The Stiff of Dreams

The Stiff of Dreams Sleeping Boy, John Galt, c. 1917

The Stiff of Dreams Sleeping Boy, John Galt, c. 1917



The Ashford and Kentish Express for Saturday, June 2nd, 1894, tells the following story:

A painful history of domestic unhappiness was disclosed at a coroner’s inquest held by Mr. R. M. Mercer at the house of Mr. George Barton, at Kingsnorth, on Thursday afternoon. On Monday a hat was found near a pond in a small wood locally known as “Colman’s Kitchen,” and on the following night a man named Henry Hollingsbee, who lives close by, had a peculiar dream, the purport of which was that a man was drowning himself. In consequence of this presentiment, Hollingsbee, who had to pass the pond on his way to work, walked round the pond the next morning and saw a man lying in the water, who was identified as Clark Howland, a bootmaker, of Boughton Aluph. Deceased, who was fifty three years of age, left his home on Saturday afternoon. According to the statements of his wife, “There was a little disturbance that day, but nothing unusual.” There are two sons and a daughter of the marriage. The eldest son, aged eighteen years, was unable to obtain work. The daughter has been out of service since November, the mother stating that “she has been at home as a sort of protection to me.” Mrs. Howland affirmed that their home had not been a happy one. She had been obliged to support herself and family by letting lodgings. She had no idea what her husband’s earnings were. He had never given her a farthing towards keeping house. . . . Deceased had written a letter to Supt. Wenham, of the Ashford Division of Police, stating his intention to drown himself at Kingsnorth, and giving as his motive that he was completely brokenhearted through his home troubles.

A reader of Borderland has been good enough to inquire into the story. At some considerable trouble and loss of time he called immediately after the occurrence on Sunday, June 3rd, at Mr. Hollingsbee’s cottage. He writes:—

Leaving my bicycle in the hedge, I opened the swinging gate, passed under the porch clustered with flowers. My knock was answered by a jolly matron, who, on hearing my business, grew serious, for she was sorry to say her husband was out in the woods at the back of the house: if I went that way I was sure to find him.

I then asked her if she also dreamed of the man found drowned? No, she had not, although her husband told her a “hat” had been found near the spring. Being a dreamer and a great believer in dreams, I noted that as an interesting point. After some wandering, I at length found Mr. Hollingsbee standing beside the very pond which was the scene of the tragedy, a romantic spot, where a mossy bank, some rocks, swaying water-weeds, surrounding trees reflected in the pool below, and an old ash tree stump in the foreground, combined to make a weird yet pleasing picture.


After explaining the object of my inquiry, I asked—

“I suppose you were the first one to find the body?”

“”Well, sir, I’ll tell you. On Monday a hat was found on this bank by a man named Weston. On Tuesday morning he told me, and we both came to the same conclusion—that it was an old hat that had been thrown away, and had been carried here by the wind. I thought no more of the matter. I went to bed at 10 P.M. What supper I had was light enough. I went to sleep, but kept on dreaming about a man drowning in a pond.”

“What pond?”

“I could not say; I have no recollection of any particular spot. I then beard a voice call my name twice—’ Hollingsbee! Hollingsbee!’ I woke up, and then the same clear voice called again the third time,  ‘Hollingsbee.’ I could not stand it any longer, so jumped out of bed, unfastened the window, and called out, ‘ Anybody there?’ No answer. Even if any of my family had been dreaming they would not have called me by my surname, and the voice sounded quite clear, and seemed to come from the ceiling near the window. It was then 2 A.m., much too early for anybody to be near my house. Everything was as quiet as death. No, it was not the voice of a person playing a joke; it was too clear, too calm, and yet seemed unearthly: it fairly made me shake. I opened the window on receiving the third call, and if anyone had been outside I should have seen them, as I waited some time. I also opened my bedroom door, and went back to bed, but could not go to sleep, as I kept on thinking of a man being drowned in a pond. So I got up at 4:45 and went downstairs, lit the fire, and got breakfast ready, but could not eat any. At 6.50 A.m. I went outdoors, and something seemed to lead me to the spring in “Colman’s Kitchen Wood,” which is about 200 yards to the rear of my house. I went to the spring and looked in; could not see anything. Then I stood on this old ash stump, and I thought I could see an old white jug, with a handle, which afterwards turned out to be the man’s bald head and one ear. I could then see a piece of coat, which swayed about with the current of water. I called some mates, and we soon had him out. His left eye catching on that twig made a small wound, so we had to turn him over, and I identified him as Clark Howland. I had known him years. We sent for the police, and I went back to my house, and before I had time to tell the family, my daughter told me she had dreamed that a man had drowned himself. My wife and sons did not dream, but I understand Mrs. Weston dreamed the same thing.


” Could I see your daughter‘:” “Yes, sir, with pleasure.”

We then went back to the house where we found Miss Hollingsbee, who related her dream as follows:—” On Tuesday night I had a very light supper, about the same as father, and I went to bed at 10 P.M. I dreamed that a man was being drowned, not in any particular spot. I saw the body, carried by men, enter our kitchen, and the stretcher placed on the table.”

“Could you identify the corpse?”

” No; there was a large black covering over the stretcher, but I could see that there was a body upon it, as the figure of a man could be seen through the covering. As to the bearers, it was impossible to see their faces, as they were covered with black from head to toe, but I could see they were men by their build. Directly the corpse was laid on the table I woke up, it was then between 12 and 1 o’clock. I heard no voice of any kind, and I am not in the habit of dreaming.”

I then saw Mr. Hollingsbee’s sons, who stated they had not heard any noise on Tuesday night and that they had not dreamed.


On receiving the address of Mrs. Weston I set off for her house, which is about a mile from “Hollingsbee’s.” She informed me she retired to rest at 10 P.M. on Tuesday night and dreamed that some man had drowned himself in a pond, but the rest of the dream was so muddled that she could not tell me: she dreamed of no particular spot or man, and she was not in the habit of dreaming.

[signed] Benjamin Rowsell.

I should also like to add that I met Mr. Hollingsbee on Sunday, July 1st, and he informed me that neither himself or daughter have had a repetition of the dream or dreams of any kind.


A correspondent in Glasgow, a friend of mine, who had the curious experience of meeting his father some years after his death and walking down a busy street with his ghost, without realising that it was a ghost until it suddenly disappeared, sends me the following story of a dream, which he quoted from the Glasgow Herald of 3rd January, 1895 :—

A Benhar miner named Donald M’Farlane (58), who resided at West Benhar Bows, disappeared from his home on Sunday night, and although his friends searched anxiously they found no trace of him. On New-Year’s Day Robert Halbert (66), miner, Benhar, a brother-in-law of M’Farlane’s, fell asleep and dreamed that he saw the missing man in a particular part of the Almond Water, which is some miles distant. On mentioning this to his neighbours, they went to the place indicated, saw footprints of the missing man in the snow, and eventually found the man himself standing upright in the water, which was about three feet deep, with the ice all frozen round him. He was quite dead. Halbert has a local reputation for this kind of “second sight,” and the realisation of his dream in this case is exciting considerable interest. Dr. Millar, Harthill, says that M’Farlane had died from exposure.

Borderland, Vol. 2, W.T. Stead, 1895

What should we make of these eerie anecdotes? In the first story, did Mr Hollingsbee know of Howland’s domestic troubles? Had Howland previously made threats to harm himself ? When did the police receive the suicide letter and did they mention it to anyone? I suppose it is possible that, living 200 yards from the pond, Hollingsbee could have heard something that made him subconsciously aware that a man was drowning. And the hat might have triggered such a train of thought. Did Howland call out Hollingsbee’s name from the pond? Still, it is a rather remarkable coincidence that three persons in the neighborhood all dreamed of a man drowning in a pond.

The Halbert story is lighter on detail and falls in with the stereotypical uncanny Second Sight of the Scots, yet, if taken at face value, is harder to explain away. It’s something of a cliche in ghost-lore for a ghost to return to point out the location of its will, its murderer, or its corpse. Are these just a Protestant Victorian version of those medieval dreams where Christian holy men are contacted by saints who want to tell where the relics are buried?

Other dreams where corpses revealed their location?  Wake up and tell me: chriswoodyard8 AT

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 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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