THE BLACK MONK OF PONTEFRACT
Along with Borley and the Enfield poltergeist, the Black Monk of Pontefract (can we still say ‘black’ monk these days?) is arguably one of Britain’s most famous ‘modern’ ghost stories. Originally a small news item followed on and off by the local papers – firstly the Pontefract and Castleford Express and then the Yorkshire Post - much of the fame is down to Colin Wilson, the well-known author of works such as The Outsider and The Occult. He travelled to Yorkshire to investigate, which resulted in Poltergeist, the 1981 book that became a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in psychical research.
The setting for this story of robed figures and paranormal activity is the council estate of Chequerfield on the southern edge of Pontefract. The nondescript semi, 30 East Drive, has been called the British Amityville, which is a little harsh because many believe this haunting to be genuine.
The black monk features briefly in the new Bernie Quist mystery I’m writing and I’ve been doing a bit of research.
The Pritchard family moved to East Drive in 1966 – Jean and Joe, and their children, 15 year old Philip, and Diane. Diane was 12 and seemingly the focus for the paranormal activity that began almost immediately and continued through the late 60s and into the 70s.
All the classic poltergeist phenomena was experienced in the semi-detached house: tapping, bangs, lights being turned off and on, sudden temperature drops, foul smells and objects being levitated and thrown. Added to this, pools of water would appear, the origin of which confounded plumbers, clouds of dust fell from ceilings, and green foam poured from taps and the toilet. Heavy furniture was knocked about and pictures on the walls were slashed, weird farmyard noises sounded inside the house, and unnerving heavy breathing was often heard. I’ve passed the house many times and spoken to locals. They tell of the dark early mornings back then, when intrigued people would pause on their way to work to watch lights flashing on and off.
Jean Pritchard reading Colin Wilson's book outside the house.
The worst, and most celebrated, aspect of the haunting was the mysterious black-robed figure which often appeared in 30 East Drive. Many saw the apparition and were present during the poltergeist activity, but Diane was the central witness and would sometimes receive bruises and scratches. On one occasion she was grabbed tightly by the throat, and dragged upstairs by her hair.
I have to admit, I always wonder why any sane person would stay in a place with such terrors, but apparently the ‘house-proud’ Jean Pritchard refused to be forced out by a ghost (even if it meant her daughter’s death, presumably). Jean woke one night to find the monk glaring down as it floated over her bed which, personally speaking, would have had me checking into the nearest Travelodge within twelve minutes.
Despite the horror and violence, and pretty much like every other haunted family at the time, they gave their ghost the friendly name ‘Fred’. Writer Tom Cuniff, however, somehow managed to identify the dark apparition as a 16th century monk who was hanged for the rape and murder of a girl about Diane’s age. This, he said, was the reason the monk was fixated on the youngest Pritchard child. Also, the house may, or may not, have been built next to the site of the gallows where the monk was executed.
On Halloween 2015 the Most Haunted television team cemented their scientific parapsychologist image by televising a special live programme from East Drive with Lily Savage herself, Paul O’Grady and ‘celebrity’ Rylan joining the screaming Yvette Fielding.
During the ‘investigation’ Yvette and Paul huddled whimpering in the ‘coal hole’, the pitch-black room where heaps of coal were stored before gas arrived on the Chequerfield estate. Fans of the show just can’t get enough of Yvette’s frightened green face on night-vision film. The coal store was the scene of terrifying encounters with the monk, but unfortunately nothing was seen this night.
The 2012 film When the Lights Went Out was loosely based on the Pontefract hauntings, with names changed, but most of the story intact including the spectral monk. An atmospheric and very effective film by Pat Holden, the story is brought forward from 1966 to 1974 to include the power cuts of the title.
As well as being director, Holden has a rather large link to the story in that Jean Pritchard was his aunt and, as a child, he experienced some of the things he later brought to the screen. The film stars, amongst others, Steven Waddington, the brilliant Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty’s DI Cottan) and a marvellous find in the young actress Tasha Connor, below on the poster.
Look on Google Earth and you’ll find a marker on the house with the words Pontefract Poltergeist. I checked the locations of other famous hauntings – Enfield, Borley and er, Ocean Drive, Amityville – but Yorkshire has the only ghost marker.
I felt quite patriotic about this until I realised 30 East Drive is now a business. Bill Bungay, the producer of When the Lights Went Out, bought the house quite cheaply after filming (it was up for £75,000) and began allowing ghost hunters to spend the night on the premises for a fee. Apparently, the phenomena, which ceased after the Pritchards left, has started again. Neighbours and other locals claim this is ‘probably due to the film’.
Here's a recent picture taken in the house of a 'ghost monk's arm' reaching around a corner and holding rosary beads.
Ouija boards are inexplicably banned from the property during these overnight ghost vigils, but so are exorcisms, which is far more understandable for a business that trades in spirit sightings. It would be similar to taking myxomatosis to a rabbit farm.