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WEIRD NORFOLK: The red-faced ghoul of Rollesby – victim or murderer?

PUBLISHED: 18:00 23 May 2020

Was Rollesby Hall haunted by a spirit whose face dripped with blood? Picture: The demolition of Rollesby Hall. Dated 24 April 1950

Was Rollesby Hall haunted by a spirit whose face dripped with blood? Picture: The demolition of Rollesby Hall. Dated 24 April 1950

The red-faced ghost of Rollesby with a case of mistaken identity – is it a murderer or a victim of murder whose face appears covered in blood?

A ghost with a blood-soaked face that is said to haunt Rollesby – but is the blood the ghost’s own, or that of the victim the spirit murdered?

Two ghosts are said to have haunted the since-demolished Rollesby Hall, a building which dated back to the mid 16th century and which finally fell to the wrecking ball in the 1950s, leaving only a garden wall and some outbuildings. “Old Red Face” and his wife are – or were – seen, it was said, on the second Monday of each month at midnight, a day believed to have been linked with a tragedy at the hall.

The wonderful Walter Rye, whose work is often pored over by the Weird Norfolk team, wrote about Old Red Face of Rollesby in The Recreations of a Norfolk Antiquary, 1843 to 1929. His story was in turn taken from fellow antiquary Antony Norris (1711 – 1786), who lived in Barton Turf in Norfolk and was educated at a Norwich grammar school. Rye writes that the ghosts “…are variously said to be those of one of the Danish invaders, usually called Red Danes, who slew the Saxon lord of the manor in one of numerous descents on our Norfolk coast, and of the victim’s wife, who is said to follow him about, wringing her hands…

“By others, they are said to be of a Cavalier who – being justifiably irritated by his wife having habitually exceeded the allowance he had made her with which to buy clothing and gewgaws, killed her by cutting off her head with a handsaw, her blood so spurting as to redden his face and so give him the title of Old Red Faced.”

Weird Norfolk takes issue with Rye’s assertion that the above murder was “justified” and for those wondering what a gewgaw might be, it is, apparently “a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless” (these are WN’s favourite things). Rye adds that the hall was once lived in by a family with the name of Ensor, which locals believed to be a corruption of ‘handsaw’ from the implement used in the murder.

“But this seems to me idle talk, for albeit the punishment for such wanton repeated expenditure might not by some be deemed excessive it appearth to me almost impossible to sever a human head from the body with so small an implement,” added Rye, ever the practical reporter. He includes the following ballad which he said was, still repeated in the village in the early 20th century.

In his account is included the following ballad.

“All round the rooms of Rollesby Hall

Roameth the wraith of a red-faced Dane

While from the blade of his good brown sword

Drippeth the blood of a murdered Thane

Follows him closely the dead man’s wife

Who loved her husband better than life.

So will they walk till long years wane

And a brown sword cuts through the charm again.”

As an aside, the late Bernard Davies, of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, suggested in the 1980s that Rollesby Hall had inspired Arthur Conan Doyle when he wrote about Donnithorpe Hall in The Gloria Scott. Davies worked out the location by examining the Victorian Norfolk railway network and ‘clues’ left in the book, such as the alignment of the sunset and the speed of a horse and trap. The Gloria Scott was Holmes’ first investigation and where he caught the bug for sleuthing – he didn’t, however, solve the mystery of Old Red Face and his wife.

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