During the early part of the 20th century the young lords and ladies at Hickleton Hall would enjoy the thrill of being read stories from their father’s ‘Ghost Book’. In 1936, the then Earl of Halifax decided to publish all the little stories into one publication to be enjoyed by a wider audience, you and I. The Earl writes in his own words, “As long as I can remember, my father’s Ghost Book was one of the most distinctive associations of Hickleton. Many is the time after [spending an evening listening to these tales] we children would hurry upstairs, feeling that the distance between the Library and our nurseries, dimly lit by oil lamps and full of shadows, was a danger area where we would not willingly go alone, and where it was unsafe to dawdle”.
Here are 2 of those stories.
I Will Pay You All Tomorrow.
The first of these stories is recorded as having been told by “Mr Charles Dundas of India, in the library of Hickleton, on Tuesday the 21st of December, 1920.” Lord Halifax was connected with the Dundases through his sister, Alice, who married the Hon. John Charles Dundas, son of the first Earl of Zetland. Mr Charles Dundas was their eldest son and a nephew of Lord Halifax.
I must tell you first how I came to hear the story told. Probably you all know that last year we had a war with Afghanistan. That war was brought to an immediate and sudden end by the fact that we had a very big aeroplane called ‘The Old Carthusian’ out in India at the time, which was ordered to go and bomb Kabul. This was shortly after the murder of the late Amir (Habiballah Khan), in which the present Amir (Now the ex-King Amanullah) was supposed to have had a part. The main object of bombing the city was to alarm the mother of the present Amir, a result so efficiently attained that immediately afterwards a message came in to the effect that the Afghans wanted peace.
Between our outposts and Kabul there is a mountain some 6,000 feet high (more than 2,000 feet higher than Ben Nevis), and the men in the aeroplane had the greatest difficulty in returning. They only cleared the top of the mountain by ten feet and crashed on the other side, doing themselves a certain amount of damage. The pilot was a little man about 4 feet 5 inches in height, named Hallé, a well known flying man, and with him was a famous aviator named Villiers, who had served in France but had retired from the Air Force and was in business in Calcutta. When the war with Afghanistan broke he had re-joined.
Not long afterwards I was coming home to England and met Villiers on board the P & O. I did not then know that he was a flying man, but about 12 o’clock one day I was talking to him and two senior colonels of the Indian army, acting as Brigadiers in Mesopotamia, We were in the Red Sea at the time. The conversation turned on Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, and especially upon the behaviour of the Australian troops in both these theatres.
Villiers then said he would tell a curious story of the Australian Flying Corps. At that moment, the weather being hot, I suggested a whisky and soda, but he refused, saying, “If I take it you will certainly not believe the story I am going to tell you”.
He had, he said, been quartered in France at a flying camp next door to an Australian squadron. As everybody knows, most of the pilots in France were young men of from 19 to 24 years of age, and were sometimes even younger than that. The Australian airmen were especially daring, but when they were off duty the pilots and observers led the wildest of lives and spent their time in gambling, drinking, and other forms of dissipation, on the principle of “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
One night a game of poker was going on among four young pilots belonging to the same flight, who were all due to go out the next morning. Since they were all heavily in debt, the game was carried on largely upon credit. The heaviest loser was the youngest pilot, who at the end of the evening gave I.O.U’s for his debts, saying, “I cannot possible pay you tonight, but I will pay you all tomorrow.”
Next morning the weather was fair for flying, and the youngest pilot was due to go up first. His machine had hardly got to a height of 300 feet when it suddenly spun into a dive, in a way that was impossible unless it had been forced into it by the pilot; at least, it was not how a plane out of control would normally fall. There was a crash and the pilot was killed on the spot. He was the young man who had said he would pay all the others on the next day.
The next to go up was another of the four poker players. He was flying a double machine with a seat for an observer and dual control, but the observer’s seat was empty. When he reached a height of nearly 500 feet, his machine suddenly stalled and crashed to the ground. The pilot was not killed on the spot, although he died a little later. When he was asked how the crash had happened, he replied that the boy who had already been killed was sitting behind him in the observer’s seat and had jammed the controls and pulled him down.
The third member of the poker party of the night before went up next. He was alone and reached the same height as had the other, when the same accident happened to him. As he was killed on the spot it was never known how he had come by his end.
By this time the pilots of the squadron, in the current expression, were “getting the wind up.” Two men had already been killed outright and one had been mortally injured. The fourth poker player now went to his flight commander and asked to be excused from taking a machine up that morning. His request was refused on the grounds that someone had to go up, and each must take his turn. So he went out, and when he had risen to about 500 feet, for some reason his machine stalled and crashed like the others. He was alive when he was picked up and lived just long enough to tell those about him that the young pilot had been sitting behind him and had wrenched the controls away.
The Haunted Bungalow
This story was also told in the Library at Hickleton and on the same occasion as the previous one. It begins with this note: “Charlie Dundas, who left here this morning to go to Edwardstone, to shoot with Henry Corry, told me the following story before he left.”
In 1871, a friend of mine in India, named Troward, was on his way to take up an appointment at Hoshiarpur in the Punjab. He and his wife arrived at their destination late one evening. The dak bungalow where travellers usually put up, not being available, they eventually had to sleep in another bungalow which was hastily got ready for them. They unpacked their camp beds, set them up in one of the rooms, had something to eat, and were going to bed when the servants who were travelling with them came in and said that they did not like the bungalow and were unwilling to spend the night there. They recommended Mr. Troward and the Memsahib not to sleep in the bungalow either, as there was something very wrong about it. Mr. and Mrs. Troward, who were extremely tired, told the servants that they could not change their lodgings and were determined to stay where they were.
They went to bed, and in the middle of the night Mr. Troward was awakened by a loud report, followed by terrified cries and screams from his wife. When he asked her what was the matter, she said that a man in a grey suit had come up to the side of the bed and lent over her, saying, “Lie still, I shall not hurt you.” He had then fired a pistol or gun across her over the bed.
In the morning the Troward’s discovered that a Mr. de Courcy, formerly commissioner at Hoshiarpur, had shot himself in the bungalow in the middle of the night. Just before he did so he had lent across the bed and said to his wife, “I shall not hurt you.”
Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book is full of stories on a similar theme, some of them extremely gruesome and vivid. I certainly wouldn’t want to read them to my children at bed time, or at any other time of day for that matter!
At Hickleton, the children’s mother did protest to the reading of ghost stories saying that they would “be frightened too much”. Lord Halifax, however, would justify the method as calculated to stimulate the imagination, and the victims themselves (the children), fascinated and spell-bound by a sense of delicious terror, never failed to ask for more.