The Ghost of Tom Lee – Grassington


  250 years ago a brutal murder took place on a quiet lane near the village of Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. Many years may have passed since the killing took place, but the crime still linger in the folklore of the area.

  The murderer’s name was Tom Lee, – a lead miner and inn keeper of the Blue Anchor in Grassington. In 1768 Lee was put on trial and hanged for the murder of Richard Petty, the local doctor. One version of the story leading up to the murder relates how Tom Lee was shot while trying to commit a robbery. His injuries were so serious that he had no choice but to call the doctor, who soon realised what Lee had been up to. Lee feared that doctor Petty would turn him in, and so to keep him quiet he decided to kill him. The other version of the story has both men attending a cock fight in Kettlewell, where the doctor won a large sum of money betting on the fights. The two men rode back to Grassington, stopping at the inns along the way, until, as they approached Grassington, Tom Lee killed the doctor and took his money. There is probably some truth in both versions.

The old Blue Anchor Inn

  The murder took place at the entrance to Grass Wood (half mile west of the town), and Lee hid the doctor’s body amongst the trees. But as searches were made for the missing man, Lee feared that the body would be discovered, and so he moved it several times. Eventually the body was dumped into the river Wharfe, but it was later found down stream at Burnsall. As Tom Lee was the last person to be seen with the doctor, he was already the main suspect for his disappearance, but without a body nothing could be proved. With the body recovered, Lee’s accomplice turned kings evidence against him, and a warrant was issued for Lee’s arrest. Lee is said to have hidden in a cave at Cove Scar to the west of the town, and after his hanging it became known as Tom Lee’s Cave, and was said to be haunted by his ghost.

The approach to Grass Wood – scene of the murder

  Lee was taken to York to stand trial, where he was found guilty and hanged. His body was then brought back to Grassington, and hung in gibbet irons from a tree near the murder site in Grass Wood. His decomposing body is said to have hung on Gibbet Hill for several years, and that items of clothing, and even body parts were stolen from the corpse (perhaps for use in folk healing or ‘the hand of Glory’ type charms?). When darkness fell, Lee’s ghost was said to haunt the wood, his tormented spirit wandering amongst the trees.

Gibbet Hill by the roadside where Tom Lee’s body hung in chains

  The spirit of the murdered Dr Petty was also said to haunt the lane passing through Grass Wood, while the ghostly form of his white horse was also seen on occasions. The river Wharfe flows just to the south of Grass Wood, and a little down stream a large and deep rock pool below the Ghaistrills Strid is still grimly known as ‘Doctor Petty’s Bath’, from the belief that his body floated there for a while as the river washed it down stream.

Doctor Petty’s Bath

  The local author Bailey Harker mentions an outcrop in the river called Tom Crag, which might also have been connected with the murderer. Harker also noted that Lee’s gibbet irons were eventually thrown into a deep part of the river at the Ghaistrills, and as a murderer cannot be buried in consecrated ground, it is possible that lee’s bleached bones accompanied them. Either way this would only add to the reputation that the Ghaistrills was a haunted place.

The river Wharfe channelled through the Ghaistrills Strid

  It is perhaps ironic that the ‘notorious’ Tom Lee appears to be the only past resident of Grassington to have a plaque marking his home.


End Note
In a way it seems that Tom Lee’s spirit was adopted into the folklore of the area, becoming linked with locations which already had supernatural associations. His ghost haunted the cave at Cove Scar – said to be a fairy dwelling place. His gibbet irons (and bones?) were taken to the Ghaistrills – a haunted stretch of the river, above the suggestively named Ghaistrills Parlour, and further down stream the isolated rock in the river called Tom Crag. This perhaps provides an insight into the way in which local folklore evolved in the past.

Harker, B.J. (1890) The Buxton of Yorkshire – Grassington.
Robertson, J. (1882) Tom Lee – A tale of Wharfedale.
Rowley, R.G. (1982) Tom Lee – The Grassington Murderer.

The Lay of the Land


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