My Books



THE POLTERGEIST PRINCE OF LONDON

The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist


(Available in paperback or for the Kindle)

Published by The History Press, 2013, 320pp, illus.

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HAUNTED LONDON

Ghosts and legends of London


(Available in paperback or for the Kindle)

Published by The History Press, 2007, 128pp, illus.

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HAUNTED WANDSWORTH

Ghosts and legends of the London Borough of Wandsworth (covers Balham, Battersea, Putney, Tooting & Wandsworth)


(Available in paperback)

Published by The History Press, 2006, 96pp, illus.

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HAUNTED LAMBETH

Ghosts and legends of the London Borough of Lambeth (covers Brixton, Clapham, North Lambeth, Norwood, Stockwell & Streatham)


(Available in paperback or for the Kindle)

Published by The History Press, 2013, 96pp, illus.

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STRANGE MITCHAM

Ghosts, legends and curiosities of Mitcham in Surrey / south London


(Paperback)



(Kindle)

Published by Shadowtime Publishing, 2nd edition 2011, illus.

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MYSTERIOUS MITCHAM

More ghosts, legends and curiosities of Mitcham in Surrey / south London


(Published online)

Mysterious Mitcham

Online sequel to 'Strange Mitcham'.

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Not tempted by anything above? Okay then, try this:


Notes from a Weird World

(January/February 2015)

'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 1'

Convict Attire

(Above: Veiled female prisoner at HMP Wandsworth in the 1850s: the outfit matches one description of the apparition seen here.)

For over a century and a half, the forbidding Victorian bulk of Wandsworth Prison has dominated Heathfield Road, a short distance to the west of Wandsworth Common in south London. Within these sombre walls, the sad figure of a gloomily attired woman has from time to time been reported drifting silently through the corridors – but her presence will not be found on official registers of either inmates or staff. This is the 'Grey Lady', otherwise known as 'Wandsworth Annie', and she is the prison's resident phantom.

According to an article in the Wandsworth Borough News of 23 December 1976 [1], the 'Grey Lady' is believed to be 'the ghost of a middle-aged woman who had died in the prison some 20 years after it was opened as a house of correction for men and women'. If so, this would date her death at around the 1870s. Construction of what was originally the Surrey House of Correction began in 1849 and the building began taking in male prisoners in 1851, with female prisoners being admitted for three decades starting from the following April.

Different stories offer varying suggestions as to the ghost's identity. One version of the tale is that the 'Grey Lady' is the apparition of a female prisoner. A female inmate at this time would have been made to wear a dark veil to conceal her identity, which is consistent with one description of the ghost as a veiled figure wearing shabby grey clothing. Perhaps, it has been suggested, the ghost is that of an inmate who committed suicide, or perhaps it is the spirit of the murderess Kate Webster, executed on the gallows here in 1879. According to another story, though, she is the ghost, not of an inmate, but of a woman who worked as a cook in the prison and who died in the 1870s.

You can read more about this and other stories from this area of south London in my book Haunted Wandsworth [2]. It was after the publication of that book that I was contacted by an ex-prison officer who claimed to have had a first-hand encounter with HMP Wandsworth's most mysterious resident. As will be seen, his description of the apparition favours the latter idea – that the 'Grey Lady' once worked in the prison in some capacity.

(Click here to read Part 2)

(Adapted from an earlier article published in the Christmas ['Bedside'] edition of the Wandsworth Society newsletter in December 2010.)


References:


[1] 'The vanishing convict - and other ghostly tales', Wandsworth Borough News, 23 December 1976

[2] For more about Kate Webster, see Clark, J. (2006) Haunted Wandsworth, The History Press, Stroud, Glos.

Image credits:

Veiled female prisoner at HMP Wandsworth in the 1850s, courtesy of Stewart McLaughlin

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'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 2'

(Click here to read Part 1)

HMP Wandsworth

(Above: HMP Wandsworth, Heathfield Road, SW18, south London.)

James Bonser was born in 1944 and grew up not far from Wandsworth, in Mitcham. He got in touch with me in early 2010 after finding my online account of ghostly lore connected with some interesting old ruins close to where he had spent his childhood. In fact, he remembered the ruins in question very well and was able to add much useful information to my article [3].

When he learned that I had written about Wandsworth Prison as well, he told me of his own ghostly encounter that had taken place while he was a prison officer there some 30 years before. His story begins long before that, however. As he explained: 'The events that led up to my experience of the "Grey Lady" are in my view relevant to the story.'

As a young man during the 1960s, James worked as a Merchant Seaman until, still aged just 19, he decided the time had come to stop sailing and seek a new life on dry land. He returned to his hometown of Mitcham - now a suburb of south London but then still retaining much of its old character as a Surrey town - hoping to find work in that once-familiar environment.

His mother was a woman of a philosophical turn of mind, who had spent many years seeking answers to the mysteries of life and death, and when mother and son were reunited James learned that she had become a Spiritualist in his absence. She told him that she now regularly attended the Spiritualist church in Morden. To a young man accustomed to the hardships of life at sea, the stories she told James of communication between the world of the living and the world of Spirit were difficult to believe but one evening, after what James describes as 'a serious brow-beating' from his mother, he reluctantly agreed to accompany her on her next visit to the church.

And so, recalled James, 'I went along, telling myself all the time that it was just a load of mumbo-jumbo, and I was going just to please my mother.' As it turned out, however: 'Nothing was further from the truth.'

(Click here to read Part 3)


Main source:

Personal communication with James Bonser, February-April 2010

References:


[3] See 'The "Haunting" of Hall Place' at my Mysterious Mitcham website

Image credits:

HMP Wandsworth exterior © James Clark

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'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 3'

(Click here to read Part 2)

HMP Wandsworth gate

(Above: HMP Wandsworth, main gate.)

Spiritualists believe that after the physical death of a person some aspect of that person's personality or mind continues to survive on a spiritual plane. Intrigued by what he saw at the Spiritualist church in Morden, where he witnessed mediums make apparent contact with the spirits of the deceased and pass on messages to the living, James unexpectedly found himself drawn towards their strange new world.

'The next few months saw an increase of my interest in all things supernatural,' said James, 'which included sιances, open and closed circles, direct voice, demonstrations of transfiguration, automatic writing, guide painting, and the subject that held my interest the most, spiritual healing.'

Discovering that he seemed to have a talent for healing (a form of mediumship in which it is claimed the healer directs energy from a higher source into the patient, thereby repairing damaged or diseased tissue) James acted for a short time as a spiritual healer.

He took no money for these services. 'The Spiritualists believe that any such gift you may have is a gift from God,' he explained, 'and as such is given freely to and for the church.' Later in his life, he would work as a professional healer but that, as he says, is another story. For now, he needed to find paid employment and so he returned to the Merchant Navy.

'My interest in travelling was as strong as my interest in the paranormal,' he said. 'I never returned to the church as a healer, only on certain occasions as a visitor.'

He did not remain in the Merchant Navy for long. By the time he was in his mid-20s he had turned his back on that life for good.

'After having tried several jobs, I realized I just could not settle and what my father called the wanderlust prevailed. In 1967 I found myself on a journey to Israel.' There, he spent time visiting and working in two kibbutzim. His time in Israel, he said, gave him 'two things’. The first was the 'opportunity to visit the holy sights of the Christian faith', while the other, 'a little more unexpected ... was the Six Day War' (the Arab-Israeli conflict of 5-10 June 1967).

In early 1968, James returned to England.

(Click here to read Part 4)


Main source:

Personal communication with James Bonser, February-April 2010

Image credits:

HMP Wandsworth, main gate, courtesy of Stewart McLaughlin

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'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 4'

(Click here to read Part 3)

James Bonser

(Above: James Bonser and class at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School.)

James Bonser arrived back in England with the firm intention of becoming a teacher. 'But life,' he said, 'doesn't always follow the plans we make for it.

'I became a carpenter instead. Not a great one but good enough to form my own building company and to be employed by several councils in the south of London.'

During the mid-1970s, his life changed course again: 'After my second marriage, I was introduced to one of my wife's friends' husbands, who at the time was a prison officer in H.M.P. Wandsworth. We spent many hours together discussing the benefits of a life as a prison officer. But my view of life and the philosophy by which I lived, I felt, was somewhat in opposition to that of a prison officer. It was proved to be a call of judgement, and not from any form of understanding, knowledge or wisdom on my behalf. A few weeks later he told me that the prison building section was now looking for civilian carpenters and bricklayers, and would I be interested. He was as good as his promise: six months later I was a full-time employee at one of London's biggest prisons.'

As James settled into the routine of his new job, so he became more familiar with the finer details of life in the environment of Wandsworth Prison. It soon became evident that there was a divide between the uniformed and civilian staff, between – as he put it – 'carpenter civilian and carpenter prison officer'. It became clear that those in uniform were viewed as 'the rightful occupants of the prison', while those not in uniform were 'untrained personnel, thus making them a security risk.' It was a view that he would later come to appreciate, but not until he had become a prison officer himself.

This he was encouraged to do by one of the prison officer/carpenters. The gentleman concerned, recalled James, 'had moved from Yorkshire some years before and being a Yorkshireman he was blunt and to the point, one of the many things I liked him for. He convinced me that becoming a prison officer didn't mean changing the way I saw life, or indeed my philosophy.'

James turned the matter over in his mind for a long time, and discussed it at length with his wife, before he finally decided to approach the prison governor. It was a major decision for him. If he passed the examination for entry into Her Majesty's Prison Service, he would find himself wearing the Queen's uniform for the first time in his life. Many of the other prison staff had worn that uniform before – 'under different colours and under different circumstances' – but James had always enjoyed a certain free-spiritedness, first as a sailor in the Merchant – rather than the Royal – Navy, then as a wanderer and afterwards as the owner of his own business. 'Pride,' he explained, 'is a strange animal.' Nevertheless he sat the examination and he passed. He was sent to an open prison in Gloucestershire, where he stayed for almost three months undergoing the training required.

As the preliminary training drew to a close, James and his colleagues were asked to nominate which prison they would prefer to be sent to. 'We were given three options,' he stated. 'I chose Wandsworth three times.'

(Click here to read Part 5)


Main source:

Personal communication with James Bonser, February-April 2010

Image credits:

James Bonser and class at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School © James Bonser

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'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 5'

(Click here to read Part 4)

James Bonser

(Above: James Bonser, receiving his Tug-o'-War team's winning trophy at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School.)

James got his way and, now in his late thirties, he returned to HMP Wandsworth:

'On my return to Wandsworth the training began in earnest. For the first three months, I followed the routines of a discipline officer, working on my designated landing, and at the same time moving around the prison to gain as much experience as possible. Every week I was to report to the education officer with a written report on my observations concerning the tasks I had been allotted for that week. It was in one of those reports that I recorded my encounter with a strange apparition that I now know as the "Grey Lady".

'It was wintertime [during the late 1970s or early 1980s] and I was working late one night in a separate part of the prison. All the numbers were in and all the doors were locked. Some nights the inmates were noisy, shouting messages to one another via their cell windows, but on this particular night it was completely still.

'The other officer was on his way to the kitchen with two inmates to collect the last warm drink of the day. I walked slowly along the lower landing – in semi-darkness – but there was enough light to see clearly along the whole landing. [...The] stillness made me alert, it created an awareness of something impending, it was bringing back memories long since put aside, and then came that feeling that is so congruent to that of a visiting spirit.

'It was like a cold breeze to start with. I turned, fully expecting to see the return of the other officer, but I was still alone. Then there came a musty smell, not a smell I could say was associated with death, more a smell of age and decay. It lasted only for a brief moment and then was gone. But the coldness became intense. My feet and my lower legs were extremely cold.

'I was now sure that I was not alone.'

(Click here to read Part 6)


Main source:

Personal communication with James Bonser, February-April 2010

Image credits:

James Bonser, receiving his Tug-o'-War team's winning trophy at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School © James Bonser

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'The Grey Lady of Wandsworth Prison: A Prison Officer's Tale - Part 6'

(Click here to read Part 5)

James Bonser

(Above: James Bonser at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School.)

James carried on to say:

'The silence continued. It was as if I was being given an opportunity to share – albeit only for a brief moment – another dimension in time. And then she appeared, and yet, when I think about it now, did she appear to me or did I appear to her? It was like a veil had been removed from between us, thus allowing us to share the same space and time. I could do nothing more than watch her walking away from me.

'In her hand she held a candle lamp, giving off this soft yellow light. As far as I could see she was wearing a long dress that touched the floor [and which] to me in the half-light seemed to be grey. The dress was buttoned at the back. And then she turned just slightly in my direction, and I saw clearly an apron of white material covering the forepart of the dress.

'She was not a young woman: [perhaps in her] late thirties [or] early forties – not so easy to correctly estimate her age in that light.

'Turning once more in the direction she had been travelling, she gently disappeared through the end wall of the landing. There I stood alone in my silence, the coldness that had affected my legs and feet was all but gone.'

Until that night, James Bonser had had no idea that Wandsworth Prison was supposed to be haunted. But after he detailed what had happened in his report to the education officer, the latter told him that there had been other sightings of the apparition sometimes known as the 'Grey Lady'. Such stories tended to stay within the prison walls, however, and James only decided to make public his encounter after learning that the prison's resident ghost is mentioned in my book, Haunted Wandsworth [4].

'I naturally believed that all sightings and knowledge of the "Grey Lady" were in-house,' he said, 'and were not in general circulation outside the prison. I know it sounds odd, but I was a strong believer in "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".'

Musing on his memory of that night, James commented: 'Why do we always wish that someone else had been present? Just to confirm what we have just had the privilege of seeing. I am aware of what I saw that night and yet to explain it is impossible. [...]

'One more thing I don't understand - why do so many people say: "I hope she will find rest"? What I recall of that night was in no way a soul in turmoil. She was doing her job and I was doing mine. We just happened to be doing it at the same time.'

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(Adapted from an earlier article published in the Christmas ['Bedside'] edition of the Wandsworth Society newsletter in December 2010.)


Main source:

Personal communication with James Bonser, February-April 2010

References:


[4] Clark, J. (2006) Haunted Wandsworth, The History Press, Stroud, Glos.

Image credits:

James Bonser at Leyhill Prison Officers Training School © James Bonser

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NOTE: Material above is © James Clark. All rights reserved. Should you wish to refer to material presented here you are most welcome to quote a short excerpt (of no more than one or two paragraphs) provided you give full attribution and supply a link back to this website. Use of longer excerpts will require the author's prior written permission - by all means feel free to ask! But please DO NOT steal my work by copying great chunks and posting them in their entirety without permission. Thank you.