This famous old tale was taken from a Christopher Wren School Historical Society booklet produced in 1965 and titled: ‘Memories of Old Hammersmith.’ The preface states that the story is based on facts taken from ‘The Public Spirit of Francis Smith’ by Marjory Allingham. I recently visited ‘The Black Lion’ and a separate article will go up in due course – Steve Russell
The autumn of that year of Grace 1803 saw England locked in deadly conflict with a France now led by the great Napoleon. Along the coast at Boulogne lay the mass of the French army and the air rang with clamour of the construction of invasion barges. Once more this island lay under the ominous cloud of a mighty European power, poised to ravage her quiet countryside and destroy the ancient liberties of the English.
Perhaps the great folk in high places and those responsible for England’s defence knew of these dangers, but in the Black Lion tap room in the little village of Hammersmith, the talk was of a nearer, more dreadful evil. Over their pints of small beer the local rustics spoke in low voices of the horror that strode their green lanes at night; the pale spectre from the depths of hell that made the hours of darkness a shuddering suspense. Most locals and many visitors had seen the vision, drifting vapourously, a shape draped in grave clothes, ghastly, silent, menacing. Many were the tales of its haunting. By day people were brave, but after dark, few stirred from their cottages. At night they quaked under their blankets at every movement of the rafters and creak of the stairs. Even the few families of quality tightly drew the curtains of their fourposters.
The tale had spread and as far away as London, the citizens safe in their rows of houses and ale-houses, sneered at the superstitions of the Hammersmith rustics. But had not the previous night Billy Girdler, white-faced and gibbering, burst open the doors of the Black Lion. He had been driving an eight horse wagon with sixteen passengers into the centre of the village when the ghost had appeared. Tall and white it was, carrying a great pike. Billy had leaped from his seat and fled screaming to the sawdust strewn bar, there to tell his dread story. At the bar sat Francis Smith, an Excise Man of his gracious Majesty George 111 and in his heart burned a terrible hatred of this foul visitation. For three months, the good folk of Hammersmith had cowered before the Powers of Darkness and Francis, the one representative of his Majesty, swore to himself that night that one man of Hammersmith at least would stand his ground.
The following evening was damp and cold. By the dripping farm gate in Black Lion Lane stood the Excise Man. He held his gun close. A terrible piece this; a flintlock with its long muzzle crammed with ball and nails backed with a mighty charge of powder. Clumsy as it was, its charge could tear the heart from an ox and the five shillings Francis Smith had paid for it had been well spent. The night grew black. Slowly the moon rose, spreading a cold, dim light on the still figure. He did not move, but stood taut, his rage mounting as his fear grew. The night was ghostly now. Dark clouds drifted across the moon, tendrils of mist twisted and writhed up from the river and the cold bit deep. Suddenly it was there. A male figure, tall, smeared from head to foot in fearful, ashen, mouldering grey. Clothed in the corruption of the grave, its face pale with a fearful pallor and above floated something high and white.
Francis Smith believed in ghosts. His very flesh crawled, but his hatred and fury of the supernatural was greater than his fear. He raised his blunderbuss, screamed “Damn you, who are you ?” and when no reply came, fired. The night was lit by a mighty flash, the recoil of the great weapon smashed into Francis Smith’s shoulder and the ghost vanished. The villagers rushed from the Black Lion. In the lane they found Francis, pale and still. At his feet lay a white figure writhing like a human until suddenly it was still. The Excise man bent over the figure and touched a warm, solid, limp body. As he felt it, his anger drained from him. The man on the ground seemed to be a plasterer dressed in the lime-coated overalls of his trade. By him lay his hod. Over his chest welled the blood from his shattered head. The lanterns soon showed the man to be a local plasterer named Thomas Milwood. A slow, dim-witted fellow who lived with his parents. Tall and silent, but harmless and now very dead. Hammersmith had lost a ghost and gained a corpse.
Francis Smith knew that he was in a frightful position. He, an ordinary, decent fellow, had killed a neighbour and in the light of this dreadful knowledge, he went to the authorities and was taken into custody. On the third of January, 1804, the trial came to the Old Bailey. The court was crowded. There sat the three judges, Lord Chief Justice Baron, Mr Justice Rooke and Mr Justice Lawrence leaning over their posies of flowers. In the dock stood Francis Smith, white as the ghost he had murdered, horror stricken at his dreadful deed, appalled that he had taken a human life. The charge of murder was brought and the case unfolded. The whole foolish story was told – the spectre, the hod and the blunderbuss. One by one the country yokels from Hammersmith appeared. Billy Girdler told his story, John Lock, mine host at the Black Lion, told of his fear as did others. As they related their story in stumbling country accents, the atmosphere of the frightened village came to the court and sympathy rose for the Excise Man.
The jury wished to bring a verdict of manslaughter, but Lord Chief Justice Baron impressed upon them that to kill a man with intent, even supposing him to be a ghost, was murder. The jury withdrew again and returned with a verdict of murder, adding a strong recommendation for mercy. The death penalty by hanging was then pronounced to be carried out on the following Monday morning. Having made clear to Hammersmith and the country the position relating to ghost-killing, the judge contacted the Crown. That evening a respite during his Majesty’s pleasure was received at the court and three weeks later Francis Smith was reprieved and sentenced to one year in prison.