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THE HAUNTING OF EPWORTH RECTORY

Posted on: January 16, 2013

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It can’t be much fun being married to a saintly, other-worldly man. And the home-life of Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles Wesley, who would become founders of the Methodist movement, would seem to bear this out. Samuel and his family were living at Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire during the early part of the 18th century, and it was not an easy situation. Samuel was a Church of England clergyman, a poet, an academic, and so hopeless with the practicalities of life, that he was twice jailed for debt. His longsuffering wife was Susanna, who gave birth to an eye-watering 19 children (she was the youngest of 25 children herself!), nine of whom didn’t survive infancy.

Their daughter Hetty described the local village of Wroot as “a place devoid of wisdom, wit or grace”. The feeling from the villagers seems to have been pretty much reciprocated. Samuel was a Tory, which can’t have gone down well with his poverty-stricken parishioners, and in 1709 they burnt down the rectory and maimed his cattle. The house was subsequently rebuilt, but it wasn’t an end to the family’s troubles.

The relationship between Samuel and Susanna was also under strain. Susanna must have been constantly pregnant, and having to cope with Samuel on top of all that doesn’t bear thinking about. He seems to have been a dogmatic man, with very fixed beliefs, unable to see another person’s point of view. On one occasion he left her for an entire year because she wouldn’t say a prayer for King William III (she objected to having a Dutch king on the English throne). In his absence Susanna had to bring up and educate the children by herself. She wouldn’t have been human if she hadn’t felt some resentment towards her husband.

Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that a poltergeist outbreak began on 1 December 1719 (after Samuel’s return). Groaning noises were heard from the dining-room, a hand-mill was seen turning by itself, and a stamping noise – as though someone was walking around in heavy boots – was heard. At night footsteps were heard on the stairs, as well as the sound of dancing and door-latches rattling. A bed was said to have levitated. The ghost of a man in a long white robe was seen, and the servants claimed to see a ratlike face peering out from behind a fireplace.

Knocking broke out in the Reverend’s bedroom, and the noises would always being promptly at 9:45 each evening. Mrs Wesley thought they might be due to rats, and ordered a horn to be sounded to scare them away. She had also heard somewhere that “the sounds of a loud horn are unpleasing to evil spirits”. Naturally, the horn made things worse. From then on the noises were heard during the day as well.

Samuel too tried some remedies. He bought a big dog, believing it would “gobble up” the spirit. The dog cowered in terror once it got into the house. He roped in the help of a friend, a vicar from a neighbouring village, both of them believing that the ghost wouldn’t be able to stand up to the might of two Church of England vicars. After one evening in the house, the friend fled, scared out of his wits.

The children seem to have been remarkably (suspiciously?) accepting of the haunting. They nicknamed the ghost ‘Old Jeffrey’. One daughter, Emilia, believed it was all down to local witchcraft. Another, the aforementioned Hetty, was the only one of the family to sleep through all the disturbances.

The Reverend ordered the spirit to meet him in his study, but when he tried to reach the room the door was slammed shut against him. During prayer sessions, when the Reverend ordered prayers to be said for the King, the spirit would rap angrily (curiousily, sharing Mrs Wesley’s anti-Hanoverian beliefs!).

Phantom rabbits and badgers were also seen in the house. Everyone urged the Reverend to move, but he was fired up with religious zeal, and said he wouldn’t be driven out by the Devil. Eventually, the “spirit” seemed to get the message that it wasn’t going to win this fight, and at the end of January the haunting ceased completely.

Due to the presence of a large household of exuberant children, plus the ongoing bad feeling from the locals, some aspects of the haunting must be treated with caution. But it continues to fascinate nonetheless. These days the house is owned by the World Methodist Church, and is now a museum.

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