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BS3

Abominable Showman
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Sep 20, 2021
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I've mentioned this one previously, but thought I would open a separate thread as I find this a particularly interesting set of 'sightings', sitting as it does in the grey area between ufology and other types of Fortean phenomena. Also it took place almost exactly a hundred years ago, around the villages of Fenny Compton and Burton Dassett, where the Burton Dassett Hills form a prominent landmark:

Burton_Hills.jpg


Fort himself gave a simple summary of the events:

London Daily Express, Feb. 15, and following issues, 1923 -- brilliant luminous things moving across fields, sometimes high in the air, at Fenny Compton, Warwickshire. They were "intense lights," like automobile headlights. Sometimes these luminous things, or beings, hovered over a farm house. It was a deserted farm house, according to the London Daily News, Feb. 13. About a year later, one of these objects, or whatever they were, returned, and was reported as "a swiftly moving light," by several persons, one of them Miss Olive Knight, a school teacher, of Fenny Compton (London Sunday News, Jan. 27, 1924).

The lights were actually reported quite regularly over the winter of 1922-3, and there was a flurry of articles in local newspapers about them. Most seemed to suggest the lights were interpreted as some form of ghost. The Warwickshire Advertiser reported in April 23 that "crowds of curiosity seekers" were heading to what was called "the Farm of Spooks" to try and catch a glimpse of the lights. A journalist saw the light, at a distance he estimated as about a mile, from the tower of Burton Dassett Church, describing it as "steady and vivid" but faintly illuminating the sky for several miles with "flickering" upward beams. While there were attempts at the time to explain the lights as will-o-the-wisps associated with a nearby pond, this doesn't seem to match that well with people's descriptions.

In more recent times David Clarke and Paul Devereux have suggested these were examples of 'earthlights' - there is a small fault nearby although you can say this about many areas of the country. Clarke noted there was a UFO flap in the district in the early 70s (perhaps now best remembered for the 1971 film of a 'UFO' taken by an ATV film unit, that later proved to have been an aircraft dumping fuel):

https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-26101971-ufo-sighting-atv-film-unit

In the present day a local author has argued that the 1923 events were a UFO flap - perhaps a predictable development.

Anyway this is an interesting historical event which just possibly may hint at a physical phenomenon which is behind many lights-in-the-sky type UFO sightings.
 
For reference here are a couple of articles from the Banbury Guardian in February 1923 which favour the will-o-the-wisp explanation:

A Ghost Sensation on the Dassett Hills

Inhabitants Scared by a Special Light.

The Burton Dassett Hills are the scene of the ghost sensation; the inhabitants who have been out after dark have been appearing at intervals since the latter part of December. It moves, assumes fantastic shapes and is of bluish tint. Inhabitants of Burton Dassett, Northend and Fenny Compton have seen it and declare that their experience has been nerve-racking. It appears to have been first seen by a shepherd, whose story was discredited, but others who went to investigate, in spirit scepticism, came home converted and rather frightened. One of these was Mr George White, of Fenny Compton, who sailed out with field glasses and two companions, and who declares not only saw the light, but both he and his companions felt it pass over them. It was, he says, of a “ reddy-blue and creepy complexion.” Harold Cotterill, a youth, returning from an errand saw it hovering round a lonely pool and the horse also saw it and was so startled that he had difficulty in controlling it. Other residents who may be relied on not to be misled by an imaginary ghost story, also declare that they have seen it, so the appearance may be assumed to be based on reality.

The probable explanation is that the inhabitants are seeing a scientific phenomenon, rare in this district though common in marshlands. It is, we venture to suggest none other than the “Will o’ the Wisp.” The heavy rains which began in the middle of December and have recently been accentuated have formed damp grounds round the foot of the hills, and from this is now being exhaled the phosphorus which gives a bluish light and which is so well known to those who dwell near boggy moors. It is said that the light is seen best from the top of the hills, which is at it, would be, and the fact that the pool is said to be favourite haunt of the spectral visitant rather tends to confirm its phosphorescent nature. Some of the inhabitants refuse to accept this explanation, and declare that it does not satisfy their requirements, and apparently they lean to something that favours more of the occult. However, we suggest that the natural explanation might serve, at least until the descriptions of the vision are more exact and a little less tinged and nerves than they have hitherto been.

The Burton Dassett Ghost

A Natural Phenomenon

Fenny Compton and the Burton Hills have been the rendezvous of many visitors anxious to get a sight of the ghost, and the apparition has been good enough in some cases to oblige them. The general conclusion come to by those who have brought knowledge and a mind free from bias or nervousness to bear on their investigation, is that the explanation given last week, that the spectre is nothing more than the exhalations of natural gas of a phoshoric nature from the water logged ground, is the correct one.
It is unusually brilliant but purely natural and the place of origin appears to be the boggy edges of the pool referred to last week. On rising the gas drifts, either on the wind or its own volition across the fields, and hence many of the ghostly attributes given it. It may, consequently, be first met at some distance from the pool, as it has been. It appears on the occasions on which movements have been reliably described to have moved in the direction of Fenny Compton, and to have vanished near a spot known as Bottom Corner, by which time the gas has apparently been dissipated. While therefore the “spectre” belongs to the “Will o’ the Wisp” and “Jacko Lantern” species it appears to be a variant from that found in permanent marshlands and is of a more voluminous nature. The stories which some tell of having seen human forms in or behind the light must be ascribed to the quality of their imaginations, but other residents have, or more helpfully come forward with recollections of the light having been seen here before at long intervals and some years ago. We fear, therefore, the ghost has lost even the element of novelty we were prepared to allow it. The March winds will probably procure it a decent “laying”.
 
Now, I've also found a potential non-paranormal explanation, but there are issues with it.

This relates to the Edge Hill Light Railway, which was built to serve ironstone quarries on Edge Hill itself, west of the Dassett Hills. It ran almost due south from Burton Dassett towards Edge Hill, then up an incline.

https://ehlr.rocks/maps.html

Now the railway was an almost complete commercial failure - it was supposed to start running in late 1922, but following an accident and fatality, plus a post war collapse in demand, never actually properly entered commercial service. What may have happened is that a few wagons of ore were actually moved between 1922 and 1925 - one of the maps on the linked page shows the 'upper sidings' on the hill, running east-west, as in use between these dates.

3_edge_hill[1].jpg


The close match of the 'opening' (and closing) date of the railway with the sighting of the 'lights' makes me wonder if there could have been some link and maybe witnesses were seeing some sort of railway related lights at night in a location they wouldn't necessarily have expected (ie up a hill), perhaps with additional atmospheric distortion involved.

The only problem is that if you go with the October 1922 date for the railway's abortive opening, it doesn't quite match the sightings - although if some work was indeed going on a few months later maybe that could explain it. As the railway hadn't been open before 1922 it's just possible witnesses would have been completely unfamiliar with it, though if the lights were a well known story locally, you'd also think the quarrymen would have said something at the time.

However without good information on the exact location and compass bearing of the 'sightings', of 'the Farm of Spooks' etc, I can't pursue this angle any further at the moment. It's a very long shot but the date does make me wonder.
 
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On the 'earthlight' side of things, here is an early article by Dave Clarke from Ley Hunter. It includes a fuller description from George White (who said that the light "appeared to be looking for something", disappeared into the ground "with a flash" and had a "ghastly" red-blue patch at the top) as well as noting that the light was locally called "Jenny Burnttail" (a common local term for will-o-the-wisp, incidentally).
Hopefully it's not too difficult to make out the text:
Screenshot_20230503-004508_Drive.jpg
 
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...without good information on the exact location and compass bearing of the 'sightings', of 'the Farm of Spooks' etc, I can't pursue this angle any further at the moment.

The area from a nearly-contemporary 1" OS map:

Fenny-Compton-Fortean-01.jpg


Fenny-Compton-Fortean-04.jpg


The 25" late Victorian OS map of the area, showing:

Circled: Burton Dassett and Fenny Compton

Star: Burton Dassett church, from which the reporter saw the lights "about a mile off".

Red arc: Approximately one mile from Burton Dassett church.

maximus otter
 
I'd been trying to establish where the "pond" that is mentioned several times might have been.

There are a couple of ponds just west of Burton Dassett church on old maps. One larger one, with a marshy area shown at one side, still exists alongside the M40. But this is in the opposite direction to Fenny Compton.
 
I'd been trying to establish where the "pond" that is mentioned several times might have been.

There are a couple of ponds just west of Burton Dassett church on old maps. One larger one, with a marshy area shown at one side, still exists alongside the M40. But this is in the opposite direction to Fenny Compton.
Well it mentions a "pool" rather than a pond, and the modern OS has a swampy bit on the hill, which may well have had standing pools. There are also a number of springs.

Fenny Compton OS.png
 
I'd been trying to establish where the "pond" that is mentioned several times might have been.

There are a couple of ponds just west of Burton Dassett church on old maps. One larger one, with a marshy area shown at one side, still exists alongside the M40. But this is in the opposite direction to Fenny Compton.

l’ve checked the maps and Interclown for the “Bottom Corner” mentioned: no joy.

The pool mentioned a couple of times could be virtually anywhere.

Frustratingly, for an incident that attracted so much attention, not much of the information given is useful. The only pinpoint we have is “roughly a mile from the tower of Burton Dassett church”, and the reporter gives no direction.

The 25” OS map covering Burton Dassett:

https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/#zoom=17.0&lat=52.16058&lon=-1.41910&layers=168&b=1

If one is woo-minded, the area is just to the northeast of the battlefield of Edgehill

maximus otter
 
Looking at the modern OS, I don't think you could see over the crown of the hill from the church tower - however the lights were said to be airborne.

Fenny Compton OS.png
 
Looking at the modern OS, I don't think you could see over the crown of the hill from the church tower - however the lights were said to be airborne.

View attachment 65891

This is one reason I wondered if the railway could be involved. From the church, you could still see southward towards the sidings on top of the hill near Arlescote, running east-west alongside Camp Lane. In theory this could produce a light moving 'towards' Fenny Compton if by this it just meant 'west to east' (or 'right to left' for a viewer looking South). But it's difficult to say if the railway sidings would have been visible and so far I haven't got much information as to where the witnesses were looking, or even where they were located.

These are local newspaper articles which might provide a clue or two:

Ghost on the Hills of Warwickshire, in "Evening Dispatch", Birmingham, February 12, 1923, p.1

Dancing "ghost". Radiant village spectre, in "The Daily Mail", London, February 13, 1923, p. 7

Will-o'-the-Wisp. Probable explanation of the Fenny Compton Ghost, in "The Birmingham Mail", Birmingham, February 15, 1923, p. 7

Elusive Hill Ghosts, in "Evening Dispatch", Birmingham, February 16, 1923, p.5

Burton Dassett "Ghost". A puzzling Phenomenon, in "Royal Leamington Spa Courier and Warwickshire Standard", February 16, 1923, p. 5

Tracking a Warwickshire village "Ghost", in "Birmingham Gazette", Birmingam, February 20, 1923
 
Another source might be David Clarke and Granville Oldroyd's 1985 booklet Spooklights: a British Survey. Despite its name I understand it focuses on the events at Burton Dassett in particular. Unfortunately this seems to be quite a rare book!
 
l’ve checked the maps and Interclown for the “Bottom Corner” mentioned: no joy.

The pool mentioned a couple of times could be virtually anywhere.

Frustratingly, for an incident that attracted so much attention, not much of the information given is useful. The only pinpoint we have is “roughly a mile from the tower of Burton Dassett church”, and the reporter gives no direction.

The 25” OS map covering Burton Dassett:

https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/#zoom=17.0&lat=52.16058&lon=-1.41910&layers=168&b=1

If one is woo-minded, the area is just to the northeast of the battlefield of Edgehill

maximus otter

The best guess I've come up with so far is that there is an isolated farmhouse, or L-shaped building, in the fields just north east of Burton Dassett on older maps, so it's more or less in between Burton Dassett and Fenny Compton (it's just south of the triangular "New Covert").

The building is unnamed which to me might seem to match the fact it was simply referred to as "the Farm of Spooks" in reports. There are a couple of small pools nearby and marshy ground and springs marked on the current map just downhill in the direction of Fenny Compton. The area is sufficiently isolated (there are no other houses nearby, or even paths) to perhaps match the "lonely pool" at which Harold Cotterill saw the light. Looking at the topography it should also be visible from Burton Dassett church.

It's all a bit of a guess but I haven't come up with any other candidates. (Edit to add map with farmhouse circled)


20230504_204638.jpg
 
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The best guess I've come up with so far is that there is an isolated farmhouse, or L-shaped building, in the fields just north east of Burton Dassett on older maps, so it's more or less in between Burton Dassett and Fenny Compton (it's just south of the triangular "New Covert").

The building is unnamed which to me might seem to match the fact it was simply referred to as "the Farm of Spooks" in reports. There are a couple of small pools nearby and marshy ground and springs marked on the current map just downhill in the direction of Fenny Compton. The area is sufficiently isolated (there are no other houses nearby, or even paths) to perhaps match the "lonely pool" at which Harold Cotterill saw the light. Looking at the topography it should also be visible from Burton Dassett church.

It's all a bit of a guess but I haven't come up with any other candidates. (Edit to add map with farmhouse circled)


View attachment 65922
I don't know if this is relevant (apologies if not) but there are a couple of paths nearby- one (red) may run from the carpark and go past the building (green dot), and there is definitely another (blue) running NE from the lane.
BD.png
 
A report from The Daily News, February 13th 1923 -

View attachment 73281
View attachment 73282
"A youth named Harold Cutterill saw it hovering around a lonely pool on his return from Northend after delivering a coffin. He, too, was shocked, and so were his horse and companion, and it has since been difficult to induce him to leave the house after dark."

This is the kind of thing I look out for, indicative of a high strangeness encounter - the signs of trauma afterwards. We will never know what the poor lad ran in to, but it was surely deeply disturbing.
 
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These are really interesting to read.

I'm still undecided as to whether a will-o-the-wisp is a good fit here. Comparing it against a 'classic' account of a will-o-the-wisp, Jabez Allies' 1840 account from Powick, Worcestershire;

In the year 1835, I gave an account of a great many facts which I collected, and which are published in my pamphlet on the 'Old Red Sandstone of Worcestershire and Herefordshire,' relative to that remarkable and interesting phenomenon called the ignis fatuus or Will-o'-the-Wisp, but I never had the pleasure of seeing it myself until the night of the 31st of December, 1839, in two meadows and a stubble field on the south side of Brook House, situated about a mile from Powick village, near the Upton road. I had for several nights before been on the look out there for it, but was told by the inhabitants of the house that previously to that night it was too cold. I noticed it from one of the upper windows intermittingly for about half an hour, between ten and eleven o'clock, at the distance of from one to two hundred yards off me. Sometimes it was only like a flash in the pan on the ground; at other times it rose up several feet and fell to the earth, and became extinguished; and many times it proceeded horizontally from fifty to one hundred yards with an undulating motion, like the flight of the green woodpecker, and about as rapid; and once or twice it proceeded with considerable rapidity, in a straight line upon or close to the ground.

The light of this ignis fatuus, or rather of these ignes fatui, was very clear and strong, much bluer than that of a candle, and very like that of an electric spark, and some of them looked larger and as bright as the star Sirius; of course, they look dim when seen in ground fogs, but there was not any fog on the night in question; there was, however, a muggy closeness in the atmosphere, and at the same time a considerable breeze from the south-west. Those Will-o'-the-Wisps which shot horizontally invariably proceeded before the wind towards the north-east.

On the day before, namely, the 30th of December, there was a white frost in the morning; but as the sun rose behind a mantle of very red and beautifully stratified clouds, it rained heavily (as we anticipated) in the evening; and from that circumstance I conjectured that I should see the phenomenon in question on the next night, agreeably to all the evidence I had before collected upon the subject.

On the night of the 1st of January, 1840, I saw only a few flashes on the ground at the same place; but on the next night (the wind still blowing from the south-west), I not only saw several ignes fatui rise up occasionally in the same locality many feet high, and fall again to the ground, but at about eight o'clock two very beautiful ones rose together a little more than one hundred yards from me, and about fifty yards apart from each other. The one ascended several yards high, and then fell in a curve to the ground and vanished. The other proceeded in an horizontal direction for about fifty yards towards the north-east, in the same undulating and rapid manner as I have before described. I and others immediately ran to the spot, but did not see any light during our stay there. Both these nights were star-light, with detached clouds, and rather warm, but no fog. On the night of the 3rd of January the atmosphere was occasionally thick but there was not any wind or fog, nor the slightest appearance of the phenomenon

So - the undulating motion seems quite similar, as does the light seeming to appear and disappear from the ground. The dull yellow colour of the Fenny Compton 'light' isn't particularly typical of a will-o-the-wisp, but the one proper modern account of the phenomenon (Professor Josef Zychowski's paper on will-o-the-wisps at a grave site in Niepolomice Forest, Poland) describes it as a "sphere or cigar-shaped" shining object of about 30cm diameter, usually yellowish-red and occasionally blue.

One witness says the light can travel against a strong wind, which doesn't seem to be the case in Allies' account. The association with waterlogged ground (and maybe with old burial sites and battlefields, noting the story about the discovery of some bones shortly before the appearance of the light) seems about right, though.

On the other hand the account in the Liverpool Echo stating that the light illuminated the sky for several miles around feels quite bright for a will-o-the-wisp.
 
I've mentioned this one previously, but thought I would open a separate thread as I find this a particularly interesting set of 'sightings', sitting as it does in the grey area between ufology and other types of Fortean phenomena. Also it took place almost exactly a hundred years ago, around the villages of Fenny Compton and Burton Dassett, where the Burton Dassett Hills form a prominent landmark:

View attachment 65863

Fort himself gave a simple summary of the events:



The lights were actually reported quite regularly over the winter of 1922-3, and there was a flurry of articles in local newspapers about them. Most seemed to suggest the lights were interpreted as some form of ghost. The Warwickshire Advertiser reported in April 23 that "crowds of curiosity seekers" were heading to what was called "the Farm of Spooks" to try and catch a glimpse of the lights. A journalist saw the light, at a distance he estimated as about a mile, from the tower of Burton Dassett Church, describing it as "steady and vivid" but faintly illuminating the sky for several miles with "flickering" upward beams. While there were attempts at the time to explain the lights as will-o-the-wisps associated with a nearby pond, this doesn't seem to match that well with people's descriptions.

In more recent times David Clarke and Paul Devereux have suggested these were examples of 'earthlights' - there is a small fault nearby although you can say this about many areas of the country. Clarke noted there was a UFO flap in the district in the early 70s (perhaps now best remembered for the 1971 film of a 'UFO' taken by an ATV film unit, that later proved to have been an aircraft dumping fuel):

https://www.macearchive.org/films/atv-today-26101971-ufo-sighting-atv-film-unit

In the present day a local author has argued that the 1923 events were a UFO flap - perhaps a predictable development.

Anyway this is an interesting historical event which just possibly may hint at a physical phenomenon which is behind many lights-in-the-sky type UFO sightings.

Not particularly On-T, but I know the areas around Fenny Compton pretty well! I had relatives near Kineton, and the massive military camp & storage nearby is a local fact of life but not known very well outside of the area.

I found it fascinating-weird that looking out of the kitchen window, you could see rows and columns of vaguely Teletubby/Hobbity-esque grassed-over mounds in a strict grid pattern. It houses the largest ammo stores in western Europe, and the base itself is so large it has its own railway which has unmanned level crossings over some of the country lanes. The MOD IIRC own most of the local agricultural land surrounding.

2355847_1b392095-1332779434.jpg

(photo: Geograph)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MOD_Kineton

Another interesting warfare-related and Fortean connection - this area is the actual site of the English civil war battle of Edgehill - with the reports thereafter of ghostly echoes of the conflict. It's also a pretty steep hike up it!
 
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Fenny Compton is also the place where the subpostmasters in the Horizon scandal held their meetings.
 
Interesting phenomenon; but frustratingly vague descriptions on the whole.

Aircraft of the day were comparatively primitive, but improving rapidly. Most importantly, both heavier-than-air and lighter-than-air craft had been used extensively during the recently concluded World War.

Perhaps someone was practicing new improvements in nighttime aerial navigation or illumination? Was the area close to airports, military bases, research facilities, or factories?
 
@User7597 post above quotes a local rag as saying that Harold Cotterill was returning from Northend to (presumably) Fenny Compton when he spotted the phenomenon "...hovering around a lonely pool..."

Another account in the same newspaper report has William Neale stating that it was seen near a "...derelict farmhouse..."

We can infer that Cotterill didn't carry a coffin between the villages on his back, but presumably used a horse and cart. Indeed, the report states that his horse was "shocked" by the unknown.

If he used a horse and cart, I think we can infer that he'd have used the road between the two villages rather than the more direct footpath: Less risk of gates, hedges etc.

Where on the road would Cotterill have encountered a lonely pool and a derelict farmhouse?

Here is the road between the villages from the relevant OS 25" to the mile map:

Fenny-Compton-06.jpg


https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/#zoom=16.7&lat=52.17635&lon=-1.41657&layers=168&b=1

Road highlighted in yellow

I particularly draw m'learned friends' attention to the section I have circled in red on the map above. Here is that section zoomed in:

Fenny-Compton-08.jpg


Again, the road is in yellow. I have also circled in blue a pond, marked with the OS 25"/mile symbol for "osiers", i.e. willows growing in water or damp soil. To the north, and only 260 yards/240 meters from the pond, is a cluster of buildings resembling a farm, yet with no farm name appended to it. A derelict farmhouse?

Cotterill would have been way out in the empty countryside, approaching an isolated pond and with farm buildings just over a furlong away to his NW.

maximus otter
 
In the articles above the pool is noted to be called "the Grantlets" (nothing comes up for that one) and is elsewhere described as a "wayside" pool, so perhaps the roadside pool above is a good candidate.

Another article describes a pool in Burton Dassett itself (near the church and windmill) but frustratingly is unclear as to whether this is the pool associated with the light.
 
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