Thomas Hanley’s fascinating account of aerial apparitions of military manoeuvres first appeared in the Yorkshire Folk-Lore Journal in 1888, and remains of much interest in the annals of northern forteana.
On the 18th of January, 1792, a singular meteoric appearance was observed near Stockton-on-the-Forest, about four miles from York, which resembled a large army in separate divisions, some in black and others in white uniforms. One of these divisions formed a line that appeared near a mile in extent, in the midst of which appeared a number of fir trees, which seemed to move along with the line. These aerial troops moved in different directions, and sometimes with amazing rapidity. The above is stated to have been seen by persons of credit and respectability.
A meteoric phenomenon of the same kind was seen near Harrogate, on Sunday, June 28th, 1812, between seven and eight o’clock in the evening, by Anthony Jackson, aged 45 years, and Martin Turner, a young man, and son of a farmer in the neighbourhood. When looking after their cattle they were suddenly surprised to see at some distance what appeared to them a large body of armed men, in white military uniforms, in the centre of which was a person of a commanding aspect dressed in scarlet. After performing various evolutions, the whole body began to move forward in perfect order towards the summit of a hill, passing the spectators at the distance of about 100 yards. No sooner had this body, which extended four deep over an enclosure of 80 acres, attained the hill, than a second body, far more numerous than the former, dressed in a dark-coloured uniform, appeared, and marched after the first to the top of the hill, where they both joined and passed down the opposite side of the hill and disappeared, when a column of thick smoke spread over the plain. The time from the first appearance of this strange phenomenon to the clearing up of the smoke, the spectators supposed was little more than five minutes. These appearances created a great sensation among the superstitious, who considered them as ominous of the great waste of blood by Britain in her wars with America and France. In 1743, one David Stricket, then servant to John Wren, of Wilton Hill, a shepherd, was sitting one evening after supper at the door with his master, when they saw a man with a dog pursuing some horses on Southerfell-side, a place so steep that a horse can scarcely travel on it at all, and they seemed to run at an amazing pace, and to disappear at the lower end of the fell. Master and man resolved to go next morning to the steep side of the mountain, on which they expected to find that the horses had lost their shoes, from the rate at which they galloped, and the man his life. They went, but to their surprise they found no vestige of horses having passed that way. They said nothing about their vision for some time, fearing the ridicule of their neighbours, and this they did not fail to receive when they at length ventured to relate their story. On the 23rd of June, the following year (1744), Stricket, who was then servant to a Mr. Lancaster, of Blakehills, the next house to Wilton Hill, was walking a little above the house in the evening, about half-past seven, when on looking towards Southerfell, he saw a troop of men on horseback riding on the mountainside in pretty close ranks, and at the speed of a brisk walk. He looked ‘earnestly at this appearance for some time before he ventured to acquaint any one with what he saw, remembering the ridicule he had brought on himself by relating his former vision. At length, satisfied of its reality, he went into the house and told his master he had something curious to show him. The master said he supposed Stricket wanted him to look at a bonfire, (being the eve of St. John, it was a custom for the shepherds to vie with each other for the largest bonfire). However, they went out together, and before Stricket spoke of or pointed to the phenomenon, Mr. Lancaster himself observed it, and when they found they both saw alike, they summoned the rest of the family, who all came, and all saw the visionary horsemen. There were many troops, and they seemed to come from the lower part of the fell, becoming first visible at a place called Knott. They then moved in regular order in a curvilinear path along the side of the fell, until they came opposite to Blakehills, when they went over the mountain and disappeared. The last, or last but one, in every troop galloped to the front, and then took the swift walking pace of the rest. The phenomenon was also seen by every person at every cottage within a mile, and from the time that Stricket first observed it the appearance lasted two hours and a half, namely, from half-past seven until night prevented any further view. Such are the circumstances as related in Clark’s Survey of the Lakes, 1789.
Published in NE117 (Spring 2009), p.9