York Castle Museum

Wednesday, December 12th 2018

Noteworthy Information Appertaining to Current & Recent Happenings
Supernatural York Regular Feature

aving been labelled with the somewhat dramatic epitaph of ‘the most haunted city in Europe’ it should therefore come as little surprise that contained within its medieval walls are numerous public buildings, dwellings and streets that an unnerving number of ghosts have determined to take up eternal residence, often vying for a single location.
    As such, when putting quill to paper in an endeavour to document such spectral occurrences, one is forced into the unenviable position of being unsure as to where to commence.
    However, never let it be said that an uncertainty of mind has ever resulted in an admission of defeat. Let us visit (at least for the moment in a metaphorical sense) the locality of the York Castle Museum. Situated on the south side of the River Foss and adjacent to the main highway known as Tower Street, the museum faces Clifford’s Tower, a surviving keep from the 13th century re-development of the site by Henry lll.
    Given the name of the museum, a continued lack of bewilderment will result from the knowledge that the site was originally home to a heavily fortified castle, one that can lay claim to a history as involved and troubled as that of York’s own.
    Originally constructed in 1068 by William the Conqueror in the aftermath of the Norman conquest of York, the castle went though many re-builds and developments until by the end of the fourteenth century the buildings had increasingly become used for the incarceration of both local villains and scoundrels and also for the detainment of political malfeasants. By the 16th century the tradition of carrying out capitol punishment by executing the criminal at Micklegate bar had switched to hanging the wretched victim from the top of Clifford’s Tower.
    In the proceeding years of the Restoration an expansion to the county facilities in the bailey was undertaken and improvements to the Grand Jury House and the Common Hall were also carried out. However, by the dawn of the eighteenth century    the county jail was in a desperate state. As a result, funding was made available from local taxes to re-develop the area using stone that had been extracted from the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. [1]
    Three new buildings were erected and the Assize Courts were constructed. In time, the female prison and the county jail were combined to form the much admired (at the time) Debtor’s Prison. However, the felons’ wing was clearly not to the same standard and was criticised for not only being of diminutive proportions but for also lacking water. Conditions became so unbearable that a particularly gruesome night in 1739 resulted in the death by suffocation of nine prisoners. As if this were not harrowing enough, the ineffectual castle mills were modernised in 1778 with a steam engine, creating a vast amount of smoke and noise that added considerably to the already miserable conditions of those incarcerated.
    The inaugural years of the nineteenth century saw no improvement to the conditions and the situation began to escalate when growing numbers of the York population began turning up to see prisoners being taken for execution. Consequently a decision was taken to improve the method by which the convicted were dispatched. The process was moved to the circular area in front of the main buildings known as the Eye of the Ridings (now known as the Eye of York) that had formally been the castle’s courtyard, and the ‘short drop’ method of hanging was introduced that allowed for a much more rapid implementation of the hanging method.
    However, this did not silence the critics and further opprobrium was levied at the extent of over crowding that had resulted in occasions when prisoners awaiting execution were being kept in the jail yard for lack of alternative space. The situation culminated in 1821 when an official complaint was made at the assizes and an investigation was begun. In 1825 this led to a new, modern prison being built in a Tudor Gothic style and the executions being moved to the backyard of the Female Prison, were they were concealed from view by a newly constructed stone wall.
    It remained the county prison until 1900, at which point the inmates were of a military rather than domestic nature, staying open until 1929 when its function as a prison was permanently discontinued. The prison buildings were demolished in 1935 and the former Assize Courts building is now, rather appropriately, the home of the York Crown Court.
    Which brings us to the the original Debtor’s prison and Female Prison that are the subject of this very article, for it is these buildings that are now home to the York Castle Museum and although the history of the site that has been dutifully outlined for your edification is, to say the least, somewhat compacted, I sincerely hope that it has been sufficient to bestow an appreciation as to how the spectral realm should be so infused within it’s walls.
    Perhaps the most notorious of the criminals that spent there last night within the cramped cells of the Felons’ Prison was highway robber and horse thief Dick Turpin. His exploits have been romanticised in the years since his execution on the seventh day of April 1739 to the extent that few people today will be ignorant of his name. Sadly, dependent on your point of view, most of the paranormal experiences that have been reported over the years appear to have little or no connection to the notorious murderer. [2]
    According to staff who have worked at the museum this honour must go to the sound of people singing. Initially experienced by a local TV crew filming in the mock Victorian street of Kirkgate, itself built upon the former Female Prison yard, the noise of women singing was assumed by the film crew to be part of the sound effects tape that constitutes an element of the Victorian era experience. A museum guide dutifully offered to switch of the offending recording and, as he ascended the stairs, the singing could be quite clearly heard. However, upon reaching the room housing the effects equipment and opening the door the singing abruptly stopped. Furthermore, upon checking the status of the equipment, he found it to have already been deactivated.
    Subsequently, in a commendable but ultimately futile attempt at fund raising for a worthy charity, the Health and Safety Manager offered to spend a full night in the Condemned Cell. Given that this was the very cell in which Dick Turpin had spent his last night, and that he was merely one of a large number of sentenced villains that been acquainted with the small room, one would have hoped (once again, dependent upon your point of view) that if anything untoward were to take place it would be relevant to one of these scoundrels. Alas, this was not to be, and our intrepid hero became a further testifier to the sound of singing voices. At first assuming that a roguish colleague was playing a trick upon him he decided that the best course of action would be to locate the source of the noise. Upon conclusion of examining all the conceivable places that were within hearing, our hapless philanthropist decided on the notability un-heroic act of fleeing to the safety of the museum offices upstairs.
    Should you have formed the opinion that it has only ever been sound that has been the cause of such worrisome discombobulation, allow me to correct what is unquestionably a misconception. Although nowadays it is commonplace for the museum to be awash with staff in victorian costume, in the days before the introduction of this entertainment a woman garbed in nineteenth century attire was seen by one of the guides, and no amount of subsequent searching for the lady revealed her to exist. In addition, a small boy in what appears to be a 1930’s or possibly 1940’s outfit has been seen a number of times on the Military Gallery, apparently displaying the unquestionably annoying habit of vanishing around a corner as soon as he is witnessed. A small dog has also been seen on a number of occasions by both staff and visitors alike. One can’t help wondering if the frustrated lad is desperately trying to find his pet.
    There has also been an occasion when a teacher entrusted to the safe keeping of a school party was sufficiently perturbed by the site of an elderly woman seated in one of the hearths that she reported the experience to a guide. Upon returning to the hearth the woman had completely vanished.
    Most recently, a couple from Wakefield were unnerved to discover the image of a small girl wearing a Victorian dress making an appearance in some photographs they had taken in the museum eighteen months previously [3]. Having seen the photographs, I have to admit to not being terribly convinced as to their authenticity but I am awaiting further news following a possible examination of the prints. As and when we are in receipt of additional information regrading this matter we will, of course, inform your good selves with all due alacrity.
    However, I fear that Houdini may be turning in his grave.

  1. Their enthusiasm was fortuitously curbed and one can still admire some of the remains in the Museum Gardens, entrance from Museum Street.
  2. For those of an inquisitive nature, Dick Turpin was buried in York and his alleged grave resides in the grounds of St George’s Churchyard on Lead Mill Lane.
  3. Should you not have already seen the photographs they are available for your viewing and assessment at the following site:

Engraved by F. Marsh from a drawing by N. Whittock | 1830
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