One of the most startling Torquay ghost stories that puts the spooky into Spooky Torquay centres on a property in Middle Warberry Road by the name of Castel a Mare. At the very beginning of the twentieth century two very vivid and separate accounts of events at the house were provided by two different people.
The first account was given by medium Violet Tweedale who lived a few hundred yards away from the house in Villa Languard. The second account comes from a teenage Beverley Nichols. He went on to become a prolific writer of gardening books, crime fiction, childrens' stories, political commentary and much else besides.
Violet Tweedale's account was detailed in her book Ghosts I have seen. In it she relates how the house had fallen into disrepair by the start of World War I. The house had gained notoriety locally; tenants had apparently fled the house forced out by ghostly happenings and local people had reported sounds of running foot steps within plus unearthly cries at night. Local dog walkers had reported their animals cowering in fear as they passed. In her initial investigations, Violet Tweedale laid out twigs and straw to to see if they were disturbed by more human visitors to the house but upon her return found them completely untouched yet all the doors open. In the house they witnessed a door open and a door handle turn. A later visit in 1917 was organised and this included 8 people one of whom was a medium. During the seance the medium was apparently taken over by an angry male entity whose behaviour and language was violent then threatening. The investigators were forced to retreat. Undaunted they began a second investigation and once again there was a terrible and frightening manifestation. The consequence of this was that the medium was able to explain that an evil doctor had killed a man in the house and then strangled the maid.
In 1920 Beverley Nichols, his brother and his friend Lord St Audries were returning to the Nichols home in Lower Warberry Road having been to an evening church service at St Matthias. Their route home took them past castel a Mare and the three of them decided to explore the house. It is very likely that they would have known of the houses's reputation and equally likely they would have been aware of Violet Tweedale's seances as she was a family friend. (In fact Beverely Nichols recalls going to her house as a young boy and being terrified of accidentally treading on the pixies that Tweedale told him lived in her garden).
The three young men entered the house and began to explore; after a time Beverley experienced a strange sensation in which he said everything seemed to slow down and he began to feel confused. He tried to get to a window before he fainted. He was taken outside by his two companions and began to recover. St Audries decided that he would go back into the house to explore and agreed to whistle so that the Nichols brothers would know he was OK. For a time all seemed well but then Beverley recalls something leave the house and silently pass them. There was then the sound of a terrible struggle from within after which st Audries fled the house in a terrified state.
Later Nichols reveals that they found out about a foreign doctor who had lived at the property and who in 1870 had gone bad and murdered his wife and their maid. No actual evidence of such an event has ever been found.
As for the house, some reports suggested it was demolished shortly afterwards but in actual fact it was subject to a degree of modernisation and the property exists to this day. None of the more recent residents of the property have reported ghostly happenings.
For those seeking a more scientific explanation of all of this, a couple of things are really significant. Firstly, the dates are very revealing. The story of the foreign doctor committing murder is what we might term an urban legend and could stem from something that had been happening far away in London. For it was at the end of the 1890's (at around the time Catsel a Mare is lying empty) that the Jack The Ripper murders were taking place. One of the most repeated theories of the time was that some "foreign" doctor had been responsible. It is not so difficult therefore to see how fertile minds might weave a dark tale using elements of crimes that were current at the time.
When it comes to the ghost hunting first of Tweedale and then of Nichols again the dates are really relevant. Tweedale's first explorations and her subsequent seances all take place during World War I. The late Victorian interest in the afterlife had grown into a mania by then. There were millions of mothers, sisters, daughters, fathers, brothers and sons all desperate for hope that their relatives killed in the War might be enjoying eternal life on the other side. They were willing dupes for the unscrupulous and they paid huge sums of money to people with the apparent ability to communicate with the dead. Essentially, people believed because they wanted to believe. There are also some other interesting facts. As mentioned before, some locals reported hearing weird shrieks at night. In his autobiography Nichols mentions that one of his eccentric neighbours in Lower Warberry Road at around this time kept hyenas in her back garden. Could it be that it was their strange cries that people heard?
John "Babbacombe" Lee, The Man they couldn't hang.
In the early hours of 15th November 1884 a brutal murder occurred at a house on Babbacombe Beach. The victim was a spinster who lived in the house with two elderly servants she had inherited from her mother, a young house maid and her half brother, John Lee. The victim was Emma Keyse who was in her sixties. Through her mother she had royal connections and the house on Babbacombe Beach had received royal visitors including the future Queen Victoria. On the night of the murder, fires had been set around the property to try and disguise what had happened. Miss Keyse had been battered to death, had her throat slit and had been partially set on fire.To those attending the scene, it became apparent very rapidly that John Lee was the chief suspect. He had a criminal history (albeit petty crime) and despite Miss Keyse taking him in and giving him a home and employment their relationship appeared to have soured in the weeks before the killing. In a world before forensic science, the evidence appeared muddled and contradictory and the subsequent trial of John Lee was farcical particularly in terms of the quality of the defence. And so he was convicted of the murder despite protesting his innocence and therefore one damp February morning in 1885 he was led out to be executed.
He was to be hanged and a scaffold with a trap door had been constructed. With a rope around his neck he was to stand on the trap door and a the executioner was to pull a lever and release the trap door upon which he would fall to his doom. So, Lee was brought to the scaffold, a noose and hood placed over his head and prayers said. Then, upon a signal the executioner pulled the lever to everyone's amazement nothing happened. the trap door did not open. Lee was removed from the scaffold and prison officers tested the mechanism. It was found to be working perfectly. For a second time lee was placed upon the trap door and the hood and noose placed upon his head. Prayers were said and once again the lever was pulled but once again the trap door did not open. Those assembled were aghast at these events and Lee was once again removed whilst carpenters were assembled to make alterations. After a while, the alterations were completed and the mechanism once again tested. Lee was brought back and hood and noose placed over his head while he stood on the trap door. The chaplin was in such an agitated state that he could not watch the proceedings as once again the lever was pulled. Unbelievably, the trap door failed to work a third time. All those present, were horrified. The chaplin refused to continue and as the law stated that executions required a chaplin's presence, it was abandoned. As news spread of what had happened, there was an outcry and Lee had his death sentence commuted to a prison sentence. Spookily, as he returned to his cell from the scaffold, he told the prison wader, that he had dreamt that the execution would not take place. In fact during his trial, the judge had remarked his odd calmness as he faced the death penalty.
There have been may attempts to explain why the trap door failed three times. Some have said that it had been deliberately sabotaged by workmen sympathetic to Lee's plight, others have said it was made of timber that was too flimsy and that Lee's weight on the door caused it to jam, whilst others particularly at the time said it had been as a result of a witch's spell.
Lee was realeased from prison in 1907 and for a time he enjoyed his celebrity status. He even wrote a book about the events that had taken place and he still maintained his innocence. He then disappeared and reports of his death came periodically from Australia and America. There were even reports he had died in WWI trenches or indeed in the London Blitz. In reality, he died in Milwaukee, Wisconsin having made some effort to hide his true identity.
Modern historians have examined the murder afresh and considering who may have been responsible for it if as Lee maintained he was not. Circumstantial evidence has suggested it could be a young man form a wealthy family who was known to Emma Keyse. The suggestion is that he might have been responsible for getting Lee's half sister pregnant and that the morally upstanding Emma Keyse discovered the truth, confronted him and met her end at his hands. In a very bizarre twist, the identity of the individual was none other than the solicitor who was appointed to lead Lee's defence at the trial. The man in question succumbed to madness and died before the trial started leaving Lee's defence in chaos. Some historians claim that the welathy local families knew about what had occured and deliberately framed lee to avoid scandal amongst one of their own. They further calim that the descendents of these families are concealing evidence to this very day. In a Mafia like vow of silence.
One last spooky aspect of the story comes in 1970s when there was an attempt to make a film of the events; the movie was so beset by ill fortune that it was abandoned and never completed.
The Demon Hunter of Daddyhole Plain
Daddyhole Plain in the Meadfoot area of Torquay is a plateau which sits 75 meters above sea level. Modern visitors experience wonderful panoramic views which encompass, Torquay and Torquay harbour, Paignton, Brixham, Meadfoot and Lyme Bay beyond. The curious name has a sinister origin for in old English "Daddy" was another name for the devil. Local legend has it that he lived in a cave at the foot of the caves below the plateau. One very lurid story collected by a Victorian related the story of a girl called Matilda and her encounters with the Demon Hunter of Daddyhole Plain. Essentially the story was that Matilda was in love with someone who was not in love with her and one night in sleepless anguish she roamed about the plain. Suddenly, she encountered two do with fiery eyes followed by the devil on horse back. She promptly fainted but when she awoke she was in the arms of a handsome stranger. She is possibly not the brightest of girls and shows little curiosity over the stranger who she sees for a number of days. However, she does tell him that she would like revenge on the lover who has spurned her and that she would exchange her soul for revenge. With the encouragement of the stranger and as the sun sinks over Daddyhole, she first stalks and then stabs the unfortunate object of her affection as well as his lover crying "Mine. Mine forever." At this point the devil reappears and carries Matilda over the cliffs and she is never seen again.
The Most Haunted Castle in the Country?
A short distance outside Torquay lies the ruins of the castle at Berry Pomeroy.This 15th century castle was home first to the Pomeroy family and later to the Seymours. Each family had grand designs for the site and ambitious building projects were started and only sometimes completed as the fortunes of the families waxed and waned. By the 1690's the castle had fallen into disrepair as the then generation of Seymours saw their future elsewhere.
In terms of ghosts Berry Pomeroy has its very own "White Lady" who haunts the dungeons and the castle ramparts particularly in St Margaret's Tower. It is said she is the ghost of Lady Margaret Pomeroy who was imprisoned in the dungeon by her sister who was bitterly jealous of her sister's love for a man. The unfortunate Lady Margaret starved to death. Her appearance invokes feelings of evil, depression and fear. It is further said that on a certain day each year a blue light can be seen in the tower.
If a "White Lady" was not enough, the site is also said to be haunted by a "blue lady". The hooded figure is alleged to have tried to lure men to their deaths by taking them to unsafe parts of the site. her story is even more gruesome that that of poor Lady Margaret. It is said that she was the daughter of a Norman Lord who became pregnant by him. After the birth of the child, the story variously relates that either she killed the child out of disgust or else he did. In either event her spirit cannot rest and she roams abroad forever wringing her hands in anguish. The legend has it that seeing her is the portent of death to come.
There is a photograph from the Victorian period of what appears to be a figure in a long white dress loitering in a doorway. Sadly, Victorian ghost photos don't have a great reputation when it comes to authenticity and this might just be another hoax.
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