The Little Tew Poltergeist
24 April 2023
The picturesque village of Little Tew was the scene of dramatic poltergeist activity in the years 1838 and 1839 that caused a sensation in the local area, and was believed to be the result of a fortune tellers curse.
A fortune teller's curse
The most detailed account of the haunting comes from a 1854 pamphlet by Reverend Edgar Hewlett entitled Personal Recollections of the Little Tew Ghost, which is quoted in Folklore of the Cotswolds by Katherine M. Briggs. This account is backed up by a number of letters and articles published in contemporary Oxfordshire newspapers.
According to Hewlett, the incident began with a woman named Hannah Hall (also referred to as Ann Hall in some accounts) receiving a visit from an old woman who was going door-to-door offering to tell peoples fortunes, presumably for money. Hannah turned the woman away, calling her an 'imposter'. The old woman responded angrily, saying that she would tell Hannah's fortune whether she asked for it or not. The woman predicted that Hannah would be married within three months and even gave a detailed description of the man she said Hannah would marry.
After the woman had left, Hannah noticed something attached to her gown that gave her a severe fright. The thing is described by Reverend Hewlett as 'something ugly resembling an eft or asker'. An 'eft' is an archaic term for a newt, so what was attached to her gown was presumably some sort of unpleasant creature. Whatever it was, the slight of the thing caused Hannah to have 'so violent a fit that she was forced to leave her situation and reside with relatives'!
Hewlett's account is partially backed up by contemporary newspaper reports, although details vary, giving the impression of a story that evolved over time and was likely embellished in the retelling. The Oxford University and City Herald of 12 January 1839 contained a letter signed with the pen name 'Another W., Adderbury', who claimed to have interviewed both Hannah's father, Thomas Bench, and her husband, confusingly also named Thomas.
Hannah's father confirmed that she had been cursed by 'the old fortune teller from Chipping Warden' who Hannah had made the mistake of offending, and who later approached her in 'the shape of a viper'.
Hannah's supernatural troubles begin
It seems that the fortune teller's predictions came true. Hannah was married within three months to a local blacksmith named Hall who fitted the old woman's description and the pair had a baby. However, the pair's married bliss did not last long. It soon became clear that Hannah was 'suffering in mind and body from some invisible agency'.
Strange, unearthly sounds began to be heard in Hannah's home, including scratching sounds, moaning and often a shrill whistle. Soon the haunting escalated and Hannah began to be cruelly teased by an unseen presence. The ghost would dash Hannah's medicine bottle out of her hands, twitch off her apron or even remove her wedding ring from her finger and hide it!
The Oxford University and City Herald adds the detail that Hannah's daughter tried to prevent the ghost from stealing Hannah's wedding ring by tying a string around it and securing it to her wrist. But to no avail, the ghost still managed to steal the ring.
Soon the presence no longer limited itself to scratching, moaning and whistling, but could often be heard 'using very vulgar language and sometimes swearing dreadfully'.
The Hall family flee to Hook Norton
In an attempt to rid themselves of the troublesome ghost, the Hall family moved to Hook Norton, but the poltergeist activity followed them. Even their journey to Hook Norton was fraught with supernatural trouble!
According to one account, during the journey Hannah's leg suddenly became extraordinarily heavy, weighing as much as a ton (!) so that it was near impossible to move her. Hannah's husband later clarified that this was an exaggeration. He says that he and his wife were travelling to Hook Norton by cart when terrible sounds began to issue from the box on which Hannah was sitting and Hannah 'lost power of voluntary motion' of her leg. Thomas Hall said that the leg became so ridged that he was unable to move it for fear of tipping Hannah off the cart!
Hannah did not regain control of her leg until a few miles further down the road when there was a sudden loud shriek from a nearby hedge, at which signal Hannah found to her surprise that she could move her legs freely once more.
The Hall family's trouble continued at their new home in Hook Norton. The noise from the haunting was apparently so disruptive that the Hall's new neighbours insisted that they move to a more remote house on the edge of the village. Hannah's husband was reported by 'Another W.' as saying that by late December 1838 he had not had a full nights sleep for eight weeks as a result of the constant supernatural harassment.
The noises were not confined to the Hall's home, they apparently accompanied Hannah wherever she went, including when she played visits to the homes of friends.
News of the Little Tew Ghost spreads
News of the Little Tew ghost soon made it into the local Oxford newspapers. One letter printed stated that the Rector and Fellows of Exeter College (who owned the land around Little Tew) were going to get involved and try and remove the troublesome spirit, but there is no record of what actions they took, if any.
Local newspaper columnists appear to have been sceptical about the veracity of the ghost, but the letter from 'Another w.' lists a number of reliable witnesses who all experienced the haunting first-hand. Mr John Godson of Hook Norton and John Cox, blacksmith, both apparently witnessed furniture move while nobody was near it. Another man was hit in the side of the head by a powder flask that jumped off the table of its own accord.
Mr Horwood, a baker from Over Norton, is said to have heard noises and 'saw something run across the room that very much frightened him'. He exclaimed "Oh! It's the devil!" only to have a gruff voice call our "You're a fool!"
Various other locals attempted to investigate the haunting and were rebuffed. The landlady of a local pub, described as 'a strong, hearty widow', was said to have been lifted into the air by the ghost, and a local draper who asked questions about a stool that was said to have been moved by the ghost found the stool in question violently flung against his leg.
Bizarrely, Reverend Hewlett's account states that a ventriloquist was hired by 'persons of scientific leanings' to visit the Hall family, the aim being for him to hear the supernatural noises and see if he could reproduce them and thus prove that the haunting was a hoax. He was apparently unable to reproduce the sounds.
The Oxford University and City Herald of 6 April 1839 also mentions a ventriloquist, but not one hired to investigate the haunting. The newspaper mentions that the 'mirth-loving' village of Adderbury had recently been entertained by a ventriloquist who performed an act based on the 'life, travels and adventures' of the Little Tew ghost with 'admirable and side-splitting effect'! It seems that by this point the story of the poltergeist was so widely known that it was being satirised by travelling performers.
The Hall family move to Enstone
In another apparent attempt to rid themselves of the ghost, the Hall family moved house once more, this time moving to Enstone where Thomas Hall set up a blacksmiths business.
According to J.A. Brooks in Ghost and Witches of the Cotswolds, the haunting pursued them once more and began disrupting Thomas Hall's blacksmith work. Thomas blamed the poltergeist for taking control of his hammer while he was trying to work and causing him to miss strokes.
The same poltergeist activity occurred in their cottage in Enstone. A neighbour named Jefferies reported witnessing fire-irons moving of their own accord while talking to the Halls in their sitting room. On another occasion Jefferies says he was dining with the Halls when he heard a disembodied voice asking for a plate as well. Ann Hall explained that they were obliged to lay an extra place for the presence 'or there would be no peace'!
Jefferies also reported another an incident when visiting the Halls. Jefferies was speaking to the Halls when there was the sound of a gunshot going off outside, and a bullet came through the closed door and hit a table. However, when the door was examined, no bullet hole or mark was found and the incident was once again blamed on the ghost.
The ghost is finally exorcised
Reports of how the haunting ended vary. A letter published in the Oxford University and City Herald in December 1838 mentions a story that four Baptist preachers attempted to exorcise the ghost by praying at Hannah's bedside, but were driven from the house by the evil presence. The letter describes this story as 'undoubtedly a falsehood'.
One of the more alarming stories told about the haunting, and one that appears in two different newspaper articles, is that on one occasion a voice was heard speaking from Hannah's pillow. Some unnamed person who happened to be in the room heard the voice and violently stabbed the pillow with a fork, causing 'blood, or something like it' to ooze from the pillow. This is mentioned in a letter to the Oxford University and City Herald of 22 December 1838, which also claims that after the incident 'the spell was broken, and neither noise, witch nor devil has been heard since'.
A different letter publishing in the same paper on 12 January 1839 gives more details, claiming that Thomas Hall had confirmed that the pillow incident had occurred on 15th December. However, Thomas Hall also stated that the peace had only lasted until 21st December when the poltergeist activity had begun again. The same letter also provides the curious detail that while there was blood on the sheets beneath the pillow, and blood on the outside of the pillow case, there was no blood inside the pillow.
One of the letters written to the press stated that Thomas Hall had sought the help and advice of a 'cunning man and water doctor' from the Northamptonshire village of Croughton. The man apparently listened to the Hannah's symptoms and diagnosed not a witch's curse but a women 'tormented by a devil'. He then, rather hilariously, provided some pills which he claimed would 'purge the foul fiend'! These presumably did nothing, as the haunting continued for a number of months after this.
According to the Reverend Hewlett, he himself was the one who finally managed to exorcise the ghost. Disappointingly, the account in Folklore of the Cotswolds doesn't explain how he managed this, only saying that during the exorcism he heard the ghost call him "a fool", and that after the exorcism was complete Hannah cried "I do think he is driven away". Not a terribly convincing conclusion, particularly as it repeats the detail of the ghost calling someone "a fool" that had already been circulated widely in the press. In fact the whole account by the Reverend Hewlett gives the impression that it could easily have been cobbled together from existing newspaper accounts.
Genuine haunting or complete fabrication?
The Little Tew poltergeist could be considered a rare example of a haunting sustained over a number of months and apparently witnessed by a large number of credible witnesses. While there are a number of facets to the case that suggest that something genuinely unaccountable was going on, there are an equal number of elements that point towards a more mundane explanation.
Most of the details of the case were provided by letters written anonymously to local newspapers, and there is no way to verify the facts they provide. The attitude of local journalists seems to have been sceptical. One writing for the Oxford University and City Herald went as far as to describing the affair as 'a gross and shameless imposture' which encouraged a 'prevalence of ridiculous rumour', and a 'fraud' that should be marked only by 'silent contempt'.
The Reverend Edgar Hewlett's account is little more credible than the newspaper letters. Indeed, it reads as if Hewlett could have easily read the published letters and then re-wrote the content with himself as protagonist. R.R. Marett points out that Hewlett describes himself as 'Minister of the Gospel', so presumably not mainstream Church of England. Some sort of religious grifter hoping to drum up custom for this exorcism business perhaps? Maybe that's a bit of an unfair leap!
As Hannah Hall appears to be the sole focus of the unexplained activity, it would be easy to imagine that Hannah had skilfully faked the whole thing. By cleverly throwing her voice, fabricating stories such as the 'lost wedding ring' incident, faking the 'fits' that often apparently came upon her at such times and letting the overactive imaginations of credulous villagers do the rest, Hannah could perhaps have been responsible for the whole incident.
When examining poltergeist cases, one of the most common questions asked by sceptics is 'how would those involved benefit from faking the haunting'? On the face of it, the Hall family benefitted little and were inconvenienced a great deal. While it is possible that they may have enjoyed the attention, and perhaps notoriety, that the Little Tew poltergeist brought to them, it also resulted in Hannah Hall apparently losing her position and the Hall family being forced to move house a number of times.
One of the letters written to the Oxford University and City Herald to provide details of the haunting states that Hannah had not 'ever drawn a sixpence from anyone by her story'. However, a later letter to the same paper contradicts this, stating that 'the woman or her relative do not refuse any trifling silver that visitors may offer, by way of providing the necessary extra coals and candles that are unavoidably consumed'! If these donations were numerous, it is possible that the Hall family could have supplemented their income considerably by prolonging and elaborating on the supposed supernatural events that apparently surrounded them.
As we approach the 200-year anniversary of the haunting, it's unlikely that we'll ever know what part of the haunting was true and what was fabricated, and the Little Tew ghost will remain one of Oxfordshire's most enduring supernatural mysteries.
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine M. Briggs (B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)
- 'Ghosts and Witches of the Cotswolds' by J.A. Brooks (Jarrold Publishing, 1981, ISBN: 0711702332)
- Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Saturday 6 April 1839
- Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, Saturday 10 November 1838
- Oxford University and City Herald, Saturday 9 March 1839
- Oxford University and City Herald, Saturday 12 January 1839
- Oxford University and City Herald, Saturday 22 December 1838