On a cold dark September night in 1881 William Roberts is walking back from a boozy dinner in Church Stretton. As he staggers up a bank towards an old mineshaft a chill creeps over his skin and he glances around. He sees a glowing white spectre floating towards him up the hill. His breathing speeds up, the sound of his beating heart pounds louder and louder in his head, and he breaks out into a cold sweat. What happened next would send the town into hysteria, spark a frantic body hunt, and make headlines around the globe as the story went viral.
Sunday May 17th 1874
It’s night-time and a weary traveler arrives at Church Stretton railway station. She’s carrying two tired looking boxes –one of them broken around the lock , and she places them on the ground.
She inquires about train times and walks off. A few of the locals spot her and she’s a familiar face, but one that had been away for some time. They watched as she strolled up the bank to Hazler Road. This was last time they ever saw her alive.
Nearly seven years later, October 1881, it’s dark, it’s late and local cider mill owner William Roberts is on his way way home. He’s been at a boozy dinner, a meeting of rent payers, in Church Stretton. Bleary eyed he’s now plodding up Hazler Road, back to Soudley two miles away.
Sensing he’s being followed he glances back and he sees a woman a little distance away following him. He stops and waits to let her catch up, and she continues walking, but doesn’t seem to make up any ground. Neither could he hear any footsteps, just the rustling of her dress.
Every time he stops to let her pass, the same thing happens. William Roberts loses his nerve he picks up a rapid pace and runs to the top of bank
Stopping to catch breath, and to see where the woman was, he looked back and was startled to see she was gliding towards him . She comes to a halt just yards way, removes the cotton bonnet from her head and holds it up to him, stunned all he could do was watch.
This ghostly figure then slowly moved away, passing straight through a hedge and disappearing into a large mound of dirt known locally as the copper hole – a disused mine shaft, filled in, just a few years previous.
Petrified, William Roberts turned and bolted home. When he arrived he was as pale as the apparition he’d just seen – but this wasn’t just any apparition, he recognised its face – it was that of woman who he’d last seen some years ago…a woman who’d famously and mysteriously vanished leaving two boxes at local the train station, a woman who was last seen alive not far from the copper hole…It was Sarah Duckett!
William Roberts woke with the vision of the ghost of Sarah Duckett firmly planted in his mind.
He’d been thinking about it all night, and the more he thought the more convinced he was that he knew what had happened to her seven years previous. The ghost had let him to the answer.
He now firmly believed that Sarah Duckett had been murdered on that Sunday in 1874 and her body thrown into the disused pit known as copper hole…the spot that the ghost had vanished into.
Not long after her disappearance, it had been filled in. This must mean only one thing, he thought…her body is still down there!
He grabbed his coat and he rushed out of the door to spread the news of this revelation – and there were plenty willing to hear it.
Word spread fast. The taverns, shops, and the streets were filled with excitable chatter.
As people heard his story, others came forward with their own sightings of strange spectres they’d spotted by the hole.
Meetings were had and Roberts launched a campaign to dig out copper hole and discover the truth – but it would cost money and people were happy to pay.
Digging commenced. The story hit the papers across the whole country, and the world, as word spread about this Shropshire community that had been whipped into a frantic state of excitement.
Visitors arrived from miles around to see what was happening. And Roberts was on hand to tell all.
He set up his stall down the road. Gate and beer money was collected for the benefit of those digging. He greeted tourist in the manner of a showman, colourfully telling them the story of Sarah Duckett’s disappearance, and apparent reappearance before his own eyes just days before hand.
He would then announce “all in to begin” Before marching the party up the bank. On reaching the shaft the strangers would gaze down into the large circular, and ever deepening, muddy pit.
The papers described how the gentleman would peer in, shake their heads with murmurs of “deary me”. The young ladies would approach with evident dread, and craning their necks would utter “How dreadful” it was.
Deeper and deeper they dug, and even harder they toiled but as the days went on still nothing was found, interest waned, and the digging soon turned to derision.
But just as the mystery threatened to remain unsolved forever – a new revelation showed itself in the form of a letter which dropped through the door of a local trader on Church Street. Signed by “One Who Knows” it claimed to reveal the true location of the body of Sarah Duckett.
The trader on church street unfolds a piece of paper that had just been handed to him.
It had been nearly two weeks since William Roberts had come face to face which what he believed was the ghost of Sarah Duckett..
In that time the excitement in the town had built, and reached fever pitch as volunteers dug deep into the copper hole to try and find the truth – but a body was ever found there.
The trader starts reading…
“You will fail to find the body of Sarah Duckett in the Copper Hole ; look in the cellar of the tollbar ; examine the part nearest the road, in the left-hand corner . SIGNED—One Who Knows.”
All eyes turned to the old turnpike on Hazler Road.
Armed with this new information and he went to William Roberts and all eyes moved to the old toll house nearby the copper hole and the search continued there.
News of the ghost of Sarah Duckett was still being published in newspapers across the country – along with reports of other sightings
An old man from the town was said to be walking home when she appeared and blocked his route causing him to faint.
A youth on horseback was so scared by the apparition that “putting spurs into the animal” he never drew rein until he reached the village of Leebotwood.
And a lady in the town had her nervous system shocked to the core when the ghost appeared appeared through the parlour window.
The search at the toll house proved fruitless.
But another letter appeared, delivered to a newspaper this time claiming to be from Sarah Duckett herself. She was apparently alive and well and living with her husband in Martley in Worcestershire. The note said she had no knowledge that her ghost was wondering about, and was of the opinion that she should have been consulted before liberties were taken with her spirit.
With so many rumours and stories flying around it was time for someone to investigate thoroughly, someone who knew Sarah duckett, someone who people could trust to discover the real truth.
That person was the Rector of Eaton under Haywood.
The Reverend Holland Sandford.
Born and grew up in the area, it was his business to know everyone .
And he knew Sarah Duckett and her family very well. He saw it as his duty to clear up the matter and began to investigate. He spoke to her relatives who told him the last they’d heard of her whereabouts was seven years ago and that she was in the workhouse in Worcester..
He wrote to the officials there to find out.
While waiting for a reply he took a seat and wrote down everything he knew about her.
Sarah Duckett was born in Soudley, near Church Stretton in 1830. One of three daughters, her parents were George and Anne Duckett. George was a stone mason but died when Sarah was just 8 years old – he fell from a chimney in Rushbury. Life was tough and his widow, Anne, sold part of her property to ease the situation. In 1873 Anne died. Reverend Sandford advised the daughters, Sarah, Anne and Elizabeth to sell the rest of the property and they did. Sarah took her £70 pound share and announced her intention to travel the world.
She put £30 of it into a savings bank at Church Stretton, and asked Reverend Sandford to look after £25 which he reluctantly accepted. Sarah then headed to Liverpool – and after a few letters back and forth all trace of her disappeared..
It’s believed she went to Australia on a steamer ship.
Just under a year later, Sunday 17th May 1874 a train pulls into Church Stretton station carrying home Sarah Duckett. She gets off the train, she’s carrying two tired looking boxes – one of them broken around the lock, carrying little of any value, and she places them on the ground.
From his investigations he discovered, that four people saw her in the town that night. Two or three days later she was seen a few miles away at Longville in the Dale – and no doubt would have past the copper hole to get there. But by June she was destitute and in Worcestershire, where she was received into the workhouse.
The final part of her tail came in a letter to the Reverend Holland Sandford from the Martley Workhouse.
It said in that 1876 just two years after being taken into the workhouse, she was moved to the infirmary suffering from acute rheumatism but made a speedy recovery.
She was apparently in high spirits as she left the ward.
She walked down stairs with her bundle of clothes in hand and was just wishing the nurse goodbye…when suddenly she slumped to ground.
The nurses rushed to her side but she was lifeless.
Five years later Reverend Holland Sandford wraps up his investigation
His findings are published in the Wellington Journal on the 5th November 1881 just 4 weeks after Mr Roberts claimed he saw her apparition following him up Hazler Road, before disappearing down the copper hole sparking hysteria in Church Stretton and nationwide interest.
But one question remained…
Unlike Mr Roberts who got to the bottom of the disused pit – the reverend couldn’t get the bottom of where Sarah Duckett was buried.
She died with apparently no friends or family around her to claim her body.
Nobody knew, or would say where it went, with some speculation that it ended up at the local anatomical school. A terrifying reminder of why people hated the workhouse.
This isn’t the only evidence of what happened to Sarah Duckett.
To backup the findings of the Reverend Sandford I have traced a copy of Sarah Duckett’s death certificate and here it is below…
But she left other traces of her life behind. In the Shropshire archives I have made a link never before spotted.
Sarah Duckett’s signature (or mark) is on a document in the archives. Her signature, along with her mothers and sisters’, is on a document confirming a sale of part of their property. This came about when Sarah’s father died and her mother had to raise money in order to keep the family going.But the Victorians were a superstitious lot, and sightings of the ghost continued for years.
The truth of the ghost of the copper hole, and the true whereabouts of Sarah Duckett’s body, is a story that to this day remains a mystery…and one, it seems, that will never be laid to rest.