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The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall


The skull that resides at Wardley Hall is another skull with opposing legends to account for its existence. In tradition the skull - which was kept behind a panel - was supposed to be that of royalist Roger Downs who lived in the 17th century. Roger was a man of ill nature, and according to legend once killed a Taylor in a drunken unprovoked attack, because he had sworn to kill the first person he met. His influence in high society allowed him to literally get away with murder. Eventually Roger picked a fight with somebody more than his equal, and during a drunken brawl on Tower Bridge in London, a watchman (or waterman) severed his head with one stroke. His body was then unceremoniously dumped into the River Thames. His head is said to have been delivered to the hall in a wooden box. The story was disproved when his coffin was opened in 1779, as his head was still attached to his body.

The skull actually belonged to Father Ambrose Barlow, who was hung and quartered for his faith in 1641; his head was then put on display at Manchester church or at Lancaster castle. According to some sources the skull came into the hall when it was bought by a catholic sympathiser, who kept the skull hidden lest his true leanings were discovered. The skull was then rediscovered in the 18th century by the owner of the house. One day a servant found the skull and threw the grisly relic into the moat, whereupon there was a terrible storm that led the owner of the hall to believe the skull was venting its wrath at being removed. He had the moat drained and the skull was returned to its position.

From traditional stories the skull seems to be indestructible as it has been buried, burned and smashed into pieces, always to be found outside the hall the next day, wearing its eternal grin.

The actual story is thought to date from the 1930s when a visiting journalist was duped into believing that that the skull was one with a tradition as a screaming skull. The skull has also been removed (by one time resident the Bishop of Salford) from the house for periods, without the occurance of paranormal activity.

Authorship
Author: 
Daniel Parkinson

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Re: The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall

According to Jack Hallam's "The Ghosts' Who's who", Father Ambrose was born Edward Barlow, of Old Barlow Hall.

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Re: The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall

WARDLEY HALL SKULL.
 
In the township of Worsley, about seven miles west of Manchester, and to the east of Kempnall Hall, is the ancient pile of Wardley Hall, erected in the reign of Edward VI. It is situated in the midst of a small woody glade, and was originally surrounded by a moat, except on the east side, which was protected by natural defences. This black-and-white half-timbered edifice is of a quadrangular form, consisting of ornamented wood and plaster frames, interlined with bricks (plastered and whitewashed, the wood-work being painted black), and entered by a covered archway, opening into a courtyard in the centre, like so many of the manor houses of the same age in Lancashire. About 1830 it was in a ruinous condition, one part being occupied as a farmhouse, and the other formed into a cluster of nine cottages. The hall has since been thoroughly renovated, and has been occupied for many years, under the Earl of Ellesmere, by a gentleman farmer and colliery-owner. In the room called the hall is a coat-of-arms, in a frame, belonging to the Downes family : a stag couchant within the shield ; crest, a stag's head. The room has an ornamented wainscot, and a fluted roof of oak. The stairs have an air of noble antiquity about them, which has been somewhat diminished by the daubings of a modem painter. The chimneys are clustered. The Tildesleys became lords of Wardley by marriage with the Worsleys in the reign of Henry IV., and settled here before they occupied Morley.  On the eve of the civil wars, Wardley was quitted by the Tildesleys, and became the residence of Roger Downes, Esq., whose son John, married Penelope, daughter of Sir Cecil Trafford, knight, who, endeavouring to convert Mr Downes [a Catholic] to Protestantism, became himself a Catholic. The issue of that marriage was Roger Downes, son and heir, and an only daughter, named Penelope, after her mother. She married Richard, Earl Rivers, a rake, a warrior, and a statesman. There is a human skull kept at the Hall, which tradition says once belonged to Roger Downes, the last male representative of his family, and who was one of the most abandoned courtiers of Charles II.
 
Roby, in his "Traditions,"has represented him as rushing forth "hot from the stews" — drawing his sword as he staggered along — and swearing that he would kill the first man he met. His victim was a poor tailor, whom he ran through with his weapon, and killed him on the spot. He was apprehended for the crime; but his interest at court soon procured him a free pardon, and he immediately began to pursue his usual reckless course. At length " Heaven avenged the innocent blood he had shed; for "in the lusty vigour," continues Roby, "of a dranken debauch, passing over London Bridge, heencountered another brawl, wherein, having run at the watchman with his rapier, one blow of the bill which they carried severed his head from his trunk. The latter was cast over the parapet into the Thames, and the head was carefully packed up in a box and sent to his sisters at Wardley. It was Maria who ventured to open the package and read the sad fate of her brother from a paper which was enclosed. The skull was removed, secretly at first, but invariably it returned to the Hall, and no human power could drive it thence. It hath been riven to pieces, burnt, and otherwise destroyed j but on the subsequent day it was seen filling its wonted place. This wilful piece of mortality will not allow the little aperture in which it rests to be walled up — it remains there — whitened and bleached by the weather, looking forth from those rayless sockets upon the scenes which, when living, they had once beheld." This curious legend exists under various forms, and has been noticed by several writers, but all agree ia the main facts. One account varies the place of his death, stating, in short, that Roger Downes, in the licentious spirit of the age, having abandoned himself to. vicious courses, was killed by a watchman in a fray at Epsom Wells, in June 1676, and dying without issue, the family quitted Wardley. It is of this Roger Downes that Lucas speaks, when he says that, according to tradition, " while in London, in a drunken frolic, he vowed to his companions that he would kill the first man he met; then, sallying forth, he ran his sword through a poor tailor. Soon after this, being in a riot, a watchman made a stroke at him with his bill, which severed his head from his body. The head was enclosed in a box and sent to his sister, who lived at Wardley Hall. "The skull," adds the narrator, "has been kept at Wardley ever since, and many superstitious notions are entertained concerning it, not worth repeating." After the Downeses ceased to reside there, Wardley Hall was occupied for a time by Lord Barrymore. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Barritt, the Manchester antiquary, visited the Hall, where he says there is " a human skull, which, time out of mind, hath had a superstitious veneration paid to it, by [the occupiers of the hall] not permitting it to be removed from its situation, which is on the topmost step of a staircase. There is a tradition that, if removed, or ill-used, some uncommon noise and disturbance always follows, to the terror of the whole house; yet I cannot persuade myself this is always the case. But some few years ago, I and three of my acquaintances went to view this surprising piece of household furniture, and found it as above mentioned, and bleached white with the weather, that beats in upon it from a four-square window in the hall, which the tenants never permit to be glazed or filled up, thus to oblige the skull, which, they say, is unruly and disturbed at the hole not being always open. However, one of us, who was last in company with the skull, removed it from its place into a dark part of the room, and there left it, and returned home ; but the night but one following, such a storm arose' about the house, of wind and lightning, as tore down some trees, and unthatched outhousing. We hearing of this, my father went over in a few days after to see his mother, who lived near the Hall, and was witness to the wreck the storm had made. Yet all this might have happened had the skull never been removed ; but withal it keeps alive the credibility of the tradition (or the credulity of its believers). But what I can learn of the above affair from old people in the neighbourhood is, that a young man of the Downes family, being in London, one night;in his frolics vowed to his companions that he would kill the first man he met ; and accordingly he ran his sword through a man immediately, a tailor by trade. However justice overtook him in his career of wickedness; for in some while after, he being in a riot upon London Bridge, a watchman made a stroke at him with his bill, and severed his head from his body, which head was enclosed in a box, and sent to his sister, who then lived at Wardley, where it hath continued ever since." Barritt adds — ' " There is likewise a skull near Wigan of this surprising sort, of which I have heard stories too ridiculous to relate." In the " Traditions," the substance of this legend is given with graphic effect under the appellation of the "Skull House." It is there remarked of Wardley that, — " A human skull is still shown here, which is usually kept in a little locked recess in the staircase wall, and which the occupiers of the Hall would never permit to be removed. This, grim caput mortuum being, it is said, much averse to any change of place or position, never failed to punish the individual severely which should dare to lay hands upon it with any such purpose. If removed, drowned in the neighbouring pond (which is in fact a part of the old moat which formerly surrounded the house), or buried, it was sure to return ; so that, in the end, each succeeding tenant was fain to endure its presence rather than be subject to the terrors and annoyances consequent upon its removal. Even the square aperture in the wall was not permitted to be glazed without the skull or its long-defunct owner creating some disturbance. It was almost bleached white by exposure to the weather, and many curious persons have made a pilgrimage there, even of late years." Mr Roby then relates the freak of Barritt and his companions, and gives the story of the skull from Barritt's MS. The editor of the present volume visited the Hall some years ago, and found that a locked door concealed at once the square aperture and its fearful tenant. Of this "place of a skull," two keys were provided ; one being kept by the tenant of the Hall, who farms some of the adjacent land, and the other being in the possession of the late (and first) Countess of Ellesmere, the lady of the lamented "Lord Francis Egerton." The Countess occasionally accompanied visitors from the neighbouring Worsley Hall, and herself unlocked the door and revealed to her friends the grinning skull of Wardley Hall. The writer paid another visit to this quaint old Hall in October 1861, and again held the old skull in his hands. The bone of the lower jaw had become detached; but there is no sign of violence about the skull itself. If the tradition as to the violent death of its owner be correct, that result has been effected without any fracture of the bone. The keystone of an arched entrance into the courtyard has on its outer face,  R. H. D. 1625," and beneath this, "1818." On its inner face, "1846." These dates doubtless indicate the times of rebuilding or repairing a portion of the old place.

['Lancashire Legends' (1873) by John Harland & T T Wilkinson]


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Re: The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall

WARDLEY HALL.
 
Wardley Hall was originally the property of the Worsleys or Workedleys, who were settled at Worsley about the time of the Norman Conquest. They retained possession of Wardley till about the reign of Edward II., when Thurston de Tyldesley marrying Margaret, daughter and heiress of Jordan de Workesley, it passed to the Tyldesleys; and, prior to the herald's visitation of 1567, became the residence of the elder branch of the family ; a younger branch being settled at Morley Hall in Astley, which had come to the family by the marriage of Edmund, second son of Thurstan Tyldesley, of Tyldesley and Wardley, with Anne, daughter and sole heiress of Thomas Leyland, of Morley; and from that line descended the unfortunate and gallant royalist Sir Thomas Tyldesley. Wardley continued the property of the Tyldesleys until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Thurston, son of Thomas Tyldesley, of Gray's Inn, Attorney-General for the Duchy of Lancaster, sold the estate in parcels, and Wardley passed to the Cheshire family of Downes. Roger Downes, the first of the name settled at Wardley, was Vice-Chamberlain of Chester to William Earl of Derby, and James Lord Strange, his son. He died about 1638, leaving by his wife, a daughter of John Calvert, of Cockefham, three sons and one daughter. Francis and Lawrence both died young ; John succeeded to the estates on the death of his father; and Jane married Robert Snede, Esq., of Keele, Staffordshire. John Downes, a zealous Roman Catholic and supporter of the Royalist cause, accompanied Lord Strange (afterwards the unfortunate Earl of Derby) to the siege of Manchester in September 1642. He married Penelope, daughter of Sir Cecil Trafford, knight, the only issue being Roger, son and heir (who was unfortunately killed by a watchman at Epsom Wells in June 1676), and a daughter named Penelope. How the story of the skull arose, it is impossible to say ; but it seems to have been to a great extent true ; at least, as regards Roger Downes, who is represented as being one of the wildest and most licentious of the courtiers of Charles II. Upon the wall of Wigan Church is a tablet to the memory of this same Roger Downes, with the inscription : — " Rogerus Downes de Wardley, arraiger, filius Johannis Downes, hujus comitatis, armigeri, obiit 27 Junii 1676, atatis suae 28" — (Roger Downes of Wardley, Esq., son of John Downes of this county, Esq., died 27th June 1676,. aged twenty-eight years).
 
Thomas Barritt, the antiquary, besides the story he has given relating to the skull in his " MS. Pedigrees," offers the following explanation : — " Thomas Stockport told me that the skull belonged to a Romish priest, who was executed at Lancaster for seditious practices in the time of William III. He was most likely the priest at Wardley, to which place his head being sent, might be preserved as a relic of his martyrdom. . . . The late Rev. Mr Kenyon of Peel, and librarian at the College in this town [Chetham's Library, Manchester], told me, about the year 1779, that the family vault of the Downeses in Wigan Church had been opened about that. time, and a coffin discovered, on which was an inscription to the memory of the above young Downes. Curiosity led to the opening of it, and the skeleton, head and all, was there ; but, whatever was the cause of his death, the upper part of the skull had been sawed off, a little above the eyes, by a surgeon, perhaps by order of his friends, to be satisfied of the nature of his disease. His shroud was in tolerable preservation ; and Mr Kenyon showed me some of the ribbon that tied his suit at the arms, wrists, and ankles ; it was of a brown colour — what it was at first could not be ascertained." Penelope, sister and heiress of Roger Downes, conveyed the estate by marriage to Richard Savage, fourth Earl Rivers, who died in 1712, leaving an only daughter, Elizabeth, married to James, fourth Earl of Barrymore, the representative of an ancient Irish family. The only issue by this marriage was a daughter named Penelope, wife of James, second surviving son of George, Earl of Cholmondeley, who died without issue in 1775. Wardley is now the property of the Earl of EUesmere. The hall itself is an interesting structure, of the time of Edward VI.; partially surrounded by a moat, and constructed of ornamental timber and plaster, the interstices of the framework being filled with bricks. It is quadrangular in form, with a courtyard in the centre, the entrance being by a covered archway. The principal room has an ornamented wainscot, and a ceiling of fluted oak, in this room is also preserved a coat of arms of the Downes family — sable a hart lodged argent. Wardley Hall has been engraved in Philips's " Old Halls of Lancashire," and in other works.

['Lancashire Legends' (1873) by John Harland & T T Wilkinson]

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Re: The Screaming Skull of Wardley Hall

The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John Ingram (1897)

Many a curious chapter has been written about the human cranium, but, probably, none more singular than that titled "Skull Superstitions," by Mr. William Andrews, in his work on Historic Romance. Among other instances of the belief prevalent in certain localities of the way in which skulls influence the fortunes of families, or at any of their residences,, he cites the singular and oft-referred-to case of the empty head-piece kept at Wardley Hall. This ancient pile of buildings, erected in the reign of the sixth Edward, is about seven miles from Manchester, and is historically noted for its possession of an unburied human skull.

The old Hall is situated in the midst of a small woody glade, and was originally surrounded by a moat, except on the east side, which was protected by natural defences. In Lancashire Legends, Mr. T. T. Wilkinson says : "This black and white half-timbered edifice is of a quadrangular form, consisting of ornamented wood and plaster frames, interlined with bricks (plastered and white-washed, the woodwork being painted black), and entered by a covered archway, opening into a court-yard in the centre, like so many of the manorhouses of the same age in ancashire. About 1830 it was in a ruinous condition, one part being occupied as a farm-house, and the other formed into a cluster of nine cottages. The Hall has since been thoroughly renovated, and has been occupied for many years by a gentleman farmer and colliery owner.'

Wardley Hall, and the surrounding property, after having been in the possession of various gentle families, in the early part of the seventeenth century passed into the hands of the Downes, and the Hall became the residence of Roger Downe. Roger, the grandson of this gentleman, and the heir to the property, is described as one of the most dissolute courtiers of Charles the Second's Court. After a reckless career of crime, this young man, the last male representative of his family, was slain in a drunken brawl, and, says tradition, his head having been severed from his body, was sent as a memento mori to his sister. That head, according to popular faith, has been kept at the Hall ever since, none of the tenants having ever been enabled to get rid of it.

Mr. Andrews refers to various accounts relating to this noted relic, but quotes, as the most curious, one found in the manuscripts of Thomas Barritt, the Manchester antiquary, describing his own visit to Wardley Hall about the end of the last century. That account it will be well to follow.

"A human skull which, time out of mind, hath had a superstitious veneration paid to it by [the occupiers of the Hall] not permitting it to be removed from its situation, which is on the topmost step of a staircase. There is a tradition that, if removed or ill-used, some uncommon noise and disturbance always follows, to the terror of the whole house ; yet I cannot persuade myself this is always the case. But, some years ago, I and three of my acquaintances went to view this surprising piece of household furniture, and found it as above mentioned, and bleached white with weather, that beats in upon it from a four-square window in the hall, which the tenants never permit to be glazed or filled up, thus to oblige the skull, which, they say, is unruly and disturbed at the hole not being always open.

"However, one of us, who was last in company with the skull, removed it from its place into a dark part of the room, and then left, and returned home ; but the night but one following, such a storm arose about the house, of wind and lightning, as tore down some trees, and unthatched out-housing. We hearing of this, my father went over in a few days after to see his mother, who lived near the Hall, and was witness to the wreck the storm had made. Yet ail this might have happened had the skull never been removed; but, withal, it keeps alive the credibility of its believers.

"What I can learn of the above affair from old people in the neighbourhood is, that a young man of the Downes family, being in London, one night in his frolics vowed to his companions that he would kill the first man he met ; and accordingly he ran his sword through a man immediately, a tailor by trade. However, justice overtook him in his career of wickedness; for, in some while after, he being in a riot upon London Bridge, a watchman made a stroke at him with his bill, and severed his head from his body, which head was enclosed in a box, and sent to his sister, who then lived at Wardley, where it hath continued ever since."

Roby, in his Traditions of Lancashire, refers to this Wardley legend. After relating the fate of young Downes, and the sending home of his decapitated head, he says: "The skull was removed, secretly at first, but invariably it returned to the Hall, and no human power could drive it thence. It hath been riven to pieces, burnt, and otherwise destroyed; but on the subsequent day it was seen filling its wonted place."

Elsewhere he relates that at Wardley " a human skull is still shown here, which is usually kept in a little locked recess in the staircase wall, and which the occupiers of the Hall would never permit to be removed. This grim caput mortuum being, it is said, much averse to any change of place or position, never failed to punish the individual severely which should dare to lay hands upon it with any such purpose. If removed, drowned in the eighbouring pond (which is, in fact, a part of the old moat which formerly surrounded the house), or buried, it was sure to return ; so that, in the end, each succeeding tenant was fain to endure its presence rather than be subject to the terrors and annoyances consequent upon its removal. Even the square aperture in the wall was not permitted to be glazed without the skull or its long-defunct owner creating some disturbance. It was almost bleached white by exposure to the weather, and many curious persons have made a pilgrimage there, even of late years."

In Harland and Wilkinson's Lancashire Legends, a quite recent work, the Editor says that when he visited the Hall, some years ago, he found that a locked door concealed at once the square aperture and its fearful tenant. At that time two keys were provided for this tl place of a skull," one being kept by the tenant of the Hall, and the other by the Countess of Ellesmere, the owner of the property. Occasionally the Countess would accompany visitors from the neighbouring Worsley Hall, and would unlock the door and show to her friends the Wardley Hall skull. Mr. Wilkinson revisited the quaint old residence in 1861, and again personally inspected this strange relic of mortality. An account of this re-inspection is given in the volume above referred to.



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