The malevolent water spiritAn elemental is a type of primitive spiritual entity from the pagan past, perhaps the manifestation of a race memory, usually associated with a single place. of the River Ribble in Lancashire, England is in most accounts said to be that of the ghost of Peg o’ Nell, who had been a servant at Waddow HallWaddow Hall is a 17th-century Grade II listed building within a 178-acre (72 ha) estate near Clitheroe, Lancashire. . The earliest written account of the existence of such an entity appears to be that of Harland and Wilkinson in their Lancashire Folk-Lore, published in the 1860s:
He is not known by any particular designation, nor are there any traditions to account for his first appearance; but at least one life every seven years is required to appease the anger of the spirit of the Ribble at this place [Bungerley Bridge, close to Waddow Hall].
Later in their account the spirit has had a sex change and acquired a name, Peg of the Well, in reference to a well in the grounds of Waddow Hall beside which stood a headless statue, which is still there today. Peg is said to have been ordered by the mistress of the house to fetch water from either the river or the well (accounts vary) one freezing cold night, and broke her neck in a fall after slipping on some ice. The statue, which was then complete with its head, was moved from the house to the well to memorialise Peg’s death.
Every seven years Peg returns to claim a life in revenge for her own, as did Harland and Wilkinson’s original water spirit. If a cat or a dog is not sacrificed to her on the anniversary of her death, the date of which is unrecorded, then she will instead take the life of a human.
There are other river spirits with the name Peg including Peg PowlerPeg Powler is the evil spirit of the River Tees in northeastern England, said to drag children who ventured too close the water's edge to their deaths., who inhabits the River Tees, dragging unwary children to their deaths. Grant Allen in his The Evolution of God, originally published in 1897, suggests that Peg may be a corrupt version of an old Celtic name for a nymph or water spirit.
Although sometimes described as being a representation of Peg o’ Nell, the headless statue is too ancient for that to be the case.[a] Harland and Wilkinson were told that the statue was of a Roman Catholic saint[b] and taken to Waddow Hall, possibly from Whalley Abbey, which had been abandoned and partially demolished in 1537 in the course of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. Whether the head was lost during the abbey’s demolition or later is unknown. The standard version of the legend has it that an owner of the hall, Mrs Starkie, had summoned a Puritan preacher to exorcise her ten-year-old son who had become possessed by an evil entity, possibly Peg o’ Nell.[c] When the preacher failed to arrive she sent out servants to search for him, and they discovered the preacher lying dead in the river. Believing Peg to be responsible, and that the statue was in some way the focus of her power, Mrs Starkie took an axe and with one stroke cut off its head.
Folk legends originate from an oral tradition of story telling, and inevitably the stories became altered through the generations. That process continues as the legends are retold even today, as in the account author and ghost-walk guide Simon Entwistle presents in his video series Tales from the Graves. He relates that Peg o’ Nell was a beautiful young woman employed as a skullery maid at Waddow Hall who was murdered by the jealous wife of the master of the hall and his ambitious butler. Placing the event in 1795, he claims that Peg’s body was then dumped in the River Ribble. According to this version of events the mistress of the house became convinced that Peg’s spirit had taken possession of a stone statue then in the house and so ordered the butler to remove its head and dump both it and the rest of the statue in the river. Two boys poaching for salmon in 1929 rediscovered the body of the statue, which was then placed where it can be seen today.
In reality there is no evidence that there was ever a servant named Peg o’ Nell at Waddow Hall, and contemporary written accounts describe the headless statue as being in its present location in the mid-1860s. Entwistle’s imaginative reinvention of the story can in no way be considered to be anything other than a work of fiction with only loose connections to the historical legend.
- No account explains why anyone would have commissioned a statue of a servant.
- St Margaret of Antioch, who was perhaps coincidentally beheaded by the Romans, has been suggested as a possible candidate.
- The mention of a Puritan preacher suggests that these events would have occurred some time during the 17th century.