By Joan and Peter Shaw
It was September 1934, The Earl of Huntingdon and his wife were away leaving Burton Hall in the charge of four maids and a young houseboy, Ernest Nickless. Following a robbery at the hall five years earlier, the Earl was anxious for the safety of his home and staff and felt it prudent that a man should be on the premises so a bed had been made up for Ernest in one of the guest rooms. As he settled down for the night, the house around him was eerily quiet and still, and the furniture in his room, shrouded as it was in dust covers, took on ghostly shapes. Even the wolfhound which roamed the grounds during the night was strangely silent.
He must have slept because he awoke with a start when a light flashed on his face. The light came from an electric torch and his sudden movement frightened the intruder holding it, who had obviously thought that the room was empty. When relating the story to the local press, Nickless said 'I was awakened by a flashlight. I was rather startled, and in my sleepy condition I could not think what was the matter for a second or two. I saw one man in the room, and when he noticed me he ran out. I jumped out of bed and shouted and switched on all the lights in the hall, but I saw no-one. I then roused the household staff and telephoned the Loughborough Police'
Mrs Sait, wife of the Earl's chauffeur said that she had heard a car coming from the rear of the hall at about 2.30 am and thought it was unusual but had paid little attention to it.
One strange aspect was that the watchdog was not disturbed; normally it would give the alarm if there were unusual noises. The theory was that the thieves had silenced the animal by giving it food.
It was later established that the thieves had entered the house by cutting away a wooden shutter over the library window thus reaching the catch. Their objective had been the valuable pictures which the Earl owned and the manner in which the job was planned and carried out led the Police to believe that the thieves were experts. They got away with only seven small pictures: two miniatures of a former Earl and Countess of Huntingdon, a pair of embroidered pictures, and three watercolours. The bulk of the collection had been taken from the walls and left piled up ready for removal. Thanks to Ernest Nickless the thieves left without them.
Originally published in the WHO Newsletter 1994.
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