Thursday, 14 May 2015

Mad Meg of Meldon

Legend has it that "Mad Meg of Meldon" was once a miserly old witch who now haunts the parish which is to the west of Morpeth and Mitford.

Meldon parish is sparcely populated. Only 248 persons are resident according to 2011 census figures. The parish consists of the farming settlements of Throphill, Pigdon and Meldon. The country house and gardens of Meldon Park, now a tourist venue, also lie to the west of the parish. The house was built in 1832 by renowned architect John Dobson for new estate owners, the Cookson family. The main road from Morpeth and Mitford to Hartburn dissects the parish as does the River Wansbeck.

Location of Meldon (click to enlarge)

It was reading a tourist leaflet that Meg first came to my attention. A guided walk was being offered during the Heritage Open Days of September 2014 taking in the landmarks associated with the legend of Meg.

She has been described as: "a miser and witch from the 17th century who hoarded treasure and buried it in pits around the countryside and now haunts the old bridge at Meldon over the Wansbeck".

A visit to Meldon revealed the settlement consisted of a farmstead, church and surrounding buildings and a disused railway station which has now been converted to a dwelling house. Meldon could be described as a hamlet but the presence of a church and railway station indicates that it once had a larger population.

Meldon (click to enlarge)

However, the census statistics do not support this theory. Only 54 persons were resident in the parish in 1801. Between 1811 and 1931 the population varied between 129 and 160 persons. The large rectory which stands next to the church was only built between 1856-1894. According to the www.keystothepast.info website there were twelve houses in 1666 but then the settlement declined in size. A plan of about 1810 shows only a church, farm and a few cottages. In medieval times a tower house had stood near church. The landholders were a junior branch of the knightly family of Heron of Ford Castle. By the early 17th century the Heron family had found themselves in the position of having to mortgage the estate to the family of Selby, money lenders from Newcastle and Sir William Fenwick, owner of nearby Wallington Hall estate. The ownership of Meldon became the subject of a bitter dispute.

I was able to find out more about Meg in John Hodgson's History of Northumberland, written in the early 19th century. If Hodgson has identified the correct person from history as Meg her will is dated 2nd November 1631. This is the full piece:

MEG, or, as some call her, THE MAID OF MELDON, was, according to tradition, a person of considerable celebrity in her day as a witch and a miser ; and since her death, has continued the subject of many a winter evening's ghost tale. That she was Margaret Selby, the mother of sir Wm. Fenwick, of Meldon, is I think plain from the following circumstances. After her death, she used to go and come from Meldon by a sub- terraneous coach road to Hartington Hall, which was her residence after her husband's death. The entry into this underground way at Hartington was by a very large whinstone in the Hart, called the battling stone, from its being used to beat or battle the lie out of webs upon, in the bleaching season. Some years since, in repairing Hartington Hall, and removing a thick coat of white-wash from the walls of the most westerly room in the second story, the stucco work was found to be or- namented with family pictures, one of which some old persons remembered to have seen before it was covered, and said it was always called Meg of Meldon. Like a picture of the same lady, which was at Seaton Delaval in 1810, this was habited in a round hat with a large brim tied down at each ear, and in a stuff gown turned up nearly to the elbows, with a vandyked sleeve of linen ; the whole shoulders were covered with a thickly gathered ruff or frill. Portraits said to be of her and her husband, sir Wm. Fenwick, are preserved at Ford Castle. The traditional superstitions of the neighbourhood say that, as a retribution for her covetous disposition and practice in unearthly arts, her spirit was condemned to wander seven years and rest seven years. During the season she had to walk her nightly rounds, she was the terror of the country from Morpeth to Hartington Hall. The places of her most usual resort were those in which she had bestowed her hoarded treasure places she always abandoned after her pelf was found and turned to useful purposes. Many nights of watch- ing and penance are said to have been spent over a well a little to the south east of Meldon Tower, where she had deposited a bull's hide full of gold, which has never yet been discovered, though the present unbelieving generation can never see the phantom of its departed owner performing its vigils over it. Several large for- tunes, within the last century, are attributed to the discovery of bags of her gold. The most frequent scene of her midnight vagaries was about Meldon Bridge, along the battlements of which she was often seen run- ning in the form of a little dog. But she was Proteus- like, and appeared in a thousand forms, lights, and colours, flickering over the Wansbeck, or under a fine row of beech trees by the river side, in the lane be- tween the bridge and Meldon Park. One of her most favourite forms was that of a beautiful woman. The people of Meldon, however, became so familiarized with her appearance, as to say when she passed them, " there goes Meg of Meldon." The ceiling of Meldon school-house once gave way with the weight of a bag of her money, while the master was out at his dinner, and the varlets, who were fortunate enough to be in, and devouring the contents of their satchels at the time, had a rich scramble for it. Another of her haunts was in an ancient stone coffin on the site of Newminster Abbey, where those who had the gift of seeing ghosts, have seen her sitting in a doleful posture for many nights together. This coffin was called by the country people, the trough of the Maid of Meldon ; and water found in it, was a specific in removing warts, and curing many inveterate complaints. Such are the fables with which the calumny of an ignorant and superstitious age aspersed the character and the memory of a person, who was probably much more enlightened and virtuous than her credulous contemporaries. So bad a name may not, however, owe all its origin to the wickedness of wondering gossips. If she was, as they say, a pitiless, money-getting matron, she could not be a greater curse to the poor of her neighbourhood, than vain extrava- gant mothers are to their families. The investment of her fortune in the mortgage of Meldon, and the hard case of young Heron being forced to join in conveying the ancient seat and lands of his ancestors to her son, while they tell no good tale, either for her or the Fen- wick family, were circumstances likely enough to cause a strong popular feeling in favour of the ousted heir, and as strong a hatred to his wealthy oppressors. 
Hartington Hall is just over six miles to the North-West of Meldon.

The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend Vol 1 published in 1887 gives a little more detail of the reasons for Meg's miserliness:

It is said that she was one Margaret Selby, a daughter of William Selby, of Newcastle. Her father was a money-lender, and it may be that Meg inherited from him not only the fruits of life-long avarice, but the taint of avarice itself that leavened and damaged her better nature, till her name passed into a proverb for cruel greed. Her dower on marrying Sir William Fenwick,of Wallington, was a heavy mortgage on the fair estate of Meldon the fettered inheritance of young Heron. Whether she unduly pressed or unkindly foreclosed, after underhanded schemes for prevent-ing the young heir from obtaining the money for the discharge of the mortgage, none can now tell but if she did not do one or other of these things, or all three, it is not easy to account for the bad odour in which her memory was preserved of at least one brave Fenwick, who died fighting for his king two hundred and thirty years ago. 
It seems that Meg was a shrewd businesswoman of her day who prevented the Meldon estate being taken back by the Heron family who were the ancient landholders. This made her unpopular with locals.  If any of this is fact, of course. I hope that another guided tour is arranged at some time in the future. I would like to find out what truth there could be behind an underground coach road. And what has happened to the portraits that once hung in Ford Castle and Seaton Delaval Hall. Presumably the latter were destroyed in the great fire of 1822.

Link to a site with more information and images of Meldon Bridge...   http://www.bridgesonthetyne.co.uk/meldon.html





The Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend Vol 1 published in 1887. This is the full piece:


WHO was Meg of Meldon, and wherefore was her
troubled spirit doomed to haunt the moonlit
banks of the Wansbeck? There may be little
real history, but there is much tradition and more
mystery in the legend of the miserly witch. The facts
if facts they are make but a slender skeleton on which
to hang the robes of fable.
It is said that she was one Margaret Selby, a daughter
of William Selby, of Newcastle. Her father was a
money-lender, and it may be that Meg inherited from
him not only the fruits of life-long avarice, but the taint
of avarice itself that leavened and damaged her better
nature, till her name passed into a proverb for cruel
greed. Her dower on marrying Sir William Fenwick,
of Wallington, was a heavy mortgage on the fair
estate of Meldon the fettered inheritance of young
Heron. Whether she unduly pressed or unkindly
foreclosed, after underhanded schemes for prevent-
ing the young heir from obtaining the money
for the discharge of the mortgage, none can now
tell but if she did not do one or other of these
things, or all three, it is not easy to account for the bad
odour in which her memory was preserved of at least one brave
Fenwick, who died fighting for his king two hundred and
thirty years ago. The now ruined gallery of Seaton
Delaval contained, some seventy years ago, an authentic
portrait of this famous lady. With her heavy ruff, her
vandyked sleeves, furbelowed skirts, and broad hat tied
down at the sides, over her ears, she certainly favoured
Mother Redcap and other ladies renowned for their
proficiency in magic arts.
Either she ruled while her husband reigned, or she lived
long in widowhood; for throughout the greater part of
her protracted life she must have held the purse and held
it tight. Assuming that there must be some basis for all
the stories told of her, it will be safe and fair to describe
her as exceedingly fond of money. She had a huckster-
ing, speculating, hoarding spirit. Her great hoards of
gold were never brought forth save to buy corn and beeves
in the day of plenty, to be sold at great profit in the days
of the "lean kine." At all ends she screwed out gain
from the honest poor, but they could only curse her in
their whispered prayers, for she held them tight in her
cruel grasp. Growing, buying, grinding, selling, she
sought gold and yet more gold, though its getting cost
life itself to the oppressed from whom she wrung it.
She doubtless desired to live away; but though her
barns were full and her press was groaning, and her gold
lay in heaps, she could sometimes hear the far-off mut-
terings of the voice that soon should say, "Thou fool,
this night." So she thought the more of the gold that
had cost her her soul, and, with eager cunning, plotted
that none should possess it when she should have paid
forfeit to the King of Terrors, and her strong clutch grew
lax. With magpie instinct she sought out secret places
where she could hide her treasure, and she chuckled as
she thought how men would seek in vain to grasp her
much-loved gold. She knew not that her sleep of death
would be broken with woful trouble for this same gold,
until some worthier than herself should find it and put it
to good uses. Yet this was what the story shows. Men
whispered to each other, when the burial was over, that
Meg of the Moneybags was doomed to wander in strange
shapes to and fro between the secret places of her hoards,
flitting here and there for seven long years, then resting
seven, only to begin the dreary round once more; and
this was to be her fate till all the hidden wealth was once
more passing, as wealth should ever do, in wage for
honest toil. When the wealth was once more wandering,
the poor witch's wanderings ceased for ever.
Near the south-east tower of Meldon there was a draw-
well, deep and old. In her life Meg had packed a bullock's
hide with pieces of gold and cast it into the sleeping water
of the well. So, often after death, her shadowy form was
seen now sitting, now kneeling, by the well, with arm bent
over it. as if wistfully peering into its gloomy depths, but
ever troubled as though with arduous penance and a grief
that could not be comforted. Year by year the penance
went on, but the spell was unbroken, the soul was un-
shriven. One night, in the visions of sleep, a strange
summons came to a poor hind of the Meldon lands, bid-
ding him search for the treasure in the well. He was very
poor, his heart was courageous and his conscience clear,
so he gave heed to the message. Saying never a word to
neighbour or wife, he went in the midnight to Meldon
well. There he saw a mysterious figure, and his brave
heart would have prompted him to speak, but he had been
forbidden to utter a word on pain of losing his gold. He
had brought with him chains and grappling hooks. These,
with the aid of his silent helper, were soon adjusted to the
handle and roller by which the well was usually wrought.
Fearless, he trusted himself to the chain, and passed
down and down till, to his wonder, he touched the ground,
for the water had gone. There lay the long-hidden pile
of gold, and soon the grappling irons were clutching it as
though the spirit of covetous Meg had passed into their
cold and cruel fangs. Swiftly he climbed the stretched
chain and reached the upper world. Then the twain set
to work at the wheel and axle with a will. Up came
the lunging bag of gold to the music of creaking wood
and clanging chain. When at length it came within
sight, the poor fellow, overjoyed with the thought of the
blessing he was about to call his own, forgot the in-
junction to silence, and cried exultingly, " We have her
now. " Fatal words ! The charm was gone. The dream
vanished. The hooks released their precious burden,
and down it went with a rush and a thud, sinking deep
into the slimy clay ; so deep that no mortal can ever
raise it again, or even reach it.
The poor peasant lost his boon by an untimely word of
triumph spoken at the well; and, perhaps, old Meg
bethought her that it was not kind to enjoin such hard
conditions on poor human nature. At all events, the next
disclosure she made of her secret stores was made without
conditions, and it was made to lads at school, who must
needs have lost it, every penny, had they been prohibited
from shouting aloud their boyish glee on pain of losing all
the hoard. The school-house at Meldon was old a century
ago, and the wayfarer might have imagined it haunted by
the ghosts of dead boys, who in the days gone by had
sinned and suffered beneath its moss-grown roof, or
sported in its long-drawn shadow when the day's work
was done. None ever dreamed of seeing or hearing Meg's
ghost at school any more than at church. Nor did she
walk in visible mist, or flit like marsh-fire round the
school-house yard. Yet it was one of her hiding-places.
Cunningly she had secreted pile after pile of unhallowed
gold beneath the rafters, and just above the ceiling of
the school-house. Ceilings were solid and tough in
those days, plenty of thickness, plenty of well-tempered
mortar, and plenty of cow-hair to bind the plaster
together. But scores of romping lads in each generation
had done their utmost to shake the rafters and walls
asunder. As the years went on the plaster was loosened
from its laths; and if it had hardly borne the weight of its
golden burden at first, it was every day becoming
weaker and weaker. It chanced then that the dominie
had gone in by to devour his scanty dinner. Most of the
lads were following the example of the worthy master in
this one respect so commendable in their young eyes.
A few, however, had brought their dinners with them.
These were the sons of outlying farmers and farm
labourers who had far to come for their schooling. Their
pasties, or sandwiches, or cold meat pies, with bread and
cheese to follow, were soon out of their bags and soon out
of sight in the secret cavern to which parental foresight
had destined them. Then began the romp and the riot
that were to hurry on digestion, so that they should not
sleep on their surfeit, but be ready for work or whacks
as the case might be. They chased each other over the
desks, under the desks, and round about the benches
until the old walls thrilled as if with coming ague,
and the cracked ceiling split as if in laughing sympathy
with their merry mischief. But what was that ? All
stand agape and wondering, [as a shower of dust fills
one corner of the school-house, and a sound as of
muffled thunder fills the air. They had brought the
old ceiling down with a bang. Oh, dear, whatever
would dominie say ? and, alas ! what would not dominie
do? When the crash was over and the flying lime-
dust began to settle, one bolder than the rest drew
near to see for himself the extent of the mischief done.
Hark ! he screams, but not in pain. He is down on
his knees amongst the rubbish, and stuffing the plaster
cobs into his pocket as fast as he can. "What is it?"
" Cry halves ! " " Come on, lads ! " resound through the
school-room, and then ensued a general rush. All are
now rummaging and scrambling and fighting over the
heap of dust, like lads of a later age over halfpennies
thrown out of railway trains into the mud or dust of
the street below. What is it they are striving and
riving for like a lot of eels in a basket ? It is gold
it is the boon and the bane of all the world ; gold for
which men risk their lives and barter their souls. And
shall boys be preached at because, when gold falls at their
feet, like beech leaves in autumn, they fight and struggle
and grow black in the face with the strife? And now
they rise from the crush to count their winnings. Two
or three still potter on in the heap for the chance of a
coin or two missed in the scramble ; but even they get
up in time to make safe their spoil before the master
sets foot on the scene.
Meg's spirit rests now, for all her stores save that of
Meldon Well have been found and spent for human good ;
but tradition tells how with changeful form she haunted
many a well -known spot. Meldon Bridge she was used to
cross in shape of a little dog; but when she had crossed it
either way she would assume the form of a lovely woman,
graceful and sweet, but ever sad. At times she would sit
on the great stone trough at Newminster, an ancient
coffin doubtless, and, therefore, a fit halting-place for one
who was doomed to walk this nether world in expiation
of her guilt while living. When any strange sight
attracted the notice of the passing peasant, he would say,
"There goes Meg of Meldon," whistle, and, fearless,
trudge home to tell his wife and bairns. And thus the
legend lived and grew and died away. Its basis of fact
was little more than that the lady of Meldon was an
austere dame, who knew her rights and made them good.
In doing so she may have ousted a popular young squire
for are not all ruined families the objects of romantic
sympathy on the part of the poor ? Does not misfortune'
invest their patrons with a sort of sanctity, and doei not
the gilding of success seem to them like dross when it is
made to adorn the stranger in the land ? Meg may have
brought a trading spirit into the quiet farm lands and
rustic hamlets of the Wansbeck Valley a spirit of gain-
loving and gain-getting which, though more useful, is also
less popular, than the humours of a spendthrift. And
thus the memory of one who was probably no worse than
many another of her rank has come to be blurred by the
hatred and curses of the ignorant.
Meldon Hall passed to the unfortunate Derwentwaters,
and thence through forfeiture to the Greenwich Hospital
Commissioners, from whom Isaac Cookson, alderman of
Newcastle, purchased it for the goodly sum of 56,900
guineas. There the bearers of his name emulate his
generous administration of wealth, thus effectively
redressing whatever wrong the ancient Dame of Wal-
lington inflicted on the poor. W. S.