Who is the Peterhouse College ghost? What happened when a series of paranormal incidents at the oldest college in Cambridge triggered off an investigation lasting over a year?
The foundation of Peterhouse dates to 1280 when Hugo de Balsham, the Bishop of Ely, settled to start a college on land that is now part of St John’s. In 1284, he transferred to the present site with the purchase of two houses to accommodate a Master and fourteen “worthy but impoverished Fellows” and Peterhouse was founded. Following his death in 1286, Balsham bequeathed a sum of money that was used to buy further land, on which a Hall was built that survives to this day.
In its early centuries, the college merely provided housing for the teaching fellows, who lived in college but taught elsewhere. It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that students were first given accommodation in the college.
In April 1997 my team and I investigated a series of sightings by the staff of the college which started with a sighting by Matthew Speller and Paul Davies, both members of the butler’s pantry staff. It was 8:45pm as Matthew and Paul descended the spiral staircase from the upper parlour to the “Combination Room” when they encountered a figure.
During an interview they described the apparition as “floating about a foot off the ground, moving slowly towards a bay window before vanishing.” Unusually Paul added “it was cigar-shaped and person sized.”
On the basis of this we were able to investigate the sightings but not allowed to hold vigils or experiments in the area. We took a number of readings in the areas concerned and held a number of “ghost amnesties” which allowed other staff and academics report any sightings.
We received further experiences from other members of staff who had often heard persistant knocking from behind the oak panelling in the room as well a drop in temperature. Our readings did not confirm this phenomena and we were told that there were no secret areas behind the oak panelling. The mystery remained for now.
Other members witnessed the knocking once again two months after the original sighting and ventured down to the cellars to try and locate the source, but once again they were unsuccessful.
The sightings seemed to be resolved with no reported experiences. We believed at the time that it was just a “burst” of activity that had simply died away, however in November the sightings would return.
The then Dean of Peterhouse, Dr Graham Ward witnessed the strange knocking once again and even left the High Table to investigate. He told us “I left the table and in the other room I found the head butler on the floor whispering “it’s fading, it’s fading.”
Other members of the butler’s staff were questioned and it was revealed that just a few hours before the ghost was witnessed again repeating its previous activity. The ghost did not interact with its surroundings and appeared, glided towards the window before disappearing. At least two hours later, the knocking started which was heard by the head butler and Dr Ward.
A month later, Dr Andrew Murison, the college bursar saw the ghost and was able to provide a more detailed description.
“He was balding, small, slightly built. He was wearing a wide collar similar to that of a pilgrim and seemed to be holding a large hat.”
Dr Murison also confirmed how the sighting completed “the room was very cold, I noticed there was a roaring fire and yet I was chilly. The ghost appeared for just a few seconds before disappearing very slowly.”
Once again we were allowed access to the combination room and certain areas that connected to the room to try and find a solution to the sightings and knockings. We were able to rule out central heating, moving floorboards and other usual suspects. Our only other solution was to find a possible identity by delving into the history of Peterhouse.
Francis Daws, Peterhouse Bursar hanged himself with a bell rope 1789 following pecularities over the election of Francis Barnes. Although the room was redsigned by William Morris, putting in the window where the ghost walks toward, it could have previously been an entrance to the garden
We offered alternatives to Dr Ward and his staff about what could be achieved with the ghost. Dr Ward decided to contact a local diocesan exorcist however this was not pursued since the exorcist declared that he would need all the fellows and domestic staff to attend a requiem mass. It was deemed that due to the cynical nature of the fellows of Peterhouse that the mass would not be attended, if not successful.