This short story “The Black Vaughan” was written by Mike Fry. Mike is one of the regular team of contributors at Think Tasmania and usually writes Tasmanian travel articles about the west coast. However, given the history of Tasmania, many of our readers also have an interest in genealogy and/or ghost stories.  We’re sure you’ll find this an entertaining piece and we’re very happy to share Mike’s excellent story.

The Black Vaughan

by Mike Fry

I received the parcel quite some years ago from an elderly uncle in England. A plain brown package in the form of a large bloated envelope. I still have that envelope today. A little worse for wear, I must admit; dog-earred and with a huge array of British postage stamps covering the entire right hand side of the envelope. The date from Her Majesty’s General Post Office indiscernible.

I was quite excited as I had spoken to him some months prior, concerning our family pedigree, and a document that he had found in a box of letters from a recently deceased relative. Inside the envelope was a cordial letter of greetings together with some thirty odd pages of a family tree. The author had written the pages in calligraphy together with elaborately painted coats of arms at intervals throughout the document. Such was the attention to detail that I immediately started to read.

It was with absolute amazement that I gazed on the first entry of the tree listed as circa 203AD. It was that of a Welsh king, Gwarldegg, King of Garthmadryn, now Brecknock. I was truly amazed that firstly a family tree could go back this far and secondly that I could be a known descendant of an ancient nobleman, a king no less. As I read further I could see in the notation that some of the listings were qualified by historical information and references.

In the letter from my uncle it was plain that he too was clearly excited and promised to investigate further and qualify the details listed from other sources.

Over the past few years I have referred to the document and on occasions have shown it to friends and others who have expressed interest in genealogy. Recently I was drawn to an ancestor on the document who was, apparently, a troubled soul. That, perhaps, is an understatement. I refer to a character known as The Black Vaughan.

Even today, in the hamlet of Kington on the Welsh border, discussion of this evil man are spoken in whispers less his ghost be listening.

Sir Thomas Vaughan, of Hergest Court in Hertfordshire, England, was the local lord and a wicked man who was known to terrorise the peasants in the district. Thomas married a lady, Ellen Gethin (Gethin the Terrible), also descended from another branch of the Vaughan family in Wales. She once dressed as a male to enter an archery contest and when she was called upon to draw her bow she shot a fellow competitor through the chest killing him instantly. The victim was another relative who had previously killed her brother. In the subsequent confusion she escaped while the local officials scoured the countryside looking for a male archer.

So evil was Thomas, The Black Vaughan, that he once stood under a tree close to Hergest and the grass beneath his feet burnt and never grew back. It was, until quite recently, that the burnt outline of his boot under that ancient tree was still visible.

Thomas was killed at the Battle of Banbury in 1483 during the War of the Roses where he was captured and decapitated. He fought originally for the Lancastrians but switched his allegiance to the Yorkist cause. Reason enough perhaps for the Lancastrians to repay his treachery. His ever faithful black hound went to battle with him and on seeing his master decapitated raced to the scene and snatched his master’s head and ran off with it, not stopping until it reached Hergest Court. Thomas’s headless body was then brought back to Kington for burial.

It was not long after his death that the hauntings started. At first it was a large troublesome fly that persistently irritated horses, cattle and then people of the village. All the while his spirit grew stronger until he manifested himself into the form of a raging black Hereford bull that entered the church of St Mary’s. At the same time the ghost was accompanied by a fearsome and huge black hound.

The people of Kington were so terrorized that they refused to go out of their homes and the once prosperous market town’s economy was severely affected. It was then that a group of twelve clergymen from the region decided to exorcise the ghost. These twelve men, good and true, with bell book and twelve candles managed to reduce the phenomenon to the size of a fly and placed into a snuff box. This was then placed at the bottom Hergest Moat under a large stone slab.

For a while all was quiet but then the hauntings resumed and it was thought that the snuff box had been disturbed. The twelve good clergymen again exorcised the spirit to the waters of the moat where it is believed his spirit still remains lest it be disturbed.

All remained quiet for some years until a mysterious large black hound began to appear in the village and at Hergest Court. It was to be known as the ‘Demon Dog of Kington’ and from time to time it would appear usually just prior to a death in the Vaughan family. The beast dog could be seen stalking the villagers with eyes of fire and breath so foul. Even today the locals will not walk alone near Hergest Croft and at night they will not consider driving their cars anywhere near the estate.

Ordinarily this story would finish here, merge with local folklore to be scoffed at by skeptics and to be a source of amusement for tourists and visitors. However the district was to receive a visit by a distinguished nineteenth century novelist by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Vaughans of the region were related to another family the Baskervilles. It would also appear that Arthur Conan Doyle himself was distantly related to the Baskerville-Mynors and had some friends in the locality. The Baskervilles had a castle at Eardisley and one of my Vaughan ancestors, Rosser Fychan, married a daughter of Sir Ralph Baskerville some years before The Black Vaughan incidents.

Arthur Conan Doyle stayed at Clyro Court with an acquaintance Thomas Baskerville whose family had lived in the area for centuries. On a previous golfing trip in Norfolk Doyle had been entertained by his friend Fletcher Robinson who had entertained him with a story about a phantom dog called Black Shuck, as big as a calf. Late that night the two plotted on a story involving a huge black beast dog. They later collaborated at Robinson’s house on the edge of Dartmoor. However Thomas Baskerville told Doyle about the Demon Dog of Kington, of The Black Vaughan and the hauntings of Hergest Court.  Doyle was hooked; he had to write this story and the local characters were just the ticket.

Curiously Robinson only got paid £30 per 1000 words with Doyle receiving £100 per 100 words. It was then even more curious when Robinson mysteriously died at the age of 36 by laudanum poisoning. Doyle, a qualified doctor, was suspected but never proven to be implicated.

To add further interest novelist Phil Rickman has written an epic mystery surrounding these events. ‘The Prayer of the Night Shepherd’ is a mystery based on the dispute of the origins of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is of even more interest if we look at the cast of Doyle’s novel. Hugo Baskerville, the wicked master of Baskerville Hall played by The Black Vaughan, Sir Thomas Vaughan. Dr James Mortimer taken from a common family name in the district surrounding Kington. Mortimer’s Cross is a few miles east of Kington. The botanist Jack Stapleton named after the village of Stapleton near Prestigne a few miles from Kington. Of course the star of the show would be the demonic black hound of Sir Thomas Vaughan that to this day still haunts the woods and countryside around the Hergest Estate and the village of Kington.

Although other sources have been quoted as the origin of the plot it should perhaps be left to the individual to decide for themselves. I, for one, am happy with the thought that at least some of the inspiration for the novel would have come from his experiences and associations with The Demon Hound of Kington, The Black Hound of Hergest Croft and of my ancestor the very wicked Sir Thomas Vaughan.

References from the Vaughan Pedigree written by Norman Dannatt, my uncle, and from Jones History of Breckonshire.

Mike Fry represents tourism group Discover Strahan and Carolyn Nissen is the chairperson of Tasmania’s West Coast tourism organisation. Together they are owners and hosts of Ormiston House Bed and Breakfast accommodation in Strahan. Article supplied to Think Tasmania by Mike Fry.