Weird Norfolk: The phantom midnight funeral in Croxton

L0033 a snowy scene at Croxton before the thaw 12 Jan 1968
DML Jan 2016

A phantom funeral is said to be reenacted each night just outside the village of Croxton. Picture dated 12 Jan 1968 - Credit: Archant Library

The Brecks were once a honeycomb of rabbit warrens which were, in turn, a rich source of income for landowners who would protect their livelihood fiercely. Rabbits were prized for their meat and their fur and those that farmed them were prepared to fight poachers who dared trespass on their land.

Croxton Heath with its sandy soil and plentiful grazing saw huge numbers of rabbits thriving and was pock-marked with warrens and chalk pits. It is one such pit that holds the secret to a ritual which has taken place at Croxton Heath for decades if not centuries.

In Breckland by Robert Hale, written in 1956, Olive Cooke tells the story: “Long ago, when Croxton Heath was a wilder place than it is today, and with less woodland, a gamekeeper was killed by rabbit poachers, who put him in their cart and trundled off down the Thetford road.

“Soon they found a sandpit, one of many scattered across the heath, which seemed a likely place to hide the body. But as they lifted him from the cart, the not-quite-dead gamekeeper piped up and swore to haunt them forever.

“Although startled, the poachers finished him off properly and buried him in the pit. But since that day, it has been said that a hearse, complete with coffin and pallbearers, rises at midnight from the pit, proceeds slowly down the Thetford road, then vanishes through a nearby field gate.”

Enid Porter’s Folklore of East Anglia from 1974 changes the story only slightly: her ghostly hearse arrives from the road and returns to the chalk pit, rather than the other way round. Earlier still, Charles Kent, a former reverend of Croxton, reported the phantom funeral in 1910, saying that “…several decades ago, young people of the neighbourhood used to go in parties to see this wonder”.  

It is likely that the hearse in question is horse-drawn rather than motorized: such hearses were commonplace until the first decade of the 20th century and the land would have been difficult for a motor car to cross. Motorised hearses were not often seen until the 1920s.

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A case reported in the Eastern Daily Press in April 1910 makes it clear that poaching was very much still an issue in Croxton: two labourers, George Macrow and Harry Jacobs were charged by Arthur George Harvey, gamekeeper, with using a dog for the purpose of taking game. Another gamekeeper, George Vincent, gave evidence at the trial but he cannot be the gamekeeper whose life was stolen as war did that instead: he lies in the Amara War Cemetery in Iraq having died in 1917.

Although Rev Kent’s story of young people walking to Croxton Heath to witness the chilling midnight ritual suggests it was still a talking point in 1910, could the story have been a form of threat to keep people away from the land? If so, why was it the gamekeeper and not the poacher that paid with his life for the sake of a cautionary tale and why do the poachers not feature in the endless replaying of a funeral that never really happened?

Just how did the wronged gamekeeper manage to manifest not only a coffin and pallbearers, but a hearse? 

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