Friday, 26 February 2010

The malevolent ghost of Scrooby, Nottinghamshire

Scrooby once stood on the main road but is now bypassed. In fact it has been bypassed twice. This haphazard jumble of old houses, pub and church once stood astride the Great North Road, linking London to Edinburgh.

When motorised traffic became common, a new road was built around the village to avoid a narrow, tight corner between two houses. Then, in the later 20th century, what was by then called the A1 was bypassed again when the multi-lane highway the A1(M) was built to carry the thundering mass of traffic streaming north and south endlessly throughout the night.

The ghost of Scrooby, however, dates from the days when motorised traffic was undreamed of, and when the first attempt to improve the Great North Road was being made. In theory the upkeep of roads was the business of the parish councils, but the parish council of Scrooby, along with other parishes that lay on main roads, rightly objected that most of the wear and tear was caused by travellers that had nothing to do with the local area. They sometimes received payments from the king’s government to repair the road, but not often enough.

To try to solve the problems, Parliament allowed private individuals or companies to take over the maintenance of main roads. They were allowed to charge tolls on users to raise the money to pay for the road repairs, and generate a tidy profit for themselves. Because the gates that barred the road to stop travellers until they paid very often resembled pikes, the arrangement was commonly called a Turnpike.

One such Turnpike stood just outside Scrooby. Travellers on the Great North Road had to stop to pay for the privilege of using the road. The cash was stored in the tollkeeper’s cottage inside a strong box, and from time to time the company banker came by to take the money.

One fateful night in 1779 a local ne’erdowell by the name of John Spencer decided that he needed the money more than did the turnpike company. He waited until all was dark and still, before letting himself in to the tollkeeper’s cottage and lifting the strong box on to his shoulders. He was not as quiet as he should have been, and the tollkeeper woke up. In the fight that followed both the tollkeeper and his wife were killed, but John Spencer failed to make a quick enough getaway. Villagers alerted by the sounds of the fight came running and managed to overpower him in the road.

Spencer could expect little mercy in that day and age. His trial at Retford was brief, then he was dragged back to the scene of his crime and hanged beside the Great North Road at Scrooby. His body was left to hang in chains for weeks, to remind passersby of the stern justice handed down by the magistrates of Nottinghamshire.

The scene of the execution has long been haunted. The figure of a man in a long, dark coat is seen loitering beside the road. Some motorists have mistaken him for a hitchhiker and pulled up, only to find the mysterious man has vanished. It is not entirely clear if the ghost is of Spencer or of his victim. But whoever’s ghost this is, he seems most persistent and may appear in any weather at any time of the day or night.

This is an extract from Haunted Places of Nottinghamshire by Rupert Matthews

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