Friday, August 09, 2013

An Essex Ghost Story - 'Catherine Canham - a beautiful bigamist.'

As I'm about to embark on a Jane Austen linked ghost story I've been reading  a delightful little book called "Ghosts of Essex" by Betty Puttick. There is a romantic one set in Thorpe-le-Soken, which is about a 15 min drive from Wivenhoe, in an old pub called The Bell. This place burnt down about 15 years ago and was rebuilt as an exact replica – I asked the landlord if the ghost was still there but he said the place was now no longer haunted.
This is how The Bell  must have looked in 1752
Catherine Canham (Kitty) was born in 1720 and was the only surviving child of Robert and Judith. She was extraordinarily beautiful and had a coterie of admirers,  including the vicar, Henry Gough, who lost his heart to the girl and despite his brother's advice "she's a beautiful creature who will play you a trick" asked for her hand in marriage and was accepted.
Unfortunately Kitty found life as a vicar's wife boring and was a constant source of gossip in the village. And then inexplicably she vanished. There were many theories about the disappearance: she had gone to see a doctor in London and not returned, another that she had a lover in London.
Much later it was discovered the latter story was true and Kitty had met a Lord Dalmeny who asked her to marry him. Kitty didn't hesitate. The unfortunate lord was unaware of her background, and  believing her to be single, he married her.In the next four years they travelled abroad enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, but Kitty were never been strong, and became ill in 1752. Realising she was about to meet her maker Kitty asked for pen and paper and managed to write "I am the wife of the Reverend Alexander Gough, the vicar at Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex. My maiden name was Catherine Canham. My last request is to be buried there."
Her young "husband" loved her so much that he forgave  her and promised to fulfil her last wishes. Her body was embalmed and encased in an elaborate coffin with large silver plates. This was then put in a plain wooden chest, her clothes and jewellery were packed up and her  grieving husband left Italy for France. There, using the pseudonym Mr Williams, he set sail for Dover, where he then borded another ship bound for Harwich. However there was rough weather and the boat was driven into the mouth of the River Colne and customs officers boarded it and suspected the chest was  contraband.
Customs men opened the coffin and found the body but now believed there had been foul play. Dalmeny admitted he was not in fact Williams of Hamburg, but a person of quality taking his English wife home for burial.
Thorpe church yard.
The coffin was placed in the vestry of Hythe Church and remained there until someone arrived to identify Kitty. The General Evening Post 15 August 1752 reported that the actual husband was obliged to go and identify Kitty. Gough threatened to kill Dalmeny for marrying his wife bigamously. However, their love for this lady was so strong it united them. Dalmeny said "affections for the lady was so strong that it was his earnest wish not only to attend  the grave, but be shut up forever with there with her".
Both husbands, united in grief,  in deep mourning, followed the magnificent hearse hand-in-hand to her burial in the church yard. Lord Dalmeny died three years later aged only 31, but Gough survive for another 22 years.
The Bell overlooks the graveyard at the back and was a natural place for Kitty to haunt.
The shadowy female figure has been seen to glide through a closed door, for example, and wardrobes have been moved and bedclothes disarranged. It was happening  in one room which is affectionately known as "Kitty's room". Items have been known to move across the floor, and things vanish. TA landlord at the pub had two guard dogs, but they would never go into the room.
The barmaid recorded seeing a quiche, left on the kitchen table to cool, shoot across and land on the floor when there was no one else there.
Catherine Canham must have been a remarkable woman for two men to have loved her so completely. She reminds me of Lydia Bennet - this was the sort of thing she might have done.

Fenella J Miller


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an amazing story, Fenella. I wonder why she haunted her former home? What did she want to say?

Fenella J Miller said...

She didn't haunt the vicarage but the inn next to the chruchyard.
I think her life is more amazing than her death - I keep thinking about the vicar and her bigamous husband walking ahnd in hand behind the hearse.

Anne Seebaldt said...

That gave me goosebumps!

Anonymous said...


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Unknown said...

My Aunt was the land lady at the Bell before it had its fire, I was an atheist in my younger years an I asked to stay in kittys room ( number 9), over the school holidays.
The events I witnessed changed my beliefs an spirituality forever. There used to be a Beautiful portrait of kitty in the main bar above the fire place, She was a Gorgeous lady! I think the portrait vanished in a theft before the fire, perhaps this is why the hauntings have stoped. I would love to see the portrait again if anyone has an image of it?

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Anonymous said...

Why is Reverend Gough named as "Henry" in one place but "Alexander" in Kitty's note?

Starzstuff said...

I used to live at the end of Vicarage Lane in Thorpe le Soken. St Micheals Rd and Vicarage lane to be exact. When I used to walk past the vicarage at night timE, which was abandoned then (the mid 70's) I used to swear that part of the street was haunted. The street lights were always going out and I always got that feeling of being followed. Could have been a you boys imagination but after reading about Catherine I feel not.