Courtesy of The Black Country Bugle from Feb 10th 2005
It was late on a Saturday evening in 1881 when the Rev. James Yates Rooker, vicar of St James's in Lower Gornal, left the back door of his vicarage. He had heard voices in the back yard, and was understandably concerned. He had been tending his Gornal flock since 1848, and he was well-loved by the villagers; there was scarcely a social improvement made in the village without his instigation, and during the bloody and frequent wage disputes which often hit the local nail and coal industries, he could always be looked upon for support.
However, the Rev. Rooker knew more than anyone how easily some of his flock could be tempted from the path of righteousness. Only two years before, he had been crossing The Green, near the church, when he encountered Charles Hartland, a former member of the church choir. Hartland had been in trouble with the police, and Rev. Rooker, as a local magistrate, had done everything in his power to help the man, yet Hartland had sworn revenge. On that fateful day he intended nothing less than murder, and had shot the cleric in the head. It was only by a miracle that the vicar's life was saved, and it took him a full twelve months to recover from his terrible injuries. However, Rooker had not borne any bitterness towards his would-be assassin and one time friend, and his faith in his Gornal parishioners had been justified when they clubbed together to donate the huge sum of two hundred pounds to send him to Royal Leamington Spa to recuperate.
Although he was now fully recovered, despite the fact that the bullet was to remain lodged in his head for the rest of his life, the shooting incident was still a hot topic of conversation throughout the parish. Several villagers claimed to have seen the shade of Hartland lurking about St. James' graveyard after dark, even though Hartland himself was firmly locked up in prison. Others claimed to have seen a ghostly figure walking the field between the vicarage and the churchyard, performing strange antics, and subsequently more Gornal folk came forward, telling of hearing ghostly voices at night emanating from the God's Acre.
The rumours that the graveyard was haunted spread through the village like wildfire, and such was their effect that people became frightened of walking past the churchyard for fear of being attacked by this nameless horror themselves, and soon even loyal female members of the choir refused to go to the church after nightfall unless protected by male escorts.
The police kept an eerie vigil in the churchyard over several nights, but came no closer to the truth of the matter. A group of stout-hearted village lads banded together and swore to protect the vicar and his family, and also kept watch on the good reverend's house. However, on the very first night this almost ended in violence, when one of the party arrived to take his own turn at sentry duty. Not being recognised, the hue and cry that he was the would-be assailant was raised, and it was only by running into the backyard of a house that he escaped!
The Rev. Rooker was a rational man, his faith unshakeable, yet these rumours still unsettled him; so on this night, and hearing the voices outside, he wasted no time in flinging open the back door by way of a bold challenge.
To his alarm, the poor reverend was immediately seized and blows were rained upon him. As he pummelled his fists into the unfortunate cleric, the attacker shouted, "Yer've come to kill the vicar, 'ave yer? Ah've sworn to kill yer, yer villain, an' Ah'll do it quick!"
The Rev. Rooker's own personal vigilante committee, along with the police, had already been alerted by the same voices in the yard that had disturbed the vicar, and now came rushing to the scene. Holding up their lanterns, there was a sigh of relief when they found that the assailant was no ghost nor, indeed, the doppelganger of the avenging Charles Hartland. He was in fact a neighbour who, having enjoyed more than a drop of the local strong brew, had heard voices and come rushing to the vicar's aid, then mistaking him for an attacker!
Despite the farcical events of the vigilante patrols, the parishioners were still living in mortal fear of attending church, and the now-recovered Rev. Rooker was at his wit's end. In desperation, he consulted one of the villagers, who had the reputation of being a "wise woman". The woman advised Rev. Rooker to cut a four inch square piece of turf from the grave of a young man whom, she said, could not rest in his grave due to a guilty conscience and was caught in limbo, wandering the scene of his burial and moaning his woes in a ghastly voice. The square of turf, in accordance with the custom, was placed under the communion table in St. James's, where it lay for four days. Following this, promised the wise woman, the man's soul, as well as those of any other spirits caught in earthly limbo, would be laid to rest in peace.
This form of exorcism appears to have echoes of an eleventh century Anglo-Saxon ritual known as the "land ceremonies charm". This ritual combined Christian and pagan elements, and aimed to ensure the fertility of farmland. The ceremony involved cutting four pieces of turf from a field, which were then anointed with oils and runes and then taken into church. A Mass was said over the turves, which were then taken back to the field and replaced.
Whatever its origins, the charm appeared to have worked, on the superstitious parishioners at least, as reports of supernatural activity seemed to abate. However, it was only after they had ceased for sometime that the dark churchyard ceased to inspire terror among Gornal folk at night time, and moreover, now and again the churchyard is reported as the scene of more ghostly activity, even after long spells of quietude.
(apologies for lack of a pic but Blogger doesn't want to play today)