Discover Barnstaple’s grisly underbelly on a ghostwalk and bygone brothel tour

PUBLISHED: 10:15 18 June 2019

Holy Trinity Church, Barnstaple (c) Robert Cutts, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Holy Trinity Church, Barnstaple (c) Robert Cutts, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


Ghostwalks and bygone brothel tours are a fascinating insight to the gritty, often grubby and always colourful social underbelly of Barnstaple, writes SUSAN PENGELLY

The ghostwalks I started in Barnstaple were born because I have a fascination with history. Not the glossy people who history always seems to remember, but the real people, the working class and those who had fallen or hurled themselves from grace.

I started to research stories of local Victorian murders and came across a wealth of fascinating stories of heroism, intrigue, prostitution and socially unacceptable behaviour and reasoned that if I found all these stories fascinating then others would too and so it has proved with four ghostwalks and a bygone brothels tour I organise in Barnstaple.

We walk past buildings every day with no idea what has happened inside them in the past. I bring those stories alive with humour, compassion and a touch of pathos because I feel strongly that the people who made up the fabric of our town should be remembered, even if they were on the frayed edges.

I am lucky in that knowing what I do, numerous people contact me to tell me their experiences of ghosts in various shops and homes. I also know some builders who will let me into a building they are working on when they have experienced anything odd - and let me tell you, big burly builders are not the bravest when it comes to ghosts!

The tours are not the 'leaping from a doorway cardiac arrest inducing' type. We walk one of four different routes and I share true stories that relate to certain buildings, I have now been lucky enough to arrange with several people who own such buildings to take people inside so they can see and hear where something happened and experience the atmosphere and surroundings for themselves.

The bygone brothels walk sprang from the ghostwalk research because Barnstaple, I found, had a lot of 'working girls' often colourfully described as poor, fagged mortals or nymphs of the pave.

In 1850 it was said that Barnstaple had more prostitutes than LondonIn 1850 it was said that Barnstaple had more prostitutes than London

Most of them could not be described as nymphs by any stretch of the imagination, they were often brutal, ingenious, thieving, gin-soaked women desperate to feed themselves and very often, a family. Few went on to live happy lives but it was immensely gratifying to find several who did.

I share their stories from their 'pitch' Molly the sop was a character in herself, she ran an illicit still from her back room, she was a part-time prostitute and said to be so bandy she couldn't stop a pig in a passage. This was considered an advantage.

As humorous, illuminating and as sad as some stories are these women were all someone's mother, sister, wife or daughter and I'd like to think they would be delighted to be remembered for their antics.

Ghostwalks and bygone brothel tours start and end at St Anne's Chapel in Barnstaple. Every tour ends with a cuppa and cake where you can see photographs, ask questions and handle artefacts from the time.

Tickets are £10. For more details telephone 01805 624624 or visit

Did you know?

- In 1877 a local butcher murdered his wife; their shop is still here to be seen.

- In 1906 murder was the result of a doomed love affair near the railway station.

- In the 1800s infanticide was rife; it was not uncommon for babies' bodies to be found in rivers and the sea.

- In 1850 it was said that Barnstaple had more prostitutes than London. Hard to believe but Barnstaple was a very busy shipping port and sailors=customers.

- In 1854 there was a house in Combe Martin where you could go to learn the art of prostitution, pickpocketing and general thievery.

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