Rev. Shaw’s Experience, Souldern Rectory (1706)
In 1706 the rectory at Souldern was the site of a reported apparitional experience, in which the witness apparently conversed with the ghost and received a warning that his own death was soon approaching.
The old rectory is now gone, demolished around 1890 when a replacement was built. ‘A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6’ (1959) tells us that the rectory ‘stood north of the church and was built before 1638 by the rector Thomas Harding. It was repaired in 1809 by Robert Jones, whom Wordsworth described as ‘one of my earliest and dearest friends’. Wordsworth stayed in the house, probably in 1820, and afterwards wrote the sonnet called ‘A Parsonage in Oxfordshire’. Later, in another sonnet, he described ‘this humble and beautiful parsonage’, and the church and churchyard. The rectory had wellstocked fishponds in 1723 at least, when the rector noted that 31 brace of carp had been taken out of one.’
The following description of the experience was published in ‘The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions’ of Great Britain by John Ingram (1897. ‘In the register of Brisly Church, Norfolk, against the 12th of December 1706, stands the following words, which may serve as introduction to the extraordinary story we have to tell in connection with Souldern Rectory:
“I, Robert Withers, M.A., vicar of Gately, do insert here a story which I had from undoubted hands; for I have all the moral certainty of the truth of it possible.”
The narrative referred to by Mr. Withers is as given in the following sentences, but not in the precise words of that gentleman, as they only furnish a very abridged account of the mysterious affair, besides deviating slightly from the more circumstantial and exact particulars given in the private correspondence, subsequently published in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which passed between the Rev. John Hughes, of Jesus College, Cambridge (the learned editor of St. Chrysostom on the Priesthood) and the Rev. Mr. Bonwicke, very shortly after the events referred to took place. Mr. Hughes, who derived his information from Mr. Grove, public registrar of the Cambridge University, and the intimate friend of Mr. Shaw, writes thus:
“The Rev. Mr. Shaw, formerly fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge, and subsequently rector of Souldern, a college living within twelve miles of Oxford, on the night of the 21st of July 1706, was sitting by himself smoking a pipe and reading, when he observed somebody open the door, and turning round was astounded to see the appearance of Mr. Naylor, formerly his fellow collegian at St. John’s, and his intimate friend, but who had been dead fully five years. The apparition came into the room, garbed apparently in exactly the same clothes, and in exactly the same manner, as Mr. Naylor had been accustomed to at the University. Mr. Shaw was, of course, intensely amazed, but asserted that he “was not much affrighted,” and, after a little while recollecting himself, desired his visitor to sit down; this the apparition of Mr. Naylor did, drawing the chair up to his old friend and sitting by him. They then had a conference of upwards of an hour and a half, during which the visitor informed Mr. Shaw that he had been sent to give his old friend warning of his death, which would be very soon and very sudden. The apparition also mentioned several others of St. John’s, particularly the famous Orchard, whose deaths were at hand. Mr. Shaw asked him if he could not give him another visit; but he said “No,” as his (the apparition’s) alloted time was but three days, and that he had others to visit who were at great distances apart. Mr. Shaw had an intense desire to inquire about the apparition’s present condition, but was afraid to mention it, not knowing how it would be taken. At last he expressed himself in this manner:
“Mr. Naylor, how is it with you in the other world?”
He, the apparition, answered with a brisk and cheerful countenance, “Very well.”
Mr. Shaw proceeded to ask, “Are there any of our old friends with you?”
“Not one,” responded he; “but Orchard will be with me soon, and you not long after.”
After this discourse the apparition took its leave and went out. Mr. Shaw offered to accompany it out of the room, but it beckoned with its hand that he should stay where he was, and seeming to turn into the next room, disappeared.
The next day Mr. Shaw made his will, and not very long after, being seized with an apoplectic fit while he was reading service in church, he fell out of the desk, and died almost immediately.
“He was ever looked upon as a pious man and a good scholar,” says Mr. Hughes, who had the story of the apparition from Mr. Grove, a particular friend of Mr. Shaw, and who, being on a visit to Souldern soon after the event, had the whole particulars from the minister’s own lips. Mr. Grove returned to Cambridge soon afterwards, and meeting with one of his college, was told that Mr. Arthur Orchard was dead.
On the 21st of January 1707, the Rev. M. Turner, writing to the Rev. Mr. Bonwicke, with reference to this story, says, “There’s a circumstance relating to the apparition which adds a great confirmation to it, which, I suppose, Mr. Hughes did not tell you. There is one, Mr. Cartwright, a Member of Parliament, a man of good credit and integrity, an intimate friend of Mr. Shaw, who told the same story with Dr. Grove (which he had from Mr. Shaw), at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s table; but he says further, that Mr. Shaw told him of some great revolutions in states, which he won’t discover, being either obliged to silence by Mr. Shaw, or concealing them upon some prudent and polite reason.”
Mr. Shaw, it may be added, had been a noted enemy to a belief in apparitions, and in company was accustomed to inveigh against any credence being placed in them, but after his presumed interview with the apparition of his old friend, spoke of that in such a way, with his more intimate acquaintances, as quite convinced them of his belief in its spirituality ; one of whom, the Rev. Richard Chainbre, vicar of Soppington, Shropshire, wrote out an account, still extant, of the affair as related to him by Mr. Shaw.’