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Feather's Miscellany: The Ghost Of Crag Castle

John Waddington-Feather tells of an inspirational ghost with a golden heart.

Ghosts are a mystery. They are less of a mystery when we meet them face to face in daily life. In fact, so less a mystery we might never known we have met one. You wouldn’t look twice at the ghost in modern dress which you rubbed shoulders with in the supermarket. Nor would a ghost evoke quite the same atmosphere there as it would, say, if we met one walking through a cemetery at night or in some great house or castle. Yet they’re the same ghosts we meet in daily life. Take the occasion at Crag Castle in Keighworth, when a young art student was helped by….

But I’d better start at the beginning.

Crag Castle was built by a wealthy, industrial family, the Butterworths, mid-way through the nineteenth century. The Butterworths were one of the newly rich families of Keighworth, pulling in wealth hand over fist from their textile mills as the place expanded from a small rural market town at the beginning of the century to a sprawling, mucky mill town of some 50,000 townsfolk by the end of it.

Many of the new houses were simply thrown up; slums from the start. And many of the workers pouring into the place from all over the country and Ireland lived in those slums right next to the mills and workshops they worked in. The town bristled with mill chimneys and for much of the year was hidden under a canopy of smoke. The River Worth running through it became an open sewer, and so did the River Aire into which it poured, becoming more foul as it passed through the industrial belt of West Yorkshire down the valley and beyond. By contrast with their workers, the mill tycoons lived in mansions to the west of Keighworth; well away from the muck and grime which created their wealth.

The Butterworth family started life modestly enough but soon amassed great wealth, selling their goods all over the world especially to America. By the middle of the century, they’d enough wealth to build themselves their own castle, a huge pile in the pseudo-Tudor style standing in acres of land which had once been a farm. At intervals along its frontage and inside, they set their own newly acquired motto: “Unity Fortifies Strength.” - in Latin, of course.

They certainly stuck together as a family and married into more money. A family group was depicted in a stained glass window in the new ‘castle’ dressed in Tudor costume, just to lend antiquity to their new status. In time knighthoods were given to some of the family for services rendered and the Butterworths moved up and up in the world. Some were even presented at the French Court to the Emperor Napoleon III, who featured prominently in the collection of portraits in their drawing room.

They travelled frequently across the water to the States, where trade blossomed, and two of the Butterworths married rich American heiresses. One of them was a real beauty and it’s about her this story is told.

She was only sixteen when Eugenie married Henry Butterworth and came to live at Crag Castle. She adored the place and soon made it her home, organising a round of social events: garden parties in summer and lavish balls in winter. In between whiles she made trips to Paris to the home the Butterworths had set up there, and with her husband she travelled widely across Europe and elsewhere.

She bore Henry a son and a daughter, who died in infancy; Eugenie herself dying at the early age of twenty nine. She was well educated and intelligent and involved herself in social work among the poor of the town. She was well schooled in art and music and fostered art appreciation classes and patronised the local choirs and the newly formed Keighworth orchestra. It could be said she opened the eyes of many Keighworth youngsters to a beauty beyond them; taking them from the muck and grime they had to live in and revealing the natural beauty of the countryside beyond the boundaries of the town. Her work bore fruit and in time the town produced many fine artists. With her husband she brought many paintings and objects of art back to the Castle, displaying them along with her own paintings.

She loved walking through the well stocked gardens and the newly built glass conservatories surrounding the house; and spent much of her time painting the exotic flowers in them. A cynic might say she was cocooned from reality, from the grime and squalor down the road in Keighworth, living in an oasis of beauty far removed from the mills and factories and the workers who toiled in them. But certainly in death she was cocooned in a massive family mausoleum which the Butterworths built in Keighworth Cemetery, well removed from the mean graves of the workers scattered about them.

Yet, almost as quickly as it sprang up, within a generation Crag Castle fell into disuse and was boarded up. The last of the Butterworths married into an ancient English family and migrated south to a larger estate there. Crag Castle was sold to a Keighworth millionaire, who’d done well in the London property market and who generously gave the Castle to the town in appreciation of what the town had done for him.

His gift sharply divided the Town Council. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth! They bickered and squabbled about what was to be done with it for months. Some on the left wanted to spend money making the place a recreation centre for the workers complete with swimming bath and an athletic track; selling off the paintings and statues to fund their project. Those on the right wanted to develop the Castle as a conference centre and build expensive apartments over the gardens to make a healthy profit from rents.

However, there was one far-seeing member of Council, Alderman Ball, who’d set his heart on converting Crag Castle into an educational museum and art gallery, keeping it intact. By sheer persistence and playing the other sides against each other he won the day, and Crag Castle became Keighworth’s new museum; the old one in Albert Park becoming the recreation centre.

Under an experienced director and Alderman Ball’s guidance, the Castle went from strength to strength. Adults and youngsters alike benefited from its displays and teaching. In all the main rooms easels were set up with drawing pads for aspiring artists and in time Keighworth became well known for the exhibitions it staged in the Castle.

Crag Castle also became famous for its ghost! It was bound to happen. You can’t have a castle without a ghost; and it had been rumoured, even before the Castle passed into the Town Council’s hands, that the ghost of Eugenie Butterworth wandered about the house and gardens.

Some folk swore they’d caught glimpses of a beautiful young woman strolling round the house in her bridal gown. Others said they’d felt her presence walking by them in the gardens. None actually saw her, till the day Susie Reynolds, a despondent eighteen year-old art student, sat with an empty sheet of paper before her looking dismally through a window of the Castle staring at the rain-sodden hills beyond and the moors above.

She desperately deeded inspiration, for she had to submit a painting to a panel of judges in London to earn herself a scholarship and place at Art College. Without that scholarship she was done. Her father was dead and her mother had struggled to keep her at school. She just had to win that scholarship.

As she sat sighing by the window, watching the rain outside sile down and the wind on the hillside taking the trees by the throat, making the woods heave and writhe like a thing in pain, a young woman dressed casually in a jumper and jeans came up and asked her how she was faring.

“Artist’s blockage,” she replied glumly, turning to the stranger, who spoke with a slight American accent. Susie assumed she was one of the advisers the museum employed to help students with their work. She was pretty and fair-complexioned, an attractive woman; yet there was that about her Susie couldn’t fathom. She seemed distant and her language was old-fashioned. You’d have expected someone of her age to use modern English, slang and jargon, yet she spoke impeccably, and the longer she spoke, the more helpful Susie found her.

There were three white horses in a field across the valley, racing round and round disturbed by the wind. “Now, how about those horses?” said the young woman. “Just see how they merge with the trees and the wind. They seem one. Now there’s something to get your imagination going.”

Sure enough, when Susie looked closer, the horses, wind and trees merged into one dynamic scene, racing, it seemed, across the hillside up to the dark moors above.

“I see what you mean,” said Susie slowly and she began to transfer what she saw onto the sheet before her.

The woman stood by her a while watching, then wandered off. She returned later for a final look congratulating Susie on her style. “That’s superb!” she said. “Absolutely wonderful! You have real talent,” and left Susie to get on with her work.

Susie became engrossed in her work and painted feverishly, but before she left the museum, she tried to find her adviser to thank her for her help and her inspiration. She asked the attendant where she was, but he said no adviser had been in that day, nor had there been any visitors except Susie, because of the weather. He was adamant, when Susie asked if he was sure.

Puzzled, Susie left, but was determined to find out who the woman was who’d galvanized her to action and been so helpful; the more so when a few weeks later her painting won her a scholarship and was highly acclaimed by the panel of judges.

The mystery wasn’t solved till months later when she came home on holiday from college and wandered into the drawing room of the Butterworth family. It had been recently refurbished exactly as it had been when the old family lived there, and on the walls hung life-size portraits of the Butterworths, newly acquired by the museum.

She strolled by them till she halted by the portrait of Eugenie, the new bride of Henry Butterworth whom he’d brought back from the States, the wife who’d died young in 1867. Susie gasped in amazement. It was her all right, the quiet American who’d inspired Susie to paint, smiling down at her from the wall, the fabled Crag Castle ghost who’d come to her help in her hour of need.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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