I came across the following story recently whilst looking for interesting local ghost stories. Of course, the Iron Bridge at Sefton Park features in Black Feather, so I was even more interested in the story. In fact, it made me wonder if I had somehow tapped in to the haunting whilst writing the chapters on Evelyn and Ashrafel’s Victorian era romance as it seemed in a similar vein.
The story goes that Oliver, a young man from one of the upper-class families that lived in the area, had met and fallen in love with Cathleen, who, as a member of a lower class, was deemed unsuitable as a prospective marriage partner. Against their parents’ wishes, they would meet in secret on the iron bridge that crossed over the Fairy Glen in Sefton Park. Late one Valentine’s Day evening, Oliver broke the news that he was being forced into an arranged marriage with another girl so their two families could form a financially advantageous alliance. Oliver could no longer see his beloved Cathleen, but asked her to meet him on the bridge exactly one year later. Cathleen tearfully agreed, and the two parted ways.
Twelve months later, Oliver waited nervously in their usual spot at the appointed time, 11pm. As the minutes passed, Oliver began to fear that Cathleen had forgotten him, but as a nearby clock chimed the quarter hour, Cathleen appeared at the end of the bridge. Oliver, overjoyed to see her, ran with open arms towards her, but instead of catching his lover in his arms, he passed right through her. Oliver turned and as Cathleen walked on, she looked back and smiled at him, giving him a last wave before disappearing before his eyes.
The devastated young man went immediately to Cathleen’s home, where he discovered she had been suffering from Cholera and died at the exact moment she had appeared to him on the bridge. Her dying words were, ‘I must meet my love on the bridge at Sefton Park.’ She had remained true to him and kept their tryst.
Now, every year at 11.15pm on Valentine’s day, Oliver and Cathleen walk hand in hand across the Iron Bridge. United in death as they could not be in life.
You can read the original telling of the story here
I also found a version of the story retold by Tom Slemen, who writes the Haunted Liverpool books. However, Mr Slemen changes the story somewhat. Oliver becomes William Robert D’Onston and Cathleen is renamed as Alice Harwood. The meeting time is changed to midnight, a more auspicious time for ghostly appearances, and he sets the story between 1867 and 1869.
I’m not sure why Mr Slemen chose these changes, but far from the romantic liaison of Oliver and Cathleen’s story, William Robert D’onston becomes a selfish prat who clearly never loved Alice, complaining ‘About time too’ when she is late for the meeting. Instead of the pair being reunited in the afterlife, poor Alice continues to wait for her lost love alone.
The Tom Slemen version can be read here and you can watch a video based on Tom Slemen’s narrative below with the names changed again.
Because I can’t resist a bit of historical research, I used the details Tom Slemen gave to see if there was any truth behind the story. I couldn’t find a William Robert D’Onston, but Robert D’onston Stephenson, of course, was a ripper suspect. There is an Alice Harwood who was born in Liverpool in 1891, who was shipped to Canada at the age of 15 (1906) by the Liverpool Sheltering Home for Destitute Children. You can see the immigration record here. This can’t be the Alice Harwood of Mr Slemen’s story for obvious reasons.
However, the glaringly obvious mistake is the date. The building of the Iron Bridge wasn’t completed until 1873. While Historic England give a date of c1870, the Liverpool Echo of 2nd June 1873 states that the park was still incomplete and ‘an immense amount of really hard work yet remains to be done before its twelve miles of roads everywhere show that the finishing touches have been put on it’. The land where the park was to be built was purchased in 1867 and a competition to design the park was launched. The park was opened on 20th May 1872 by Prince Arthur.
In X Marks the Spot, I shared pictures of the Fairy Glen and the Iron Bridge and describe how they fit into my fallen angel paranormal romance book, Black Feather.
Nel Ashley is the author of Black Feather and Immortal, the second book in the Black Feather Series. She is currently working on her third novel, Dandelion Time, a time slip romance novel.
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