Weird Norfolk: Is it possible to see the ghost of a person who is still alive?

A black and white portrait of Rev. Dr. Astley

The Rev. Dr. Astley, Vicar of East Rudham. - Credit: Archant Library/Local Recall

It was dusk on Boxing Day when a Norfolk Vicar was seen at his church – unremarkable, perhaps, if it weren’t for the fact he was actually recovering from an accident 1,700 miles away.

The strange case of the Vicar apparition of East Rudham has fascinated scholars of the strange since it was documented in the Eastern Daily Press in 1908.

A story had previously been written about the terrible accident which befell Rev Dr Astley and his wife as they travelled to Biskra in Algeria where the cleric was due to be acting as chaplain for the winter.

The train carriage in which they were travelling was thrown down an embankment on December 16 1908 in an accident which killed two and injured 30 people.

The Astleys were dug from the wreckage and taken to a nearby French hospital where it was discovered that Rev Astley had sustained a head injury and bruising while his wife had suffered a broken leg.

News was sent to East Rudham where it was received on the morning of December 26 by curate-in-charge Rev J Brock, who announced it at a Boxing Day service to a shocked congregation.

It is at this point, that the story becomes very curious indeed.

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In the EDP of December 30 1908, it was reported that three very credible witnesses, two of whom knew Rev Dr Astley well, had seen the ailing Vicar in the village despite knowing he was recovering in hospital 1,700 miles away.

Rev Brock was relaxing at tea-time on Boxing Day, after a busy Christmas when housekeeper Mrs Hartley rushed into his room.

“Come and see Dr Astley!” she exclaimed, flushed.

“See Dr Astley?” replied the curate, baffled.

Mrs Hartley led Reverend Brock to the study and asked him to look out of the window, directing his view to a wall next to an alcove.

There, the curate saw a clergyman wearing a clerical collar and assumed he was gazing at his own reflection in the window…until he realised the figure was sitting at a book-covered desk.

Both housekeeper and curate looked in amazement at Rev Astley who was, according to Mrs Hartley, sitting in precisely the place he liked to read outdoors in the summer.

She then told Rev Brock that she and maid Florence Breese, 18, had seen Rev Astley earlier and that in the first vision, he had been walking towards the Vicarage.

“I see master three times. He was reading a paper when I saw him,” said Florence.

The EDP added: “Few more remarkable stories have ever been told Christmas or any other season of the year…”

It must be noted that Mrs Hartley had earlier told the EDP the unusual way in which  she’d been appointed to her housekeeping role when living in Lady Lane – now underneath The Forum in Norwich, and the old processional route to the Chapel which is once where The Assembly House stands today.

She told a reporter that Mrs Astley had appeared to her in a vision two days before her interview and that her employer-to-be had been flanked by two nuns.

According to Mrs Hartley, an Australian gentleman –since deceased – had once told her that she could have been a medium and she admitted she regularly saw spirits.

Back in East Rudham, both Mrs Hartley and Rev Brock claimed to see the absent Rev Astley again a few days later and on one occasion, a reporter from The Times was able to see the Vicar’s books, if not the Vicar himself.

Critics rushed to dismiss the sightings, including the Rev Dr Jessop of Scarning who rubbished the claims and a letter writer to The Times who made mention of astral projections.

By January 2 1909, Rev Astley was well enough to comment on the case himself via a telegraph sent from Algiers from colleague and British Chaplain the Rev HC Muriel.

“Dr. Astley is very amused,” the telegraph to The Times said, “at the precise moment of his alleged astral appearance on Dec 26th Dr. Astley was not in clerical garb, wearing a gold chain, at a book-laden desk, but was resting in bed at the hospital, discussing with Mr. Muriel the whereabouts of his lost luggage.”

He added that he had never worn a collar of the type “he” was seen wearing and that the gold watch chain also attributed to him on the figure was not the way he wore such an item.

There was also the matter of his missing pipe: Rev Astley was rarely seen outside church without it.

So the mystery remains: was the apparition a figment of many imaginations? Was the figure an astral projection of a man suffering from heightened emotions and wishing himself home?

The ability to be able to appear in two places at the same time – or bilocation – has been well documented for centuries and is often said to happen at times of great stress.

One of the best known examples happened in Massachusetts in 1915 when a school caught fire and children were trapped inside.

Schoolgirl Mary Renfrew was pulled unconscious from the building and at the exact same moment was seen by numerous witnesses several blocks away.