The legend of Howarth Hall

The legend of Howarth Hall

By Gareth Dennison | 13/01/2022

The legend of Howarth Hall



MISS Cecilia Kitson was reading by the fireplace in the great dining room of Howarth Hall in the early 18th century.

The fire had a huge iron grate, capable of holding huge logs. Equally massive were the fire iron holders — known as “dogs”. They were said to have been splendid specimens of Elizabethan ironwork.

The Kitsons were tenants of the hall and Cecilia was relaxing one winter’s night — book in one hand and absent-mindedly fiddling with the ironwork with the other.

Without really realising, she began to turn one of the “dogs” ...and it moved. Still lost in her reading, she kept turning.

After several minutes, she felt herself being slowly moved, along with the section of the hearthstone on which she was cosily sitting.

The whole frame of the huge fireplace was moving forward as she twisted the sturdy iron bar.

Astounded by this, Cecilia kept her nerve and continued to work the hidden mechanism of the moveable fireplace.

When the handle would turn no more, she began to investigate the full extent of her discovery, after first locking the dining room door to avoid being disturbed by servants.

There was space for Cecilia to fit into either side of the moving hearth and fireplace. Surely such an elaborate and expensive mechanism must have had a purpose?

Lit torch in hand, she ventured behind — and discovered a square room, perfectly ventilated and fit for human habitation.

It was evident that it had been used, although not for quite some time. There were chairs, a table and a bed.

Already stunned at her discovery, Cecilia pulled the mouldy curtain away from the bed. As she did so, it took great effort to prevent herself crying aloud in surprise and terror.

There in front of here — stretched across the bed — was the skeleton of a man, covered in fragments of clothing which had yet to decay.

Cecilia kept her nerve, and took note of the various other items within the secret chamber. Next to the man’s body was a vellum book, which she grabbed and left.

Despite locking the door outside, she was worried about being discovered. She set to work on the iron handle bar mechanism and, with the reverse action, the inner casing of the fireplace moved back into its original place.

Still keeping her secret to herself, Cecilia sat up all night and read the story of the man whose remains she had so strangely discovered within the secret chamber.

She was proficient in Latin, in which the words had been written. The first section talked about the persecution of Catholics during England’s Elizabethan era.

The author of the book, Wilfred Howarth, said he was chosen by God for the Jesuit mission in Rotherham. He had lived at Howarth Hall while carrying out his conversion work, despite being targeted because of his faith — in a nation which fined or imprisoned those who did not conform to the Church of England.

According to a copy of the vellum script — given to the Advertiser in the 1970s — Wilfred was the nephew of Sir John Howarth, an engineer who worked on the Tower of London’s drawbridge.

This same expertise has been employed to create the secret chamber of Howarth Hall.

It was said to have been made in Sir John’s London foundry, brought up north and secretly installed with no-one outside the family knowing.

Hiding places — known as “priest holes” — were not uncommon from the latter half of the 16th century. They were installed in fireplaces, lofts, under stairs — and some other, more overt building alterations would often be done at the same time to avoid attracting attention.

Wilfred’s account describes his square room behind the fireplace at Howarth Hall as being there “for the expected time of trouble” as a “safe harbour of refuge, when the terrible persecution, religious and political, against our holy order did break out”.

“It was only by using this safe retreat that I could escape arrest,” he added.

“In and around Rotherham, the persecution of the Catholic families was bitter and persistent. Plots, many of them imaginary, some, alas, not so, against the Queen’s life and her leading councillors, inflamed the public mind.

“Many were the narrow escapes I had in the pursuit of my work and mission, the dire misfortune that brought me to the terrible end I now see to be mine.

“I herein record in the hope that some day when the record is found, my poor body may get Christian burial and that no needless mystery may cling to this hiding place of my necessity.”

Not only does the account give details of the general persecution such Jesuits faced, it purports to reveal Wilfred’s final moments — and the reason he became trapped in his own sanctuary.

Hubert Vayne, of Tickhill, was madly in love with Wilfred’s sister Elaine. But Elaine detested Hubert and loved George Kennard, of Canklow House.

The situation made Hubert incredibly angry. Elaine’s rejection “roused all the demon in his nature,” according to Wilfred.

So Hubert’s “vile plotting” caused their elderly father to be imprisoned for being a Catholic, while their brothers, Oswald and Edmund, were charged with being part of a plan to bring Mary Queen of Scots to the English throne.

“I dare not for a moment leave my hiding, so hotfoot were Vayne’s emissaries on my track,” Wilfred’s account says.

“Surprise and search parties in the Queen’s name were almost of daily occurrence, yet my hiding place remained secure.

“Only two persons knew of its secret, my sister and my uncle the engineer, who planned and made it.

“There was one fatal flaw in its construction, and even that was thought an advantage, it could not be worked from the inside.

“Once imprisoned within, I had to wait until someone worked with secret mechanism.”

Tracked one day by a company of soldiers to the hall itself, Wilfred got inside his secret room just before Hubert Vayne strode into the room.

Elaine pretended to be busy with her embroidery frame. From behind the fireplace, Wilfred said he heard the following...

“How now,” said Hubert. “Where is that Jesuit brother of thine?”

“Where thou canst not hurt him, slayer of the innocent and renegade of thy family,” came Elaine’s spirited reply.

“Tell me the priest’s hole where he lies hiding, tell me without compulsion or else I must use force.”

“Force, you will use force. Brave Sir Hubert Vayne will even use force against a frail woman.”

“I tell you I will find where he is hiding if I have to pull down the whole place and leave not one stone upon another.”

Wilfred said he could hear Hubert tapping on the walls, panel by panel, looking around the dining room for the hiding place.

“At last he grew tired and ceased his search, then evidently proposing further villainy he went from the room into the hall, where I could hear him dismissing the soldiery,” said Wilfred.

“I had just a moment to whisper a word of courage to Elaine through a cunning hole in the mantel, and then he returned.

“I have told my men to take away your servants, all of them a tainted brood, and now, Elaine, you and I must settle our accounts.”

Elaine called him a coward, saying she wanted nothing to do with a man “so destitute of honour”.

Hubert said the man she loved — George Kennard — would end up like her brothers if she continued in this way.

Elaine responded: “George is a brave and upright gentleman, far removed from your villainous machinations, you dare not meddle with him, his reputation is too high with the Queen’s council for any slander of thine to hurt him.”

Wilfred heard a note of dreadful fear in his sister’s voice as she spoke. Then Hubert lost all restraint and said: “I swear to thee, Elaine, Sir George shall never wed thee.”

Wilfred described seeing Hubert spring at Elaine “like a ferocious animal” — and momentarily her murdered body lay beside his feet.

From behind the mantelpiece, Wilfred could hold his tongue no longer.

He said: “Priest as I am, all my passion of manhood came back to me, and I called out ‘murderer’ and bade him if he dare, remove the secret handle of my hiding place, and priest as I was, I would revenge upon him the murder of my sister.

“I could see the blanching terror as my accusing and challenging words revealed my hiding place.

“At last he found voice and courage to say: ‘So, my fine rebel priest, behind the mantel is thy secret dwelling place. I have slain the only one of thy family who knows the mystery of thy hiding place, so much the better for me, and so much the worse for thee, Sir Jesuit. Rot in thy priest hole, I will take care that none shall come nigh to whom thou mayst tell the secret of its opening.’”

Hubert took Elaine’s body and left.

There was a break in the vellum book’s account until — about a week later — the imprisoned and starved priest made his final entry.

“God is love, and in the love of others we find him,” he wrote, according to the copy. “Oh, my poor father and brothers and sister, to seed a mad passion of revenge, ye have gone before, now in the mercy of God, I will follow you.

“I feel no pain. The hunger is gone. To God I commend my spirit, I pray for him who did the wrong.”

Cecilia researched records of the people mentioned in the book. She found that Hubert was later executed at York for the murder of Elaine. He got his just deserts thanks to the diligent efforts to bring him to book by George, with whom Elaine had been in love.

Meanwhile, the priest’s body was buried at Whiston.

As the legend of Howarth Hall grew, it was perhaps inevitable that talk would arise of the place being haunted.

The old script ended up in the possession of the Mountain family, who were the last occupants of the building before it was demolished in 1965 to make space for the M1 link road.

In the preceding years, there were stories of a ghost walking the floors of the hall.

Edna Mountain (left) told the Advertiser in 1972 that she had never seen the spectre — but added that her late husband, Mr RD Mountain, her daughter Christine, and visitors had claimed to have seen or heard it.

Mr Mountain, a butcher by trade, was convinced that the place was haunted. There were stories of mysterious footsteps and of tight-fitting doors suddenly rattling. Christine once “felt something go past her”.

One Christmas, a relative woke in the middle of the night and said afterwards that there was a figure at the bottom of the bed, beckoning to her.

She never stayed there again.


...and the truth behind the story

SHORTLY after the Advertiser retold the legend of Howarth Hall in the 1970s another former resident got in touch.

Charles G Tomlinson, then of Somerset, said the story had been of great interest to him — but his family’s experience of living there had been much different.

The Tomlinsons were there from the beginning of 1927 to the end of 1931 and Charles wrote: “During those five years, we neither heard nor saw anything to indicate that the house was haunted. Mr Mountain and his family must have been a bit more fortunate!”

As well as the ghosts, details of the tale of Cecilia discovering the fate of the priest have also been called into question in recent times.

“It’s a wonderful story,” said Susan Kahler (pictured), a member of Brinsworth and Catcliffe History Group, who has researched Howarth Hall.

“But the flaw is the manuscript. It relates to Catholic invasion, Catholic recusant, to place Queen Mary of Scotland on the English throne. But she was beheaded in 1587 and the hall was not built until 1625.

“Charles Laughton built the hall, which was at the time known as Howarth Grange and not to be confused with the other Howarth Grange, half a mile to the west. There is a memorial to him on the wall inside the Rotherham Minster; the Laughton crest followed by details in Latin, translated reads: ‘Beneath this tomb lie Charles Laughton senior of Haworth, gentleman buried on the 26th day of August AD 1638. And Anne (nee Goodwin) wife of the said same Charles Laughton buried on the 22nd day of August 1650.’

“Charles, the younger son, inherited the hall. He married Rosamund Hatfield (Hatfeild), and they had a son, John. Charles and Rosamund also have a memorial in the Minster. Charles died weary of old age at 65.

“John Laughton marries Dorcas Westby, from Guilthwaite Hall, and they had a son, John. The son died aged one in 1687, the same year as his father.

“Dorcas continued to own and occupy the hall and on her death in 1732 leaves the hall to her nephew Thomas Westby.

“Dorcas Westby’s father was imprisoned during the Civil War because he and his brother were supporters of Cromwell. They were also fined 1,000 marks.”

Meanwhile, no records have been found of Cecilia and the Kitson family, and the family name Howarth is not among the lists of families to have lived at the hall.

Susan said: “The only Howarths I can find are near to Rochdale. There was a Howarth Hall demolished in the early 19th century and the last of this line was a Reverend Radclyffe Howarth, who died in 1768.

“Also, on the Tower of London link, a BBC website says the original drawbridge was built in 1834 to let munitions into the basement of the White Tower from the Thames wharf.

“The problem here is if they are referring to the original drawbridge being 1834, when was the Howarth Hall manuscript written?

“The manuscript mentions brothers Oswald and Edmund being charged by Hubert Vayne but again the dates do not tally, as she was executed in 1586. “And on Sir Hubert Vayne himself, I checked with the Tickhill History group and they do not know of a Tickhill Grange but there is a Tickhill Grange Farm. There is no record of a Hubert Vayne being hanged.”

There is a suggestion that the legend of Howarth Hall could have been written by Rosamund, the wife of Charles Laughton.

“After the Laughtons and Westbys, the hall was owned by the Hirst. Hirst inherited a number of estates in Rotherham and sold the lot, ending up in Queen’s prison for bankruptcy.

“Then there was the Warings, a very wealthy family of railway contractors, who have a glass stained window in the Minster. One of their sons was awarded Knight of the Order of Leopold of Belgium following his death in Madrid aged 29.

“There was also Joseph Mitchell, of Bolton Hall, whose family owned a number of collieries. One son ended up in a lunatic asylum following a devastating mining disaster.

“Another owner was John Brown & Co, who also owned a number of collieries including Rotherham Main and, later, Firth Brown.

“I have been in contact with two families whose grandfathers were colliery managers at Rotherham pit and lived at Howarth Hall. One described it as ‘the coldest house on earth’.

“What I would really like is for someone to come forward with a copy of that manuscript.”


Sign up to our weekly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox

Spotted something we should know about?

Call our Newsdesk on 01709 803562
Or email
Message us on Facebook