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The Lantern Man and Wise Woman of Irstead

They are the cold fires waiting on marshy land to lure travellers to a watery grave, the dancing lights that plagued Norfolk and were feared by all. There are many tales of Lantern Men that tempt people into danger – to some, he is Will o’ the Wisp, another name for the ghostly lights that hover and wheel above boggy marshland on dark, moonless nights. 

CREDIT: Wellcome Collection

In the snappily-named Norfolk Archaeology. Or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to the Antiquities of Norfolk published in 1849, the Lantern Man of Irstead is mentioned by county wise woman Mrs Lubbock. Mrs Lubbock was born in the late 1700s and her wisdom on a huge range of subjects had, she said, been passed down to her through the generations.

In 1849, the Reverend John Gunn published the above paper on her having collected her sayings “as they fell from her mouth, as nearly as possible in her own racy language” and noted that “her venerable lore is not without its inconveniences and drawbacks. It has exposed her to the suspicion of witchcraft.”

In the paper, Mrs Lubbock mentions the Lantern Man. “Before the Irstead Enclosure in 1810, Jack o’ Lantern was frequently seen here on a roky (foggy) night and almost always at a place called Heard’s Hole, in Alder Carr Fen Broad on the Neatishead side, where a man of that name, who was guilty of some unmentionable crimes, was drowned,” Rev Gunn quotes her as saying, “I have often seen it there, rising up and falling and twistering about and then up again. It looked exactly like a candle in a lantern.”

The wise woman thought the ‘cold fire’ had attached itself to the criminal’s restless spirit which made it intelligent and able to pester people as they went about their business. She said: “if anyone were walking along the road with a lantern at the time when he appeared, and did not put out the light immediately, Jack would come against it and dash it to pieces; and that a gentleman, who made a mock of him and called him Will of the Wisp was riding on horseback on evening in the adjoining parish of Horning when he came at him and knocked him off his horse.”

Recalling an incident from her childhood, she added that her father had been returning from an after-the-harvest spending spree in the company of a friend who had the bad sense to whistle and jeer at “Jack” who then followed him home and “torched up at the windows”.

Understandably spooked by the appearance of an intelligent dancing light, the people of the village were keen to lay Heard’s spirit to rest “…so annoyed where they by it, for it came at certain times and to certain places which he frequented when alive.”

Three men tried to quell the spirit by reading verses of scripture but he always kept a verse ahead of them – but, it seems, Heard was not as clever as he thought. “A boy brought a couple of pigeons and laid them down before him. He looked at them and lost his verse and then they bound his spirit.”

Norfolk Archaeology notes: “Mrs Lubbock has heard that the spirits of the dead haunt the places where treasures were hid by them when in the body…”

The Norfolk Folklore Society suggests not searching for buried treasure on the marshlands on dark nights, regardless of any Lantern Men.


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