The book Black Country Stories and Sketches by John Freeman published in 1930, has kept us engrossed with the Black Country of old in recent weeks, and the following story stems from the gossip handed down in a typical Black Country Tavern.
“The Ball-Court was a ‘gentlemen’s house’ in Bilston, dating back well into the 18th century; and in its large court at the side, with an entrance from both Stafford Street and Wood Street the tradesmen and professional men of the town gathered for various games of ball.
“The bar parlour was bright and snug and attracted some who eschewed the court. With brown mugs on the table and church wardens in hand they made the best of the straight hard seats, cracked their dry jokes, and made merry with their sly humour.
“These gatherings, typical of old Inn circles, often finished up with a challenge or a wager.
One evening, some well-known tradesmen were chaffing one another, when one, turning to his neighbour said, ‘I know what thee dares’na do. I bet thee dares’na go to the catacombs and fetch a skull at twelve o’clock tonight.’ “The place known as the catacombs was an underground charnel house in that portion of St Leonard’s Churchyard which stood where the Great Western Railway now runs from Church Street to Walsall Street.
“‘I dare do it,’ said the challenged man, ‘an’ I’ll bet thee, that I’ll do it.’ “The foolish escapade was fixed up, and on the sly a member of the party decided to test the nerves of the adventurer.
Procuring a white covering of some kind, he hid himself in the gruesome place, a little before midnight. Soon he heard quiet footsteps, his unsuspecting friend entered the vault and after feeling about he stooped, picked up something and turned to go. Then the hidden ghost muttered in a deep unearthly voice: ‘That’s a skull thee’st picked up, it’s mine, put it down!’ “Whether the visitor suspected a trick we are not told, but he kept his nerve and throwing down the skull, he said, ‘Keep the skull, I doh want it, theer’s plenty moor.’ But when he took up another the grim voice said, ‘Put that down, it’s my father’s,’ upon which he threw it down with a violence that made the bones rattle, and said, ‘It seems that it’s a sort of family gatherin’ and I doh want none of yo.’ “However, he tried again, and this time he chose a small one, when the ghost challenged him with, ‘Put that down, that’s my grandfather’s.’ “‘This is thee grandfather’s is it? Then all I can say is he must have died very young; anyway I’m gooin’ to take it away,’ and suiting his movement to his words he carried it away.
“He was quite proof against fright, but not so the ghost, whose terror was so intense that he fainted, and lay helpless until carried away. It sounds incredible, but the legend holds that he died as a result of his adventure.”
Tell us your true tales of the old Black Country. Contact jworkman@black countrybugle.
co.uk, call 01384 567678 or write to Bugle House, 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.