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Sheppey legend of Grey Dolphin and the secret of Thomas Ingoldsby

Kent is steeped in legends and none more so than the Isle of Sheppey.

One of its most famous stories is that of Grey Dolphin, a trusty horse slain by its owner Sir Robert De Shurland on the advice of an old witch.

Grey Dolphin weather vane which used to be above Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey
Grey Dolphin weather vane which used to be above Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey

It is one of the stranger tales which make up the Ingoldsby Legends compiled by Thomas Ingoldsby.

What many may not know is that Ingoldsby never existed. It was the pen name of a vicar called the Rev Richard Harris Barham.

Amateur history expert Roger Betts, who helps run Minster Abbey Gatehouse Museum and hosts the Sheppey History Page on Facebook, says Barham was born on December 6, 1788, at 61 Burgate, Canterbury.

"His father, also called Richard Harris, was a magistrate and known to have been rather rotund, reputedly over 20 stones. Nevertheless, he managed a relationship with his housekeeper and the outcome was Richard Junior."

Sadly Richard Senior died when the young Richard was only seven so the boy was sent off to boarding school at St Paul’s Cathedral.

St Paul's Cathedral, London. Picture: John Nurden
St Paul's Cathedral, London. Picture: John Nurden

With this academic background, and his father’s family wealth, he had no problem entering Oxford University in 1802 to study law and attained a BA despite throwing himself into a rather wild student existence which included a lot of drink and a great deal of gambling.

Mr Betts said: "As the Barham family wealth was tied up in land, and with gambling debts growing at an alarming rate, Richard turned to family friend Lord Rokebury for assistance.

"Lord Rokebury refused to pay Richard's debts but magnanimously gave him the money for him to pay the debts off himself. This act of generosity made a big impression on Richard and made him tone down his wild student lifestyle."

In 1813 after a bad bout of illness, coupled with the death of his mother, Richard made up his mind to totally re-evaluate his life and as a result gave up law and turned to the ministry. He was ordained in 1817 and became the curate of Warehorne on Romney Marsh.

The area at that time was known to be popular with smugglers. It was considered shady but necessary so residents learned to “turn one's back while the gentlemen went by”. Which is how we understand illicit contraband ended up in the church belfry.

St Matthew's church, Warehorne. Picture: Warehorne.com
St Matthew's church, Warehorne. Picture: Warehorne.com

Richard's mode of transport was a pony and trap or 'gig' as it was known.

One day on his travels he had an accident and broke his leg. So, to cope with the boredom of inactivity, he turned his mind to writing.

Old school friend Richard Bentley had started a publishing business and needed writers so the budding author decided to help his former chum out.

During discussions with friends he was introduced to a Mrs Hughes who was an intelligent and quick-witted lady and the pair soon became friends. During one of their chats, Richard confided that although he didn’t lack imagination he wasn't very good at thinking up original story lines.

He told her: "Give me a story and I can tell it in my own way. But I cannot invent one.”

Charles Dickens who edited Bentley's Miscellany
Charles Dickens who edited Bentley's Miscellany

She suggested he begin by putting Kent's own stories and folklore to paper. She seemed to have a good influence on authors - she was grandmother of Thomas Hughes who went on to write Tom Brown's School Days.

Mr Betts said: "Barham was worried his church elders would frown upon his forays into the world of literature so, to be on the safe side, he plumped on the name of Tom Ingoldsby. His first story, The Spectre of Tappington Hall, based on his own family home, was sent to Bentley who by then was producing a periodical called Bentley's Miscellany. He had already picked one young writer to be his editor called Charles Dickens."

Tom Ingoldsby’s stories grew in popularity and people were keen to know more about the writer. But Dickens kept the mystery alive by insisting he didn’t know who Ingoldsby was. Eventually, the stories were all bound together under one title The Ingoldsby Legends.

Richard Barham died following a long illness on June 17, 1845. A memorial bronze was unveiled in his honour by the Dean of St Paul's at the Guildhall, Canterbury, on September 25, 1930.

During the Second World War Barham's first home at 61 Burgate Street was hit by a German bomb. The building which replaced it has a plaque to Barham's memory on its front - and opposite is a Wetherspoon pub appropriately named the Thomas Ingoldsby.

The Thomas Ingoldsby in Burgate , Canterbury Picture: Chris Davey
The Thomas Ingoldsby in Burgate , Canterbury Picture: Chris Davey

But what of the legend of Grey Dolphin?

This weird tale appears to be based, at least part, on fact. The knight Sir Robert De Shurland certainly lived in Shurland Hall, which still stands just outside the village of Eastchurch today.

In those days Sheppey was covered in woods and was an ideal hunting ground. Indeed, Henry Vlll is recorded as staying at Shurland Hall with Anne Boleyn.

According to Mr Betts, Sir Robert was "a stocky man of considerable strength and quick temper."

As lord of the manor he enjoyed many privileges including 'childwyte', which allowed him to levy a fine on the fathers of any illegitimate children, and 'bloodwyte' which was a fine imposed on servants who "caused another person to bleed following violence".

Former Tudor manor Shurland Hall at Eastchurch where Sir Robert Shurland lived. Picture: John Nurden
Former Tudor manor Shurland Hall at Eastchurch where Sir Robert Shurland lived. Picture: John Nurden

Sir Robert also had the right to claim possession of any wreck or flotsam and jetsam which came within reach of his lance at low tide. To this end, his father Sir Roger had started training his most capable horses to swim off the coast of Sheppey to seek out sinking ships and Sir Robert carried on the practice.

One evening as Sir Robert quaffed ale and devoured a plate of Faversham oysters he became aware of a commotion. Villagers had discovered the body of a sailor washed up on the beach and were pleading with the priest to bury it.

But Father Fothergill, a plump and portly Augustine friar based at Minster Abbey was unsure the cadaver should be buried in consecrated ground and refused. Word was that this 'grinning sailor' had previously been buried in Chatham and then been dug up and thrown back into the sea.

Hearing that the priest was refusing to bury the body, Sir Robert in a rage called for his 'kicking' boots and summoned the man of God. A violent confrontation was coming.

"Bury me that grinning caitliff!" insisted the baron.

Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey
Minster Abbey on the Isle of Sheppey

The chaplain argued back: "Water and earth alike reject him."

"Give him his passport to Heaven," returned Sir Robert.

"He has already gone to Hell," stammered the friar.

As the baron reached for his sword, which he called Tickletoby, the friar turned to run and the baron lashed out with his foot.

Ingoldsby says: "It was but one kick but such a one!"

Thomas Ingoldsby Legends and the Legend of Grey Dolphin
Thomas Ingoldsby Legends and the Legend of Grey Dolphin

The friar landed heavily into the already dug grave and died as the force of the fall broke his neck. The baron, in a foul rage, ordered the body of the sailor be hauled in on top and the two buried together.

In those days the church was very powerful and enjoyed the full protection of the king. News of this shocking event soon spread to Canterbury. A crime against the church was a crime against the king so an army arrived at Sir Robert's front door. Any other man would have been quaking in his boots but Sir Robert merely took them all on and won.

But he realised he would still need a royal pardon. King Edward l (1272 to 1307) was to sail past Sheppey on his royal barge to inspect his navy moored at The Nore which was preparing to go into battle against the French.

So Sir Robert dashed to his stables and had his favourite steed Grey Dolphin saddled up. The horse had been specially trained for swimming out to sea.

The pair swam two miles to the king's ship battling strong tides and wind.

Thomas Ingoldsby Legends and the Legend of Grey Dolphin
Thomas Ingoldsby Legends and the Legend of Grey Dolphin

"What have we here?" asked the King.

"It's a mermaid or the Devil," suggested his courtiers.

As the baron had fought alongside the king in the Holy Wars he was granted his pardon and, clutching it to his chest, turned his horse around to swim back to shore.

But once on dry land the exhausted pair were met by an "ugly old woman" who warned the baron: "Make much of your steed. He has saved your life but he shall yet be the means of you losing it."

Mr Betts said: "Sir Robert was as superstitious as everyone else in those days and was aghast. Grey Dolphin was his favourite horse and yet he valued his own life more than the horse.

Roger Betts, centre, with volunteers from the Friends of the Minster Abbey Gatehouse Museum Picture: Andy Payton
Roger Betts, centre, with volunteers from the Friends of the Minster Abbey Gatehouse Museum Picture: Andy Payton

"So to thwart the hag's prophecy he took his sword and sliced through the horse’s neck. Grey Dolphin, weakened by the swim and now struck by a fatal blow dropped to the stones, dead.A distraught Sir Robert buried the horse where it lay."

According to Thomas Ingoldsby, three years later Sir Robert was walking along the same beach at Scrapsgate when he spotted the bleached skull of Grey Dolphin sticking up out of the stones. Angry at losing his favourite horse he lashed out with his foot. The force was so strong that one of the teeth from the skull penetrated his boot and lodged in his toe.

Sir Robert returned to Shurland Hall and was forced to take to his bed. The splinter of bone caused blood poisoning leading to gangrene. Within days Sir Robert De Shurland was dead. The witch's prophecy had been fulfilled.

Could this be true?

If you visit Minster Abbey you will see carved into the stone on the top of Sir Robert's tomb the head of a horse rising from the waves.

Tomb of Sir Robert de Shurland at Minster Abbey, Sheppey
Tomb of Sir Robert de Shurland at Minster Abbey, Sheppey

And bolted to the parapets of the neighbouring Abbey Gatehouse museum you will find, glinting in the sun, a wind vane in the shape of Grey Dolphin looking down on the rest of the Island.

That is why for centuries sailors have known the Abbey as the 'horse church.'

Charles Dickens is known to have been a regular visitor to the Island. Some believe it may have been him who related the legend of Grey Dolphin to the Rev Barham in the first place.

Other Ingoldsby legends include the The Nurse's Story: the Hand of Glory; Patty Morgan the Milkmaid's Story: Look at the Clock!; The Ghost; The Leech of Folkestone: Mrs Botherby's Story; The Legend of Hamilton Tighe; The Witches' Frolic; Nell Cook: a legend of the Dark Entry - the King's Scholar's story; Aunt Fanny: a legend of a shirt and Misadventures at Margate: a legend of Jarvis's Jetty.

Grey Dolphin weather vane above the Abbey Gatehouse Museum at Minster, Sheppey
Grey Dolphin weather vane above the Abbey Gatehouse Museum at Minster, Sheppey

Read more: All the latest Sheppey news here

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