Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Phantom Highwayman of Bickley, Kent

The Chequers Inn in Southborough Lane, Bickley, is one of those places which seems to be a positive magnet for our ghostly companions. There are no fewer than three of them in residence.

The most notorious of the Bickley phantoms is the young gentleman in green velvet who sits quietly in a corner of the bar. Those who have seen the phantom describe him as having dark hair, covered by a large hat decorated with an extravagant plumed feather. The clothes of this man place him firmly in the 18th century and local legend names him as none other than Dick Turpin. This most famous of highwaymen was known to visit the Chequers when lying low after any particularly profitable crime. The layout of the pub with convenient back stairs and more than one exit enabled Turpin to make a quick getaway if he needed to.

The image of Dick Turpin that has come down to us is a glamourous one. Riding his magnificent charger Black Bess, Turpin is dressed in fine clothes and is unfailingly courteous to those he robs. In many stories, Turpin takes on corrupt local officials to the benefit of honest farmers and pretty girls. Such a generous image of the highwayman was assiduously cultivated by some of the men who took to the road.

Jack Rann made a point of spending his ill gotten gains on clothes. When he was eventually arrested in September 1774, Rann ordered a new suit for his trial. He appeared in pea-green wool lined with blue satin and edged with silver lace. Rann was, all agreed, the best dressed man in London that month. He even went to the trouble of ordering a new and ostentatiously flamboyant hat to wear at his public execution. James Maclean was tall and handsome. He chose to spend his money buying jewels and treats for an apparently endless succession of young ladies whom he attempted to seduce with varying degrees of success. At his trial in 1750 several ladies of quality came forward as character witnesses, but he was hanged anyway.

Turpin, however, was no such dashing gentleman. Born in Essex in 1705, Turpin took to poaching as a teenager. He soon graduated to burglary, rape and torture. In 1735 Turpin took to the road. He held up coaches, shot drivers and mercilessly beat up those who resisted him. He even shot his own partner. By all accounts, Turpin was a violent, vicious crook with none of the panache associated with men such as Rann or Maclean. He was, however, hugely successful and netted a fortune from his crimes. Typically, Turpin committed his misdeeds north of the Thames, and went into hiding south of the river. In 1738 Turpin left the countryside around London as the authorities cracked down on street crime. He went to Yorkshire, but the forces of law and order were even more diligent there. Turpin was arrested for horse stealing, recognised for who he was and hanged.

Why Turpin became transformed into a hero, while other highwaymen were forgotten is unclear. But if he is the ghost in the Chequers, then he is acting true to form. He keeps himself to himself, which is just what Turpin did when he came here to avoid the law.

But Turpin is not the only ghost at the Chequers. The upstairs rooms are haunted by a very busy lady. She seems to date back to about the same time as Turpin, but whether the two are linked in anyway is unknown. She walks around the upper floor with determined and hurried steps. Quite clearly she is a busy lady as she never stops or walks slowly, but always hurries. Most often only the sound of her footsteps alert listeners to realise that she is about. Trotting up the stairs, bustling along the corridor, padding into bedrooms - the footsteps might be heard anywhere. This ghost also slams doors. Any left open are liable to be closed loudly as the footsteps pass by. Only occasionally is the lady actually seen. Even then she is busy. She is only glimpsed fleetingly, usually as she hurries past a doorway or nips in and out of a room at speed.

Why she should be so busy and hurried is a mystery. Most visitors to the Chequers prefer to linger over a drink or one of the landlords finely cooked meals.

To buy Haunted Kent by Rupert Matthews CLICK HERE

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