Great Yarmouth is full of stories of bodysnatchers, Egyptian mummies and even Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins! SELENE PAXTON-BROOKS hunts out the ghosts and most haunted places in this Norfolk coastal town…
Norfolk is abound with haunting tales and ghostly sightings.
In its heyday, Great Yarmouth was an affluent and alluring place to take a holiday.
For those rich enough to visit its multitude of theatres, picture palaces, its huge aquarium and the extravagant Winter Garden, it must have been a delight to take the sea air or partake in a boat ride or two on the (now renewed) Venetian Waterway.
Great Yarmouth boasted of some of the most beautiful architecture and elaborate buildings for tourists to visit in bygone days, with its history of crowded waterways, windmills and theatrical wonders.
No more a haven for artists, sailors, fishermen and once marauding Vikings, Yarmouth has now lost its way and clings to its regular influx of Saucy Nancys, chip vans and gaudy amusements to keep itself alive.
You can almost feel the history itself turning in its grave as music blares down towards the beach and shop signs rattle their ‘To Let’ boards.
Beneath its tarnished splendour there are the ghosts of times past that are still searching for what has come before…
St Georges Theatre, Kings Street
Originally a baroque chapel built in 1714, St. George’s is now a theatre and community arts centre, thanks to recent Lottery funding, but try telling that to the shadows that haunt its staircases and appear during rehearsals.
The Grade 1 listed building has not lost all its charm in its restoration, just look up to the rafters to see some amazing craftmanship created by a design that was conceived after the work of Sir Christopher Wren.
But something here doesn’t want to leave its hallowed walls, as CCTV footage has shown two silhouettes walking through the corridors at the front of the building, doors apparently opening by themselves and unexplained camera interference.
Staff and members of the public have heard whispering and seen unknown figures that look like they are watching rehearsals, only for them to disappear just as quickly as they arrived.
These clips can easily be found on YouTube and you can make of them what you will.
However, the shadows have been said to look like reflections of people walking outside in the street – unfortunately this explanation just doesn’t stand up, as the outside door is made from heavy oak, and there isn’t any way of seeing through that!
Great Yarmouth Fire Station
Who’d have thought that within a minute or two’s walk from the golden mile of sandy beaches on Great Yarmouth’s seafront a most horrific discovery would be made in 1970!
Whilst digging the foundations of the new fire station, workmen started to unearth a multitude of grinning skulls and whole skeletons.
Originally, it was the site of an ancient friary and the workforce had found a plague pit, used to dispose of the bodies of plague victims in 1348.
Great Yarmouth’s plague had been so voracious (brought by diseased rats that had come off ships anchored in the port) that bodies had to be buried in various pits around the town.
Fifteen complete skeletons were found, buried in lime mortar with planks of wood covering them.
As more work was done on the site, a stone coffin was also discovered with its bones still intact.
The remains were removed and the fire station was built – but only two years later a newspaper reported that firemen couldn’t wait to leave the building for fear of strange noises, whistling and footsteps that could not be explained!
It seemed that the friars who had been buried there had awoken with the new building and did not intend to leave.
‘Faceless’ monks were reported, wearing black cloaks, as they drifted through the station. Next door, in a house that had also been built on the same site, a ghostly figure of an old woman carrying a candle, and a young blonde-haired girl were seen opening doors to rooms in the house, only adding to the feelings of dread in the area at the time.
More research found that the site had once been a Black Friar’s Monastery between 1273 and 1525, which had been burned to the ground. So, those lost souls are lost no more.
Once found they weren’t ready to be forgotten.
The Tolhouse Gaol Museum
In between the old and new of Yarmouth’s Rows is found one of the UK’s oldest goals.
The building dates back to the 12th century and was originally a rich merchant’s house.
Over the years it has been used as a town hall, courtroom, prison, and police station, and in the 1880s was turned into a library and museum.
It has a history of murderers, pirates and smugglers and, as a courtroom, sentenced many to be hanged for a wide range of offences – including the theft of shawls and silk handkerchiefs.
Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, came to Yarmouth in 1645, and several women were accused of witchcraft, tried at the goal, were found guilty and then hung.
By far the biggest trial for witchcraft was on 10th September 1645, when the Yarmouth Assembly actually invited Matthew Hopkins to come to the town to ‘discover and find out’ witches.
Eleven people appeared before the court and were found to be guilty.
We don’t know where the hangings took place, as they could have been either in the centre of town or at the gallows on the Caister/Yarmouth boundary, but a further five cases of witchcraft were tried the following year and were all acquitted.
Matthew Hopkins died in 1647 in Manningtree, so never returned to the town after his initial ‘successful’ visit.
Staff have both seen and felt presences in the museum and there have been many reports of apparitions wandering around the building, notably a lady with her hair in a bun, who often walks between the Tolhouse and the library basement.
To find oneself here must have been unbearable for the poor souls who didn’t deserve incarceration, no wonder some feel they can now never leave.
The Minster of St Nicholas, Church Plain
England’s third largest parish church was founded in 1101. The church has been added to significantly over the years and has two large, well-kept cemeteries behind it.
It is in these graveyards that the problems for the church began, or rather the bodies that lay in them.
For a start, some of those bodies had begun to disappear!
Mr George Beck was the first person to realise that something wasn’t as it should be.
He had laid to rest his beloved wife, Elizabeth, just after Halloween in 1827, but when he came to pay his respects a few days later he noticed that the grave had been disturbed and called the police to exhume the coffin – it was empty, all that was left was her shroud. Resurrectionists had been up to their tricks and the town’s folk were furious!
Graves of the most recently interred were raised and more bodies were found missing.
Imagine, if you will, the pandemonium – graves open, coffins split upon the grass, loved ones screaming and crying with horror as they found their dead missing.
Twenty bodies had been removed from the churchyard, and this had been all down to William and Robert Baker from Beccles, who had been coerced by Thomas Vaughan to steal bodies for medical research.
In fact, the vicar’s own son had been the surgeon who commissioned the body snatchers to dig up the cadavers over a period of 19 days that autumn.
These bodies were then packed into cases, stacked on carts and sent to St Bart’s Hospital in London for the surgeons to take their pick.
Although no ghosts feature in the tale of the Great Yarmouth Bodysnatchers, my second tale from the graveyard has ancient mummy at its heart.
The legend goes that the casket of an ancient Egyptian princess was given to the Priory school by one of its teachers.
When the mummy inside began to smell it was decided that the only decent thing to do was to bury it in the graveyard, keeping the case on show in the school.
As soon as the mummy was buried strange tappings and rappings were heard in and around the churchyard.
The vicar was repeatedly confused and upset when, upon hearing loud bangs on the vicarage door, he answered it to no one!
Fed up of hearing the noises coming from apparently nowhere at all, it was decided that the mummy should be returned to its casket.
The box was duly opened and there lay a mummified arm, which had been left behind when the body had been interred in the middle of the night. It had obviously been knocking to be let out. Once the arm was buried with the rest of the body, the noises stopped and all was peaceful at last.
However, in October 1922 ghostly visions were causing havoc again in the graveyard.
A woman reported to police that she had seen three ghosts in shining armour riding horses across the churchyard.
News got out and locals wanted to see these spirits for themselves, night after night hundreds of people came back to get a glimpse through the railings, but no apparitions appeared!
A wager was offered to anyone who would sleep out in the churchyard and to keep watch for the knights, but it was never taken up and the town’s people eventually lost interest and stopped arriving.
There are plenty of other sightings in and around the Minster’s graveyards, and it is a beautiful place to wander on a crisp winter’s evening – maybe you will be the next to report something odd, or catch movement out of the corner of your eye…
The Duke’s Head Hotel, Hall Quay.
Legends of ‘The Black Shuck’ rage through Norfolk and Suffolk like the wind howling off the North Sea.
As with many of the surrounding areas, Great Yarmouth has its own tales of this huge, black, fiery creature that haunts the town from the beach to the river Yare that runs parallel to it.
The Duke’s Head Hotel stands on the banks of the quay and is reputedly the home of ‘Old Scarfe’, who sleeps in the cellars when it is not hunting along the roadways outside.
One account describes the creature as a huge, black, shaggy animal with large yellow eyes that glow like hot coals; around its neck hangs a chain.
The account goes on to describe how, if straw is laid across its path, the animal rattles its chains and howls in a loud and terrifying manner!
Not only does this monstrous dog haunt the cellars, but a poltergeist is said to reside upstairs, taking and hiding items, particularly keys from both staff and visitors alike.
Like the majority of seaside towns in the UK today, Great Yarmouth owes a lot to its glorious past.
Once it was one of seven richest places in the country, and its splendour can still be found if you look hard enough. It is worth a visit though, especially if you combine your visit with Norwich and the surrounding Norfolk Boards.
There are plenty of haunting locations and mysterious adventures to be had in these parts, especially in nearby Gorleston.
You will soon be able to stay in The Raven’s Retreat, a beautiful Victorian house on the edge of North Beach, Great Yarmouth.
The house is full of strange collections and original film memorabilia, see keep an eye out for our grand opening on our website www.theravensretreat.com