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How whistling Somerset ghost accused Bishop of infanticide, incest & sodomy & started shipwrecking

 book cover


 Research by the  University of Warwick shows how the infamous Somerset ghost Old Mother Leakey, widely accused of  “whistling up” bad weather and ship wrecks, had a much  darker past which  led to an Irish bishop being accused of infanticide and incest and eventually hung for sodomy.

In modern times Old Mother Leakey is known as a ghost who haunts the waterfront at Minehead  in Somerset “whistling up” bad weather than can sink ships. However research by University of Warwick historian Professor Peter Marshall reveals that this description of the ghost is a more modern gloss on much darker tale.

In his recent book “Mother Leakey & the Bishop” Professor Marshall outlines how the whistling and ship sinking version of Old Mother Leakey was made popular by Sir Walter Scott when describing the ghost in his epic poem Rokeby in 1813. However this was published over 160 years after old Mother Leakey’s first, and much darker, appearance at  Halloween in 1636.

That Halloween the house of Minehead shipping merchant Alexander Leakey was allegedly assailed by the appearances of the ghost of his recently dead mother -  Old Mother Leakey. Various family members and friends claimed to see the ghost, and there are even claims that a young family member was suffocated  to death by the ghost, but Alexander’s wife Elizabeth seemed to be the focus of the haunting.

Professor Marshall’s book outlines the facts that the records show that Elizabeth claimed to challenge the ghost to state what it wanted.  Old Mother Leakey then supposedly gave her two tasks:  to go and see a sister about a gold necklace, and to pass a mysterious message on to her brother in law Dr John Atherton,  now Bishop of Waterford, who was married to Joan - another of Old Mother Leakey’s children.

Professor Marshall’s book explains  how Dr John Atherton seemed to leave clerical positions in Somerset under a bit of a cloud only to become Bishop Atherton of Waterford in Ireland.  In this role he became a pivotal figure in ecclesiastical politics and, while not well liked by friend or foe, had proved useful in reasserting church authority in Ireland and supporting the form of Anglicanism preferred by King Charles 1st and Archbishop William Laud.

As Old Mother Leakey’s apparition  threatened to bring scandal to the door of such a key figure  three justices of the peace were charged by King Charles 1st’s Privy Council to investigate the haunting. In the end Archbishop Laud  reported  that the  JPs:

 “..examined the business of the apparition, and certainly it is a fiction and a practice, but to what end cannot be discovered. And the younger woman, at that part of the examination, stood still to it that she had a charge not to utter to any but to Dr Atherton…..If she come over into Ireland (as she says she will) it may be that and more by fished out of her, but a cunning woman I hear she is, and her husband in decay. And therefore, I doubt it may be some money business”

But it did not end there. Professor Marshall’s research suggests that Elizabeth Leakey did indeed travel to Ireland to deliver her message.  Rumours began to circulate that the message related to an affair that Bishop Atherton  was alleged to have had with Susan Leakey another of Old Mother Leakey’s daughters. Not only was this adultery but, by the standards of the day it was also considered incest to have an affair with your wife’s sister.

Things got darker still and soon it was also rumoured that the Bishop had had a child by this affair and that the child had been murdered in an attempt to cover up the scandal.

Things went from bad to worse for the bishop and amidst the swirl of alleged sins circling the bishop he was also accused of an act of sodomy with his man servant. This was a capital offence in 17th Century Ireland and in December 1640 he became the first and only Anglican bishop to be executed by hanging.

Old Mother Leakey’s ghost got its dark revenge - or more likely a piece of family blackmail didn’t quite go to plan.  Whichever it was things did not go well for the Leakey family thereafter and Alexander Merchant shipping business floundered.  From this misfortune in his shipping business grew the more modern legend that Old Mother Leakey herself had whistled up storms from the waterfront in Minehead to sink her own son’s ships.

Professor Marshall’s research has revealed an even darker origin to the modern myth of Minehead’s Old Mother Leakey.

Notes for editors:

The book Mother Leakey and the Bishop: A Ghost Story By Peter Marshall is published by Oxford University Press (22 Feb 2007) ISBN-10: 0199273715  ISBN-13: 978-0199273713

Link to some pages of the book and cover

For further information please contact:

Professor Peter Marshall
Department of History
University of Warwick
tel. 024 765 23452

Peter Dunn, Press and Media Relations Manager, Communications Office,
University of Warwick,  024 76 523708 email:

PR95 PJD  25th October 2007