The Real Lives of the Ghosts in my Stories: (3) Ethel at the Gate
In my short story Confessions of a Teenage Ghost Hunter (This is the Quickest Way Down - 2011 and A Dream of Stone & Other Ghost Stories - 2013) there is the following passage...
And then there was Ethel Preston.”
“Ethel who?” asks Georgia.
“Ethel Preston has a spectacular memorial in the Lawnswood Cemetery. It’s from the Edwardian era, well anyway early Twentieth Century. It takes the form a full size house front-door, complete with a few steps leading up to it and is topped by portico. But, the statue’s the thing. At the top of the steps – and standing in front of the partially opened door – is a life-size in white marble statue of Mrs P in her prime. And I can tell you, the first time I saw this statue – in the fading light of a winter’s twilight – I thought it was a ghost.”
“So who was she,” Georgia asks, “and why such an elaborate memorial?”
Who indeed – and why ?
OK, the facts. When I first visited this monument (over 40 years ago during my real-life ghosthunting trips at Leeds University) in the fading light of a Northern winter's afternoon, the sensation of seeing a woman in white apparently emerging from the entrance to a tomb was a distinctly butt-cheek clenching, cold shivers down the spine experience. Since then, the Lawnswood Cemetry has changed and the Preston Memorial (the statue is known locally as Ethel at the Gate) is now badly water-stained and over-shadowed by vegetation, so it looks a lot less impressive than when I first saw it, when it's appearance had more in common with the photo.
So let's talk about Ethel Preston, she was the wife of a wealthy Leeds manufacturing chemist called Walter Preston and, when she died in 1911 at the relatively young age of 50, the grieving widower commissioned one his nephews, a skilled sculptor, to build the memorial we now see. Constructed in white Italian marble, it shows a life-size Ethel standing at a replica of the front door to the family home of Beeston Grange (now long since demolished).
The project cost £2000 (according to my online calculator about £130,000 today) and when it was formally unveiled, just over 100 years ago in March 1913, it created such a stir that thousands of people took tram and charabanc trips to Lawnswood and paid one penny a time to queue up and see it.
As cemetry memorials go, it is a great example of the period's sentimentality about death, with the door behind Ethel just slightly open to symbolise the way through to the afterlife. However, why does the statue's face have such a sad, mournful expression? In fact the face has given rise to the saying locally "You look so glum, you have a face like Lawnswood Ethel."
It is at this point the official story behind the statue starts to become more controversial. The original explanation was that when Walter had been in Leeds for a long day at the office, Ethel would always be standing on the doorstep of Beeston Grange (as she is depicted in the statue) waiting for him to return home. It was to celebrate Walter's happy memories of this homecoming that the memorial was built. Or was it?
There is another version of the story, which said Walter was a notorious womaniser who frequently vanished for days on end. Not surprisingly, when he did return home, Ethel inevitably looked sad and dejected. In fact it has been suggested that his treatment of her led to her early death - and the statue was carved to reflect Walter's remorse.
I'll leave you to decide which is the real explanation, save only to add that not long after Ethel's death, Walter remarried and did not finally join Ethel beneath the turf at Lawnswood until 1930.
There is incidentally an interesting coda to this story as over the past decade, someone (person or persons unknown) has taken to leaving fresh flowers at the memorial, tucked into the arms of Ethel's statue.