Digging through old newspapers can bring some strange rewards, as Kai Roberts found in West Yorkshire
Sowood House (Kai Roberts)
Situated at the junction of Coley Road with the A644 between Hipperholme and Stone Chair in the dispersed settlement of Coley on the hills above Halifax (W Yorks), Sowood House is a minor but typical example of the 17th-century vernacular architecture of the region. Mullioned windows embellished with transoms and drip-stones deck the gritstone walls, whilst high gables crown the H-plan structure. Such buildings were characteristic of the homes built by the yeoman class in Calderdale in the 1600s and an inscribed stone on the hall dates its construction to 1631 for the residence of John and Grace Whitley, a wealthy local family who were also responsible for nearby Rookes Hall in Northowram.
By 1968, the house had fallen into a state of disrepair when it was purchased and restored by one Mr. Frank Drury, during which time a grisly discovery was made. According to an article in the Halifax Evening Courier & Guardian (2 Sept. 1968), while employed in one of the outbuildings workmen stumbled across an iron box concealed in brickwork behind a chimney. Doubtless they were somewhat surprised when the contents of the box were revealed as a human skull.
The exact location of the find is uncertain. The original article specifies a “cottage… outbuilding”. However, a subsequent article in the
Brighouse Echo (6 Sept. 1968) simply refers to the find occurring at Sowood House and an inspection of the area today reveals an absence of substantial outbuildings in the grounds. While there appears to be an old barn structure next to the house, there is no evidence of any chimney.
The discovery of the skull inevitably led to an investigation by W Yorkshire Police to ensure that it was not evidence of a recent crime, after which its trail becomes difficult to follow. Bizarrely, the Coroners’ Courts do not class as a public institution under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act and therefore are not obliged to permit public access to their records.
Thankfully, the Brighouse Echo article revealed that the skull had been passed by the police to the University of Leeds for forensic examination. Neither the Department of Forensic Medicine nor Archaeology exist any more, offering a further obstacle to the pursuit of information. The Forensic Medicine archives were tracked down to the University of Sheffield, but despite the existence of a reference number for the case and some mention of photographs, no documents were found.
The Department of Archaeology had been transferred to the University of York and while they were also unable to find any records pertaining to the case, they were kind enough to contact a former member of staff who had examined the Coley skull and remembered it well.
They revealed it had been passed to the Department by pathologist Prof David Gee for dating and though it was not considered old enough to warrant Carbon-14 testing, the consensus from examination of its condition was that it had probably belonged to an adult male of the 17th century, suggesting it had been placed in the fabric of the house when it was built, most likely as “protection against witches”.
Curiously, the crown of the skull appeared to have been deliberately removed with a sharp instrument post-mortem and more significantly still, letters had been engraved on the bone, the script of which also appeared to date from the 17th century. Sadly, despite ultraviolet and infra-red analysis, these proved impossible to decipher, although it was speculated that whatever was written might have recorded the name of the deceased1.
The skull was returned to the Department of Forensic Medicine and what became of it after this remains a mystery. It was apparently not retained by Leeds University, as no accession number exists; and as it was not regarded as evidence of a crime, it may have been returned to Sowood House. However, from comments made by the Drury family in the Echo article, it seems unlikely that they would’ve replaced it in its hiding place. Contact with the current owners has proved uninformative, suggesting they know nothing of the incident or are unwilling to discuss it.
This provides an overview of the bald facts of the case, but what elevates the discovery of the skull to a matter of substantial folkloric interest is a letter received by the Halifax Evening Courier & Guardian following their initial report and printed in the body of an article dated 5 Sept. 1968.
An unnamed 80-yr-old Southowram woman wrote that she had been told about the skull by her mother 70 years previously. She explained that it had been found once before, when her great-grandfather had been the churchwarden at the Church of St. John the Baptist at Coley, which must date the incident to sometime in the early 19th century. On the advice of the vicar at the time, it had been buried in the graveyard there, but following interment, the house began to be haunted by mysterious cries of “Where’s my head?”. The skull was subsequently exhumed and restored to its original position, after which the disturbances ceased.
Such a story places the relic in the category of folk legends of ‘screaming’ or ‘guardian’ skulls. Although a number of famous examples exist across Britain (including those at Calgarth Hall in Cumbria and Tunstead Farm in Derbyshire) this instance appears to have been hitherto overlooked.
Typically, a guardian skull is associated with a building or family, acting as the ‘luck’ of the house – maintaining the structural integrity of the building and protecting it against ingress by malign influences, whilst safeguarding the prospects of the family itself, provided that it is treated with due respect. However, if the skull is slighted in any way or moved from the house, misfortune and supernatural activity will ensue. Nearly every ‘screaming’ skull story includes an attempt to bury the relic, following which uncanny auditory disturbances grow so problematic that it must be disinterred and returned to the house2. The skull at Burton Agnes Hall in E Yorkshire was deliberately bricked up to deter any future attempts at removal.
The conformity of the Sowood House skull with this wider motif suggests that while the suggestion of the archaeologists at Leeds University – that it was placed in the chimney to prevent access by witches – is partly accurate, it does not fully capture the significance of the relic.
Animal remains are often found bricked up in threshold locations, such as the walls, chimneys and roofs of old buildings as protection against witchery or general bad luck. Mummified cats, for instance, seem to have been regarded as especially effective and numerous examples have been found, including nearby at Slead Hall3. It has even been suggested that this tradition may be a dim echo in folk memory of the pre-Christian practice of foundation sacrifice4. However, the specific use of a human skull seems equally to represent another manifestation of the tutelary and apotropaic power invested in images of the disembodied human head by the pre-modern mind. Such symbolism has also been regarded as an unconscious survival of the cultic importance attached to the human head by Celtic cultures. It is true that concentrations of guardian skulls do appear in insular areas where other putatively Celtic traditions have endured (most famously the High Peak in Derbyshire), but more recently the symbolism of the head has been understood as a potent icon which recurs throughout history in the magical thinking of pre-modern societies, rather than a specifically Celtic survival.
A further example of the persistence of this image is represented by the archaic carved heads which occur in the vernacular architecture of certain regions in the north of England. These were also once considered to be evidence of the continuity of Celtic religious belief, but the majority of examples which appear in a datable context occur from the 16-19th and especially the 17th centuries.
They are predominantly located in liminal positions, such as above doors and windows, in gables and roofs and on bridges or gateways, often out of sight, suggesting an apotropaic rather than decorative function. Unsurprisingly, several such carvings can be found on chimneys and whilst this is far from their most common location5, it demonstrates that chimneys were perceived as liminal points requiring tutelage from the image of the head, which is noteworthy in the case of the Sowood House skull.
Moreover, the Calder Valley of W Yorkshire exhibits the greatest frequency of archaic head carvings in the country, with between 100-200 recorded examples, often found on 17th-century vernacular buildings with similarities to Sowood House6. A particularly fine example of the motif can be observed less than a mile away on the gateway to Coley Hall, which is dated 1649.
On such evidence, it seems incontrovertible that the image of the disembodied human head exerted a peculiar influence over the collective psyche of the Calder Valley in that period; but while archaic stone heads abound, this is the first instance of a guardian skull.
Perhaps the most infamous expression of Calderdale’s fascination with the head is the Halifax Gibbet Law, whereby criminals were executed by means of a guillotine-style device for relatively minor infractions until the mid-17th century, long after the rest of England had abandoned such methods of capital punishment.
Given the notoriety of this practice, it is not surprising that upon examination of the Sowood House skull, some of the archaeologists at Leeds University wondered if it might have belonged to a victim of the Gibbet7. Such speculation is not entirely fanciful. Eleven individuals were executed by the Gibbet between the building of Sowood House in 1630 and the discontinuation of Gibbet use in 1650, providing plenty of pickings8.
Moreover, when the Gibbet platform was re-excavated in 1839, two skulls, believed to have belonged to its last two victims, were found alongside, suggesting that little attention was paid to the fate of severed heads after decapitation9. Nor is it unusual for the skull of an executed criminal to have found its way into private hands in the region. During the 19th century, Halifax Theatre Royal is known to have possessed a skull removed from a corpse that had been hung in chains on Beacon Hill, which was used in productions of Hamlet10.
The use of a skull from such a source would also fit with the tutelary function of the guardian skull, as it has been observed that head-hunting societies often believe that decapitation as a means of death ‘fixes’ the soul in the severed head and allows use of its qualities by any who possess it11.
A further correspondence worth noting is the association between guardian skulls and the English Civil Wars. Several such skulls were locally believed to be the relics of Royalists executed by Parliamentarians or Catholic priests martyred by Puritans during this period, although further analysis has shown that these are often post-hoc legends invented to explain the mysterious origins of the tradition12. However, the screaming skull kept at Wardley Hall in Worsley, Lancashire, is strongly thought to have belonged to Ambrose Barlow, a Catholic martyred in 1641.
Bearing this in mind, it is instructive to note that the Coley area was a hotbed of Royalist sentiment during the Civil Wars. Langdale Sunderland, owner of Coley Hall in the 1640s, fought for the Cavaliers as the Captain of a Troop of Horse under the Earl of Newcastle, and the frontage of the Hall was severely damaged when it suffered bombardment by passing Roundhead troops13. Meanwhile, the Whitley family, who built Sowood House itself, were known Royalist sympathisers14.
Sadly, it is unlikely that after such time it will ever be possible to establish definitively the origins of the Sowood House skull, whilst if there were any further traditions connected to it, these may now have been entirely lost from the folk memory. As such, taken on its own merits, it represents only a minor entry in the canon of a unique motif in British folklore. However, when considered in the wider context of the manifest interest in the disembodied human head in the Calder Valley during the 17th century it acquires a much greater significance as further evidence of the apotropaic power attributed to such symbols in the region and the possible continuity of cultural transmission from ancient antecedents.
It is also a substantial addition to the curious history and traditions of the Coley area, which can already boast several hauntings, three holy wells and rumours that it was once the site of a Hospital of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (also known as the Knights Hospitaller) during the 13th century,15 all perhaps expressions of the potent genius loci which undoubtedly exists there.
- Pers. comm., Univ. of York, 2010.
- Billingsley, John. A Stony Gaze, Capall Bann 1998; Clarke, David. A Guide to Britain’s Pagan Heritage, Robert Hale 1995; Clarke, David & Roberts, Andy. Twilight of the Celtic Gods, Blandford 1996.
- Billingsley, John. West Yorkshire Folk Tales, History Press 2010, p50.
- Billingsley1998, p52.
- Billingsley1998, p 68.
- Billingsley, John. ‘Carved Heads in the Calder Valley’, Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions [HAS] 1996, New Series 4:16ff.
- Pers. comm., Univ. York 2010.
- Roth, H. Ling. The Yorkshire Coiners and Old and Prehistoric Halifax, F. King & Sons, Halifax, 1906.
- Porritt, A. It Happened Here… 2nd Series, Fawcett Greenwood & Co., Halifax, 1975, p92.
- Porritt, A. ‘Halifax Theatre (Old) 1789-1904’, HAS 1956: 22
- Billingsley 1998, p183.
- Clarke & Roberts 1996, p140.
- Parker, James. Illustrated Rambles from Hipperholme to Tong 1904, p377.
- Trigg, W.B. & Tolson L. ‘Rookes Hall’, HAS 1910:264ff
- Bretton, Rowland. ‘Coley Hall’, HAS 1969:
Published in (Winter 2010), pp.19-23