Hawley Bank Foundry
Lionel Thomas Caswall (L. T. C.) Rolt, 1948
First appeared in he author’s collection Sleep No More, 1948
Above left: The first edition of Sleep No More; and right: a recently re-issued UK edition introduced by ghost-story author, Susan Hill (The Woman in Black).
Mr. George Frimley is a successful Birmingham businessman. He is the Managing Director of Herbert Frimley and Company, Ironfounders, of Brookend, and he lives in a desirable detached residence situated conveniently near to the golf-course at Sutton Coldfield. His success is manifested to the world in the shape of an expensive car and an even more expensive wife whose blonde hair is of doubtful authenticity, and whose thirst for gin equals that of her husband for whisky. Their other hobbies are golf and bridge. In short, Mr Frimley exhibits to the world a front of prosperous complacency unshaken by any troublesome doubts that a spark of imagination might have bequeathed to him. His philosophy, if it can be so called, is free-trading liberalism. He inherited this, along with his business, from his father. Both were founded in the nineteenth century. Though still in his early forties, he is already ‘Old George’ to his friends at the Clubhouse, and to the business cronies with whom he may be seen lunching at the Queen’s Hotel. To them, his tall, broad-shouldered figure, with heavy jowled red face and sleek, grey hair, has become an institution, imperturbable as the statues in Victoria Square, reassuring as a healthy bank balance. I think that he is jealous of this reputation, and I believe this to be the reason why he is so reticent about his unsuccessful venture in Shropshire in 1941.
Men of George Frimley’s calibre build their own secure little worlds around them like a wall, shutting out perplexity, doubt and the fear of the unknown which lurk without. George Frimley built his wall well. When the planes of the Luftwaffe droned over Birmingham, when the sky glowed red with fire and the ground shook with the detonation of high explosive he drove his car back from the office as usual, or donned his warden’s helmet and patrolled the street with scarcely a qualm. Even when he drove down to Hillend one windy March morning in 1941 and found that the works of Herbert Frimley and Company had been reduced to a heap of rubble and twisted steel he remained, to all outward appearances, undismayed. Yet when the Hawley Bank project was abandoned five months later, ‘Old George’ spent a further three months recuperating at Bournemouth before he finally returned to Birmingham, and even so his friends were heard to remark that he was not looking quite his old self.
Hawley Bank lies high above the Severn and almost within the shadow of the Wrekin. It is hard to believe that, where all the might of the Luftwaffe had failed, anything in this quiet Shropshire countryside should so effectually succeed in forcing a breach in Mr George Frimley’s formidable mental defences. Yet this was the case. He has not yet recovered from this assault upon his complacency. Probably he never will. It is an affront to his self-esteem which he prefers not to discuss. Consequently it is not at all easy to discover from him what actually did happen at Hawley Bank.
George was never a man to let the grass grow under his feet. After a brief survey of his wrecked cupolas and core ovens on that fateful morning he drove to the nearest telephone which would function and put a high priority call through to London. He held important war contracts, and his terse conversation set in motion a complex bureaucratic mechanism of telephone calls and urgent minutes between the War Office, the Ministry of Supply and the Office of Works. As a result it was suggested that Messrs Herbert Frimley and Company should, as a temporary measure, occupy the premises of the defunct Hawley Bank Ironworks in Shropshire. He was assured that local labour would be forthcoming and that billets would be found in the neighbourhood for his ‘key men’. Accordingly, one bright, early spring day, George Frimley, accompanied by his Foundry Manager, Arthur Clegg, set off from Birmingham to inspect the Hawley Bank Works, and in a very short time (for George is a fast and capable driver) we may imagine the long, black car crossing the Severn and sweeping up the steep hill beyond. It is easy to visualise the scene; the hanging woods on the hillsides misted with the first tentative buds of spring, cloud shadows sweeping over the broad back of the Wrekin and, far below, the silver stream of Severn threading her narrow gorge. But the pair were too engrossed in their business to notice such things. After thirty years in the trade, there was little that Arthur Clegg did not know about the Midlands iron industry, past or present. Soon after they left Birmingham he had confessed that he had never been to Hawley Bank, but suspected that they would find it ‘an awkward, old-fashioned sort of place’. Pressed to give his reasons for this belief, he went on to tell the other all he knew of the history of the Hawley Bank Ironworks. George did not find this recital very encouraging.
They were one of the oldest ironworks in the district, it appeared, having been founded by two brothers, Amos and Josiah Darley, in the eighteenth century. They were pioneers in their day, these brothers; perfecting methods of puddling iron, and smelting it with coke on their Shropshire hill-side while their fellow Ironmasters farther east were still feeding the remnants of the Forest of Wyre into their furnaces and laboriously hammering the excess carbon out of the iron under cumbrous, water-driven tilt hammers. The business had remained in the Darley family for generations, but like many pioneers, they failed to keep abreast of the times and soon lost the initial lead which their ancestors had won. By the 1870s only one furnace remained in blast, and by the turn of the century that, too, went cold, no longer able to compete with larger and more modern plant elsewhere. The Hawley Bank Works became exclusively a jobbing foundry; still a prosperous little business with a good reputation for sound work, but old-fashioned in its methods and no longer a great name in the trade. Such was the inheritance of Josiah IV, seventh and last generation of the Darley family, in 1910.
This last Josiah was, it seems, ‘a bit of a character’, in fact George Frimley had to cut short his Manager’s flow of anecdotes on the subject somewhat brusquely. But not before the picture had emerged of a cantankerous and eccentric old bachelor, living in the past, intensely conservative and equally intensely proud and jealous of the family tradition. Until the end of the First World War, this last Josiah remained in sole control at Hawley Bank, and the relationship existing between him, his works and his workpeople more closely resembled that of a traditional country squire to his estate than an industrialist. It was a wonder that Josiah never married, for there was no other branch of the Darley family to succeed him. Of course there were the usual tales about his having been crossed in love in his youth. However that may be, there can be little doubt that the knowledge that he was the last of his line, and that with his death a link which had survived the whole course of the Industrial Revolution would break, must have preyed upon his mind.
Through the war years the works did well, but by the time peace returned, old Josiah had aged considerably, not only in body but in mind. He was, in fact, nearly eighty and, though still remarkably hale physically, he was subject to mental aberrations and lapses for which ‘eccentricity’ was now too mild a word. Nevertheless, everyone believed that only death would end Josiah’s reign at Hawley Bank, so that there was consternation in the works when, in 1920, he suddenly installed a Manager. Josiah would still potter round his works every day, but from then on he practically ceased to take an active interest in the business.
The history of Druce, the new Manager, appears to have been wrapped in mystery. No one knew where he came from, and Clegg said he had never heard of anyone of that name connected with the trade, at any rate in the Midlands. No less mysterious was the way in which the old man, who never left his native Shropshire if he could possibly avoid it, ever got hold of him. In the light of subsequent events it seems more probable that it was Druce who got hold of old Josiah. Certainly this sudden introduction of a stranger to such a position, when there must have been several men in the works who might have filled the post, seems quite out of key with Josiah’s character. But wherever Druce may have come from, it would certainly seem that he knew his job. In this respect, at least, he was no impostor. But he was utterly ruthless. In place of the old man’s paternal rule, Druce at once introduced at Hawley Bank a new regime that was as coldly efficient as it was impersonal. Whereas under old Josiah the workmen were always men—Harry and Tom and Dick—no matter how roundly he might curse them, they were merely numbers to Druce. Time-honoured methods and routines were swept away, and the old day-work system was replaced by keen piece-work rates. There was nothing novel in this, but it was new to Hawley Bank. Many of the old hands left, and there were new faces in the foundry. Others appealed to old Josiah, but Druce seems to have dominated him no less successfully than the rest of the works, for in face of these deputations he would only curse and wave them away impatiently with his stick. He continued to make his daily circuit of the works, but if he noticed the changes that were taking place, he gave no sign.
Then one day the old man failed to appear. Rumour and conjecture were rife. Some said he was ill, others that he was dead. Both were wrong. Old Josiah had disappeared, and was never seen again. He lived alone, and his housekeeper, who came in daily, was apparently the last person to see him. After she had cleared away his evening meal she had looked into the sitting-room to find out if there was anything he wanted before she went home, and saw him sitting at the fireside. He appeared to be in his usual health and spirits. But investigation showed that his familiar rusty bowler and heavy stick were missing from their accustomed place in the hall, so that he must have gone out again later that night.
Naturally, Josiah’s disappearance was a nine days’ wonder. Copyholt Mere and five miles of the Severn were dragged, but no trace of him was ever found. Soon there was another topic to keep tongues wagging, for it transpired that the old man had left his property, together with his private fortune, which was not inconsiderable, to Druce upon condition that he changed his name to Darley by deed poll. Naturally, Druce was not loath to comply, but, from the moment of this compliance, luck seemed to desert him.
It is clear that Druce (or Darley, as we must now call him), must have antagonised his workmen. That he was heartily disliked there can be no doubt, and this dislike culminated in a strike in the foundry which even Darley could not break. Instead, he had to import out-of-works from the Black Country. Doubtless it was owing to this unskilled labour that Hawley Bank lost its reputation for good-quality castings, and that there was an extraordinary series of minor accidents in the foundry—moulds going up, probably through the cores not being properly dried, and men burnt. This gave the shop a bad reputation, and there was more labour trouble. This state of affairs culminated in a more than minor accident when a big engine-bed casting blew up suddenly when the pouring had almost been completed, and, as a result, three men were lost in circumstances which Clegg preferred not to describe in detail. There was a sequel to this a few days later when, in the same shop, Darley, alias Druce, was found hanging from the hook of the overhead crane. It was suicide, of course.
So far as is known, no relatives ever came forward, but even had they done so they would have gained very little, for it was found that the Darley fortune had almost ceased to exist, while the works had become a liability. For, apart from its bad reputation, this was the slump year of 1929. Hawley Bank Ironworks were abandoned.
‘I expect we shall find,’ concluded Clegg, ‘that the scrap merchants have had most of the more easily movable plant, but apart from this and twelve years of neglect most likely it’ll look much the same as it did when Darley or Druce (whichever you like to call him) left it.’
By the time Clegg had brought his story to a close they had practically reached their destination. Following the directions given to him in the last village they had passed, George Frimley slowed down as he sighted a pair of crumbling brick gate-pillars on his right, and presently swung the car off the road and on to the trackway they guarded. It had been a metalled road, but now it was grass-grown except for a narrow central strip which was evidently still in use as a footpath. But presently even this slender evidence of usage veered sharply away into the woods to leave the track untrodden. The car bounced uncomfortably on the uneven surface, and the long tentacles of encroaching briars clawed at the windows. George was more concerned at the rough treatment his shining car was receiving than by the melancholy history of Hawley Bank Ironworks.
‘Blast this bloody war,’ he swore. ‘Whoever in his right mind would think of trying to start a business in this God-forsaken place? Still, that’s the Ministry’s concern, not mine. If we can’t do the job in Birmingham then there’s nothing else for it. At least Jerry won’t find us here in a hurry. . . . This road will have to be made up for a start,’ he went on, slowing the car to a walking-pace.
Over the tree-tops appeared a tall, square chimney-stack. Even at this distance it was apparent that its old weather-mellowed brickwork was sadly in need of pointing. Halfway up the shaft a small bush had taken root. How many years had passed since last it had smudged the clear air above it with smoke? Smoke is to a chimney as leaves are to a tree, and a derelict stack has always the gaunt, forlorn appearance of a dead tree. A moment more, and the car debouched into a clearing wherein lay the Hawley Bank Ironworks. George stopped the car, and the two men got out. The building nearest to them had obviously been an engine- and boiler-house, for not only did the chimney stack rise from the end wall, but the nose of an old egg-ended boiler protruded through the masonry. Walking through the doorway (the door itself had disappeared) they discovered a great beam engine. George was tall, but the enormous cylinder towered above him, while overhead in the gloom of the higher galleries, the ponderous beam hung poised at the top of its stroke like some titanic grasshopper petrified when about to spring. A faint, stale smell of cylinder oil still pervaded the building, and from a nail on a wall that had once been whitewashed hung an old and dirty cloth cap meshed over with a fine net of cobwebs. Obviously the engine had been out of use for a considerable time—since the last blast-furnace was shut down, Clegg conjectured, for it was evidently a blowing engine. A student of engineering history would have been deeply interested, but the past meant nothing to George who merely expressed surprise that the engine had not been dismantled for scrap years before. Clegg guessed that old Josiah’s eccentricity had spared it during the previous war, while when the works closed in 1929, the price of scrap would not have paid for the cost of dismantling.
They walked out of the engine-house, passed the rusty ruin of the last blast-furnace, and entered the foundry. This was a substantial brick building, and except for the fact that most of the glass in the iron-framed, round-headed windows and in the skylights was broken, it appeared to be in unexpectedly good repair. Doubtless it had been renovated and improved during Druce’s brief regime. It consisted of one lofty and capacious bay over the moulding-floor, and two side aisles, one of which housed the cupolas and the other a range of core ovens. One large cupola remained. Clegg tapped its rusty steel side with an iron bar he had found, peered into its throat with the aid of a torch, and expressed the opinion that if it was re-lined it might be put into service.
‘Phew!’ he added, withdrawing his head. ‘Doesn’t it stink, though. Dead bird or something must have dropped in from the top.’
Brick foundations and a circular hole in the roof were evidence that a second and smaller cupola had been removed. Some of the core-oven doors were missing and, except for a pile of old wooden patterns, dusty and cracked, all the more readily portable equipment, such as mould-boxes and ladles, had gone. But whoever had dismantled Hawley Bank Works had not considered it worth his while to remove any of the heavier plant. Even the travelling crane still hung overhead. It was of the old manual traversing type and bore upon an oval, cast plate the legend ‘Josiah Darley and Company, Ironfounders, Hawley Bank Works, 1898.’
The two men padded to and fro, their footfalls silenced by the black sand of the moulding-floor which filled the air with a pungent, acrid odour. It was so quiet that when a cloud darkened the sun and the wind stirred and rattled some loose steel sheet on the external charging gallery round the big cupola, both stopped and started involuntarily. Clegg walked across to the small doorway beside the cupola, peered up at the gallery, and then returned, looking rather shamefaced.
‘Funny thing,’ he said. ‘I could have sworn there was someone hanging around outside.’
George grunted, but said nothing.
They continued their examination in silence. A sudden storm of hail beat upon the roof. The noise it made seemed prodigious, and when it ceased as abruptly as it had begun it seemed to leave the stillness the more intense, even though it was now punctuated by the stealthy crepitation of water dripping from broken downspouts and shattered lights. Now it was George’s turn to stride suddenly across the foundry to the doorway by the cupola and look out.
‘What’s up?’ called Clegg.
‘Nothing,’ said George.
‘There’s someone hanging around outside,’ Clegg repeated. ‘Some nosey parker from the village, most likely.’
But if this was so, their watcher moved with remarkable stealth and circumspection, betraying himself by neither sight nor sound.
‘There’s one thing that strikes me as odd about this place,’ Clegg went on.
‘What’s that?’ asked the other.
In answer, Clegg pointed with the toe of his shoe to one of the numerous holes which pitted the sandy floor.
‘Rats,’ said George laconically.
Clegg looked doubtful and wrinkled his brows as he idly kicked sand into the hole and stamped it down with his foot.
‘Maybe,’ he agreed at length, ‘but it’s the first time I’ve ever known rats do that—reckon the sand’s too soft and they don’t like the smell of it.’ He paused. ‘Anyway, whatever it is, it could be a nuisance. Better put rat poison down. We need some new sand, too.’
He picked up a handful from the floor, squeezed it is his palm, looked at the cake, impressed with the marks of his fingers, crumbled it and let it fall. The sun came out again, throwing a sharply etched pattern of broken roof-lights on the dark floor. They walked round the outside of the building discussing the structural repairs that would be necessary and the installation of new equipment, together with whatever might be salvaged from the wreckage at Brookend. Though neither man would have entertained such a project in normal circumstances, both agreed that it would be quite feasible to re-open the foundry. As they strolled back to the car, still talking technicalities, the sun was fast setting over Wales. The keen evening air was filled with the scent of decayed leaves from the surrounding woods where, in mist and purple shadow, night was already advancing. The ironworks, too, were now in shadow. Only at the top of the tall chimney-stack did the crumbling brickwork glow red in the last of the sunlight. Wiping his scrupulously polished shoes on the grass, George had a final look round. The prospect apparently gave him no pleasure. He shivered involuntarily, turned up the collar of his opulent camel-hair overcoat, and got into the driving-seat. The starter whirred, the wall of the engine-house echoed the slamming of car doors, and the long, black saloon crept away through the woods.
As the shadows came out of the woods, so stillness and solitude returned to Hawley Bank, and only footprints in the sand of the moulding-floor remained to tell of its interruption. But not for long. As has already been remarked, George Frimley never wasted time. A few days later, two lorries roared up the track through the woods, one carrying a gang of men and the other a light road roller. Soon the track had been re-surfaced with blast-furnace slag cut from the old grass-grown tip. When these pioneers had done their work more lorry loads of men and materials appeared; builders, bricklayers, painters, glaziers and labourers; steel trusses and joists, corrugated sheeting, bricks, sand, bags of cement, gravel. Long-disused paths about the works became muddy tracks between piles of scaffolding, planks and other paraphernalia. All day long the clearing echoed the fussy tuff-tuff-tuff of small engines driving hoists and concrete-mixers. A cupola, salvaged from Brookend Foundry, was installed in place of the missing one, while the highly skilled work of building a new firebrick lining into the big cupola proceeded slowly. The first builder fell sick, had to give up the job, and it was difficult to find anyone to replace him. However, along with the other structural work, the job was eventually completed, and as the builders moved out, Brookend Foundry began to move in; mould-boxes, patterns, modern foundry machines that Hawley Bank had never seen, and, finally, furniture and equipment for the new office building which had been erected near the engine-house. New faces appeared in the surrounding villages; the local bus company arranged special morning and evening services to and from Hawley Bank. The ponderous machine that George Frimley had set in motion that March morning with a telephone call to London had done its work, and Hawley Bank Foundry was re-born. One hot July day, for the first time in twelve years, the mouth of the big cupola belched pungent reddish-tinted smoke. Later, the smoke cleared and only the shimmering sky above the squat, steel cylinder betrayed the intense heat within.
Apart from minor difficulties and excitements, all went well at first. Some of the Birmingham men grumbled at what they called ‘a God-forsaken hole’, missing their cinemas and pubs and street-corner fish-and-chip shops, but the majority were glad to sleep sound in their beds after nights spent in air-raid shelters. Clegg was worried about the rats in the foundry. In spite of a systematic poisoning campaign, and the introduction of new moulding sand on to the floor, the holes continued to appear. They were only a minor irritation so long as they were casting in boxes, but he realised that if ever they had occasion to run a big cast moulded in the floor, the trouble might become serious. He repeatedly complained to George Frimley about it, but George, who was not a practical man and was overwhelmed with administrative work, told him brusquely that he had rats on the brain and that he had better put more water with it.
‘Try a couple of cats,’ he added facetiously as his office door closed behind his disgruntled Manager.
Strangely enough, Clegg accepted this advice. A few mornings later, much to the amusement of the staff, he arrived in his car accompanied by two lean tom cats which he had procured in the village on the assurance that no rat could live within sight of them. At no little inconvenience, he kept them in the office that day but, having given instructions that all the moulds should be covered to avoid possible damage, the cats were shut in the foundry for the night. Next morning, as soon as he arrived, a grinning foundry foreman came to the office door.
‘That chap you got the poison from, Mr Clegg,’ he said. ‘He must’ve thought you said cats, not rats.’
‘What d’you mean?’ snapped Clegg, who was feeling tired and in no mood for jokes.
‘Your cats,’ said the other, slightly aggrieved at his reception, ‘they’re dead, both of ’em.’
And sure enough they were. They were also curiously limp, as though every bone was broken through falling from a great height. As Clegg reflected, it was a curious end for one cat to meet, let alone two.
The holes continued to appear in the foundry floor, but Clegg made no more experiments with cats. His absorption with the rat problem was becoming a works’ joke, and this made him self-conscious about it. But the thing worried him, and one evening after the moulders had knocked off he went down to the foundry and examined the holes minutely, looking for footmarks or droppings in the soft sand. He found neither, though the sand appeared to be tamped smooth by something at the entrances to the holes. This discovery only perplexed Clegg the more, but he said nothing about it at the time.
The next incident worthy of note was the spy scare. To begin with, this wasn’t taken very seriously because the story came from little Tommy Callow, a fifteen-year-old apprentice. Sent on an errand from the foundry to the office he returned almost breathless with excitement, claiming that he had seen a spy. Scenting a good opportunity for a leg-pull, the moulders affected to take this announcement very seriously.
‘What did ’e look like, Tommy lad?’ asked one.
‘How d’you know ’e was a spy?’ asked another. ‘Did ’e say “ ’eil ’itler” when ’e saw you comen?’ ‘
‘Corse not,’ said Tommy, ‘ ’e was a little ole feller in funny cloes, an’ I know ’e was a spy ’cos ’e ’ad false whiskers on.’
‘Ow could yer tell, Tommy? Did yer pull ’em?’
‘No, but I know they was ’cos they was all kind o’ white an’ straggly like.’
‘Go on, you’re thinking of Father Christmas; it ’ent time fer ’im yet.’
‘Where was ’e, and where did ’e goo?’ ‘
‘E was a-lookin’ round the side o’ the cupaloe, just out there,’ said Tommy, pointing to the doorway. ‘Then ’e popped ’is ’ead back, an’ when I went round to look for ’im, why, ’ed gorn.’
‘Cor!’ ejaculated the first moulder, sounding deeply impressed, ‘ ’e must’ve jumped inter the bleedin’ cupaloe. Must’ve bin Ole Nick hisself you sin, not one o’ them Nasties.’
‘Go on,’ said his mate. ‘That was never Ole Nick, that was ole Josh Darley a-hoppin’ around, him what they say disappeared and wasn’t never seen no more.’
But at this a third moulder, a local man, spoilt the fun. ‘
‘Old tha rattle,’ he said, giving the last speaker a queer look. ‘What dust tha went ter goo puttin’ such notions in the kid’s yead for?’
There was a moment’s awkward pause, and then the little group split up rather sheepishly and went on with their work.
It was when two or three of the moulders claimed to have seen the figure by the cupola that Tommy’s story ceased to be regarded as a joke, and the spy scare spread through the works until at length it reached the ears of George Frimley himself. His reaction was typical.
‘Damn nonsense,’ he retorted. ‘We had enough of these tom-fool yarns about spies and fifth column in 1940; don’t let me hear any more of it. In any case, who in hell would want to spy on us? There’s no secret in cast iron.’
Arthur Clegg agreed. He did not believe the spy story either. On the other hand, he did recall a certain occasion when both he and Frimley had peered out of that doorway by the cupola expecting to see—what? It had been an inquisitive yokel from the village then. Upon reflection, he decided that it might be wiser if he did not ridicule the spy yarn quite so forcibly as Frimley was disposed to do. Some other and more disturbing theory might take its place.
Altogether, Arthur Clegg did not feel happy. He had disliked the place at first sight. The gloomy, deserted buildings with those dripping trees pressing round them on all sides had, to use his own phrase, ‘given him the willies’. But this was his job and had he raised any objection to the move on such vague grounds he knew quite well what George Frimley’s response would have been. But now these first vague premonitions appeared to be confirmed; to be taking a tenuous shape which seemed to him to bode trouble. Apart from the ‘spy’ story he was still worried about the inexplicable holes in the sand of the moulding-floor. Surely this mystery could be solved? If whatever it was that made the holes was never visible in daylight, then it followed that it must be nocturnal. They were not working a night-shift. He resolved to come back to the works the following night in an attempt to settle the matter once and for all.
He stopped his car by the engine-house. It was a still, clear night, but moonless, and the tall, black finger of the chimney-stack was faintly silhouetted against the cold starlight. He was reminded of his first visit, for although it was almost uncannily quiet—not a leaf or twig moving in the woods—he experienced the same sensation of discreet but purposeful surveillance. At that moment he would have given a great deal to be by the fireside in his comfortable billet reading the latest ‘who-done-it?’, but Mr Arthur Clegg was no coward. Resisting the temptation to jump back into his car, he walked resolutely, torch in hand, towards the foundry. Far away in the east, search-lights suddenly slashed the night sky, wheeling in great tentative arcs for a while before concentrating in a dense pyramid of light.
‘Hell!’ he swore to himself. ‘Give me Jerry sooner than this, any day.’ But what exactly there was to be afraid of he could not have said.
When he reached the foundry he switched off his torch, opened the door very gently, and stepped inside. It was pitch dark. It was also quite silent except for the fact that his heart seemed to be thumping like a pile-driver. He knew there were no mould-boxes near the door, so he advanced a few inaudible paces over the sand. Then he stopped again, listening intently. His plan was to wait in darkness until he heard a movement and then shine his torch in the direction of the sound. He stood perfectly motionless for what seemed ten minutes, but was probably not more than two. At length his straining ears caught what he could only describe later as ‘a kind of slithering sound’. It was so faint, and the stillness was so intense, that he thought it might merely be caused by some small settling movement of the sand. Also the direction of the sound was indeterminate, it seemed to be everywhere and yet nowhere, so that he did not switch on his torch. The next instant the suspense was terminated in so sudden and shocking a fashion that fifty-year-old Arthur Clegg cried out involuntarily like a man on the point of waking from a nightmare. His left ankle was so abruptly and strongly gripped that he lost his balance and fell heavily, dropping his torch. Through his thin sock he could feel that whatever held him with such crushing force was cold and slimy and that it was moving in what he afterwards called ‘a heaving sort of way’. He groped desperately for his torch. As he did so he felt a clammy, tentative touch upon his face, but, fortunately for his reason, upon that instant his fingers found the torch and he switched it on. He had fallen with his head beside one of the holes, but there was nothing to be seen. In the instant of turning on the light, the grip on his ankle had relaxed and, twisting round, he directed the beam in that direction. As he did so he thought he saw something of indeterminate shape and of dirty white colour disappearing into the sand. Clegg scrambled to his feet and was back at his car in a time that did credit to a man of his age and lack of training. When he got to the main road he stopped and smoked a cigarette to steady his nerves. Then he drove home and drank three times his customary tot of whisky before he went to bed. But he did not sleep very well.
He came to the office next morning very shaken and considerably perturbed in mind. The sun shone out of a cloudless sky, birds sang in the woods, and from the works came the familiar and, to him, very comfortable sounds of human activity. His experience of the previous night seemed as remote as an evil dream. Yet he knew very well that it was no dream, but that, in the night-time, something nameless, but peculiarly horrible, stalked, or rather crawled, abroad in the foundry. His previous vague uneasiness now crystallised into the certainty that some power of malevolent and hostile purpose was fast gathering strength in the ironworks, pressing close about the place like the encircling woods. But what was he to do about it? The premises upon which his conviction was based were so slender. He knew only too well what George Frimley’s reaction would be if he attempted to relate to him his experience of the previous night. He would probably lose his job.
A conversation which he had with the foundry foreman later that morning in no way reassured him. As he had feared, the ‘spy’ rumour was no longer current. It had been superseded by another of an even less credible but more disquieting kind. Through the agency of local gossip in their billets or in the bars of the New Invention and The Woodcollier, the men had got hold of the whole story of old Josiah and Druce. They had also been told the usual village yarn that the ironworks was haunted and that no villager would ever go near the place. The actual form of the haunting varied according to the fertility of rural imagination. Druce was to be seen hanging from the crane hook in the foundry. Druce haunted the track through the woods, pacing up and down with his head lolling on one side and his eyes hanging from their sockets. It was not Druce at all, but old Josiah Darley who haunted the place. He had been seen standing in the doorway of the engine-house with a long, white beard down to his knees and his eyes glowing like fiery coals. Against all these versions old Charlie Penrice, one of the Woodcollier’s ‘regulars’, stoutly maintained that it was neither one nor the other that haunted the place but both. Hadn’t he seen them with his own eyes one moonlight night chasing each other round and round the foundry, Druce with a bit of rope round his neck, and old Josh hopping after him like a spider?
In the ordinary way, these local yarns, which attach themselves to thousands of deserted buildings, would have been merely amusing. But coupled with the persistent rumours of the unknown someone hanging around the big cupola, they did a lot of harm. True, the reports of those who claimed to have seen this lurking figure did not square with any of these lurid figments. Its eyes did not glow like coals or start from their sockets. It carried no spectral accoutrements of ropes or chains, though no doubt with the passage of time and the exercise of imagination it would acquire such embellishments. For the present it remained just ‘somebody’, and no one had yet succeeded in enlarging or elaborating upon young Tommy’s original description of ‘a little ole feller in funny cloes’ with whiskers ‘kind o’ white an’ straggly like’. Some did not see this much; some saw nothing, but said they felt he was there; others were never aware of anything at all. But Tommy’s ‘little ole feller’ had ceased to be a joke in the foundry. There was an uneasy atmosphere in the shop which effectually set at naught the Government exhortations for ‘Maximum Production’ which screamed from the posters on the walls. The men were nervy, there was no mistake about it, and it was probably this which was the cause of a number of minor accidents, burns or crushed fingers. But to the men it was proof of their conviction that there was no luck about the place. It was noticeable, too, that they always used the main doors at each end of the central bay, and that the side door by the big cupola was kept permanently bolted upon the inside. It was lucky that the two men whose job it was to charge the big cupola were not numbered among those who claimed to have seen or felt the presence of the stranger, otherwise work in the foundry might well have suffered more positive interruption.
These facts only increased poor Clegg’s perplexity. Things were becoming serious. Output was affected, and it was obviously his duty ro report the whole matter to George Frimley even though he dreaded the consequences. He was still trying to make up his mind that afternoon when the question was solved for him by a message to the effect that he was wanted at once in Frimley’s office.
‘Sit down and take a look at this,’ said George, as he entered. He slid across the desk a blue-print headed ‘Dulchester Machine Tool Co.’
‘New tool-up for the Achilles engine,’ George explained succinctly, ‘body casting for a new type of multi-spindle borer. Twelve off to begin with, probably more to follow if the job’s satisfactory; 1A Priority. Think we can tackle it?’
Clegg pondered the drawing for a few moments before replying. It was a straightforward casting, and the coring would be simple. The only difficulty was its size. He estimated its weight as little short of three tons. He knew that this was well within the capacity of the big cupola and that they had a three-ton ladle. The electric crane which they had introduced in place of the old manual one could swing this load. But he also knew, and with the realisation came an inexplicable sense of impending calamity, that he had no mould-boxes large enough. In fact, with a large, simple casting of this description the obvious course was to sink the mould in the floor of the shop.
‘Well?’ asked George impatiently, drumming with his fingers on the highly polished desk-top. ‘What about it?’
‘We could tackle it, all right,’ Clegg answered reluctantly, ‘only trouble is we have no mould-boxes big enough.’ Before the words were out of his mouth he knew what the answer would be.
‘Mould-boxes!’ stormed the other. ‘Mould-boxes! Who wants mould-boxes? Damn it, you’re the practical man, not me; what do I pay you for? Cast on the floor, man; even I know that much. Do I have to sit here to teach you your business?’
George’s answer roused poor Clegg to the pitch of desperation, and almost before he was truly aware of what he was doing he had blurted out the whole story beginning with the rat poison and the cats and ending with his own nocturnal experience. He also mentioned the stories which were circulating in the foundry. His halting narration was punctuated by a series of grunts and snorts from his impatient listener whose colour was mounting ominously. At length it was brought to a sudden conclusion as George Frimley struck the desk with such force that a little spurt of ink shot up from the ink-well to stain the virgin white of the blotting-pad.
‘Am I running a works or a bloody mad-house?’ he shouted, the veins bulging in his forehead. ‘First of all it’s spies, and now its some damn fool nonsense about ghosts started by a pack of country yokels with nothing better to think about. As for you, Clegg, it’s supposed to be your job to knock some sense into these idiots and get some output from them, instead of which you’re worse than the lot of ’em put together—you and your bloody rat-holes! If there was no war on and I could replace you, I’d pack you off to a home for inebriates. Now,’ he concluded in a quieter voice, ‘let’s get down to the job and hear no more of this damned nonsense.’
But Arthur Clegg, though subdued, was still resolute. ‘Very Good, Mr Frimley,’ he agreed, ‘but I would like to make one stipulation.’
‘All right,’ said the other, somewhat mollified and impressed by his quiet tone. ‘What is it?’
‘I cannot agree to accept all responsibility for anything that may happen on this job,’ said Clegg, his hand on the blue-print before him. ‘All I ask is that you should be present in the foundry when we run the first cast.’
George Frimley grunted. ‘All right,’ he agreed grudgingly. ‘All right, my time’s precious, but if it will put a stop to all this infernal drivel it will be worth it.’
Upon this understanding, preparatory work on the big castings was put in hand. Photostat copies of the drawing were taken; the job was priced; a wooden pattern was made and delivered to the foundry by the pattern makers in smooth, snugly fitting sections painted glossy black and red. Soon the first mould was taking shape in the sandy floor. Things seemed to be settling down. Whatever it was that tunnelled the moulding-floor seemed to have suspended its activities. The lurking figure by the cupola had not been seen for some time, and the men began to use the side door again. Even Arthur Clegg’s fears were lulled into a sense of security. None the less, he was still obstinately determined that George Frimley should be present when the time came to run the first of the big casts.
Sure enough, at four o’clock in the afternoon of a sultry August day, George duly appeared in the foundry. Everything was ready. The blower hummed steadily, and its fierce blast roared in the molten heart of the big cupola. Its steel sides radiated an intense heat that smote the face with an almost physical force. Before its mouth stood the three-ton ladle ready coupled to the overhead crane.
‘O.K.?’ queried the foundry foreman.
‘O.K.’ nodded Clegg, standing beside Frimley, and the orderly routine began.
The furnace-man drove his long rod through the fireclay stopping in the furnace mouth, there was a scintillating flicker of sparks, and the molten metal gushed into the ladle. As he stood waiting with his plummet rod to stop the flow, a black silhouette against the glare, his shadow, vastly magnified, wavered on the opposite wall. There were some who said afterwards that they saw there also a second and shorter shadow. Whether they did or no can never be determined. Certainly there was no one beside him at the time, and the illusion quickly vanished as the man plugged his furnace. There was a whirr of motors overhead as the crane lifted and swung the ladle across the shop towards the mould. The furnace-man knocked over the switch of the blower motor, and the steady hum deepened and gradually died away, leaving the shop strangely silent. The foreman signalled with the palm of his hand to the crane-driver, and the ladle was gently lowered into position beside the mouth of the mould. Two men manned the hand-wheels which would tip the ladle, a third held a skimmer to keep the dross from entering the mould, while a fourth prepared to take out the stops and to light the gas as it issued from the mould vents. Their faces, running with sweat, gleamed in the glow of the molten metal which dimmed the daylight of the roof-lights overhead. The silence of this rather tense moment was broken by an unexpected sound. Somebody laughed. It seemed to come from the direction of the big cupola. Everyone, George Frimley included, glanced in that direction, but the furnace-man was sluicing his face in a bucket of water in the far corner of the shop, and there was no one there. Clegg knew very well that it was not the furnace-man, for the voice was too thin and cracked. It was, he said, more a kind of snigger than a laugh.
The interruption was only momentary, for molten metal cannot be kept waiting or it becomes too glutinous to pour. The stops were taken out, the pourers swung their hand-wheels, and the mould began to fill. The vents ignited with a ‘plop’ like a gas-ring and showed flickering blue tongues of flame. Judging by the contents which remained in the ladle, the mould should have been three parts full when the ghastly and inexplicable thing happened.
The black sandy floor just behind the mould suddenly bellied upwards as though moved by an earthquake and, with a sound like a gigantic roman candle discharging its ball of coloured fire, a fountain of molten metal shot high into the air. There was an urgent shout of ‘Hey up!’ and everyone scattered. The wretched skimmer was caught in the deadly hail and stumbled towards the doorway, screaming like a woman, his clothes reduced to smoking rags. One of the pourers tripped over a mould-box, fell, and did not rise again. There was a sickly smell of burnt flesh. But for the moment the survivors had no eyes for the victims. In the hole which had opened in the sand a pool of molten ore seethed and bubbled angrily. Upon it, or within it (for in some strange way the metal appeared to have become translucent), they saw what they all agreed to be a corpse. What or who it had been no one can say, for not only was it burned beyond hope of recognition, but it was also in the last stages of decomposition. Around it, seemingly impervious to the fiery element in which they moved, crawled creatures of most sickening shape. They resembled maggots seething and writhing in putrid flesh except for the fact that they were the size of a man’s forearm.
Clegg retired prematurely from the foundry trade and now lives in a small cottage near Henley-in-Arden where he grows tomatoes and keeps bees.
Apart from the fact that he never paid a nocturnal visit to Hawley Bank Foundry, George Frimley was made of sterner stuff. But, as you already know, he spent the next three months recuperating at Bournemouth. But he is still a changed man. For one thing he is not so readily given to shouting at his employees, and his golf handicap is not what it used to be.
As for Hawley Bank Ironworks, even in these days of Scrap Metal Drives, much of the plant still lies there. The big beam engine still lurks in the ruinous engine-house like a great grasshopper eternally poised to spring. But George Frimley’s business is back in a rebuilt Brookend, and there is no new tenant. Winter gales have stripped tiles from the roofs; water drips again from choked and broken guttering. The old silence has fallen once more in the clearing of the woods. Even the grass is creeping back over the newly made road and the tendrils of the briars will soon meet across the way.
About the Author & Sleep No More
Lionel Thomas Caswall Rolt (usually abbreviated to Tom Rolt or L. T. C. Rolt) (1910 – 1974) was a prolific English writer and the biographer of major civil engineering figures including Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Telford. He is also regarded as one of the pioneers of the leisure cruising industry on Britain’s inland waterways, and as an enthusiast for both vintage cars and heritage railways.
Tom Rolt was born in Chester to a line of Rolts “dedicated to hunting and procreation”. His father Lionel had settled back in England in Hay-on-Wye after working on a cattle station in Australia, a plantation in India, and joining (unsuccessfully) in the Yukon gold rush of 1898. However Lionel Rolt lost most of his money in 1920 after investing his capital in a company which failed, and the family moved to a pair of stone cottages in Stanley Pontlarge in Gloucestershire.
Rolt studied at Cheltenham College and at 16 he took a job learning about steam traction, before starting an apprenticeship at the Kerr Stuart locomotive works in Stoke-on-Trent, where his uncle, Kyrle Willans was chief development engineer. His uncle bought a wooden horse-drawn narrow flyboat called Cressy and fitted it with a steam engine. Then (having discovered the steam made steering through tunnels impossible) he replaced that with a Ford Model T engine. This was Rolt’s introduction to the canal system. (Rolt was instrumental in many of the engineering projects of his day, pleas see his Wikipedia entry for details, here:
The 1950s were Rolt’s most prolific time as an author. His best-known works were biographies of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which stimulated a revival of interest in a forgotten hero, George and Robert Stephenson, and Telford. His classic study of historic railway accidents, Red for Danger, became a text book for numerous engineering courses. Rolt produced many works about subjects that had not previously been considered the stuff of literature, such as civil engineering, canals and railways. In his later years he produced three volumes of autobiography, only one of which was published during his lifetime.
Rolt also published Sleep No More (1948) a collection of supernatural horror stories featuring ghosts, possession and atavism. These were modelled after the work of M. R. James, but used industrial settings such as railways instead of James’ “antiquarian” settings. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural described Sleep No More as “An exceptionally original collection of ghost stories … Rolt had the special talent of combining folkloric spontaneity with artful sophistication.” Several of Rolt’s stories were anthologised; they were also adapted as radio dramas.
Sleep No More: A Brief Review upon Its Reissue
Here is a very worthwhile and wonderful story collection. Previously confined to the booksellers’ ‘sought after but scarce’ category, Sleep No More was originally published by Constable in 1948. Despite considerable praise from author-publisher Michael Sadleir and others, it did not sell well and was only ever reprinted once – by Harvester in 1975. This handsome and welcome new edition not only includes Rolt’s original set of stories from the 1930s and 1940s, but also (despite its subtitle Twelve Stories of the Supernatural ) adds his two much later – and indeed final – macabre offerings The Shouting’ and ‘The House of Vengeance’. Rolt’s fascinating 1950s essay ‘The Passing of the Ghost Story’ is a bonus, too, and thus for the first time we have all his writings on the supernatural collected in one volume. Christopher Roden’s introduction is most informative and illuminating, white Hugh Lamb – to whose friendly persistence as anthologist we owe the appearance in print of that last pair of stories – contributes a short piece of reminiscence about their author.
It should by now be clear, and not only because of all the energy and care that has gone into this fine production, that Lionel Thomas Caswell Rolt (1910-1974) was an original, whose work merits wider appreciation, in his generally excellent Elegant Nightmares (1978), the American critic Jack Sullivan grouped Rolt with various “undeservedly obscure writers… who follow [M.R] James’s example”, and then consigned him to an (albeit perceptive) footnote: “An engineer by profession, Rolt is a master of situations involving haunted mines, canals and various kinds of machinery. Especially effective is ‘Hawley Bank Foundry’, a tale which demonstrates that terror can emerge from the most unlikely settings”. True enough, as far as it goes, though Sullivan himself, when later editing the enormous Penguin Ecyclopaedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986) does give Rolt a bit more space and justice. Sleep No More he deems “an exceptionally original collection”, with an early tale, ‘The Mine’, “one of the most perfect dialect stories… in ghost fiction”. But Sullivan inadvertently underlines his own earlier point about obscurity, for it’s assumed – in the 1980s – that Rolt is still alive!
Rolt does seem to have led a full and wide-ranging life, however, and the great variety of his interests and numerous publications (as Roden, Mike Ashley and others have noted) is impressive. Perhaps that’s why he had time for only one macabre collection, but if will certainly live on for a white yet in its latest incarnation. Readers of this journal may not need reminding that Rolt – together with that other master of the post-war British macabre story, Robert Aickman – helped set up the Inland Waterways Association. But it’s nicely appropriate that Rolt had a canal boat himself and used his experience to such good eerie effect In ‘Bosworth Summit Pound’, By contrast, the racing-motoring background (another speciality of Rolt’s) doesn’t come off nearly so well in ‘The New Corner’, A couple of the shorter stories, too, ‘World’s End’ and ‘Hear Not My Steps’, seem slight, though nonetheless worth reading. In these, Rolt needs rather more descriptive space than he allows himself, in order to establish the brooding atmosphere of menace so well handled elsewhere. Everyone will have their particular favourites; Rolt’s own was ‘Music Hath Charms’ – a gruesome fable set in Cornwall – whose deadly musical box is a memorable piece of invention. I myself found most chilling two stories with Welsh settings I happen to know – ‘Cwm Garon and ‘The House of Vengeance’- both of which use their particular landscapes to haunting and dreadful effect indeed.
It’s…good to have such elegantly weird tales available again, along with Rolt’s own rare reflections on the ghost story, which are judicious and invaluable. He discusses M.R. James’s rescue “from unmerited obscurity” of Le Fanu, “the first of the masters” – and how James himself “freely acknowledged his own debt” to that Irish genius. In Sleep No More, Rolt in turn pays off his debt, to James, and thereby adds a quiet yet grimly distinctive voice to the great tradition of supernatural fiction.
Review Source: http://www.alexislykiard.com/Reviews/sleep_no_more.htm