I don’t know if this extraordinary tale is true or not. It is supposed to have taken place in 1723, and was originally published in a book called “Olde Tayles Newlye Relayted” in 1883, and later in pamphlet form. If it is true, I know of no other case like it.
In 1723 Colonel Ridley returned from India with a large fortune and retired to a country house called Lee Hall, in Bellingham, on the banks of the River Tyne in Northumberland. The house was rebuilt, and elegantly furnished. Amongst the costly items he purchased was a service of plate supposed to be worth £1000. The Colonel would spend each Winter in London with his family, leaving only a few servants in his Northumberland estate. The maid, Alice, looked after the house, and there were two men who threshed the corn and looked after the cattle and outbuildings.
It must have been known in the locality that in certain months of the year the house, with its costly contents was poorly protected, yet no-one seemed to be concerned that they were an obvious target for thieves.
One midwinter afternoon, Alice sat spinning some yarn for a pair of stockings, and a pedlar entered the house with a curious pack on his back. The pedlar was handsome and well-dressed, yet, as Alice later said, there was something about him she didn’t like. He introduced himself, and with much pleasantry and flattery, asked for lodgings for the night. Alice was firm in her refusal and he tried to cajole her. He had, he said, been in Newcastle where he had been purchasing a stock of goods which was so heavy that he did not think he would be able to carry them further. Indeed, so weary was he that he would be prepared to make her a present of the best shawl in his pack rather than go on. Alice was tempted, but she had her orders from the Colonel – she was to admit no-one except persons she knew well. The pedlar pleaded that he was unable to carry his goods any further, but Alice was adamant – he must either leave the pack behind or get a horse to take them away.
Reluctantly, and much displeased, the pedlar decided he must leave the pack behind and find some lodgings. Alice showed him into the parlour where he placed it carefully on two chairs, and took his leave.
So – what of this strange pack? It was, without a doubt, the longest, broadest, thickest pack Alice had ever seen. Left alone in the house with it, she was unable to get it out of her mind. Why was it so heavy? And the shape too, was odd – in one place square in section but not in another. She sat down to spin but was unable to concentrate on her task for thinking of the pack. Eventually she rose from the spinning wheel, lit a candle and went back into the parlour. It was there she saw a sight that terrified her – the pack appeared to be moving! She ran out of the house and to the barn and called for Richard who was busy with the threshing. He stared at her in astonishment at the tale of the living pack. Although he followed her into the house, he was quick to say that he thought the idea a foolish one – a pack of napkins and muslins and corduroy breeches could not possibly come alive. Taking a candle, Richard approached the pack, and carefully felt it all over. He could feel the bales of fabric around the edges that prevented the cords from rumpling the goods within, and the canvas with which it was wrapped. It seemed to him just the same as any other pack he had ever seen, although very large. Alice remained convinced that there was something wrong with the pack, and wondered if it might be composed of stolen goods, in which case she would not want to stay in the house with it, but Richard assured her there was nothing wrong with it.
As they spoke, the cattle-herd, Edward, arrived, a lad of 16, raggedly dressed and with a roguish way about him. In order to scare away the crows and other birds that came to feed where he foddered the cattle, he had bought an old military gun which he called Copenhagen, and was constantly firing away with it, though he hardly ever seemed to hit anything. He had just seen some sparrows feeding on a corn-rick and so was hurrying in for his gun. Hearing talk of the mysterious pack, he at once took a candle and went to observe it for a minute or two, then bounded back with a look of alarm, swearing that he had seen it move. Richard told him to be quiet with such talk but he would not. Their safest plan, said Edward, impetuously, was for him to shoot the pack, and whatever happened, he would take the blame upon himself. Snatching up Copenhagen, he hurried down the passage to the parlour, and immediately fired at the pack. At once there came a terrible cry, followed by groans, and a great deal of blood flowed from the pack onto the floor. Edward dropped the gun and ran from the room in terror, taking to the hills like a wild deer. Alice tried to run after him but lost him before she had gone far. Richard, in the meantime, stood for awhile amazed, then went into the parlour. The floor was covered in blood, and the pack was on the ground, but no noise now issued from it. He went outside and called for the others to return, which in due course, they did. Edward, who seemed to do everything by impulse, ran back almost as fast as he had gone, and as he passed Alice she wept and called him a murderer, which made him stop suddenly and draw in his breath with a gulp.
All three returned to the parlour, and found that the contents was a young man, quite dead, having been shot through the heart. Edward was for once, silent – he seemed to be almost in a stupor. Afterwards Edward always asserted that he had never had any thought in his mind when he shot at the pack that there might be a living thing in it, but this is difficult to believe given his certainty that he had seen it move.
The young man was brought out of the pack and his body examined with the hope that some medical assistance might revive him, but it was obvious that he was quite dead. He had been wrapped in an odd way, his knees drawn up to his navel, and his feet and legs stuffed in a hat-box. Another larger hat box without a base made up the space between his face and knees, and since there was only one fold of canvas around this he was easily able to breathe. It was undoubtedly the heaving of his chest as he breathed that had caused the movement seen by Alice and Edward. To his right hand was tied a cutlass with which he would have been able to cut his way out the pack, and he also had four loaded pistols and a silver wind-call. Richard, who had been quite affected by the sad sight of the corpse, thinking of how his parents would take the news, now declared him to be a villain, who might well have slain them all.
At last Edward found his voice and said it was just as well that he had shot the pack. Richard, sure that there was a scheme afoot to murder the servants and rob the house, felt that there must be more persons concerned in it than the young man and the “pedlar”. At this, Edward saw the possibility of a gun battle with even more opportunity for him to fire off Copenhagen. Off he ran, and found some of the Colonel’s retainers whom he knew owned guns, and they warned others, so that the word passed around and by 8 o’clock there were gathered in the house 25 men with 16 guns and the four pistols found on the deceased. Those without guns armed themselves with pitchforks, old swords and cudgels. The gunmen, including Edward, who had made sure to be in a prime position, distributed themselves amongst the front windows of the upper stories of the house while the others stood guard below.
Everything remained quiet until about 1am, and Edward became impatient. It then occurred to him to blow the silver wind-call, so he leaned out of the window and blew as hard a he could. Everyone waited, straining eyes and ears for some approach to the house. They had very little time to remain in suspense, as in less than five minutes a large body of men on horseback approached the house. Edward was quite unable to restrain himself and fired at the leading man, who fell. In the next few moments all sixteen guns were fired at the approaching horsemen. When the smoke cleared, all those who could had fled. Although Edward and his companions ran downstairs, certain they had killed all the attackers, the other men were against opening any of the doors until daylight. It was extremely cold outside and they could hear the groans of wounded men, but so afraid were they of being attacked they dared not open the doors. After an hour or two had passed Edward again asked if he could go outside and look around, and after some argument it was agreed he could. He found four men fallen, all dead. Later on they heard horses hooves again, and as day broke they saw that the corpses had all been removed and nothing was left except large sheets of frozen blood.
The next day the news spread rapidly, and crowds of people arrived to question the servants, look at the body in the parlour, and examine the frozen blood. The local doctor wrote to Colonel Ridley but it was some days before he arrived. Advertisements were put up offering rewards for the discovery of any person killed or wounded recently, and all the dead and sick for twenty miles around were inspected by doctors to see if they had been involved. It was all to no avail. Certainly there were some local people found to be missing, some of whom were never seen again, and plausible reasons given for their absence. Some were from respectable families to whom, it was said no suspicion could possibly be attached.
And what of the body in the pack? This was laid open for inspection for a fortnight but no-one came forward to claim him, so he was buried in St Cuthbert’s graveyard. It was later reported that the grave had been opened and the body removed. Therefore, no-one who had been involved in the attempt on the house was ever identified.
Colonel Ridley rewarded the servants who had discovered the plot. Richard remained in the family for the rest of his life on a very good salary. Alice was married to a tobacconist in Hexham, and Edward became the Colonel’s gamekeeper and received the gift of a gold mounted gun. Later he obtained a commission in a regiment of foot, and was shot through the shoulder at the battle of Fontenay. Retiring on half pay he took a small farm in Scotland, and lived to a great age.
St Cuthbert’s church and the Long Pack grave still attract visitors today.