An article in the Spring 1995 edition of The Psi Researcher describes how, in the 1950s, a group of psychical researchers got caught up in popularising an almost-certainly fictional local legend.
Tony Cornell (the author of the article) and three friends went to the Ferry Boat Inn in St Ives, Huntingtonshire, on the 17 March 1953, having heard that a ghost of a lady in white appears there every year on that date: the story being that one of the flagstones on the floor of the pub is over her grave.
They set up a Ouija board on a table in the bar, and began trying to contact the spirit, to the mild amusement of the few regulars who were in the bar at the time. During this seance, they contacted a woman called Juliet, who was hanged in 1050 because she loved a man called Thomas. As closing time approached, the psychical researchers asked Juliet if she would appear if they held another seance later that evening. She said yes and, so it was, that at 11pm another seance was begun back at their hotel.
They got more details, such as her surname (Tewslie) and that she was a Norman. She died when she was nineteen and that Thomas (whose surname was Zoul) was twenty-one at the time. Thomas finally died when he was fifty-two.
And there it would have ended. The information was vague and generic and Tony writes that he had immediate doubts about Tewslie being a Norman name. This little episode was forgotten and would’ve stayed that way had the owner of the Ferry Boat Inn not contacted Tony in January of the following year suggesting another seance.
Tony agreed, and news of this began to appear in the local press. He started getting calls from journalists, and he found himself being misquoted as the media milked the story for all it was worth. Even The Daily Mail carried the story on the 16 March.
On the 17th, the psychical researchers arrived at a pub already full of journalists and photographers, and a steady stream of customers kept arriving. At 11pm, the pub emptied out and the seance could begin in peace (although the reporters were still present and many people stayed outside and tried to watch through the windows). The local vicar arrived, claiming the legend was bunkum. All of this must have made contacting the dead a bit more difficult than usual, since it wasn’t until 12.35am that the Ouija board spelt out “I am Juliet” and the seance could begin.
Now a couple of details changed. Her death was 552 years ago, not nine hundred as before. Juliet spelt her surname as “Tewsley” this time and, considering that the seance included a stranger in the group, Tony wonders if this new spelling was due to someone pushing the glass who was unaware of the previous spelling.
The researchers asked if the river came up to this spot in her time, and she said yes, and it was 10 metres across (but metres didn’t exist until 1797). Juliet then said she would try and materialise, but nothing happened. They packed up and went home at 2am, having brought in a great deal of business for the pub, but achieved little else.
After this, the story spread through Reuters and Associated Press around the world. The local vicar wrote up a history of Juliet and Thomas based on the transcripts of the two seances with more details added, and then explained that there’s no evidence either person existed.
Tony writes that similar investigations occurred in 1955 and 1956 without him, and he comments that since then the legend has appeared in books, with one author calling it “probabaly the longest established ghost in any English hostelry.” The same book (Haunted Pubs in Britain and Ireland by Marc Alexander) also describes how the landlord of the Ferry Boat Inn had expressed a wish that he has something like the Loch Ness Monster to bring in customers, and then a customer told him about the White Lady. Tony remarks that, if accurate, this explains a lot.
Other writers have added to the story, with details about dogs not liking the bar, doors that open and close and old-fashioned music that only women can hear. By the time Guy Lyon Playfair writes about it in 1985, Juliet’s surname has a new spelling: Tousley.
As part of his initial investigation, Tony investigated the names that came through and also asked local people if they knew about the legend. Regarding the names, Juliet didn’t really exist in England until the 16th century. The surname has a Celtic root “Tew” but Tony came to the conclusion that “Juliet Tewslie” couldn’t possibly be a Norman name.
Thomas is also rare for Norman times, becoming more common in the medieval era, but Zoul is a Norman name, derived from Zouch.
When he questioned local people, none of the elder inhabitants had ever heard of the story and the person who’d apparently told the landlord, Dr Hurst, said he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it. Tony was unable to find anyone who’d heard of it before 1953.
As for the messages of unverifiable details, questionable names and a few historical inaccuracies, Tony concludes that they were answered by the people who’d asked them: the researchers: “The suggestion that there was the ghost of a woman at the Inn was enough for those who applied their minds to the question to produce unconsciously a dramatic sketch about Juliet and Thomas, which has been added to by all and sundry ever since.”
Tony wrote in 1995 that he’d recently returned to the pub and that it had been carpeted, apart from the flagstone that apparently was over the woman’s grave. Whether that’s still the case, I don’t know. One thing is noteworthy: searching for the pub on the internet, there are many sites that don’t mention the ghost at all. Maybe, now that St Patrick’s Day is more popular in England, there’s no need for a ghost to increase business on 17 March.
Cornell, T. “The Making of a Legend,” The Psi Researcher, no 16, Spring 1995