Haunted Horspath: A Ghostly Schoolroom Encounter
7 February 2024
An Oxfordshire Weekly News column from Christmas Eve 1873 tells of a haunting at a Horspath school that terrified teachers and pupils alike, and created '... no small sensation in the minds of the simple village folk, some of whom are firm believers in this ghostly visitant.’
Terror in the schoolhouse
The article reports that the schoolmaster, who lived nextdoor to the schoolhouse, began to be troubled during November 1973 by unexplained sounds coming from the schoolroom during the evenings. The sounds were described as:
... the rattling of latches, violent shaking of doors, and heavy footsteps padding up and down the schoolroom floor.
Oxfordshire Weekly News, Wednesday 24th December 1873.
The schoolmaster was so alarmed by the repeated disturbances (which occurred every evening shortly after 6pm) that he summoned 'two doughty villagers' to sleep at his house 'as a protective measure'!
Ghosts? Summon the clergy!
When the unexplained disturbances continued over the following evenings, the local curate Rev. Henry Cruikshank was summoned. After experiencing the supernatural nuisance for himself, Rev. Cruikshank clearly felt hopelessly out of his depth and called for backup in the form of a number of fellow clergymen, both from surrounding villages and also from Oxford colleges.
These clergymen caused quite a stir by arrived in the village en masse by horse-drawn cab one evening and heading to the schoolhouse. Here, after listening to the heavy footsteps which 'fairly shook the haunted building to its very foundations', they attempted to 'lay' the ghost in the traditional way (presumably by bell, book and candle).
However, their attempts to rid the schoolhouse of its unwanted inhabitant were unsuccessful and the quivering clergymen beat a hasty retreat ‘in an unsatisfied state of mind, accompanied by vague feelings of alarm’.
It seems that all this drama was too much for the schoolmaster, and we are told he left Horspath to recuperate in Oxford for a couple of weeks. To his dismay, on his return he found the spook still in residence and his evenings once again disturbed by rattlings, crashings and stampings from the schoolhouse.
Kids and ghosts, what could go wrong?
Here the story takes a strange turn. We are told that on the evening of Tuesday 16th December, the schoolmaster went to the schoolhouse in the company of the schoolmistress, two 'pupil teachers' and around a dozen 'juvenile villagers' (presumably pupils at the school).
What the schoolmaster was hoping to achieve by this is unclear. Perhaps he was trying to confirm that none of his pupils or colleague were pulling some sort of prank on him? How he persuaded the pupils parents to agree to this nocturnal jaunt is a mystery!
If the schoolmaster was hoping that this all-school outing would signal an end to the haunting, he was to be disappointed.
Shortly after 6pm, teacher Bessie Coolings declared that she had not only heard the ghost but seen it!
She could only make out the body with enormously big eyes, but whether man or woman she could not tell.
Oxfordshire Weekly News, Wednesday 24th December 1873.
This ghost appeared in one of the passages leading into the main schoolroom and was glimpsed not only by Bessie, but also another teacher, as well as a little girl present. The door to the passage was then quickly shut, presumably to avert pandemonium among the other children, but the sound of booming footsteps continued in the very room they were all in.
We are told that the group rushed to the vicarage, and Rev. Cruikshank returned once more to the schoolhouse but again proved powerless to do anything.
Here the details end. The 14th January 1874 issue of the Oxfordshire Weekly News mentions that the next issue will contain 'a few words on the laying of the Horspath Ghost', but frustratingly I haven't been able to track down the issue in question so the story remains tantalisingly incomplete!
The Horspath Haunting: real or fake?
The Oxfordshire Weekly News article concludes by stating that many will attribute the haunting to the work of 'some clever trickster' playing a practical joke on those it describes as 'the less cunning inhabitants, whose organ of wonder is unduly developed' (i.e. gullible rural folk).
While it's easy to agree with the preceding hypothesis, if it was all a joke, it seems unlikely to me that so many educated individuals would have examined the 'haunting' without identifying the prankster. It is also strange that the schoolmaster choose to carry out a nocturnal ghost-hunt in the company of a group of young children, particularly after the group of clergymen had failed to 'lay' the ghost.
It's perhaps telling that the story appeared in the 'Jack O'Lantern' column, a popular and long-running feature of various Oxfordshire newspapers. This pseudonymously written column tended to include more frivolous, humorous and even gossipy content than the rest of the paper. The column begins by making much of how 'seasonal' a ghost story is for Christmas.
Would the writer go so far as to create an entirely fictional haunting to provide flavour for their Christmas Eve issue?
If so, the writer was being rather cheeky in including real people as characters. The Rev. Henry Cruikshank was indeed curate at Horspath during this period, as is confirmed by his name and address appearing in this list of Anglican clergymen from 1871. It is strange that many people are named in the column, but the schoolmaster at the centre of the story is never named, though this could just be down to sloppy journalism.
Breaking news from 1877
A small update appears in the 28th November 1877 issue of Oxfordshire Weekly News, again from the pen of Jack O'Lantern. The column is extremely wry and sceptical in tone, but explains that 'the redoubtable Horspath Ghost has actually reappeared in Horspath Schoolhouse, where he played such high-jinx some few years back.'
This time, the article portrays the Rev. Cruikshank as a somewhat preposterous and credulous figure. We are told he made yet another attempt to 'lay' the ghost, after first travelling to Oxford to research the correct ritualistic method by which to do this. This time, it seems, the ritual was a success and 'amid the impressive ceremonial the Ghost, of course, evaporated promptly'!
The writer goes on to state their opinion that the ghost never really existed, except in the mind of 'a former weak-minded and superstitious parish pedagogue' or those befuddled with drink:
The best "bell, book and candle" to exorcise such an absurdity is British common sense.
Oxfordshire Weekly News, 28th November 1877
- Oxfordshire Weekly News, 24th December 1871
- Oxfordshire Weekly News, 28th November 1877