Red Clogs and the other ghosts of Greater Manchester

An accident crushed his feet to pulp and he was doomed to wander in eternal agony, his clogs stained red with blood

Good morning Millers - Happy Halloween.

Forget lockdowns: there are plenty of supernatural reasons you shouldn’t venture out tonight. The folklore of Greater Manchester is crawling with ghosts, cursed mines, haunted asylums and the un-dead. As our spookiest writer David Barnett has known since his childhood…

By David Barnett

Ince, the close-knit working class community in Wigan where I grew up, was a place of the dead.

It was home to three cemeteries that were linked by the rewilded ghosts of defunct collieries, expanses of scrubland and moss-knotted grey slag heaps that formed still, eerie buffer zones between the necropolises where ordered ranks of graves were bounded by soot-blackened stone walls.

We liked to dig, in Ince, it seems; down deep to extract the coal, a little shallower to deposit the bodies. It’s no wonder the place was haunted, or seemed like it on the damp Autumn nights in the week that was bookended by the shrill chills of Halloween and the rage of bonfires, “bommies”, the crackle and fizz of splintering, purloined wood counterpointed by the pop and whoosh of rockets launched from milk bottles.

They say today that Halloween is an American import, not a British thing at all. Tell that to those 1970s children industriously hollowing out a stubborn turnip and begging from their mums the stub of a candle kept under the sink in case of power cuts, and an England’s Glory with which to light it. And thus equipped with a lantern to ward off evil, perhaps wearing a black bin bag, the only Halloween costume that existed, we would set off. To look for Red Clogs.

Red Clogs was a miner, back when the pits were open for business. Maybe he dug the coal at Ince Moss, or Ince Hall, perhaps Alexandra pit in Whelley, or the evocatively-named Edith and Mabel mines at Hindley. Wherever he worked, he came to grief; an accident crushed his feet to pulp and he was doomed to wander in eternal agony, his clogs stained red with blood. If we played at those abandoned pit sites, crept under the rusting barbed wire coils to tread, giggling and terrified, on the infill that could surely collapse at any moment, then Red Clogs would surely get us.

Ince Hall sounds grand for the place where I grew up, and indeed it was, in the nineteenth century, when it had expansive gardens and a moat. It was also the haunt of Peggy Beawt Yed (though her name might have been Kitty, depending on which bit of Wigan you were from), so-called because this terrifying apparition was beawt (without, in Lancashire speak) her yed at its usual place on top of her neck, and she carried it tucked beneath her arm instead.

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I’m not sure how Peggy, or Kitty, lost her yed. She is perhaps a more traditional sort of ghost, the type we are familiar with from stories across the country. But maybe unusual among the phantoms of Greater Manchester and the North, many of which seem to have a certain flavour soaked up from the landscape, like the spring water that filters down the Pennine hills.

The region’s industrial past often informs the hauntings we experience, like with the spirit of Red Clogs of my youth. My well-thumbed copy of Terence W Whitaker’s North Country Ghosts and Legends tells of a large house in Heaton Chapel, near Stockport, that has been the site of much paranormal activity, including a phantom with a “grotesque and ugly face” who terrorised the inhabitants.

Investigations revealed that the house had been the home of Irish navvies brought over to lay the railway, who were accompanied by a phalanx of prostitutes and the resultant illegitimate children. When the work was done and the navvies moved on, the authorities discovered the bones of several babies under the floorboards, with the suspicion that many of the sex workers had been murdered, too. Whitaker muses that “the dark figure seen at the house on many occasions… was certainly the killer of the babies and probably the killer of the prostitutes too”.

So steeped in industrial history is Greater Manchester that its ghosts are not even always the shades of humans. A phantom lorry is said to barrel along the A57 between Hyde and Mottram, and has been cited in a number of accidents over decades, with witnesses swearing blind they had to swerve to avoid a large vehicle, and subsequent investigations finding no such trace of any truck. And can there be anything more Manchester than the haunted crane that was said to be the focus of ghostly activity at the Trafford Park steelworks in the late 1940s, with terrified operators reporting banging and footsteps on the roof of the cab, 70 feet up?

What ghosts might haunt the site of the Peterloo massacre two centuries ago when the army charged at political reformers? What of Angel Meadow, northeast of Manchester city centre, thought to be the most poverty-stricken slum in Victorian Britain, literally built on a pauper’s grave, which Friedrich Engels said was “one of the most notoriously squalid districts; there is a certain black irony to its name”.

Indeed, what Engels might not have known was that the area which now lies below Manchester’s Green Quarter was an unholy mix of deprivation of both the living and dead, the desperate crammed in with 40,000 graves. It’s said the name came from sightings of angels guarding the graves of children, to ensure they suffered no more in death than they had in life.

Imagine the pain soaked into the walls of what was Winwick Hospital, near Warrington, a Victorian asylum where people — especially women — were incarcerated on the flimsiest of grounds. Long since demolished to make way for a housing estate, one old building remains, as part of the Hollins Park Hospital administration unit, and legend has it that along with the ghosts that walked the corridors of the old asylum — a nun who walks into a door and vanishes, the sound of children running and shouting, a lady in white — this surviving building and the properties that replaced the hospital have suffered sounds of screaming and crying, wallpaper peeling from the walls, and mirrors cracking of their own accord.

Sometimes the ghost stories of Manchester are just too grim, such as those associated with 16 Wardle Brook Avenue in Hattersley. The house is not standing now, but not because of the reported paranormal activity that residents complained of during the 1970s. Rather because of its notorious tenants, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. No matter how much we fear the dead, it seems that no evil can match that done by the living.

Perhaps the worst of us really do go to Hell. But, of course, this being Manchester, when we want to see the Devil, we don’t go knocking on his door. We bring Old Nick to us. At least, that’s what happened at Chetham’s Library, where there’s an oval burn mark on the table in the Audit Room. That’s thanks to one Dr John Dee, who was renowned as Elizabeth I’s most trusted practitioner of the dark arts, and who was warden of Collegiate Church — now Manchester Cathedral — for almost 15 years up to his death in 1609. In the 1590s Dee was said to have summoned the Devil, whose burning hoof left the indelible mark on the table, which can still be seen today.

And speaking of the Cathedral… folklore abounds with tales of phantom dogs roaming the countryside. In Manchester, Black Shuck — his eyes as red as burning coals, his fur matted, his teeth sharp and dripping with slaver — lopes demonically around the environs, an omen of impending death; urban and flinty-hard, like any self-respecting feral stray dog should be.

Our ghosts are as hard and implacable as the coal we hewed from the rock beneath our feet, as gossamer-light as the cotton we wove in our mills. They rail against injustice or suck in light like the Vantablack darkness our communities have suffered… or discovered at the heart of themselves.

Like the living, Greater Manchester’s dead are cut from a peculiar cloth, and the warp and weft of our supernatural heritage is as much a product of what we’ve done — and had done to us — as our living landscape today.

If you have a friend who doesn’t know the folklore of these parts, send them this post before dusk falls.

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