‘A strange thing in the air that is said, in these parts, to foretell calamity’

On Halloween, cast your mind back to the tales of the Gabriel Hounds...

For overhead are sweeping the Gabriel Hounds
Doomed with the imperious lord, the flying hart
To chase forever on aerial grounds

William Wordsworth, 1807

Once upon a time, there was a popular folk explanation for any misfortune that befell the people of the North. When a child burned to death in Sheffield, neighbours reported the Gabriel Hounds passing over the house just moments before.

Another tale from the Tyneside poet and folklorist William Henderson’s book Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties details a man who was told to rush to the bedside of a sick relative. “As he set out he heard the wild sound of the creatures above his head,” Henderson writes. “They accompanied him the whole way, about a mile, then paused, and yelped loudly over the house. He entered it, and found that the patient had just breathed her last.”

In those days, people commonly believed that strange animalistic yelping noises in the night foretold certain doom. The phenomenon shifted shape, depending on the teller of the tale. For some, they are the Gabriel Hounds: monstrous human-headed dogs who traverse the air unseen. Led by the Archangel Gabriel they are said to bring death on those they visit. For others, they are the Gabble Ratchets: not dogs at all but the souls of unbaptised children, doomed to wander in the air until the day of judgement.

In Derbyshire, it’s said the dogs are led by a squire who persisted in hunting on Sundays, and once drove them into a church, a sin for which he is condemned to ride out on stormy nights forever. In Devon, they are known as the Wisht Hounds, a spectral pack led by a huntsman who guides his dogs over the wild wastes of Dartmoor. On the Internet Sacred Text Archive, they are described thus:

Few have ever imagined that they have seen these hounds, though popular superstition has described them as black, with fiery eyes and teeth, and sprinkled all over with blood. Generally, they are only heard, and seem to be passing swiftly along in the air, as if in hot pursuit of their prey. Their yelping is said to be sometimes as loud as the note of a bloodhound, but sharper and more terrific.

The legend of the Gabriel Hounds was first recorded in 1665 (although the phrase gabrielle rache, meaning simply “corpse-hound,” dates back to 1483). But it wasn’t until 1866, when Henderson documented them in Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties, that they became more fixed in the public imagination. As well as the Devonshire versions of the story and another from Durham, in the book Sheffield is identified as a regular hunting ground for the hounds.

Anonymous tales can be questioned but the sworn word of a journalist cannot be so readily dismissed. John Holland (1794-1872) was a reporter and poet who edited the Sheffield Iris and Mercury between 1825 and 1848. As Henderson was writing his book, Holland wrote to tell him of an experience he’d had after finishing work late at Hartshead and walking home past the parish church (now Sheffield Cathedral). He wrote:

I never can forget the impression made upon my mind when once arrested by the cry of these Gabriel hounds as I passed the parish church of Sheffield one densely dark and very still night. The sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles on the foot of a race, but not so loud, and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural.

As folklore expert Dr David Clarke writes in his 2013 book Scared to Death: And Other Ghost Stories from Victorian Sheffield, in an article in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1869 Holland later tries to explain the phenomenon away as migrating geese. But as well as his rational explanation for what he had heard, he also writes a sonnet in which the more supernatural aspects of his experience clearly resonate: 

Oft have I heard my honoured mother say,
How she has listened to the Gabriel hounds –
Those strange unearthly and mysterious sounds,
Which on the ear through murkiest darkness fell;
And how, entranced by superstitious spell,
The trembling villager not seldom heard,
In the quaint notes of the nocturnal bird,
Of death premonished, some sick neighbour’s knell.
I, too, remember once at midnight dark,
How these sky-yelpers startled me, and stirred,
My fancy so, I could have then averred
A mimic pack of beagles low did bark,
Nor wondered I that rustic fear should trace
A spectral huntsman doomed to that long moonless chase.

The Gabriel Hounds also appear in the book Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade, supposedly the first novel ever set in Sheffield. The book (which was first published in 1869) is ostensibly about the Sheffield outrages, an alleged campaign of union violence that flared in the city in the mid-nineteenth century. But the novel also weaves in the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864, along with the various characters’ premonitions of the disaster, foretold by the sounds of a spectral pack of dogs in the sky.

Clarke says the account of the Gabriel Hounds in Reade’s book is identical to Holland’s description of the strange phenomenon. However, in the novel, the action is moved from the parish church to Hillsborough (presumably to tie the flood into the narrative). “The belief seems to have been particularly prominent in the Victorian era,” he says. “There are accounts of people being really scared by them. Even to the point of people running away when the Gabriel Hounds were even talked about.”

No one knows if the two met, although it’s clear that Reade had heard of Holland’s encounter. But the tradition of sky-yelpers in South Yorkshire goes beyond Holland. Clarke’s book notes that Sheffield folklorist Sidney Addy refers to Gabriel Hounds as “a peculiar noise in the air” associated with death and calamity. The noises are also reported to have been heard in Stannington, Dronfield and elsewhere in the city. Addy also recounts a Sheffield legend that storms that pass over remote Ringinglow are in fact Michael and his dogs flying over.

In Reade’s book, rent collector Mr Raby is initially reluctant to recount his experience of the Gabriel Hounds. But when pressed by heroine Grace Carden, he eventually describes them as “a strange thing in the air that is said, in these parts, to foretell calamity.” He says:

Well, one night I was at Hillsborough on business and as I walked by the old parish church, a great pack of beagles, in full cry, passed close over my head…Yes, they startled me, as I never was startled in my life before. I had never heard of the Gabriel hounds then, and I was stupefied. I think I leaned against the wall there full five, before I recovered myself, and went on.

When asked what the supernatural vision had meant, he tells Grace he had recently visited a family which had fallen on hard times. However, when he returned to them not long after with the promise of restitution, he found the wife “in a swoon” and the husband “dead by his own hand.” Clarke says that at this point Raby stands and paces about the room in an agitated state, exclaiming:

Curse the Gabriel hounds! It is the first time I have spoken of them since that awful night; it is the last time I ever will speak of them. What they are, God, who made them, knows. Only I pray I may never hear them again, nor any friend of mine.

Later, when Grace herself hears the hounds she realises the dam is about to burst and she will be swept away. “There’s nothing to be done now, but to make our peace with God,” she says. “For you are a dead man, and I’m a dead woman…” In the real Sheffield flood of 1864, more than 240 people died when Dale Dyke Dam broke as its reservoir was being filled for the first time. Amidst the tragedy, however, some reported being saved by strange premonitions of disaster.

More Halloween reading:

  • David Clarke’s book Scared to Death: And Other Ghost Stories from Victorian Sheffield can be bought from Waterstones here.

  • Notes on the Folklore of the Northern Counties by William Henderson is on Wikisource here.

  • Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade is on Project Gutenberg here.

  • Spectre Dogs on The Internet Sacred Text Archive.