The Grade II listed Ashley Hall dates from the late 16th century and has been linked to stories of a ghostly White Lady. T Ottway, in his ‘News from the invisible world: A collection of remarkable narratives on the certainty of supernatural visitations from the dead to the living (1853)’ gives an account of a ghost at a place named Ashley Park. As seen below, John Ingram in ‘The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain’ (1897) linked Ottway’s Ashley Park with Ashley Hall.
This Ashley Park would appear to be identical with Ashley Hall, and the “Mannerings” of the narratives but another name for the Merediths, whose country seat the Hall once was. Ottway’s account, which has been followed here, was derived from someone at Cambridge University, but his name and position are untold.
Ashley Hall, it may be premised, is somewhat more than a mile south-east of Bowdon, and is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Bollen. According to the description given in Omerod’s History of Cheshire, the exterior is stuccoed, and finished with gables; the interior contains an old entrance-hall, and a variety of apartments, more or less altered, but retaining, in general, an air of respectable antiquity.
The story which I am about to relate, says our authority, has reference to a subject often discussed and little understood the connection which exists between this shifting scene and the world of spirits. “It is of little import to the reader,” the narrator opines, ” whether I am a sceptic or a convert to the theory. It may be more material for him to be assured that he is troubled with the details on the authority of one whose fortitude I have often witnessed, and for whose veracity I could pledge my own. I give the story, as nearly as I can recollect, in her own words.”
“You know the Mannerings of Cheshire, and remember their seat, Ashley Park. It was when I had just left school that I accompanied my intimate friend, Miss Mannering, on a visit to her mother at Ashley. Mrs. Mannering was a widow, blessed with an ample fortune and great animal spirits, who laughed, and ate, and talked, and played the kind hostess, and delighted in seeing everyone happy about her; who thanked God that she had ‘not a nerve in her body’; and hoped she should die as she had lived comfortably. The house was crowded with company, and Mrs. M. made an apology for being obliged to assign to me, as my bedchamber, the ‘Cedar Room.’ It was a large, fine, old apartment, wainscotted with cedar, and, from there being a door at each end of it, which led to different parts of the house, had, on high days and holidays, been used as an ante-chamber. There were no old pictures, no Gothic furniture, no tapestry, to predispose the imagination to superstitious feelings, or to foster in the mind melancholy forebodings.
“The windows were sashed the fire-place good, but neither Gothic nor over-large and the room itself, though of unusual dimensions, had the appearance of antiquity, unaccompanied by anything sombre. We had been dancing, and I went to bed in high spirits. It was between two and three in the morning, when I awoke with a start, and saw distinctly a female figure pass through my room. I enquired without fear who was there. There was no answer. The figure proceeded slowly onwards, and disappeared at the door. It struck me as being singular, but, knowing the house to be filled with company, and that the greater part were strangers to the endless labyrinth of staircase and ante-room which overrun the mansion, I concluded some heedless guest had mistaken my chamber, or that one of the servants, forgetting the circumstance of its being inhabited, had literally put it to its old use a passage-room. At all events, thought I, it will be cleared up at breakfast; and without feeling any alarm, or attaching any importance to the incident, I struck the hour by my watch, and fell asleep. The next morning I was somewhat startled by finding both the doors locked on the inside, and by recollecting with what care I had turned the key the preceding evening. The breakfast-bell, however, disturbed the train of my ruminations. I hurried hastily down-stairs, and thought no more on the subject. In the course of conversation, my kind hostess inquired how I had slept. ‘Very soundly,’ said I, ‘except that I was rather surprised by someone who, no doubt by mistake, passed through my room at two this morning.’ Mrs. Mannering looked earnestly at me, seemed on the point of asking me a question, checked herself, and turned away.
“The next night I went to bed earlier, and, at nearly the same hour, the figure appeared. But there was no doubt now upon my mind. On this occasion I saw the face. Its pale countenance, its large, melancholy black eyes, its step noiseless as it glided over the oaken floor, gave me a sensation that I can never forget. Terrified as I was, I fixed my eyes on it. It stood before me then slowly receded; when it reached the middle of the room, stopped and while I looked at it, was not. I own it affected me strangely. Sleep for the remainder of the night was impossible. And though I endeavoured to fortify my mind by recollecting all I had heard and read against the theory, to persuade myself that it was illusion, and that I should see no more of it, I half determined to conclude my visit at once, or, at all events, to change my room immediately. Morning came bright sunny morning and the race-ball of the morrow, and a dread of the ridicule which would follow my determination, overpowered my resolution. I was silent, and I stayed.
“The third night came. I confess, as the evening drew in, I shuddered at the idea of going to bed. I made excuses; I talked over the events of the night; I played; I sang; I frittered away minute after minute; and so well did my stratagem succeed, that two, the dreaded hour, was past long ere I entered my room. I admit, that had I retired to rest, on the first evening of my visit at Ashley, with the impressions that, in spite of myself, forced themselves upon me in this, imagination might then have claimed a part in what I witnessed. But the feelings were wholly distinct. On the first night I had seen nothing knew nothing. On this, I was steeling my mind against the worst.
“After a determined and minute investigation of the room, after a thorough examination of every closet and corner, after barring and bolting each door with a beating heart, a woman’s fears (shall I confess it?) stole over me; and, hastily flinging myself on the bed, I muffled up my face entirely in the clothes. After lying in this manner for two hours in a state of agony that baffles all description, I ventured to cast a hurried glance around the room. It must be, I thought, near daybreak. It was so; but by my side stood the figure her form bent over me, her face so close to mine that I could have touched it; her white drapery leaning over me, so that my slightest motion would have discomposed it. I looked again, to convince myself that it was no deception, and have no recollection of anything further.
“When I came to myself it was nearly noon. The servants and, indeed, Mrs. Mannering herself had repeatedly knocked at the door, and, receiving no answer, were unwilling to disturb me. My kind hostess was alone in the breakfast-room when I entered, and was preparing to rally me on my early hours, when, evidently struck by my appearance, she inquired if I was well. ‘Not particularly,’ said I, faintly; ‘ and, if you will allow me, I return home this morning.’ She looked at me in silence for some moments, and then said with emphasis, ‘ Have you any particular reason ? Nay, I am sure you have,’ she continued, as her keen, penetrating eyes detected an involuntary tremor. ‘I have no concealments was my reply, and immediately I detailed the whole transaction. She heard me gravely, without interruption, or expressing any surprise. ‘I am grieved, beyond measure, my dear young friend, for the event; I certainly have heard strange and unaccountable stories about that room; but I always treated them as idle tales, quite unworthy of credit. This is the first time for years it has been occupied, and I shall never cease to reproach myself for having tried the experiment. But, for God’s sake ! ‘ she added, ‘don’t mention it. Assure me, promise me, you will not breathe a syllable on the subject to any living being. If, among these ignorant and superstitious people, the inexplicable occurrence should once get wind, not a servant would stay with me.’ I assented; and on all her offers of a different room, pressing entreaties to remain, and promises of fresh arrangements, I put a decided negative. Home I returned that morning.
“A long interval elapsed before I again visited Ashley. Miss Mannering, my kind and warm-hearted friend, had sunk into an early grave, and I had had, in the interim, to stem the torrent of affliction, and buffet with its waves. At length, a most pressing and personal invitation brought me under Mrs Mannering’s roof. There I found her sister, who, with three young children, were laughing and revelling away their Christmas. Lady Pierrepoint was one of those fortunate women who, by dint of undaunted assurance, and, as Poor Richard informed his friends, an unparalleled tongue,’ had contrived to have her own way through life. Her first exploit, on coming to Ashley, was to fix upon the cedar-room for the children. In vain poor Mrs. Mannering pointed out its faults. She ‘was afraid they would find it cold.’ Her ladyship ‘ wished them to be hardy.’ ‘It was out of the way.’ ‘So much the better; their noise would not be troublesome.’ l I fear ‘ went on Mrs. Mannering. ‘ Don’t know what it is,’ said Lady Pierrepoint. ‘In short,’ she continued, with her imperturbable face, ‘ this room or none.’ And Mrs. Mannering, not daring to avow the real cause of her fears, yet feeling that further contest was useless, saw, with feelings of horror, the little cribs and rocking horses, nurses and nine-pins, formally established in the dreaded apartment.
“Things went on very smoothly for a fortnight. No complaints of the cedar-room transpired, and Mrs. Mannering was congratulating herself on the happy turn affairs had taken, when, one day, on her going into the nursery, she saw her little nephews busily engaged in packing up their playthings. ‘What, are you tired of Ashley, and going to leave me?’ ‘Oh, no; but we are going to hide away our toys from the White Lady. She came last night, and Sunday night. And she had such large black eyes, and she stood close by our cribs just here, aunt. Who is she, do you know, for Fred says she never speaks. What does she do here, and what does she want?’
“What a wretched, miserable woman I am!’ cried the panic-stricken Mrs.Mannering. ‘Every hope I had entertained of this abominable affair is dashed to the ground for ever; and if, by any chance, Lady Pierrepoint should discover Oh, they must be moved directly. Ring the bell! Where’s the housekeeper? I’ll give no reason I ’11 have no reason. Oh, Mannering! to what sorrows have you not exposed your widow! ‘In spite of all inquiries, interrogatories, and surmises, moved the little Pierrepoints were that very evening. Our precautions, however, were all but defeated ; for one of the little magpies began after dinner: ‘Mamma, I’ve something to tell you about the White Lady.’ He was instantly crammed almost to suffocation with sweetmeats. The rest were very shortly trundled out of the room, choking with bon-bons. And I shall never forget the piteous expression of Mrs. Mannering’s countenance, as she passed me with her party, or her declaration: ‘God forgive me ! but I see very clearly this White Lady will put me in my grave.’
“The room was then shut up for some years, and I can give no account of what passed at Ashley in the interim. The last time I was there was on the day on which young Mannering came of age. His mother had been receiving the loud and rustic, but not, on that account, the less sincere, congratulations of the tenants on the lawn, when she was told her more courtly visitors were awaiting her in the drawing-room. On this occasion the sins of the cedar-room were forgotten, and it was once more used as an ante-chamber. To enter it, throw off her shawl and bonnet, and run to a large swing-glass which stood near a window, was the work of an instant. She was hastily adjusting her dress, when she started, for she saw reflected at full length in the glass beside her the figure of the White Lady!
“It was days before the brain-fever, which her fright and her fall brought on, would allow her to give any connected account of what, till then, appeared an inexplicable occurrence. Her reason and recollection gradually returned, but her health never. A few weeks afterwards she quitted Ashley Park for the grave!”
The tradition of a White Lady being at Ashley Hall and an account of a meeting between some of Cheshire’s landed gentry, concerning whether to side with the Hanovarian monarchy or the Jacobite rebels was mentioned in ‘Altrincham & Bowdon: with historical reminiscences of Ashton-on-Mersey, Sale, and surrounding townships (1896)’.
Ashley or Asseley Hall was the ancient seat of the Brereton family. One tradition affirms it to have been built by King John for a hunting seat. However that may be, it is a place of great antiquity. Remains of furnaces, and iron occurring in nodides, which have been found, show that iron smelting was carried on here by the Romans. Mary Queen of Scots is stated to have stayed a night when on her way to Beeston Castle. Like many other ancient mansions it is fairly encompassed with tragedy and tradition, the spectre of the “White Lady,” and a blood stained handkerchief retaining their hold on popular imagination until a comparatively recent period. It has no doubt many secret rooms, and it is even now thought by many that a subterranean passage communicated with Bowdon Church, whereby the inmates of the Hall might attend divine service in troublous times, when, to have gone by road would have been a source of danger. A most notable event, and one which has historical basis, took place at Ashley Hall in 1715. George I. had only the year before ascended the English throne, and party feeling ran high. Many of the Cheshire Squires were descendants of Cavaliers, while on the other hand there were many powerful Whig families who were strongly favourable to the House of Hanover. Risings had taken place in the North, and James III. had been proclaimed, and his army had marched to Preston. Under the circumstances Squire Asheton to whom the Ashley estate had descended, invited fourteen fellow squires to a conference, which took place one autumn afternoon at Ashley Hall. They were equally divided. Seven were for mounting the “white cockade,” while seven were for joining the Royal forces then at Manchester. Squire Asheton, with true Cheshire caution, and a keen perception of the trend of events, gave his casting vote in favour of the reigning house. Subsequent events showed that his prescience was justified, and to celebrate this notable meeting those present had their portraits executed in oil and presented to Squire Asheton. These portraits, by an unknown artist, hung at Ashley Hall until 1879, when they were removed to Tatton.