Weird Norfolk: The little girl in a crooked house in Norwich who ate her parents
PUBLISHED: 17:32 02 March 2019 | UPDATED: 09:59 03 March 2019
She's been seen in the streets, houses and churches of Tombland, a grey lady who glides through walls and hides a terrible secret: when she was locked into a room with her plague victim parents, she ate their flesh to stay alive and met her end choking on their flesh.
Once upon a time, there was a man, a woman and their children who lived in Norwich in a little crooked house. The crooked house, a familiar Norwich landmark, is Augustine Stewards House, a remarkable timber-framed building which stands opposite the main entrance to Norwich Cathedral and which was built for Steward, a former mayor of the city, in 1530 and famously used by royal troops sent to quash the 1549 Kett’s Rebellion. Lord Sheffield stayed the night in this house, which today is much-photographed thanks to its twisted and warped timbers which give the building a distinctive lean and whose wing forms the entrance to Tombland Alley where plague victims were buried, before his death at the hands of the rebels.
But the remarkable story which concerns us today is of the family that are said to have been boarded into the house on Tombland and who were the victims of the aforementioned plague, which cast its shadow over Norwich in 1578.
So, the story goes, everyone who lived in Augustine Steward’s house had succumbed to the plague.
Reports of the time described the illness thus: “Such was its violence that all other distempers gave way to it or ran into it…They experienced a most intolerable pain from the heat of the head; the eyes were swelled and fiery; the tongue bloody; respiration difficult and breath fetid; vomitings of bilious matters frequent; finally the body became livid, with pimples here and there scattered over it, which bred worms. Death took place the second or third day.”
Some credit the terrible plague which ravaged the city to the visit of Queen Elizabeth I, who spent five days in Norwich in August 1578, staying at the Bishop’s Palace which is close to Augustine Steward’s house, believing the Queen’s London train of followers had brought the disease with them.
Regardless of how the disease was delivered to Norwich, its consequences were horrific: for almost two years, the plague swept through the city killing thousands of people - once again, the dead piled up high in carts and graveyards were raised to cram in the corpses – there is a long-held rumour that a plague pit lies beneath what was once the Samson and Hercules on Tombland, but no facts exist to give this theory credence. Similarly, Tombland is not named for tombs: the name comes from two Old English words that mean “open ground” or an empty space and indicate an area which was once the main market place before the Normans arrived in 1066. But there were deaths in Tombland, and a story about one such death has passed into Norwich legend.
As the plague cut through the city, an order was sent to seal up the buildings – 100 years later, these same orders were carried out for the Great Plague of 1665 and a written description has survived which it is thought may have been similar to the instructions given in Norwich in 1578. Sick or infected people would be moved from houses and the house itself shut up and locked for 40 days with a red cross and Lord Have Mercy Upon Us in capital letters written on the door – after the 40-day period, a white cross would be fixed on the door for another 20 days during which time the house would have to be fumigated, cleaned and painted with lime. Clothes and household items had to stay in the house for a further three months. It is said that this procedure happened in Norwich, but that one family was accidentally boarded into their home – possibly they were too ill to shout or let anyone know they were still there, maybe they were all – bar one – dead. Weeks later, the bailiffs returned and discovered a grim and grisly sight.
In one room, the bodies of two adults were found – the mother and father – but when the bodies were examined, it was found that they had unusual marks on their legs: human teeth marks. Next to the bodies of the parents was the corpse of a young girl – the story continues that this child had not been consumed by the plague, but rather had choked to death on the flesh of her parents having been forced to consume them…
The ghost of a young girl is said to haunt this area of Tombland and Tombland Alley behind Augustine Steward House where the graveyard of St George’s church had to be raised in order to cram the victims of the plague into a series of graves. She always appears in ragged grey clothes and many of those who have lived or worked in this area have either seen the girl or felt her presence – particularly when she moves objects around in the night or opens and closes doors, two of her favourite pastimes.
Others have witnessed the grey lady of Tombland walking up and down Tombland Alley and the former vicar of St George’s, Reverend John Minns, was practicing a sermon for the following weekend one day when he saw a young woman dressed in grey enter the church through the main doors, walk across the back of the church and leave through the doors leading to Tombland Alley…doors which had been sealed for many years. A DJ at Ritzy’s nightclub – which was based at Samson and Hercules House next door to Augustine Steward House from 1982 to 1999 – heard some strange noises upstairs and went to investigate. A private party was booked that night and it was not unheard of for youngsters to try and gain access through the toilet windows to join the party. By the ladies’ toilets, the DJ saw a young woman dressed in grey – challenging her, he was perturbed when she ignored him completely and walked past him. As he turned to see where she was headed, he realised she appeared to have no feet and was gliding down the corridor.
In 1973, the following report was printed in the Eastern Evening News: “A local woman confided in Mr Hugh Thompson, manager of the Norwich Tourist Information Centre, whose headquarters are at Augustine Steward’s House on Tombland, that she was startled to find a “grey lady” gliding along the cobbles of Tombland Alley.
“The apparition, she said, clothed in grey from head to foot, was in full view for an appreciable time and then faded rapidly through a solid flint wall. Unfortunately, Mr Thompson did not take the name of the woman (the solid one) at the time, but, he says. She was thoroughly convinced that she had seen the ghost.
“Can she be one of Augustine Steward’s two wives, who should be cosily ensconced beside her husband in St Peter Hungate Church? Could it be a nun who has lost her way between Norwich’s many churches? Perhaps it was a seamstress employed by tailor Steward, who was waylaid on her way home…Perhaps the woman who was privileged to see the grey lady would come forward and furnish us with a more precise description. Until then, late revellers who take a short cut home through Tombland Alley should beware.”
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