Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Unnatural Deaths

The main entrance - Appuldurcombe House - sadly behind the facade is a ruin,
the building destroyed by a World War II bomb.
Q. What do a priest, John Smith and an heir to Appuldurcombe House have in common?

A.  They all died unnatural deaths on the Isle of Wight.

This week I'm on holiday and my blog post was inspired by a recent ghost walk around Appuldurcombe House, near Wroxall. A monk (!) conducted the tour through the ruins and recounted some of the gory tales of unnatural death pertaining to the house in its heyday when it was the most important estate on the IOW (Isle of Wight).

Sadly, the house is largely now ruins - destroyed by a WWII bomb.
Appuldurcombe's history starts in the 16th century with a page to King Henry VII, called James Worsley, whose family originated in Lancashire. The boy Worsley was educated along side the future King Henry VIII. The tale goes that no person was allowed to harm an heir to the throne, so when the young Henry misbehaved, his tutors whipped his friends to make the prince feel guilty- it is from this practice that the expression 'whipping boy' originates.
The future Henry VIII must have had quite a guilty conscience because when he became king he appointed James Worsley as Keeper of the Wardrobe, knighted him and gifted him a monastery that stood on the site of the current Appuldurcombe House. (On James' death he bequeathed his best gold chain to Henry VIII and his largest standing cup to Thomas Cromwell.)

A marble floor under which 4 Worsley children are buried.
Not the love hearts at the corner of the design : 2 blue and 2 pink, denoting 2 boys and 2 girls.
But what of unnatural deaths?
Well, James Worsley had a son, Richard. Under King Henry VIII, one of the Worsley's responsibilities was to protect the IOW from French invasion. Indeed the King is said to have visited to inspect the state of local defences, and gifted his host a fine Holbein portrait of himself.

Richard organised regular military manoeuvres which included the use of live firearms. However one day it was raining and the gunpowder got wet. Richard's two sons took the damp powder to a gatehouse to let it dry out, unfortunately the barrel got too close to the fire and the whole lot exploded -demolished the gatehouse and killed 6 people including both of Richard's sons and heirs.

Part of the cellar network beneath Appuldurcombe House.
Moving forward in time to the mid 1600's, we find the Worsley's were secret catholics at a time of persecution. The punishment for harbouring catholic priests was severe - a red hot poker up the derriere and so people went to great lengths to hide visiting cleris and those wishing to conduct mass had a number of secret hiding places or 'priest holes.' Appuldurcombe was no different and had a tunnel leading from the cellar to woodland 500 feet away. Unfortunately, the excavation of the tunnel followed a natural geological fault that dipped at one point and was prone to collecting water. This meant the escapee had to hold his breath, crawl underwater a few seconds before emerging on the other side.

The entrance to the 'priest tunnel' within the cellars.
One Father Ewan was not so lucky. He used the tunnel and was never seen again. It was assumed he'd got safely away into the woods and no one worried, until a while later a dreadful smell filled the cellars. It seems he drowned in the natural dip and it wasn’t until heavy rain and decaying body parts washed down the tunnel that anyone was any the wiser.

The ornamental pond into which John Smith was thrown and left to his fate.
Our third unnatural death is that of a school boy, John Smith. By Victorian times the house had passed out of the Worsley's hands and for a short time became a hotel, and then a school. The Rev. Pound established "a college for young gentlemen." However, it seems his school was not a happy place and bullying was rife. One boy, John Smith, was mercilessly picked on because he was short. One freezing November night John's dormitory mates plotted to throw him in the large ornamental pond outside the main entrance. They had to break the ice to get him in, and worse still, he was unable to get out unaided. The pond is 8 ft deep at the centre and 5 ft deep at the edges, with a vertical lip that meant unless you were tall it was impossible to grasp the ledge to pull yourself out.
The room (now ruined) where John Smith hung himself.
Poor John Smith was left in the freezing water and was only rescued when a master happened past. Despite this the bullying continued and a short while later, sadly John took his own life and hung himself.

A hint of the splendour that once existed.
And finally, much of the information for this post was obtained from a pamphlet printed by the Department of the Environment, Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings Department, published in 1967. I found the leaflet in a tea-shop near Freshwater, selling second hand books. The cover price was 35p, but the tea-shop resold it for 3 GBP - strikes me that this is quite a good mark up. Anyone any idea what 35p from the 1960's is worth in today's money?
Widget- ghost or cat?


  1. Very interesting! This house has now been added to my, 'if I ever get to visit England, I want to see...' list. :)

    1. Appuldurcombe is also the home of an Owl and Falcon sanctuary and they have really interesting falconery displays. As mentionned in the post, the house is largely in ruins, but there's still plenty of interest to soak up.

  2. Wow, a very informative article. That mosaic on the floor to Worsley children, that is on our rount lobby floor here at the hotel! Not done in the blues and pinks.... but the exact same design. And they said it was Mexican/Spanish. Lol

    1. Gosh, that's interesting.
      This floor is several centuries old and is in the only part of the house that has been re-roofed - specifically to protect the floor from damage. Apparently it's of historic significance with the architectural plans kept for safe keeping in the British Museum.
      Thank you again, for visiting.
      G x

  3. Haha. You've been duped.
    I worked at Appuldurcombe for 20 years.
    The priest hole is not a priest hole at all, but a water culvert that carries rain water from the roof. I've been along it.
    And John Smith was never thrown in the freezing pond. Photos from the school period of 1867-1896 show the pond was a lily pond at ground level. I know the builders who made it the bowl it is today in the 1960s or 1970s!


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