Monday 24 December 2018

A Bristol botanist’s ghost story for Christmas Eve

H.O. Stephen's specimens of
Allium spaerocephalon
collected from Durdham
Down, 1847 stored in
the BRISTM herbarium
There is a long tradition - or at least there has been a tradition since Victorian times - of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Think of M.R. James' spooky stories, Wilkie Collins' Woman in White or Dickens' A Christmas Carol with its ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. 

Now gather round children, as Clive Lovatt, BSBI's County Recorder for West Gloucestershire, introduces a spooky story he came across and decided was the perfect thing to give us all the chills on Christmas Eve. 

Over to Clive: 
"Imagine, if you will, sitting around a Victorian fireplace in the comfortable suburbs of Bristol in December 1847. Dr Henry Oxley Stephens (1816-1881) whilst botanising in the Avon Gorge earlier that year had discovered for the first time on the British mainland Allium sphaerocephalon, the Round-headed Leek. 

"Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had been published four years earlier and even the scientifically inclined would tell stories of unexplained phenomena at a time when the relationship between the physical and the spiritual worlds was less clear.

Stained-glass window in the former
Bristol Lunatic Asylum chapel
(now Glenside Hospital Museum)
dedicated to Henry Oxley Stephens,
Medical Superintendent 1861-1871
Image: V. Jenkins/ Bristol Naturalists' Society
"Stephens later went on to become the Medical Superintendent of the Bristol Lunatic Asylum. A memorial window in its chapel (now the Glenside Hospital Museum) erected by his widow and children in 1886 takes its text from Luke’s Gospel and explains that ‘all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him’. 

"Surely ahead of his times, he avoided use of the strait-jacket and is known to have considered mental illness to be induced ‘by a variety of troubles and misfortunes, mental, moral and physical, to which we are all liable’. Perhaps that is how he came to retire in 1871 after a long period of sick leave.

"Stephens, with his wife of two years earlier, might in our imagination also have been entertaining his friend George Henry Kendrick Thwaites. Thwaites lectured on botany to medical students and was briefly the botanist and Company Secretary to the Clifton Zoological Gardens. 

Left-hand panel
of the stained glass window
to H. O. Stephens.
Click on the image
to enlarge it.
Top of panel:
round pieces of pink glass
+ lead stalk:
representing Allium
In 1849 he left Britain, never to return, going at RBG Kew’s request to Sri Lanka to run the botanic gardens there. 

"The two of them, Stephens and Thwaites, used to go looking for truffles and other fungi across the Bristol Avon, in Leigh Woods. One of Stephens’ fungal specimens was ‘found in an earthen vessel in which a human foetus was macerating for anatomical purposes’, suggesting a gothic scene out of Frankenstein.

"Here in Stephens’ own words is the story of an object like a human figure wrapped in white that floated across the road before his very eyes, as told in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine for January 1848. 

"Stephens made much of something similar having been reported in the same place by the antiquary John Aubrey (1626-1697) in 1663 in his Natural History of Wiltshire

There is no evidence of the sulphurous hot spring that Stephens concluded was the cause, so make of the story what you will.."

Clive Lovatt, Stroud, December 2018

Henry Oxley Stephens’ story
About eight years ago (the exact date of the year has passed from my memory), I was returning from the village of Chew Magna, Somerset, on horseback; it was a fine evening in June, between eight and nine o’clock, and therefore in full daylight. 

Wells Road, on the Northern slopes of Dundry Hill,
near the spring line, 18 September 2018.
Approximately the site where
H. O. Stephens saw an apparition
floating across the road (here from right
to left) in June c 1839.
cc-by-sa/2.0 ©Derek Harper
Whilst ascending Dundry Hill, from the Wells side, at a slow walking pace, I was roused from a reverie by the sudden plunging and starting of my mare, who, with erected crest and pricked ears, exhibited unequivocal signs of terror. 

An object resembling in some degree, both bulk and outline, a human figure enveloped in white gauze, emerged from the hedge on one side of the road, slowly crossed before the horse a few yards distance, and disappeared in the opposite hedge. 

The object traversed the road from left to right, with a slow continuous gliding or floating kind of motion, giving me full time for a leisurely survey. I examined the hedges on both sides of the road, but saw no sign of any similar appearance. 

Looking towards Dundry [Hill]
from Clifton Rocks, 3 August 1836,
attributed to W Jeffs.
From CM Lovatt’s collection.
It is not a little remarkable that the same appearance should be observed on the same spot, and in the same month of the year, nearly two hundred years after Aubrey’s time. Aubrey was descending Dundry Hill from Bristol to Wells. I was ascending from Wells to Bristol. 

The object, therefore, emerged from the hedge, on his right and my left hand; he had dismounted to walk down the steep descent, and no doubt had done at the crown of the hill, the spot at which the object was seen by me.

I was not a little puzzled as to the nature of this body. The most ready and feasible explanation seemed to be, that it was a mass of vapour condensed by the cool evening air, and thus made visible to the eye. There was no vapour hanging about the hill, however, and the evening was perfectly clear and bright. Nor was it a column of smoke separated from a couch fire, and floated along by the wind, for there were no fires in any of the neighbouring fields that I could observe. 

Brass plate recording dedication of
stained-glass windows (above) to H. O. Stephens
I never could satisfy myself as to the nature of the phenomenon, but supposed what I had witnessed was a column of vapour, for if it was not I did not know what it could possibly be. I did not perceive any odour, as both Aubrey and his groom did. The misty object which the antiquary described arose after a fine shower of rain. I do not remember that rain had fallen during the day, but am certain that it was a bright evening when I witnessed it.

…Perhaps there may exist hot springs in Dundry Hill…from which occasionally jets or columns of steam, mixed with sulphurous gas, escape through the soil, was it such a vaporous column that Aubrey and myself witnessed?

Henry Oxley Stephens, Bristol, 3 December 1847

Ed.: Thanks to Clive for sharing this spooky but puzzling story. I'll leave it up to you to decide what might have caused the "vaporous column" resembling a human figure which was seen by both Aubrey and Oxley, in the same spot, but 200 years apart. 

Now, off to bed children and sleep well - if you can!  

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