Friday, 25 November 2011

The Sad Spectres of Bedern, York

Some unhappy youngsters haunt the narrow alleyway known as Bedern that runs off Goodramgate. This little street was redeveloped in the later 20th century, but before that date it was lined by Victorian tenements that had been built in the 1860s on the site of the old workhouse, known formally as the York Industrial Ragged School. This was an establishment for orphans or children of impoverished parents who could not afford to keep them. In theory the children were given a roof over their heads, adequate food and training in some skill that would help them to earn a living when as teenagers they were turned out to make their way in the world.

The theory was good, but it depended very largely on the honesty and hard work of the man appointed by the city authorities to run the place. Between 1847 and 1855 this establishment was in the hands of a drunk who neglected his duties and handed out savage beatings to any child who complained. Like many drunks, he could be charming and apparently sober when he wanted to be and so managed to fool the authorities for a long time. It was only when dark rumours began to circulate that he was investigated and sacked.

Quite how bad the man’s regime had been is a matter of conjecture. The worst that was proved against him was an overly vicious beating given to children and the pilfering of city funds to pay for his drinking and gambling. However, gossip had it that he had beaten to death more than one child. The bodies were, it was said, hidden in a large cupboard in his room until he could get hold of the only undertaker he could bribe to cover up the bruising and other injuries. Some said that bodies still lay hidden somewhere in the building after he was dismissed, but if so they were never found.

After the institution was moved to improved premises and given a more trustworthy chief, the old buildings were torn down and replaced by housing which survived for a century before they too were demolished. As has become usual in central York, the cleared site was handed over to archaeologists to perform an emergency excavation before the builders moved in. Several of those working on the site felt unaccountably uneasy, as if they were being watched. One man had  a particulalry unnerving experience. He was busy on the dig when he felt somebody tap him urgently and insistently on the shoulder, but when he turned around there was nobody there. When he undressed that evening his wife told him to look at his back in the mirror. On the shoulder where he had felt the taps were parallel bruises as if he had been gripped hard by the fingers of a child-sized hand.

There have been other incidents since the old houses were pulled down. Several people walking past late at night when the city is quiet and still have heard the sounds of children laughing and singing coming from the side street. One person felt an invisible child's hand slipped into his as he passed by, as if the child were seeking the reassurance of a friendly adult.


from HAUNTED YORK by Rupert Matthews

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