The story of the Kidsgrove Boggart originates from a murder that took place inside the canal tunnel during the early 19th century. Before the arrival of the railways those wishing to travel any great distance by public transport were reliant upon stage coaches. These naturally limited how much baggage a passenger was allowed to carry.
From the late 18th century an alternative was to travel by narrowboat. The story of the Kidsgrove Boggart involves a young lady whose husband had been offered a job in one of England’s growing cities that meant obtaining lodgings. After a few weeks he wrote to his wife asking her to join him and to bring all their possessions. It is not known for certain why the young lady was in Kidsgrove, possibly the boat that had conveyed her there had reached its destination and was returning to its point of departure. That might help to explain why she went into a local pub in an attempt to find a crew that would be willing to convey both her and her possessions.
Having secured a passage she and the crew of three set off on their journey. As was the usual practice, two members of the crew took the boat through the tunnel while the third led the horse over the hill.
There appear to be two versions of the story. The first is that once inside the tunnel curiosity got the better of the two crew members and they murdered their passenger in the hope of finding items of value among her belongings. The second is that they attempted to rape her and in the struggle she slipped from the boat which decapitated her against the tunnel wall.
Whatever version of events happened, they decided that the most convenient place to dispose of the body was in the tunnel itself. This they did at a side tunnel known as Gilbert’s Hole.
When the lady failed to reach her destination suspicions arose and a search was made. Retracing her journey, her decapitated remains were discovered where it had been left. Her head was never found which is why the apparition is supposed to be headless. The crew were found guilty and sentenced to death.
It was shortly afterwards that locals began glimpsing the figure of a headless woman in the tunnel, around the canal basin and in the adjoining woodland uttering piercing screams. However, this is where the boggart tale appears to have become mingled with another local legend – that of the ghost of Clough Hall. This is supposedly a young housemaid, who on finding herself pregnant, committed suicide by drowning herself in Clough Hall Lake.
Whoever the unfortunate spirit is, strictly speaking, the Kidsgrove apparition is not a boggart. In folklore terms these are malevolent spirits that are usually blamed for misfortunes such as the disappearance of possessions, causing animals to go lame, and milk to curdle. In physical appearance Boggarts are more akin to a dog-like creature. This is true of the one that supposedly haunted the Basford area near Leekbrook during the late 19th century which took the form of a black dog without a head.
If the story of the ill-fated passenger at Kidsgrove appears familiar it is because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the more well-known canal murder of Christina Collins. Like the lady from Kidsgrove, her journey was also before the convenience of the railways. In 1839 she set out to join her husband in London. It was on a stretch of the canal near Rugeley that she was murdered by the crew of the narrowboat, two of whom were hanged and a third sentenced to transportation.
The plot of the tale was used by Colin Dexter, author of the Inspector Morse series. He adopted the story for his Oxford-based detective in the episode ‘The Witch is Dead.’