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In the grounds of Waddow Hall, an ancient property now in Lancashire but, before the early 1970s saw this region transferred, just over the border in the wild wastelands of the vast County of York, there stands a well - a well with its own strange sentinel, in the form of a statue of a woman in flowing dress, strangely headless.

Peg o'Nell, from Redding (1844), by Dodd & Landells.

This, tradition assures us, is an eidolon intimately associated with the vengeful spirit of Peg o'Nell, a serving-wench at the Hall who died of a broken neck whilst going to fetch water from the well, in fulfilment of a curse lain upon her by her stern, put-upon mistress.

However, death would not be the end of Peg o'Nell - or Peggy's - malfeasance: it is said that, every seven years, her restless wraith would demand a live victim in sacrifice to propitiate her unworldly anger - and, if no poor, unsuspecting whelp or cat could be found, a human life would be taken. Legend has it that to cross the River Ribble by the "Hippin' Stones" at Brungerley - where a monumental event for the course of English history, the capture of the fragile King Henry VI, occurred when he was taken by Yorkists there during the Wars of the Roses - on this septennial "Peg's Night" would be to invite a watery death.


Writing in 1844, Cyrus Redding gives an account of his visit to Waddow Hall, where enquiries were made as to Peggy, known to the servants as Peg o' th' Well. The head of the decapitated statue is then presented, with the notice that "I have lately brought her out of those gloomy rooms at the top of the house, washed her face, and she now lives in the larder." The visiting party is then taken to a small room in the attic alluded to previously and known as Pegg's Place, which is said to be where Peg lived during her tenure at the hall. Already the story of a servant wronged by a Mistress Starkie, cast as the lady of the house, is known: Redding recalls it in all its details. The seven-year ritual of Peg's Night is, however, apparently unknown, and this curiosity first appears in connection with Peg o' Nell in William Dobson's Rambles by the Ribble, published in 1877.


In the interim, T.T. Wilkinson produced the second in a series of his entitled On the Popular Customs and Superstitions of Lancashire, which provides a markedly different account of the recipient of the sacrifice: -

The stepping-stones at Brungerley, near Clitheroe, are said to be haunted by a malevolent sprite, who assumes almost as many shapes as Proteus of old. He is not known by any particular designation, nor are there any traditions to account for his first appearance; but at least one life in every seven years is required to appease the anger of the spirit of the Ribble at this place.
- T.T. Wilkinson.

This leads us to ask: was Peg o'Nell even associated with the Ribble at all? That question is pertinent, given T.T. Wilkinson's statement the culprit for the seven-year terror a Protean spirit inhabiting the river, with no mention of its association with Peg. Were these one and the same in origin, or has Peg's Night assumed the place of an earlier rite of sacrifice to this river god?

Meanwhile, Peg o'Nell was associated with a particular room or rooms within the hall, as in Redding, as well as the well. The "Peg o'Nell" reported may thus properly be understood as the purported ghost of a serving wench at the hall, who, at some point, came to be associated with the headless statue by the well in the grounds (which may well have originally suggested the tale itself) and, subsequently, with the voracious spirit in the Ribble with its demands of a hebdomadal sacrifice.


It should also be noted that the "received" legend as it has been transmitted by our Victorian forebears doesn't quite add up in other ways: these have a Mistress Starkie inhabiting the hall during the tumult of the English Reformation, which is impossible, given that Waddow Hall remained in the hands of the Tempest family (one of whose number had entertained Henry VI before his fateful meeting with his Yorkist enemies) during this period & immediately thereafter. This Mistress Starkie is given many of the attributes of Peg's supposed mistress, being something of a martinet, it must be said. Her family is significant, however, in its association with possession and with the Parliamentary cause during the War of the Three Kingdoms.

As such, other explanations for the origins of Peg's malice should be sought.

One is that she is none other than the ancient goddess Belisama, dimly remembered and given a new backstory. This notion is dependent upon a number of assumptions, which, it must be said, have not met with universal acceptance: -

  1. That the Ribble is to be identified with Claudius Ptolemaeus' river Belisama, which drained, as does the Ribble, into the Irish Sea;
  2. That the name of this river implies the local worship of the goddess (Minerva) Belisama, attested on the continent;
  3. That this goddess was propitiated by a sacrifice every seven years.

On the first of these points, William Camden suggested the identification of the Ribble with Ptolemy's Belisama, based upon the correspondence between the last syllable of the former & the first of the latter. Further to this, one John Porter, in 1855, identified the "-sama" suffix in the name of the parish of Samlesbury, which lies south of the Ribble downstream from Waddow Hall.


However, Peg being a hypocoristic for Margaret, the name may derive from that of St. Margaret of Scotland, as suggested by an official guide to Waddow, based upon the work of a former vicar in the nearby village of Waddington. If the statue by the well were not purloined from the dissolved abbeys at Whalley or Sawley, he reasoned, it could represent this personage. The beheading may indeed be the product of 17th century Puritanism, with the Catholic inhabitants of the area spiriting the head over to the nearby hall for safe keeping.


Of course, our Victorian informants never mention that the tradition of sacrifice on Peg's Night was still current in their day, though the legend was again appealed to in 1908, after the tragic drowning of 17-year-old Joseph Fell of Clitheroe, on Sunday 31st May of that year. Was Fell, who disappeared upon leaping into the Ribble at a spot with the ominous name of "Dangerous Corner," snatched from this life by an angry entity wishing to remind the errant locals that she was still there, and still hungry for lives?

This may have been put down to youthful overexuberance with a melancholy outcome, had not the child of one Hargreaves, a Clitheroe reporter, drowned in similar circumstances precisely seven years before, with another drowning seven years prior to that.

This theory is somewhat stymied by another tragic event, in 1900, a year prior to the death of the poor Hargreaves boy, in which the body of a young woman was found near Brungerley Bridge, having drowned. The woman was identified only as one H. Carter. A Hephzibah Carter, 35, had her death recorded at Clitheroe during that year. The Clitheroe Advertiser and Times of Friday 1st June 1900 describes this tragedy as follows: -

Shortly before noon on Monday, the Police received information that a woman was lying in the River Ribble at Brungerley Bridge. [...] It proved to be that of a young woman, apparently about 25 to 30 years of age. She was very well dressed, having on a black dress and jacket, with a grey bodice or blouse. She had black stockings, low shoes and black kid gloves on. She had nothing whatever in her pockets, but had a photograph of a young man under her bodice.

A broken-hearted woman taking her own life? Sadly, this scenario seems most probable. So, maybe not Peg's doing, but an event - and a life lost - which deserves to be remembered.


Indeed, Hephzibah Carter, young Hargreaves and Joseph Fell are three among many people who met an untimely end in the area during the 20th century. These include suicides, deaths by misadventure and, more heinously, murders.

Eleanor Coulthard, a 16-year-old domestic servant at The Rookeries in Chatburn, and originally from Cumberland, died on Monday 23rd March 1896. Her sad death was originally thought to have been caused by malfeasance, and one Henry Bertram Starr, another Cumberland native, was charged and acquitted at Manchester.

As a melancholy postscript to Eleanor's fate, Starr was eventually hanged for murder, this time of his wife, Mary Hannah Starr, whom he killed in their kitchen at their Blackpool home, in 1903.

George Bowker, aged about 60, was found dead in the Ribble on the evening of Tuesday 26th April 1904. It turned out that Bowker had been widowed about six months previously, and had turned to drink for solace. A verdict of suicide was recorded.

Richard Whalley died on Wednesday 15th July 1914 of injuries to his head and neck sustained in a diving accident.

The body of 80-year-old former soldier John Ellis was found in the Ribble at Brungerley on the afternoon of Tuesday 9th March 1943. A verdict of "suicide whilst not of sound mind" was recorded, having been seen by a maid at Waddow Hall by the name of Catherine Booth "standing on the edge of the river bank on the Clitheroe side" and looking round "as though to see if anyone were watching" before he "walked into the river."

By an eerie coincidence, the 26th April features in another case: on that date, a Saturday, in 1947, a certain Hibald William Gilbert made a horrifying discovery: the body of a female infant, who had been strangled, in a pillowcase.

More recently, the master storyteller Simon Entwistle, in an installment of his YouTube series Tales from the Grave, relates a singular account of Peg o'Nell as a beautiful 17-year-old from Wicklow, Ireland, murdered in around 1795 by Mistress Starkie of Waddow Hall and her butler. The Hibernian origins of Entwistle's beautiful tragic heroine might be suggested by the seeming concordance of her matronymic with the name of the great Irish clan Ó Néill. Entwistle also features a couple of modern sightings. In one celebrated case, two schoolboys from Ribblesdale High in Clitheroe, out poaching salmon of an evening, experience something strange and terrifying: -

[...] this cold October evening in 1987, they made their way down to the river. It was pitch black. The clouds suddenly parted and bright, bright moonlight illuminated the river. They heard a strange sound, almost like a young girl singing at the top of her voice [...] The sound got louder and louder and louder, and Peggy's ghost materialised on the Yorkshire side of the River Ribble.

As one of the boys was on that side, he quickly attempted to swim across, only to nearly drown due to entanglement with his net. Entwistle continues: -

Through sheer brute strength, he got to [the Lancashire side] and clambered up the banking, gasping for breath. As he looked to the right, he saw a figure, wearing a long, long white dress with large, puffed up sleeves [...]

"Macsen Wledig" (not the pretender to the Imperial Throne of Rome), commenting on Entwistle's video, recounts an experience he had during the early part of the 21st century: -

It was in the woods close to peg’s statue, it glided through very slowly lighting everything up around it in an unnatural goilish [sic] glow. Me and my lass stood transfixed to the spot on the other bank as we watched it, must have been 7-8 feet tall in what can only be described as a Klansman type flowing gown. It never made a sound but we both concurred that it seemed to stare right into the soul and though silent was screaming manically and furiously that we go.
We went.
And wild horses wouldn’t drag me back down there after dark.

Other accounts appear on the website of the British state broadcaster, in which Alan Pickover relates the following experience he had whilst carrying out his duties for Castle Cement in Clitheroe, which took him to Waddow Hall on one occasion: -

It was then I became aware of a presence, that started out as a shadow, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I could make out a hooded figure that appeared to be making it's way towards me. As it moved, it seemed to glide, and as it approached it became obvious that it was much bigger than myself, and appeared rather sinister. At this point I retreated to the van and drove off back to the works - I am not ashamed to say that I was absolutely terrified.

Commenters on the BBC article add that they had or had heard of strange experiences associated with one particular room in Waddow Hall, identified with that in which Peg slept during her time there. One "Abby" claims to have seen "a hooded figure outside" approaching their location. Another, Humairah, writing in 2008, claims that the last drowning took place a year prior, but adds that "Peg 'O' Nell is a friendly ghost and only haunts the river on the day she died, also she helps us look for things that we have lost."

Perhaps Peg o'Nell - or whatever protean entity was said to lurk in these waters - still claims her due.

Sir Graham