Hauntings, Holborn and… Historians?: Re-examining “Great News from Middle-Row”

I cannot help but feel that the writing of this piece has been not so subtly influenced by some external force. That may sound odd but bear with me while I explain.

In the span of one day I had one friend discussing at length her research project on haunted locations in Colchester and another friend describing her house as being haunted (complete with disembodied voices and objects moving by themselves). This was rounded off with two random primary sources on ghosts from other modules just randomly waiting for me on the floor of my room.

So, I felt it was appropriate to take the not-so-subtle hint!

Ghost stories are a relatively frequent occurrence in early modern European history; and perhaps unsurprisingly so, given the combination of earlier folkloric beliefs in wraiths and revenants clashing with the turbulent religious climate brought on by the Reformation. However, beyond the supernatural element, it is possible to gain considerable insight into ideas about early modern society from a ghost story.

For example, consider the 1680 pamphlet entitled Great News from Middle-Row in Holbourn: or a True Relation of a Dreadful Ghost. The pamphlet, and subsequent broadside ballad released around the same time, describe how the recently deceased midwife ‘Mrs. Adkins’ was seen as a “Wandering Spirit” in her former residence of Middle-Row. This haunting was accompanied with “nocturnal visions and Impetuous Groans” until the ghost of Adkins appeared before a maid-servant. After it seemed to “belch flames of fire”, it revealed that the maid-servant should search beneath the tiles under the hearth. Of course, the maid-servant’s mistress and master were hesitant to believe the tale, but upon relenting and searching beneath the hearth, the bodies of two infants were discovered and later, put on display at the Cheshire Cheese pub.

The reasoning behind the haunting is perfectly summarised in the following sentence: “this weighty secret has been long concealed, but since the great God has thought fit that such a monstrous crime as that appearance did portend, should be no longer be hid or masked in darkness be forever silent”.

In short, the implication of the story is that Adkin’s crimes in aiding in the disposal of illegitimate births were deemed so heinous by God it was necessary for the spirit of Adkin’s to return and reveal the truth to the current residents of Middle-Row. This idea of a previous resident returning in death to relay a secret or reveal their crimes is a hallmark trait of a Protestant haunting and served to highlight God’s great mercy in allowing someone to redeem themselves.

However, as mentioned earlier, beyond the theological and supernatural overtones lies an underlying social commentary of contemporary concerns. Lisa Smith has already presented her own excellent summary of this same source and has summarised the interpretations of other historians. For example, she highlights Laura Gowing’s interpretation of the pamphlet presenting the rising concerns of illegitimacy and subsequent infanticide and Peter Marshall’s view of the story as triumphant power of God revealing the dark truth.

Whilst I fully agree with these arguments, I would like to present another idea to further complicate the tale of Mrs. Adkin haunting Middle-Row, in the form of a justification to remove the building. Pamphlets were a cheap and easy way to spread information and were often sensationalised and slanderous. Therefore, is it too much of a stretch to assume that the Great News from Middle-Row may simply be adding fuel to an already existing fire?

In his Londinopolis: An Historical Discourse or Perlustration of the City of London (1657, p.344), seventeenth century writer-historian James Howel condemned Middle-Row, describing it as “a mighty hindrance to Holborn” and that “if taken down there would be from Holborn Conduit to St. Giles one of the fairest rising streets in the world”. When one sees the images of what Middle-Row looked like in context, it is easier to see where Howel was coming from. The block of houses known as Middle-Row half-blocked the street at the south end of Gray’s Inn Lane, leading to it being considered an obstruction for at least a couple of centuries. It was eventually removed in 1868.

In this sense it is possible that Middle-Row was generally an annoyance, given its poor placement. Factor in the negative connotations of a haunting following a heinous crime and there is possibly a potential justification for the removal of the building. The fact that it was indeed removed suggests that in one way or another its reputation caught up with it.

Although written outside of the period of the pamphlet, it is interesting to note that the negative perception of Middle-Row, and Holborn in general, persisted into the nineteenth century. In 1878, Walter Thornbury describes in ‘Holborn: to Chancery Lane’ that Holborn used to be “on the old road from Newgate and the Tower to the gallows at Tyburn” and that “curious and often sympathising spectators” would line the windows to see thieves and murderers being paraded on their way to the gallows. The suggestion that the spectators would sympathise with thieves and murderers implies that Thornbury did not hold the residents of that part of London with high regard.

I think that the fantastical nature of ghost stories as well as the age-old question of where we go when we die will mean that belief in ghosts will persist on some level. According to a 2017 BMG Research poll, even today a third of the British public surveyed still believe in ghosts, with 44% of these in the 18-24 age group. Whilst modern ghost stories may offer less regarding wider social implications as their early modern equivalents, it is interesting statistic, nonetheless.

Personally, I rather like alternative the idea presented to me by my peers; that this was instead part of a campaign of back-and-forth rivalry banter between the Adam and Eve and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pubs, given their relatively close proximity to each other!

References

Howell, J., Londinopolis: an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London, the imperial chamber, and chief emporium of Great Britain: whereunto is added another of the city of Westminster, with the courts of justive, antiquities, and new buildings thereunto belonging (1657). Available at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A44732.0001.001/1:11.28?rgn=div2;view=fulltext [Accessed: 20 March 2019].

McGlone, C., ‘BMG Halloween Poll: A third of Brits believe in Ghosts, Spirits or other types of Paranormal Activity’, BMG Research, 2017. Available at: https://www.bmgresearch.co.uk/bmg-halloween-poll-third-brits-believe-ghosts-spirits-types-paranormal-activity/ [Accessed: 2 March 2019].

Smith, L., “The Ghost of a Murderous Midwife”. Wonders and Marvels. Available at: www.wondersandmarvels.com/2012/09/the-ghost-of-a-murderous-widwife.html [Accessed: 16 March 2019].

Thornbury, Walter. “Holborn: To Chancery Lane.” Old and New London: Volume 2 (London: Cassell, Petter & Galpin, 1878), pp. 526-542. Available at: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp526-542. [Accessed: 16 March 2019].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s