"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive

This particular Mystery Flood is a bit unique. Usually, such stories have one or two newspaper reports, and then they disappear from view forever, with no follow-ups. The 1919 goings-on at Swanton Novers Rectory, however, had a few odd twists and turns that kept the story in the papers for several months. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean it was resolved any more neatly than the similar stories posted on this blog...

Here is one of the initial reports, from the "Evening Telegraph," August 29:

A Central News correspondent says that a mysterious manifestation is now the subject of investigation at Swanton Novers Rectory, Norfolk. For four days past various inflammable liquids, which appear to be petrol, paraffin oil, methylated spirits, and also water have dripped without intermission from every ceiling in the house. These liquids apparently ooze from the ceiling, but an examination has shown the plaster and laths to be quite dry. The trouble was supposed to be caused by the petrol lighting plant, but this has been cut off, and an expert has certified that the plant cannot be the cause. Meanwhile the house is uninhabitable, and the annoyance remains a complete mystery.

Another account commented that "the oil visitations present so many peculiar features that no single hypothesis seems to account for them."  So far, so weird. Then, a September 12 story in the "Western Gazette," announced an end to the riddle:

The Press Association's Norwich correspondent telegraphs that the Swanton Novers oil mystery has at last been solved. It was hoax, practised by a young servant girl. aged 15, employed by the Rector (the Rev. H. Guy) and his wife. Mr. Oswald Williams, the well-known illusionist, who is holidaying at Cromer, offered his services to Mr. Guy, and at his suggestion the house was shut up for three days and the girl sent away. During this period no liquid fell. The water supply was meantime cut off, and all liquids removed, save that of several pails, containing water, salted with common salt, were left about promiscuously. When the girl returned on Monday she reported further falls of liquid. This was tested and found be salted. Later Mr. and Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Guy arrived, and Mrs. Williams went secretly to the room above the kitchen, the ceiling which had been torn away in the search for the origin of the mystery. Peering carefully through a hole in the floor, Mrs. Williams eventually saw the girl take a glass and throw some of the salted water up to the ceiling. She was then confronted and accused, and, after first denying it, subsequently made a complete confession of the matter in the presence of the whole party.

As pretty and tidy a solution as you could hope to find. Rather than the canonical butler, the servant girl did it!

Well. In the "Hull Daily Mail" for September 11, we find that the mystery turned violent:

The oil mystery at Swanton Rectory is not yet cleared up. The rector and Mrs. Guy are confident the young servant girl, Mabel Phillips, is guilty of the hoax, but she emphatically denies that she has been the cause of the trouble or that she ever made a confession. Feeling, locally, is undoubtedly with the girl. It is pointed out that over 50 gallons of water have been thrown away, and it is considered impossible for the girl to have obtained this and thrown it to the ceiling without being caught. Another significant fact is that oil and water have fallen from the ceiling when the girl has been present with other people. The girl has been closely questioned, but no one has yet been able to trip her over her statements. It was stated on Wednesday that summons had been taken out against Mrs. Oswald Williams, wife of the illusionist, for alleged assault on Phillips Monday, by smacking her face.

The last act played out in the "Hull Daily Mail" on November 4:

The case of assault arising out of the oil mystery at Swanton Novers Rectory, Norfolk, brought by the parents of the servant girl Phillips, against Mrs. Oswald Williams, the wife of the illusionist, was heard before the local magistrate at Holt, on Monday. The girl stated that Mrs. Williams accused her of throwing salted water to the rectory ceiling, called her a "little devil," slapped her three times in the face, and tried by threats to force her to confess that she was the cause of the whole mystery. The Rev. Mr. Guy and his wife were called, and they admitted that Mrs. Williams caught the girl the wrist and accused her, but denied that she struck the girl at all. After a hearing lasting three hours, the case was dismissed.

I'm guessing that both the Guy and Williams households had a hard time attracting servants after this last episode.

As far as I can tell, this was the end of the matter. Presumably, the oily nuisance abated after Miss Phillips left the Rectory. Was the servant girl indeed capable of throwing many gallons of water and "various inflammable liquids" about unnoticed until those ace detectives, the Williamses (who impress me as a couple of publicity-hungry buttinskies) caught her in the act? If so, what on earth was her motive?  Where did she obtain all these different liquids?  Or was Phillips truthful in her assertions that she was merely the scapegoat for the mystery? Was someone else in the Rectory pulling a bizarre and seemingly pointless hoax? If so, who?

And if the Rectory soaking was not staged by someone in the household....what happened?


  1. Young Mabel, at 15, was just the right age to attract poltergeist activity and all these "mysterious liquids" could certainly fall under that category. Just a thought.

    1. Yes, that was my first thought. Seems almost like a classic case.

    2. I have but one face yet possess two palms....

  2. I don't think that anyone could throw enough fluids at ceilings to make them all drip all the time. Definitely weird.


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