Harriet Bridle looks again at the story of Mother Leakey
Mistress Susan Leakey was mother to Alexander, her eldest son, who became a merchant and ship owner and churchwarden at St Michael’s. Before coming to Minehead she had lived in Huish Champflower and Bridgwater and was probably married to John Leakey. Susan Leakey had come before the church court at Bridgwater for shutting another family out of a pew and getting in a rage about it! While at Huish Champflower her elder daughter, Joan, married John Atherton who became rector of the church in 1622. It was rumoured that Susan Leakey’s younger unmarried daughter, also Susan, had an illegitimate child at the house of Emmina Cookesley at Runnington, near Langford Budville in 1623. Local people said that the Reverend Dr John Atherton was the father. As was the way of things until recent times, he was left unpunished whilst young Susan was excommunicated. John and Joan Atherton produced five daughters before they suddenly left Huish for Ireland. They were living there by 1629.
Despite soon becoming a senior clergyman of the Church of Ireland on his way to the bishopric of Waterford and Lismore, John Atherton clung on to his tithe of £130, a huge sum for a rector in those days, from Huish Champflower, as long as he could. (Incidentally John Atherton was to gain a reputation for sexual immorality and financial misdoings and met a sorry end being the only Anglican Bishop ever to be hanged for sodomy.)
John Leakey probably died in 1613 and his widow first appeared as a ghost in Minehead to her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, Alexander’s wife, who had not always seen eye to eye with Susan. Indeed Susan had threatened Elizabeth with her re-appearance ‘in the devil’s likeness’.
The first intimation of a ghost in the Leakey household on the quay was a noise like a herd of cattle heard in a bedchamber. Then, when Mother Leakey’s grandson John who was staying with Alexander and Susan, lay perilously ill with a wasting disease (TB?), he said that his grandmother disturbed him greatly. As he was dying he cried that he ‘saw the Divell’ and it was reported that there were black marks around the corpse’s neck.
One evening in March the following year (1635) Elizabeth went up to bed and was ‘much astonished’ to see her mother-in-law sitting in her customary dress which was ‘a black gowne, a Kerchiefe and a white stomacher’. After staring at Elizabeth for some time, the ghost vanished with a ghastly groan which was heard by the maidservant in the kitchen below. Elizabeth said nothing to her husband about this visitation of his mother because he was a ‘fearefull’ man, but not long afterwards she sought the advice of the curate of St Michael’s, the Reverend John Heathfield. He told Elizabeth that she had imagined the apparition. But on 16 October the curate saw the ghost of Mother Leakey himself when visiting the Leakey household. She was in the kitchen and Heathfield, much perturbed, hurriedly left the house. Elizabeth herself saw the ghost that same day.
‘Pale wrisled’ old Mother Leakey next appeared to the Leakey’s maid, Eleanor Fluellin, around Halloween in 1636. Elizabeth also saw the ghost at about this time at one of Alexander’s storehouses on the quay. Thinking that someone might be dressing up as her mother-in-law she returned home and looked in Susan’s chest but found her clothes folded as they had been left.
During mid-November Elizabeth had been getting ready to go out and was leaving her chamber when she found her way blocked by the apparition of old Mother Leakey. She was ‘much affrighted’ and begged her mother-in-law not to hurt her. Susan replied that she could not because ‘God is with thee’. The ghost, whose eyes and form were fixed in one position, told Elizabeth to go to Lordsnear (The-Lord-is-near), her sister-in-law in Barnstaple and obtain a ‘Chayne of gold’ from her and call in a debt of £20 mentioned in a bond, which Lordsnear owed her mother-in-law, and to give it to Alexander. (The gold chain was a present from Bermuda which Lordsnear’s late husband William had sent for and had presumably given her.) She was also to go to Joan Atherton, Mother Leakey’s daughter in Ireland, and give her a message, a warning to Joan and John Atherton (presumably about his disreputable conduct). According to Elizabeth, Dame Leakey’s son-in-law owed her £20, another grievance. It is not known whether Elizabeth ever did visit Ireland to deliver this message.
Elizabeth at last told her husband about her sightings of his mother and in view of these and the storms which had wrecked his ships, they suspected witchcraft.
Others who saw the ghost of Mother Leakey were her old servant, Elizabeth Langston, to whom the spirit appeared on Christmas Eve, 1636, at first in the form of a bright, shining child before turning, on her departure, into the figure of Widow Leakey. The ghost was also seen by Garland, a sailor who had sailed in one of Alexander’s ‘Barkes’, and Loncatelli, an Italian traveller.
Following an investigation into events by Dr Henry Byam, the Royalist rector of Luccombe, an official ‘Examinacion of the business concerninge the reported Apparition at Minehead’ was ordered resulting in ‘The Report of ye Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells’ sanctioned on 24 February, 1637 by Archbishop Laud. At the investigation Elizabeth Leakey said that she would not ‘reveale the message’ that she had been instructed to deliver to Joan Atherton (except to King Charles) because ‘it may be hurtfull to Joan – and her husband’. (Perhaps this message, and its implications, was the real reason for the official investigation.)
John Heathfield was also examined and said that old Mistress Leakey was a churchgoer. Elizabeth Langston attested that she had seen ‘her old Dame Mistress Leakey’ as she had wished after hearing that she had appeared to other people. The maid, Elinor Fluellin, reported that not only had she seen the ghost of Mistress Leakey (whom she never knew) but that also she had heard Elizabeth talking to somebody in her chamber but knew there was no one besides her mistress there. Alexander Leakey refused to come and testify, once because he had gout and another time because he was afraid he would be arrested for debt accrued because he had suffered great losses at sea.
The three churchmen (one being William Piers, the Bishop of Bath and Wells) who presided at the examination of the case found discrepancies in the testimonies of the witnesses and were disinclined to believe their accounts. They thought Elizabeth Leakey intelligent ‘but bold and subtle enough’; the curate, John Heathfield, ‘a very phantastical man’ and a friend of the Leakeys; the evidence of the servants, worthless; likewise that of Loncatelli, while Garland was ‘idle and employed by Alexander Leakey’. The three examiners came to the conclusion that the story of Mother Leakey’s ghost was nothing more than that though they did not know why the family, a few friends and servants should make up such a tale. What can they have been up to?
Posts Script: 17 January 2009: Today I visited the Quayside Café, formerly Mother Leakey’s Parlour where the Leakeys once lived, and chatted to the owner. He told me that although he and his wife had not seen Susan Leakey’s ghost there were some strange goings-on in the house. He told me that Mistress Leakey turned up at midday rather than midnight and while I was there all the lights went out. I looked at my watch. It was a few minutes past noon! Apparently some visitors to the café feel a ‘presence’. I cannot say that I did.
A Minehead doctor was walking across the fields when Mother Leakey appeared to him. He spoke to her civilly, courteously handing her over a stile! She was in front of him at the next stile, planted herself upon it, and obstructed his passage. He got past with some difficulty and was straightening up when Mother Leakey’s toe caught him in an inviting place causing a severe loss of professional dignity. This drawing is by the great caricaturist, George Cruikshank (1792-1878).
Main reference: Mother Leakey & the Bishop: A Ghost Story, Professor Peter Marshall of Warwick University