Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Headless Drummer of Dover

The Headless Drummer of Dover

As ghosts go, few fit the popular cliche of a spooky phantom than the notorious headless drummer of Dover Castle. The unfortunate boy has patrolled the battlements for two centuries, and looks set to march on for many years to come. But he is not the only phantom at Dover nor, by some centuries, the oldest.

It is, however, the drummer boy which is the best known of Dover’s ghosts. The luckless lad was part of the garrison here during the long summer  of 1805. The French Emperor Napoleon had a vast army camped around Bolougne, just on the other side of the Channel. On clear days the French scouts on the opposite coast were visible from the ramparts of Dover Castle. All Napoleon needed was control of the sea and he would use this army to conquer Britain. Day after day the scouts on both sides of the Channel scanned the western horizon for signs of the French fleet coming from Toulon and Brest. The French ships never came as the Royal Navy, led by Admiral Nelson, held them off and finally defeated them at the Battle of Trafalgar in October.

Although the invasion never came, it was a real possibility during the summer months. Even more likely were French coastal raids to test possible invasion landing sites or to damage coastal defences. Such raids were most likely on moonless nights, and it was to guard against such attacks that the drummer boy was set to patrol the battlements of Dover Castle. All British boats and ships were ordered to stay in port on such nights, so any craft seen moving had to be French.

One dark night, the drummer boy was put on duty and given orders to beat the alert as loud as he could the instant he saw anything. When the watch changed, his battered and decapitated body was found crumpled at the foot of the castle walls. Nobody was ever caught for the crime. It was assumed he had seen some criminal activity and been silenced by the ruthless crooks.

Before long the boy returned. His headless phantom strode up and down the battlements, his immaculate drum hanging loosely by his side. He appears only at night, when the moon is dark. It seems he is determined to continue forever the patrol cut short so savagely back on that summer’s night in 1805.

from "Haunted Places of Kent"  by Rupert Matthews

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