Is there a ghost in my family tree?

It’s not every day that you find a possible relative who was reportedly haunting a street. I turn ghost-hunter, meets ghost-buster, to see whether there’s any truth in the story.

I love a good ghost story, and more so the ones that are written about the area that I know well.

A victorian photograph of a mocked haunting
Did Jeremiah Newell return from the grave? Does he return, looking for his bed? Photo: Getty

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.

The Royal Oak pub, Ely, Cambridgeshire
The Royal Oak pub (now private house) sits on the corner of Potter’s Lane and Back Hill, Ely. Photo: Simon K.

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).

Cambridge Chronicle 17th November 1866
The Cambridge Chronicle report of Jeremiah’s death and subsequent haunting of Potter’s Lane residents in Ely. Copy held at the Cambridgeshire Collection.

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.

Jeremiah  Newell's death certificate, noting his cause of death.
Jeremiah Newell’s death certificate, noting his cause of death.

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!

Climbing Up The Vines

Vine Elizabeth Moden (1893-1980)There are a few strange names in my family tree – Yarrow, Moden, Tingey, Gotrop, Babbage and many more but none are quite as strange as the female firstname of Vine.

My Great Grandmother’s older sister was born as Vine Elizabeth Moden in Ely in 1893. She married a Frederick Newell of Ely, where she remained until her death in 1980. She has always been referred to as ‘Aunt Viney’ – but it has often occurred to me as to what a strange first name that is.

Often, strange names like Vine, are simply a maiden name of a maternal ancestor re-used – and I’ve seen them occur as middle names but rarely the first name. I decided that I should try and find out where the name Vine came from.

The 1870 birth certificate of Mary Ann Cross (Vine and my Great Grandmother’s mother), gave me their parents – George Cross and Vine Taylor. This was backed up by the Census returns for 1871 onwards. “Vines” Cross was the landlord of The Eagle and Lamb pub on Cambridge Road in Ely during 1899-1904, preceded by her husband George from 1892 until his death in 1898. The pub has long since been demolished (although I’d love to see a photo of it).

Having seen the census returns and found the burial entry in 1916’s Ely Cemetery for Vine Cross (née Taylor), I decided to try and find her birth certificate. However, no ‘Vine Taylor’ was indexed as registered in Cambridgeshire and searches at FindMyPast, the IGI and brought me no closer with their wider UK searches.

With Vine Taylor having been born in the 1850s and married with a 1yr old Mary Ann Cross by 1871, 1861 was to provide the clue I needed that would link Vine Taylor to a Taylor family… but, ah.. the flood. The critical record I needed was the one that was destroyed by flooding years ago.


Stuck until a chance comment on (where I post most of my awkward puzzles that magically get solved in hours) when a forum member suggested I tried variants of ‘Vine’ – real big strange variants – and that brought up a ‘Sabina Taylor‘ – born in Ely at about the right date (1852). Quite how you can go from Sabina to Vine in 10 easy steps, I’m not sure.. but I gave it a go and ordered ‘Sabina Taylor’s’ birth certificate. I soon found that Sabina was the illegitimate daughter of Susan Taylor of Cutter’s Yard, Ely and that she also bore the middle name of Steadman.

‘Susan’ linked nicely in with my tree too – with my Gt Grandmother and her deceased infant Aunt also having this name.

With another name thrown into the midst, I started tracing Susan Taylor, to see if Steadman or Vine played a role in her family tree… in a bid to confirm that this Sabina was the right person in my tree and if so, to then find the Vine link. I found no trace of Vine there, having found myself in the mid 1700s.

After browsing through marriage records, I stumbled across the marriage of Sabina’s mother to a William Steadman in Ely, in 1856. This made me feel certain that the ‘Steadman’ appearing on Sabina’s birth certificate was right – confirmed by this, their eventual marriage.

Still, no mention of Vine though…

…until I started looking at William Steadman’s ancestry (afterall, at that point in my research, I was quite enjoying the potentially ‘surrogate’ family). I soon found a baptism for William Steadman’s younger sister, and there it was…… Vinecrow Steadman. She was baptised on 13th August 1836 but lived only the age of 1 year.

Again, expecting to find that the mother of this Steadman family once used the maiden name of ‘Vine’, I was proven wrong. In 1829, James Steadman married Elizabeth Murfitt in Ely… but at second glance, there it was again.

Witness to the marriage was a Vine Steadman! the trail continues…….