Monday 28 June 2021

Old Pam of Threshfield School - Ghost, Devil or Hobgoblin?

(Photo by Chris Heaton,

Today I blog to bring to you the story of Old Pam! It's been a while since I visited anywhere new due to the current Covid situation, so i've been taking a break from my blog, but with plans up ahead to visit Yorkshire I've been dipping my toes back into the folklore research pool! Sometimes the smallest little snippet of folklore can take you on surprising journeys and today was one of those days. Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, Parkinson (1888) tells: "'Our Lady Wells,' that is wells dedicated to the virgin, are numerous in the country. One at Threshfield, near Linton, in Craven, has the attribute of being a place of safe refuge from all supernatural visitants - hobgobins and the like."

I was immediately intrigued, and wondered what 'supernatural visitants' the village folk were seeking refuge from! Much as there's no smoke without fire, there's no supernatural refuge without supernatural foe! The supernatural foe in question appears to go by the name of "Old Pam" and can be found at Threshfield school, a short distance from the well.

Ordnance Survey 6 inch to 1 mile Old Map (1888-1913)

The school was founded in 1674 as a grammar school and is still in use as a primary school today. The earliest mention of 'Old Pam' i've found so far appears in Rambles in Upper Wharfedale, Harker (1869) p119-121 written by Harker, an ex-pupil of the school:

"In connection with Threshfield Grammar School there is many a ghost story ; the name of the ghost that is said to dwell in it is Old Pam, and there is not a more popular ghost anywhere than he. He is said to frequent one room of the school more than any other portion of it, and for that reason it is called Old Pam's chamber; into it few of the scholars will dare to enter. Besides being a popular ghost, Old Pam is a merry one ; he has always been fond of fun, and, according to some people, has played many a trick on persons who have passed the school in the night-time. "It is related," says one (who is a native of this district, and was a schoolboy here), "with the utmost seriousness by eye-witnesses, that on accidentally passing the school at uncanny hours they have heard with fear and trembling the joyous shouts and hearty laughter of Old Pam's guests as they danced to his spirit-stirring fiddle, and have seen the school lighted up most brilliantly, the glare flashing from the windows illuminating the surrounding objects." The schoolmasters, it is said, have also been annoyed with the ghost's jocularity ; sometimes in the day strange noises have been heard, as if Old Pam were pacing the upper rooms of the school ; and if a little door, that is in the side of the ceiling, were to partly open, the whole school would be filled with terror, expecting every moment to see the ghost make his appearance. There is an improbable tale which says that a parson once left his sermon behind him in the school, and on coming to fetch it at a late hour on the Saturday night Old Pam caught him, dragged him round the place, soundly cuffed his ears, and then sent him home "....All tattered and torn." "It is said that this was done out of revenge, for when Pam was in the flesh it is supposed that while in a state of intoxication he was foully murdered by the parson, and his body then buried by him. under the hawthorn at the east end of the school. The following are a few verses which I once wrote when reflecting on the days I have spent in this ghost-haunted place : — 

Ghosts aren't usually known for being fond of fun and tricks, or playing the fiddle, this doesn't sound like your average ghost! In 1881 Dixon writes of Pam in his Chronicles and Stories of the Craven Dales p299-301 with a detailed explanation of the different types of ghosts, and he comes to the conclusion that Old Pam should be classed as a Hobgoblin. In Yorkshire folklore we do see tales of more traditional fairies who dance in fairy rings, create fairy butter, resist the building of churches, kidknap children and fire bolts at cattle, but many of the fairy folk of Yorkshire are of a different variety. We have the Hob, a domestic spirit (usually helpful and loyal but occasionally troublesome) similar to a Brownie, and then we have a wilder arrangement of fae folk called Bogles, Boggarts, Boggles, Bogills, and Boggards. These creatures are often tricksy and troublesome, some resemble a type of Hob and live in human houses, and others are said to haunt country lanes. They seem to take a variety of forms both animate and inanimate, from dogs and cows to haystacks. Sometimes Bargests, Padfoots and Guytrashes are also described as a type of Boggart, but they can also appear as a death omen, often at night and dragging a chain. The names vary from area to area too.  

Dixon tells us more of Old Pam including his physical appearance: "When the school-master finishes his day school, Pam commences his evening school. Once when Daniel Cooper was passing the school at a late hour of night (which was not a very unusual occurrence with him,) he found all the windows lighted up; so he took a peep at what was going on. Now it is only proper to say, that although on that occasion Daniel was in that happy condition when a man sees double, he had still all his senses about him, and could distinguish between a horse and a haystack. Pam was fiddling to a lot of young Pams - giving them a treat as a finale to their scholastic labours. Pam looked like a “ wizened owd man, summat of a monkey sort”— he was covered with “soft downy hair, colour of a mowdwarp, but wiv more blue in it”— he “wor about bouk o three foot.” On this night Pam was seated in the master’s chair, where his head bobbed time to the music. Daniel could not perceive that old Pam had any tail, for, unfortunately, the position of the fiddler was such as precluded an inspection of such an article, even if he had possessed one! The probability, however, is, that Pam is tail-less, because his scholars, who resembled the master in all but their size, had no such quadrupedal adornments. Daniel, unfortunately, attracted notice by sneezing, which caused a break-up of the party. In homely phrase he “had tu run for it,” and only escaped by taking refuge in the very middle of “Our Lady’s Well,” which they durst not approach. They, however, waited for Daniel at a respectable distance, and kept him in cold water, till the first cock announced the matin hour, when they fled, vowing that they would punish him severely if he ever again dared to act the part of an eavesdropper."

Dixon finishes with the story of Old Pam's demise, but this attempted murder seems to be on the ghost or hobgoblin rather than a living man. "We conclude our history of Pam with an adventure in which the Rev. Mr. Smith acts a prominent part. Mr. Smith was in the habit of writing his sermons in the school. It is traditionally reported, that one Saturday evening, on visiting the school after dark, in consequence of his M.S. having been left there, he was soundly cuffed by old Pam. The parson, in return for this attack, on his quitting the school on the following afternoon, left, on the master’s desk, a bottle of brandy for Pam’s especial use and benefit. The bait succeeded, and the parson discovered Pam in a state of most unghostly drunkenness. Now was the time for Mr. Smith’s revenge. Pam was fiercely attacked; and, it is said, killed outright. To make sure of his destruction, Mr. Smith is said to have buried Pam in a grave, where he did not receive the rites of the church, he not being one of the baptized brutes! The grave was behind the school. The place is still shewn at a corner of the play-garth over which the lads used to scramble, instead of entering by the gate. It is about two feet square, and a little lower than the adjoining earth. Pam, as this strange tale. goes, was not killed after all. He returned to his old scenes to inflict fresh annoyances on his priestly assailant. Never was the story of a haunted room more accredited than the above adventure of Mr. Smith. Were it necessary, Pam’s doings at the present day could be verified by oaths. He still has his evening school!!" 

The Naturalist, a monthly illustrated journal of natural history for the north of England, No 608 September 1907 claims that Old Pam is the devil himself. "In connection with the recent meeting of Yorkshire Naturalists in Littondale, Mr. W. Morrison supplied the members with some interesting local information. The devil, locally known as Old Pam, takes the Threshfield Grammar School for one night in the year, and teaches the little Wharfedale devils, who are 'that clever that they need nobbut yan nicht's schuling i' the year.'"

In 1910 Pam also gives name to a book by Halliwell Sutcliffe called Pam the Fiddler. From this description on the Halliwell Sutcliffe's works webpage it appears to be a historical novel about the rescue of Mary Queen of Scots from Bolton Castle so i'm not sure how much the folklore of Pam has contributed to the story, but I will have to read it to find out! 

Gee's Folk Tales of Yorkshire (1952) also mentions the well as a safe retreat from supernatural beings, and tells of a Threshfield man returning late from the public house one evening when he comes across a ghost (the ghost isn't given a name here) and "a number of wicked imps or goblins". As in Dixon's story, the man accidently gives himself away by sneezing and is chased to the well and kept there until cock crow. Included is the fantastic illustration below:

I'm happy to report that stories of Old Pam seem to be alive? and well! Pam receives mention on the Holy and Healing Wells website, which contains information from back issues of the Holy Wells Journal including an article in Issue 4 from March 1986 by Edna Whelan titled 'Holy Wells in Yorkshire part 2'. She writes, "The well was looked on as a sure and certain place of safety and refuge from all supernatural visitants, as shown by a certain legend; Pam the Fiddler was a teacher at Threshfield school many years ago and as he played his fiddle to entertain his pupils a ghost would appear and stand listening to the music. After Pam’s death a local man returning home late one night saw Pam on the roof of the school fighting with the local vicar and accompanied by imps. The witness sneezed, and the imps and Pam’s ghost chased him; he took refuge in the shelter of the well where he stayed till cock-crow, safe from attack. This story was told to me by Robert Greenwood, a farmer’s son who was born and still lives in the area, and attended the school in the 1970s." She goes on to ask the intriguing question of "Could ‘Pam’ derive from Pan?"

So was 'Old Pam' the ghost of a once living person cruelly murdered by the parson, or a rather hairy hobgoblin? Was he the devil himself, who held nightly classes for his imps? Or does the tale have origins with Pan himself? It's a curious tale indeed! What do you think?

You can listen to a more recent retelling of the folklore of Old Pam, in this wonderful song Old Pam by Jim Jarratt, I thoroughly recommend you give it a listen!

Spooky poems by James Carter and Brian Moses contains a delightfully spooky poem about Old Pam:

I hope you've enjoyed the tales of Old Pam, I'd love to hear from any students past and present of the school who have their own tales to tell! Hopefully i'll be able to visit the area in person one day too when it's safe to do so.

Sources and Further Information

Rambles in Upper Wharfedale, Harker (1869) 

Chronicles and Stories of the Craven Dales, Dixon (1881)

Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, Parkinson (1888)

Folk Tales of Yorkshire, Gee (1952)

Holy and Healing Wells Website

Historic England: Threshfield School