As a fantasy writer, I love ghost stories. I can mine them for all kinds of story ideas, motifs and characters. One of my favourites is right on my doorstep.
An afternoon ramble along the woodland footpaths around Swinsty Reservoir is a pleasant experience whatever the time of year. But it may take the first-time visitor somewhat by surprise to come upon the looming grandeur of Swinsty Hall amongst the trees and, even in mid-summer, it isn’t difficult to imagine ghostly goings-on in these surroundings. No disappointment, then, to discover that the hall has its very own macabre legend.
The legend tells the ghoulish tale of a fellow named Henry Robinson, supposedly the builder and first occupant of Swinsty Hall. He was born nearby, to a family of poor weavers, in the 1580s and travelled to London as a young man to seek his fortune. But when he arrived in the city in 1603, he found himself in the midst of an outbreak of the plague. The death toll was so high – and panic so widespread – that often entire households died with no one any the wiser. Robinson, clearly a man of iron nerves and no scruples, recognised an obvious opportunity; he broke into these houses of the dead and stole their unattended gold. When he’d amassed a considerable fortune by such means, he hired a cart and transported it all back to Yorkshire.
News of the plague-ridden capital had preceded him, however, and he found that none of his friends or acquaintances would welcome him, for fear of catching the disease. He took up residence in a deserted barn and carried all his ill-gotten gold down to a nearby well where he washed it all most carefully, to rid it of any contagion. Then he purchased the land where Swinsty Hall now stands and commissioned the building of a magnificent house for himself. He lived and died there, and several generations of Robinsons followed after him. But his ghost is said to haunt the Greenwell Spring, the place where he tried so painstakingly to clean all his gold. In an image more than little redolent of Lady Macbeth, John Ingram describes the apparition thus:-
‘ There he bends, and rubs, and rubs, and rubs away at his ghastly spoil, and never seems satisfied that it is freed from its taint, or, perhaps, from its stains : who knows?’ The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain (1897)
The story of Swinsty’s ghost appears to have been first recorded by local antiquarian, William Grainge, in his book ‘The History & Topography of The Townships of Little Timble, Great Timble and The Hamlet of Snowden, in the West Riding of the County of York’(1895). Grainge appears to have been told the tale by various local inhabitants. They pointed out to him the house where Henry Robinson was born, by then a cow-byre; the barn where Robinson sought shelter after returning from London; and the well at Greenwell Spring, where the ghost was said to appear.
Unfortunately for ghost-hunters – and me – the historical record does not appear to support any of the macabre legend. Although William Grainge seems to have delighted in it as an imaginative account of the Hall’s origins, he was, first and foremost, a dedicated researcher, and his investigations reveal a much more prosaic account. He provides extensive evidence for a long association of a family called Wood with the lands at Swinsty, stretching back as far as the fourteenth century. In 1575 the Hall was owned by Ralph Wood and his son, Francis; Grainge quotes extensively from the marriage settlement of Francis Wood and Ellen Sorrell as proof. However Francis and Ellen fell into debt, and Francis was forced to mortgage the estate. When he failed to pay the money owing, the owner of the mortgage – one Henry Robinson of Old Lound in Lancashire – foreclosed on it and took possession of Swinsty Hall. This happened several years before the plague of 1603.
Perhaps young Francis, although feckless, was popular thereabouts, and folk resented Henry Robinson for ousting him. Or perhaps they took umbrage at a Lancastrian taking over lands that had belonged to a good, Yorkshire-born family for at least two hundred years. Whatever the reason, Henry Robinson became the villain of the piece. And by the time William Grainge wrote his book in 1895, locals believed most vehemently in the legend of Robinson’s ill-gotten gold.
Grainge appears to regret his de-bunking of the legend in favour of a much less romantic, if more accurate account. And, wandering past Swinsty Hall along the woodland path, it is hard not to sympathise with his regret. The tale of the ghoulish figure, trying to rub that ghostly gold clean of its corruption, is guaranteed to raise a shiver of delighted horror in any listener.
Sadly, the truth of the matter is much more prosaic.