Weird Norfolk: the ghostly Victorian preacher that haunts Elm Hill, cursing passers-by
PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:41 25 May 2019
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One of Norwich’s most colourful characters from the past, Father Ignatius was a preacher and a mystic who established a monastery in Elm Hill in 1863 – and can still be seen there today.
As welcomes came, Father Ignatius had a novel way of trying to encourage people to join him in prayer: if they turned him down, he would curse them and they would die.
Elm Hill is, of course, one of the brightest jewels in Norwich's historic crown, a cobbled street which makes you feel as if you have stepped back in time to gentler days: in fact, the street has been plagued with problem. Dating back to at least 1200, the street was devastated by a huge fire in 1507 which saw the wooden houses on the street perish, other than the Britons Arms at the top of the hill. Rebuilt shortly afterwards, it became the street we see today. By the 18th century, Elm Hill became a place where citizens were packed into cramped accommodation and where fist fights and brawling was commonplace. The once glorious houses, home to many mayors and dignitaries, began to turn into slums which, by the early 20th century, had been earmarked for demolition (a pause, here, to thank The Norwich Society, which fought to stop this happening).
But let us scroll back to the 19thcentury and the arrival of Joseph Leycester Lyne in Norwich, the man who wanted to revive monasteries in the Church of England, who damned those that didn't agree and who spoke to ghosts. Calling himself Father Ignatius ("Fiery one"), he and his followers moved from Claydon in Suffolk to a former rag merchant's house in Elm Hill, where they were instantly met with resistance from their determinedly anti-papist neighbours, many of whom shouted abuse as the monks made their way to church. The new owner of number 16 Elm Hill described it thus: "We lived in a wretched house, very large and ruinous, a perfect hovel with only one habitable room and one bed in it, which my brother and I shared alternate nights." He renamed the building the Benedictine Chapel of the Priory of St Mary and St Dunstan and during their brief stay in Norwich, the brothers would cause quite a stir in the city.
One biographer wrote: "The Elm Hill Priory was a sort of religious casualty ward. Roman Catholic monks who had been dismissed for breaking their vows, Anglican priests whose hunger for God was matched by thirst for alcohol, the mentally and spiritually unbalanced who hoped to find in the Benedictine discipline support against their own weaknesses, and members of the religious underworld drifted naturally to Elm Hill."
Lyne himself was, according to reports, a troubled man who had never recovered from a severe beating as a child at St Paul's School in London, where he had been punished to the point of almost death for a breach of discipline. His biographer, Baroness Beatrice de Bertouch, four years before his death, described it as "the culminating link in a heavy chain of influences, and one which was destined to throw a strange psychological glamour over the entire atmosphere of this devotional and emotional career."
Dark rumours began to circulate about Father Ignatius, who built his own church behind close to his quarters which is now used by the Norwich University of the Arts. Scandal quickly clouded number 16 Elm Hill. One of Father Ignatius' brothers, Augustine, formed an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old boy, Samuel Hase, and his mother wrote to The Norfolk News to expose Augustine. The paper accused the order of kidnapping and "mesmerising" the sons of Protestant families to join the order, writing: "the system is essentially unnatural and noting can come of it but mischief, disorder and monstrosities, either ridiculous or frightful…these monasteries are, for the most part cages for unclean birds."
It concluded: "We tell "Ignatius" plainly, and we tell everybody else connected with this establishment who has the slightest power of reflection, that the herding together of men in one building, with the occasional letting in of young girls—some of them morbid, some of them silly and sentimental—and of boys likewise, with soft, sensitive temperaments, cannot fail to produce abominations." When another brother left the order in 1865 with a boy, and then started preaching against Father Ignatius in London, the rot had well and truly set in.
Stories about his harsh punishments also didn't help his cause. When he discovered that members of his order had attended a dance at nearby St Andrew's Hall in his absence, he was both disappointed and furious they had flouted his advice about the sins of the flesh. The guilty women were forced to lie in ashes on his chapel floor while the men were publicly whipped on the altar steps. It was said that he would stand at his front door at Elm Hill and ask passers-by to pray with him and that if they refused, he would curse them - some, it was said, died shortly after they were damned. The call for Father Ignatius and his order to leave Norwich became deafening: and when various tradesmen began to claim their bills hadn't been paid and when the brothers' landlord claimed his property back, Ignatius found himself manhandled out of the building and evicted by force.
He left Norwich for good and preached in London before buying an abbey in the Black Mountains in Wales. He died in 1908 and was buried in Wales - but, it is said, his spirit could not rest in eternal peace. Father Ignatius is said to return to the city where he suffered the greatest criticism of all, where he was hounded out of his monastery and where he punished the sinful. It is said that his ghost can be seen walking along Elm Hill, carrying a large black Bible and stopping to curse those who pass him with eternal damnation.
Perhaps, though, it is fitting that Father Ignatius has now joined the ranks of the ghosts that plagued him in life. Writing in 1870, Rev Francis Kilvert noted that Lyne's brother, Clavering, had told him about "…some of the extraordinary visions which had appeared to [...] Ignatius, particularly about the ghosts which come crowding round him and which will never answer though he often speaks to them. Also about the fire in the monastery chapel at Norwich, that strange unearthly fire which Father Ignatius put out by throwing himself into it and making the sign of the cross."
Visitors can still see the original 16thcentury door, marked with a blue plaque, where Father Ignatius founded his monastery - and if they tarry too long, may find themselves damned for eternity for sins of the flesh.
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