Sunday, 22 September 2013

The phantom of Kiln Lane, Leek 1936

The news in September 1936 was grim. In Spain the Civil War raged as the Battle for Madrid reached a crisis. Hitler was beginning on a course of conquest in central Europe and his troops had marched into the Rhineland the previous March thereby breaking the peace treaty of Versailles. Mussolini’s air force had bombed the tribal armies of Abyssinia into submission in a matter of weeks. Stalin was about to unleash a reign of terror in the Soviet Union that would kill millions. In Britain, unemployment remained high in the industrial areas of the North, Scotland and Wales. 1936 was the year of the Jarrow March and in that year the crisis involving the King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson would reach a head three months later and the King would be forced to abdicate. And in Leek fear stalked the lonely byways of the town.

 While carrying out research on the development of sport in North Staffordshire I came across a report of a “ ghost” haunting an area of Leek. Residents of Kiln Lane were fearful that the area was haunted. Local historians at the time testified that prior to reports that early autumn that area of Leek was not known for or associated with ghost stories. But the women who contacted both the local and national press were emphatically clear about the noises and sights they had observed. The article in the Daily Dispatch began “ Women living in the lonely Kiln Lane district of this Moorland town with a hundred ghostly legends are afraid to walk out alone at night because of the fear that the area is haunted”. The piece continues that rapping’s on windows, strange lights and sounds, weird noises and figures appearing at windows were reported by terrified people in the area. An elderly disabled women who lived in a ground floor room Mrs Jane Stonier is quoted “ There have been knocking at the door and a strange face appeared at a window. It stared at me and then disappeared into the night”.  Mrs F Astles saw a “ terrifying figure glide by the wall at the front of the house”. Mrs Edwards the daughter of Mrs Stonier heard weird laughter and chuckling outside her cottage. Locals cowered behind closed doors wondering what spectre stalked the local area.

 The local newspaper list a number of locally reported ghosts such as the “White Lady” and the “Luminous Children” and suggested that the event at Kiln Lane drew parallels with reports of “ Spring Heeled Jack” the Victorian ghoul which had terrorised communities all over the UK the previous century.

 The first report of the terror of Kiln Lane appeared in the Sentinel on the 16th September 1936. A follow up report claimed that the haunting was in fact practical joke and that local youths would patrol the area in the hope of catching the hoaxer. For some time hysteria seemed to be gripping the town but the fear after awhile began to abate.  A subsequent article in the Leek Post offered an explanation of the phenomena. The moving lights the author concluded was due to headlights of vehicles on the Macclesfield road and the figures and noises the result of farm animals breaking out of fields and wandering into lanes.“ Dobbin and his friends have been seeking pastures new, and of course, the heavy shoes of the horse and the bleating of sheep in the night, are enough to provide sounds which easily frightened people might construe into other things”. The reportage of the time is very sceptical of supernatural reports seeking a logical and scientific explanation of the incident and suggesting that the terror was simply the result of hysteria and ”the imagination of frightened women”.

The effect of hysteria and popular delusions has been well documented throughout the ages from the witch trails of the 17th century to the fear of UFOs after the war to the modern day trend of chain letters. Humankind is as superstitious and as prone to panic as any earlier generation. Indeed only a few years ago the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh was in the grip of a panic a people claimed that there were attacked by a creature called the “face scratcher” described as a mystery creature that attacked after dark. Over 100 people claimed to have been attacked by something that flashed blue and red lights. Indian scientists dismissed the alarm as “ mass hysteria” and suggests that the lights in the sky are due to atmospheric conditions.

The irony of the story of Kiln Lane is that three years after September 1936 Britain and the world would be plunged into the horror of total war, which would claim 60 million lives. In 1936 real monsters stalked the earth that would require the exorcism by the terrible exertion of the Second World War