Yorkshire Oddities, Incidents and Strange Events/Peter Priestly, the Wakefield Parish Clerk



In the middle of last century there lived in Wakefield a certain Peter Priestly, who for many years was sexton of the parish church of All Saints. The then vicar was Michael Bacon, D.D., a tall, portly man, of a commanding presence, who wore a large bushy wig, as was the wont of many old divines of that date. He was a man of rather a warm temperament, and was apt at times, when matters did not flow quite according to his will, to grow a little irritable, and whilst in that condition his habit was frequently to thrust his right hand in a testy, impetuous way under his wig. This habit destroyed the symmetry of that capital ornament, and made it protrude considerably on the right side; and this protrusion grew greater the longer the wig was worn.

The vicar's wigs were inherited and worn by the sexton, whose venerable and awe-inspiring appearance was much enhanced thereby. Mrs. Priestly in vain endeavoured to reduce the protuberance of hair on the right side, so as not to betray the origin of the wig. The horse-hair resumed its elasticity in spite of her efforts, and the congregation in the parish church were amused to see the stately Doctor in his reading-desk with a deformed wig, and below him the scarcely less stately clerk in a wig the counterpart of that of the Doctor. But what amused the wags not a little was to observe the fact that when the Doctor's wig was perfectly symmetrical, instantly the sexton's assumed the most exaggerated inequality in the sides. The secret, of course, was that the Doctor had donned a new wig, and had given his old one to the clerk. But after a while the irascible vicar had succeeded in brushing out the tufts of his false head of hair on the right, and simultaneously the continued efforts of Mrs. Priestly had reduced the hight-hand protuberance in the wig of her husband. Consequently, as one bush grew, the other shrank into itself. But there were points—like the equinoxes—when both wigs were alike.

Now it fell out that Doctor Bacon had determined to present himself with a new wig one Easter, and he had accordingly given Peter Priestly his old wig, which had arrived at its maximum of extension on the right-hand side.

Peter had heard it said that on S. Mark's Eve the spirits of all those who are to die during the year may be seen in the church. Half believing this popular superstition and half in doubt about the truth of it, and thinking, moreover, that if it might be so, he should like to know whether trade would be brisk for him during the rest of the year, he decided that anyhow he would go to the church and see what would happen; and not wishing to spend his time idly, he determined to occupy himself with lettering some grave-stones which he had not completed. The place in which he carried on this work was the base of the church tower, which was shut off from the nave by a large boarded partition, against which stood the west gallery of the church. The opening from the tower into the nave consisted of large folding-doors.

Now, according to the story, on S. Mark's Eve a train of all those who are to die before the ensuing S. Mark's Eve come into the church through one of the doors in their winding-sheets, each carrying a corpse-candle. A ghostly priest precedes the weird procession, and dolefully intones the burial service.

When Peter had finished his supper on that eventful evening, he said to his wife: "I think, lass, I'll go and do a bit o' my lettering; so gi'e me my lantern wi' a can'le in it. I happen shan't be so varry long; but I think I'll just go for a bit. Howsomever, if I should stop a middling while, ye needn't be flayed (frightened), for I want to finish them two stoanes."

It was not without some trepidation that Peter took up his place in the tower, and left the folding-doors ajar that he might look into the nave and see the awful train sweep in.

Peter was not a nervous man, or at least he did not think himself so, and he began his work, whistling a psalm tune. He was engaged on a large grave-stone on which he had already completed about half the inscription. It was standing raised upon tressels to the required height; and at this he worked diligently for a long while, with his face towards the east and the folding-doors, and every now and then he stole to the doors and peeped through into the nave. All was perfectly dark and silent. He returned to his work with lighter heart after each glance into the great dark church. He had taken the candle out of his lantern, and had put it into an old rusty candlestick, which he kept there for the purpose, in order that he might have a better light.

The church clock, with many premonitory groanings, had struck the hours of ten and eleven, and Peter still pursued his work. The eventful ghostly hour was approaching when the graves reveal their secrets. As this hour drew nigh Peter's courage began to fail. It flashed across his mind that perhaps the spectral procession would enter the church, not through the south porch, as he had at first conjectured, but through the western tower-door; in which case it would be upon him, envelop him, before he knew where he was.

This caused great agitation in Peter's breast, and made him turn his head every now and then to see if anything were stirring. But all remained still; the only sound that broke the silence was the pulse of time, the old clock throbbing above in the tower, and that sound seemed to grow more monotonous and weary.

Twelve o'clock drew near, and Peter's heart began to beat quicker. "I arn't flayed," he said to himself, "but I'm varry hot; t' work ha' made me so, I reckon. There's nowt to be flayed at, for there's nowt to be seen. I'll just wait while it strikes twelve, and then I'll go home."

So on he worked, but his hand was not as steady as usual, and he made a blunder in the letter he was cutting; and this annoyed him.

"I doan't know how it is," he said; "I think I mun be getting ow'd, for my hand rather shakes, and I can't see as weel as I used." He wiped his spectacles and snuffed the candle which stood at his right hand, and drew it closer to him. At that moment the striking apparatus of the clock groaned and prepared for twelve. Peter looked round over his shoulder. The quarter began to strike, and then with a great whirr the first stroke of the ominous hour sounded—the second—the third. How slow they did strike—surely slower than usual. At each stroke he turned his head and glanced behind him. Twice he started. Surely there was a little sharp sound for a moment, like an unearthly hiss. He raised himself and looked about him. There was nothing.

He bent himself again over his work, and the clock had reached the eleventh stroke. The twelfth followed. He turned sharply round, and on the instant such a rush sounded close to his right ear—such a strange, supernatural light glared suddenly through the tower—such a breath of hot air fanned his cheek—that he thought surely the ghostly train was passing. Over went the candle, and was extinguished. Down fell mallet and chisel. The old man stumbled out of the tower, rushed through the churchyard, and ran home, never looking behind him till he reached his door.

His house stood at the north-east corner of the churchyard. Opening his door, he ran through the room, and, pale and breathless, sank into his old arm-chair by the side of the fire. For a moment or two his mouth opened and gasped inarticulate words. Then, extending his trembling hand, he said to his alarmed wife, "Gi'e me my pipe, lass—gi'e me my pipe."

"Why, Peter," said his loving spouse, "whativer is t' matter wi' thee? Thou looks right flayed."

"Gi'e me my pipe, lass—gi'e me my pipe," he gasped again.

She went to the clock-case and took the pipe down from a ledge at the side of it, where it always rested when not in use, and reached down the tobacco-box from the delf-case against the wall; and bringing them to the old man, said, as she gained a closer view of him, "Why, Peter, whativer hast thou been doing? Thou'st burnt ommost half t' hair off t' right side o' thy wig!"

"What?" said Peter, with a sudden feeling of relief from his fright.

"Why, tak' thy wig off, and thou'll soon see," said the wife.

Doing as he was bid, he sat studying the precious wig. The great bunch of hair ruffled out by the vicar's hand was consumed to the roots.

Peter burst out laughing; the mystery was solved. But he made no more visits to the church at midnight on S. Mark's Eve.

Peter was remarkable for many witty sayings, but most of these have been forgotten.

He was lettering a grave-stone in the churchyard one day, when a physician came by, who, looking at the inscription, which was partly cut, said, "Why, Peter, you've spelt it wrong."

"Have I, Doctor?" said he, sharply. "Then how should it be?"

When he was told how to correct his blunder, he looked slyly into the physician's face and said, "Well, well, pass it over, Doctor—pass it over. I've covered up monny a blot o' yours."

He one day stood listening to a Methodist local preacher in the market-place. The preacher was attempting an oratorical effect, and exclaimed, "My brethren, if every field in the world was thrown into one field, what a great field that would be!" "Ah!" said Peter, loud enough to be heard, "if every jackass i' t' world was one jackass, what a big jackass that 'ud be!"