The story of the exorcism of the ghost of the tragic Hannah Corbridge comes from Colne, a small town just north-east of Burnley. Colne is located close to Pendle Hill, considered the centre of much of Lancashire’s supernatural activity and history of witchcraft.
19-year old Hannah lived with her father in the village of Laneshawbridge, on the eastern outskirts of Colne. She was last seen alive in the early hours of Sunday morning, 19th July 1789. However, her ghost was reported many more times over the following years, before a local catholic priest was eventually successful at exorcising her tormented spirit.
At the time of her death Hannah was heavily pregnant. The father was rumoured to be 19-year old local man Christopher Hartley, who was thought to have been seeing Hannah for some time in secret. On the morning of her death, Hartley had asked his mother to bake two slices of parkin (a dense ginger cake traditional in northern England) and taken them with him on leaving the house. He then called on Hannah, and she was last seen by her father departing with him. When she failed to return home, her father alerted the local constable.
Hartley was immediately the prime suspect, but a search of the house he shared with his mother turned up nothing untoward. On arrival, the constables were taken aback by the appearance of his mother, nicknamed locally ‘the wolf woman’ on account of her thick facial hair. They encountered her on entering the home suckling an infant while sitting on a heavy oaken chest. In their surprise they failed to search inside the chest, which was later said to have Hannah’s body hidden inside.
After they left, Hartley attempted to dispose of the corpse by burying it in a shallow grave in a nearby field. The makeshift grave was found shortly after with the help of a local ‘wise man’ who found the location in his scrying glass. She had been violently hacked to death, to the point of being nearly decapitated, and subsequent investigations found that she had also been poisoned.
Two weeks later on 2nd August, Hartley was eventually apprehended, having fled to Flookburgh in modern-day Cumbria. He was returned to Colne to stand trial. The trial concluded that he had poisoned one of the two pieces of parkin before giving it to his lover. When that failed to kill her, he had resorted to hacking her to death. Quickly convicted of Hannah’s murder, he was transported to York before being publicly hanged at Knavesmire on 28th August 1789. Later the home he shared with his mother, known as Barnside Hall, was demolished, the stones being used to repair the crossing that gives Laneshawbridge its name. Local legend claims that the stones seep blood during heavy rains.
An 1878 publication by writer James Carr, Annals and Stories of Colne and the Neighbourhood, recorded that since the incident, Hannah’s ghost had been frequently sighted around the village where she had previously resided. She appeared particularly around the area of Earl Hall, equidistant between her home and that of her lover, and considered the likely spot where her murder occurred. Her regular appearances were so distressing for the farmer and his family that lived there that they eventually employed a catholic priest in an attempt to rid themselves of the ghost.
The priest set out to exorcise Hannah’s spirit, setting up candles and waiting overnight in a room where she frequently materialised. At midnight she appeared, at first disguised as a heap of hay. On being ordered to adopt her true form she appeared as the young woman she had once been, cradling an infant in her arms. The priest then attempted to reason with her, explaining the trauma her appearance was causing for the family. As they spoke, the candles he had lit were extinguished one by one. Before the last candle went out, Hannah agreed to depart, but only until the last candle was burnt away. After the ghost left, the priest extinguished and supposedly swallowed the candle, preventing it ever being burnt.
In 1901, elderly local residents told members of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society that they recalled Emily Bronte visiting Barnside Hall with her sisters, leading to the possibility that she drew inspiration for her famous 1847 novel Wuthering Heights from the sad tale of Hannah Corbridge.
Feature Image: Earl Hall today. Photo: Zoopla