Strangely, I can’t remember what we had been doing before stopping at the picnic site. I believe we had been on a week-long holiday by the sea, which seems like it should be the more memorable of the two.
I do know why I recall racing up and down the rolling dirt-track hills and hiding behind head-height prickly bushes so well.
Or rather his story – it’s always the story – which has stuck with me for nearly 30 years.
I suspect my dad started telling it as we were rattling slowly along the A12 in our old Bedford van to ward off the “Are we nearly there yet?” questions, which were even more frequent when our maximum speed appeared to be 30mph.
He began Listen With Mother style: “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.”
…The year was 1750 and a “tall, muscular black man”, named Tobias Gill, was stationed with a regiment of Dragoons in Suffolk village of Blythburgh where they were attempting to curb the activities of smugglers along the coast.
The drummer was said to be a charming man who had “a way with the ladies” but when drunk he was known to be a brawler and had been banned from several of the pubs there abouts.
One day in June of that year, a local girl, Ann(e) Blakemore, from nearby Walberswick, was found dead – and “Black Tob”, as he was nicknamed, was discovered, passed out, beside her.
Despite swearing that he had not harmed her, he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged in chains – a brutal way to die also known as gibbeting – at a spot near where her body was found.
He was led to the gallows in September still loudly protesting his innocence but it was only much later, after the awful deed was done, that questions started to be asked. It seems there had been no marks on Anne’s body and little evidence from the coroner that she had actually been murdered. According to some reports, she might even have died from natural causes. Was an innocent man wrongly sent to his death?
Since that time, his ghost is said to haunt the site, now known as Toby’s Walks, roaming the hills in search of justice or, in some versions, driving a phantom coach pulled by four headless horses.
Because I was only young, my dad first told it as a ghost story and my brother and I careened around the site in the hopes of seeing Toby (or Anne who is also said to haunt the area) which we thought would be the most exciting thing in the world.
We have stopped at that picnic spot many times since then and my dad has always told the same tale but it wasn’t until I was much older that I realised it was actually a true story.
It is believed that tensions between the locals and the soldiers ran high, as there was some support for the smugglers, and that is why the case was handled so swiftly with what appears to be little actual consideration of the evidence. Although most of the reports from that time state he was black, it is hard to know if or how much this played a part in what happened to him.
Initially, I am sure I remembered the story because of the ghostly element which fascinated as much as it terrified me as a young girl but I think the sense of injustice is why it has stuck with me – and why I chose it as my first story.
I’m cheating a little with this series because I hope one day they might come in useful for Freya if she has a project about local history at school. I’ve said before how important I think it is that we are connected with where we are born and live and old tales such as this are one of the ways I can teach her.
While I am not doubting my dad’s version of the story, I did do a bit of research via the following sites, if you’re interested in learning more about Tobias Gill:
Do you remember a childhood tale, myth or legend from where you live? If you fancy joining in with this occasional series please let me know.