Illustrated Ghost Stories: The Severed Arm of Overwater

A curious and grisly ghostly tale in which to this day I still can’t decide whether Overwater Hall and it’s neighbouring tarn are haunted by one ghost or two. This one’s not for the squeamish that’s for sure!

The Seeds of a Scandal

In the Lake District in 1814 Joseph Gillbanks procured the Whitfield estate and the estates that surrounded it. Where once stood Whitfield House Gillbanks decided to build what is now known as Overwater Hall, presumably named for the tarn that it neighboured. Gillbanks had made his fortune by sailing to Jamaica at the age of 20 in the pursuit of riches. Whilst there he found love and married Mary Jackson, the niece of the Chief Justice of Jamaica at the time. Armed with vast sums of cash and a new bride, Gillbanks returned to the UK to build his new home and become the firs tof the halls many characterful occupants.

The tale goes that when Joseph and Mary set course for Cumbria they were unknowingly being pursued. It is said that Joseph had taken a mistress whilst in Jamaica and that this mistress had given birth to an illegitimate child. Not content to see Joseph flee his responsibilities the mistress too set course for England. Upon tracking Gillbanks down she revealed to him that they had conceived a child. This was deemed to be a huge scandal that Gilbanks would do anything to avoid, and so he began to scheme. Joseph took his mistress out onto the lake by boat where he preceded to attempt to drown the poor woman who had mothered his child. When she tried to clamber back aboard it is said that Joseph severed her arms so that she no longer had the agency to save herself from the terrible fate of drowning. The coward Gillbanks left his armless victim in the lake to die a grisly and cruel death. 

Now Joseph was never charged for the murder but it is said that the story was well known around the locality and it was no secret of the terrible deed that Gillbanks had done. That Gillbanks never faced justice for his crime which is perhaps how the stories of the ghost of Overwater Hall began.

A Restless Spirit

It is said that within the walls of a hall the ghost of a woman can be seen. She is described as being a black woman with no arms. One famous account of the ghost is that by one of the Hall’s subsequent owners Charles Norman De Courcy Parry, an eccentric ex-chief constable who was famous in his own right for aprehending and killing the infamous war time criminal Percy Toplis, and who claimed to have purchased the hall when drunk. De Courcy Parry wrote about his time in the hall for the magazine ‘Horse and Hound’ in 1934*

“I (Parry) was assured that the old house was haunted by the ghost of a black woman, who had met her sad ending by being drowned in the lake at the bottom of the garden (Over Water).

It was her husband who did the horrid deed, and when she came to the surface and clutched the side of the boat, then the brute up with a chopper and cut off her hands and down went she to the pike and weeds, bubble, bubble, bubble, goodbye!

A nasty tale without a doubt, and no wonder the black lady walks the house and has terrified a great many people. Apparently, it is the lack of her hands that gives them the willies. No maids would sleep here and so cottages were bulit at the end of the back drive for them to sleep in peace.

Naturally, I was a little curious to see this unhappy phenomenon, and I was very surprised indeed on a Friday in August at twenty-past twelve of the clock… to see her pass noiselessly up the stairs and go into our best bedroom without opening the door. Right through the panels she went, whoosh!

She could not have opened the door, it sticks with age, and apart from that she had no hands to turn the knob!” 

From this account we can see that alongside the haunting’s origin being that of a grisly one, our ghost herself is quite frightening to behold. Silently traversing the hall with missing arms, ready to surprise anyone who should live within, visit or work in the home.

However our tale doesnt end here and and our haunting becomes evermore peculiar. Whilst our poor spirit wanders the hall incomplete legend goes that her arms haunt another part of the grounds, the lake where they were severed. The belief that is held in folklore is that the tarn never freezes because when ice begins to form on it’s surface the severed arm appears, balls it’s fist and punches it’s way through the freezing formation.

Today Overwater Hall is open to the public operating as a hotel. Would you dare to spend the night and risk to see the apparition? Or would you settle to walk by the tarn on a frosty winter day, wondering perhaps why the ice does not form upon it’s top…

*Cited from