The Meltdown Murders
Castor's Bridge and the Borderland Smelters
Throughout the three-shires border region, where East Cheshire, Peak District Derbyshire and the Staffordshire Moorlands intertwine, tales of yore are peppered with dark legends of cannibalism and murder. But could there be more to the historical rumours than mere fear mongering and folk warnings of the wild? Could they actually be true?
A Difficult Human Truth
Amongst some of the darker lessons that history can teach us are those which concern our most basic of human needs. Those stories, all the more so when known to be factual, can trouble us in our core. They are the stories that feel completely at odds with who we are today; or perhaps more accurately, who we would like to think we are.
Lost love can give cause for revenge for paupers and kings alike, and dark deeds may be commonplace in the pursuit of wealth and power, but all actions attributed to such themes at least contain, even at their most brutal, a kernel of something we can recognise as universally human.
Yet to the act of cannibalism, safe to say we all become lost. In the flesh of another human, we are all removed from the party. This truth contains an irony though. For throughout history, it is precisely this stomach-churning act that most of us, in the balance of such things, may have found ourselves contemplating more than any other, speaking as it does to that most human of needs; self-preservation.
Naturally, I am not suggesting any joy would be taken, but the fact remains, in times of war and in times of famine, irrespective of culture, faith, or social standing, throughout human history, when there is no other alternative, humans will eat other humans.
No doubt you may have read such stories. The Arctic expedition whose crew descended into madness. The survivors of the plane crash, high in the Alps, lost amongst the blinding snow; the practicalities of surviving the siege of Leningrad. This is sombre stuff, and perhaps most of us, when thinking of such acts, are far more likely to think of Sweeney Todd, the evil Victorian barber, butchering his customers and serving them as pies to unwitting patrons. But what happens when stories like that of Sweeney Todd are not created for pure entertainment? What happens when they are believed to be real, and rooted right here in rural England?
This is an inquiry into one such long rumoured tale connected to the border region between the Derbyshire Peak District and the Staffordshire Moorlands; a story that will, as the most intriguing of folklore always does, lead us to an origin that would have been impossible to predict.
A Roving Tale
Popular in local books and late-night country gatherings alike, there is a tale that hovers on the boundary between rural horror and Grimmesque fairytale in much the manner that it does too, the geography of the three-shires border.
It is the tale of a local family who would befriend weary travellers, giving them rest for the night before stealing their belongings and dispatching them; disposing of their remains by roasting up the most tasty parts for supper. As we will see, this popular trope is in fact more of a distillation. A snapshot to be easily recalled, and one that has found itself transposed to various spots throughout the wider region.
It is a tale that has created several misunderstandings in its wake; which is testament to the power and depth of its roots. Primarily focused on the borderland village of Flash, reputedly the highest village in England, where it is held together with an idea that the Flash Inn was once home to counterfeit coiners, who would stamp coins from the gold and silver taken from the travellers that were murdered nearby; the terms ‘flash money’ and being ‘flashy’ are both said to have been created by this history.
In reality, the name of the village is derived from an ancient local word for ‘wetlands’. Nearby Three Shires Head too, the spot at which a bridge over the River Dane finds Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Staffordshire conspiring to provide the Flash felons with a simple hop across the water to evade the apparatus of hoodwinked county-tied legal recompense, is also not entirely accurate; the actual meeting point of the counties being located around a quarter of a mile away. Still, we should not dismiss these ideas all that easily. The history of the area may yet serve to make these popular perceptions entirely logical.
The truth is that the tale, so seemingly well-framed within the village of Flash, has found itself variously attached to several other locations across the wider landscape, with an area known as Jarman near Macclesfield and The Ship Inn at Wincle both having their reputations darkened by association at different times in recent history. This should not be overlooked, however, as such a spread of reference is indicative of travelling gossip and repeated layering; precisely what happens when a shocking tale from a neighbouring settlement carries an inherent weight to it.
With this in mind, let us look at the tale itself.
The Legend of Casters Bridge
It is entitled simply as Casters Bridge, which is a reference to the tales central location, found near the hamlet of Gradbach, Quarnford parish. The parish, which also plays
home to the village of Flash, is found around 6 miles south-west of Buxton, 11 miles south-east of Macclesfield, and around 10 miles north of Leek, and comprises a central, rugged, and wild weave of countryside that wouldn't be out of place in a Bronte novel.
First produced in print back in 1860 in Legends of the Moorlands and Forest in North Staffordshire, the tale seems far more substantial a piece of folklore than any subsequent retelling would lead us to believe. It is the story of a travelling merchant, returning to an area that he knew well as a boy, who is now replete with the riches that he once left in search of. It is a wonderful piece of local historical poetry, told in the rhythm of many popular pieces of the time, with a meter that perhaps quite intentionally reads like a ballad; click here to read it before continuing.
The contributor of the tale in 1860 is given as a ‘Miss Dakeyne’ and is noted in a Country Life article of the time as being from a family of silk manufacturers at Gradbach Mill, where they had been in-situ since 1780. This can give us some idea of the timeline of the tale’s origins, as can references within the poem, pertaining to contemporary local events.
The pedlar is familiar with the local area and appears to be passing through on a journey back to his mother and childhood home, when the beauty of the surrounding landscape distracts him to such a point that, with night falling, he needs to rest until morning.
Being invited in by the family of an isolated cottage, there is a sense that the pedlar is already under the impression that the family is in the business of smelting metal down to make a living; something that connects directly with the old legends of Flash, and to which, we can only assume, the pedlar did not apply any notion of legality. Alarmed by the words of the child in the night, he endeavours to make his escape, dashing out into the country dark and finding sanctuary beneath the cover of Castor’s Bridge; itself a sight of archaeological note as an old smelting site with iron-ore slag, suspected of pre- seventeenth century origins, having been found at multiple spots in the vicinity.
As the family from the cottage search for him, the waters beneath the bridge mask the pedlar's scent from their dogs, and our as-yet straightforward tale of adventure takes a turn for the strange. What follows is akin to a dream sequence, with the pedlar stumbling through time to find his childhood home, which appears to be full of Christmas festivity; implied by the mention of a ‘wassail bowl’, typically used for punch around Christmas throughout the 1700s.
He is invited in and enjoys the hospitality before suddenly, as the scene fades and changes, he finds both his brother and father vanished, and he is alone in the house but for the comforts of his much aged mother. As quickly as the dream sequence began, it ends, and the pedlar is off to a nearby town, which must be either Leek, Macclesfield or Buxton, to notify authorities of his plight, who then send torch-lit bands out to the cottage, to tear the property down and apprehend the murderous family; their confessions confirming a criminal enterprise involving the murder and robbery of travellers.
Of all the observations available from the tale, of particularly important note is that the trackway on which the murderous family would spy their prey had apparently once been far busier. If we are to place the tale in the timeline of the local history, which we must if we have any hope of discerning its provenance, this could be vital. It may be indicative of a substantial change in the local economy, which may prove to be a gem of a clue as we pursue the true meaning of this strange and wonderful tale after more than 160 years of rumour and speculation.
The countryside around Quarnford was once alive with the trackways of jagger packhorses, transporting goods between the villages and towns of the wider area. As referenced in my piece Death of the Jagger, their business was vital to the sustenance of local communities, delivering essential goods and news across a landscape that drew in trade from central Cheshire, Derbyshire and throughout the region of the Staffordshire Moorlands. However, come the latter half of the eighteenth century, local life was changing.
The first mills of the Industrial Revolution were transforming the economic outlook of towns throughout the wider area, and those living in the satellite villages and rural communities around them were finding their world increasingly to be in a state of flux. There was now a viable alternative to the roles and professions that had been mainstays throughout the hills and moors for hundreds of years.
Naturally, as peoples’ habits changed, so did their routes of travel. A new route to Buxton had been set out in the 1760s, and in both 1771 and 1773 brand new turnpike roads had been laid through the area. In essence, this meant that it had taken less than ten years to completely change the transport infrastructure of the local countryside. Given that we know the village of Flash has its own ‘Association for the Prosecution of Felons’ by 1811, we are presented with a window of 40 years, between 1770 - when the transport links changed - and 1810, when the activities of local felons would not have required the work of local vigilante bands to taper them. It is a timeframe that will lead us directly towards the last days of the most notorious local criminal organisation of the period; the Meg Lane Farm Gang.
You may have noticed a rather inconvenient omission from the tale regarding our fundamental quarry; the issue of the cannibals. It is one of those moments of inflection that can present itself when looking into the core material of a piece of lore, at which elements of the myth can become redundant. When the pedlar overhears the child asking if he will soon be dead, as the oven is warming (the sole cause of suspicion for the cannibal legend) it would be far more likely that this was a reference to the smelting of his gold rather than the cooking of his body. But we would do well not to dismiss the idea too hastily.
Taken from The Reliquary, a work of archaeological review from 1865, the tale of Casters Bridge - ‘Castor’s’ is the modern spelling - is referenced in some detail; as is a clue to the issue of the origins of the cannibal legend. I quote verbatim;
In a pleasant little book, published a few years ago, there is a legend told of this bridge, that a man,
pursued from a hostelry near, by his murderous host, took refuge under it. That hostelry stood in the garden attached to the white cottage nearby. Many are the dismal stories related by the country people respecting it, and of white and ghastly ghosts walking headless from the brook to the garden; and after them, of course, come explanations that many a traveller had been murdered therein gone by days, and cast into the river, "out of the way." Some say these crimes were committed for the sake of gold and that sums of money are from time to time exhumed about the premises. The latter report is partly true, for money certainly has been found, but none of greater value than a shilling. The old people of the neighbourhood have also stories of men having been killed and...the rest is too horrible to write. I only mention the fact because omitting it I should omit one of the most popular fireside tales of the moorlands. Some man might perhaps have fallen into the furnace when smelting was carried on there, and so have given an ample and perfectly sufficient foundation for all the dismal stories which have been told about the ancient furies of the spot - the Cannibals of Castor's Bridge.
Not only is this entry further evidence of just how well established the legend is was the local area, but it also gives cause to shore up the possibility that the mention in the original tale of the oven getting hot was indeed a reference to the family being of a cannibalistic bent. Clearly, it was a core part of the story locked into the lore of the area by the 1860s. In addressing the area of Castor's Bridge, reference is made to the meaning of the name; Castor being an alternative to ‘Smelter’ or ‘Welter’.
The note continues;
The path about here is strewn with the refuse of melted metal. To those who are disposed to think that some members of the Meg Lane Gang once worked here, the following note upon that gang, taken from that far little story of the forest "Spell Bound" may be amusing. Meg Lane Farm (in Sutton,
a few miles from Casters Bridge) "was once the rendezvous of a notorious gang of coiners, who for a long time carried on their nefarious trade with impunity. The farmhouse stood in a very wild and secluded place, and the building was large and well-adapted for concealment. Members of the gang were dispersed in different parts of the neighbourhood, and in situations that enables them to know all the movements of the constables. Fearful robberies were committed and money coined in abundance at Meg Lane Farm, from the spoils of their nocturnal depredations. Yet for a long time all the attempts of just were completely baffled, until at length some clue was obtained through a servant girl who lived with one of the men at a toll-bar.
The gang was broken up and some of them executed at Chester. The farmhouse passed into other hands and has since undergone great alterations, but in clearing out a well in the yard, various implements were found, amongst others a perfect coining engine, worked by a powerful screw, for punching out the coins and for striking the impression on them. This engine is now in the possession of a Mr. Smith of Langley, near Macclesfield.
The ‘pleasant little book’ referred to in relation to the tale was first published in 1859 by Nail & Son of Leek, and is attributed to ‘a Moorlander, who has had good opportunities of hearing all the forest legends, and her work contains a very interesting matter, which every tourist should read while he rests amongst the rocks she speaks of’ - not only giving us a clear correlation between the events that are described in the legend and the activities of the notorious local gang, but also an indication that the 1859 notes, identifying their source as a woman, is likely a call to the same Miss Dakeyne that penned the original tale.
Of particular importance too is the mention of the coining engine. According to witnesses in the local press who had viewed the machine during the early twentieth century, the press contained upon it the initials ‘I.H', which was believed to have been a reference to a local blacksmith by the name of Issac Heath, who operated from the present-day site of the Ryles Arms at the turn of the 1800s; only a stone's throw from the gang's home at Meg Lane Farm. Said in local lore to have been led by a figure known as Hugh Raven, taken to be a highwayman of sorts, the Meg Lane Gang's connection to smelting is directly referenced in another local poem of the 1850s;
A furnace in the gloom was reared, through with its flashes wildly glared. Near it were places huge iron dies, by massive screws they fall and rise. Here swarthy ruffians, half undressed Bare sinewy aims and brawny chest, plied without fear, their secret trade. And coin of gold and silver made
That particulate poem is known as Spell-bound, or rather Spell-bound, a tale in verse, by Redgirdle, the forest fay to give its full title. It is a remarkable and extensive piece of work that casts light across Hugh Raven and all manner of curious local characters and events, but it is in its reference to the coiners to which we can attach its significance here.
The signs are certainly suggestive. There was a clearly a long local tradition of smelting across the countryside that sat between the village of Flash in Staffordshire, the neighbouring Cheshire settlements of Sutton and Langley and the surrounding peak border communities of Derbyshire. In a landscape divided by changes to transport and the local economy of the late eighteenth century, it would appear that an existing criminal enterprise found itself enabled further by the isolated and vulnerable nature of the traveller that now passed beneath its watch.
That there were two separate organisations in the business of murdering those travellers and smelting down their stolen riches feels far less likely than the arrival of a situation whereby certain feloniously mined families from across the wider region had found themselves connected to - and supported by - a centralised local enterprise founded in the activities of the Meg Lane Gang. We have learned how ‘members of the gang were dispersed in different parts of the neighbourhood’; and together with reference to a toll house, this dovetails neatly into our earlier proposed time-frame.
It would appear that during the late 1700s, the trackways of the borderlands were an extremely dangerous place to be for the lone traveller; the memory of which has haunted long in uber-local tales across the hamlets and villages of the area. As the incumbent lay of industry changed around them, the smelting skills inherent amongst those practicing long-standing local trades found a very profitable second life in the process of coining. Perhaps, in some form, it had always been that way.
If the notion of murder and robbery is accepted without all too much contention within the framework laid out in this piece, it is perhaps a question for each of us to answer privately, as to how much of a stretch it is to give credence to the idea that the bodies of the dispossessed may have been disposed of in the furnaces? It is a question that perhaps ponders an answer born of practicality as much as anything else.
If this really was as long a murderous tradition in the local area as the lore would suggest, that's a whole lot of bodies to hide away without getting caught. Casters Bridge, Spell-Bound, and the apparent depth of local legend around the tale, ultimately point towards a rather grim reality, that at least in part, may have been just as disturbing as the tales would seem to imply. The message of the literature is clear; be careful in the hills, be careful on the moors. You never know who is watching you. Nor how hungry they might be.
Eli Lewis-Lycett 2022