Hannah Beswick of Birchen Bower, Hollinwood

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  1. Ian Topham says:

    Re: Hannah Beswick of Birchen Bower, Hollinwood

    Over 100 years ago, this case appeared in The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John Ingram (1897).

    Most accounts of haunted duellings are connected with, if, indeed, they are not derived from, some terrible tragedy. The legend of the old haunted house at Birchen Bower is, however, not without its comic element. As usual, gold is at the bottom of the story. Whatever amount of credence the reader may be willing to give to the sights and sounds declared to appertain to Birchen Bower, that some kind of hereditary trouble belongs to it can scarcely be denied, as the following particulars, derived chiefly from an article by Mr. James Dronsfield, in the Oldham Chronicle for 1869, will make manifest.

    About the latter end of July 1869, a body buried in Harpurhey Cemetery was declared to be that of old Miss Beswick, whose mummified corpse had long been exhibited as a curiosity in the Manchester Museum. For upwards of a century, so it was alleged, the rightful heirs of Birchen Bower, Kose Hill and Cheetwood Estates had been kept out of their property by a crafty stratagem, and the burial of the body of the so long deceased lady was to be the means of restoring to the family of the former owners their long-withheld domains.
    The ancient homestead of Birchen Bower, Hollinwood, was a quaint four-gabled edifice, built in the form of a cross, and remarkable for the beauty of its summer surroundings. All of it, save the southern wing, was demolished some vears ago ; but the spirit or whatever else it may be termed, belonging to tbe residence, did not desert the spot when so much of its beauty and interest was destroyed. A large barn, that is still, or was recently, standing, and which bears the initials of the Beswick family engraved on it, with the date of 1728, but which appears to have been built much earlier, is the centre of quite a number of legends and superstitious stories.

    Miss, or Madame Beswick, as she is often called, is the nucleus about which all these curious myths gather. Who she really was would seem to be somewhat un- certain, but tradition states that she lived at Bower House, and farmed the estate, until old age compelled her to retire to a little stone cottage which stood on the brink of the mill-stream that ripples through the sloping front garden. The old lady was said to be very wealthy, and when the rebels under Prince Charlie visited the neighbourhood in 1745, she was terribly afraid they would requisition her belongings, so secreted " vast sums of money and articles of value " about the premises. The Scottish intruders did not carry the war into Miss Beswick’s territory, but the relatives of the old lady could never afterwards induce her to reveal where the hidden treasures were. A few days before her death, it is said, she promised if they would carry her up to Bower House she would disclose the secret and point out w T here the gold was secreted, but they neglected the opportunity. She became suddenly worse, and died, leaving the whole affair enveloped in mystery.

    Here was, indeed, a capital foundation for a ghost story! But better material lurks behind. A hundred years passed away, and the body of Miss Beswick was not buried ! Why this interment was so long deferred has been variously stated, but the following account would appear to embody the most popular, if not, indeed, the most historical elements of the case. A brother of Miss Beswick was supposed o have been considered dead, but just before the coffin-lid was screwed down signs of animation were noticed ; restoratives were applied, and, after having been in a trance for several days, he revived, and lived for many years after. This circumstance is supposed to have made so intense an impression upon the mind of Miss Beswick, that she left her estates to Dr. White, her medical attendant, to be held by him as long as her body was kept above ground. The doctor embalmed the body, and thus was enabled to keep it unburied, and so withhold the property from the long-expectant descendants of the Beswick family.

    Whatever may be fact and what fiction about this tradition is not in our power to say, but the following extract from the Manchester Guardian of Saturday, August 15 th, 1868, is certainly confirmatory of some portions of the popular account :

    "A Curious Interment. On the 22nd of July were committed to the earth in the Harpurhey Cemetery the remains of Miss Beswick, removed from the Peter Street Museum. There is a tradition that this lady, who is supposed to have died about one hundred years ago, had acquired so strong a fear of being buried alive that she left certain property to her (medical?) attendant, so long (so the story runs) as she should be kept above ground. The doctor seems to have embalmed the body with tar, and then swathed it with a strong bandage, leaving the face exposed, and to have kept ‘ her’ out of the grave as long as he could. For many years past the mummy has been lodged in the rooms of the Manchester Natural History Society, where it has long been an object of much popular interest. It seems that the Commissioners, who are charged with the re- arrangement of the Society’s collections, have deemed this specimen undesirable, and have at last buried it."

    One of the curious arrangements tradition asserts Miss Beswick bargained for was that every twenty-one years her body should be brought to Birchen Bower and remain there for one week, and old folks who should know about it declare the body was taken there at the stipulated times, and put in the granary of the old farmstead. Thus far, nothing beyond the eccentricity of humanity has been cited, but the eccentricities of a supernatural being have now to be referred to. In the morning, state these authorities, when the corpse was fetched, the horses and cows were always found let loose, and sometimes a cow would be found up in the hay-loft, although how it came there was, indeed, a mystery, as there was no passage large enough to admit a beast of such magnitude. The last prank of this description played by Miss Beswick, so far as our information goes, was a few years ago, when a cow belonging to the farmer then tenanting the place was found on the hay-loft, and it was the firm belief of many thereabouts that supernatural agency had been employed to place it there. What made it particularly ominous was the fact that it was the fourteenth anniversary of seven years since Miss Beswick died, and it was a well-established fact that something supernatural happened or was seen at the expiration of every seven years at Birchen Bower. How the cow was got up was a mystery to everyone, whilst that blocks had to be borrowed from Bower Mill to let it down through the hay-hole outside the barn was an equally well known fact.

    After Miss Beswick’s death, her old house was divided into several dwellings, and many strange stories are rife of the marvellous things therein seen and heard. One family had grown so familiar with the apparition of the old lady in the silken gowu that they were in no way alarmed when she appeared. Sometimes when they were seated at supper a rustling of silk would be heard at the front entrance, and presently a lady arrayed in black silk would glide through the room, walk straight into the parlour, and then disappear at one particular flagstone. It was a harmless spirit, annoying no one, and her appearance never drew forth any further remarks from the family than " Hush ! the old lady comes again." In another part of the dwelling an inmate had a treadle-lathe for wood-turning, which he used after his day’s work was over in doing petty jobs of joinery for the neighbours. Sometimes when he went into his little work-room an invisible visitor would be working away with the lathe in full motion. It is now about eighty-five years since the almost forgotten " Barley Times " made sad oppression amongst the poor people of this country. Protection had nearly ruined the nation ; flour was at a fearful price, and good bread scarcely obtainable. As a body the handloom weavers were starving for want of food ; but one of them, " Joe at Tamer’s," made such large purchases and seemed so flush of money that everybody was puzzled. It was well known that Joe had a large family of small children, who were supposed to depend for their daily bread upon his labours with the shuttle, and yet it was clear that they were stinted neither in food nor clothing. Joe lived in one wing of Birchen Bower house, and it was whispered that he had found the gold which had been hidden by "Madame" Beswick. Years passed away before the source of Joe’s wealth was discovered ; but eventually he confessed that he had pulled up the floor of the haunted parlour, intending to put up a loom for one of his children to learn to weave, and in digging the treadle-hole he had found a tin vessel filled with gold wedges, each valued at three pounds ten shillings. He never mentioned the circumstance to anyone at the time, but took his find to Oliphant’s, in St. Anne’s Square, Manchester, and got it changed into current coin. People were still living a few years ago who knew "Joe at Tamer’s," and the tin vessel in which he found the gold is said to be still preserved by his descendants.

    It was thought that the discovery of her hidden treasure would break the snell, and that Madame Beswick’s troubled spirit would now rest; but this is not the case. Some few years ago she was seen near the old well by the brook-side, when a presumed heir of the estates was pressing his claim. A rustic was going to fetch a pail of water ; but when he got to the well he beheld a tall lady standing by it, wearing a black silk gown and a white cap with a frilled border of those stiff, old- fashioned puffs which were formerly worn. She stood there in the dusk, in a defiant or threatening attitude, streams of blue light seeming to dart from her eyes and flash on the horror-stricken man. This appearance of the lady’s apparition was considered as a token that she would get no rest until the estates had reverted to the real heir. In light of the hitherto want of success of the Beswicks to regain the property, notwithstanding their frequent efforts, the old lady’s spirit appears doomed for a very lengthy and uncertain space of time to walk the earth.

    Madame Beswick, indeed, still haunts the old neighbourhood ; on clear, moonlight nights she walks in a headless state between the old barn and the horsepool, and at other times assumes the forms of different animals, but is always lost sight of near the horsepool:
    this causes some folk to fancy that she concealed something there during the Scottish invasion, which she is now desirous of pointing out to anyone courageous enough to speak to her.

    On dark and dreary winter nights the barn, it is said, appears to be on fire ; a red glare of glowing heat being observable through the loop-holes and crevices of the building, and strange, unearthly noises proceed from it, as if Satan and all his imps were holding jubilee there. Sometimes, indeed, the sight is so threatening that the neighbours will raise an alarm and knock up the farmer and tell him the barn is in flames. When the premises are searched, however, nothing is found wrong, everything is in order, and the neighbours go terror-stricken home, fully convinced that they have witnessed another of Madame Beswick’s supernatural pranks