Weird Norfolk: The ghost of Ber Street in Norwich

A general view of Ber Street in Norwich

The EDP reported on a group of vigilante ghost hunters in June 1898. - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

It is never wise to try to raise the dead…as a group of young lads found out when they tried to hunt down a ghost on Ber Street in Norwich.

In an article printed in the Eastern Daily Press on June 18, 1898, a curious tale was told about a very grave subject indeed: a ghost appearing in a Ber Street churchyard.

The EDP described the graveyard at the Ber Street church as: “…a pleasant, spacious nook…” before going on to describe a vigilante group of ghost hunters.

“Quite lately the boys of Ber Street have taken it in their heads that there is a ghost to be seen in the churchyard, and in their efforts to track the uncanny thing to its lair, they have literally wrecked a substantial tomb,” the author wrote.

“The story of the ghost dates back in its origin some three or four weeks, when a woman who lives in the parish gave her friends and neighbours some vivid assurances on the subject.

“She admitted that she had not seen it herself; but her daughter had and seen it so plainly that she was able to describe the cerements of the grave in which it was attired.”

Cerements were the waxed cloth used for wrapping a corpse before burial, suggesting the ghost looked very much like a storybook ghost, clad in pale material.

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The article continued: “Whether this fearful shadow of the dead was seen to come out of the tomb, or whether it was detected in the act of returning thereto, is not clear.”

The ghost hunters had a theory about the ghost, one which the EDP said “…penetrated even to Lakenham and Mariner’s Lane…”, that the spirit was Charlotte Wallace, who was buried at the Ber Street church in a strong, well-built, coffin-shaped tomb surrounded by iron railings.

On the tomb was a memorial: “Sacred to the memory of Charlotte Wallace, who died July 10th, 1862. Aged 28 years." 

Older residents in the area remembered Charlotte as young woman from a wealthy family who had been “boarded out with a local family” on account of her “weak intellect”.

Thankfully, we have moved on from such sweeping statements about mental health, but poor Charlotte would have lived in times when to have special educational needs was a burden rather than part of everyday life.

At this point in time, Ber Street had somewhat of a reputation as being one of Norwich’s rougher areas -  along with Finkelgate – and close to the church, a brothel based in a public house had been closed down by Norwich magistrates.

The church on Ber Street, Norwich

Charlotte's ghost hasn't been seen since 1898. - Credit: Siofra Connor

It may not, therefore, come as a surprise to discover that the locals were easily whipped into a frenzy by stories of a restless spirit on their street.

After a number of days of whispered rumours,  a crowd gathered at the churchyard in much the same way as the masses had descended on St Bartholomew to hunt The Horror of Heigham Church in 1872.

The EDP described what happened: “At night, whispering groups peered through the iron rails of the churchyard gates.

“Except the daughter of the old lady aforesaid there was no one who on his own had seen the sprite of Charlotte, but there were several who knew positively someone else who had enjoyed that distinction.

“When a policeman appeared, the boys laid low. As soon as his back was turned barbarian hordes of them swarmed over the churchyard wall, and, according to the neighbours, acted like Fenians.”

The Fenians were legendary bands of warriors who defended Ireland in the second and third centuries AD and also a secret 19th century Irish organisation dedicated to overthrowing British rule in Ireland.

As the elderly church sexton – a man called Lemmen – tried to get the crowds to leave, he realised that as he drove them away from one gate, they swarmed to another.

The baying mass made their way to poor Charlotte’s grave.

“…they broke down the iron railings, prised out a couple of thick iron rods which had served as cross-pieces, and using these implements as crow-bars they actually shifted the memorial slab. The ghost, however, did not respond to these encouragements,” the article read.

The next day, parish authorities sought to put an end to the church raids by covering the brick wall that divided the street from the churchyard with tar.

They covered the tar with sacking the next night and swarmed the wall and, in the EDP’s words, “…fell once more upon the tomb of the luckless Charlotte. They broke in its sides. In a sentence they reduced it to a heap of disordered stone and iron.”

Neighbours who complained about the noise and disruption faced the sight of the Ber Street boys’ bare bottoms as they answered their critics with a full moon.

After the tomb was destroyed, the ghostly visitations came to an end and it is unclear today whether any remains can still be found in the churchyard.

Once within the city walls, the church was close to the Berstrete Gate and was the furthest from both the castle and the Cathedral: it was the first Norwich church that those arriving from London would see, thanks to its imposing spire.

Now deconsecrated, managed by the Norwich Historic Churches Trust and leased to a tenant, Weird Norfolk hopes that Charlotte can rest in peace.