James Lloyd visits the parish church of Rainham in Kent, home to one of the most terrifying spectres in a shire full of them.
Kent is probably the most haunted county in England. It certainly boasts, in the infamously phantasmagorical Pluckley, England’s single most haunted village (if you count ghosts that were deliberately made up in the 1920s). One of the county’s most spectacular spirits is to be found in Rainham, which lies on the very edge of the Medway conurbation and traditionally marks the boundary between East and West Kent. The story begins, as do so many folktales, with a real man.
Christopher Bloor was a wealthy landowner in Rainham in the sixteenth century. His family had lived at Bloor’s Place for generations and he expanded his portfolio by buying the manor of Siloam. He married the daughter of John Culpepper of Aylesford, a scion of one of the wealthiest families of Kentish clothweavers. In 1548, he obtained a special Act of Parliament exempting his land from the Kentish customary law of partible inheritance, hoping to bequeath his parcel of properties as a single bundle to the son whom he eagerly awaited.
Yet out no son popped. The birth of his first daughter Olympia was no disaster but when she was followed by nothing but sisters Christopher started to have Henrician thoughts about his wife. As he looked around the congregation in church every Sunday, his gaze passed over the beautiful young women of the village. Of course, their fathers were not as wealthy as the Culpeppers but what did that matter when the erstwhile Miss Culpepper was failing to produce a son? Any of those women might have given him the boy he craved and surely those marriage vows, foreswearing all other women until death, were only meant as guidelines.
It started as window shopping. He invited Miss Cheeseman to Bloor’s Place for supper one evening. On another occasion he invited Miss Hatcher, or was it Miss Dunn? There was pleasant conversation, some good jokes and laughter and, although his lady guests did notice Mister Bloor’s habit of addressing his comments to their chests, rather than their faces, they chose to take it as a compliment.
This was going nowhere. Bloor needed to break the ice (“ice”, on this occasion, being a disgusting euphemism) and he decided he could do that most easily with the help of a man’s best friend: Ale. He took to visiting the inns more frequently and into later hours than usual. Missis Bloor, pregnant with (he correctly assumed) yet another girl, saw less and less of her husband and what little she did see she did not like. His faithful coachman could be relied upon to bring him back to the house but it took several servants to escort their staggering master up the stairs.
After a few months, rumours started to circulate. Christopher Bloor, it was said, had punched a lad’s teeth out in a drunken rage and paid his father to keep quiet (something with which the boy himself had no difficulty). He had had to buy new furniture for the Green Lion Inn after destroying the original set in a frenzy. Missis Bloor tried to ignore the stories but then her husband instructed her and her daughters to vacate Bloor’s Place and live at Siloam. He offered no explanation but the people of Rainham soon found out why.
Having become unwelcome at the local taverns, Bloor was now relocating his parties to his own house. At first irregularly but then with greater frequency coaches from London, Greenwich, Rochester and Canterbury would arrive in the night, disgorging frivolous companions and whatever women they had found on the road on the way. The cheers, the jeers and the occasional scream would emanate from the house. It was with some trepidation that the Miss Cheesemans, Miss Hatchers and Miss Dunns of Rainham received their invitations to Bloor’s parties, but Bloor was the squire and he was rich. It could do no harm to cultivate friendship with him. It was an opinion that, like their dresses, they did not bring home again intact.
The menfolk of Rainham started to lose their patience with Christopher Bloor. Everyone knew what really went on at these parties and the difficulty of openly criticizing the squire just made people even angrier at the shame he was bringing on their village. Miss Cheeseman was growing larger about the stomach and Miss Hatcher was no longer seen in church. Miss Dunn, apparently, had gone down rather well but when she was invited to the house a second time she ran off to her grandparents’ home in Chatham.
Yet even so, even with all this scandal and gossip, there were some wives in Rainham who could not help looking upon Christopher Bloor with a sigh that was code for thoughts forbidden. He was dangerous. He was rebellious. He lived life by his own rules. What was not to love? Those who were so foolish as to accept his invitations to his house found out. His debauchery may have begun as an attempt to exorcise frustration with his disappointed married life but now it had become an addiction. There was no love and no purpose, only the mechanics of lust.
The night of the storm, Christopher Bloor had been in Southwark, sampling the merchandise. He was travelling back to Rainham by cover of darkness, through wind and rain and the crackling of thunder overhead. His faithful coachman kept good control of the horses, two enormous black beasts almost invisible in the dark, as they galloped back to Bloor’s Place. A flash of lighting illuminated the tower of Saint Margaret’s Church as they passed but, or so it seemed to the coachman, it illuminated something else: A figure lurking in the shadow of the tower, a drawn sword in his hand reflecting the flash.
Darkness descended in an instant but a few second later another thunderbolt darted across the sky and in its blinking moment the coachman saw more human figures, a frenzied dance of cloaks and hats and swords, pouring into the road. He tried to manoeuvre the horses away from them but at the third flash the steeds reared up in alarm, as the ambush descended upon the coach. The footman was pulled off the plate by the scruff of his neck. The squire gave a cry of alarm, as he was pulled out of his seat. The coachman tried to look back, as the carriage carried him tumbling away and in a final lightning flash he saw the faces of Mister Cheeseman, Mister Hatcher, Mister Dunn and half a dozen other villagers, whose wives Bloor had defiled or whose daughters he had deflowered, crowded over their supine victim.
Darkness fell again and the coachman had to return his attention to the careering horses but over the rumble of the thunder he could hear his master scream.
It was not until the light of the morning that the coachman had the courage to return to the spot, a little distance from the church. It was easily found. He instantly realized what had attracted the crowd of children, huddled over something and poking it. He forced his way through but, though he knew what he would see, it was still with a shock and a sudden chill that he recognised the body of his employer sprawled in a pool of clotted blood on the road. At least, he assumed it was his master. He recognised the clothes but something else was missing.
As if anticipating his question, a boy pointed upwards to the church tower above them. The coachman followed his finger and saw, rammed by the neck onto the blood-spattered weather-vane, the head of Christopher Bloor, his face twisted by horror into a soundless scream.
Or so goes the story, which has been told in varying form since at least the nineteenth century. In reality, Bloor’s family life was a happy one. Olympia married and had children and generations of the family were buried, as was Bloor himself, in the vault that he had built in the chancel of Rainham Church, but he is reputed to have died young and this led to rumours of some foul deed that deserved divine punishment.
One story led to another and now the visitor to Rainham will be warned not to loiter near the church at midnight, for as the witching hour is struck, the infamous lecher will stride out of the door under the tower, carrying his head under his arm. His coach, drawn by headless horses and driven by a headless driver, will meet him at the lichgate, where the door will be opened by a headless footman. Bloor will seat himself in his carriage and rest his head on his lap, as the coach, driving like the wind of the storm, crashes through the streets of Rainham, into the drive of Bloor’s Place, there to vanish, as the master returns for the day to the place prepared for him in Hell.