WITH his neat bow-tie, pocket-watch, flowing grey locks, and gown streaming behind him as he pedals down the High Street to evensong at the Cathedral, Allan Chapman has been part of the Oxford scenery for as long as I have known it. He is a distinguished historian of science, but clearly also has an ear for tales whose intricate details are lost in the mists of time, leaving behind them wraiths that may — or may not — haunt Christ Church, Oxford. In this little volume, we meet a series of figures whose histories are, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the fabric of the House, as Christ Church is known to its members.
Dr Chapman’s subjects range from Charles I to Tig the bear; and from John Wesley to Tiddles the cat — to say nothing of his junior felines Assurbanipal, Sennacherib, and Nebuchadnezzar. They include clerics such as Abbot Aelfred, who allowed himself to be taken by the Devil; rogues such as Jack Chaundy, who was hanged for murder; and unfortunates like Francis Bayley, who met a very sticky end indeed. Some other well-known personages also a make an appearance: among them Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy; the naturalists William and Mary Buckland; and Lewis Carroll.
All these characters appear in their historical contexts, with true stories about them taken up and tweaked by Dr Chapman to suggest that associated sprites — both human and animal, and in one instance mechanical — have wafted about the quads at one time or another. The stories range from the gory to the fanciful, and from the eyebrow-raising to the deeply endearing. The author’s imagination runs freely through most of them — and he admits his own part in propagating the legend of “The Hound from Hell”, howling at his wife in Christ Church Meadow after hours.
Dr Chapman is as much part of the fabric of Christ Church as any of his subjects. Although he is a serious writer — and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society — he has not in this instance written a serious book. Instead, he has written a delightful one, which will surely bring pleasure to many.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.
Ghosts that Never Haunted Christ Church: A collection of curious tales about The House
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