In 2015, I posted ‘The Sad Tale of Sarkless Kitty‘, a harrowing story of a woman from Gillamoor who, allegedly having been romanced and forsaken by a farmer from Hutton-le-Hole, was supposed to have ended her own life in the shallow waters of the ford that crosses the River Dove while carrying his unborn child. Rumour had it that her ghost subsequently haunted her ex-lover before befalling a number of other men, with each unfortunate soul said to have met an untimely demise.
Today, the river was flowing powerfully and was clearly impassable, fortunately the footbridge at Gillamoor Mill avoided a fording. This probably marks the presumed ford – otherwise known as a ‘wath’ – of her drowning. It should be noted though that an earlier bridge — aptly named ‘Long Bridge’ — is recorded on historic mapping1North York Moors Historic Environment Record (HER) 22173.
Recently, I came across yet another version of the Sarkless Kitty story, this time courtesy of the writing of Richard Blakeborough at the start of the 20th-century2BLAKEBOROUGH, RICHARD. SARKLESS KITTY. | Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 05 April 1902 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0003075/19020405/275/0031?browse=true> [accessed 23 October 2022].
By RICHARD BLAKEBOROUGH.
A SUPPRESSED LEGEND.
NOTES ON THE HISTORY OF THE STORY.
In the month of August, in the year 1807 or 1809, which is not clear owing to the MS3manuscript. being much soiled through handling, the Vicar of Lastingham, or his curate-in-charge, did publicly lay a spirit, which had for many years haunted the wath crossing the river Dove, which there runs not far from Grouse Hall.
This public and religious function, which in those days was by no means an uncommon one, was performed at the unanimous request of the whole countryside. The event which at that time caused such a widespread outcry for the “laying of the spirit” was a sad one. The son of a farmer, his name is now forgotten, we are told, was returning home, somewhat late, after spending the evening with his lady-love. He had mounted his cob in the best of spirits and ridden away as happy a youth as there was to be found within a day’s ride, but he never reached home. It was not until late the following day, that someone found his cob riderless, quietly grazing not far from the dead body of its master which lay near to the wath. There was no wound or mark upon his body, and there was not a sign of a struggle to be found, and his watch and money had not been touched. But he lay dead, and as there was no assignable reason why or how he had come by his death at that particular spot, the public found one for itself. They concluded that the spirit of Sarkless Kitty had shown herself to him, and his eyes having rested upon her his doom had been sealed, and he had died. Others they knew had seen her, and lived some little time afterwards, but never for long. In one way or another, and within a few weeks at most, for “those who cast their een on her war doomed, an’ deed, yah road er anuther.” It has not been an easy task piecing the following story together, and the earlier dates must be taken as approximate only, but there are certain landmarks which being kept in sight, assist us in keeping something near the mark.
Takky—perhaps originally Jacky—or it may have been a nickname arising out of some long-forgotten event—anyway, Takky Burton was a native of Lastingham, and in his day was known and reverenced throughout the adjacent dales as a wise man and a seer. He was also a poet. It is known that he was still alive, although then a very old man, in the year 1710. Say he died at the age of 85. He would then be about 65 when the event here chronicled happened. The reason why this age is given, is because it is hardly likely, that he would be trudging home so far from Lastingham as an older man. This then brings us to 1690.
Coming to known fact we learn that in the year 1770 the wath “had come to be of such ill repute, that men feared to cross after dark, and women refused to be taken that way,” yet so far as we know no woman ever came to harm. It was always men who fell under the ban of Sarkless Kitty.
The apparition was that of an exceedingly beautiful girl, who appeared as a nude figure, standing upon the opposite bank to that of the approaching wayfarer. The reason why her spirit was thus condemned to appear, was a punishment and penance after death for the evil life she had led. So lonely was this spectre, that those who unfortunately beheld her wraith, did so to their own undoing. So far as we know a certain Thos. Botran under date 1782, is responsible for the stories, and again the clergyman in charge of Lastingham in 1810. But this latter writer gave little new information beyond that collected by Botran. He did, however, obtain from Betty Ellis, an old lady already mentioned in these pages, the lines write.n by an unknown rhymster. He also, most probably from the same source, obtained the prophesy in rhyme. There can be I think no doubt, but, that this judgment when uttered by Takky Burton, would be spoken in plain prose, and was turned into rhyme by some one long after the old man’s death, is most likely to give greater effect to the story.
Were it not that matter of great interest is embodied in the story of Sarkless Kitty, and which it were a great pity to lose, it would have been allowed to swell the list of things forgotten, for it is an account of a very lovely bad girl. Her maiden name was Kitty Coglan. She was the daughter of poor but religious parents; as only her mother is mentioned, we must assume that her father died in her infancy.
Her mother had a dream or vision on the night of Kitty’s eighteenth birthday. She dreamt that she found a wonderful gem, which many of her friends and neighbours wished to beg from her. It was a gem of untold beauty and lustre. Everyone who saw it declared it to be perfect. But somehow there was a consciousness within her own heart, that such was not the case. She could not say, for she did not know in what the flaw existed; but she was convinced that there was a flaw. In the end she gave this beautiful gem into the keeping of a young fellow for him to wear next his heart, but she thought, that it was not in his possession very long ere she discovered the, until then, hidden blemish, and she felt in her dream, that this blemish cast such a blight upon her own life that she sickened and died through the sorrow which this knowledge brought her.
One day, very shortly after this dream, which ever haunted her mind, she met the seer, Takky Burton, and unto him she told, her vision, and begged from him an interpretation thereof.
Looking at her, with eyes filled with sadness, the old man, resting upon his staff, very quietly answered—
” Mary! the gem is thine own daughter; her beauty is such that there is none like her in all these dales, but — shall I go on?”
“Ay, ay,” said the old mother, heaving a deep sigh, “I fear me, what thou wilt say next; doubt, born of the evil one hath lately filled my heart.”
“Nay, nay,” said Burton, acting upon second thoughts, “I have said enough to fill thy heart with the sadness which only the breast of a parent can know. The rest of thy vision is now clear to thee;” and he passed on.
Botran writing, as mentioned, evidently chronicling information which he had gathered from those whose parents had been personal friends of Burton’s if not of Kitty herself, writes as follows: —
“There lived some years back in these parts a damsel so trancendent beautiful, that some do say at this day, that folk at divers times come much out of their way in the pleasant hope of a chance for to look upon the sweetness of her face and the symmetrick modelling of her neck, bust, and other charms, the which it seems for the great vanity she had for her fine parts, she don’d herself at all seasons so as to set them off, to the best show, her limited apparel permitted her for to do. They do likewise say that her feet and ankles were nature’s most classick work, and those hereabouts who do skittishly, pass the wink, whisper in my ear, that when she went abroad by way of the style and took up hot gownd in the passing thereof, though her stockings were both homespun and her own knitting, so fine was the wool and so chaste the stitch withal, that the whiteness of her limbs and the happy symmetry of the whole, as to set those who thus beheld her; on for to muse in wonderment, and strive for to solve the problem, how it had come to pass that nature should use such ill-looking and mis-shapen tools as her parents for the fashioning of so rare a specimen of female perfection of shape and beauty.
The wench, as I learn, however, did come to a parlous end . . . she being found by a neighbour, lying dead and shiftless near a common wath over a beck hard by. And, of ill-luck, he who found her thus naked—being under an evil spell, those there hold because his eyes had thus seen her—was presently killed when crossing this same ford.”
About the same date as the above, the following lines were written by an unknown pen:—
Stripped of her rude ill-fitting garb we find,
Her form to every rule of art inclined,
The sculptor o’er her feet and limbs would rave,
The limner’s brush her lovely face enslave,
Her snow-white breast, fit pillows for a king.
Would turn a poet’s brain, and set a bard to sing,
The gallant, weary of love’s tiring quest.
Held captive in her yielding arms would rest,
Her lips, the worn-out wanton would inflame,
Her eyes an anchorite would sadly shame.
A second Venus, she a silken bed would grace.
The mistress of a marble hall, her place;
But by the cruel fates ordained to be
The mother, wife to some bluff farmer’s son, that he
Might sons uprear to till and plough all day.
A prize from nature stole, nay thrown away.
• • • • •
Oh, hapless maiden, thy swelling breast
My weary head once pillowed there to rest,
Had it my fortune been, with thy soft arms
About my neck unwound, I would thy charm’s
Have guarded with my life, I would have tried
Thy honour for to save, or fighting died.
The above give us a fair idea of the high estimation in which Kitty Coglan’s beauty had been held, as has already been hinted, both letter and rhyme were wrritten long years after her death.
When Kitty’s mother returned home after seeing Takky Burton, she took her daughter to task on several matters which had, of late, caused her much uneasiness. But Kitty flouted the idea of her mother criticising either her present or past conduct. No one knows what the good mother said; how she cautioned her, how she prayed for her, none ever will know.
That same afternoon that Taaiky Burton spake to the mother, he met with a young fellow, the only son of a small farmer.
“Tom,” said he, “lend me thine ear a moment. Thou art thinking of taking to thyself as wife the daughter of Mary Coglan. Hest thou given a thought to the step thou art about to take? Art thou truly satisfied that Kitty is all a bridegroom could wish? Nay, is she all a bridegroom has a right to claim?”
“What do you mean, good Takky? What is it you hint at ?” demanded the young fellow somewhat sharply.
“My meaning should be plain; but if you will be advised by one who wishes thee well, I would advise thee, for thy own good, to put off thy wedding day for three months. Then thou wit, have need to ask my meaning.”
“Why, someone else would wed her, or she would wed somebody else, if I hinted such a thing,” answered the infatuated young man, for indeed he was such.
“And better, far better for thee, if such a thing did happen..” So saying, the old man turned upon his heel and left him.
Why Kitty did wed this young man, what were her reasons for committing such an act, will never be known. Wed him she did. For four months she lived with her husband, and then he disappeared. That is all that is now known of the matter—that is bearing upon his disappearance.
The neighbours knew that for some weeks before he vanished very serious bickerings were common between them. Kitty declared that she knew nothing about her husband further than he had run away and left her. The neighbours began to murmur against her; nasty whispers were heard of certain acts of misbehaviour on her part. Happily her mother had died shortly after her wedding day. Then, to save herself from the punishment which she learnt the neighbours intended to visit upon her, she vanished also.
But it was soon known that she was living under the protection of a young squire whose place was some few miles distant, a young, handsome, and a dissolute rake who laughed at those who ventured to point out the evil course he seemed bent on pursuing.
It is at this point of the story that we meet with one of those many remarkable prophecies which, in one form or another, and in connection with very varied events, are still remembered throughout our dales. On one occasion Kitty, with her baby boy in arms, and the young squire walking at her side, overtook the old seer of Lastingham. ” Weel met, Lakky! I have wished to see thee for long. Show him our bairn, Kit, and let him cast us his future; and be careful, old man, that you read the stars, or whatever you do read, in his favour, or I warrant me I will pay thee with a skinful of sore bones.”
“Yes,” said Kitty, with a light laugh, dandling her boy in front of the old man, “let’s hear what the future has in store for both my boy and myself ?”
Turning to the shameless couple Burton, with a look of great sorrow and sadness, replied:
“I would that ye had let me go my way without speech with either of you. But, as ye have spoken, my duty before me, and I may not now hold my peace.” Then turning to Kitty, in an impressive tone of voice he thus addressed her:
“As thou in life the of honour rarely trod,
Flouting with jeers thy mother’s prayers, ignoring God,
In death, shall all thy charms, and every winning grace
Of shapely limb, of swelling breast, and matchless face.
Uncovered be; to brutish leer thou’llt lie,
Good food for ribald jest, and many a wanton eye.
Then, turning to the old man, he continued:
She’ll waste what would feud ye,
She bath bred what will end ye.
It is not known how long a time elapsed after this meeting, nor does it matter. Suffice it to know that her naked dead body was found lying near to the with. How she came by her death, and how her corpse came to be found in this condition, will never be known. Not a word has been handed from father to son (it will be seen why presently). It is impossible, however, that at the time no clue was ever discovered. The exact date of the ghost’s first appearance is uncertain; but we are told that Andrew Abbey, who found her body, met with his death at the ford very shortly afterwards.
Towards the conclusion of Botran’s letter we read “This was wrote down by some person hereabouts for mine hostess, and it was the reading of the account herein given to follow which did first enlist my curiosity for to enquire into this nonsenseless tale which the good folk in these parts do verily accept God’s truth. I read that soon following that. terrible visitation of God’s judgment (i.e., Abbey’s death) one Thomas Firby, of Appleton-le- Moor, when approaching the wath toward nightfall, did on a sudden behold afront of him on the farther side of the wath, the figure of a woman of fine build, and stark naked, but who did hide her face for very shame. She did likewise cry unto him ‘Thou art lost, for thine eyes have rested upon me.’ Then instantly she did go from his sight.”
Something, we are not told what, did assure Kirby that he had by ill-luck gazed upon the spirit of Sarkless Kitty. He fled from the place, and was presently seised with a long and painful illness, of which he died.
We learn that Kitty’s death her baby boy was given to a worthy couple to rear. It happened some years afterwards, as his father, who had come to be a broken – down, dissolute beggar, was passing near to the home of his son, the lad not seeing his parent, fired an arrow at a bird and hit his father in the eye, piercing the brain and causing almost instant death. Thus the words of the seer were fulfilled to letter (i.e., if they ever were uttered at the time stated, and not long after the events here given took place).
We now come to the afternoon of that bright autumn day in the year of Our Lord, 1807 or 1809, when the good vicar want forth to lay for ever the restless soul of ” Sarkless Kitty.” This he seems to have succeeded in doing most thoroughly. At the conclusion of the ceremony, turning to the great crowd who had there gathered together, he most solemnly bade them “let the spirit rest. They were to cease from mentioning her name, telling the story to their children, or in any wary keeping or helping to keep alive the memory of a once shameless girl.” This doubtless accounts for the very little which is to-day known of the story of Sarkless Kitty. The story now given, I believe, embodies every scrap of information which was to be met with twenty-five years ago.
Betty Ellis was one of those present on this occasion, and from her lips my informant had certain facts given him, as well as a copy of Botran’s letter and the rhymes here given.
- 1North York Moors Historic Environment Record (HER) 22173
- 2BLAKEBOROUGH, RICHARD. SARKLESS KITTY. | Northern Weekly Gazette | Saturday 05 April 1902 | British Newspaper Archive’. 2022. Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk <https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/BL/0003075/19020405/275/0031?browse=true> [accessed 23 October 2022]