“Rumour is going about that the Psychical Society has at last found a ghost.”
The Society for Psychical Research, one of Britain’s longest running psychical and paranormal research organisations, although I know they won’t be happy with me using the term paranormal, has been the focus of derisory articles, spoofs and offensive newspaper articles, especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
During the last four years archival research into the history of Britain’s most haunted houses, I have chanced upon many articles that comment about S.P.R.’s alleged activities. I will publish more of these articles in future posts, but if anything it has given me a renewed respect for the S.P.R. and those pioneers who battled on to continue running the organisation.
This piece highlights the approach of many journalists when dealing with ghosts and the S.P.R., the St James’s Gazette wrote in June 1885;
“The committee have, we believe, hired houses warranted to be haunted by the most unexceptionable spectres, have heroically slept in the haunted chamber night after night, and have not so much heard a sigh or seen the least symptom of a faint blue light. Things were at their worst when a change came which has apparently ended in brilliant discoveries. In the last volume of the society’s Transactions or Journal, there appeared a notice that persons wishing to be introduced to a real ghost should immediately apply to the Haunted Secretary, or words to that effect. So enthusiastic was the rush expected to be, that the Haunted Secretary would not pledge himself to find a bed in the chamber visited by “The Thing” for every seeker after psychical truth who might present himself. Some inquirers, however, were accommodated and the consequences surpassed all expectations. Hard knocks were the order of the day. The ghost, whose appearance is not mentioned in the rumour, began by throwing tumblers at the representative of S.P.R. A heavy fender was the next missile employed, and after the ghost sent a slab of the marble chimney-piece flying at their heads; and then at length the retreat was reluctantly sounded. The experiment is, we hear, to be repeated as soon as the S.P.R. has armed its intrepid representatives with plate-armour, or some improvement on the diver’s uniform; and the electric light is to be suddenly flashed upon the spectre to see if he will jump. It is most earnestly to be hoped that the persevering efforts of the society will meet with the reward they deserve, and that this promising ghost will maintain his high character.”
Most of the above quote is utter nonsense and really make a hash of an interesting case, that of the very haunted “B_____ Lodge”, of London Road. The alleged activity at the house had been reported for nearly ten years and in Spring 1885 the S.P.R. did indeed rent out the house but there had not been a call out for observers.
The annoying factor about the Gazette’s report is that the case is fascinating and actually quite spooky in its detail.
The Journal of Society of Psychical Research published details about the case, “The first time an apparition took place was about December, 1883. Mrs. V. was awake in the night after getting out of bed to give the baby his food. She was thoroughly awake and had been so for some time, when she felt a cold blast like an icy wind pass over her hands, which were outside. She felt an impulse to turn and face the door. The door was seen to be about a foot open, and a man’s hand grasping it, and his head and his body down to his waist, in a white dress, as if a night-dress, looking in. He looked full at Her. She was terrified and tried ineffectually several times to call her husband by name ; when she succeeded, the door shut noiselessly. Mr. V., when awakened, saw that the door was shut, as his wife’s first words were to ask him if it was open, and after assuring her that it was all fancy, without more ado fell asleep again.”
Further reports were received, “Mrs. V. was in the kitchen one morning ordering dinner ; there came a noise like the crashing of tin trays from the back kitchen. She said “What is that, Lizzie?” thinking a dog had come in to help himself to the pig-bucket. “Oh, we often hear that! she said. The noise was repeated ; the third time both went out to see, and on going out through the kitchen door saw in the back kitchen something black, as if the end of a dress, in the air, vanish away towards the door. They went to the doors, found nothing moved, the doors fast.”
“Noises strange and manifold have taken place at all times of the day and night, and at all parts of the house. Some have been incidentally mentioned. Noises have been heard, e.g., as of the dashing of fire-irons close by when they were seen to be quite still, as of a person walking about, as cf one packing up over head, as of coals falling into the grate, as of some one thumping under the floor while the family were at prayers, as of a box being put down in the room with a crash, as of boards falling down on one another, as of a person groaning or wailing in agony, A few cases may be singled out for special remark.”
In Spring of 1885, the society, or at least one of its member took to renting the property for six months. Various society members took turns to investigate the alleged phenomena and generally observe the building. When the investigation was completed in September 1885, two principal members, Mrs. Sidgwick and Professor Macalister both had theories for the alleged phenomena, Mrs Sidgwick wrote, “The house seems to me one well adapted for strange sounds, on account of its extreme nearness to the road. I think some one made this remark before, but I was certainly surprised to find how extremely audible outside sounds were, and the idea that outside sounds have been mistaken for inside ones is rather supported by Dr. P.’s statement that the manifestations occurred more about full moon, because then people are out at night so much more.”
Macalister explores further detail especially the recognisable narratives of a haunting, one that is all too prevalent today, “The stain on the boards in the top room I cut a small bit of, and brought it home ; it is paint. Probably some paint pot had been standing on the board and stained it. (It was thought to have been blood from a murder.)
Two men in the neighbourhood (Mortimer and the landlord of the Red Lion) told me that the old inn was not on that site but a little further down. The local traditions of “some murders” resolve themselves into a story of one pedlar who was seen to enter the inn and was not seen to leave it. There was a later homicide in a house south of the King and Queen Inn, but that was the result of a quarrel, and the house is at some little distance.
Mrs. H. stated to me that she had only seen the apparition once. Her account of the old lady’s vision differed from Dr. P.’s (another witness) as to the character of the apparition.
We made a number of experiments on noises in the house, which creaks like a basket on very little shaking. Mr. Hill, of Downing College, who stayed there with us the last night we were there, said that after we had gone upstairs, walking rather heavily on purpose, the stairs creaked at intervals with a series of ” recoil creaks ” for a while. We also noticed this ourselves. When I stamped or jumped in one of the top rooms I set the whole house quivering, and the sounds as heard below were quite disproportionately loud ; specially was this the case at midnight.
One of the nights was windy, and when one of the top windows was left open we had noises, with window flapping, creaking, and doors slamming, quite enough to frighten a nervous man’. When the door of the dark room at the top was left partly open and the window open, it produced a most eerie noise when the wind blew.
It was altogether, one of the noisiest houses I ever slept in, but every sound we heard had an evident physical cause.”
Sadly the rather thorough investigation that the Society actually undertook, as well as the very grounding explanations for various phenomena are completely overlooked by the Gazette.
The Gazette ran with the headline “Society finds a ghost” when the opposite was the fact. On hearing about a haunting lasting over ten years, various folkloric stories of murders and hauntings, the society investigated the claims, the location and came to a very worthy conclusion. It’s a shame that the media of the time did not recognise this and that today the media continues to focus on the fringes and the amateurs of the paranormal world.
References: – Journal of Society of Psychical Research Vol.2. 1885-1886 via www.spr.ac.uk
St James’s Gazette June 1885 (Page 1)