In 1995 a fire which destroyed Wem Town Hall was captured on film by amateur photographer Tony O’Rahilly. When developed, the picture appeared to show a young girl in flowing garments standing in the doorway of the burning building, staring into the camera lens. Mr O’Rahilly claimed he had not doctored the image, and people far and wide were persuaded that the girl was the ghost of 14-year-old Jane Churm, who had dropped a candle and accidentally started a fire that ravaged through Wem in 1677. The ‘Wem ghost’ attracted hundreds of extra visitors to the town. Gillian Wilson, a Wem resident then and now, told me she remembers the bakery selling ghost-shaped cakes and the Wem road sign carrying the addendum ‘Ghost Town’. Sadly for the local tourism industry, the haunting was generally dismissed as a hoax in 2010 when a local man spotted an uncanny resemblance between ‘Jane’ and a girl in a 1922 postcard reprinted in the Shropshire Star’s ‘Pictures from the Past’ slot.
Assuming that was the end of the story, I asked in online forums about people’s memories of Wem in the mid-1990s and was surprised by the strength of feeling surrounding the apparition. I may have unwittingly upset one or two people with my assumption that the image was fake, largely because Mr O’Rahilly passed away suddenly in 2005 having never confessed to doctoring it. Whatever the truth, I think it’s a great story; one of many examples of Shropshire’s distant past being tightly bound up with its present.
And what is more, there’s a sludge metal band in Germany called Ghost of Wem.