The ancient Shropshire town of Wem can trace its roots all the way back to Saxon times, but it is a more recent event that catapulted the place into infamy. On the 19th November, 1995, the town hall, which had stood on the site since 1904, caught fire and burned down in spite of the combined efforts of 60 fire-fighters.
During the sorry event, a local man named Tony O’Rahilly snapped a photograph of the blaze using a 200mm telephoto lens. O’Rahilly was across the road from the hall, standing with other onlookers and the police who had cordoned off the town centre to ensure that nobody strayed too near to the inferno. Nobody observed anything more out-of-place than the sad sight of a burning building, and it was only later, upon the development of the film, that O’Rahilly discovered a curious anomaly: a young girl appeared to be standing calmly in the doorway of the blazing town hall’s fire escape.
Baffled by the image, he sent the photo to the Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena who passed it onto a photographic expert, Dr. Vernon Harrison. Harrison, once the president of the Royal Photographic Society, said “The negative is a straight forward piece of black-and-white work and shows no sign of having been tampered with”. Dr. Harrison also maintained that an objective outlook demands the acceptance that a combination of smoke, shadow and light could have created the spectral image.
Local legend claimed that the girl in the photograph was none other than Jane Churm, a youngster who was alleged to have started a much earlier fire known as the Great Fire of Wem in 1677 which devastated much of the town. Around 150 of the wooden buildings were destroyed in the blaze and even the church was not spared, being left roofless and with partially melted bells. Jane had accidentally set alight to the thatched roof of her house with a candle and it is said that, through guilt, she now manifests as a sorrowful spirit in various places around the town.
Workmen even claimed to see her apparition when working in the hall after the fire had been extinguished. The cause of the 1995 fire was not discovered and no evidence of arson came to light. Since then, the photograph became a firm favourite for ‘ghost photo top ten’ lists, but now it seems that it might have been proven to be a forgery.
In 2010, an eagle-eyed reader of the Shropshire Star wrote in to suggest that a girl that appeared in a reprinted 1922 postcard of Wem bore a remarkable similarity to the one that can be seen in the 1995 ‘ghost’ snap. Upon comparing the two, it is easy to see that they are identical. It’s more than annoying that some people insist upon faking these photographs and continue to tell naughty, naughty fibs to avoid being found out. Sadly, Tony O’Rahilly died of a heart attack in 2005, so he’s no longer around to give his side of the story, but this writer fails to see how he could have talked his way out of it, unless of course the girl appears as a ghost in the 1922 postcard, too…