Jan. 1, 2021

The Ghostly Courtrooms and Cells of Shirehall

The Ghostly Courtrooms and Cells of Shirehall

Shirehall in Hereford is one of England’s oldest working courts. This location is an impressive one that has seen many famous trials and notorious figures. It would be here that prisoners would be sentenced and executions carried out. 

This grand and atmospheric space would reveal some secrets in some newly tried paranormal investigation techniques that date back for centuries- one I hope inspires you to try out this technique for yourself. 

It would be here I would uncover a rather sinister connection. This is a location with many tales to tell and here are just some of mine.... 

Thank you for listening. In this podcast a very special announcement is made at the very end- the links of which are below. Please come along and have a look at this exciting next step!


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In Bad Shape: Sensing the Criminal Corpse - Dissecting the Criminal Corpse - NCBI Bookshelf

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07QPVS9KM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1- biography about Fred West

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The Ghostly Courtrooms and Cells of Shirehall


Hi everyone and welcome back to another episode of Haunted History Chronicles, a place where we dive deep into the history and the haunted history of some pretty amazing locations around the world. In this episode we are going to be exploring a rather impressive Grade II listed building situated in Hereford in England. So without further ado let's get started.   

History Of Shirehall  (0.47)

The building itself was first given approval to be built in 1815 by Act of Parliament so as to provide suitable accommodations for His Majesty’s Justices to dispense justice in, and around, the area of Hereford. The Shirehall itself was designed by Charles Heather under the instruction of Sir Robert Smirke- a renowned English architect and considered a leader in Greek Revival architecture.He designed several public buildings including the main block and facade of the British Museum. The building was completed in 1817 on what had previously been the local jail. The principal rooms were made up of a Great Hall, a grand jury room, a library and some courtrooms. The front of the building itself faced St Peter’s Square and featured doric columns supporting a frieze with triglyphs and a pediment- very much in keeping with Greek early architecture. Although the original purpose of the building was to dispense justice in 1888 the local government act would implement and establish county council’s in every county in England and so the Shirehall would continue to be used as a court but also serve as a meeting place for the newly formed Herefordshire County Council. Now the building has continued to hold crown court hearings and meetings to this day making it one of the oldest working courtrooms in England. Many of the original features remain to this day including that of a hook used by the judge when sentencing people to death prior to them being transported to St Peter’s Square where the execution would be carried out. Many reports exist from hanging towns up and down the country of people being mishandled prior to, and after, death. Compared to their European counterparts English executioners lacked basic medical expertise to ensure a quick death on the gallows. Nor were anatomists consulted as to best placement or length of the rope. Nor was the weight of the prisoner itself factored in. All too often the rope would slip or be tied incorrectly around the voice box- leading to the prisoner being unable to scream or cry out it would however prolong their death.  There are many uncomfortable reports of people being cut down after the maximum hour of hanging time had been reached to find the prisoner would still have their neck unbroken and be writhing in excruciating pain; they would be hemorrhaging in the brain from the build up of pressure there, the brain itself would have started to turn to a mush. The visible signs of this happening included eyes protruding, the face turning from vivid purple to black: both were often reported in provincial newspapers. The criminal was in the most confusing medical state of all, ‘the living dead’ and it was now that the executioner had the discretion to make concessions to appease the crowd. The capital code decreed that the hangman did not have the option of using a sword or dagger to finish off the criminal. That penal authority had been revoked as uncivilised, by the early modern period. It was routine however to find other ways to speed things up, something that would become known as a rough-handled body by the surgeons who would go on to perform their dissections on the corpses for medical science.

Cases tried at Shirehall (4.37)

Many people would pass through these courts. In a celebrated case at the time, a solicitor, Herbert Armstrong, was tried and convicted of murdering his wife, in April 1922.  He remains the only solicitor in the history of the United Kingdom to have been hanged for murder.The prosecution case was a strong one. Katherine Armstrong's body was riddled with arsenic and at the time of her death the ingested quantity must have been far higher. Herbert Armstrong had been making huge purchases of arsenic in the lead up to her death.The defence had somehow to make the jury believe that Mrs Armstrong had committed suicide by getting out of bed, going downstairs and helping herself to arsenic without anyone seeing or hearing her; or that massive doses of arsenic had somehow got into her system in some accidental way- somethng seemingly impossible when all witnesses of the day confirmed that towards the end she was almost paralysed. However, despite the evidence against Armstrong, though considerable, was nonetheless purely circumstantial. No one had actually seen him administering poison, and at the time of his arrest he had made no attempt to draw upon his dead wife's fortune. Mrs Armstrong had occasionally spoken of suicide, some medicines of the day contained arsenic, and there were plenty of other people coming into contact with her. The prosecution failed to show how it was Armstrong and only Armstrong who administered poison, and no one else. Armstrong made no confession and adamantly maintained his total innocence to the bitter end. It is claimed by some who were the day of his execution that his final words before his execution were, "Kitty, I'm coming to ye."

Another famous case was that of Alfred Watkins who was hanged in 1864 after also confessing to the murder of his wife. At the time he was also convicted of the murder of two other men - a crime he never admitted to.Both of these figures are believed to haunt this building. Many claim that Alfred, for example, returns to try and clear himself of the murders of the two men that he continued to maintain he had no part in.

With so many reports of ill treatment it is no surprise that Shirehall has reports of paranormal activity. Dark shadow figures have been seen normally preceding a foul smell and feelings of anxiety by many in the old courtrooms and cells. Feelings of light-headedness and nausea have been experienced by many in the building and figures and disembodied voices heard crying and wailing out.

I visited here a few years ago- it is a place I enjoyed exploring enormously as it was very different to the usual types of buildings that I had been to up until that point. It was here too though that I would try out some different types of investigations that I will talk about in this podcast. 

Hauntings of Shirehall (8.02)

The building itself is somewhat misleading from the front as it appears to be smaller than it actually is. It is quite extensive with many levels. From the older courtrooms in the centre of those rooms is the docks - from there the prison cells below that are where the prisoners would have been detained and brought up for trial. The courtrooms themselves as you can imagine have that very austere feel to them- the cells below are small, the feeling of claustrophobia is strong. These stone cells are below ground - the air is stagnant and there were no windows or natural light of any kind. 

The evening began as a big group in the grand, large hall which featured a stage at one end. A very atmospheric room.  From here we would move on to one of the two original courtrooms - which still had its original panelling. From there we would descend via the very narrow and steep staircase to the cells below. Despite the occasional tapping noises and minor knocking sounds I can’t say that anything of note happened in any of these areas whilst I was there. It felt very quiet too. I didn’t sense anything and no equipment really picked up anything. After this people would move off into small groups or alone to carry out their own investigations or smaller group vigils. I went on to spend a good part of the rest of the evening in two different locations. One of these was a large room with Victorian pieces inside- cabinets and large tables and seats. A beautiful fireplace and large windows. I share as always, some photographs from some of the different locations mentioned thus far on my social media pages. In here I would set up light sensors that covered pretty much the entirety of the room itself hoping to capture something that would disturb the sensors and cause a break in the lights that you could see lighting up all the wall and furniture. The equipment is incredibly sensitive. Something very small- a moth fluttering for example will create a distortion that you see in the light patterns displayed. Something larger will obviously create a much bigger distortion. We sat in one spot throughout and nobody else came into the room to disturb what we were doing. Part way through this small vigil the light would distort quite significantly near what was a large cabinet in the room- it was so clear- something large in size comparable to that of something stood in that area. Then the lights would return to normal with no break in the light patterns.  I wish I had something to continuously capture it on video because it was so clear - taking photographs as a run of pictures meant I just missed it. To myself though, and the others in the room, it was very clearly something- something had broken the light sensors and it could not have been us. We would try for quite some time after this to ask and call out for something similar to happen but the room became quiet after that.

The last room of the night is where I would try something I had never tried before with just one other person and that was the act of scrying using a large, jet black obsidian mirror. Scrying is known by many other names- hydromancy, crystal gazing are just a few. In essence though it is simply the ancient art of revelation. It  is the practice of looking into a suitable medium in the hope of detecting significant messages or vision.

The word “scrying” actually comes from the Old English word descry which means “to make out dimly” or “to reveal.” Therefore, scrying is about revealing the unseen through the use of our in-born second sight. Second sight is our capacity to see things that can’t usually be perceived through our five senses.

Traditionally, scrying has been portrayed through the popular image of the psychic gazing over her crystal ball. Almost every culture has used some form of scrying: from the Native American’s observation of smoke, to the Egyptians use of oil gazing to gain wisdom. 

Usually, scrying is performed with the use of a reflective surface, such as a mirror, water or crystal. However, there are many other forms. The nine most common types are wax, oil, fire, water, cloud, mirror, smoke, crystal and eye. 

When you hear what is involved you can see that in many cases these are things that often you may have done yourself or seen someone doing.

Scrying using an eye may seem unusual. It is also called soul gazing, this form of scrying involves looking deep within a person’s eyes and observing the reflections.

The crystal is the stereotypical form of scrying, but nonetheless very effective. It involves the use of a crystal object (usually a ball or globe) to gather special meaning.

The use of fire is possibly the most ancient form of scrying, this type of scrying involves gazing into fiery flames for visions. This can be done through the use of a simple candle or oil lamp or of course something bigger.

Scrying using smoke involves gazing into the smoke  as it rises from fire, its ethereal shapes present spiritual messages. Scrying with water involves staring into water, images can be perceived after some time. Objects such as pebbles can also be dropped into the water to create ripples which can themselves then be interpreted. The use of a mirror is possibly the most popular form of scrying. It involves relaxing your vision and staring into a mirror. After a while, images and scenes will begin to emerge. The use of wax is done by dripping wax onto a water surface. The scryer then interprets the images or words formed from the dried wax. Cloud  scrying – also called cloud gazing, this form of scrying involves observing clouds and the shapes that they form. This is used to gather special information or knowledge. The very last form of scrying is with oil – it involves pouring oil into a dish, rubbing it on the body, or coating a cup/plate. The scryer then observes the light reflected off the oil for information.

So as I mentioned I tried scrying with a dark mirror as did the person I was with. I went first- and remember this was my first experience scrying. So I relaxed and started staring into this mirror. I have no concept as to how long I remained like that- I really did get lost in the process of scrying. It was a very strange process but one I will try and explain. So listening to my voice you can probably work out that I’m female. If I were to pick out some of my facial details for you I would explain that I have a very clear female nose- it is small and narrow (probably narrower and smaller than many women’s in fact. I have long dark hair and at the time it was down and hanging around both sides of my neck. My head is actually quite narrow and it often means I have been able to wear children’s frames for my glasses because larger adult frames tend to need to be manipulated as they are often too wide for my face shape without alteration. I say all of this because what happened over a few minutes was to see my nose broaden considerably and particularly at the bottom and almost appear flatter at the top. My  hair almost faded out leaving me with a considerably shorter hair cut and something that was very, very thick . My face became masculine before my very eyes. I knew it was me I was staring at but at the same time I did not recognise myself at all. My glasses had also gone. When I describe this to you I want you to understand that as I recount this the hairs on my arms stand up. It really left an impact on me. Staring at the face it looked familiar but I could not place it at all. It was on the tip of my tongue but I couldn’t take that next step to recognise what I was seeing but I knew that face and it was one that disturbed me- not just because of the fact that seeing someone else’s reflection looking back at you is a bit startling. The eyes were what transfixed me. They were narrow and mean and dark. Dead eyes. Almost appearing sunken and close together. About all I could say was that I felt I was looking into evil and it was staring back at me. It really was unnerving. I didn’t go into scrying with any expectations that anything would happen- probably honestly the opposite. I went into it thinking that the likelihood or seeing anything would be slim and probably down to tiredness or my mind creating images and playing tricks. That face though is still clear in my mind all these years later and the feeling it left me with. Only one word- evil. I will come back to this part of the story a little bit later!

The person I was with got given that mirror after that. I didn’t want to continue with that as I was honestly pushed beyond my comfort zone.  As she began her face also began to change in the mirror. The feeling around it though was so very different. Her face would broaden and age Between the two of us we would describe what we were seeing. It felt incredibly comforting. Part way through her scrying- something came into my head a word that I couldn’t repeat to this day. It was a name in Welsh- a name I had never heard up until then or since. I don’t speak Welsh at all but yet this name came to me and I was able to say it out loud. The person I was with became emotional - that name had a particular reference for her - that I won’t share but it was also one that I didn’t know about. She would later show me pictures of her grandmother- and my goodness but it sure looked like the face I had seen and described. And that name- one maybe that came through from her grandmother to say that soul was with her and ok. It was really touching. As I said comforting- and the total opposite of what I had experienced. 

To conclude let’s return to that face I saw and felt. It stayed with me for weeks. Knowing it and just not being able to place it. I spent a while searching and trying to find records of who it could have been. Something not easy to do when there aren't a great deal of public records and certainly more difficult when you don't know where to start.

As soon as I mention the following name I am sure it will be one many of you are familiar with- Fred West. He is an English serial killer that committed at least 12 murders between 1967 and 1987. All of his victims were young women and many of these were later found concealed in his house and garden. He killed himself by asphyxiation in 1995 whilst on remand in prison awaiting trial. This was well over a decade before I would go to Shirehall in Hereford and at the time of Fred West’s arrest it is something I remember but nothing in huge detail- I was probably 15 or 16 at the time. I had no idea of any connection he had had with this building- I am sure many don't. The building itself had nothing to do with his later arrests. But the face I saw was undoubtedly him when I saw it again and when I made the connection with his link to Shirehall it all fell into place and made sense. In June of 1961 Fred was arrested for the molestation of his 13 year old sister and tried on the 9th November in the very same building. Fred’s mother was prepared to give evidence but Kitty his sister could not and refused. The case collapsed in court. Post that he was effectively disowned by his family and would go on to commit the later crimes that he did with his wife. His was the face of evil that I saw and the evil that I felt to my core. 

Conclusion (22.17)

Thank you for listening everyone. If you are someone interested in the paranormal- maybe try scrying at a location you visit or in your own home. Like I said during this podcast it really is an ancient art. If you have any first hand experiences let me know - you can get in touch through the social media pages for the podcast but linked in to every episode description is a means to also send me a digitally recorded message. 

Until next week- bye for now everyone!

Special Announcement (23.02)

So I have a really special announcement to also make. I have been busy over the Christmas Holidays building a new website for Haunted History Chronicles. It’s still a work in progress but I would love for you to go over there, have a look. It has a lot of different new features that I hope you'll be able to engage with and enjoy. I will put the description for that new website into the description box below. I would love to see you there.

Ways to help (22.31)

If you like this podcast you can help in different ways. Come and join us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Help spread the word with friends and family. Share the news of the podcast with other people that may be interested. Down in the description box below is also an access to Patreon where you can continue to support the podcast further and in the process gain access to some extra goodies.

If you ever get the time to write a review I would really appreciate it. Thank you so much everyone.