Archive for Ghosts

Chasing Ghosts

An interview with Erlys Onion, God daughter of Jessie Munroe

While on holiday in Pembrokeshire back in 2007, my husband drove me to Newport to meet Erlys Onions the goddaughter of Jessie Munroe. Elizabeth had been to stay here a number of times, as Jessie had as yet un-revealed connections with the area so knew it well. We descended a winding lane that led us ever closer to the coast, terminating in a sweep of gravel and fields behind some houses hidden by conifers. Mr Onions with companion dog was there to open the field gate and show us in. We descended steps entering the calm of a small but pretty back garden, a good private sun trap on a bright day. Drwy gymorth (black dog) lead us towards the gravelled patio in front of the double doors at the back of the house. I was aware of containers filled with plants and a well-stocked garden, which on a different day I would have stopped to admire. Maybe Mrs Onions had inherited green fingers. The doors opened into a flagged dining area, with a study to one side and the lovely proportioned sitting room, both with extensive views over the bay, ahead. The kitchen dining room I was to discover, led off of this room and had three windows making it light and airy even on a grey day.

Mr Onions opened the doors calling out to Erlys that we had arrived. She came through from the depths of the house, a slight, dark woman, trim of figure and smiling in greeting. She was younger than I had expected,  and although probably in her early sixties, she appeared younger. She ushered me through the living room into the kitchen and we exchanged those safe, small, weather words of the newly met, which are common currency throughout the British Isles.

We went through and sat in the sitting room, whose window overlooked the bay. I could appreciate now that the cottage sat on the quayside. I sat rather nervously on the edge of an extremely large and comfortable settee, the sort that if you knew the people it belonged to well, you would kick your shoes off and curl up on, and sipped good tea out of a thin china cup, and tried to listen with all my senses to what Erlys was saying. The room was painted a silvery grey and cream and its colour, the spiral layout of the rooms and influenced no doubt by the view from the window, it reminded me of the inside of a whorled shell. It was very quiet.

I thanked her for seeing me and explained why Sylvia Gower, author of “The World Of Elizabeth Goudge”, had given me her address and why, as one of the few people left who truly knew Elizabeth I wanted to meet her.

She started off by talking about Jessie, as it was only natural for a god daughter to do. Jessie it transpired had been a highly principled individual, who hadn’t had much sympathy for the emotional frailties of people, which had led to a prickly relationship between the two of them, as Erlys tried to look after her in her old age.

It seems that Jessie Munroe was a wealthy woman, and chose to live with Elizabeth because she wanted to rather than needed to. She had attended Horticultural College and had been working for the Bishop of Worcester’s family when she was asked if she would consider being interviewed for the position of companion/housekeeper/Gardner to Elizabeth. Her family were extremely well off, Erlys said, everything they touched turned to gold; shipping lines, chutney and perverse making, anything they participated in succeeded. But she was fiercely independent and wanted to work in her own chosen field of horticulture.

During the war, she had been sent to work on the land near Newport, on the other side of the bay. She worked on a farm and fell under the magic spell of the place and in love with a local man called David. Why they never married Erlys doesn’t know, but when she was helping to sort out Jessie’s effects after her death, she came across a letter from a mutual friend saying how sad he was that she and David hadn’t married. but that he was pleased that David had been ordained. Perhaps that was the reason. Jessie really had been brought up on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and was passionate in her beliefs. Perhaps they clashed over religious doctrine, or maybe she simply didn’t want to become a vicar’s wife, having to take second place to his parish.

Erlys went to great pains to explain to me that Jessie and Elizabeth’s relationship was purely platonic and that they were never lovers. I had not imagined that they were and was frankly mildly irritated but not surprised to hear that rumours to that effect had circulated. Two women living together in a strong relationship is going to attract gossip in any day and age I suppose. Elizabeth would never have treated her as a subordinate, but as a valued friend, and people are always going to go for the salacious.

What I found more surprising was that Elizabeth had no idea of Jessie’s wealth and independent means. At one stage, after Green Dolphin Country the movie had made a lot of money in America, Elizabeth found herself in the embarrassing position of not being able to pay a large and unexpected tax bill. She had to ask Jessie to move out as she could no longer afford to pay her wages and Jessie went. She doesn’t seem to have offered to lend her friend the money and stay but chooses on the face of it to leave behind her friend and employer to sort out the mess herself, returning when she had done so. Maybe Elizabeth turned her offer down; I didn’t like to ask such a personal question.

Jessie was a very controlling person and tried to dominate her relationship with Elizabeth. But, although on the surface it appeared that she did, Erlys assured me that this was not the case and that Elizabeth had a quiet, firm way with her that prevailed. She quoted a lovely story to illustrate this. It seems that Jessie had been approached by the magazine Homes & Gardens to have Rose Cottage appear in an issue. Jessie had worked hard on the garden and was naturally delighted. She told Elizabeth and then said that she now going to buy a gun to shoot” them pesky birds” that were ruining her lovely plot. Elizabeth gently reminded her that they had both been lifelong members of the RSPB and that Jessie would purchase a gun over her dead body. No gun was bought.

From this point on, it was easy to steer the conversation onto Elizabeth. Erlys it seems was adopted, and her family sent her to boarding school which was nearer to Rose Cottage than her family home, and she spent many of her school holidays with the two women, not where a young teenager necessarily wanted to be. She would rather have gone home at first and bitterly resented it. But, despite herself, she began to enjoy it and as she got older to value Elizabeth’s friendship, insights and warmth.

Erlys thought that Jessie played on Elizabeth’s frailty to make herself indispensable to her and that although Elizabeth had a mild heart condition and her propensity towards depression were both debilitating, neither was as bad as Jessie pretended. In part, it was a desire to protect Elizabeth from the world so that she could get on with her writing, something Elizabeth probably needed. But it was good to find out that she possessed a little of her Mother’s iron will and ruled her own fate and home life.

One of the questions I wanted to ask was about Elizabeth’s lifestyle, and if it was true about the simplistic nature of her life. She had indeed lived a regulated, quiet life, with good simple food, a writing regime and a routine of pray and contemplation. I was delighted to find that she too had her own personal alter, it sounded like a prie-dieu, or kneeling stool, for praying. Erlys had found a battered statue of the Madonna in an attic at Rose Cottage after Elizabeth’s death.

Erlys was too young to have met Elizabeth’s Mother and didn’t know anything about a relationship in her distant past at Ely, but then I don’t suppose that it would have been the sort of thing that Elizabeth would have confided to a young girl. She also knew nothing about her connection to Evelyn Underhill, although she did remember that she had used a quote from her at the beginning of Green Dolphin Country, this apparently being Elizabeth’s name for an earthly paradise or Shangri-la. She too thought that had Elizabeth been alive now, she might well have been considered “new age” with her empathy towards all sincere religious strivings.

She said she thought it would surprise many people to know that Elizabeth would have been firmly on the Muslims side and outraged at the war being waged in Iraq. She would have seen it as a failing on our part of faith and negotiations. We have become a secular society, and although she was liberal in her thoughts, views and actions, she was also able to see our weakness and their strengths.

I found out that when Elizabeth had stayed with them, she had sat in the window overlooking the bay when writing. She had always bought the dogs, and Jessie drove them around the area, to all the places of interest that they visited, such as Roch and St David’s. She was apparently not a quick writer, as she liked to undertake through research before she wrote on a subject. She had a good relationship with her publishers Hodder & Stoughton, who over the years had reason to trust her methods. Nothing like today when publishers expect a book every other year or so from their authors. She knew other writers well and was one of the inner circle which included Mary Steward and Rosemary Sutcliffe. Confirmation of the letter I have got at last! Erlys when I told her agreed with me that it certainly sounded like it was to them, and said that Jessie had indeed disposed of books and papers at Elizabeth’s request.

I asked her if she would share her favourite memory of Elizabeth with me, and after a slight hesitation, she did.

She had gone through a sticky and thoroughly unpleasant divorce, I don’t suppose they are often simple or pleasant, but Jessie had been very unsympathetic and not understood the situation at all. Marriage was for life as far as she was concerned and that was that. Elizabeth, on the other hand, had been understanding and empathic towards the frightened, distressed Erlys, earning her deep gratitude. Elizabeth told Jessie that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge a situation that she knew little about and that they should support Erlys in her time of need.

Later with the divorce in the past, she met her present husband and when they realised that the relationship they had was going to be special and long lasting, she wanted to take him to meet the person whom she had come to love and respect and who had stood by her in her dark days.

It was nine o’clock at night and Elizabeth, now in her seventies, was already in bed when they arrived. Jessie was all for making them wait till the morning, but Elizabeth insisted that they are shown up immediately, and held court in her bed without the least show of shyness or reserve. She was so pleased that Erlys had found happiness and love and wanted to meet the person she loved.
This sounded like something Lucilla would have done.

Both Erlys and her husband’s abiding memory of her is of her compassion and grace, a great lady, an epithet that would have delighted and abashed the shy Elizabeth.

Another story she told me was of a dinner party held at Rose Cottage shortly after Elizabeth’s death. Jessie was still living there, although it was becoming increasingly obvious that she would have to move nearer to Erlys to be looked after.

There were two other guests beside Jessie and herself, her daughter Helen, home from University and a blind lady whose name Erlys couldn’t recall. They were sitting at the dining table in the rather small cottage and Jessie had got up to fetch something from the kitchen.
Erlys was sitting with her back toward the double doors that led into another room when she saw a hooded or cloaked man walk towards her across the room, and disappear through the doors. She felt the classic cold shiver and realised that she had seen a ghost. The blind lady, who had been talking, stopped and followed the apparition as if she could see it too.
As her daughter was present and Jessie was still living in the house, Erlys did not tell them what had occurred in case they were frightened or thought she had imagined it.

Some time later, when Jessie was living in the nursing home in Wales, Erlys told Jessie what had happened and to her surprise, Jessie was very matter of fact about it. She told her that Elizabeth had seen the Monk/Priest a few times and neither of them had been concerned about sharing their home with a ghost.

She also mentioned something about the ghost in Devon at Pomeroy Castle, which I know nothing about. I think in fact that it was Jessie who introduced Elizabeth to spiritualism, although I can’t quite make this fit with her Presbyterian faith. Pomeroy Castle is the Castle on the Hill that Elizabeth wrote about in the book of the same name and is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in Britain.

By this time I felt that I must wind down the interview, as the weather was closing in and I felt rather sorry for my husband wandering around in the cold and wet with his camera. In fact, he ended up coming in for coffee while Erlys kindly printed off a copy of an article that she had about Elizabeth from the “This England” magazine autumn 1989. The interview had gone well and they had both been so kind to two complete strangers. She also gave me a photograph of Elizabeth I had never seen before, a head and shoulders shot, taken in a studio, possibly for publicity purposes. It is one of my treasured mementoes of this wonderful author.



Home of Homes

“No wonder we loved Ely so intensely; ..  for me, Ely was the home of all homes.”

Chapter 6 in “The Joy of the Snow” is called simply “Ely”, and it is clear that Elizabeth, who moved there from Wells in Somerset when she was 11, loved the cathedral, the small city and surrounding fenland, as well as “the big, rambling, cold old house”.  The only child of her parents, it appears that the second floor was largely her domain. “The top floor of the tall, rambling house was extraordinary.  There were six rooms, the schoolroom and five bedrooms with steps leading up and down between them and a huge skylight in the roof above the landing.  One felt as though on board ship, there was so much light and air, and when the wind blew from the fen, such a turbulence of sound.”

At some point during the eighty years following Canon Goudge’s appointment as Principal of the Ely Theological College, those six rooms were converted into two apartments, and by 1990 the building was used as the Chapter House, besides housing an assortment of cathedral staff.  In August that year, our family moved into the larger top floor apartment on a temporary basis, when my husband, Stephen, became Presentor-designate.  We had three main rooms, all very large.  Elizabeth’s schoolroom, “a big room taking the curve of the roof” that she remembered “perpetually filled with sunlight” – and which later became her bedroom when she went to boarding school, served as our dining and sitting room.  The large attic room over what had been her father’s study, became bedroom and playroom for our two older children, Alison, aged 9, and Jonathan, aged 8; this room also appeared to have been used as a schoolroom at some stage, because there was a low platform at one end.  Stephen and I shared the third main room with David, who was just three.

Until we moved to Ely, we did not know of Elizabeth’s link with the place, but it was not long before someone told us that she had lived in the Chapter House as a girl, and had recounted some of her memories in “The Joy of the Snow”.  At that stage I had not heard anything about the ghosts whose appearances are well-documented locally; and when I had the frightening experiences described in my article for the Cathedral News magazine, I had only just begun to read Elizabeth’s book.  Her reaction to encounters with “our Ely ghost” was to ask her mother if she might change her haunted bedroom for another.  Her father agreed to her request (for other reasons), but “the ghost came there just the same, and when later I moved to yet another room he followed”.  She goes on to say that she was not alone in seeing the ghost, because “subsequent dwellers in the house have seen him too.” That was many years before our short sojourn there, while waiting for the Precentor’s House to become available for our use.

Whether anyone else has encountered the ghost since then, I do not know.  During Dean Michael Higgins’ time, most of the building became the Deanery once again, as it had been when Elizabeth wrote “The Joy of the Snow”.  When we left Ely, Stephen returned to the BBC to work as a producer and presenter of worship programmes.  During a visit to Ely for a broadcast, he met the current Dean of Ely, the Very Revd Dr Michael Chandler.  In our copy of “The Joy of the Snow” I found a note card from Michael, dated 27.3.04, thanking Stephen for sending him a copy of the book, and saying that they use the room where I had my disturbing encounters for guests.  “I don’t think we will tell them of its history,  so far no one has reported any strange goings-on! ” All I can say is that I hope the Dean’s family and guests have continued to enjoy peaceful nights, because I would not wish the experience of that malign presence on anyone else.


I imagine that most of us suffered nightmares during our childhood; that sense of being gripped by terror, unable to move, trapped in a situation from which there is no means of escape. One consolation of adulthood is that these terrible dreams return very rarely. Not all dreams are pleasant, but few begin to compare with those dreadful visitations one experienced as a child.  There was one night, however, about 18 months ago, when all their horror came back to me.

We had moved to Ely in August 1990 and we were living temporarily in the large flat on the top floor of the Chapter House. It had not been possible to manoeuvre the larger items of furniture up the narrow stairs from the first floor, so Stephen’s desk, the piano, a wardrobe and our large double bed had been left in what is now the architects’ office. I decided to sleep down there for a few nights on my own at the beginning of September as I had been under the weather and was being disturbed at night by David, who shared our bedroom upstairs.

It was during the second or third night on my own that I was suddenly awoken by the sound of approaching footsteps. I assumed at first that it must be Stephen. Perhaps David had woken and needed attention. Then, suddenly, I was gripped with fear and, I’m ashamed to say, I burrowed under the bedclothes. I lay there, frozen to the spot, heart pounding, unable to call out, until the sensation subsided and I dared to emerge. I put on the light and read for a little while before trying to get back to sleep. Even while I lay there I wondered whether the whole thing had been some sort of nightmare, albeit an extraordinarily vivid one. Eventually, I fell back to sleep.

How much later it was I do not know, but the same thing happened again. I was awoken by the distinct sound of footsteps, and surprisingly, I was even more convinced this time that it was Stephen. Not only could I hear the footsteps themselves, but I could also hear the vibration of  items on the piano with each step. Then once again I was seized with terror, again I dived under the bedclothes and again I experienced those nightmarish sensations. As before, the horror passed and I plucked up courage to turn on the light. I wanted to go upstairs but I was too fearful of the darkness on the landing. So I read a little more and, leaving the light on this time, I lay down and managed to get back to sleep.

In the cold light of day the experiences of the night still seemed as vivid and real, and yet it was already seeming more likely that I had had a  recurring dream. I don’t usually mind the dark, but I had felt uneasy moving round the Chapter House in the evening. Perhaps this uneasiness had preyed on my mind and resulted in bad dreams.

Imagine, then, the impact that a passage in Elizabeth Goudge’s autobiography had on me when I happened to come across it less than a week later. She is writing of the period when she was living in what is now the Chapter House while her father was principal of the Theological College.

“The experience was always the same. I would wake suddenly from sleep as though woken up and alerted, and would find him standing beside me. I would feel fear and revulsion, a sense of struggle as though I fought against something and then he was gone”.

While the external details were different – I had only heard footsteps while she saw a figure – I felt that Elizabeth Goudge could not have described my own experience better. What was worrying was that this was now Monday, 17th September, and Stephen was due to leave early the next morning to attend a conference in York. I did not like the idea of being left in the house with the children on my own, even if Miss Goudge’s experience was that “he was not a frequent visitor”. I decided to try to find out if the diocese had an adviser on exorcism because I didn’t want to meet “him” again, nor did I see why future residents should have to suffer him either. The following morning, however, Jonathan was suffering with acute pain in his hip and had to be admitted to Addenbrookes. I spent the whole day at the hospital and by the time I arrived back in Ely at 8.15 p.m. it was too late to do anything about the other problem. I took the precaution of bringing Alison into the bedroom with David and me and we passed two peaceful nights before both Stephen and Jonathan returned home on the Thursday.

In this way, I let the matter of the exorcism drop, though I think I should have looked into it further. If you have not already done so, you may well enjoy “The Joy of the Snow” by Elizabeth Goudge, which is the book to which I was referring. She describes her home in some detail as well as life in and around Ely during the early years of this century. And you can also read of her encounters with the Ely ghost, whom she “disliked intensely”. I couldn’t agree with her more!


Ely Cathedral News, April 1992, pp 17 – 19