Tag Archives: Wollaton Hall

The Gnomes of Wollaton Park

I am sure that it would surprise a great many people to be told that there have been fairies, gnomes and elves seen in Nottingham in quite recent times. The most famous incident was in the late September of 1979. This took place in Wollaton Park, which is the extensive grassland, studded with trees, which surrounds stately Wollaton Hall, home of the Hollywood blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises  :

Wollaton_Park_xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Wollaton Park is in the centre of Nottingham. Look for the orange arrow:

wollo general

I do not know the exact place where the fairies and gnomes were seen, but I suspect that it was probably here. Again, look for the orange arrow:

possibly here

This location fits in quite well with details I have found, namely, “near the lake”, “swampy”, “near an exit from the park” and “near a fenced off nature reserve”. The most frequently quoted directions are “in a rather wet area down by the lake”. Here is the Lake. The orange arrow points to the place where doting parents take their children to feed the ducks and fight off the Canada Geese:

lake close up

The little elvish creatures were seen by a small group of children between eight and ten years of age who were playing in a swampy section of the park. The children were Angie and her brother Glen and her sister Julie. There was also Andrew and Rosie who were brother and sister, and Patrick. Here are just some of the sixty gnomes:

gnomes-376967

The children were playing just as dusk was falling, around half past eight. The light was deteriorating but it was still bright enough to see. The children’s attention was attracted by something that sounded like a bell. They saw a throng of around sixty little gnome like men coming out of an area of woodland and bushes which had been fenced off to prevent the general public from entering. The little men were riding in small bubble-like vehicles. These cars were completely silent but they were very quick and could jump and skip over anything in their way such as fallen trees or branches.
Down near the lake they seemed to be enjoying riding over the marshy swampy area, and a few of them chased the children towards the exit gate from the park, just in play, though, not aggressively.

gnome vbnm

The little men were just half the size of the children, around two feet tall. They all had wrinkled faces, perhaps with a greenish tinge and long white beards, tipped with red. Sometimes they laughed in a strange way. On their little heads, they were wearing what the children described as caps like old-fashioned nightcaps. They were just like what Noddy used to wear, with a little bobble on the very end:

noddy

They had blue tops and yellow or green tights or pants. Despite the encroaching darkness, the children were able to see them all plainly. Patrick explained to the Headmaster: “I could see them in the dark. They all showed up.”:

Vintage gnome garden statuette.

The children watched them for about a quarter of an hour, as the men drove round in their little cars. Each of the fifteen cars carried two little men. They did not have steering wheels but some kind of circular device with a tiny handle to turn it. The little men also were climbing up into the surrounding trees, going into and emerging from, holes in the trunk or branches. All of the children felt that they had somehow surprised the little men, who usually would only have come out after night fell. Eventually, the children all ran away, because it was getting late. The little men had not been threatening or aggressive.
The adults who subsequently heard their stories thought that the little group of children were all telling lies, but the children were completely unwavering in their belief that they had seen what they said they had seen. Furthermore, they had seen the little men previously, during the six weeks of the long summer holiday from school. Some were at the lake, but others were at the Gnomes Anonymous, anti-Alcoholism Group:

beer garden gnome

The day after they returned to school, their Headmaster questioned them all separately and recorded their answers on a cassette tape recorder. The children all told, more or less, the same story. Their drawings too, were all very similar:

drawing

The Headmaster’s opinion was that the children were all telling the truth, although, as might be expected, there were minor differences of detail and emphasis between their different accounts. His overall final judgement was that “The children do sound truthful”. Here is the Headmaster on the School Photo taken that year. You can see why he believed the children:

garden-gnome-among-lilies-of-the-valley-no47-randall-nyhof

In actual fact, the Headmaster actually corresponded about the events with Marjorie T Johnson, the author of “Seeing Fairies”:

Untitled

He sent her the cassette tapes of the children he had recorded. His letter said:

“I think the tape reveals the wide measure of corroboration between the children, as well as the fluency with which they were able to describe the events. I remain sceptical as to the explanation of what they saw, but I am also convinced that the children were describing a real occurrence.”

When the children’s story about the Wollaton little people became public, a number of claims were made that they had been seen before in the boggy area around the lake. Marjorie Johnson, formerly Secretary of the Nottingham-based “Fairy Investigation Society”, confirmed that she had “received a number of previous reports of Little People frequenting this locality”. They included Mrs C George of Stapleford near Nottingham, who, in 1900, had seen both gnomes and fairies by the Wollaton Park Gates as she walked past on the pavement. Here is one of their little cars, abandoned temporarily by the roadside, and taken into the police pound:

Noddy-car_2618947b
Just before the children’s experience, Mrs Brown reported that she had been led telepathically around the Park, from one beauty spot to another, by a group of gnomes. At each stopping place they had magically provided her with a feather to find.
The famous writer on mysteries, and expert on fairy sightings, Janet Bord, added an interesting extra detail to the story:

“Over six years before the Wollaton fairies were reported in the media, I had corresponded with Marina Fry of Cornwall, who wrote to me giving details of her own fairy sighting when she was nearly four years old, around 1940. One night she and her older sisters, all sleeping in one bedroom, awoke to hear a buzzing noise (one sister said ‘music and bells’). Looking out of the window they saw a little man in a tiny blue and yellow car driving around in circles’. He was about 18 inches tall and had a white beard and a ‘blue pointed hat’…he just disappeared after a while.”

werty

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Filed under Film & TV, History, Nottingham, Personal, Science, Wildlife and Nature

Was it suicide…..or was it………………..murder ?????

The period when the seventeenth century turned into the eighteenth was not the easiest of times for the Nottingham Free School, the ancient predecessor of the present day High School.  You only have to look at the wooden board behind the school receptionist’s desk at the High School, and the list of names and dates that is up there. During this period, some three hundred years ago, Headmasters come and go, thick and fast. Just to refresh your memory:

Edward Griffith              1691 – 1707
Richard Johnson           1707 – 1720
William Smeaton           1718 – 1719
William Saunders          1719
Thomas Miles                  1719
John Womack                 1720 – 1722
John Swaile                      1722 – 1731

Let’s look at the diary of these turbulent and potentially disastrous twenty years. Edward Griffith, the first Headmaster on the list, seems to have been an astonishing man. He could have talked his way into so many jobs in our own time, most of them probably in politics. Or maybe even financial advice:

August 1697

Edward Griffith, the Headmaster for the last six years, was summoned to court “for neglecting the school, whereby the school is much decayed in its reputation.” Griffith promised to concentrate on the school and never to work again as a full-time clergyman as well as his main job as the Headmaster.

early 1698

Griffith took up a lucrative post as the new Vicar of Stapleford.

Friday, December 19th 1698

The Town Council gave Edward Griffith the sack, alleging that

“…he has very much neglected his duty, whereby the said Free School is very much decayed and lessened, ….. the School Wardens do give him a discharge, which they have done accordingly. And if he shall refuse to leave the said Free School, that they shall withdraw his Salary.”

Griffith made no reply whatsoever to this decision. Sit tight and it will all blow over.
May 1699
The Town Council issued a second decree that Griffith should quit his post. He took absolutely no notice of this one either.
January 1700
It was agreed by the Town Council that Griffith should keep his job and salary until further notice. Result!!
January 1705
The Town Council told Griffith that he was “discharged from being Schoolmaster any longer”, an order which, not surprisingly perhaps, he again ignored completely. He did, however, make a promise to depart in the very near future.
June 1705
Griffith was again told to leave his job, and that his salary would henceforth not be paid.
March 1706
The school wardens were told by the Town Council to pay the £85 of Griffith’s wages which had not been paid to him over the past two years. Once he had been given this cash settlement, Griffith had promised to leave.
March 1707
Griffith at long last departed, a mere ten short years after being told to do so. And now, Richard Johnson…..

1707
The new Headmaster, Richard Johnson, seems to have been, for the first five years or so of his reign, a vast improvement on his predecessor. Johnson was the author of an impressively long Latin poem describing a horse race on the Forest Recreation Ground, which was then called “The Lings”. Here is the site nowadays:

forest
Race meetings used to take place in July of every year, and they attracted prominent people from miles around. Here is the Racecourse in the late nineteenth century:

racecourse zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

In 1708, the race was won by the Earl of Cardigan on his horse, Carlessus. Johnson’s long Latin poem mentions the Duke of Rutland, Sir Thomas Willoughby of Wollaton Hall and Sir Thomas Parkyns of Bunny. It refers specifically to the fact that, because of the recent outbreak of smallpox in the town, comparatively few women were present…

“Now, to enhance the glories of the race,
See, many lovely women bring their grace.
Yet others, eager for the festive day,
With tearful prudence choose to stop away,
Lest swift and dreaded pestilence arise,
And desecrate that loveliness they prize.”

Here is another, mid-Victorian view of the Forest Racecourse with two boys, who may well have been members of the new High School. Notice the distant footballers busy playing in the middle of the racecourse:

forest and boys zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

1708
The newly appointed Headmaster, Richard Johnson, gave so many promises about how well he would perform in his new job at the Free School that it was decided to improve his living quarters and to build extra classrooms for all the new pupils who were bound to be attracted by the extreme excellence of this new Headmaster. Plans were already afoot to appoint two more members of staff, namely a second Usher and a visiting Writing Master, giving an overall staff of four. That should cope with the almost countless hordes, all eager for a free education of a very high standard.

(This won’t end well. It all sounds like pie in the sky to me.)

June 1718
Very little is known about what happened in the school in the years between 1711-1718, but, as an expert on the subject, I was 100% right about the pie.

The Council now sought to sack Richard Johnson, given that they thought he was a madman:

“…for all or most of the time…he very much omitted and neglected to teach and instruct the Sons of Nottingham….For the space of three Months and upward, he hath been, and is now, Delirious and Non Compos Mentis. He is incapable of performing and executing the Office of the Headmaster of the said school.”

Certainly, Johnson had fallen ill in 1714. He wrote ….

“I suffered such pains in my limbs that for a whole year I could not sleep without the aid of opium.”

(A drug addict running the school. That’s just what we need.)

More seriously, though, Johnson does seem to have suffered from a certain amount of ill health. The Town Council’s motivation for removing him from his position, though, may have had more to do with politics than any touching concern for his welfare or the school’s success. They conceivably exaggerated the Headmaster”s medical problems to create a trumped up charge of incompetence, which could then be used to remove a political thorn from the Town Council’s side.

Inadmissible circumstantial evidence it may well be, but Johnson’s difficulties certainly seem to have begun not long after the national Jacobite rebellion in 1715, which was led by the so-called “Old Pretender”, James Stuart. Here he is in his younger days:

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Nottingham was a Whig town, and Johnson may well have been a Jacobite. Around this time many other schoolmasters throughout England lost their jobs because they were Jacobites.

For whatever reason though, madness, drugs or politics, the Town Council tried to throw Johnson out. Johnson may well have spoken to his predecessor, Edward Griffith, though, because he decided that the best policy was, quite simply, to refuse, point blank, to leave.

(If that happens, just ignore the situation, and bring in another Headmaster of your choice)

August 11th 1718

The Town Council appointed William Smeaton as Headmaster.

(In that case, Jacobite Johnson, just ignore them. Take no notice whatsoever)

August 12th 1718

Johnson refused physically to leave the school.

Later on in late 1718 or, more probably, early 1719

Fed up with the whole situation, Sulky Smeaton resigned in an apparent fit of pique, and eventually got out of Dodge, never to be heard of again.

1719

The Council then appointed a local man, William Saunders, but at a much reduced salary. A legal action to eject Johnson from the school was taken, but in court Clever Clogs Johnson did not bother with a lawyer. He conducted his own defence with great skill. He duly won his case:

oldbailey zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Johnson explained to the court how unreasonable it was to leave a man of his advanced age penniless in the world, and asked that he be given a decent reference, so that at the very least he could go elsewhere and earn an honest living. At one point, Councillor Abney, knowing of Johnson’s previous mental frailty, accused him:

“…what has happened to you is what Felix said of St.Paul ; much learning has made you mad.”

Johnson replied to the Councillor

“…you will never go mad from the same cause.”

(That got a lot of laughs)

The school now had, arguably, more Headmasters and ex-Headmasters than pupils. There were only five students left. The Deputy Headmaster, George Bettinson, taught two, and Johnson, gallant to the end, did the lion’s share of the work with the other three. Indeed, there were so few pupils that they could well have had a couple of windows each:

free school

Very soon afterwards, the Town Council was again repeating its charge that Johnson had been delirious for the last eighteen months and that he was, to use the technical terms of psychology, as mad as a fish.

Finally, though, a compromise was reached. Johnson would leave and in return, he would be paid a pension of £10 a year for life.

(Mmm…..Nice)

William Saunders, the Town Council’s very, very recently appointed choice for the job, was now told that he too had to leave town before sundown.

later in 1719

Thomas Miles was made Headmaster.

(Problem solved !! Result !!)

Thomas Miles did not take up the post.

(Oh, noooooooooooooo!)

Amazingly and incomprehensibly, Thomas Miles said he didn’t want to work in an atmosphere of such considerable confusion. There was no confusion with the boys, though. Their parents voted with their feet. Numbers were still exceedingly low. On a good day, classes could have fitted inside a telephone box, if they had only been invented. Here is the site of the very confused Free School. No traces remain nowadays of the original building on the corner of  Stoney Street and Barker Gate. Look for the orange arrow:

free school site

1720

Next up to the plate was John Womack, a Bachelor of Arts from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, no less. I have been unable to trace if he was related to Bobby Womack, but this is still a superb soul classic. Enjoy:

Neither John Womack nor Bobby Womack held the poisoned chalice for long. John Womack died in April 1722. By now, the school was well on its way to six headmasters in three years. It was beginning to look like an unsuccessful football club.

But then the knockabout fun of “The Free School meets the Crazy Gang” came to an abrupt end.
Richard Johnson, Headmaster Number Two in a Series of Seven, Johnson the Madman, “Mr Delirious”, “Mr Non Compos Mentis”, “Jacobite” Johnson the Opium Addict, the Drug User, went out one day into the Nottingham Meadows, found a small stream which ran through it, and then, in a fit of despondency, he apparently drowned himself:

Erewash_Meadows_web

A witness spoke:

“of the extreme horror of meeting, one evening as I was walking in the Meadows, a venerable grey-haired man, carried dead on a stretcher. It was Richard Johnson. He appeared to have been sitting on the bank of the river, and was found in shallow water with his head downward.”

2994975_32908d1f

The incident was even reported in London newspapers:

“They write from Nottingham that some days since, the Reverend Mr. Richard Johnson, lately Master of the Free School there, being a little Melancholly, took a walk into the Meadows, and drowned himself in a Pit near the Old Trent.”

Here is the old Trent Bridge of the time, the so-called Bridge of Hethbeth:

old-trent-bridge-1869

Despite his apparent suicide, Johnson was eventually allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. He was probably given the benefit of the doubt, and his death was adjudged to be an unfortunate accident. And indeed, he may have had some kind of seizure or fit, perhaps brought on by trying some of those Ecstasy tablets which contain dog de-worming substances. (Unbelievably, yes, some of them do.) Equally, if Johnson’s death were suicide, then it may well have been decided that he was insane at the time he committed the act.

All of these strange circumstances have led a number of historical analysts to suggest, though, that Johnson’s burial in consecrated ground came about, not because his death was not the result of suicide, but because somebody knew very well that  that his unfortunate demise was actually murder. Consider some more circumstantial evidence. Johnson was an awkward so-and-so as his appearances in court show only too well. He was a political problem as a possible Jacobite, eager to see a different monarch in place and a return to Roman Catholicism. He was a financial burden to the Town Council with his Golden Goodbye of a pension of £10 a year for life.

Shadowy figures might well have decided that their own lives would be easier with one less Johnson in the world. One fewer ex-Headmaster above ground. Scratch one Jacobite. The questions are there to be asked. Why the mysterious drowning? Why did a man racked with pain in all his limbs go for a long walk at the side of a river? How did he then manage to drown in the “shallow water” of a “small stream” ?

If only one sadly missed detective had been around:

columbo-death-jackpot-badge

Whatever the reason, this era marks probably the lowest level to which the school has ever sunk.

For years and years afterwards, wary of appointing another highly qualified and learned man who might  turn out to be a second Johnson, the Town Council limited itself to local men, whose good character was well known, even if that meant that they did not have any university experience.

During this period, in the summer, the classes used to begin at 7 am, and then continued until 11 am The afternoon then began at 1 pm, and finally finished at 5 pm, or even later, if the Master so decided. From October 14th to February 14th, school started at 8 am, and finished at 4 pm. It was a six day week, but the Master was allowed to grant holidays and extra playtimes up to twelve hours per week.

(Not a bad deal. Twelve hours free every single week, if you feel so inclined! Twelve hours!)

A poignant plaque in St.Mary’s Church has always been considered to be a description of the education given at the Free School. I have translated it from Ye Olde Englishe:

“ Here lies interred
Henry eldest son of John
Plumptre Esquire.,

Born 22 July, 1708
Deceased January 3, 1718.

In these few
and tender years he had to
a Great Degree made himself
Master of the Jewish, Roman
and English History, the
Heathen Mythology and
the French tongue, and was
not inconsiderably advanced in
the Latin ”

P1120161

1722

Not quite the end! Let’s not forget,  John Swaile. He succeeded John Womack, and steadied a very shaky ship over the next nine years, 1722-1731. He did, however, have his problems with George Bettinson, the Usher or Second Master , who, after serving under six different headmasters in just two and a half years, was well used to running the school himself, and did not take kindly to some fool of a new Headmaster trying to give him orders. But that, as they say, is a different story…

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Filed under Criminology, History, Humour, Nottingham, Politics, The High School