A Twist in the Tail

The Carnarvon Castle pub, Tarleton Street

If you walk down Liverpool’s Church Street and turn right into Tarleton Street, you will come across a pub called the Carnarvon Castle. Today the street is a pedestrian area, but once upon a time when Tarleton Street was cobbled, there were eight public houses to be found there. The Carnarvon Castle is a popular pub today, and in the 1880s, the snug little public house was just as popular. In the year 1881, three regular drinkers could be found propping the bar up at the pub, and they were Harry Woolwright, Jack Mercer, and Danny Donovan. Harry had a patch covering a vacant eye socket, and a shock of white, upright hair with a dark streak through the centre part. Jack was the youngest, a mere lad of nineteen, with curly coppery red hair and a round full face. Danny was bald on top with two black clumps of hair on each side of his head, and a pair of the most vivid, striking blue eyes, which many women remarked upon. Whenever they congregated at the Carnarvon Castle, these three men passed the time singing, arguing, waging bets and getting up to all sorts of tomfoolery. The trio sang songs in perfect harmony, in the manner of the barber shop vocalists, and as closing time loomed at the Carnarvon, Harry, Jack and Danny would usually give a beautiful rendition of Londonderry Air, which has the same melody as Danny Boy. Rory O’Callaghan would provide the backing music on his accordion, and bring a tear to the eyes of the weary drinkers at the pub.
In December 1881, a blizzard swept over the town, blanketing the streets with a deep layer of snow. An elderly, strange-looking gypsy woman who had been selling heather and hand-carved clothes pegs outside of St Peter’s Church, took refuge against the snowstorm in the Carnarvon Castle, and she was accompanied by three black dishevelled-looking cats. Harry, Jack and Danny started to make fun of the Romany woman’s long aquiline nose and her scruffy cats, and three times the old gypsy warned the men she would blight their lives with an evil spell. Harry Woolwright, the eldest of the trouble-making trio, was old enough to know better, but he cruelly kicked one of the old woman’s cats into the fire, and the poor creature cried in agony from the appalling burns it sustained, and it died soon afterwards. The old gypsy woman pointed an arthritic, twisted finger at Woolwright, and let out a venomous curse in her ancient dialect, with a mixture of arcane Greek, Persian and Armenian words. All the time, the two caterwauling felines arched their backs against her long apron and bared their teeth at Harry and his laughing friends. Then the Romany woman collapsed and moaned before gasping and making the so-called death-rattle sound which is often heard in elderly people before they expire. Within minutes the Romany woman was dead, and several drinkers doffed their hats out of respect.
Harry, Jack and Danny realised something was happening to them. All three clutched their throats and began to cough. All three drinkers complained of an irritating feeling of hair being present in their throats, and they became so short of breath, they had to leave the pub and go to their homes to recover from the strange symptoms. The three men were not seen at the Carnarvon Castle for over a week, and eventually returned to the pub shortly before Christmas. People who had known Harry, Jack and Danny for years noticed a strangeness in the men’s behaviour. Their eyes darted about as they stood at the bar, and each of them would hum nervously in a low voice without opening their mouths. Furthermore, the trio would constantly look at the pub clock, and would leave before midnight, even if someone bought them a drink. On Christmas Eve, a policeman named Bulman was welcomed into the Carnarvon. He took off his cape and removed his snow-flecked helmet, before being warmed by a generous measure of Scotch. The policeman entered into conversation with Danny Donovan and Jack Mercer, but the two men kept glancing at the pub clock, and at precisely ten minutes to midnight, they decided to leave, along with Harry Woolwright, but the jovial constable barred their way and insisted upon them finishing their drinks. Young Jack Mercer became very irritable and told the officer of the law to get out the way, and PC Bulman was offended by the youth’s disrespectful attitude. Jack then shoved the policeman out of the way and struggled to undo the bolt on the pub door. The policeman drew his truncheon, but Danny Donovan and Harry Woolwright seized the constable by each arm and hurled him into a group of startled seated drinkers. The three men then fled from the pub into the snowbound streets.
‘What on earth’s got into them?’ asked the barman, and the policeman picked himself up off the floor, donned his cape and helmet, and hurried out of the Carnarvon Castle in hot pursuit of the impertinent trio. The blizzard had ended, and PC Bulman followed the three trails of footprints in the virgin snow, and saw they led towards Church Street. When he reached St Peter’s Church, the policeman noticed something very strange indeed. The sole prints of the drinkers shoes in the snow had suddenly been replaced by the paw-marks of cats. The policeman was a little spooked by this, but the biggest shock was to come shortly afterwards, as he shone his bull’s eye lantern down a dark corner of nearby Church Alley. Five feline eyes reflected back the feeble torchlight – three were green and two were blue. They made melodious meowing sounds, and it sounded just like Londonderry Air in a familiar harmony. PC Bulman cautiously drew nearer to the alley cats, and saw that one cat looked just like a feline representation of Harry Woolwright; it had one eye, and a dark streak down the centre of its snow-white head. The other tomcat looked very peculiar, because it had a pink bald patch between its ears, and a pair of vivid, striking blue eyes. The third, round-faced cat was of a coppery red colour. The chill that ran down PC Bulman’s spine had nothing to do with the frosty night air; he had realised that through some sinister, supernatural means, the three singing cats had been Harry, Jack and Danny minutes ago. Unable to take in what he was seeing, and unwilling to stick around to find an explanation, the policeman returned to the Carnarvon Castle and downed a whiskey. He said nothing about the strange incident, probably because he feared losing his job, for who would believe such a weird tale? The three men returned to the pub days later, and other drinkers in the Carnarvon Castle soon became very suspicious of their peculiar behaviour. A woman of the night named Mary Sullivan thought Harry, Jack and Danny were leaving the pub at a prearranged time for criminal purposes – and being an inquisitive person, she followed the three men one night. As the three drinkers walked into the shadows of Manesty’s Lane, their forms seemed to shrink as some metamorphosis took place. Mary squinted into the darkness, unable to believe her eyes. Where three men had walked seconds ago, three cats now silently pussyfooted. Mary let out a shriek and ran back to the Carnarvon Castle, and pounded on its bolted door. She was finally admitted by the barman, and when he and the other drinkers heard the prostitute’s uncanny story, there were a few uneasy hollow laughs, but several of the drinkers remembered the old gypsy woman’s cursing of the three men. An old man in the pub named Ted Sarson said he had witnessed such a Romany curse take effect years before in Cheshire when a Lord who evicted gypsies off his land was turned into a werewolf who would sprout hair and walk on all fours in the countryside by night.
When Harry, Jack and Danny returned to the pub on the following night, a silence descended on the bar, and when the three men argued between themselves over some matter, old Ted Sarson quipped, ‘Keep the noise down there will you fellows? You’re arguing like the Kilkenny cats.’
All eyes in the bar turned towards the three men, and Rory O’Callaghan began to play his accordion in the corner seat to break the awful penetrating silence, but Harry, Jack and Danny didn’t seem moved enough to sing along with the street musician.
It is said that months after this, the body of young Jack Mercer was fished out of the Mersey, and a grotesque tale circulated, telling how, as a ginger cat, he had been seized by the neck by a watchman’s dog at the docks one night and hurled into the river. By first light the drowned cat had eerily been transformed back into its human counterpart in the swirling murky waters of the river.
What became of Harry Woolwright and Danny Donovan is unknown, but there were tales of Danny fathering a child who inherited the terrible curse. If that’s true, perhaps somewhere in the city tonight, strange cats will be on the prowl.

© Tom Slemen 2010.