This is the story of my York Ghost Merchants Copperplate Ghost.
The York Ghost Merchants
If you’re reading this and have absolutely no idea who the York Ghost Merchants are, or what they do, then I can explain… The York Ghost Merchants make and sell small ghost figurines from their shop on The Shambles in York, like the ones in the photos1 above (the Copperplate Ghost) and below (this January’s Muttering Judge Ghost).
For several years, Mr McArthur—one of the founders of the York Ghost Merchants—has organised the Little York Ghost Hunt, where for several nights around Halloween, little ghosts are hidden in the streets around the Minster for intrepid ghost-hunters to find and keep. Originally, the little ghosts were hand-made ceramic and charmingly wonky-looking; every one unique and different. We (my family and I) have taken part in the Ghost Hunt every year! For those who couldn’t find a ghost on the hunt, a small number were available to buy in the Tourist Information shop each day.
After the success of these ghost hunts, The York Ghost Merchants’ shop on The Shambles opened in mid 2019. Rather than being ceramic, the ghosts sold in the shop were made of a different material that allowed an almost infinite variety of colours and patterns to be produced. I had been a customer of the Via Vecchia bakery, who made and sold delicious baked breads, at No. 6 The Shambles for several years. It was a favourite. We first visited the Ghost Merchants’ shop in the autumn of 2019, mostly out of curiosity as to who was now occupying the bakers shop.
Inside the shop are wooden shelves lined with velvet and covered with hundreds of colourful (and some not so colourful) ghost figurines of two sizes: “little” (about the length of your pinky finger) and “original” (about the size of a large thumb). Two glass cabinets hold rare and unusual ghosts that are made of different materials. The wall opposite has a beautiful grandfather clock and several hidden secrets and surprises to find. The whole shop exudes an old-fashioned charm, right down to the Merchants’ garb: smart trousers or skirts, waistcoats, aprons, and fine-looking bowler hats with various cloth hat-bands and hat-pins. The ghosts themselves are intended to be tokens, totems, mementos, whatever you make of them.
In those early days, you could walk right into the shop and perhaps be the only customer, or one of a handful. And then, a few months later, the pandemic struck and the shop shut. The Merchants pivoted to releasing small amounts of ghosts to be sold online, weekly, each a different design and often with a name and story built around them. These online releases quickly gained momentum and sold out ever faster. As a result, when the shop re-opened after the lockdown/s, queueing was necessary to enter the shop.
Almost four years on, the Merchants have created a bewildering array of ghosts. As well as the numerous, colourful, little and original ghosts, they have created extremely limited “Black Box Editions” made by craftspeople in materials such as oak, bronze, brass, silver, glass, and even carved from stone by the York Minster Stonemasons. These editions sell out in seconds, and larger releases of up to thousands sell out in not much more time than that. Queues for the shop are almost always to the end of The Shambles and round into The Shambles Market.
The most limited of limited editions of the York Ghosts are those available from The Understore…
So much of the success and charm of the York Ghost Merchants, I think, is down to the mythology around them. Secrets are hidden in the shop, clandestine online releases of ghosts are made, “stray ghosts” are hidden in cities around the world and their location teased at on Instagram, and then there’s The Understore….
I’m not going to reveal the secrets of The Understore, other than to say that it is a hidden store that is open infrequently, from which the rarest of the York Ghosts are sold, protected by password. Dig a little, as those who have found The Understore have had to, and you may be lucky enough to find it.
To gain entry to The Understore, one has to solve riddles to find the password. Ghosts sold from The Understore have included The Minster Library Ghost (the first Understore release), the Cast Iron Ghosts that were buried underground to rust and rot, and the Copperplate Ghosts, cast bronze ghosts that were copper-plated.
The Copperplate Ghost
Just before the New Year, earlier this year, a message appeared on The Understore:
“The 19th Black Box Edition Ghost is The Copperplate Ghost. This is an edition of only 18. XIV available only through The Understore…
Each Copperplate Ghost is available using a unique password, only one Ghost is available at a time, when that ghost is sold the next one will be available ( only one will be sold per day, working day starts before 11am GMT )…
Copperplate Ghosts are individually numbered, when a Ghost sells the numbers 1 - 11 will be entered & dated below to inform you of the progress of sales. The first Copperplate Ghost will be available on December 29th with a further 10 to follow.”
Thus began hundreds of avid “Understore detectives”—my wife, daughter, and I among their number—trying to solve the riddle of the Copperplate Ghosts. Facebook groups were formed to team up in the hope of solving the mystery. As the days passed, the first six or seven numbers appeared on The Understore to signal that the first of the Copperplate Ghosts had been claimed, and then a gap of several days with no more claimed!
In the first week of January, we (my wife and I) had a good idea of how the passwords could be found. (Again, I’m not going to go into details of how we did it, as the mystery is all part of the joy and will forever be a memory that goes along with our Copperplate Ghost. I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that.) After the few days when no ghosts were found, an additional clue appeared: the names of the ghosts which were also the passwords used to enter The Understore. A couple more ghosts were claimed on consecutive days. By now, we were sure of several of the names of the remaining ghosts!
On the morning of the 12th of January, I was waiting in the queue for the Ghost Merchants Shop on The Shambles. At 8:40am, I entered the password “Millie Straw”, entered The Understore, and claimed the 10th Copperplate Ghost of the same name!
The Final Resting Place of Millie Straw
Given the hours (and money 😬) I’d invested in finding our Copperplate Ghost, I wanted to display it in a manner befitting it. I found a lovely old “smoker’s cabinet” on Etsy and spent around a month turning it into a display case for the Copperplate Ghost. The result is below.
The glass cabinet is meant to evoke the curio cabinets of old, filled with oddities, and made of oak, bevelled glass, and green satin and velvet like the furniture of the Georgian era around which much of the lore of the Ghost Merchants is centred. A lover’s eye painting, trochus shell specimen, and some dried flowers surround the ghost.
When I got the cabinet, it was a little worse for wear, with scratches on the wood and the back panel split quite badly. There was a lock on the cabinet but the key was missing. I replaced the back panel with oak-veneered plywood and sanded, stained, and waxed the rest of the wood. Inside, I lined the base of the cabinet with dark green velvet and the sides with light green satin and silver studs.
I’ve been making small pieces from silver for a while and just recently got my own maker’s mark, my initials “AM” (Alexander Macdonald) in a pentagon, from the Edinburgh Assay Office. I replaced the worn brass hardware on the cabinet with newly made sterling silver pieces: the handle on the drawer inside, the lock escutcheon, and a new key for the lock.
They were made in the traditional silversmith’s way, with hand tools - a saw, pliers, files, a blowtorch, and jeweller’s rouge to polish them. All the pieces bear my maker’s mark and the statutory silver hallmarks: the 925 and lion rampant marks for sterling silver, the Edinburgh Castle mark for the Edinburgh Assay Office, and the “y” mark for the year 2023.
The final touches were a sterling silver “Memento mori” plaque (from the Latin “Remember that you have to die”), and some LED lighting (driven by a Raspberry Pi Pico W microcontroller) inside to show off the contents properly. The lights inside can be turned on or off over wi-fi, or set to come on automatically when it gets dark at night.
I’m delighted with how the cabinet looks. More than that, I love that all the time and effort I put into making it has become a part of it; whenever I look at my Copperplate Ghost in its oak and glass cabinet, I’ll be reminded of that.
The black and white photos at the start of this post were taken with a ~30 year old Nikon FM2 35mm camera and developed by myself in Rodinal developer, and then digitised using a lightbox and digital camera. The others were taken with a Panasonic GH5 and Olympus 90mm f2.8 lens. ↩