Will o’ the Wisps are not unique to Norfolk – but the ones who frequent this County have their own special characteristics and tales. Today, we know that the name is given to little flickers of marsh gas, which many in the distant past thought to be evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travellers to their deaths! Our ancestors were ignorant of the fact that Will o’ the Wisps were the spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurred on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. Nowadays, better drainage has turned these apparitions into memories. We are told that past folk called them by various names like Hob o’ Lanterns, Corpse Candles or Jenny Burnt Arses.
In Norfolk there used to be a 19th century wise women by the name of Mrs Lubbock who lived in Irstead, near Neatishead. According to her, Will o’ the Wisp, or Jack o’ Lantern if you prefer, was often to be seen walking around her village before the Irstead enclosure of 1810. Today, Irstead is still an isolated village by the side of the river Ant, but unlike in Mrs Lubbock’s time the village is now a very desirable place, parts of which looking like an archetypal English village. It has held on to some of its thatched cottages and its church is a delight. Up until the 20th century’s better methods of drainage the village and surrounds would have been a very damp and unhealthy place, miles away from towns and the city of Norwich. It should be no surprise therefore that such remote communities were full of tales of the supernatural and paranormal.
Mrs Lubbock’s view of those Will o’ the Wisps was of the spirit of a man named Heard, who turned into this Lantern Man and was frequently seen in and around the village on a misty or ‘roky’ night, but particularly at a spot called Heard’s Holde in the Alder Carr Fen Broad, on the Neatishead side. We are told that it was there that a man of that name, and one who was guilty of many terrible crimes did drown in the peat stained water. In Mrs Lubbock’s own words:
“I have often see it there, rising up and falling and twisting about, and then up again – it looked exactly like a candle in a lantern”. What would be the ignition of natural gas to us was, to her, the unhappy man’s spirit. “If anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when Jack appeared and did not put out the light, he could come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman who made a mock of him and called him “Will o’the Wisp”, was riding on horseback one evening in the adjoining parish of Horning, when he (Jack) came at him and knocked him off his horse”
Mrs Lubbock also remembered that, as a small child, her father had told her that once when he was returning from money spending at the end of the harvest, in the company of an old man who whistled and jeered at Jack, the spirit followed them home and ‘torched up’ at the windows. However, many local folk were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest and did visit the places frequented by Heard when alive. Three men, in particular, tried to exorcise the ghost by reading verses from the Scriptures, but Jack always kept a verse ahead of them! Until, that is, a boy brought a pair of pigeons and laid them down at the apparition’s feet. Jack looked down at those birds and lost his verse, the one opportunity for those three men to “bound his spirit.”
Another tale relating to a Norfolk ‘Lantern Man’ comes from the seaside town of Cromer on the north-east edge of the County, as told by an old fisherman; this appeared in the Eastern Counties Magazine in 1900:
“There’s no saying what that will du to you, if that light on you! There was a young fellow coming home one evening and he see the Lantern Man coming for him and he run; and that run and he run again; and that run again! Now there was a silly old man lived down there who didn’t believe in none o’ them things and this young fellow he run to his house and say “O Giles, for Heaven’s sake, let me in – the Lantern Man’s coming!” And old Giles he say “You silly fool, there ain’t no such thing as a Lantern Man.” But when he see the Lantern Man coming for him, Giles let the young fellow in, and that come for them two, till that was the beginner of a pint pot!”
“And old Giles, he thought he would play a trick on the Lantern Man so he got a candle and held that out right high; and the Lantern Man, he come right low and the Lantern Man he come up above it. And then he held out right steady, and the Lantern Man he come for that and he burst it all to pieces. But they du say, if the Lantern Man light upon you, the best thing is to throw yourself flat on your face and hold your breath.”