An exclusive look at Richard Holland's Haunted Wales: A Guide to Welsh Folklore:
Around Britain there are various graves where the grass will not grow, usually because the person buried there had been murdered or wronged in some way. In other places there are ‘footprints’ composed of withered grass marking the spot where a wrongly condemned man stood before he was executed (such a site allegedly exists near Overton, Wrexham, for example, but the two expeditions I made to find them both proved in vain). In these cases the bare earth fulfils the same function as the more common indelible bloodstains which mark the floors and panelling of some of our older mansions – they record for all time the death of innocents.
In the churchyard of Montgomery there was such a gap where the grass refused to grow. John Ceredig Davies describes the grave in Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales, and reproduces a sketch of it, but a fuller account was given by Christina Hole, in her Haunted England, which I reproduce here:
In the early years of the nineteenth century a Mrs Morris lived at Chirbury with her daughter Jane. She was a widow who had been left very badly off, and it was locally thought that she would have to part with her estate in order to make ends meet. If this happened, a local man named Thomas Pearce hoped to acquire it, as it had formerly belonged to his ancestors. It seemed more than probable that he would have his wish until her brother introduced a Staffordshire man, John Newton, who was to act as her bailiff. After that things took a different turn. Newton was evidently an excellent bailiff for, in a little over two years, he restored her income to its old level.
Perhaps because of this, or merely because he was a stranger and somewhat taciturn, he was rather unpopular in the district, and he made two powerful enemies for himself. One was Pearce, whose hopes he had thus dashed; the other was a young farmer named Robert Parker who was in love with Jane Morris. The girl preferred Newton, and the disappointed lover decided to revenge himself on his rival. He and Pearce met and devised a scheme for getting rid of the interloper. One dark November evening, about six o’clock, they set on Newton when he was returning form Welshpool, overpowered him, and brought him back to the town, where they accused him of highway robbery with violence. They were well known and respected local men; he was a stranger and unpopular. Their evidence was enough to hang him, and he was duly executed in 1821 during a thunderstorm.
Several attempts were made to break the curse by bringing new seeds and fresh soil, but they were all unsuccessful. In 1852 turf was laid down, and this did grow for a short time except over Newton’s head, where it withered at once. A few months afterwards all the turf died, leaving the grave in the same state as before. By 1886, considerably more than a generation after the execution, the bare patch was smaller, but still there. To-day it can be seen in the form of a distinct cross of sterile ground with the grass growing strongly round it. The ‘proof’ of poor Newton’s innocence has persisted for more than a hundred years, and is still there for all to see.’
Christina Hole wrote these words in 1940. The bare patch had already shrunk down to a cruciform shape by 1911, when Ceredig Davies reproduced a sketch of it. Davies adds an interesting tradition, apparently refuted by Hole’s account, that ‘a curse seems to follow every one who attempts to get anything to grow on the spot’. He cites the example of someone who planted a rose tree at the head of the grave and who, for his trouble, ‘soon fell sick and died’. Davies also assures us that Newton’s accusers did not escape punishment for their false witness. One became a drunkard and the other ‘wasted away from the earth’.54 Today not only does grass cover John Newton’s grave, but also a thriving rose-bush! His resting place is marked by a simple cross bearing the rather unfair legend of: ‘Robber’s Grave.’
The witnesses described the apparitions to the local Justices of the Peace, and the adventure was later recorded under ‘Remarkable Observations’ in a 1695 History of Wales. This book also stated that at the same time as the ghostly army was marching across one end of Weston common, a woman and six men at its other end were ‘much terrified by the sight of a blazing star … which was seemed to hang just over their heads’. The woman fell off her horse at the sight of this UFO (or perhaps corpse candle) which was ‘sometimes white and sometimes red, with a tail like an arrow’.
It is also reported that after the Battle of Montgomery, fought on the Shropshire border in September 1644, the ghosts of the slain were seen to haunt the field of their death.
Haunted Wales: A Guide to Welsh Folklore is available to purchase from The History Press.