The Skull of Tunstead Farm
Dickey o’ Tunstead, the name given to the human skull that was kept on a window sill in Tunstead Farm near Chapel-en-le-Frith, is one of the best known curiosities of the High Peak; it is certainly one of the most documented, having been written about extensively since the beginning of the 19th century.
The skull strongly objected to being removed from the house; any attempt to do so resulted in such a disturbance it had to be returned. Once it was taken to the churchyard at Chapel-en-le-Frith to be buried; on another occasion it was discarded when the house was being rebuilt. But each time it had to be put back on the window sill, as it would cause death among cattle on the farm; it would make disturbing noises such as moaning, weeping, or even screaming, and furniture in the farmhouse would be overturned.
When kept in its accustomed place it was helpful: it warned of various events, such as a death in the family, or of attempts at burglary, or of problems with the livestock. Some of its behaviour was more like that of a household spirit, such as opening doors or gates; some more mischievous, such as hampering or frightening hired farmworkers.
The high point of its activity was the disruption of work on the London and North Western Railway line between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge in 1863, when it was regarded as being responsible for the failure to build a bridge taking the railway over a nearby road. Any work carried out during the day was undone during the night, with the bridge piers sinking into the ground and collapsing, forcing the contractor to reroute the road and build a new bridge further along the line towards Buxton.
Its manifestations were believed by some to extend to other supernatural phenomena, such as a phantom black dog that was seen in the nearby area, and the ghost of a young woman seen in and near to the farmhouse.
Having heard a singular account of a human skull being preserved in a house at Tunstead, near the above place, and which was said to be haunted, curiosity induced me to deviate a little, for the purpose of making some enquiries respecting these natural or supernatural appearances. That there are three parts of a human skull in the house is certain, and which I traced to have remained on the premises for near two centuries past, during all the revolutions of owners and tenants in that time. As to the truth of the supernatural appearance, it is not my design either to affirm or contradict:— Though I have been informed by a credible person, a Mr. Adam Fox, who was brought up in the house, that he has not only repeatedly heard singular noises, and observed very extraordinary circumstances, but can produce fifty persons, within the parish, who have seen an apparition at this place. He has often found the doors opening to his hand—the servants have been repeatedly called up in the morning—many good offices have been done by the apparition, at different times;—and, in fact, it is looked upon more as a guardian spirit, than a terror to the family:—never disturbing them but in case of an approaching death of a relation or a neighbour, and shewing its resentment only when spoken of with disrespect, or when its own awful memorial of mortality is removed. For twice within memory of man, the skull has been taken from the premises, once on building the present house on the site of the old one, and another time when it was buried in Chapel church yard;—but there was no peace!—no rest!—it must be replaced!—Venerable time carries a report, that one of two coheiresses residing here was murdered, and declared, in her last moments, that her bones should remain on the place forever.*
On this head the candid reader will think for himself; my duty is only faithfully to relate what I have been told. However, the circumstances of the skull being traced to have remained on the premises, during the changes of different tenants and purchasers, for near two centuries, must be a subject well worth the antiquarian’s research, and often more than the investigation of a bust or a coin!
* On examining the parts of the skull, they did not appear to be the least decayed.
CURIOUS SKULL and APPARITION.—There are many strange stories in Tunstead concerning a skull in the possession of Mr. John Bramwell, who holds it in great veneration, declaring that it prevents the house and farm from being robbed; and that he would sooner part with the best cow he has than with the skull. A man named Adam Fox states that he once found two cows fastened by the neck in the chain or fastening which was but for one; also, that one night he had been out playing at cards, and he returned home late and fresh, but he could get no rest till he had emptied his pockets of the winnings, which kept rolling on the floor for a long time. I shall make no further remark on these stories, but give the reader an extract from Hutchinson’s “Tour through the High Peak of Derbyshire.”…
[See ‘Hutchinson’s Tour Through the High Peak of Derbyshire’ above.]
SOMEWHERE about midway between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley, there are a few substantial farm houses known as Tunsted; and at one of them, now occupied by Mr. Samuel Dickson (or Dixon) this fragment of mortality,—the mysterious skull,—has had an abiding place from time immemorial. The skull has always been said to be that of a female; but why it should have been baptized with a name belonging to the male sex seems somewhat anomalous: still not more wonderful than a many, if not all of its very singular pranks and services. To enumerate all the particulars of the incalculably servicable acts and deeds done by Dickey would form a wonder, but not a wonder past belief, for hundreds of the inhabitants of the locality for miles around, have full and firm faith in its mystical performances. How long it has been located at the present house is not known ; to whose body in the flesh it was a member, is equally as mysterious, save that it is said, (but what has not been said about it that is not pure fiction?) that one of two co-heiresses residing here was murdered, and who declared in her dying moments that her bones should remain on the place for ever. It is further said that the skull did not, some years back, appear the least decayed.*
Well and truly has it been said and written that truth is stranger than fiction; and the fact of the implicit belief of so many people at, and for a great distance around Tunsted, in the following doings of the ghost or apparition belonging to this skull, is marvellous indeed. One former occupant of this habitation, a Mr. J. Bramwell, declared that it prevented the house and farm from being robbed; and that he would have sooner parted with the best cow he had than with this efficacious and venerable relic of humanity. A neighbour, a Mr. A. Fox, could and did, during his life, tell wonderful stories of this unearthly visitant or rather resident. Once the skull was buried in Chapel-en-le-Frith churchyard, but the apparition appeared, and then commenced “weeping and wailing,” if not “gnashing of teeth;” cattle strayed, some died, others came to sundry misfortunes; and during the “witching hours of night” the furniture was tossed up and down in utter confusion. In this direful dilemma, it was suggested to the then occupant, to exhume the skull—restore it to its old quarters—an old cheese vat in a window bottom in the staircase; this done, order was immediately restored, and soon all went on as before charmingly and pleasingly “as a marriage bell.” On the occasion of the house being rebuilt, Dickey was carelessly thrown aside at some distance; but as before, the spectre appeared, and to the utter mortification of the workmen, their works were damaged every morning, and they averred that they could occasionally, while they were hammering and hewing, hear very clearly a low unearthly moan. The skull was sought and replaced as before, and all was right.
Among the articles of belief respecting the apparition of this skull, there are a few that make us wonder they could by any possibility have been gulped down, even by the most credulous and superstitious. That this skull should be, and has been held in such veneration is no marvel when such services have been rendered by it as the following:—if a cow was near calving in the night, Dickey or the ghost gave an alarm; if any of the cattle got wrong, in the buildings or on the land, an instant intimation was given from the same source. The approaching death of relations and friends were all in due course truly foreshadowed; the servants desirous of rising soon were unfailingly aroused, and if the horses were required at an early hour, they were always found ready geared; indeed so many good offices have been done by the apparition at various times, that it (the skull) is looked on as a sort of guardian, never disturbing them much, except when spoken of with some disrespect, or when its awful memorials of mortality are removed. Such are only a very few of the wonderful particulars of the miraculous skull, or Dickey of Tunsted.
* Hutchinson’s “Tour through the Peak of Derbyshire”.
A RAILWAY GHOST.—It is not often that a ghost story is associated with a railway, but there is one in the case of the railway recently constructed from Whaley Bridge to Buxton. In the window of a neighbouring farmhouse is the skull of a man who there met with an untimely end. His ghost, as the story goes, has unmistakeably resisted several attempts to deposit the skull in a churchyard, and has forced the restitution of the relic to the window of Tunstead Farm. The railway company were so unfortunate as to incur the hatred of “Dickie,” as the ghost is called, by removing a portion of what had been his land. It was the steadfast belief in the district that the ghost would undo, at the Coombs embankment, the work which had occupied many men during the day, and that Dickie was only propitiated at last by an interview with the engineer, at which he was promised a free passage over the line forever.
At a farm-house at Tunstead, near Chapel-en-le-Frith, a human skull, about which hangs many a strange story, has for several generations—indeed “time out of mind”—been preserved. There are some curious traditions connected with this skull, which is popularly known as “Dickie,” or “Dicky o’ Tunsted.” How it first came to the farm is a complete mystery. All that is known is that it has been there for many generations, and always occupies the same position in the window-seat of the house. No matter what changes take place in the other occupiers of the house, Dicky holds his own against all corners, and remains quietly ensconced in his favourite place. It is firmly and persistently believed that so long as Dick remains in the house, unburied, everything will go on well and prosperously, but that if he is buried, or “discommoded,” unpleasant consequences will assuredly follow. On more than one occasion he has been put “out of sight,” but tempests have arisen and injured the building, deaths have ensued, cattle have been diseased and died off, or crops have failed, until the people have been humbled, and restored him to his proper place. One of the crowning triumphs of Dickie’s power is said to have been evinced over the formation of the new Buxton and Whaley Bridge line of railway. He seems to have held the project in thorough hatred, and let no opportunity pass of doing damage. Whenever there was a land slip or a sinking, or whenever any mishap to man, beast, or line happened, the credit was at once given to Dickie, and he was sought to be propitiated in a variety of ways.
Hutchinson, who wrote “A Tour through the High Peak” in 1807, thus speaks of the skull, and of the supernatural powers attributed to it:—
[See ‘Hutchinson’s Tour Through the High Peak of Derbyshire’ above.]
The following clever Address to “Dickie” was written by Mr Samuel Laycock, and first appeared in the Buxton Advertiser.
An’ let navvies an’ railways a be;
Mon, tha shouldn’t do soa,— it’s to’ bad,
What harm are they doin’ to thee?
Deod folk shouldn’t meddle at o’,
But leov o’ these matters to th’ wick;
They’ll see they’re done gradeley, aw know,—
Dos’ t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?
Neaw dunna go spoil ’em i’ th’ dark
What’s cost so mich labber an’ thowt;
Iv tha’ll let ’em go on wi’ their wark,
Tha shall ride deawn to Buxton for nowt;
An’ be a “director” too, mon;
Get thi beef an’ thi bottles o’ wine,
An’ mak’ as much brass as tha con
Eawt o’ th’ London an’ North Western line.
Awm surproised, Dick, at thee bein’ here;
Heaw is it tha’rt noan i’ thi grave?
Ar’ t’ come eawt o’ gettin’ thi beer,
Or havin’ a bit ov a shave?
But that’s noan thi business, aw deawt,
For tha hasn’t a hair o’ thi yed;
Hast a woife an’ some childer abeawt?
When tha’rn living up here wurt wed?
Neaw, spake, or else let it a be,
An’ dunna be lookin’ soa shy;
Tha needn’t be freeten’d o’ me,
Aw shall say nowt abeawt it, not I!
It’ll noan matter mich iv aw do,
I can do thee no harm iv aw tell,
Mon there’s moor folk nor thee bin a foo’,
Aw’ve a woife an some childer misel’.
Heaw’s business below; is it slack?
Dos’ t’ yer? aw’rn noan chaffin thee, mon;
But aw reckon ’at when tha goes back
Tha’ll do me o’ th’ hurt as tha con.
Neaw dunna do, that’s a good lad,
For awm freeten’d to deoth very nee,
An’ ewar Betty, poor lass, hoo’d go mad
Iv aw wur to happen to dee!
When aw’n ceawer’d upo’ th’ hearston’ awhoam,
Aw’m inclined, very often, to boast;
An’ aw’n noan hawve as feart as some,
But aw don’t bike to talke to a ghost.
So, Dickie, aw’ve written this song,
An’ aw trust it’ll find thee o’ reet;
Look it o’er when tha’rt noan very throng,
An’ tha’ll greatly obleege me, good neet.
P.S.—Iv tha’rt wantin’ to send a reply,
Aw can gi’e thee place ov abode,
It’s reet under Dukinfilt sky,
At thirty-nine, Cheetham Hill road.
Aw’m awfully freeten’d dos t’ see,
Or else aw’d invite thee to come,
An’ ewar Betty, hoo’s softer nor me,
So aw’d raythar tha’d tarry awhoam.
In a book published upwards of half-a-century ago, called “Hutchinson’s Tour though the Peak of Derbyshire,” subsequently in “Tales and Traditions of the High Peak,” by the late Mr. William Wood, of Eyam, and lately by Mr. Llewellynn Jewitt, the Editor of the “Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire,” in that publication, an account is given of a skull, or the remains of a skull, preserved in a farm-house at Tunstead Milton, in the parish of Chapel-en-le-Frith. Mr. Wood entitles the paper he wrote upon it, “The Miraculous Skull, or Dickey of Tunstead;” and he and Mr. Jewitt relate various instances of preternatural interposition, which have been attributed to this decayed relic of mortality.
How far consistently with truth we shall not attempt to discover; but it is quite consistent with veracity to say, that the prestige of the skull still continues amongst inhabitant of the neighbouring hamlets and farm-houses, and to some extent throughout the parish: and if the country people may be believed, “Dickey” (as he is still called), has by no means waned in his powers of good or evil influence, but has assumed to deal with matters on a large scale, and of too great importance for the interference of any but a ruling spirit. We shall only give one instance of his potential influence (to which Mr. Jewitt had briefly alluded), and leave the public to determine how far the skull is entitled to the credit of it. The newly formed line of the Stockport, New Mills, and Whaley Bridge (Buxton Extension) Railway passes through the land belonging to the farm-house where the skull is deposited, and had to cross the Coombs valley to the Chapel-en-le-Frith station by a high embankment, and an archway over the highway.
The embankment was formed, and a stately arch erected; but they were not out of the hands of the contractor before the arch rapidly sank into the earth, its walls were riven and dislocated and the ground at each end of the archway thrown up into large mounds. Every effort was made to overcome the difficulty and restore the fabric, and a very large amount was expended for that purpose, but without avail.
Either the ground was naturally a quicksand which swallowed up all the material or (according to the neighbourhood), Dickey would not have the archway in that position. The Railway Company and contractors battled with the malign power a long time, but were eventually obliged to give way, and not only remove their bridge to some distance, but form a new highway at a great expense for upwards of a quarter-of-a-mile. When this alteration (which made a new and very handsome road into the Coombs) was completed, Dickey appears to have been appeased; and the new road and bridge stand a proud monument of his engineering taste and determined opposition to the erection of the bridge upon a swamp, which might have endangered the safety of the Queen’s lieges. We cannot help thinking, however, that the Railway Company would have been better satisfied if he had remained quiet in the chimney-corner.
It seems that there are various traditions with respect to the former owner of this death’s head. Hutchinson and Wood say that it belonged to one of two co-heiresses who resided at Tunstead several centuries ago, and who was murdered there, and declared in her dying moments that her bones should remain on the place for ever; but they seem to have had no great faith in the tradition, as Hutchinson qualifies his statement by saying, “but what has not been said about it that is not pure fiction?” to which remark Wood silently assents. For our own part we not only think that the sex of the owner of Dickey’s head is determined by his traditionary name, but the information we have obtained, after considerable enquiry, tends to show that the ghost’s name “Dickey,” is a corruption of the surname Dickson, which has belonged to the owners of the place for many generations. According to the researches of some not unlearned antiquaries, and the information we have been able to gather from various sources, the most faithful history of “Dickey” is contained in the following ballad, which we have thought worthy of preservation in the pages of the “RELIQUARY.”
We do not intend to swear to its authenticity. We “tell the tale as ’twas told to us;” and we wish every tale of similar interest had as solid a foundation for its support. We are enabled to give names and dates of persons and transactions, and the names, features, and historical or traditionary facts relating to the beautiful country which is the scene of the ballad. We can do no more, and hope our readers will be satisfied with our full, true, and particular account. If they are not, we can’t help it, and beg to suggest that they will come to Tunstead Milton, which overhangs that picturesque sheet of water (ninety acres in extent) called the Coombs Lake, and examine the skull for themselves, which no doubt will afford them great edification.
That’s strong in the arm, and weak in the head:
He’s gone for a soldier across the salt sea,
To serve Henri-quatre with Lord Willoughby.
And now a bold trooper Ned Dickinson doth ride,
With pistol in holster, and sword by his side,
With back plate, and breast plate of glittering steel,
And a plume in his morion and spur on his heel.
At Ivry he fought in the Huguenot war,
And followed the white plume of him of Navarre;
Of Henri le Roi when he burst like a flood
Through the ranks of the Leaguers in glory and blood.
Hurrah now for Henry and Lord Willoughby!
Hurrah for old England, the Pride of the Sea!
Her pikemen, her bowmen, her cavalry too,
Shew the Leaguers what Englishmen’s prowess can do.
Where the battle was hottest, Ned Dickson was there,
And spurred hard his charger the honour to share;
Three times did he rescue brave Lord Willoughby,
When struck down from his horse in that famous melêe.
At length the bold trooper was wounded so sore,
That he fell from his charger, all covered with gore:
All night on the field in his blood did he lie,
And thought on his home and the summons to die.
But death did not come, he was found yet alive;
Though his comrades believed he could never survive,
His wounds were examined, the surgeon’s best art
Was exerted to save such a valorous heart.
And his life was preserved; but his strength was all gone,
He rode not, he walked not, he stood not alone:
His battles were finished, his glory was o’er;
All ended war’s pageant, he must see it no more.
Then homeward he wended across the blue sea,
And stood on the shore of his native country;
But so wasted in body, so ghastly and wan,
No friend would have known Ned the winsome young man.
He got to his homestead at Tunstead Milltown,
Where the Derbyshire hills on the valleys look down:
Old Kinder he saw in the distance appear,
And Chinley and South-head and Colbourne draw near.
Eccles Pike too, and Coombs, on whose bold rocky head,
The Roman his rampart in old time had spread,
Now lay all around him; his eye glistened bright,
As he slowly surveyed each familiar sight.
Then he entered the house, and his cousin was there,
Who if Ned should die, would become his sole heir:
He stood but no word of kind welcome had he;
And at last said, “It seems Jack thou knowest not me.”
“Who art thou? I know thee not,” answered the man,
While his dark eye the soldier did hastily scan.
“Why I am Ned Dickson, your kinsman I trow,
Come back from the wars, to the flail and the plough.”
“My cousin, Ned Dickson! thou liest,” he cried,
He’s killed in the wars as is well certified:
Moreover Ned Dickson was comely to view,
And thou’rt but a lath that the wind would blow through.”
“Natheless, I’m Ned Dickson, Jack Johnson,” he said,
“Though wounded full sorely, thoul’t find I’m not dead;
And this is my homestead, and thou art my man,
And these lands are my lands, deny it who can.”
“Say’st thou so, Cousin Ned! Well I think it be thee;
After all that we've heard it thou’rt dead over sea;
But, mass, thou art changed man, nay, prithee don’t stand,
But take thine old coach-chair, and give us thine hand.”
Then Johnson and wife were right fain of their coz;
He shook Dickson’s hand, and she gave him a bus;
And soon came good eating and drinking to boot;
Till at length they had compassed the length of Ned’s foot.
Night drew on apace, and they got him to bed,
John carried his feet, and his wife held his head;
He had the best chamber, with rushes all strewn,
And through the closed casement he gazed at the moon.
Not long did he gaze ere he fell fast asleep,
While his kinsfolk outside close vigils did keep:
They heard his long snore, and they entered the room,
In silence and darkness, and death was his doom.
They strangled the soldier, as helpless he lay,
And carried him outward before it was day:
In the paddock hard by they buried him deep,
And thought how securely their cousin would sleep.
And their cousin did sleep for awhile, and no word
Of his death, or his absence the murderers heard.
All people believed he was killed in the fight;
And Jack Johnson is heir to his land and his right.
But a year had not passed when one winterly night,
That the storm rack was hiding the moon from their sight:
Honest Jack and his helpmate cowered over the lum,
His visage was sad and her clacker was dumb.
“What's that i’ the nook, John?” she suddenly cried,
And shaking with terror they clearly espied;
The head of Ned Dickson upright on the stone,
As wan and as ghastly as when he was done.
Many years passed away and the murderers fell,
By just retribution as ancient folk tell;
By a blow from her husband the woman was killed,
By the fall of an oak was Jack Johnson’s blood spilled.
But the head of Ned Dickson still stood in the nook,
Though they tried to remove it by bell and by book;
Though wasted of skin and of flesh, still the skull
Will remain at its post till its weird be at full.
Tunstead is the name of a farm situated about half a mile to the east of the large and picturesque reservoir made for the storage of water to supply the Peak Forest canal It occupies the valley lying between Whaley Bridge and Chapel-en-le-Frith, and is a conspicuous object from the Midland and London and North-Western Railways. The word “Tunstead” of Anglo-Saxon origin, signifying a fortified place, is suggestive of a habitation of great antiquity. The house was rebuilt about a century ago, and, in its present form, is a comfortable stone-built farmhouse, one portion being separated, and occupied by a sub-tenant. It is surrounded by the usual outbuildings found on a dairy farm.
The occupier, Mr Lomas, is a favourable specimen of his class. Quiet and simple in his manner, there is a certain impressive directness in his statements which invites confidence. His courtesy to a stranger, and the surrender of a portion of his time to one who had no claim at all upon him, are gratefully remembered. With no better introduction than that a former neighbour had been in the employment of the visitor many years ago, and that such neighbour, now dead, had related strange stories of what had taken place at Tunstead, Mr Lomas good-naturedly submitted himself to a pretty sharp fire of questions.
To many of your readers it will be known that Tunstead is believed by multitudes of persons, to be the scene of strange and unexplained disturbances, and that they are connected in some way with a skull which is preserved in the house. Whatever disasters occur in the district are popularly attributed to the malign influence of the spirit once related to the skull, which resents any changes that have not received its sanction.
The slipping down into the valley of the Goyt, of the ground, on which part of the Midland railway was made, which occasioned the adoption of a detour at (great cost,) confirmed the superstition, and the collapsing of part of the end of one of the tunnels nearer to Buxton, may have had a like tendency.
The skull has ever passed by the name of “Dickie.” The following extract from a lengthy production by Samuel Laycock refers to these incidents:—
An’ let navvies and railways a be;
Mon, tha shouldn’t do soa—it's too bad.
What harm are they doin’ to thee?
Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’,
But leov o’ these matters to th’ wick;
They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know—
Does t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?
Neaw dunnot goo spoil ’em i’ th’ dark.
What’s cost soa mich labber and thowt;
Iv tha’ll let ’em goa on wi’ ther wark,
Tha shall ride deawn to Buxton for neawt.
Mr Lomas was good enough to send for the skull for inspection, from its situation on the window bottom of the chamber immediately over the kitchen. It proved to be a very imperfect affair, and consists only of three bones of a human skull, the two parietal bones and the occipital bone, which had become separated at the sutures. They were easily fitted together, and evidently formed parts of the same skeleton. They formed the greater part of the dome of the skull, but the front portion was wanting. The occipital bone was easily recognisable by the large aperture, through which the spinal cord had passed. A small portion of the bone on the line of junction of the two parietal bones was absent, and tradition asserts that this gap indicates where the wound was inflicted which caused death. The bones were dark brown in colour, from which, and their separation, it would seem that they had lain in the earth for some time. They possessed a rough polish from frequent handling.
Mr Lomas stated that he had resided on the farm for nearer thirty years than twenty, and during the whole of that period, inexplicable noises were heard more or less frequently; also it was an accepted tradition that such disturbances had existed from time immemorial. They were supposed to be connected with the skull, or rather the spirit which formerly owned it. The skull had been preserved on the farm from remote times. There were innumerable stories afloat, mostly he believed without foundation; they were, however, the outcome and exaggeration of certain curious matters undoubtedly true. The manifestations chiefly consisted of noises heard during the night, and they varied in intensity from gentle tappings to clatterings of the most pronounced character, “till you would think they were pulling the place down.” They were generally traceable to one of three circumstances, the presence of strangers, some emergency, especially when the attention of Mr Lomas was required, or to an impending death. The aversion of the spirit to the presence of strangers sometimes leads to inconvenience during the time of hay harvest, when it is needful to lodge haymakers in the outbuildings. On one occasion two men were so alarmed during the night that they made a run for it, and did not stop until they reached the village ale-house some distance away. They might there find spirits less noisy perhaps, but to say the least, equally subtle and pernicious. On another occasion three Irishmen, who were employed on the farm for the first time, inquired from the farmer on the morning after their first night’s experience if there were ghosts about, “for never a wink of sleep had we all night.” The exact word used were not “never,” but it was composed of the same number of letters. “Sure, when we were in the loft, the forks and the hay-rakes were clattering about, and the scythes were whetting theirselves, and when me and the two other boys went down to them they were all still, but they set to work as “wild as ever after we left; and when the half of us went up, and the other half stayed below, sure enough the shindy was continued in the stable.” The inconvenience from the noise when strangers are lawfully present is more than compensated for, by the sense of security enjoyed from the watchfulness of Dickie should strangers present themselves on some unlawful errand. During the lambing season, or when a cow is taken ill, or about to calve during the night, the call is so implicitly to be relied upon, that Mr Lomas, on being awoke by the noise (usually three clear taps on the window), rises at once, dresses, and proceeds to his live stock without a suspicion of being misled. These weird manifestations are therefore not regarded with aversion, but are welcomed as a substantial advantage. When the death of a member of the family is imminent, the warning is not omitted, and sometimes it takes a much more impressive, but still innocent form. On one occasion when a daughter was lying in bed dangerously ill, and Mr Lomas in the evening was sitting in the kitchen, its only ether occupant being the baby in the cradle, he heard someone come down the stairs step by step, and saw a figure, which he thought was that of one of the servants, pass close between his chair and the fire, proceed to the cradle, and stoop over it. He told her not to disturb the child, as he would carry it up to bed. The figure of the “young lady” on being addressed instantly vanished. The kitchen at the time was lighted by a candle which stood upon the table. The daughter died. This was the only occasion on which he saw the young lady, but she has not unfrequently been seen by the farm servants, or, at any rate, such is their statement. He is of opinion that some persons are more able to perceive the figure than others. It may be remarked that although the name given to the skull is suggestive of a masculine ownership, tradition requires us to accept it as that of a young lady who was murdered on the farm. Another manifestation is that of a spectral dog, which is said to be seen frequently near the bridge spanning the stream which drains the valley. The writer purposely walked alone near to the place late on a moonlight night, and established a sharp look-out for the spectral hound, but without success. An old woman recently died at the advanced age of ninety-five. In her youth she had been one of the maids at Tunstead, and she remembered the time when it was determined to put an end to the disturbances by burying the skull in the churchyard at Chapel-en-le Frith. But Dickie seems to be as decidedly averse to consecrated ground as a late sister of James Mellor, and it soon became abundantly manifest that the presence of the skull was not necessary to the production of noises, and the old lady was wont to describe her seeing the three bones brought back to Tunstead in a basket. It is not a long time since some visitors purloined the skull unknown to Mr Lomas, and took it with them to Disley. The farmer was not long left in ignorance of the sacrilegious theft, for the uproar was scarcely endurable. The appropriator fared no better, for the confusion at Disley was still worse confounded, and he was thankful to send the fragments home again. They did not, however, reach Tunstead until after a second day, and they had thus the opportunity of favouring another household with a benefit night. The power of producing manifestations in two places some miles apart, on the same occasion, or possibly in rapid succession, is a feature in the case worthy of attention. The noises have perhaps not been heard quite so frequently of late as in former years.
Such in substance is the account which the farmer was good enough to permit to be extracted from him. Mrs Lomas confirmed the narrative.
I say the tale as ’twas said to me.
In a former age such a story would be accepted greedily, and lose nothing in its passage from mouth to mouth. A more sceptical age followed, when such narratives were summarily discarded as old wives’ fables; unreasoning scepticism followed unreasoning credulity. We are now arriving at a time when the evidence for accounts of this kind is carefully examined without the bias of a foregone conclusion; and such bodies of learned men trained in the art of investigation, as compose the committee of the Psychical Society of London, enter upon the investigation in a right temper.
There is an old farmhouse in the Peak Forest, in Derbyshire, at which, it is said, there once lived two sisters who loved the same man. To put an end to their rivalry one sister murdered the other, but the dying sister said that her bones would never rest in any grave. And so it happens that her bones are kept in a “cheese-fat” in the farmhouse which stands in the staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die, or are seized with illness.
Seeing what is believed at the present day, it is not so very marvellous to find people who believe so firmly in the beneficial results obtained by owning a skull, that the bones have never been removed of late years beyond the garden. This skull is “Dicky,” the subject of this paper.
“Dicky,” as I have said, is a skull, or rather the remains of one, and his domicile is Tunstead Farm between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge. Who “Dicky” belonged to when, literally, in the flesh is a debated question. One story has it that, at one time, the farm was in possession of two sisters, co-heiresses. One of these, being foully done to death, besought, even declared, in her dying moments that her skull should for ever remain in the house.
Another story is, that this skull is that of a gallant soldier, Ned Dickson, who went to the wars, and, on his return unscathed, found his relatives had quietly taken possession of his house and effects; on very naturally wanting to know the reason of the invasion, he was promptly murdered by them and buried under the floor.
Both these tales have weak points; the first makes the skull a woman’s; then why “Dicky”? The second makes it that of a man, but it is, without a shadow of doubt, the skull of a female. However, this last story has the weight of local belief behind it.
The first story was, no doubt, the direct outcome of the news that the skull was a woman’s, and that the farm has for generations belonged to the family of Dixon (i.e., “Dicky”). Mr. Edward Dixon is the present occupier of the farm and owner of the redoubtable, but somewhat tricky and treacherous, “Dicky,” who is now in his (or her) 300th year, or thereabouts.
“Dicky” is an uninviting looking object, consisting of three fragments, two parietal and one clavical. In colour he is a fine rich shade of olive green, shaded at the edges with brown with white spots; he looks so very innocent that all the tales they tell of him seem as though they must be gross libels.
“Dicky” was kindly lent to me for purposes of portraiture in the garden of his domicile, and is shown in fig. 1. His home is in a cold-looking old-fashioned farmhouse situated on the slopes of Combs Edge, and is shown in fig. 2, the window in which he must be kept (not only is kept), being that under the white X.
[Note: Unfortunately both fig. 1 and fig. 2 were missing from the scanned copy I used.]
The present generation profess not to believe in him or his works, but there is an undercurrent of superstitious doubt which caused Mr. Dixon to tell me, on my request for permission to photograph him, that he must ask the “missus” first. The result was entirely satisfactory to me, though I was momentarily expecting some show of violent antipathy (on “Dicky’s” part) to facing the camera. Whether the present owners believe in him or not, it is a fact that only a year or two ago the loan of “Dicky” was requested for a side show and additional attraction to a bazaar then being held in the Church schools at Chapel-en-le-Frith. His owners knowing, however, his mischievous reputation, consented only on the strict understanding that he was safely returned to his accustomed window corner before sunset. At this point negotiations were broken off, both sides feeling, probably, that they were best off as they were, so “Dicky” did not enjoy the unaccustomed gaiety of a church bazaar!
Two of “Dicky’s” special qualifications, other than that for mischief, are his immunity from decay, and the fact that no dust ever accumulates on him.
He has been mentioned in Hutchinson’s Tour of the Peak; in Wood’s Tales and Traditions of the Peak; and by other writers, including the famous Llewellyn Jewitt, who has sung his deeds in verse.
“Dicky’s” pranks are the great and glorious thing about him, and he has kept them up till within recent years. The house, in which he forms such a strange guest, has belonged principally to the Dixon family for about 300 years, though at one time it did pass out of their hands for a time.
The prevailing idea has always been that provided “Dicky” was propitiated, by being left in undisturbed possession of his window ledge, all would be well with the inhabitants of the house and denizens of the farmyard. He is then safe from doing damage, and, in fact, will make himself very useful. Should he be buried the result would be far from pleasant. He has been buried twice, however—once in the churchyard of Chapel-en-le-Frith and then, by way of a thorough change, in the manure heap of his home at Tunstead. He has soon made his release imperative, whether from churchyard or manure, as life is not worth living at Tunstead in his absence.
Among “Dicky’s” pleasing traits are his habits of calling servants or other early risers, saddling the horses prior to a journey, giving notice of cows about to calve, and of cattle who were in danger on stormy nights. In fact, “Dicky” pleased is an angel, while with his wrath aroused he is just the opposite.
Not very many years ago he took a violent dislike to the railway,1 which was so arranged that, when complete, it would pass close to the house. At one place the engineers had decided to carry the track over the road. “Dicky,” however, decided that they shouldn’t, so as fast as they erected the arch, “Dicky” sent the whole thing tumbling down again—he was annoyed. Finally, the line was diverted, but that did not altogether appease “Dicky,” for a series of landslips and subsidences occurred for some time after.
Once, only once, “Dicky” was forcibly ejected from his home, during the rebuilding of the house. Before long a spectre appeared, to the consternation of the workmen, and morning after morning the work of the day before was damaged; all day long, as they worked, no matter how noisily, a moaning was distinctly heard. “Dicky” was therefore sought for and replaced, after which the work of rebuilding progressed apace.
As I have already said, the farm once left the family of Dixon and became the home of a Mr. Bramwell. This owner of “Dicky,” who appears to have been part and parcel of the farm, was a firm believer in him. He said he would far rather that his best cow should die sooner than misfortune should come to “Dicky,” and sooner than part with him he would sell his favourite milker.
Hutchinson, in his Tour of the Peak, written in 1807, says:—
“Having heard a singular account of a human skull (and of the supernatural powers attributed to it) being preserved in a house at Tunstead, … curiosity induced me to deviate a little for the purpose of making some inquiries. … That there are three parts of a human skull in the house is certain, and which I traced to have remained on the premises for near two centuries past during all the revolutions of owners and tenants in that time.
“As to the truth of the supernatural appearance, … a Mr. Adam Fox, who was brought up in the house, has not only repeatedly heard singular noises, and observed very singular circumstances, but can produce fifty persons within the parish who have seen an apparition at this place. He has often found the doors opening to his hand, the servants have been repeatedly called up of a morning, many good offices have been done by the apparition at different times, and, in fact, it is looked upon more as a guardian spirit than a terror to the family, never disturbing them but in case of an approaching death of a relation or neighbour, and showing its resentment only when spoken of with disrespect, or when its own, awful memorial of mortality is removed. Twice within the memory of man the skull has been taken from the premises—once on building the present house on the site of the old one, and another time when it was buried in Chapel churchyard— but there was no peace! no rest! it must be replaced.”
The third removal—to the manure heap—must have taken place since the above was written. The fact that Mr. Fox was in a position to bring fifty neighbours as witnesses looks as if the hospitality and good cheer at the farm must have been quite up to the old standard; for, assuming that the apparition was seen after a visit to the farm, it is most probably the case that, like Francis Brown and the Devil, a little health-drinking had been indulged in; perhaps “Dicky’s” health was drunk by way of keeping on his right side. Everyone to whom I have spoken with regard to “Dicky” has told me the same thing; he is held in the greatest veneration, and that on his removal deaths to cattle, and even in the family, have always occurred. Restoration to his accustomed perch causes perfect bliss all around. One old fellow told me that his mere removal from his accustomed window causes the cattle “to blaut and to bledder2 something dreadful,” to use his own words. I failed to notice this “blauting and bleddering” myself when I had “Dicky” out for an airing in the garden, but then the cattle were all out in the fields. He still plays his old pranks, it seems, as I was told the following story by the same gamekeeper who, as I have said, told me of the curious superstition still attached to the briar as a cure for infantile fits. A certain farm labourer, being out of work, went to the district favoured by “Dicky’s” presence, in company with three companions who were likewise unemployed. As luck would have it, he hit upon Tunstead Farm in his inquiries for work. The owner, Mr. Dixon, told him that he could set to work that day, and asked him if he knew of any others who would like a similar job. The labourer in question told him that he expected three fellow-workers shortly, and was told by Mr. Dixon to go to the largest unmown hay-field and cut a “swath”—as it is called—right through the centre. He then provided the man with a scythe and whetstone.
Thankful to have found work, and anxious to please his new employer, the labourer soon had his scythe sharpened, and set to work as he was told. He cut so well that he never stopped to look back till his single line was cut right through the field of grass. On looking back, pleased with his work, his amazement may be imagined at finding all his carefully cut grass standing upright again, as though untouched. When he had more or less recovered the use of his faculties, he picked up his scythe and marched off to lay a complaint with his employer, Mr. Dixon. On hearing his tale, this good man was no whit astonished. He then explained to the bewildered labourer that most unfortunately “Dicky” was annoyed at some trivial thing, and was therefore venting his wrath on his unfortunate owner by delaying the cutting of his hay. Finally, Mr. Dixon suggested that the mowing should be postponed till the following day, during which interval “Dicky” might perhaps be appeased, or in some way propitiated. But the victim of “Dicky’s” pranks had seen and heard quite enough, and promptly decided that he would leave such extraordinary quarters. This he did.
The gamekeeper in question knows the labourer who was thus victimised, and obtained this tale from his own lips. The man knew nothing of “Dicky” prior to the curious pranks referred to, having never been near that part of the county before. He is most strongly impressed by his experience.
The real tale may be of a different nature. The sun may have been very fierce and the man’s libations rather frequent and copious, the result being that, when he at last set to work, he succeeded in effectively blunting his scythe by taking off the edge with the whetstone. On mowing away he merely knocked down the grass in a manner worthy of all praise, and, by the time he reached the other end of the field, the majority had sprung up again; in fact, while the somewhat unsteady victim of his own foolishness was gaping open-mouthed at the miracle which had been taking place, the grass near him was continually springing up bit by bit to its original position, in his sight.
No doubt many of these stories have simple foundations, they all make “Dicky” very child-like (and feminine?) in his likes and dislikes, his temper and his pleasure at trifles. Some slight insult, or petty injury, arouses a childish spitefulness, most unpleasant in its operation to those concerned. “Dicky” allowed to have his own way is “Dicky” the useful, a helper not a hindrance.
The results of his two interments were disastrous, as deaths, both in the family and among the live stock, were the immediate outcome of such a gross violation of the direct wishes of the person in whose body “Dicky” was once an important part. It does seem ridiculous to think of people, at the present day, rescuing three mouldering bones from the manure heap in the farmyard simply because some person or beast had paid the debt of nature.
As I have said, he was once buried in the churchyard of Chapel-en-le-Frith; it would be interesting to know if any ceremony was gone through on that occasion, and whether an order from the Home Secretary was necessary in order to exhume him.
I have talked about “Dicky” to a great many people who have heard of him, and in some cases known him for years; they all say just the same when asked their opinion; they say “I don’t believe in him, and yet—there must be something.” This, I think, fairly represents local feeling towards him. There is no absolute dread of him, but there is an undercurrent of superstition which makes people regard him as more than ordinary, less than dangerous, and, on the whole, too curious and mysterious to be passed by with contempt. The hesitancy of the owner is a case in point, for, on my requesting him to allow me to photograph “Dicky,” he seemed put out, and finally said he would ask his wife; the consultation took fully a couple of minutes, and was conducted in camerâ; the result was satisfactory, in more ways than one, as it left me free to photograph him and also gave me an insight into the regard in which he is held.
His fame is in all the county round, for, when I went over to photograph him, I overshot the turn to the farm by a considerable distance. I felt sure I was wrong, and so merely inquired for the farm at which “Dicky” was; this was quite sufficient information as to what I wanted, for I was told at once.
As far as I can learn, “Dicky” has always lived in the window which he now occupies, i.e., that under the white X in fig. 2. Mr. Wood, in his Tales and Traditions of the Peak, gives his usual position in the house as in quite another place. He says:—
“Once the skull was buried in Chapel-en-le-Frith churchyard, but the apparition appeared, and then commenced ‘weeping and wailing, if not gnashing of teeth’; cattle strayed, some died, others came to sundry misfortunes; and during the ‘witching hours of night’ the furniture was tossed up and down in utter confusion. In this direful dilemma it was suggested to the then occupant to exhume the skull, restore it to its old quarters—an old cheese vat in a window bottom in the staircase; this done order was immediately restored, and soon all went on as before, charmingly and pleasingly ‘as a marriage bell.’”
In the above quotation the italics are mine. This raises an interesting question as to its position—is the window his original position? Or does the window now fill the position of the original window on the staircase? Was the burial in the churchyard, and subsequent exhumation, before or after the rebuilding of the house?
If the window was not his original position, the tales about “Dicky’s” pranks must be of a date prior to the rebuilding of the house. If his present position in the window is equivalent to his original position in the staircase window, the comparative age of the stories cannot be told.
On the face of it there seems to be some doubt if this window is “Dicky’s” original position; if it is not he ought to be playing all sorts of pranks to keep up his reputation. On the other hand, I have Mrs. Dixon’s word that it is the original position, and the family certainly ought to know. I particularly asked whether it had ever been placed in anything at any time—as I remembered Mr. Wood’s words—but I was distinctly told that it had, as far as they knew, always lain on the window-sill, “one piece inside the others (like three saucers).” Possibly Mr. Wood was “romancing,” as he was very fond of doing in his books.
I believe “Dicky” has only once before been photographed.
Those who have their interest, or superstitious susceptibilities, aroused, and wish to pay a visit to “Dicky,” will find him at Tunstead Farm, near Tunstead Milton. The latter place is on the main road between Whaley Bridge and Chapel-en-le-Frith, and the farm in question is on the side of the hill on the south of the road, i.e., the left-hand side as one goes away from Chapel-en-le-Frith. It looks down on the great Combs Reservoir, and is the house on the left of all as one approaches it. This Tunstead must not be confused with the similarly-named hamlet between Buxton and Tideswell, which is also not far from Chapel-en-le-Frith.
Long may “Dicky” exist to keep in mind the curious superstitions and beliefs of former days, of which there is far too little nowadays, when even the miracles of the Bible are discussed, disproved, and disbelieved. The stories of Francis Brown and the Devil, and also the farm labourer and “Dicky,” would make good material for a temperance lecture!
2 A Derbyshire expression meaning the “lowing” of cattle. “Blaut” = bellow and low, or bleat and low.
At Tunstead, between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge, a skull in three pieces has long been kept inside the window of a house. It is known as Dicky Tunstead. If the skull is taken away, things will go wrong in the house and on the land. When the house was being rebuilt and new windows put in, they set Dicky on a couple beam in the barn, and thought they had done with him, and would hear no more of him; but at the rearing supper he made such a disturbance that they had to bring him back into the house. Dicky appears in all kinds of shapes—sometimes as a dog, and sometimes as a young lady in a silk dress. In whatever form he appears, he will point to something amiss if you will follow him. One of the “quarrels” of glass in the window where Dicky is is always out, and if it is put in it is always found taken out again next morning.
I was told that at Dunscar, a farmhouse in the parish of Castleton, there is a human skull on the outside of a window sill. If it is removed, the crops fare badly. I went to the farmhouse myself, and found no skull there, and the tenant who had lived there for many years had never heard of such a thing.
Mr. Andrew pointed out to me what certainly appeared to be vestiges of a small circle on the hillside above Tunstead and Cadster House adjoining the old lane from Combs to Fernilee. It had then (about 1910) been almost obliterated by cattle, etc., but the general outline could be traced, A theory suggests itself that it might be from this tumulus that the skull locally called “Dickie” came to the farm below. A full account of this circle is given by Mr. Andrew in Memorials of Old Derbyshire.
The skull is now at Tunstead Farm, its local name, “Dickie,” having apparently been applied to it without any reference to the present owners, about the middle of the last century when an “address” to it was published in a local newspaper and is printed in The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire (1867). When Hutchinson, the author of A Tour Through the High Peak, saw it about the year 1790 (before the present owners were in possession) he was told by the tenant, Adam Fox, that it had been in the house for “near two centuries,” and he records various extraordinary happenings alleged to be connected with it, adding “on this head the candid reader will think for himself; my duty is only faithfully to relate what I have been told”—and this is the position taken up by the present writer. Some years ago the skull was examined by an eminent surgeon, who was of opinion that it is the skull of a female about eighteen years of age. In the vault of the skull is a small circular hole, the presence of which tends to confirm the suggestion that it may have been found in the neighbouring tumulus, for this may be an instance of the practice of primitive man to make such incisions to liberate the spirit of the departed. The owners state that no mystical demonstrations have taken place during their recollection, and they resent the many foolish misstatements and the vulgar curiosity which compels them to refuse to allow the skull to be seen.
Combs appears more self-contained in its comfortable valley because of the embanked railway that goes across the mouth of it and shuts off the wider strath of Chapel-en-le-Frith. When this line was built—the old L.N.W.R. line from London Road, Manchester, to Buxton—there was difficulty with a bridge known locally as Dickie’s. Near by is Tunstead Farm where lies Dickie’s skull. How old it is, nobody knows, but when it was examined some years ago by a medical man it was said to show no sign of decay and he thought it was the skull of a girl of about eighteen. One theory is that it may have been taken in the forgotten past from a tumulus on the hillside above. The skull had a reputation for strange powers and when the trouble arose is was at once said that it was because Dickie objected to the line. Eventually the site of the bridge was moved (there was quicksand at the original site) and there has been no trouble since, but twenty years ago it was still possible to find people who would tell tales of what Dickie had done, tales which they told with faith. One which I liked was about the days when farmers had to take their butter and eggs by horseback along the old road by Whitehall to Buxton. The then tenant of Tunstead Farm was riding along with his wife up behind him. She was tired after the long day, but it was her duty at every gate to get down, hold it open, and fasten it again when her husband had ridden through. “I wish Dickie would oppen ’em,” said the weary woman, getting ready to drop off again. As she did so the gate obligingly opened. The woman could almost have bitten her tongue out for having spoken. After that every gate to the farm opened in the same way, but the good woman instead of being grateful reached home nearly in a collapse.
While I was in Whaley Bridge I heard so much about the skull of Dickie of Tunstead, the skull which refused to be buried and to which legend had attributed the cause of many catastrophies, that I could not resist the temptation to wander a little from the Valley of the Goyt along the road to Chapel-en-le-Frith to the hamlet of Tunstead in the hope of seeing the skull.
For more than a century it had rested in the window of Tunstead Farm, overlooking Coombe Valley, so I was told. It had a reputation of being unable to settle in any grave. Whenever it had been buried in the past, such strange things had happened that the occupiers of the farm were only too pleased to dig it up again.
Dickie’s skull, they told me, was believed to be that of one Ned Dickson, of Tunstead, who left his farm to fight in the French wars. He was reported dead, and a cousin, perhaps a little prematurely, took possession of his property. When Dickie returned very much alive and anxious to have his home back, the cousin and his wife murdered him in his sleep. His skull took revenge by refusing to lie buried in the earth and in course of time all local calamities were put down to its vengeful influence.
When the Old North Western Railway was taken by the side of Tunstead Farm, a bridge built over it was found to be on quicksand and was thrown down. Again Dickie’s skull took the blame. However, the considerable walk to Tunstead Farm ended in bitter disappointment, for the then occupants, Mr. and Mrs. Vickers, who had been there for five years, had seen nothing of the skull. “It was not here when we came, and I have no idea where it is,” said Mr. Vickers. This news will surprise Whaley Bridge, for I was assured by them that it was still there. What has happened to the skull apparently is a mystery.
Ned Dixon, yeoman Farmer, went to the Wars under Henry IVth, overseas; he was wounded, and for many months did not see England.
On returning to his home at Tunstead, he found that his cousin, who was also his heir, presuming him dead, had taken Possession of the farm, and did not want to give it up.
It was a shock for the cousin and his wife to see him again, for they had hoped him dead, so at first they pretended not to know him, for indeed war combined with illness had certainly changed him.
Eventually, they allowed him to enter, gave him a good meal with plenty to drink and then they helped him to bed.
During the night they killed him, burying his body in the orchard so that Cousin could be still master of the house.
From that day ill-luck dogged their path until they both came to an untimely end.
Later they dug up the skull, and placed it in a place of honour in the window of the house piece, hoping to placate the powers that be.
The skull is supposed to have great powers of evil, but everything went well if “Dickey” was not moved. It had the power to make roofs fall in, cows to drop their calves, pigs and hens to die, and accidents to happen to people.
There is not much left of the skull now, and I have known of many accidents happening, and without mentioning names, it has always been when the skull was moved.
Dickey was blamed in 1862, when the Railway was being built. The Company could not get solid foundations for their bridges, and several collapsed.
One bridge collapsed overnight, burying the workmen’s tools. This was Dane Hey Bridge, and a new road to Chapel with bridge, had to be built higher up the line.
Even now, with very old people, the “hoo-doo” remains, and when my Mother was young, no one would dare cross Dickey’s land after dusk.
At one time visitors to the district could purchase postcards with photographs of the “miraculous skull” and giving a few particulars of its association with a farmhouse overlooking the Coomb’s Reservoir between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Whaley Bridge. Tenants of the farm who treated the skull with proper respect found it a talisman against evil and misfortune; while those who handled it with abuse inevitably suffered ill-effects. During one period of its history the skull was nailed to a rafter in the house-place, and for a while it was kept in a cheese-vat in a staircase window. One of the panes in this window had the reputation of being persistently displaced as though the skull required more ventilation, and, upon being reglazed, the pane was invariably found next morning lying undamaged on the grass outside.
It can be well imagined that the prospect of sharing a house with such a biological curiosity was repellent to some tenants; others considered it a breach of decency; while there were those who refused to countenance such superstitious nonsense at any cost. But, one after another, they changed their minds—however reluctantly—and accepted Dickey as a member of the family. For whenever it has been removed from the premises, such disturbances have been created that the defaulting tenants have lost no time in recovering and restoring the insulted skull to the farm.
During its long association with Tunstead Farm, the skull has been discarded by several farmers as an object of superstition. But during its absence cattle strayed away or died of strange diseases, crops failed, accidents occurred and misfortunes were generally multiplied. Not only the tenants, but the cattle and crops, it would appear, lay within the shadow of a sinister influence—the curse of Dickey’s skull.
Once it was thrown into the Coomb’s Reservoir, but the fish died; twice it was buried in Chapel-en-le-Frith churchyard, but hurriedly exhumed each time; it was contemptuously flung into the river and fished out again in a desperate hurry. While the farmhouse was being re-built, the skull was irreverently buried in a manure- heap, but the workmen were persistently hindered, finding the previous day’s work undone when they returned next morning. In addition to this frustration of their work, the men complained that as they hewed and hammered, they could distinctly hear low, unearthly moans. When the skull was disinterred and restored to a temporary place on one of the couple-beams in the barn, the work proceeded normally. But, at the “rearing supper” to mark completion of the work, there was no peace until Dickey had been brought back and restored to a position of honour in the farmhouse. Yet in spite of its many adventures and adversities, tradition claimed that the skull was “impervious to decay and no dust would ever settle on it.” One writer asserted that the spectre of a lady in a black silken dress and a phantom dog were associated with the hauntings.
Dickey was never what one might call malicious or vindictive. He could even appreciate a joke, for one man told me that, as a youth, he and several friends used the shallow cranium for the purpose of drinking water, reminding one of the grim chalice used by Lord Byron and his friends. The risk of retribution to the youths was indeed great, but I was assured that none of them suffered any ill effects. Perhaps Dickey remembered that he had once been young and irresponsible!
One night a thief was caught in the act of stealing potatoes from the garden. He had filled his sack and hoisted it upon his shoulder, but, when he attempted to move, he found himself utterly powerless to stir a limb. Meanwhile, the doors of the farm were shaken violently and crockery rattled on the shelves until the sleeping household was awakened and the thief captured. Passing down the lane near the farm, another man who was in charge of a corn-laden waggon, noticed a light in the window occupied by the skull and made a derogatory remark about Dickey going to bed, reinforcing his comment with an oath. Instantly the waggon was overturned and, crestfallen and much discomfited, the fellow had to go in search for helpers to right his capsized vehicle.
In a 1934 issue of the Derbyshire Countryside, Dr. L. du Garde Peach wrote of a short visit he paid to the farm, on which occasion he slept in a back room overlooking a small walled croft or garden. A week or two later, a French woman came to act as temporary housekeeper and occupied the same room. During the first night she was wakened by a feeling that something dreadful was happening in the back garden. So strong was the intuition that she got out of bed and peered through the window, and there saw two figures engaged in a desperate struggle in the moonlight. She was able to discern the form of a man who was in the act of strangling a young woman, when there was a sudden stifled scream and the two figures were blotted out by a cloud scudding across the face of the moon. Dr. Peach wrote: “The French housekeeper left next day. She had always known that she was psychic, but nothing would induce her to stay another night under the same roof as Dickie’s skull.”
There is a rival story to that which says that the skull was part of the anatomy of Ned Dickson, and this claims that it was the original property of one of two co-heiresses to the farm who was foully murdered and who expressed the dying wish that her bones should not be removed from the premises. This legend can be more readily vindicated than can the Trooper Dickson story. As far back as 1809 a writer contended “The skull has always been said to be that of a female, but why it should have been baptised with a name belonging to the male sex, seems somewhat anomalous.” This challenge as to the masculinity of the frail fragments of mortality has been confirmed, I believe, by pathological examination, causing the Ned Dickson legend to totter and strengthening the co-heiress story, but the name “Dickey” still clings to the skull.
J. Castle Hall wrote: “Many years ago there lived here two sisters who were legatees of considerable property in the neighbourhood, including Tunstead Farm. For several years they lived very unhappily together; indeed, they quarrelled almost daily on who should be the final heiress of the house in which they lived. However, it is said that on her deathbed one of the sisters muttered continuously the words, ‘My bones shall remain here for ever.’ Tradition has it that for many years after her death the cottage was haunted, and owing to strange sounds became untenable until someone, remembering the dying words of the deceased owner, dug up her remains and brought the skull and placed it on a window-sill of the room in which the woman had died.
“According to the evidence of many local inhabitants, the house is peaceful and quiet while the skull remains there, but if it be removed the voices recur, and a voice is heard in the wind as the latter, with strange moanings, comes through the keyholes of every door in the house, saying, ‘Fetch poor Dickie back … Fetch poor Dickie back …,‘ and to this day the weird skull rests in the quiet corner of the window, and in the room a peculiar silence reigns.”
When helping to write a book on Derbyshire walks some years ago, I entered into conversation with a workman at Shallcross Manor. The conversation began with a query concerning the mysterious Roosedyche, but eventually veered round to the famous “Piltdown Man of the Peak”, when I learned that—as far as my informant knew—the skull had been built into a wall of the farmhouse. Dickey is not unique in the Peak District as an amulet against evil, for we find several other instances of the same physical link connected with abstract hauntings. Dr. Addy tells of a skull which was kept on a window-sill at Dunscar Farm, near Castleton.
One local resident has described how:
As remarked at the head of the page, the popular image of the Tunstead Farm skull is, not surprisingly, of a skull. The reality falls somewhat short of this; as described by several of the writers who saw it, it is neither intact nor complete, comprising only three fragments: the occipital bone and the left and right parietal bones – essentially the base and the rear part of the skull. The front, the sides, and the jaw are missing. As G. Le Blanc Smith was told, these were normally kept “one piece inside the others (like three saucers).”, a form which doesn’t exactly fit the idea of the Dickey looking out of the window surveying his territory. The following photograph, which comes from a picture postcard, shows the three pieces being held roughly together by placing them in a heap of soil, to give some idea of how it would appear if it were still intact.
As the skull has now disappeared, where it came from must remain a mystery. But the suggestion made by William Bunting, that it came from a nearby tumulus, seems the most likely. Keeping a modern skull around the house – whether that of a murder victim or a recently deceased relative – is frowned upon. Nowadays we assume that excavating old barrows is the work of professional archaeologists, but before the 20th century, taking items from old burial mounds to keep as personal curiosities was not unusual. Even in the 19th century, the high point of amateur archaeology, gentry and clergymen would dig up relics from nearby barrows, and earlier than this they would either be turned up by ploughing or be looted by treasure-seekers as a matter of routine.
Some earlier owner of Tunstead Farm may well have come across the three pieces of skull in an already plundered or accidentally damaged barrow, and have decided to keep them in the farmhouse. Once established there it’s easy to see how superstitions about its removal would arise – there are many such skulls in houses across England, and they typically have a similar taboo against their being disposed of.
There are two accounts that don’t fit with this: the ones mentioned by David Clarke and Clarence Daniel, who both quote people who had heard stories of how the skull was found encased in a wall when the farmhouse was being rebuilt. These stories only appeared in the late 20th century though, and were perhaps later elaborations, or had become confused with another, similar local legend. Certainly it is strange that none of the earlier residents of the farm made any mention of this version, which can probably be discounted as anecdotal.
Naming the skull
In the first two accounts to appear in print, by John Hutchinson in 1809, and Bernard Bird in 1854, the skull isn’t named. Indeed the origin of the skull gets only a single sentence: ‘Venerable time carries a report, that one of two coheiresses residing here was murdered, and declared, in her last moments, that her bones should remain on the place forever.’ Nothing is said of their names, their ages, the relationship between the two, or even what they are co-heirs to; it isn’t even specifically said that both of them were resident at the farm. There are plenty of blanks for later storytellers to fill in.
Then, in 1862, William Wood questioned why the name ‘Dickey’ should have been given to the skull of a woman. But from where had the name appeared, and when? Presumably Hutchinson would have mentioned it in his account if he’d been told, as it would have jarred in his mind too. While Bird’s article was rather brief, one would have expected him to remark on such an incongruity too, but he didn’t. The implication is that the name was coined between 1854 and 1862 – something that William Braylesford Bunting noted: ‘The skull is now at Tunstead Farm, its local name, “Dickie,” having apparently been applied to it without any reference to the present owners, about the middle of the last century when an “address” to it was published in a local newspaper and is printed in The Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire (1867).’
Bunting was almost certainly correct. The most obvious event relating to the skull that took place in this time was the building of the railway line between Whaley Bridge and Buxton. The Act of Parliament authorising it was passed in 1857, so by this time anyone who owned land over which the line would pass would be aware of its course. This would include Tunstead Farm with its famous skull, something that would hardly go unnoticed by those living in the area. So there would already be talk about it before construction work began in July 1859. A local woman, Marguerite (“Peggy”) Bellhouse, reflecting on the changes that had occurred in Combs in her 1968 book The Story of Combs My Village, wrote the following:
Perhaps the Real Village, was before the Reservoir or Railway came, both of which must have changed the farming life considerably. What arguments, what grumbles these projects must have brought, whilst supping the local brew in the Bee Hive.
“They’m cuttin’ thraw Dickie’s land wi’ the Rail, sirree, owt con ’oppen, I reckon.”
She was probably right. It’s not in the least surprising that the difficulties with the bridge under the Combs embankment were attributed to the skull, and though this occurred in October 1862, it seems unlikely that this was the first time that someone had made an association between the skull and the building of the railway across the land of Tunstead Farm. And if the local populace had started to gossip about how the skull was responsible for such events, it would only have been a matter of time before someone gave it a nickname.
As already mentioned, Hutchinson had devoted most of his piece about the skull to its supernatural powers; the reference to it being that of an unnamed woman was a single closing sentence. Presumably this reflected the relative importance of the two to local people, which might account for why the affectionate name of ‘Dickey’ could be attached to it without causing controversy – other than among those, such as William Wood, who were more familiar with the legend of the two heiresses. Certainly the name was coined at around this time, and once it had been used in the popular press – the piece in The Panorama appeared in May 1863, and Samuel Laycock’s poem was printed in July – it stuck.
Why the name ‘Dickey’ should have been chosen is perhaps not so important. It may be that, as more than one later writer was to suggest, it was derived from the name Dixon, since the then occupant of the farm was Sam Dixon. Or it may have been no more than because Dickey was a common name; Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes it as having been a popular term of endearment at the time, as seen in the expression ‘dicky bird’. But whatever the origin, it was there to stay, to cause both confusion and frustration to later writers.
It was highly likely the appearance of this name (or to be exact the assumption that there was a connection with the surname ‘Dixon’) that led to the creation of the ballad about Ned Dickson, which William Bennett supplied to The Reliquary in 1868. It’s interesting that the ballad contains the same element of the earlier story of the skull being that of someone murdered over an inheritance; this may have been a coincidence, or it may be that it contributed to it. Bennett writes ‘According to the researches of some not unlearned antiquaries, and the information we have been able to gather from various sources, the most faithful history of “Dickey” is contained in the following ballad…’, so he at least was claiming that he’d drawn from local sources, and had not made it up entirely himself. This may seem odd, but it could hardly have been expected that everyone in the locality would have had a copy of Hutchinson’s book, which had, after all, been published almost sixty years earlier, and the story of the murdered heiress may have been only a tenuous memory by this time.
It should be noted, however, that the pseudo-history of Ned Dickson, apparently based on the assumption that the farm had been in the hands of the Dixon family for centuries, is false. Marguerite Bellhouse’s The Story of Combs My Village supplies a comprehensive list of farmers in Combs, including the owners and tenants of the two farms at Tunstead: the owner at the time of the Battle of Ivry was John Mellor, and though three generations of the Dixon family were owners or tenants at various times from 1800, the name does not appear before then.
Another possible reason for the link between Dixon, Dickey, and the skull going back to antiquity may have arisen out of a misunderstanding. When William Andrews wrote a piece called Skull Superstitions that was to appear in several publications, he quoted William Wood’s Tales and Traditions of the High Peak. But Wood’s text was ambiguous: his sentence “The skull has always been said to be that of a female; but why it should have been baptized with a name belonging to the male sex seems somewhat anomalous: still not more wonderful than a many, if not all of its very singular pranks and services.” is at the start of a paragraph that ends with a quotation from John Hutchinson, whose book he cites in a footnote… but Andrews evidently mistook this footnote to mean that the entire paragraph had come from Hutchinson. In other words, he assumed that the name ‘Dickey’ was already being applied to the skull in the 18th century. This misunderstanding was to be perpetuated by many other writers since then, who therefore also repeated the mistaken belief about a connection between Dixon (or Dickson) and Tunstead Farm, while in reality it only appeared around 1860.
Be that as it may, the name – and the sex – of the skull’s original owner were set, and it has never since been referred to as anything other than ‘Dickey’ or ‘he’.
While the forced relocation of the railway bridge on the Whaley Bridge to Buxton line has been classed as Dickey’s most notable achievement, the event has been rather exaggerated. To read the descriptions, the planned bridge was to have been on land belonging to Tunstead Farm, but looking at the map shows that it was to go over a road lying between the village of Combs and the main road between Whaley Bridge and Chapel-en-le-Frith. Far from being on Dickey’s territory, it was almost a mile from the farm, on fields belonging to a farm then called Dane Hey (Lane Ends on the modern map below). In fact there are no fewer than seven bridges that lie closer to the farm than the one in question, and none of them apparently incurred Dickey’s wrath.
A local railway enthusiast, J. W. Sutherland, prepared a set of notes on the subject in 1962, excerpts of which were published in Volume 109 of The Railway Magazine in 1963, and they appeared in full in a later book, from which the rather more prosaic account comes:
But Nemesis was at hand and by October Crosse was having trouble from subsidence in the high embankment where the line curves round past the Combs. It was found impossible to establish firm foundations for a road underbridge and eventually he decided that the only solution would be to divert the road so that it passed under the railway at a shallower part of the embankment where the ground was firmer. No further difficulties were experienced but several months’ delay had in the meantime been caused to the completion of the line.
But having been started, the belief remained. Furthermore, the story would grow in the telling. While most 19th century accounts accurately described the circumstances, later writers evidently felt that the rerouting of a road wasn’t ambitious enough. The bridge under the Combs embankment was forgotten, and – despite what the map shows – it became the railway that was diverted to avoid crossing the fields of Tunstead Farm, increasing Dickey’s powers considerably.
‘Dickie’s Bridge’ can also be seen by travelling along Combs Road using Google Maps, though the truncated ends of the former course of the road aren’t accessible.
The young woman in the silk dress
Despite the shift to the use of the name ‘Dickey’, and the writing of the ballad of Ned Dickson, references continued to made to a woman in association with the skull. Mr Lomas is recorded as seeing the ghost of a young woman presaging the death of a daughter. He appears to have believed that this ghost was that of the owner of the skull, or at least that there was a link of some sort. Other writers also refer to a young woman, or specifically a young woman in a silk dress (S.O. Addy, Memorials of Old Derbyshire), or even in a black silken dress (Clarence Daniel, Ghosts of Derbyshire), being associated with the skull. But was the skull actually that of a woman? G. Le Blanc Smith, writing in 1905, seems to be quite certain of it:
Both these tales have weak points; the first makes the skull a woman’s; then why “Dicky”? The second makes it that of a man, but it is, without a shadow of doubt, the skull of a female. However, this last story has the weight of local belief behind it.
The first story was, no doubt, the direct outcome of the news that the skull was a woman’s, and that the farm has for generations belonged to the family of Dixon.
So, as far as he was concerned, the earlier legend took the form it did because the skull had been identified as that of a woman. How either he or they should have been so sure (given that there were only three fragments left) isn’t mentioned, but the decision appears to have been borne out by ‘an eminent surgeon’ a few years later. As William Bunting writes, this unnamed surgeon ‘was of opinion that it is the skull of a female about eighteen years of age.’
According to Clarence Daniel (see quotation above) the young woman was to appear again much later, but in rather odd circumstances, and not tying in with either of the existing legends about the skull. He quotes L. Du Garde Peach, a local playwright and editor of Derbyshire Countryside, as giving a description of a French housekeeper at Tunstead Farm seeing the ghostly tableau of a young woman being strangled by a man. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to see a copy of the 1934 issue of the Derbyshire Countryside in question, but the claim made by L. du Garde Peach prompts a few questions. Why was he staying overnight at the farm? How did he hear of the French housekeeper’s ghost-sighting? It would be interesting to know, because, having been to the farm, I find it hard to imagine that there’s enough room to strangle anyone in the back garden; the building is set back into the hillside, which slopes down steeply to the rear of the house. But, scepticism aside, what drama did she see being enacted? The murdered heiress wasn’t killed by a man, and the wife of Ned Dickson’s murderous cousin wasn’t strangled – at least not according to the legend.
Clarence Daniel also gave a variant of the two heiresses story. He quotes J. Castle Hall (unfortunately without saying who he was or where he was writing) as saying that the two were sisters, both living in Tunstead farm, and were legatees of ‘considerable property in the area’. However in this version there is no murder; it is simply that one of the sisters, on her deathbed, muttered the words ‘My bones shall remain here forever.’ After a traditional burial ‘strange sounds’ prompted someone to remember these dying words, and to exhume the corpse, remove the head, and put it on the window sill.
Alfred Fryer wrote that “A small portion of the bone on the line of junction of the two parietal bones was absent, and tradition asserts that this gap indicates where the wound was inflicted which caused death.” This is presumably why the victim – whether Ned Dickson or the unnamed heiress – was not described as having been strangled. But it did give rise to speculation by William Bunting that the hole was evidence of a post-mortem ritual to release the spirit of the dead girl, in support of his belief that the skull had come from a nearby burial mound. Whether he was right about this is a matter of conjecture, but it has become more generally accepted in recent times that the practice of trepanning dates back further than was once believed, and this is another possible reason for the hole.
Sadly for this interpretation, however likely it may seem compared with the other stories, it wouldn’t account for why the ghost of the woman would be wearing a silk dress, so we are left to wonder as to who she might be.
While we can know nothing about the earlier forms Tunstead Farm took, Albert Fryer’s description made in 1886 tells us that the present building was constructed in the late 18th century: “The house was rebuilt about a century ago, and, in its present form, is a comfortable stone-built farmhouse, one portion being separated, and occupied by a sub-tenant.” Looking at the positions of the chimney stacks, it’s clear that the two halves were built at different times, with the left part being added in two stages, first a half-width one, which was then extended to make it full-width. The extension would have created the second, sub-let dwelling mentioned by Fryer, which is now an independently-owned property called Meveril Farm.
One minor curiosity is that it can be seen from the long lintels, and, on the right side at least, the uprights still embedded in the wall, that the windows of Tunstead Farm were originally wider and shallower. Whether this was an inconvenience to Dickey or not isn’t recorded.
Hutchinson writes ‘on building the present house on the site of the old one’, making it clear that the old one was demolished and an entirely new one built. This creates the problem that Dickey, who is described as resenting any attempt at relocation, could hardly have been put back in his favourite position on the same window sill. Another inconsistency is the way the skull is variously described as occupying ‘an old cheese vat in a window bottom in the staircase’, and ‘the window bottom of the chamber immediately over the kitchen’. G Le Blanc Smith picked up on both, but the latter especially, suggesting that William Wood may have invented the idea of the cheese vat himself; however S. O. Addy also gives this location, and the way he uses the variant spelling ‘cheese-fat’ implies that the two writers used an independent source. Presumably the cheese vat on the staircase was in the older house, and the chamber window sill was in the new one, and Dickey was obliged to adapt to his new situation.
The woman in white and the black dog
While not so obviously connected with Dickey’s skull, there is the matter of another ghostly woman seen nearby, called the White Lady of Cadster. As Marguerite Bellhouse wrote in 1968, in The Story of Combs My Village:
Cadster is the next farm to the west, and it’s on the land of this farm that Cadster Stone Circle lay. I have to say ‘lay’, because there is little to be seen of it now other than a few stones barely showing above the turf, but it’s the place where William Bunting suggested the skull came from, so is worth a mention.
Though some writers refer to a spectral black dog in connection with the skull, there doesn’t seem to be any convincing reason for such an association. The black dog is mentioned in slightly more detail by Marguerite Bellhouse:
BLACK DOG. There is a haunting by a black dog at the Cockyard, also at Ollerenshaw and Barmoor.
This dog appears from nowhere, at the top of the hill on the road to Combs, and walks behind one, right down the hill, when coming dusk. It wakes no noise acknowledges nobody, and vanishes into nothing at the foot of the hill.
I have experienced this , and know it to be true. My Mother also saw it, when a girl.
The places named above – Cockyard, Barmoor, and Ollerenshaw – are not particularly close to Tunstead Farm, and there doesn’t appear to be any reference to the dog being seen at the farm itself. Presumably the association is simply by general proximity rather than due to any relationship to the legend.
Where is Dickey now?
When Clifford Rathbone visited Tunstead Farm in 1955 he was told by Mr and Mrs Vickers that the skull wasn’t there, and hadn’t been there when they moved in. But it seems they being economical with the truth. Dr David Clarke, writer of Ghosts and Legends of the Peak District quoted above, wrote a section about Dickey’s skull in his PhD thesis. In it he described being told that the next owners, Mr and Mrs Bishop, had acquired the skull, and Mrs Bishop hadn’t been too happy about it. He quoted a neighbour, Mrs Edith Foster, who said she’d met Mrs Bishop shortly after she and her husband had bought the farm in around 1977, speaking to the pastor of the Pentecostal Church in Whaley Bridge about it:
When I visited the farm in 2014 to take the photographs included on this page there was little evidence of the once-famous legend. However I’m grateful to Mr John Foley of neighbouring Meveril Farm for one last anecdote about the dangers of incurring Dickey’s anger:
Tunstead Farm’s current occupants are Ed Lomas and Jacky Johnson. Ed Lomas had an interesting encounter early one morning on his way to work: he saw a woman wearing what looked to him like a white sari who abruptly vanished – but this corresponds with The White Lady of Cadster rather than Dickey o’ Tunstead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that this was now nearly 40 years on, neither of them had any knowledge of what Rita Bishop had done with the skull, so its ultimate fate must remain a mystery. No accounts directly relating to the skull have emerged for nearly a hundred years now. After well over a century of stories of his paranormal activities, Dickey seems to have been laid to rest at last.