Weird Norfolk: The unsettling tale of the parsonage poltergeist and “something terrifying” in a bedroom

The village of Syderstone was host to a haunting nearly as infamous as Borley Rectory.

The village of Syderstone was host to a haunting nearly as infamous as Borley Rectory. - Credit: IAN BURT

This week's weird wander takes us to Syderstone near Fakenham and a haunted parsonage which made a small Norfolk village a national sensation. In this first of two parts, today we look at the haunting of Syderstone parsonage.

When Reverend John Stewart and his family moved into Syderstone parsonage in 1833, little did they realise they would soon be referring to their new home as 'the House of Mystery' and that they would be sharing their abode with a terrifying poltergeist.

The paranormal activity began shortly after the family moved their belongings into the parsonage, close to the church where Rev Stewart preached and next door to the graveyard – inexplicable loud banging noises were heard as were scratching noises as if a beast with large claws was pawing at the inner walls.

A low moaning was heard which the Stewart described as being '…very much like the moans of a soldier on being whipped and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of iron or the clashing of earthenware or glass'. Staff were quite literally scared stiff and others ran away, refusing to work in the haunted house.

Locals blamed the haunting on a previous Reverend who had died at the parsonage 27 years earlier – William Mantle – who had been led into a life of vice by gentleman farmers in the village, one of whom had 'an improper admiration of Mrs Mantle' and 'seduced the curate into the vilest debaucheries'.

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It was said that he had to be propped up during funeral services in case he toppled into open graves and when he died, 'strange noises began to be heard in the parsonage'. However, one of William's servants, Elizabeth Goff, came forward to testify that her employer had nailed-up two of the parsonage's bedrooms because his sister-in-law had 'witnessed something terrifying' in one of them, suggesting that the haunting pre-dated Rev Mantle and his bedroom antics.

On May 8 1833, the following story appeared in the Bury and Norwich Post: 'The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham…About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, intend removing as early as possible.

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'The noises commence almost every morning about two o'clock, and continue until daylight. Sometimes it is a knocking, now in the ceiling overhead, now in the wall, and now directly under the feet; sometimes it is a low moaning which the Rev. Gentleman says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of ice, or the clashing of earthenware or glass — but nothing in the house is disturbed.

'It never speaks, but will apparently beat to a lively tune, and moan at a solemn one; especially at the morning and evening hymns. Every part of the house has been carefully examined to see that no one could he secreted, and the doors and windows are always fastened with the greatest caution.

'It is heard by every one present, and several ladies and gentlemen in the neighbourhood, who, to satisfy themselves, have remained all night with Mr. Stewart's family, have heard the same noise and have been equally surprised and frightened. The rev. gentleman has several times spoken to the supposed ghost, demanding the cause of its being troubled, and has even attempted to use his spiritual authority to exorcise it, but all to no purpose.

'As to our own opinion, it is that, in all likelihood, some wily practitioner of fraud has availed himself of a knowledge of the premises, a disposition to be superstitious, and a fearful reluctance rigidly to push a proper investigation…at the same time we must say, from the representations of ear-witnesses, that the thing is so cleverly and cautiously conducted as to give it a very mysterious character.'

In a bid to solve the mystery, the Reverend opened up his house to investigators – on one night, four local priests (Rev and Mrs Spurgin, Revds Goggs, Lloyd and Titlow) and a local surgeon, Mr Banks, stayed overnight to hear for themselves what the Stewart family were living with. They would be in for a restless night.

On May 29, the Bury and Norwich Post wrote: 'The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible.

'Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o'clock until near two hours after sunrise.'

Rev Titlow, however, was still unconvinced, believing a ghost wouldn't appear 'for trifling purposes, or accompanied with trifling effects.'

Stewart continued to allow people to investigate the supernatural noises until it became too much for the family and the doors to the parsonage were closed to inquirers – the family continued to keep a record of what was happening at the house with a view to one day having it published. He also conducted his own research and discovered that noises had been recorded at the parsonage since 1797.

On June 22 1833, the Norfolk Chronicle published a number of affidavits from long-term Syderstone residents who testified that the violent and mysterious knockings and groanings that had been heard at the parsonage had, in fact, been heard at the same address for at least 45 years and sometimes when the house was completely unoccupied.

So who was the Syderstone ghost? Next week's Weird Norfolk will suggest some spirit solutions…

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