April 02, 2013

Britain: Go Hang Yourself

David Ellis

THE Brits love to let you know they've a ghost of two around, and the more macabre the plight of the poor soul whose spirit supposedly haunts their local pub, mansion, castle or monastery, the more they relish sharing – and just occasionally – embellishing their yarn.

We've heard many a ghostly tale over a warm pint or three, and while somewhat sceptical as to their authenticity, there are two we empathise with. Because both involve pubs – coupled with ghoulish "hanging fields," gruesome places on which official gallows were set up in open fields for barbaric public viewing before urban sprawl overtook them.

The first involves the Court Oak pub in Birmingham's Harborne, whose resident ghost has been dubbed by regular patrons Corky – because he's probably the world's only- known supernatural wine snob.

Corky earned his reputation from smashing bottles of the pub's cheaper-label house wines that apparently were not to his liking.

"It isn't so much that things go bump in the night here, as things go smash in the night here," staffers say. "He smashes them until they are replaced with others seemingly more to his favour: We've heard smashing when we've closed for the night and there is no one working in the cellar, and on the same nights customers have sworn they've earlier seen the apparition of a man about 60 in old-fashioned attire suddenly materialising behind the bar, and equally instantly disappearing…"

And more strangely Corky the wine snob "appears" for only a few nights a year: those in the lead-up to Halloween. "There was a 'hanging field' on this site in the 17th century," a staffer says. "We believe Corky is the ghost of some well-to-do soul who knew his wines, but fell to the hangman's noose all those years ago on this very spot… he's just come back for a drink, but is very particular."

The other English pub ghost whose tale we empathise with is far less charismatic. And while never actually having been seen, his (or is it her?) presence has on many occasions been eerily felt in the basement of the Coach Makers of Marylebone pub right in London.

And staff believe that presence – they say it's like someone is looking over your shoulder – is that of some poor soul who drowned in the River Tyburn that once ran past the hotel, after flowing from another "hanging field," this one on the outskirts of nearby Tyburn village.

Tyburn's first hangings were carried out in 1196 and over the next near-600 years thousands were hauled by open cart from Newgate Prison – bizarrely carrying their coffins with them – to meet their fate there, ghoulish crowds clambering to watch the spectacle of the hangman doing his job.

And in 1571 authorities replaced the several single gallows at Tyburn with the grotesque Tyburn Triple Tree, three tall posts in triangular formation topped with heavy beams, from which numerous nooses could despatch multiple prisoners at a time... murderers, thieves, highwaymen, forgers, traitors and religious martyrs, 90% males.

The Tyburn Triple Tree drew even greater crowds for the regular Monday hangings, with anything up to 60,000 or more coming to watch. Entrepreneurial villagers built "grandstands" on which they sold seats to cheer-on the final death throes of those being hanged before them, while hawkers moved through the crowds selling beer and brandy, home-made cakes and gingerbreads…

And hangmen at day's end would sell their ropes by the inch (25mm) as souvenirs…

The biggest crowd gathered on June 23 1649 when 23 men and one woman were hanged in groups, the 100,000+ mob cheering "good dying, good dying!!!" and jeering those who went weak-kneed as the noose was placed around their necks.

Tyburn's Triple Tree was removed in November 1783 and today three brass plaques on a traffic island at London's now-Marble Arch mark where the Tree's posts stood.

Some speculate that the ghost of the Coach Makers of Marylebone pub could be that of an intended victim of the Tyburn gallows, grabbed from the hangman by a sympathetic crowd – and who drowned while trying to flee across the adjacent Tyburn River.

If you're in London head for the Coach Makers of Marylebone. Aussie barman Lachlan Andrews from Brisbane will tell you over your drink, all about their ghostly basement dweller.



[] A CONTEMPORARY print of a Monday hanging at Tyburn: note the hapless prisoner travels with his own coffin. (British Tourism Authority)
[] BIRMINGHAM'S Court Oak hotel, home to the world's only supernatural wine snob?
[] THE Coach Makers of Marylebone: let Aussie barman Lachlan Andrews tell you the Tale of their ghostly basement dweller. (Coach Makers of Marylebone)

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