Weird Norfolk: Why did the Swaffham gravestone twist itself away from what was buried underneath it?
PUBLISHED: 10:52 27 April 2019 | UPDATED: 15:02 27 April 2019
The eerie tale of the Swaffham gravestone that moved of its own accord, the woman who lay beneath it and the reason why the stone may well have tried to make an escape bid from her.
It's a well-known fact that gravestones do move in graveyards – if you look at a burial ground full of memorials, especially older ones, many headstones may lean to one side or appear lower than others around them.
Sometimes this is due to poor grave-digging, which creates unstable ground, sometimes it happens when a coffin collapses due to age and the ground around it sinks: if a grave leans forwards, towards the grave, it is usually due to a coffin collapse. Graveyards on hillsides may fall victim to migrating gravestones due to rain and erosion, tree roots can move memorials as they spread and underground water can cause memorials to lean.
But for a gravestone to turn a full 90 degrees? No amount of rain, roots, collapse or underground water can account for such a radical shift.
This is, however, what happened in Swaffham's parish churchyard where the grave of Miss Ella Morse was witnessed moving over a number of years by church sexton Frederick Sandell, who alerted the Eastern Daily Press to the issue in the summer of 1981.
In the EDP on June 10 1981, the curious case of the cross at St Peter and St Paul in Swaffham was put under the spotlight.
“Mystery surrounds the eerie turning in of a stone cross in Swaffham's parish churchyard,” the article read.
“The stone is situated between Sexton's House and the church, and was placed there when the churchyard was reorganised, when many of the older stones were arranged in neat lines to allow easier tidying of the grounds. But now the gravestone of Miss Ella Morse, who died at the age of 37 in 1852, is moving.
“The grass around the base of the cross lies flattened bearing evidence of a twisting action. Having turned through 90 degrees the white stone cross now faces north to south, in contrast to every other cross in the churchyard – even those right next to it.
“The turning was first noticed by church sexton Mr. Frederick Sandell, during his walks from his house to the church, and he has carefully noted the position by taking a line across the face of the cross to a fixed point. Over the past seven years the cross has changed position and Mr Sandell's friends who make yearly visits to Swaffham always notice a definite change…although he has an open mind about the supernatural explanations, local historian Mr Reg Drake, is trying to find something about Miss Ella Morse.
“So far his research has revealed that she was the daughter of Swaffham brewer Mr John Morse, who paid £400 for the stained glass window in the church chancel in memory of Ella, and also placed brasses to her memory in the church in 1853, a year after her death. Mr Drake's brother, Eric Drake, feels there may be more to these memorials than meets the eye. He suspects the gifts might have been ways of easing the conscience of Ella's family – none of the many daughters buried in the churchyard are commemorated in such a way.
“'Was Ella Morse mad, or did she do something her family wanted to expiate?' asked Mr Drake. 'We don't know, but it would be intriguing to find out more about her.'
“Although Mr Drake does not believe Ella was a witch, he points out that the inscription is similar to words chanted at the burial of witches, to protect them from evil spirits. The stone bears the inscription: Ella Morse, September 8 MDCCLII, Aged XXXVII, By thy Cross and Passion, By thy precious Death, Good Lord deliver us.”
Mr Drake put forward another theory: that the recent moving of headstones might have meant that the cross didn't belong to Ella at all, but rather to someone else entirely, giving rise to the thought that the gravestone was twisting to escape the corpse that lay beneath it.
Sexton Sandell, however, felt it was more likely that a scientific explanation lay behind the mysterious moving gravestone: 'There must be something to it all, something quite simple; I don't believe for a moment that it is ghosts or anything like that,” he said, while admitting that he also didn't believe that the stone had been moved by vandals.
“It is far too heavy to be moved by anyone,” he added, “there is no way I can turn that stone. I think the best thing to do is wait, and see what happens. Come back in a year's time, or two years' time, that's what I tell people. Who knows what might happen eventually.”
Three days after the initial report was published, Mr Drake contacted the EDP with an update or, perhaps, a sad turn. Vandals had, he said, shifted the stone back to its original position and in doing so had smashed it, leaving broken remnants scattered in the graveyard.
“I went to the library and a lady told me she had looked for the cross but couldn't find it. I thought it was strange so I went to the church and found it had been put back,” said Mr Drake.
Today, just the stone base that the cross once stood on remains. At present, it lies straight. But we are watching…
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