The Gristlehurst Boggart Revisited

The 'Gristlehurst Boggart' was a supernatural being that supposedly haunted a spot near an ash tree off Gristlehurst Lane - or at least it did according to an old couple that Edwin Waugh met in the locality back in the 1850s (see an article on that subject here). These mischievous boggarts were a part of Lancashire folklore stretching back centuries, and have continued in modern imagination as the 'bogey man'. However, even in the 1850s belief in these tales was fading and confined to only the most superstitious of people. Three decades later a long letter appeared in the Heywood Advertiser from a writer who signed themselves off as 'Retsrofessim' (or, written backwards, 'Miss E Forster'). The letter lovingly described a visit to Ashworth Valley, and one lengthy section revisited the tale of the Gristlehurst Boggart. It was clear that, as the 20th century approached, boggart folklore was a thing of the past.
"Ghosts or boggarts are of an old and awestriking family. They belong to all nations and have played important parts in the histories of kings and dynasties. They have a power to make their presence felt, and our grandmothers aver that when they were young every old ruin and the site of almost every old hall had its ghost. The one that did watch and ward over the site of the old hall at Gristlehurst was a quiet inoffensive ghost. It occasionally caused the hair of a man who saw it to stand erect and lift off its own hat in deference to it, and young women taking a walk at night would cling still closer to their male companions as they passed the place where it was said the boggart had been seen.

The Gristlehurst ghost was a quiet country boggart who knew its business and attended to it, and cared not to shine above its station, as many who have not yet become ghosts embitter and spend their lives in striving to do. Had the Gristlehurst ghost been given to travelling we might have thought from its quiet, inoffensive, and harmless nature that it was the one that in the form of an old man warned James the Fourth of Scotland not to undertake the invasion of England for which he was then preparing which ended in his death and the destruction of his army and the flower of his nobility on the battlefield of Flodden. James would not listen to the warning, he would fight, and fighting fell. The Gristlehurst ghost was a silent one; it did not divulge family secrets as some of them are said to have done, nor did it flit about camps to frighten the souls of fearful adversaries. It was the connecting link between the past and the present and had rendered long suit and service to the family of which it was the only survivor.

Boggarts have a great objection to gas light, and although there was not a lamp near the usual haunts of the one at Gristlehurst it saw too much and became disgusted with the boisterous hilarity and the unseemly carryings on of young people returning in the evening from Ashworth Valley. It held its position for long after most of the boggarts of the neighbourhood had vacated their post and their unappreciated occupations. There has been a complete exodus of boggarts from Lancashire; where they have located themselves is now unknown. They were too sensitive for the times in which we live. They could not stand the enemy which Board schools and schools in general were raising up against them. They had no bond of union and no power of resistance, and they were forced, through too much intellectual light being thrown upon them, to emigrate from the scenes of their ghostly life, where for generations some of them had settled, to seek for settlements in localities where the belief in ghosts still lingers, and where they are treated with the deference they have long been accustomed to receive - where Board schools and the standards to which youngsters are now raised are unknown.

The Gristlehurst boggart was much maligned and charged with criminal and mischievous propensities that were quite foreign to its nature. On one similar occasion a taproom toper who would have just a pint at the Bird-in-Hand before leaving there late at night in a somewhat obfuscated state, took the wrong way and got into Gristlehurst Lane. Coming round a bit, he realised the fact that he was near the haunt of the boggart. Thinking he saw “summot,” he left the lane and sought his home, where, on arriving, he both saw and heard summot that wanted to know what he had done with his wages. He did not accuse the boggart, which he told his wife he had seen, of having picked his pockets, but he assured her that after he had seen summot he found he had less money in his pocket than he had when he went into “Th’ Bird”.

Other charges were often brought against the boggart. If the milkmaid stumbled and spilled the milk she was carrying from the shippon, where she had milked the cows, the blame was laid upon the boggart for having startled her. When she came home at night and was asked who the young man was that they had seen accompanying her, she would say it was a friend of hers who had come with her to see her safe past the boggart. If the farmer's wife found a number of eggs addled when she expected a brood of chickens the blame was laid upon the boggart for having frightened the hen from the nest. Whenever anything went wrong with cows the boggart was charged with being the cause. These and other false accusations made its very existence a burden to it. Modern innovation at last forced it from the place. It was as faithful to the family of the Holts of Gristlehurst as is the Banshee, which haunts the ruined halls of Shane’s Castle and wails over the ruined fortunes of the kingly house of the O’Neills." The boggart has gone..." (Heywood Advertiser, 10 December 1886)
The Bird i'th' Hand as it looks now (David Dixon)
The writer then launched into a familiar complaint about the 'youth of today' and how their rowdy behaviour around Ashworth Valley was even worse than that of the old boggart itself. What would Miss Forster make of it all now?

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