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

(November 2015)

Jeers and Loathing at the Jack the Ripper Museum

Jack the Ripper Museum

I'd never been abused by a mob before.

Over the past few months I had read a lot about the 'Jack the Ripper Museum' in Cable Street, E1, as a result of which I decided to write a short article examining various aspects of what made it so controversial. To do that properly meant I would need to visit the place to make up my own mind and thus be able to offer my first-hand opinions. So I went there.

This is the point at which I would be describing what I found inside. Instead, I'm going to jump forward an hour or so to describe what I found outside.

A small but very vocal crowd of protestors had gathered on the pavement by the entrance, blocking the doorway. Given that a Jack the Ripper exhibition is not quite what I would consider an ideal place in which to camp out indefinitely I decided to leave anyway.

What I encountered as I tried to leave was a level of hatred I had never been faced with before, from the shrieks of imaginative accusations directed towards me personally for what I had apparently been doing inside, to the fascistically intimidating long-lensed camera pointed into my face. (The irony of having this man thrust a phallic object towards me in an attempt to impose his power was not lost on me, although doubtless it was on his companions.)

'What did you think?' screamed one young man to my immediate left. I started to reply – because I did now have some opinions about the place and am generally in favour of informed discourse. Unfortunately I got out no more than half a dozen words before he resumed yelling at me and then he was himself interrupted by another cry directed to me: 'Enjoy wanking over dead women, did you?'

That and a barrage of similar bizarre charges made it clear that few of the incensed protesters had any idea of what was actually inside the building they had chosen to despise. Moreover, they obviously didn't want to know. Like playground bullies they were enjoying themselves too much to think, and in their rush to judgement they were only too willing to let a sort of formless, all-encompassing loathing define their belief and behaviour. And these contorted faces, I realised sadly, belonged to the very people I had, before my visit, felt inclined to side with.

A policeman gently indicated that I should move on while I still could and so I did, walking away to a sustained volley of jeering and further abuse.

Sitting at my desk now I have been going over the notes I took inside during my visit, wondering how best to word the carefully considered piece I had planned. Those who know me will probably be unsurprised to learn that my article would have encompassed many of the criticisms that have already been levelled at this 'museum'; I also now had some, I believe interesting, points of my own to add.

I am not going to write that article. There is a risk that it would be stumbled upon by the same mob that attacked me outside, and that my words would be used (and, judging by what I experienced, twisted until they bore little resemblance to any reality) to provide further fuel for their hate-filled protest. And that is something I refuse to be a party to.

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Ham House Ghost Tour (Halloween 2015)

Ham House Ghost Tour Halloween 2015

There are at least 10 ghosts in the house and gardens, our guide announces moments after we gather in Ham House's entrance hall. There is no equivocation as to whether or not ghosts are real. They are, and they are here.

Ham House stands close to the southern bank of the Thames in the London Borough of Richmond. The property has been investigated by members of the Ghost Club, an organisation whose 19th-century roots in Cambridge University and distinguished roll-call of past members, including Charles Dickens, are impressed upon us at the outset. Our guide will refer back to their investigation several times during our tour but for now she leaves us with her summary of their general conclusion, that this is indeed 'a very haunted house'. [1]

Moreover, National Trust staff who live on-site have themselves had strange experiences. They have heard doors slamming, felt sudden drops in temperature, have felt eyes watching them. They have woken in the morning and found that footprints have appeared overnight on the untrodden-upon floors. That happens when the house is closed to the public. When it is open – as it is right now – visitors report their own eerie encounters, including seeing and hearing things that shouldn't have been seen or heard. Some have reported aromas including pipe-smoke, ashes, roses and incense. Our guide has smelled the latter herself.

Suitably primed, we follow her up a dimly lit staircase, eager to be told the stories. They are worth hearing.



At the heart of many of the tales here is the strong-willed Elizabeth Murray, whose portrait we are shown early on. She has red hair, 'which in those days was associated with being a witch'. Not that Elizabeth truly was a witch, of course, although she was undoubtedly smart and well educated with an ambitious and rather dark side to her character. We are told of her interest in potions and alchemy, and the fact that she is known to have distilled rose petals to make rosewater, a detail that will recalled later.

Elizabeth Murray

Elizabeth inherited Ham House from her father in 1655, a few years after her 1648 marriage to Sir Lionel Tollemache. The portrait we are gathered at the foot of now, however, is not of Elizabeth's husband but of John Maitland, First Duke and Second Earl of Lauderdale. He and Elizabeth (Lady Dysart as she was then) were rumoured to be close. Very close. Sir Lionel died in 1669 and John's wife died in 1672, and just six weeks after the latter's death John and Elizabeth were married amidst a dark swirl of rumours regarding poison.

Like any ambitious noblewoman, Elizabeth – now the Duchess of Lauderdale – needed to keep up with fashion, and with King Charles II so fond of spaniels she had to be fond of them too. Visitors today are forbidden from bringing dogs into Ham House and their canine companions must be left at a doggy crθche at the gate. Yet guides are occasionally pestered by put-out visitors who demand to know why they were not allowed to bring their dog inside when they have just seen a dog belonging to someone else. 'Well,' says our guide emphatically, 'that dog is a ghost!'

The phantom dog is seen trotting along corridors and running up the Great Staircase only to disappear into a wall at a point where a door used to be. It is, presumably, the ghost of the Duchess's dog. Or perhaps it isn't. We are taken to view the sad sight of a small skeleton in a display case, the remains of a dog that were dug up in the gardens. When these bones were dated they were estimated to be from the 18th century rather than the 17th as would have befitted the Duchess's dog, begging the question: is the ghost actually that of a later occupant's pet? Or do the discovered bones actually have nothing to do with the claimed sightings? Our guide has a third explanation: 'We think we might actually have two ghost dogs.'



We move deeper into the house, pausing every now and again for another tale. There is no space to refer to them all in the present article. Ham House is too haunted for that.

On the Great Staircase we learn that the guides here take care not to stand on a particular step – the third up from this landing – because many people have felt something pushing them at that point. Apparently, one previous lady visitor refused to believe this and deliberately stood on the third step. Nothing happened to her – but a few minutes later as the group walked down the next flight of steps she fell down and broke her leg. So our guide doesn't know whether she believes the warning or not but she's not about to take any chances. She stands on the fourth step as she talks to us, offering us her personal guarantee that footsteps are sometimes heard going up these stairs and heard coming back down again later the same day.

This is believed to be the ghost of the Duchess: when she was older Elizabeth suffered with gout and walked with a silver-topped ebony stick, the tap of which is heard accompanying the footsteps. Moreover, the figure of an old lady in black satin is 'often seen' walking up or down this staircase. As final proof, we are informed that people often smell the scent of rosewater on these particular stairs. Ah yes, we murmur, remembering that the Duchess distilled rose petals. Our guide asks if anyone can smell anything at the moment but no-one admits to it.

We stop outside the chapel: 'another very haunted place,' according to the guide. The ghost of the Duchess, all dressed in black, is sometimes seen coming out of this door. She is usually accompanied by another spectre, who appears in long black clerical robes. This is apparently the ghost of her chaplain, Gilbert Spinks, a charitable gentleman who at a time when there were no schools hereabouts taught the local children how to read and write.

The Ghost Club investigators who visited Ham House inspected the chapel: they left in the early hours of the morning and after their departure the house was 'put to bed' for the night, with all the burglar alarms being switched on. The next morning staff found that the candlesticks on the altar had moved and all the cushions in the chapel had been thrown onto the floor. On another occasion some electricians were working in the chapel and, again, after they finished work for the day the burglar alarms were switched on. They returned in the morning to find hand prints in the sawdust.



At the start of the tour we were told it would be okay for us to take photographs and from time to time our guide shows us reproductions of other people's photos. One image shows footprints we are told were found on the floor coming out of a particular room, a room where a Ghost Club investigator reported seeing a figure standing in the doorway.

'And last week when we had a ghost tour a lady said she had seen someone standing there as well,' adds the guide. I begin to wonder whether it might be useful for people to draw a distinction between 'seeing' in the common, everyday sense, and 'getting a psychic impression of'. I am not disparaging the latter, but merely mulling over what I presume must be a qualitative difference between two experiences that often seem to use the same clumsy verb as a description.

Although the photographs are obviously intended to add weight to the ghost stories, they have a paradoxical effect on me. We are shown photos taken by the Ghost Club that show 'orbs'. Despite all the research suggesting that these blobby light anomalies are photographic artefacts [2] the popular cultural explanation is that orbs are paranormal. As we share the pictures around our group our guide tells us that orbs supposedly represent spirit energy. She passes on a description that someone gave to her, that it is apparently like walking past a river and seeing bubbles coming up to the surface; just as those bubbles are a sign of fish below the water, so these orbs are signs of spirits.

I say nothing. Even if I weren't too polite and shy to object, we have come here to be entertained not lectured, and if I don't agree with our guide on the subject of orbs I can still appreciate that she is weaving a wonderfully atmospheric spell.



John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale

Our footsteps make little sound as we proceed further along corridors and through rooms. We seem to be treading deliberately softly, as if wary of drawing too much attention to ourselves in this haunted place. We pause inside the dining room. The Duke of Lauderdale used to smoke in here. His ghost is not seen but sometimes people smell his Virginia pipe tobacco wafting through the air, a supernatural manifestation that causes very real problems for the fire officers in this National Trust property.

Now we are in the room in which the Duchess died, and where mysterious footprints coming out of the adjoining room have been found in the floor polish. Reported phenomena here include the smell of ashes from the empty fire grate. Ghost Club investigators said they picked up the scent of roses in this room, and two of them felt their hair being lightly brushed. More stories come at us, thick and fast, overwhelming us: more accounts of footsteps on stairs, of an apparition that might have been Gilbert Spinks being seen by a lady who was working here at the time, of cats hissing at the portrait hanging above the old fireplace – the portrait I am uncomfortably aware is mere inches behind my head.

A table before the bed holds a large mirror, its glassy surface glinting in the gloom. According to our guide there have been reports of people looking into that very mirror and seeing the reflection of the Duchess standing behind them. We are invited to look for ourselves and most of us take the opportunity to peer into its depths as we leave the room. Nobody screams or faints.



Eventually it comes time for us to head outside. The eager crunch of footsteps on gravel underscores pleasurably hushed chatter as we follow our guide around the building and onto the terrace in front of the Cherry Garden. The temperature has fallen since we started our tour and a low mist clings to the ground around the neatly trimmed rows of box hedging. It glows eerily as it reflects the building's lighting.

As background to the coming tale we are reminded that the Duchess of Lauderdale's first husband was Sir Lionel Tollemache. Because she did not have children with her second husband, her descendants are the Tollemache family.

'We had a bit of a mystery,' continues our guide, because for many years a ghost seen in this garden remained unidentified. He seemed to be wearing breeches (a type of leg covering that usually stopped just below the knee), which dated the fashion of his clothing as belong to around the 17th or 18th centuries. One day a group of visitors to Ham House included a lady who was descended from the Tollemache family, and when the guide that day commented that this ghost's identity was unknown this lady replied that it was her grandfather.

'So the story is now complete,' says our guide, a little trustingly I feel.

The lady's grandfather was Leone Sextus Tollemache: he was very fond of Ham House and used to come here to visit his uncle, the Ninth Earl of Dysart. Leone's carefree days came to an end with the First World War when he was sent to serve in France. On 20 February 1917 the estate gardener was surprised to see Leone in the garden, dressed in his army officer's uniform (with puttees around his lower legs, not too dissimilar in appearance from a man wearing breeches). Excitedly, the gardener rushed into the house to tell the Earl that Leone was back in England but when the Earl came out to greet his nephew there was no-one there. Two days later a telegraph arrived from the War Office, stating that Leone had been killed in France on 20 February.

'So on the very moment that he died', we are told (as I wonder how anyone can know that), his ghost appeared in the garden.

After this garden was remodelled in the 1920s the ghost stopped appearing, but in the 1970s (by which time the National Trust had taken over the property) the garden was returned to its 17th-century appearance. As if signifying his approval of the changes the ghost started appearing here once more. Apparently he usually manifests 'on a cold, frosty night', a night not too dissimilar to this one.

Looking over our shoulders we move on.



On the south terrace we hear the sad tale of John MacFarlane, who fell madly in love with a housemaid here only to commit suicide when his affections were not reciprocated. The guide's torch-beam shines a spotlight on the window from which he leapt to his death. His ghost is sometimes seen on this terrace, seemingly searching for something on the ground. We can only assume, we are told, that he is looking for the diamond engagement ring he bought for his would-be sweetheart and which she (maybe) threw to the ground. The myth-making is strong in some of these stories, I feel - although that's not to say the experiences that fuel the tales never happen. Our guide tells us that a few weeks ago she was talking to a female member of staff who sleeps in the room from which John jumped to his death; her cat often wakes up in the middle of the night and starts hissing for no reason.

Our final stop is in front of a cottage, where we gather to look back towards the west terrace. A sign on the door states that the cottage is currently known as the 'Dairy'.

Ham House West Terrace

Looking towards the west door. From this point of view the cottage stands a view feet to your right.

The Ninth Earl of Dysart (Leone's uncle) lived in Ham House up until his death. Reputed to be a disagreeable and cantankerous man, whose wife had left him years before, the Earl was nevertheless on friendly terms with his chauffeur, Mr Allen, and Mrs Allen, who lived in this cottage. Each Christmas Eve the Earl would bring the Allens a basket of presents. They would hear the west door close and look out to see the elderly and partially sighted Earl make his way towards them, his stick tap tap tapping on the cobbles as he came.

The Allens were very fond of their employer and were greatly upset when he died in 1935. They must have been puzzled the following Christmas Eve when they heard the west door slam, heard a tap tap tapping on the cobbles, and looked out of their window to see a figure walking towards them bearing a basket. Moments later, there was a knock on the cottage door. They opened it, but no-one was there.

The gift-bearing ghost of the old Earl can only be seen on Christmas Eve, our guide assures us, and even then you actually have to be inside the cottage at the time.



There is just time for one further tale. This one concerns Charlotte, the niece of Horace Walpole, who despite her reservations allowed herself to be married to the Fifth Earl of Dysart in 1760. Unfortunately for her the Fifth Earl was something of a miserly recluse and poor Charlotte was doomed to a miserable half-life shut up within the confines of Ham House. About all she ever had to look forward to were the occasional visits of her uncle Horace, who lived across the river at Strawberry Hill. Even today, we are assured, Charlotte can be glimpsed staring wistfully out of her window, out across the Thames in the direction of her uncle's house.

The tour has come to an end. Our guide asks if anyone saw anything, heard anything, smelled anything. One young woman says that orbs have appeared on her photographs.

'You've got some orbs?'

'Like, everywhere!' says the young woman a little nervously, but excited too because orbs are paranormal.

'Wonderful!' exclaims our guide, adding that the woman's camera must be 'very sensitive'. But she doesn't pursue the matter and there is no excited huddle around the screen of the woman's camera.

Did anyone smell the incense or the smoke or the roses? Our reply is an uncertain mumble. Maybe some of us did catch a perfume-like aroma, but we can't be sure it was anything other than somebody's perfume.

Did we see anything? No, nobody saw anything.

'Last week, we had someone who saw four ghosts,' the guide tells us. 'But she was hyper-sensitive.'

I am fleetingly reminded of being at school when our class has vaguely disappointed the teacher, and I wonder if the others feel the same.

If they do, it evidently matters as little to them as it does to me because at that moment the guide wraps up by wishing us an enjoyable Halloween and her inquiry as to whether we know the way out is interrupted by a well-deserved ripple of applause. We've all enjoyed the tour very much indeed. It has been entertaining and informative, stirring the embers of the old house's history while remaining just chilling enough to satisfy us on this Halloween evening.

As I strike out through the luminous fog for Richmond and a pub, I am content in the knowledge that – in one sense or another – Ham House's former residents definitely do still haunt their old home.

Ham House


For further information about Ham House and its occasional (and highly recommended) ghost tours see their website.


Notes:

[1] The Ghost Club report on their investigation at Ham House can be found online here.

[2] Find out more about research into 'orbs' at the ASSAP website.


Image credits:

Photographs of Ham House © James Clark

Elizabeth Murray from Wikipedia

John Maitland: Peter Lely [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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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.