The Drummer Boy

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The Drummer Boy


We think of Salisbury Plain and the Army as two sides of the same coin, although it only began to be taken over as a military training area in the late 19th century.

By 1902, 42,000 acres had been purchased by the War Office for £550,000.

Tidworth has become a familiar name to thousands of service men and women who have been trained and stationed there, and before the war it was famed for the Tidworth Tattoo, an imperial spectacle of pomp and pageantry.

But it was a different tattoo, the rat-a-tat beat of a single drum, that in March 1661 disturbed the peace of the neighbouring village of Ludgershall.

The drummer was a William Drury, vagrant and old soldier, demobilised from Cromwell’s Model Army, and now, during the more peaceful years of Charles II’s restoration, using his old skills to demand money with menaces.

His technique was effectively simple: Cause enough nuisance with his drumming and someone would pay him to take the noise elsewhere. The trouble was that Ludgershall was not large enough to “get lost in” for long.

The maddening pulse of the persistent drumming disturbed not only the villagers but also John Mompesson, a visiting magistrate from South Tidworth (then called Tedworth). He was an officious, self-important man and he was far from amused. He summoned the Ludgershall bailiff and had Drury brought before him.

Drury protested that he was not a vagrant, and had a pass, signed by a Colonel Ayliff and a Sir William Cawly, to prove it. Mompesson was unimpressed and pronounced the pass a forgery, which it may well have been.

The drum was confiscated and Drury held in custody pending further investigations. Mompesson returned to Tidworth, probably dismissing Drury from his mind.

Meanwhile, Drury persuaded the bailiff to let him go – but the drum remained under lock and key. The following month, April, it was inexplicably sent to Mompesson’s impressive house in Tidworth. The magistrate was about to leave for London on business.

When Mompesson returned, he found his wife terrified by what she thought had been thieves trying to break into the house, “so much so that the house was like to have been broken up”.

Three nights later there was a tumultuous knocking at the door. Taking up a brace of pistols, Mompesson got up and opened it. But the knocking resumed at another door, and yet another again. As he went round the house, it became louder and there was even knocking on the roof.

But there was nothing to be seen and the mystified magistrate returned to bed, much perplexed. The bangings continued for the next five nights, just as he and his wife were going to sleep. There was a brief respite before it all began again.

This was the beginning of psychic manifestations which were to last for two years. They became such a cause for local and national comment and dismay that Charles II actually sent a Royal Commission to investigate.

However, its members, who were seemingly not psychic, drew a blank and they returned to London unconvinced.

Much more impressed was Joseph Glanvil, a member of the Royal Society and a friend of Robert Boyle, the famous physicist.

Glanvil may be claimed as the first of the scientific ‘ghost hunters’. He wrote a lengthy account of his investigations at Mompesson’s house, which he called Sadiucismus Triumphatus, which he published in 1661. Most of the ‘happenings’ described are taken from that source.

After the banging, Glanvil described what happened next:

“After months of disturbance, it came into the room where the drum lay, four or five nights out of seven within half an hour after they were in bed, continuing almost two hours.

“The sign of it just before it came was, they still heard an hurling in the air over the house, and at its going off, the beating of a drum like that at the breaking up of a guard. It continued in this room for the space of two months, during which time Mr Mompesson himself lay there to observe it.

“Mrs Mompesson being brought to bed, there was but little noise the night she was in travail nor for any three weeks afterwards till she had recovered strength, but after this civil cessation it returned in ruder manner than before and following and vexing the other young children, beating their bedsteads with that violence.

“For an hour together it would beat Roundheads, Cuckolds, the Tattoo, and several other parts of war as well as any drummer.”

It was considerate of the evil spirits, for this is how they were now considered, to call a truce while Mrs Mompesson was in labour but, once the child was safely delivered, they quickly and maliciously resumed.

They concentrated now on the Mompesson older children, despite their father putting them up in a loft to sleep out of the way. To the modern reader it seems inconceivably cruel that Mompesson would let them stay in the house, and indeed there were times when things seemed so bad that they were taken in by neighbours.

What is impressive is the fortitude of the family and the servants in the face of these terrifying visitations. Would any contemporary nanny or au pair have stayed for more than a few nights? And who would blame them for going?

On November 5, Glanvil continues:

“It kept a might noise, and a servant entering the frightened children’s room saw two floorboards moving. He at once commanded the spirit to bring one to him which he did within a yard of where he stood.

“Whereupon he said: ‘Nay, let me have it in my hand’, whereupon it was shoved right home to him so up and down and to and fro for some twenty times till Mr Mompesson forbade his servant so much familiarity. This was in the daytime and seen by a whole roomful of people. That morning it left a sulphorous smell behind it which was very offensive.”

Then began a succession of ghostly happenings of the kind associated with poltergeist activity (poltergeists are mischievous, destructive, Earthbound entities).

It, or they, soon began to make a thorough nuisance of themselves, as porringers, plates, bedclothes, books and shoes were all hurled about the room at chance moments of the day and night.

Mr Mompesson, not unnaturally, called in the local minister, the Rev Craig, to conduct an exorcism. He knelt down by the bed where the children lay and proceeded to pray with great earnestness.

He was rewarded by chairs, shoes, clothes and furniture being hurled about and the minister was actually struck on the leg by a bedstaff (which seems to have been some kind of cudgel kept at the side of the bed in case of burglars), “but so favourably that a lock of wool could not have fallen more softly”.