Revisiting the tale of the White Lady ghost 'whose restless spirit still haunts Chesford Bridge' between Leamington and Kenilworth
A Leamington historian looks back on the tragic tale as part of his new book
A Leamington historian has revisited a ghost story he remembers from his childhood in writing the first of two books covering hauntings in the Warwick District.
Whisper Her Name, by David Eason, is the story of, and reinvestigation into the murder of, Ashow farmer's wife, 59-year old Sarah Dormer (nee Harris), at Dial House Farm, in Ashow, on Sunday August 29 1819, for which her maid servant, 22-year old, Charlecote-born, Ann Heytrey was wrongfully hanged for outside of Warwick Gaol on Wednesday April 12th 1820 - the 201st anniversary of which falls on Monday.
The incident is linked to sightings of an apparition of the White Lady 'whose restless spirit still haunts nearby Chesford Bridge'.
David said: "The earliest recorded sightings I have found date back to the late 19th Century within Mr George Morley's book Shakespeare's Greenwood."
On pages 87-89 he wrote: "On the road leading from Leamington to Kenilworth, there is a bridge over the river known as Chesford Bridge, originally built in the thirteenth century by the Abbots of Coombe Abbey.
"Clumps of woodland of a rather tangled and uncanny aspect flank the western side of the bridge, and, as might be expected of such a spot, it has long had its familiar spirit.
"The figure of a woman is stated to have been seen crossing the road from the Dial House Farm, on the right of the highway to the dark woodlet on the left, where it immediately vanished.
"Dwellers in the scattered cottages of the neighbourhood fight shy of Chesford Bridge after dark, and although many of them have doubtless never seen the apparition which is said to “walk,” the story has obtained such possession of their minds that they hold an unslayable belief in it'.
"I may here mention that in the year 1820 [should have been 1819] a very sensational tragedy took place at the Dial House Farm'.
"A woman named Ann Hawtrey [Haytrey], employed probably as a domestic [live-in maid] there, having in a barbarous manner taken the life of her mistress, Mrs Dormer, whose descendants still occupy the house'.
"The unhappy murderess is described as being the possessor of some personal beauty, but this did not save her from the gallows, for she was hanged at Warwick on April 12 of that year, in the presence of ten thousand people'.
"Probably the appearance of the “White Lady” of Chesford Bridge may be traced to the above gruesome fact, for it is notorious that scenes of deeds of bloodshed in the minds living in or near the spot invariably become haunted , either by the spirit of the murderer by that of the murdered person, and in this case it may be that the spirit of the miserable woman, in remorse for her crime, visits the scenes of her former abode, and in the glimpses of the moon moans and sighs round the house and then disappears in the darkness of the adjacent thicket."
David will include his research and the story in a second book he is currently writing called Ghosts & Hauntings of Warwick District.
As part of his research for Whisper Her Name and his latest project he visited Dial House Farm in 2017 and, with the permission of the occupier at the time, took photos including one of the window of Sarah's bedroom where she was murdered.
He said he has "no doubt whatsoever" that the apparition seen at Chesford Bridge is Ann and that, having grown up in Kenilworth in the 1970s, he remembers hearing the story of The White Lady.
He said: " I never heard of an explanation or understood the reason why she would haunt Chesford Bridge, as the murder had taken place at Dial House.
"That was up until now and, as the result of my research into the murder, I believe that I have discovered the tragic truth, which had been deliberately hidden behind a cloak of deception and lies.
"At the time of Sarah's murder Ann was two months pregnant but she would sadly go on lose the child due to the levity she was treated with during her seven-month confinement at Warwick Gaol, prior to her so-called trial at Warwick Assizes on Monday April 10 1820 during which she was cruelly and unjustly denied any defence.
"Ann had fallen pregnant in early June 1819, and she feared that when her employers found out they would throw her out of the house so she was left with the only option of returning to her elderly ill mother Mary in Charlecote with no means of supporting herself and her child financially.
"With this in mind, Ann was planing to leave the house but she needed money, which she was caught stealing and was charged with the capital offence of stealing in a dwelling house - the punishment for which since 1713 was to be hanged.
"However, she wasn't imprisoned, neither was she sent to trial, in fact she was allowed to continue to live and work in the house.
"The child's father was 20-year old James, who was sent away to stay with relatives living in Leek Wootton, one of whom was their eldest child, 11-year old Ann Maria Lee, who would act as messenger between James and Ann arranging secret meetings on or close to Chesford Bridge, as was the case on that fateful evening, but due to the events that followed she would never see James again.
"Ann has been seen as recently as last year but, unlike Mr George Morley's Victorian account of moaning and shying in the moonlight, she was a fully bodied apparition and had been followed down onto the bridge where she was seen standing by the west wall, looking down the river before vanishing, still looking for James.
"James remained at Dial House until his death on November 1 1880, his probate was read out in Birmingham on December 14 - naming his sole executor as namesake and nephew James Dormer of Ashow - who was a farmer.
"This James married Lucy Anne Gilbert on March 15 1842 at Barston, Warwickshire.
"She died in April 1870 and was buried on April 28 in Ashow.
"Ann was completely innocent of Sarah's murder - the proof of which I have laid bare within Whisper Her Name beyond all reasonable doubt.
"I have also uncovered other mysteries one of which is that on Sarah and Joseph's headstone
"Sarah is recorded as being aged 47 at the time of her death in 1819, when she was actually 59."