The Ghosts We All Become

Ghosts don’t simply haunt houses. Indeed, few do. Most hang around in tales, waiting to be summoned by their telling. They lived lives as people do, and gradually, over the years, begin to populate the myths and stories of a shared inheritance. They are the ghosts most of us recognise. They are our hauntings. Indeed, they are the ghosts we all become.

Buying and Selling

Back in the 18th Century my ghosts – the ghosts in question here – started a lucrative trade as cattle drovers. They were hill farmers in the Yorkshire Dales, centered above Airton. Their enterprise grew in scale through the end of that century, until it had become one of the largest such businesses in the country. It ended in dramatic fashion in 1841, in a complex and somewhat acrimonious inheritance dispute, settled in the House of Lords.

The business involved buying cheap cattle in Ireland, transporting them to Galloway, where they were pastured on the land of a local Laird. They were then driven to the family’s land in the Dales. Here, they spent a season, before  being driven south to graze in the North Fens, near Boston in Lincolnshire. Here they would fatten before the final leg of their drive, to markets around London. In all, this journey increased the value of these cattle fourfold. It was an enormously profitable business.

This story took place amidst the upheavals of The Enclosures Act. The North Fens were as yet only partly drained, and so – being of little worth – were still “Common” land (that is, unenclosed). At the same time, the South Fens, from Kings Lynn to Peterborough, were Enclosed. This left the ordinary, landless, property-less with  a profound sense of loss. The poet John Clare wrote of this brutal severance with such power. Commoners, without vote, entitlement or voice were simply denied access to that which had sustained them for generations. The land was simply robbed from them, by the flick of a pen.

john clare

Meanwhile, a few miles to the north, my ghosts used the little remaining open access land to their advantage. One of three brothers was set up as the local parish priest, thus ensuring they had grazing rights  for the family. When the patriarch of the family passed away in the late 1830s, the inheritance was to be split between the three sons. This was when the fights began.

Slipping Away

Much of the earned money had been of the “cash-in-hand” variety, making agreement as to the net worth difficult, to say the least. Added to this, there was a trail of creditors all across three countries, who demanded their share. The three brothers were also not in agreement as to the rightness of their personal share. In order to settle the various disputes over what was an enormous amount of money, the Lords appointed Sir Joseph Banks, the famous explorer and naturalist, to investigate. His report, which is now in an archive in San Francisco, was placed before the House of Lords in 1841. It began a slow decline and dispersal of the inheritance.

joseph banks

A couple of centuries later, I’m sat here, half an hour away from the fields on which my ancestor ghosts fed their cattle. Most of the villages around here have streets named after them. I can hardly step out of my house without some reminder of their lives. They are names, activities, scandals and history. They are the kind of ghosts we all know. That they were living, fearing, loving, substantial people is, now, almost impossible to conceive.

And yet, somewhere, there is a patch of ground that is partly comprised of their bones. And here, holding this pen, is a man who is, in part, a continuation of their spirit. I will become, with them, another ghost.


Ghosts and Other Tales, a collection of twenty five fictional short stories set in and around the Craven District, is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle version.

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