Friday, December 7, 2018

Ghost Stories for Christmas- Buckland Abbey and the Ghost of Sir Francis Drake

Merry Christmas Everybody! This season is a time of tradition, and we here at Skullduggery in the Smoke uphold that most Victorian of holiday pageantry: Ghost Stories for Christmas. As in years past, we examine the fanciful and dolorous haunting of the British Isles for adventures ideas suitable for your holly-and-ivy-trimmed gaming table. All our haunting are selected from Peter Underwood’s “Gazetteer of British, Scottish, & Irish Ghosts”. So bring a torch Jeannette Isabella, we’re telling Ghost Stories for Christmas!

The Countess of Devon built Buckland Abbey near Yelverton for the Cistercian order of monks in 1278. Monks of the order remained at Buckland until their expulsion by King Henry VIII in the 1540s. The king sold Buckland Abbey to Sir Richard Grenville in 1541. The estate passed to his grandson also named Richard Grenville, an explorer, and privateer. Grenville renovated the abbey’s church into a country home by dividing the large open interior into three floors of rooms. The church’s bell tower remains, though it has been made into a pigeon house. He demolished most of the abbey’s outlying buildings but kept the massive stonework barn intact. Around the grounds, carefully selected and grown plants fill beautiful gardens originally cultivated by the Cistercian monks.
Strangely, Grenville sold Buckland Abbey in 1581, only four years after completing his renovations. After the sale, he discovered the two men purchasing Buckland Abbey were agents of his rival Sir Francis Drake! Grenville had previously planned to undertake a circumnavigation of the world which was preempted by Drake’s historic journey. Despite owning many estates throughout Devon, Drake made Buckland Abby his primary residence between raids, excursions, and cruises. Drake’s stature as a national hero preserved the home from alterations through the years. The Drake family still owns Buckland Abbey.
Even after his death, legends of Drake linger over the house. His sword, Bible, and other possessions remain in the abbey, but the most famous relic of Buckland is Drake’s Drum. Drake carried a drum marked with his family’s crest during his famous circumnavigation of the world. As he lay dying of dysentery in 1596, Drake ordered the drum sent to Buckland Abbey instructing that if England ever needed him again, he would return to save it after hearing the beating of his drum.
Additionally, Drake’s specter supposedly rides across the countryside leading ghostly hounds whose howling is so terribly, the sound instantly kills any living dog hearing it. At night Drake’s ghost leaves Buckland driving a black coach for the port town of Plymouth. Four headless horses pull the coach and stranger still, twelve stunted goblin-like creatures with fiery eyes and smoking nostrils run before it!

Adventure Ideas
There are a few legends saying Sir Francis Drake, not Sir Richard Grenville, remodeled the abbey and it only took three nights of work with the help of the Devil in exchange for Drake’s soul. The legend further posits, Drake’s ghost flees the horrible hounds of hell searching for unbaptized souls. So in summary, Drake’s coach pulled by headless horses pursues strange goblin-things and is pursued by hellhounds trying to claim his soul.  What are the goblins? Do they have his soul or the key to getting his soul back?

Buckland Abbey must have a dark secret history to justify all the peculiar facts in its past. For example, the Church excommunicated the first Cistercian monks inhabiting the abbey shortly after they started their residence. After taking it from the church, the king sold the abbey to Sir Grenville who passed it down to a grandson sharing his name. This grandson sells the abbey to a hated rival coincidentally born only a few miles away. There is something about that house that invites conspiracy. Any house with that past has to be haunted.

Drake’s drum could be a very sinister necromantic object. He may have been tricked by a vengeful necromancer into tying his soul into his drum in an attempt to gain immortality. The drum traveled all the way around the world, Drake was buried at sea, and his body was never recovered so his undead revenant could pop up anywhere the drum is beat to serve his new master.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Ghost Stories for Christmas- The Black Bird of St. Martin’s Church

Merry Christmas Everybody! This season is a time of tradition, and we here at Skullduggery in the Smoke uphold that most Victorian of holiday pageantry: Ghost Stories for Christmas. As in years past, we examine the fanciful and dolorous haunting of the British Isles for adventures ideas suitable for your holly-and-ivy-trimmed gaming table. All our haunting are selected from Peter Underwood’s “Gazetteer of British, Scottish, & Irish Ghosts”. So bring a torch Jeannette Isabella, we’re telling Ghost Stories for Christmas!

The small farming town of West Drayton sits only 16 miles from London. A section of the Great Western Railway connects the idyllic village of only 900 people to the great metropolis. The river Colne transports wheat, oats, and fruit grown in West Drayton’s fields and orchards into the heart of London. Even as industry and modern transportation pull West Drayton into greater modernity, stories of a strange 100-year-old haunting still cause congregants of St. Martin’s church to glance nervously about their place of worship and listen for flapping wings.

St. Martins is a very old wonderfully medieval church. The majority of the exterior made of flint rubble dates to the 1400s, although some section may have been built as long ago as the 1200s. A single tower rises from the church on the west end capped by a cupola.  Roughly twenty marble plaques commemorating important figures in the village’s history line the walls at the end of the pews and high-arched ceilings loom over the congregation. For a century, the specter of a giant black bird disturbed the sanctity of St. Martin’s church. The majority of the encounters with the black bird date back to the late 1700s. The spirit manifests in a number of ways.

Three parishioners heard knocking echoing up from the vaults below the church containing the noble dead of the Paget and De Burgh families. When they peeked into the vault through the grate, they all saw a monstrous bird single-mindedly pecking at a coffin. The bird’s knocking became a regular disturbance on Friday evenings. The parish clerk, his wife, and daughter all repeatedly saw or heard the bird in the church, as did the sexton, a practical man without fear of the unnatural. Most bizarre of all, a group of bell ringers arrived at the church to practice and saw the black bird flying through the chancel. They chased the ghostly bird, shouting and pelting it with stones until a lucky throw smashed a wing and brought it down. When the bell ringers approached to smash it with clubs, the big black bird vanished! After that encounter, the bird often appeared perched on the communion rail or fluttering through the vaults.
The only explanation brought forth for the ghostly bird’s origin is the belief that it’s the soul of a murderer who killed himself and was buried in the churchyard instead of at a crossroads with a stake through its body as was customary.

Adventure Ideas
Although the majority of the Black Bird sightings occurred in the late 1700s, the interior of St. Martins was restored in 1850. All sorts of holy and historical furnishings were added, moved, removed or destroyed. Nothing stirs up a ghost like the refurbishing of its haunt.

One great thing about this haunting is that the black bird manifests audibly (heard fluttering, knocking, and squawking), visually (seen perched or flying through the church), and physically (can be fought and harmed). Giving another sensation to a ghost beside a spooky appearance can give the haunting extra tension. Having the player characters hear the ghost (or worse feeling the ghost) before they see it should add some menace.

The physicality of this ghost is very strange. If it can be harmed it probably isn’t a ghost. For example, it could be undead birds sent by a necromancer that instantly decays when wounded or a bird-like imp that returns to their infernal realm after being defeated, or harpies who sneak back to their lives in West Drayton when their plans are foiled again.

In an interesting historical footnote, an unnamed vicar of St. Martin’s church was excommunicated in 1373. Another record identifies an excommunication at the tame time for a Nicholas of Drayton for publishing heresies. It could be two different men or two accounts of the same man with extra details in each. If a vicar of St. Martin’s church published heretical texts, might that be connected to the black bird? Is it his sacrilegious coffin wrongfully placed in the vault getting pecked?


Friday, November 23, 2018

Whiskers and Wire Cages- Rat Coursing


The rat catcher’s trade provides him with a surplus of live rats. Fortunately, Victorian blood sports, such as rat bating, required a never-ending supply of prey animals few would miss or pity.  The other sport which has made a commodity of captured rats is coursing.

Coursing tests the competing dogs’ raw speed, agility, and ability to catch animals on the run. Because Victorian cities lack privacy and open ground, coursing matches exclusively occur in the country.  To ensure the fleeing animal cannot hide, the dogs all have an equal chance to win, and the spectators can see every moment of sport, coursing contests are held in open terrain with no cover such as a meadow or field.
At the beginning, the sporting gentlemen select two dogs to compete, then the spectators place bets on whether or not the dogs catch the animal, how long the chase lasts, or which dog catches the animal. Then the officials release the “prey” to be pursued onto open ground before loosing the already eager dogs after an agreed up lead time for the animal. Favored dogs might be handicapped by waiting a few extra seconds before their release. The dogs vigorously pursue their quarry until it escapes or the dogs either catch or kill the animal dependent on the stakes. In the case of a tie, the officials decide a winner.
Coursing requires dogs with keen eyesight, tremendous endurance, and most importantly speed. Purebred greyhounds earn the most attention at coursing contests for the upper crust and dependable lurchers (a crossbreed of sighthounds often kept by poachers) are competitive coursers at lower class events. The prey animals used for coursing could be rabbits, foxes, deer or most commonly rats.

Rat catchers hold a position of honor at coursing weekends in the country. As the supplier of the all-important rats, catchers are amply compensated for their time and the death of their rats by money, good food, spirits, and a stay in a fine hotel away from the city. Additionally, if his rats are bought by an aristocratic coursing club, the rat catcher has the company of a better class of gentlemen and upwardly mobile social contacts which could lead to work in the future. Occasionally, the sporting gentlemen even want to take part in procuring their rats as well. They hire the rat-catcher to lead them and their dogs on rat hunts along streams and fields in the morning before an afternoon of coursing. Well-organized rat-catchers could sell about 100 to 150 rats a week in the country to face death in rat-coursing. The rats must, of course, be in good health and able to run.

Having no stake in what dog wins, rat-catchers often serve as a judge in case the winner at coursing is not immediately clear. This can be a dangerous position for the rat-catcher. Coursing draws large crowds, especially in coal villages, and in a crowd of 500 working men wagering their earnings on a rat coursing match, not everyone will agree with the rat-catchers rulings.

Adventure Ideas
Between the dogs, the rats, the terrain, and the officials, there are a lot of pieces to a fair and just rat coursing. Any number of factors could be juggled or shoved into place to ensure a risky wager becomes a “sure thing”.

After a few months of examining two of the grimmest and dirtiest of Victorian jobs, it’s time for the hope and joy of a Dickensian Christmas! Next week, is the beginning of our annual holiday tradition ghost Stories for Christmas!


Friday, November 16, 2018

Whiskers and Wire Cages- Rat Baiting


Rat-catchers perform a necessary if brutal service for human civilization, however their vocation also made possible spectacles of slaughter entertaining to Victorians of all societal circles. Despite the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, such sport continues without penalty because of mankind’s hatred of rats, although a dog’s participation in these sports is distasteful to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 

At its core rat-baiting tests a dog’s ability to quickly kill rats. Pubs and gambling dens often host nights of rat-baiting, but other establishments are dedicated solely to the sport with only meager refreshments for their clientele. The love of rat-baiting breaks through social barriers. Men and women from all classes pay the shilling entry fee to show off their dog’s pedigree and to enjoy the display of skillful violence. Rat-baiting dogs tend to be terriers, bulls, or a crossbreed of one or the other.

The sport is confined to the rat pit, a circular enclosure on the floor or a hole below it about 6-10 feet in diameter surrounded by wooden walls four feet high. The pit must be round to prevent rats from defensively cowering in corners, and to keep both dog and rats constantly in motion. Dog owners, dog fanciers, and dog sellers purchase a number of rats, usually 5 or 10, from the establishment’s rat handlers. Once the rats are all in, the sporting dog is loosed in the rat pit eager to kill. Dog owners can go into the pit to encourage and direct their dog, but they cannot purposefully touch the rats.

High-stake matches with well-known ratters owned by established trainers are the highlight of the evening with much wagering with the house bookie. These dogs face many more rats, usually in multiples of 50, and compete to kill the most rats in the shortest amount of time.  A timekeeper and referee enforce the rules. The referee also judges which rats are “dead”. They gather any rat mortally wounded but still breathing after the allotted time in a circle drawn on a on table or floor. Any rat able to crawl out of the circle after the referee swatted its tail three times did not count towards the dog’s total of dead rats. One rat killed for every five seconds the dog spent in the pit is respectable, one rat every 3 seconds is extraordinary. Winning dogs are awarded silver collars, a purse of winnings, and a host of fanciers interested in purchasing of their offspring.

Occasionally, rat pits feature spectacles of a more novel sort, such as dog or cock fights, dog- baiting, and other monstrous sport. Strangest of all, a depraved or desperate man frequents rat-baiting matches in London and wagers with spectators that he can catch and kill more rats with his teeth than the last dog in the pit. He wins a great deal of money.

Adventure Ideas
After a night of rat-baiting, the hosting establishment collects the rat carcasses and places them outside to be picked by up rubbish collectors in the morning. The last few nights, something or someone has been hungrily helping themselves to the dead rats.

Rat pits consistently host displays of violence, aggression, and death confined to the same location week after week. Any sources of dark magic nearby could feed on such potent destruction, although these dark energies would undoubtedly reflect back on the dogs, twisting their forms and instincts in subtle malicious ways.

A pretty gruesome setting detail, if I say so myself. Rats may be rats, but that’s very cruel. Sadly, this isn’t the only blood sport to which the Victorians subjected rats. Next week we’ll look at rat-coursing.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Whiskers and Wire Cages- Ferrets and Ratting Dogs


Rat-catchers almost never work alone. Many hire apprentices or partners to help cover more ground or to minimize the risk of injury during dangerous nocturnal work. Most commonly, rat-catchers use trained (if not tamed) animals to more efficiently track and corner unwelcome infestations.

Rats are terrified of ferrets with good reason. Their long lean bodies slide through tunnels and holes inaccessible to rat-catchers, and their sharp teeth kill rats with a single bite to the neck. The strong scent of their natural predator is often enough to scare rats into blindly running to safety.  Ferreting should always be undertaken during the day when the ferrets are alert and the rats snug in their dens. 

Careful breeding over hundreds of years makes game dogs, such as terriers, bull and terriers, schnauzers, pinchers, and old English bulldogs, perfect rat hunters.  A dog’s smell finds unseen rats and follows their underground tunnels from above. Hunting dogs chase down rats too fast for the rat-catcher’s net or crafty enough to escape it. Small gutsy dogs, especially terriers, follow rats into their burrows. Rat’s “lucky” enough to survive a dog’s first bite, die soon after from a neck broken by vigorous shaking held in the dog's teeth. All dogs used by a rat-catcher must have a license.

Aided by these natural abilities and instincts, the stratagems of rat-catchers reaches new levels of cunning, ferocity, and brutality:

Hosts of sewer rats climb up into homes through damaged drains or by eating through the clay used to cover the joining of two differently-sized pipes. Hunting ferrets released into the walls and foundation scares the majority back through the water closets or drains through which they entered. The drains and pipes should then be repaired and a few nights trapping catches any remaining rats.

When hunting rats in rooms full of hiding places some rat-catchers spend a week feeding the rats with oats or bread until they discover all the trails leading to their holes in the walls and floor. On their first night of trapping, they bring along two terriers. First the rat-catcher stuff rags into the rat holes trapping the rats foraging in the room. Then the rat-catcher releases one dog to hunt through the room startling uncovered rats into running for safety. The remaining terrier intercepts the fleeing rats until all the vermin are dead or caught.

When ferreting in a large building with many floors, rat-catchers tackle the job one floor at a time beginning at the top. The rat-catcher removes a floorboard at one end of the room and covers the entire hole with a trapping net. On the other side of the room, they pull up another floorboard and let the ferret through. The rats, terrified of the ferret, dash through the opposite hole into the net. Any rats remaining trapped under the floor can be scooped up by hand, or with a net mounted on a pole. A professional, well equipped rat-catcher can clear two floors a day using this methodology. Cayenne pepper or some other scent repellent to rats liberally sprinkled prevents rats from migrating back to floors already serviced.

When clearing a barn or warehouse without an internal water source, rat catchers search for the trail to water on which the rats habitually travel. After dark, they cut off the rat’s escape by hanging a long net around the side or all of the building. While the rats drink, the rat-catcher unleashes his dogs at near the water sending the rats scurrying directly into his nets. The dogs catch any remaining rats, and further rats on premises can be cleared by a couple of nights trapping.

Adventure ideas
The ferret’s love of stealing small items can lead to trouble. When a rat-catcher returned his animals to their cages after a day of ferreting he found one ferret clenching a strange bauble in its teeth. No one in the house claims it.

As if this was not gruesome enough, we have even more distressing misuses of animals next week. We’ll look at rat killing in Victorian sport next week.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Whiskers and Wire Cages- How to Catch a Rat


Obviously, the simplest method to catch a rat is with a rat trap. Most amateurs make the same mistake of planting the same trap in the same place with the same bait. A rat’s feral cunning learns from the deaths of its fellows. After one or two night’s good work the trap lays untouched, however, rat-catchers know how to make the most effective use of their resources.

At first, any traps set across a rat’s tunnels or tracks do not need bait. Once the rats grow wary of the traps, a small pile of sawdust mixed with oats camouflages the trap’s workings and lures the rats to their capture. Soot, tissue paper mixed with hayseeds, or aniseed works once the rats grow fearful of piles of sawdust. Never use a solid chunk of food, or the rat will simply pick up the food to eat later in its den. To prevent the traps smelling of man they should be handled as little as possible.

Tinkers, toy-makers, and rat-catchers manufacture a stunning variety of traps such as the simple wire basket with an opening at the top and no way to climb out, the wire cage with a mechanism to close door immediately after the rat’s entry, or the more gruesome steel-jawed traps designed to close as a paw rests a rat's weight on the pressure plate. Most professionals avoid setting lethal traps unless the infesting rats are sewer rats or worse.

A professional rat-catcher could plant 10-50 traps depending on the size of the building and the number of traps he owns. They quietly wait and watch, patrolling their traps in case of a catch. Once a rat is caught or killed they reset their trap and continue their vigil until a little after midnight when the rats become less active, however a rat-catcher should always put in an appearance bright and early the next morning both to collect his traps and to grab any rats captured later that night before they can escape by gnawing off a limb. Any rat that escapes from a trap in this way won’t be fooled by traps again. Rat-catchers try to eliminate infestations during January or February before the rats begin breeding with greater rapidity in the spring. This serves both to eliminate future generations and to avoid the hassle trying to catch young rats small enough to squeeze into any nook or cranny.

Despite selling their own lethal concoctions to rat-beleaguered families, very few rat-catchers professionally use rat poison in the city. You can’t be certain of an immediately lethal dose, leaving most rats enough longevity  to crawl back under the floor to die, leaving a multitude of hard-to-remove decomposing rat carcasses. The owners of the premises invariably blame the rat-catcher for the horrific smell, demand he removes the bodies, and never ask for his services again.

Adventure Ideas
The thieves carefully planned their heist and tonight’s the night! After breaking in they find small mounds of sawdust and oats in the hall and waist-high nets strung through doorways. They hear muffled yips and scuffles in the walls. Can they complete their robbery with the extra complication of a rat-catcher working on the premises?

All rat-catchers know the stories of Boksby the uncatchable three-legged sewer rat. Whenever traps activate by themselves, the rats avoid the bait, or a nasty old rat gets away on three paws, rat-catchers claim Boksby has returned for revenge. One tavern popular with rat-catchers even has a bounty for Boksby’s carcass.

Now that we all know how to catch rats, we can look at the essential animal allies of the rat-catcher. Next week, we’ll examine the many morally troublesome uses of ferrets and rat dogs.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Whiskers and Wire Cages- The Work of a Rat-Catcher

In Victorian England, hordes of rats invade every building to eat, proliferate, and destroy. As architecture and engineering advanced, rats found new ways to invade and new delicacies to eat and destroy. Skilled rat-catchers devised their own tricks to outwit nature’s perfect scavenger.

Some businesses prone to rat invasion (such as tobacco shops, woodworkers, or granaries) contract a rat-catcher by the month or year to handle infestations as necessary. The cost per year to retain a rat-catcher’s services ranges from 1 guinea (one pound and one shilling) to 5 pounds per year depending on the size of the building. For short-term jobs, rat-catchers charge by the night, 2-8 shillings.  All rat-catchers are self-employed, and these high-sounding prices cover the costs of traps, trap repairs, dogs, dog licenses, nets, net repairs, cages, and ferrets. While a simple bag is fine for collecting rats while checking traps, rats should be transferred into strong wire cages for transport and to avoid escape or harm.

Enterprising rat-catchers know a live healthy rat is worth more than a dead rat. Rats can be bred for distinct colorations as pets and curiosities, but most of the rats caught by rat-catchers are bought by purveyors of sport, such as Rat-Baiting or Rat-Coursing, for 3 pence a rat. At harvest time, rat-catchers leave the city behind to catch rats scavenging threshed corn and grain. Even a mediocre rat-catcher could collect 50 or more healthy rats a day with little trouble just by laying traps around fields and barns.

 Although lucrative, rat-catching is not pleasant work. Much of the rat-catchers work happens at night when rats are most active. A strange man prowling around a closed business at night with a directional lantern looks very suspicious, so most rat-catchers inform local constabularies before undertaking a night’s work. Rat-catchers spend long nights in cold, damp, and often unsanitary places, plunging arms into walls to pull out struggling rats, closing broken sewer drains, watching traps, and disturbing rat nests in high rafters. Most dreadful of all, are the inevitable rat bites which rat-catchers must accept as an inevitable hazard of their profession. In fact, you can recognize a rat-catcher by the multitude of scars covering his hands and face. Rats have strong jaws and long teeth which often bite down to the bone. Heavy leather breeches protect rat-catchers legs and ropes tied around their ankles prevent rats climbing up their pant legs, but most rat-catchers avoid wearing thick gloves so they can feel their work in the dark. Infected rat bites lead to swelling, throbbing, and putrefaction. Rat-catchers pragmatically treat their wounds by lancing open the infected area, cleaning it of pus, and applying a homemade ointment. Horrible fevers bringing rat-catchers to death’s door for a few weeks is all part of the job.

Adventure Ideas
All rat-catchers agree the worst job in London is the Guildhouse. As the home of the Worshipful Company of Hermeticists, the Guildhouse is full of thaumaturgical equipment, dangerous enchantments, and grumpy careless magicians. The building’s halls and rooms don’t follow the laws of nature very well, and nobody thinks to warn rat-catchers about the magical spells protecting certain corridors from prying eyes. Worst of all, the rats don’t behave the way rats should. Sometimes they breathe fire, sometimes they fly, and sometimes they talk.

Now that we have the basics covered, we can move onto the clever, cruel, and creative methods rat-catchers used to catch rats.