Weird Norfolk: The many hauntings of St Nicholas’ graveyard in Great Yarmouth

St Nicholas Minster, Yarmouth.

St Nicholas Minster, Yarmouth was the scene of a Victorian ghost hunt. - Credit: Archant Library/Nick Butcher

The saying goes that it’s the living that create a haunted graveyard.

Cemeteries are supposed to be the end of the line in your life’s journey, the final stop – and if ghosts do return to haunt, it will most likely be to somewhere that meant something to them in life.

Unless, of course, the ghosts have a reason to be tied to a graveyard…

Bodysnatching, grave robbery, desecration of the dead, unmarked or forgotten burials, natural disasters disturbing final resting places, all can provide the restless with a reason to drift back from the otherworld.

And in Great Yarmouth’s cemetery, there were many explanations as to what 1,000 fright seekers turned up to investigate in 1872.

In July of that year, whispers began to circulate that a ghost had been seen flitting around the graves and tombstones in the churchyard.

The gossip became so persistent that within days, a huge crowd had gathered to satisfy their curiosity with a mass graveyard vigil at night.

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On July 15, the Eastern Daily Press report read: “A few days ago a rumour got about that a ghost was to be seen in St Nicholas’ churchyard, and as the report spread it grew in proportion, like the tale of the three black crows, until it came to be looked upon as an undoubted fact that a ghost was seen to be walking in the churchyard in the witching hours of night.

“One man stated positively that he saw the spirit, and described it as being a monster and as having passed itself into four different shapes while he was looking at it.

“Another tale is that the ghost is the spirit of a deceased townsman, who once lived near the church; a third report was to the effect that the ghost was an escaped lunatic; and a fourth that the tale originated in the fact that someone having seen the gravedigger at work in his shirt-sleeves late at night or very early in the morning.”

(Weird Norfolk notes that a similar ghost hunt that attracted crowds happened a few months later in the same year 20 miles away in Norwich, when the Heigham Horror was seen stalking the streets.)

The EDP had no time for ghostbusters and dismissed the crowds as “fools”, adding that it hoped the onlookers had “…come away wiser people than they went.”

Yarmouth cemetery.

Several ghosts are said to roam the cemetery at Great Yarmouth. Picture: Nick Butcher - Credit: Archant Library/Nick Butcher

However, the sightings persisted and the evidence grew.

This is the place where Elizabeth Butcher and Joan Lingwood were buried after being hanged as witches in 1584, and where they were later joined in September 1645 by accused witches Elizabeth Bradwell, Alice Clesswell, Bridgetta Howard, Maria Blackborne and Elizabeth Dugeon.

The seven were buried in unconsecrated ground on the edge of the church. Just a few years later, sisters baptised at the church were accused of witchcraft in Salem Massachusetts, two hanged, one escaped death.

This is also the place where body snatchers stole corpses to order for scientists in 1827, when coffins were left splintered like kindling and rotting corpses strewn on the grass in the grave robbers’ haste to find the newly-buried.

More than 20 bodies were taken under the cover of darkness, and when the ringleader was apprehended, a loophole in the law meant he was sentenced to only six months in prison and surgeons paid to ensure he was treated well while inside.

St Nicholas’ is also where a cursed Egyptian Mummy is said to have returned from beyond the grave after being removed from her tomb and brought to England by archaeologists.

Given to Great Yarmouth Priory School, which was next to the church, in the 1900s, the casket housing the Mummy swiftly began to emit a foul odour.

Forced to open the casket, it was found that the contents had rotted and a decision was made to bury the wrapped contents in the churchyard which was done at midnight, in order to avoid onlookers.

The empty casket was returned to the school.

Soon after the burial, the Vicarage and St Nicholas’ Church began to be disturbed in the night by knocking sounds – when the tapping noises were investigated, no cause could be found.

People walking through the graveyard at night heard the eerie tapping and the police began to increase their patrols to look for pranksters.

Rumours began to circulate that a Mummy’s Curse had befallen St Nicholas’ and its Priory and when the smell that had plagued the school returned and was again traced to the casket, they claimed it was further proof.

The schoolmasters decided to put the issue to bed and reopened the casket in front of the whole school…to their horror, they realised they had mistakenly left behind one of the Princess’ arms

Panicked, they rushed the missing limb to the graveyard, and reunited it with the other remains…the knocking promptly stopped.

It is here where a local legend has it that if you circle the church three times and shout “Bloody Queen Mary!” the face of Mary Tudor appears through a window – Mary stayed at the next door Priory in 1514.

And as if the ghost stories aren’t stacking up like sods of earth next to a freshly-dug grave, we have one last tale to share.

Almost 100 years ago in October 1922, three ghosts in armour riding white horses were seen in St Nicholas’ churchyard and, legend has it, eight people who saw the spirits died on the spot from shock. It would, at least, have saved the undertaker a journey.

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