SPECTRAL SUFFOLK I
The Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648 after the Thirty Years War. It fragmented the Germanic states of the Holy Roman Empire, and gave them virtual autonomy, thus signalling the start of the Empire ’s long decline. One can see the potential for power vacuums and conflict from the jumble of states which emerged.
When the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI died a hundred years later, a debate raged over whether his daughter Maria Theresa was eligible to succeed him as Queen of Hungary and Bohemia . Charles had persuaded some Germanic leaders to accept the Pragmatic Sanction that she should succeed him, but Salic law stated that women could not inherit property. Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had territorial claims which were unresolved, did not accept the Sanction and invaded Silesia (the area around the modern-day Polish-German-Czech border).
The Prussians made rapid progress into Silesia , expanding their territory and population. The old European powers, realising that the previously inconspicuous Prussians were now a force to be reckoned with, entered the fray: France , Spain and Bavaria allied with the Prussians, Britain and Holland with Austria . The war lasted between 1740-48, and ended with a treaty which restored the status quo ante bellum. However, with the development of modern industrial capitalism in Britain, the bourgeois revolution in France, and the consequent battle for commerce in the West Indies, peace was not to last. More than 150 years later, wars of this kind were still being fought by similar actors.
While blood spilled in Europe, another type of laissez-faire commerce was in the ascendant in Suffolk : smuggling. Groups of audacious smugglers had expanded the trade of contraband to the extent that customs authorities, even with military support, were no match for them. Lord Orford had once commented that the only man in Orford who was not a smuggler was the parson (surely not!), and the intricate tributaries of the River Blyth a little way up the coast provided ideal routes for cargo.
A detachment of the Fourth Dragoons, who had fought in the 1740-48 war, was posted to Blythburgh in Suffolk to prevent the spread of smuggling. Fresh from battle, the dragoons resented their placement on the bleak Suffolk coast, and soon became unpopular with the locals.
One summer night in 1750, a local girl, Anne Blakemore, was found dead by the marshland near Blythburgh village. The finger was pointed at Tobias Hill, who some villagers claimed had raped and strangled the girl after being kicked out of the White Hart in a drunken stupor. He pleaded his innocence, but was found guilty and hanged on 14th September 1750, his body left swinging from the chains of the gibbet as an example for others. The Ipswich Journal described Hill as “a black, one of the drummers in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment” – and it is here that we begin to wonder if a racially-motivated miscarriage of justice occurred. Just like Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, Hill had been charged without a shred of evidence to link him to Anne’s murder. In fact, given that there were no suspicious marks on Anne’s body, there was no evidence to suggest she had been murdered at all.
As the Foxearth and District Local History Society notes, even in death Tobias Hill was allowed little dignity:
“To cover up their activities, smugglers made the dead dragoon the subject of a number of ghost stories, including the common one of being a headless driver of a phantom black coach drawn by four headless black horses. Certainly, the thought of ghost of Black Toby kept many of the superstitious indoors at night whilst the smugglers were at work.”
The story of Toby Hill’s ghost is still popular in that part of the Suffolk coast. Some living people claim to have seen him. But the story appears to have been created to gloss over an unpalatable truth: the murder of an innocent man by a rancorous rabble.