I love a good ghost story, and more so the ones that are written about the area that I know well.
There’s lots of ghostly stories about Cambridgeshire – ranging from ghosts of Oliver Cromwell, to the beastly Black Shuck. I’ve even been shut in the pitch black of Peterborough Museum basement overnight with night vision cameras. I’m a complete sceptic, and one that doesn’t get scared.
On one of my many ventures into bookstores, I picked up ‘Ghosts & Legends of Cambridgeshire‘ by Polly Howat (1998, Countryside Books), and when I got to page 41, I found myself reaching for a pad, pencil, census returns and parish register transcripts.
Howat’s story is about a Jeremiah Newell of Ely, Cambridgeshire. This uncommon surname and the location fits perfectly with my Newell family tree.
According to her write-up, Jeremiah, or Jerry to the locals, liked a drink. And on one night he had been drinking in his local pub - The Royal Oak on the corner of Potter’s Lane and Back Hill.
He would have waved goodbye to (or been ejected by) landlord William Fenn, and made his way down the side of the pub towards his bed in Potter’s Lane. It appears to have been his last.
It’s safe to assume that Jeremiah was likely to be somewhat drunk as he staggered that short familiar few meters home.
The next morning, the residents discovered Jeremiah curled up, on top of a dung heap. Presumably, this would have seemed warm and comfy to a drunken Jeremiah, and perhaps he mistook it for his bed… but he had died during the night.
The Cambridge Chronicle of 17th November 1866 backs up the story - with a guess at what Jeremiah had slept in or on, and complete with quotes from two residents who witnessed Jeremiah’s return (one of whom appears to be quite the wordsmith).
The newspaper article suggests an exorcism was requested by residents, but it is not clear whether it ever took place (not sure where i’d find that information), or whether the drama of the story led the reporter or their contacts, to stray a little from reality.
The Stamford Mercury
The Stamford Mercury, which is not the local newspaper, and perhaps therefore has a different set of reporters, carries a very different story. I found a copy of this on FindMyPast. It’s dated from the day of Jeremiah’s funeral (2nd November 1866), and so doesn’t make reference to his ghostly return.
The Stamford Mercury claimed:
- Jeremiah Newell was found alive in a puddle by a gas man (the gas works were right nearby)
- Jeremiah Newell was escorted to The Black Swan pub – next to The Royal Oak (and just off to the left of the photo above).
- Jeremiah Newell was given beer, demanded gin, and then hit his head after dozing and falling over.
- Jeremiah Newell was laid outside in the sunshine but was found dead shortly after.
These events are completely different from the other two, and I’m tempted to believe that the report from the non-local Stamford Mercury may well be more accurate.
Finding the facts on Jeremiah Newell’s death
Believer or non-believer bit aside, how can I get closer to telling the proper version of this fun story on Halloween?
To try to help me resolve this, I ordered his death certificate (to find cause and location), and I contacted the team at Cambridgeshire Archives to attempt to locate a copy of the Inquest.
Sadly, floods in the 1960s decimated a lot of Ely records (including the 1861 census), and according to the Cambridgeshire Archives team, it seems that the inquest book covering this period was lost. This is a big shame for unpicking this story.
As for the death certificate, it revealed that he died on Halloween – precisely 148 years ago today.
In what is probably one of the fullest descriptions given in a ‘Cause of death’ column that I’ve yet seen:
“Congestion of the Brain occasioned by drunkenness, exposure to cold, and a fall whilst in a state of intoxication”
The informant box is equally crammed with writing:
“Information received from William Marshall Coroner for Isle of Ely, Ely. Inquest held 2nd November 1866 (P.[?].)”
So, it seems that Jeremiah died following The Stamford Mercury’s account of events.
Perhaps with his death taking place on 31st October 1866 – Halloween – the residents had taken the opportunity to dramatise his departure, when really he was just victim to his alcohol abuse.
I imagine that the Inquest may have specified any evidence of the gas man, and also which pub he died in, but that now remains a mystery.
Is Jeremiah Newell related?
He’s in the right place, at the right time, but linking him up has proved a little tricky.
Jeremiah was the second of three known children – John (b.c.1809), Jeremiah (b.c. 1814) and Mary (b.c. 1816). All were baptised at Holy Trinity, Ely, Cambridgeshire, as the children of John Newell and his wife Alice (née Block/Black).
Whilst it’s possible to see them together in 1841 and 1851, it’s the earlier records beyond Jeremiah’s Newell grandparents that are ambiguous with common names.
My Newell’s remain in Ely either side of the dates that I’ve found for Jeremiah, his parents, and his nieces and nephews. The connection remains elusive, but tantalisingly close. I guess this bit will haunt me a bit longer.
Jeremiah Newell’s timeline:
- Jeremiah Newell was baptised on 25th June 1814, at Holy Trinity church, Ely, Cambridgeshire.
- He was the second of three known children of John Newell (soldier) and his wife Alice (née Block).
- Jeremiah appears to have married widow Susannah Bidwell (née Pigeon) on 4th September 1858 at Ely.
- Jeremiah died on 31st October 1866, of injuries sustained whilst drunk, and in cold weather.
- Jeremiah was buried, aged 52yrs, on 2nd November 1866 at Ely cemetery.
- The burial register notes him as having lived on ‘Back Hill’ (which is the adjoining road).
- The Cambridge Chronicle reported the haunting on 17th November 1866.
- Polly Howat’s book, re-tells the story, 132 years after his death.
Does the ghost of Jeremiah Newell continue to wander Potter’s Lane?
I’ve previously wondered whether the dead could help solve genealogy puzzles, so perhaps I should pop along tonight to see if Jeremiah is willing to talk…. and clear up the confusion over what really did happen that fateful night in 1866.
He might even be stone-cold sober by now.
Happy Genealogy Halloween!