It’s fitting, perhaps, to be posting this on the death day of William Morris. Exactly ten years older than Morris, and dying in the same year, the man pictured here isn’t known at all. An internet search for Morris brings up thousand upon thousand of entries. For this man, Timothy Mountjoy, the references are expended by the end of the first page[i]. And yet, like William Morris, Timothy Mountjoy was a passionate, obsessive man, deeply committed to the cause of bettering the conditions of life – in Mountjoy’s case for his fellow miners and their families. Like Morris, too, he was compelled to write. In his case, it was a memoir of his life and the Forest of Dean in the mid-19th century, rather than poetry or actual Socialist polemic against the mores of their shared world.
I discovered Timothy Mountjoy while researching Gloucestershire Ghost Tales. There are many ghost tales from the Forest, but I was struggling to find one that spoke to me, that I wanted to tell. Then I found this strange tale of dark, drunken deeds on Ruardean Hill, and what happened after … which became ‘The Body in Pan Tod Mine’. And the source? Mountjoy’s book.
Now, this book is, on the face of it, a strange source for a ghost story. Mountjoy was a Baptist minister, a committed Christian who expends a lot of ink in The Life, Labours and Deliverances of a Forest of Dean Collier in telling us about his faith. He was one of the men who brought trade unionism to the Forest miners, was the General Secretary of the first union for coal miners in the Forest, the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association, and fought to improve their lot throughout his life – though with little thanks and only varying success! But hidden in the interstices of his book are fascinating glimpses of another life, one of haunted woods, of dark deeds and of Mountjoy’s own uncanny second sight. In Gloucestershire Ghost Tales, his story is told in ‘The Body in the Pan Tod Mine’ – which, it seems, Mountjoy (and the rest of the Forest, according to him!) witnessed. Note, dear readers – there’s a little extra ‘ghost’ tale at the bottom of this post … read on!
The Life, Labours etc. is exceedingly rare – though I would dearly love my own copy, they are not available for love nor money[ii]! So I went to Gloucestershire Archives to read it, armed with a notebook and a pencil. Everyone else seemed to have piles of documents, so I felt a little small sitting there with my single tiny volume. But it was worth it. Timothy Mountjoy should be better known.
Born at Littledean Hill in 1824, he was born into a rapidly changing world. In the 1820s the Forest of Dean was just about to become a major place of industry. Iron and coal had been mined there since at least Roman times, and small scale free mining had taken place since the reign of Edward I (a reward for Foresters who had taken part in the Siege of Berwick, apparently!). But the industrial revolution changed the pace and scale of mining forever. After all, what did it need more than anything? Iron and coal. Hundreds of pits were opened up – but as Mountjoy records, the conditions for the men who worked in them – and their families – were bad to the point of dangerous. He describes how, in 1819, 4 men were killed when their chain link (probably made of flat iron links and hemp rope) broke. The youngest man, Meredith, was only 12, the same age that Mountjoy started in the pits 17 years later.
Mountjoy own start in life was tenuous – as a baby he cried day and night, until the girl who was watching him was minded to throw him into a nearby well! As a young lad in the pit he was careless one day and knocked his head fooling around – knocking himself out and falling down the pit. He got away with bruises, but it must have been experiences like that that made him so keen to improve the conditions (and pay, of course) of the miners, but also made him turn to religion.
But Mountjoy knew things … he speaks how he would dream true, and recounts how once, he dreamed that there were lots of men milling about Prospect Pit, and as he came in he saw there was a man lying dead. Alarmed by the dream he reported it to the bosses (though maybe not to the man he saw dead) but nothing happened. Then, a cry was heard, and it was discovered that the roof of part of the pit had collapsed, crushing a boy, Mark Williams, to his death beneath. Mountjoy was sure his dream had been a warning. His first wife, too knew things too. He records how she told him early in their marriage that she would die in her 35th year … and she did.
He describes forgotten ghosts, too. Who was the ghost by the crooked pear tree that his sister saw, and who was haunting the Temple[iii]? He himself had an experience. One night when he was walking over Owl Hill homewards through the Heywood Enclosure, the woods closing in on him as he went, the night dark under the trees … and there, eyeball to eyeball with him, a white face, two huge dark eyes… He backed away… It followed … and so it went until the edge of the wood when a shaft of moonlight revealed the spook – a calf and its mother! Full of relief and chastising himself for believing for a moment that ghosts really existed young Timothy made his way homewards only to see a white shape rise in front of him when he was nearly home. Hair standing on end, Timothy stopped – but the spook took fright at the sight of him and legged it … and Timothy saw he was leaving a trail of potatoes as he fled. No ghost there, but a potato thief in a sheet!
[i] You can find out about him in Four Personalities from the Forest of Dean by Ralph Anstis (Albion House: Coleford, 1996)
[ii] There is a booklet of extracts from the book Hard Times in the Forest by Timothy Boughton and Fred Mountjoy (Forest of Dean Newspapers Ltd, 1971) but this is almost as unavailable as the book itself!
[iii] This is Solomon’s Temple, an 18th century house built on what is now Temple Lane – but of course a real temple was discovered many years later near Littledean Hall, a Roman temple!