A Fluttering in the Vault

A Fluttering in the Vault. A vignette from The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Jessica Wiesel (copyright 2014)

A Fluttering in the Vault. A vignette from The Victorian Book of the Dead, by Jessica Wiesel (copyright 2014)

Recently Dr Beachcombing posted a Victorian story of a “good Christian” robin who perched near the pulpit, listened attentively to the sermon, and warbled forth (as it seemed to the narrator) God’s praise. It was all very charming, but in some circles, the pew-holders would have been blanching in their seats: a robin that wanders indoors is said to be an omen of death. [Another day, another post…]

Let us look at another bird, a creature of darkness,  found in the church at West Drayton, Middlesex.


In the middle of the last century, circa 1749, owing to several remarkable circumstances which had then recently occurred, a conviction became almost universal amongst the inhabitants of the village, that the vaults under the church [St Martin’s, if I’m not mistaken] of West Drayton, near Uxbridge, were haunted. Strange noises were heard in and about the sacred building, and the sexton of that day, a person utterly devoid of superstition, was on inquiry and examination compelled to admit that certain unaccountable occurrences in regard to the vault had taken place. There are, it is said, three large vaults under the chancel — in the chief of which, towards its eastern part, the ancient and noble family of Paget find their last resting-place. Two other vaults are situated near the west end of the choir, one of the De Burghs, a more ancient family still. From each of these, the most remarkable knockings were sometimes heard, commonly on Friday evenings as was said; and many curious people from the village used to come together to listen to them. They were never either explained or explained away. Some people affirmed that one person had secretly murdered another, then committed suicide, and that both the bodies had been buried side by side in the same grave. Others maintained that three persons from an adjacent mansion-house in company had gone to look through a grating in the side of the foundation of the church—for the ventilation of the vault, and from which screams and noises were heard constantly, and had there seen a very large black raven perched on one of the coffins. This strange bird was seen more than once by the then parish clerk pecking from within at the grating, and furiously fluttering about within the enclosed vault. On another occasion it was seen by other people in the body of the church itself. The wife of the parish clerk and her daughter often saw it. The local bell-ringers, who all professed to deny its existence and appearance, one evening, however, came together to ring a peal, when they were told by a youth that the big raven was flying about inside the chancel. Coming together into the church with sticks and stones and a lantern, four men and two boys found it fluttering about amongst the rafters. They gave chase to it, flinging at it, shouting at and endeavouring to catch it. Driven hither and thither for some time, and twice or thrice beaten with a stick, so that one of its wings seemed to have been thus broken and made to droop, the bird fell down wounded with expanded wings, screaming and fluttering into the eastern part of the chancel, when two of the men on rushing towards it to secure it, and driving it into a corner, vaulted over the communion rails, and violently proceeded to seize it. As the account stands, it at once sank wounded and exhausted on to the floor, and as they believed in their certain grasp, but all of a moment—vanished!

It is said to be constantly seen, from time to time, often perched on the communion-rails of the sanctuary, or heard fluttering violently within the vault beneath.

Several respectable people attested to eye- and ear-witness sightings of the spectral bird:

Mrs de Burgh, the wife of Mr R. L. de Burgh, sometime Vicar of West Drayton, writes thus to me:—

July 16, 1883.

“Your question has aroused recollections of often hearing sounds in Drayton Church like the strong fluttering of a large bird. It was many years ago; and I had quite forgotten it until I got your note. I can remember feeling persuaded that a bird must have got into the family vault, and in going outside to look into it through the iron bars to try if anything could be seen there, the sounds were then always in the chancel in the same place. This is all I am afraid I can remember about it. I have not even thought of it for years past.

Julia De Burgh.”

A Mrs White, whose relations (gentleman-farmers in the village) lived at West Drayton from 1782 to 1818, tells me through a friend that thereabouts “the country folks always believed that the Spectral Bird which haunted Drayton Church was the restless and miserable spirit of a murderer who had committed suicide, and who, through family influence, instead of being put into a pit or hole, with a stake through his body at the cross-road by Harmondsworth, as was the sentence by law, had been buried in consecrated ground on the north side of the churchyard.”

A lady and her sister—as I am informed (1878)—who on one Saturday afternoon in 1869 had gone into Drayton Church to place some vases of flowers upon the communion-table, on coming out, each saw a great Black Bird perched upon one of the pews,— which they believed must have escaped from the Zoological Gardens or some menagerie.

A gentleman who is well informed, thus writes:—

“The thoroughly sceptical tone of the newspapers is such that persons would be held up to scorn and ridicule who might have the hardihood to maintain the reality of any supernatural appearance or intervention. Though I know that Drayton Church is haunted by the spirit of a murderer, who appears as a very large raven, I do not add particulars and do not give names.”

Glimpses in the twilight: being various notes, records, and examples of the Supernatural, Rev. Frederick George Lee, 1885

This story presents us with a portmanteau of local folklore:  a monstrous vanishing black bird as well as phantom flutterings  (and who doesn’t love an aural haunting?), purported suicides illicitly buried in consecrated soil, murder-suicide victims in the one grave, and screams and knockings in the crypt. I was waiting for the sexton to find coffins tossed every which way in the sealed vault…. Could the escape of the inevitable gases of decomposition explain the screams/knockings?

In his post, Dr Beachcombing suggested that the church-going robin was really after the communion bread-crumbs. Does that explain why the spectral bird was seen “constantly” on the communion-rails? Or perhaps it was because ravens are blood-drinkers. As to the bird’s appearance in the vault, well, corvids are known to hold funerals.

As an aside, it is unusual to find the “escaped from a menagerie” trope used to explain a ghostly animal. It suggests that the creature had an uncanny (or an earthly?) solidity.  It is also notable that the folklore trope we do not find is the suggestion that the black bird is an omen of death. That job can be left, no doubt, to the innocent-looking robins.

You’ll find a story of another ghostly black bird in this post on mysterious birds.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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