The Black Dog of Preston

The Black Dog of PrestonI have recently been researching the legend of the black dog of Preston. The process has led me on a journey through the places it is associated with and their history. It has also brought me to consider the meaning and origin of its roles as a harbinger of death and guardian of the town’s gates.

I first came across this tale earlier in the year on a walk with local folklorist Aidan Turner-Bishop, which was organised by UCLan Pagan Society. Aidan told us that a headless black dog haunts the area between Maudlands and Marsh Lane.

St Walburge's

St Walburge’s

These locations seem significant due to their history. Maudlands receives its name from a 12th century leper hospital dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, which was dissolved in 1548 and later replaced by St Walburge’s.

Preston International Hotel

Preston International Hotel

Marsh Lane was the location of a Friary belonging to the Franciscan Order, which was founded in 1260 and dissolved in 1539 and occupied the position of Preston International Hotel. The Friary gave its name to Friargate and the The Grey Friar Pub.

The Grey FriarNext to it was Ladywell, which was venerated up until the nineteenth century and is now remembered only by the street name (1). Water was piped from Ladywell to the Friary.

Ladywell - CopyThe earliest written records of the black dog I have come across are in Charles Hardwick’s Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore (1872). Firstly, ‘I remember in my youth hearing a story of a headless boggart that haunted Preston’s streets and neighbouring lanes. Its presence was often accompanied by the rattling of chains. I forget now what was its special mission. It frequently changed its form, however, but whether it appeared as a woman or a black dog, it was always headless’ (2).

And secondly, ‘This spectre hound or dog is a very common sprite in Lancashire. I remember well being terrified in my youth in Preston, by Christmas recitals of strange stories of its appearance, and the misfortune which its howling was said to forebode. The Preston black dog was without a head, which rendered the said howling still more mysterious to my youthful imagination’ (3).

A story called ‘The Black Dog of Preston’ is serialised by James Borlase in The Preston Guardian in December 1878. This story is set in 1715 during the period of the Jacobite rebellion, which led to the Battle of Preston.

Once again, it appears as a portent of death ‘several people who had been abroad late at night and alone, had caught sight of the THE BLACK DOG OF PRESTON, a headless boggart, who could howl nevertheless, and whose howl meant death, as also did its lying down upon a doorstep to someone who dwelt within that special house’ (4).

A connection between the black dog and Gallows Hill is mentioned twice. The first instance is a mock sighting of ‘the huge and hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston, a weird boggart that for centuries was famous in our town, pawing the air, swaying from side to side, and howling most lugubriously’. Here it turns out to be one of the protagonists’ servants clad in a sheepskin (5).

In the second it appears as a guardian of the dead; ‘sixteen of the lesser rebels were hanged upon Gallows Hill in chains, and there suffered to remain for many months, guarded, it is said, of a night time, by the Headless Black Dog of Preston’ (6).

English Martyrs' Church

English Martyrs’ Church

English Martyrs' Church, Gallows Hill

English Martyrs’ Church, Gallows Hill

The English Martyrs’ Church, which now stands on the summit of Gallows Hill, derives its name from these executions. The nearby street names Derwentwater Place and Lovat Road refer to Jacobites captured and killed in the rebellion. That people were hung and decapitated there is evidenced by two headless bodies found during the building of North Road, which cuts through the hill. The area is described as a ‘provincial Tyburn’ (7).

Derwentwater PlaceThe black dog is also connected to the strange phenomenon of the parting of the Ribble’s waters, which occurred in the years 1715 and 1774 and is recounted by Peter Whittle. ‘The river Ribble, in Lancashire, stood still; and for the length of three miles, there was no water, except in deep places; in about five hours it came down with a strong current, and continues to flow as usual’ (8).

As the protagonists in Borlase’s story ride double into the Ribble, down river from Walton Bridge, their horse shies, ‘it was not the water that was terrifying the horse, but a great black something, like a weed-covered rock, that seemed to be lying half in and half out of it… the thing became suddenly instinct with life, and rolling rather than moving toward them exhibited the hideous form of The Headless Black Dog of Preston…The black dog uttered a most lugubrious howl, not withstanding its headlessness, and then waddled off; whereupon, and immediately, a most extraordinary circumstance occurred, for with a roar the river parted in twain from the Preston shore’ (9).

The river Ribble from Walton Bridge

Whilst this story is fictitious it is possible some of its elements are founded on earlier beliefs.

During the 19th century the superstition that a howling dog was a portent of death was popular. James Bowker says ‘few superstitions have a wider circle of believers in Lancashire than that which attributes to dogs the power of foretelling death and disaster’ (10). Hardwick attributes this to the dog’s delicate sense of smell, saying the capacity to scent putrid flesh ‘may have influenced the original personification of the dog as an attendant on the dead’ (11).

Contemporary writer Alby Stone suggests this superstition may relate to earlier beliefs about dogs being able to see spirits and thus forewarn of death. She adds ‘in many traditions… such creatures are not merely harbingers of death. They are both guides to and guardians of the land of the dead’ (12). In Borlase’s tale the black dog appears as a guardian of the dead on Gallows Hill and guides the protagonists across the Ribble.

It is possible to link this liminal role to the term ‘boggart,’ which Hardwick and Borlase use interchangeably with ‘black dog’. According to Brand ‘boggart’ may derive from the Northern pronunciation of ‘bar’ meaning ‘gate’ and ‘guest’ meaning ‘ghost.’ A boggart or ‘bar-guest’ is hence a ‘gate-ghost’ (13). To complicate things further ‘gate’ actually meant ‘street,’ hence Friargate. Brand says ‘Many streets are haunted by a guest, who assumes many strange appearances, as a mastiff-dog, &c. It is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon gast, spiritus, anima.”’ (14).

Friargate IIThis is interesting as older maps of Preston show the town’s ‘bars.’ The bar of Friargate is located in the present day position of The Sun Hotel, not far from Marsh Lane (15).

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

Approximate Location of Friargate Bar

This may go some way to explain the Friargate connection. The black dog may be seen as both a guardian of the physical gates of the town and the gateways between the lands of the living and dead. The former is supported by a reference on the Paranormal Database, which says ‘It is said that the town was once haunted by a headless black hound, appearing when danger threatened the town’ (16).

This idea may date back to pre-Christian beliefs. Alby Stone argues that evidence of ritual burials dating back to Bronze Age Britain suggests that dogs may have been killed and interred to serve as spirit guardians. She lists a pair of dogs buried at Flag Fen in Peterborough and another at Caldicot in Gwent (17). A recent example suggesting such practices may have continued into the medieval period and beyond is the discovery of the seven foot skeleton of Black Shuck outside Leiston Abbey (18).

At the time Bowker was writing it appears the belief in ‘foundation burials’ was current in Lancashire. He cites Rev. S. Baring Gould, ‘It was the custom to bury a dog or a boar alive under the corner-stone of a church, that its ghost might haunt the neighbourhood, and drive off any who would profane it—i.e. witches or warlocks’ (19). However, as far as I know, there is no archaeological evidence of this kind of practice in Preston.

There are other idiosyncrasies bound up with the legend that are less easy to interpret. For example how did the black dog lose its head; was it a dog beheaded as part of a ritual burial, or is it the ghost of a decapitated human?

There is also the paradox that although the boggart was supposedly laid it continues to haunt the streets of Preston. Hardwick says ‘The story went that this boggart or ghost was at length “laid” by some magical or religious ceremony in Walton Church yard. I have often thought that the story told by Weaver, a Preston antiquary, in his “Funerall Monuments,” printed in 1631, and which I have transcribed at page 149 of the “History of Preston and its Environs,” may have had some remote connection with this tradition’ (20). If the black dog was laid in 1560 as part of Dee and Kelly’s misdemeanours in Walton Churchyard,  which are referred to in Weaver’s story, how come it figures so largely in tales set in 18th to 19th C Preston?

I’ve visited Walton Churchyard and seen no obvious signs of a boggart having been laid, such as the Written Stone in Longridge (21). However, like in this legend and a tale from Clayton Hall ‘Whilst ivy climbs and holly is green, / Clayton Hall boggart shall no more be seen’ (22) there is a holly tree in the centre of the graveyard and plenty of ivy about. Holly is renown for its apotropaic function (23).

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

Holly Tree, Walton Churchyard

One possibility is that it wasn’t laid. Another is that the laying was ineffective. The Gristlehurst Boggart was reputedly laid in a hollow and assuaged with milk but still seemed to be out and about causing trouble at the time Edwin Waugh was writing (24).

Old Dog Inn

The Old Dog Inn

Aside from these stories, and the pub name The Old Dog Inn (which is tenuous as it pictures a grey coloured hound with a head) I haven’t come across any more evidence of its existence. More current accounts of paranormal activity in Lancashire refer to big cats.

Old Dog - Copy

The Old Dog

Could this be because the black dog of Preston has abandoned the city? Or could it be because nobody who has seen it or heard it howling has lived to hear the tale?..

(1) David Hunt, A History of Preston, (2009), p31-33
(2) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(3) Ibid. p172
(4) The Preston Guardian, 17th December 1887
(5) Ibid.
(6) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(8) Peter Whittle, aka Marmaduke Tulket, A topographical, statistical, & historical account of the borough of Preston, (1821), p15
(9) The Preston Guardian, 24th December 1887
(10) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire,(1878),
(11) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p174-5
(12) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p36
(13) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(14) Ibid.
(15) David Hunt, Preston Centuries of Change, (2003), p39
(17) Alby Stone, ‘Infernal Watchdogs, Soul Hunters and Corpse Eaters,’ in ed. Bob Trubshaw, Explore Phantom Black Dogs, (2005), p41
(19) James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire, (1878)
(20) Charles Hardwick, Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, (2012), p130
(21) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p105 and 107
(22) John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore, (1867), p50
(23) Aidan Turner-Bishop, ‘Fairy and Boggart Sites in Lancashire’ in ed. Linda Sever, Lancashire’s Sacred Landscape, p106
(24) Edwin Waugh, ‘Gristlehurst Boggart,’ Lancashire Sketches Vol. 2,

Mile Train

Steaming from the tunnel comes a grim dark engine
With a dim flat face cast in iron and unstoppable.
In its clanging pistons reeds and river-weed are caught.
Vivid green algae coats its dreadnought visage.

Cut off from the mainline it is an engine of darkness
Reconstructed piece by piece in the dank and rusty tunnel
From smashed metal parts by subterranean little people
Emerging into daylight in a cloud of black smoke.

At the red and scolding flames stoking up its engine
Is a goblin driver with a maniacal grin
In a tweed flat cap and filthy navy overalls
Reciting unknown stations in a feral tongue.

Its carriages are luminous with elfish women
Who turn in wedding gowns beneath chandeliers
With manicured hands chinking glasses of champagne.
Their smiles are eternal so long as their drinks are full.

This grim dark engine brings a message from the gods,
A voice from the pits cut off from the mainline.
“For the chance of a lifetime to see beneath the city
Get your ticket and climb aboard the Mile train!”

*The Mile Tunnel is a mile long abandoned tunnel that runs from Maudlands in Preston to Deepdale. It closed in 1980 and already has the reputation of being a haunted place. More information can be found on Blog Preston:

Mile Tunnel

Entrance to the Mile Tunnel, Maudlands, Preston


Mile Tunnel

Entrance to the Mile Tunnel, Deepdale, Preston

Ribble Boatman

I am a voice from riverbanks where the city ends in green,
Where water shines and all wishes are fine and starry.
Bring a tear to my riverboat and I will take you on good travels.
Pay me twice and I will bring you back again.

I am old and you may know my distant sons and daughters,
Gulls with grey and white faces smiling on lonely rocks,
Cormorants standing poised, wings raised in a wide salute.
In another life I was a bearded heron constantly shifting shape.

Now I am one of a hundred hundred river spirits,
Whose whirlpools turn and splash the banks at your feet.
Where waters whirled, pleasure boats twirled and my riverboat swum
You can find me with just one oar and a star in my smile.

River Ribble









This picture shows the stretch of the river Ribble across which the ferryboat used to row from Riverside in Middleforth, Penwortham across to Riverside, Preston. According to local historian, Alan Crosby, records of the ferry date back to the 14th century but it is likely its origins are far older. It fell into disuse when Penwortham Bridge was built in 1759 (1).

(1) Alan Crosby, Penwortham in the Past, 1988, p45

The Chirruping Bush

is a source of ancient wisdom
wisdom of sparrows
all the natter of the nation
all the chatter of the ancestors
nested in one place
invested in a myriad voices.

Hearken to the wisdom of the chirruping bush.

Chirruping Bush, Factory LaneOn Factory Lane there is a bush from which you can hear a myriad chirruping voices all the way from the end of the road. Go closer and you will see it is filled with sparrows (and the odd starling!). The lady who lives next to it told me she has never known so many birds to take up residence in it as this year.

Sparrows and a starling

A Guardian of Preston

The Guardian, The Wildwood Tarot









It stands at the gates of death,
bone-worthy skeleton

at entrances to tunnels and crypts

with hollow eyes and glaring nostrils,
long arms and stiff vertebrae.

The slip of its pelvis moves silently
with every one or two steps.

It greets me in darkness.

“Do you want knowledge of the void,
why this city sucks all effort into itself
down priest holes in catechisms
to the lands of death?”

I cling onto trees and mossy roots in memory.
There is barrenness where green withers
and only stone or bone flayed
to its barest remnants knows the secrets of survival.

“Do you want to become gnarled fingers,
grey and twisted scapula, a ribcage without a heart?”

I think of the ringway,
its exo-skeleton
and pair of snapping jaws
eating every car and depositing them
in the darkness of its cave.

I want understanding
but only the dead understand
unwalked roads and flashing traffic lights.

I ask “is this the only way?”

Its bones are silent,
incomprehensible as carparks
where churches once stood,
communities and their graves.

There is no riddle. No solution. No easy way.

Preston Ringroad









Each time I have done a reading with The Wildwood Tarot asking for guidance or inspiration in relation to Preston I have drawn ‘The Guardian’ card. I wrote this poem to explore its meaning.

Trinity Square

They thought we wanted churches
but all we wanted was somewhere to meet,
our own pew, somewhere to sit off the doorstep
out of the stench of Brown Friargate,
the opportunity to wear a new hat and shoes
and keep the husband out of the pub for an hour or two.

There was a temporary peace
much like the click of knitting needles
and how we needed something
to while away the hours whilst we grew old.

All we wanted was a patch of land.
All we got was a family grave.

Even that was taken away
when they tore down the church,
dismantled the crypt, dug up the tombstones
and our trembling remains, clattering teeth
gabbling, gagging, mee-mawing,
unable to remonstrate.

They concreted our patch,
drew white lines and cars between,
coins sliding into their coffers
to feed their horrible echoing greed.

Between the lines we, something, remain,
resistant as unpassing time, persistent as the rain.

Holy Trinity Church Gates III - Copy









Trinity Square Car Park


Holy Trinity Church Gates - Copy



















The Holy Trinity Church and its graveyard stood on the site of present day Trinity Sqaure Car Park between the years of 1814 and 1951. All that remains are a set of gates leading down to Trinity Place. Photographs of what it looked like prior to demolition can be found on Preston Digital Archive.

There are many places in Preston where churches have been knocked down, along with their graveyards and the bodies buried there have been moved and reinterred to make way for carparks. I was quite shocked when I heard about this. I’d always assumed once I got buried or cremated my remains would stay where I wished them to. This wasn’t the case for these people.

Walton Churchyard

The church is still and day bright.
Sun glints from the clock’s saintly blue.
But for the solitary holly tree amongst the graves
there are few signs of that macabre landscape

where Dee and Kelly raised a pauper
from his grave to seek the location of wealth
and received premonitions about each person
in the parish who would die in the coming year,

where a minister and wise-man
kept vigil one Christmas Eve and saw
in procession the spectres of each person
in the parish who would die in the coming year.

There are few signs of where the black dog was laid.
A single holly tree, graves, but no written stone
or evidence of offerings of milk or raw meat
to withhold the portents of an otherworldly beast.

These seem but shiver-stories now,
tales for the hearth fire and a winter of snow
as sunlight glints upon the clock
and daylight keeps its bright and bluey hue.

St Leonard's Church, Walton-le-daleHolly Tree, Walton Churchyard
























Entrance to Vault