancake Day was also kept in style and with appropriate old songs sung by the children.
The ancient medieval custom of collecting for the “ Grotto ” still survived locally and children made little grottoes and gardens with oyster shells and flowers and asked for pennies for the “ Grotto ”. (This is a relic of the pious gifts to the pilgrims of St James' of Compostella, who wore the badge of a cockle-shell to mark their Pilgrimage.) A curious trade was followed by our yearly visitor the “Buckthorn Man” who beat the hedges for buckthorn berries which were then used as a primitive black dye.
THE TRAGIC STORY OF THE EYRE FAMILY.
There is a mysterious inscription in the church-yard on a large stone altar tomb erected by the Eyre family, and thereby hangs a strange tale. The inscription runs as follows:
TRANSLATION OF THE LATIN AND FRENCH ON A TABLET IN THE CHURCH BY G.E.
“ This marble is sacred to the memory of Charles Eyre, a youth of great promise: who, an only son, was deservedly beloved by his parents, to wit, George and Marguerite (Eyre). A too early fate snatched him out of this life, when not born quite ten years. He was one of the students in the College of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France, where he eminently distinguished himself in his studies, and endeared himself to his fellow-collegians. He died the 8th day of the month of Jan. A.D.1869 oppressed by a deadly fever. His relicks, not his soul, are buried in the vault of Chas. Eyre his ancestor in this church.
Charlie is not dead, the darling is now gone to school, where he will learn forever goodness. In that tranquil region, the ever-dear one lives: the Guardian Angel holds his tender hands and Death hath not taken him; he whom we say is snatched away by gloomy fate, still lives for ever freed from pollution's stain ”.
(A friend, Revd. Wilson, D.D. of Cambridge composed this inscription.)
“ The Principal of the College has declared that Charlie has left at the College the remembrance of a beautiful intelligence and of an excellent heart. The Principal wished that the memory of a youth so excellent and ingenuous and his intelligence, should be especially kept in remembrance”.
“The weeping heavily afflicted father has taken care that this monument should be erected ”. (Translation of French inscription.)
Charlie was born 24 th Jan. 1859, died of typhus fever and he learned to speak French in 7 months fluently! He possessed a noble mind and loved truthfulness, indeed his father ever abominating “ GUILE ” taught him “ SINCERITY ”. He intended, God willing, when he had finished his education in France, that he should enter consecutively universities in Germany and Italy and then, if he pleased, take his degree in an English university. But, alas, his father's hopes have been suddenly blasted! The afflication is as appalling as any ever recorded? By universal law death is decreed: but the time may be stayed by the intercessory prayer of parents; but here that was wanting.
This last sentence supplies the key to the whole strange exaggerated eulogy of a boy only 10 years old. It was not written by a heart-broken parent, but was composed in grim irony and in fact there used to be a question-mark engraved at the end of “ Charlie's ” epitaph but this was only just visible in our day.
The explanation is as follows: George Eyre, “ Charlie's ” father, was an embittered elderly misanthrope living in a small house in Ewelme. As he grew older, he apparently felt the need of a wife, or at any rate, of a house-keeper. The ladies of the neighbourhood knew his reputation too well to aspire to the position, so he advertised in the papers for a wife. His advertisement was answered and his offer accepted by a young French girl, an orphan from Boulogne, (the Marguerite of the monument.) From the time she arrived, the shadow of unhappiness hung over Marguerite: she complained that Eyre had misled her both as to the size of his house and the extent of his fortune. He had advertised himself as the owner of a fine country-house with extensive grounds, whereas the house he occupied was very small and insignificant, with a garden of about a quarter of an acre! No wonder Marguerite felt herself deceived in her bargain. Then she was young and gay and old Eyre was a hard taskmaster. In his unreasoning fits of jealousy, he would lock her up for days together in her room and keep her on bread and water - so says the village legend. When “ Charlie ” was born, the child shared in the hatred Eyre now felt towards his wife. Mother and child lived a wretched life pursued by the man's insane jealousy.
As soon as Charlie was old enough, Marguerite had him sent over to France to some relations of hers, hence his successes in the College of Boulogne-sur-Mer. There, at the age of 10 years, the boy died as stated on the tomb, and all Marguerite's interest in life died with him Her existence became unbearable and she sank into a kind of melancholy madness, and at last ended her life by taking poison. Before she died, Eyre had composed the cruelly ironic epitaph, which finally stung her to desperation and death.
No one knows where she was buried, but the villagers suspect it was in Eyre's garden, and when a brother, who afterwards came to live with him, died, Eyre dug a hole in the garden at midnight and thus disposed of his brother's body. Needless to say he had quarrelled with the clergyman and of course never went near the Church.
In Ewelme, Eyre was most unpopular and the youths of the place used to serenade him at night with the “ rough music ”. Opposite Eyre's house is a little wall, built by himself for the express purpose of affixing to it lampoons upon his enemies. It eventually became the village war-memorial.
Small wonder that after his death the house was reputed to be haunted and children were frightened by the sight of a grim old man wandering about the house at night.
A tragedy which happened during our residence in Ewelme was the sensational murder which took place there in 1903.
Two Italian organ-grinders on their way to Ewelme fell out over their takings - a matter of some twenty shillings collected on their rounds, a sordid story. They fought with razors or knives after the Italian fashion, and the younger man, not then 21, killed his partner.
The murdered man, Rafaello del Guido, by name, was buried in our church-yard, and the murderer was taken to Oxford Gaol, and later sent to Broadmoor Asylum where he eventually died. On the spot where the murder was committed, not a quarter of a mile from the village, a cross was cut in the turf by the road side and this was always kept clean and fresh for many years afterwards and flowers would be laid on it by the school-children, so that the dead man was not entirely neglected, in spite of his tragic end in a foreign land.
There seemed to have been a fatality attached to that same road, as two other murders are known to have taken place not far away.
The crime was a nine-days wonder and the Sunday following the whole village turned out to make a pilgrimage to the spot, but in time the tragedy was forgotten, and things pursued the “ even tenor of their way ”.