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This blog is definitely for the sceptics among you! It’s a story that just goes to show how local folklore, tales that have been passed down from person to person over many years, sometimes centuries, endure the tests of time and eventually become set in local stone as true events. Whilst many of these tales are cultivated from perhaps a seed or two of truth, many go on to sprout extra leaves and are embellished with little untruths and juicy details. Then the story grows…

Retired art-history professor and fact-fiend DM contacted me recently and it turns out we both have a love of the local mysteries in our area. As I have said many times before, I am a storyteller and am here to bring together and record elements of all the tales I investigate rather than researching their validity. You could say, I don’t look to debunk them. That’s just what I love to do and is very much what Weird Wiltshire is all about!

DM however, likes to dig deeper to see where these stories come from. He looks into how they have transformed over time and whether there is any evidence out there to either support or debunk these old tales.

Credit: Knight Frank

The Ghost Story of Black Molly of Pyt House

One of my favourite local ghostly tales is of that of Black Molly of Pyt House in Newtown, south west Wiltshire. Built in 1727, Pyt House is a neo-Grecian magnificent Grade II* listed country house. It is absolutely stunning and exactly the sort of place where you would expect a few ghosts.

I won’t go into the story of Molly here, as DM is going to tell you more in just a few moments. He has done some fantastic research on this subject and whilst it does prove that, on this occasion, this is no more than just a tall tale, it does tell us about a fabulous parlour trick played by a mischievous local resident. One which has endured the test of time so that today, it is still enthralling locals who grimace and recoil at the thought of the whole grisly story.

I will say no more for now and hand you over to DM to tell you all about Black Molly of Pyt House.

Golly Miss Molly   

A new look at the story of the Pyt House Skeleton

          Just as Tisbury has its own WW2 bomber crash which I investigated last year, so it has its own ghost story of Molly at Pyt House a couple of miles away and I’ve tried to get to the bottom of the legend. When I first heard about her I pictured her in a glass coffin like something out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Then I got to see her in the chill air of the cellar and she was a bit of a let down — not in a coffin but in a vaguely coffin-shaped display cabinet standing on end with a little glass window through which could just glimpse three ribs. It was locked with a rusty padlock.

          Her sad story, briefly, is that she was a nursemaid called Molly Peart at Pyt House in the early C19th who killed her illegitimate baby by scalding it, for which she was hanged with her body being returned to Pyt where it was kept in the cellar with disaster threatened if any attempt was made to remove her.

          I soon realised that Molly’s history was mixed up with the larger-than-life character of John Benett Stanford who ran the Pyt House estate and acted as local squire in the 1930s until his death in 1947.  He is famous in Tisbury history for the pranks he played on locals and for eccentricities designed to shock the local gentry, which earned him the nickname “Mad Jack’.  I suspected Jack could be the clue to Molly but in fairness to the legend I first looked at ways it MIGHT be true.

          Firstly the name ‘Molly’ (short for Mary) Peart: I found only ONE Mary Peart in Wiltshire for the whole of the C19th — a Scottish surname so rare as to be almost unknown here. It’s not one somebody inventing a legend and trying to think up a name would know – pointing surely to a real life Mary who may or may not have been the girl above and who then vanishes from the record.

         Secondly there was the puzzle of her ribs – if you peer hard through the little window you can see they are snipped close to the sternum, pointing to her having been ‘anatomised’ after execution as criminals were at that time. And to the genuineness of her having been hanged.

           But bit by bit, evidence AGAINST her began to pile up.  The  last woman publicly hanged wasn’t a Molly or Mary Peart but Frances Kidder in1868. Then i found that the only documentary evidence for the legend at all was an early Pyt House guidebook, dating at the earliest to the 1950s when Pyt House was sold to the Country Houses Association. So it’s a very young legend indeed.

          Finally it dawned on me I’d heard a story very like hers before and that Molly was a legend based on a legend – that of Wild Will Darrell who is said to have burnt a baby on a fire at Littlecote Hall in N. Wilts.  She also copied Will in producing a ghost. Will’s ghost is said to gallop as a phantom round Littlecote Park, just as Molly haunts the Pink Room at Pyt and the bridge between Pyt and Hatch House. And the ‘curse if removed’ is stock legend stuff, copying the Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor which must never be removed, just as the ‘maid seduced by butler’ is a cliché of romantic novels.  To back up the Littlecote link one could add that Jack had a keen interest in local legends so would certainly have

known it..

          Now was the time to bring him back into the picture.  His papers and a monograph about him in the WANHM Journal are kept at Devizes Museum and I was able to read them. His papers contain no confession to making up the legend but the monograph records how a guest at Pyt was shown a set-up in the cellars consisting of a specially-built gallows suspending a skeleton.  Clearly it was Molly – an anatomical specimen bought from a curio-shop as a prank by Jack to give his house a ghost story and to intrigue guests paying for shooting weekends.  It makes Jack the first country house owner, followed by Lord Bath at Longleat, to add a gimmick to their houses to attract the public.  It was also one more prank to play on Tisburyites when word began to spread. Her so-called coffin IS genuinely old and she and it do probably date to1825 when Cabinets of Curiosities were all the rage.

          So that’s it – Molly solved but not I hope Molly disposed of.  Last September I saw Pyt House was for sale and it may now  have changed hands.  With new owners is Molly safe?  She may not be that tragic nursemaid of 1825 but she belongs at Pyt and I’d like to end with a plea from all of us that she stays securely where she is.

‘Mad’ Jack Benett, prankster and storyteller!

What more is there to say! I’m honoured to have had the chance to publish this research on behalf of DM and I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I did.

Although we no longer have a ghost story that ‘could’ be true, I am still going to tell it. Parlour trick or not, the fact still remains that a skeleton is still stored, in a coffin shaped box, in the cellar of this wonderful country house. Least DM and I think and hope she is!

Whilst DM’s research makes sense of the story of Black Molly, there is another little offshoot of the Black Molly story. It takes place at a local bridge, some call Molly’s Bridge and it’s just down the road from Pyt House. Tales have been told of a black figure who crosses the old grassed, single-track bridge that crosses the road. It looks rather lovely in this photo, but I can tell you, it looks very different on a windy, dark autumn eve. I have heard of a couple of people say a figure has been seen hanging from the bridge on a couple of occasions.

Molly’s Bridge

I remember a friend of mine telling me about an Australian couple he met who had been staying nearby. They had absolutely no knowledge of any local accounts of black hanging figures suspended from the bridge. They told him they had been pretty spooked one night on the way home to their accommodation, having driven under the bridge with both of them witnessing what they thought was a body hanging from the bridge.

As we can now definitely say, it is not Molly that crosses that bridge at night and it’s definitely not her hanging from the bridge either. Sadly, we do lose the possibility of a local tale ‘perhaps and maybe’ being a real ghost with the debunking of Molly. But what we do have is a completely different story and a new ghostly tale to tell each other. The black figure seen by more than one person hanging from Molly’s Bridge and, possibly the same ghost, another black figure crossing the bridge. You can say you heard this new story here first!

My greatest thanks go to DM for being willing to publish his research here on Weird Wiltshire.

That concludes today’s Weird Wiltshire blog. Stay spooky everyone!


Don’t forget, I’m always on the lookout for spooky and weird stories from Wiltshire and beyond. If you have a tale you would like to share I’d love to hear from you. Contact me via Twitter (or X as we are supposed to call it now) or here.

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