Weird Norfolk: The grey ghost of Great Dunham

St Andrew’s Church, Great Dunham

A spectral figure was seen at St Andrew’s Church, Great Dunham in the 1930s. - Credit: Peter Wood/Geograph

As they stood in one of the oldest places of worship in Norfolk, the vicar told the story of a ghost – and not the holy one that the visitors might have expected.

His son, he revealed, had seen a spectral figure inside the church just a month earlier and – when pressed – he revealed a far more terrifying tale.

The Rev DH Briggs (sadly no relation) spoke to the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society in September 1938 as they inspected the historic church of St Andrew’s.

This lovely little church has echoes from the past built into its walls: the Saxons took Roman bricks from a fine house and incorporated them into the fabric of the building.

It is the survivor of two churches that were once in the village, the other was St Mary’s which has disappeared, some of its remains under the nearby rectory, others built into St Andrew’s.

There are some interesting things to spot: a coffin-shaped slab has been embedded in the east wall of the church with a name on it and there are old graves with unusual inscriptions, including several to the Greengrass family whose number includes Adolphus, Alpheg, Alethea and Hegesias.

When William, son of Thomas and Susan Greengrass died on May 6, 1815, aged 23, his stone was inscribed with the following: “This young man was a great student. He understood the French, Italian, Hebrew, Greek and Latin languages: also astronomy and astrology.

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“He wrote his own nativity and predicted the time he was to die. OH DEATH, THOU HAST STOPPED HIS CAREER.”

Presumably William predicted his career would have been stopped, however.

In addition to such quirks, and if stories are to be believed, ghosts also haunt St Andrew’s both inside and out.

The archaeology society had visited Great Dunham on account of its fascinating history and links to the past: many Roman finds had been unearthed in this Breckland village and a Saxon sword found in the fields now rests at Norwich Castle Museum.

It was to be a day trip to an interesting corner of Norfolk to see how the landscape had been affected by the past: no one expected to hear tales of how visitors from the past still put in guest appearances in Great Dunham.

We know about the unusual element to the Society’s visit thanks to a report about their jaunt in the Eastern Daily Press: it makes strange reading.

Before this point, Rev Briggs’ communications from the church were generally about festivals and ceremonies – a charming note from July 1935 informs parishioners of a garden fete being held to raise funds for the church.

“Please everyone, roll up and do your best!” he writes, “In addition to the usual competitions, we are going to have a Baby Show, a parade of decorated bicycles and prams, a judging of noses and ankles, a hat trimming competition for men, and Bowls. Mrs Everington and Mrs Warnes have most kindly promised to organise a Children’s Dress Parade (the dresses ought to be the cheapest and the most original). Then, of course comes the Comic Cricket Match (reversed sexes).”

On Friday, September 9, 1938, however, a report in the EDP was somewhat…darker.

“Visiting the ancient church of Great Dunham in the course of a day's excursion yesterday, members of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society heard a strange story of a ghostly figure that has been seen in and near the building,” it read.

“While the members were inspecting the interior the rector (the rev. D. H. Briggs) mentioned quite casually that ‘a grey ghostly figure’ was seen to walk across the chancel and to enter the vestry during Evensong about a month ago.

“Eagerly questioned by members, some of whom were distinctly sceptical, Mr Briggs said: ‘My son, aged 24, saw the figure walk across the chancel and disappear into the vestry. It was also seen by another member of the congregation. It happened while we were singing a hymn.’

“There is no legend of a ghost haunting Great Dunham so far as the rector knows and he has held the living for eight years, but he revealed that his gardener claimed to have seen a big, hooded figure in walking across the churchyard.

“He was on the road when it appeared, and he stood ‘rooted to the ground and shaking with terror’.

“The rector was at a loss to explain why the ghostly visitant at Evensong should have entered the vestry — a comparatively modern addition to the building.

“Asked if he had seen it himself Mr Briggs replied: ‘I am not one of the sort that sees these things.’”

As I said earlier, definitely not a relative.

There are no other references to the grey ghost or the hooded figure, although Great Dunham is only three or so miles from Castle Acre, which was founded in the early 1070s by William de Warenne, a Norman knight who fought alongside William the Conqueror at Hastings.

By 1085, a small community of monks were at Castle Acre and by the 12th century, there were 36. Of the Benedictine order, they wore grey or black habits.

In 1265, the monks of Castle Acre were given a dressing down for “…the habit of journeying and riding about the country, eating and drinking indifferently in the houses of laymen and secular persons.”

Could the monks, like the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, have enjoyed a day trip to nearby Great Dunham? And did one get left behind, trapped in time, forever punished for misbehaving?