Revisiting a Haunted House: Gustav Holst and The Cheltenham Ghosts.

Christian Jensen Romer. Reproduced with permission from Anomaly 51 (2021) p.35-91. You can join ASSAP at


In this paper the Swinhoe era of residence at St. Anne’s House is discussed with reference to contemporary documents to provide the fullest account to date of the events that underlie the famous ‘Cheltenham Ghost’ of the 1880s. These include both a precursor ‘ghost’ at the property, and a drunken assault on the composer Gustav Holst while still a baby in his pram, as well as another haunting that originally bore the name “the Cheltenham Ghost” later attributed to the Morton/Despard case.

If it is possible for a ghost to achieve a certain celebrity, the ghost of St. Anne’s House, Pittville Circus Road, Cheltenham has a better claim than most to ‘A-list’ status. She first came to the attention of psychical researchers via Frederick Myers, whose mother lived in the town and who was educated there at Cheltenham Boy’s College, and who was a frequent visitor to the town in the years when he was engaged as the indefatigable Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research.  The SPR was founded in 1882, and on May 1st, 1886 Myer came to hear about a haunted house in Cheltenham and began his enquiries.  Those enquiries led to the publication in 1892 of an account of “The Morton Case”, credited to one Rose Morton, in Volume VIII of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.  The case has subsequently been much discussed, with Peter Underwood (1977) and Andrew Mackenzie (1982, 1987, 1988) writing on the case, as well as a book dealing with the haunting, The Cheltenham Ghost by Abdy Collins (1948).  As Hamilton (2009) said it is also a case which has proved controversial with rival schools of ghost-hunters championing different interpretations, most notably Underwood’s attempt to dismiss the ghost as a disguised mistress.

The author has made some efforts to establish if any earlier records exist of the haunting phenomena, in the newspapers of the period and by careful research on the primary sources casts question on a number of minor factual errors that have entered the record and been passed from author to author: these in no way imperil the narrative of the haunting, but are simply corrected to ensure the background to the case is properly presented.   During the research, several stories emerged that throw light upon the supposed supernatural phenomena that were occurring in Victorian Cheltenham, and upon the family life of the individual that is believed by many to be the original of the ghost, Imogen Swinhoe, as well as a brief but dangerous encounter between Mr. Swinhoe (Imogen’s husband Henry) and the baby who would grow up to become the famous composer Gustav Holst. In this paper the author attempts to put forward the most complete examination of the background to the haunting case yet offered.

A Note of Caution

Let us start by setting aside pseudonyms; the true name of the “Morton” family was in fact Despard as revealed by Abdy Collins (1948). The Swinhoe family were the first residents of the house, and one of them, Imogen Swinhoe, has traditionally been ascribed the role of the ghost. These names were first revealed by Abdy Collins in the middle of the 20th century, and while the individuals concerned in our story have distinguished descendants, I do not believe serious offence is likely to be caused by this discussion of details long revealed in print, and indeed the newspapers. The SPR quite rightly employed pseudonyms however, not least because of continuing concern about the ghost stories in the rental value of the ‘haunted house’. Again, that house has now been known and its location published for three score and ten years and is certainly known to the residents and indeed most locals; this author falls into the latter category. 

So the house is St. Anne’s House on Pittville Circus Road, Cheltenham, and is of course private property and has residents who will not appreciate anyone ringing the doorbell and asking about ghosts (just in case anyone was considering it – do not!).  The ghost has not as far as I can tell be seen my decades, and if there was anything worth ‘investigating’ the author would have attempted it in the decades he has lived close by. We shall use the real names not the SPR pseudonyms through this article.

The Woman in Black

In this article I shall focus on the period predating the haunting and the events said to give rise to the ghost. Although the case is a long-established classic in the annals of psychical research, it will doubtless be new to some readers: I therefore will briefly describe some of the later appearances of the famous ‘woman in black’ who haunted this property. Let us begin by quoting Morton (1892) on her first sighting of the ghost —

“My father took the house in March 1882, none of us having then heard of anything unusual about the house. We moved in towards the end of April, and it was not until the following June that I first saw the apparition.

I had gone up to my room, but was not yet in bed, when I heard someone at the door, and went to it, thinking it might be my mother. On opening the door, I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, arid it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room.

The figure was that of a tall lady, dressed in black of a soft woollen material, judging from the slight sound in moving. The face was hidden in a handkerchief held in the right hand. This is all I noticed then; but on further occasions, when I was able to observe her more closely, I saw the upper part of the left side of the forehead, and a little of the hair above. Her left hand was nearly hidden by her sleeve and a fold of her dress. As she held it down a portion of a widow’s cuff was visible on both wrists, so that the whole impression was that of a lady in widow’s weeds. There was no cap on the head but a general effect of blackness suggests a bonnet, with long veil or a hood.”

Some members of the family over the next six years repeatedly witnessed this apparition, both inside and outside of the house, as did reportedly servants and neighbours. As well as the apparition there were other phenomena less often discussed in association with the case, 

“Other sounds were also heard in addition which seemed gradually to increase in intensity. They consisted of walking up and down on the second-floor landing of bumps against the doors of the bedrooms, and of the handles of the doors turning. The bumps against the bedroom doors were so marked as to terrify a new servant…”

Interestingly all of these noises are directly associated with the figure itself: when Rosina goes outside to look on hearing the footsteps —

“These footsteps are very characteristic and are not at all like those of any of the people in the house; they are soft and rather slow, though decided and even. My sisters would not go out. on the landing after hearing them pass, nor would the servants, but each time when I have gone out after hearing them, I have seen the figure there.”

The sounds seem to increase with time, and she hints at possibly a second ghost —

“A second set of footsteps was also heard, heavy and irregular, constantly recurring, lasting a great part of the night, often 3 or 4 times a week. On the first floor the same noises are heard, especially in the front right-hand room, formerly used by Mr. and Mrs. S. Louder sounds were also heard in the summer of 1885, heavy thuds and bumpings, especially on the upper landing.”

Generally though the most impressive phenomenon is the apparition, witnessed by many persons. There is one other phenomenon worth noting though –

“On one night in July 1886 (my father and I being away from home), my mother and her maid heard a loud noise in an unoccupied room over their heads. They went up, but seeing nothing and the noise ceasing, they went back to my mother’s room on the first storey. They then heard loud noises from the morning-room on the ground floor. They then went halfway downstairs when they saw a bright light in the hall beneath. Being alarmed, they went up to my sister E., who then came down, and they all three examined the doors, windows, &c., and found them all fastened as usual. My mother and her maid then went to bed. My sister E. went up to her room on the second storey, but as she passed the room where my two sisters L. and M. were sleeping, they opened their door to say that they had heard noises, and also seen what they described as the flame of a candle, without candle or hand visible, cross the room diagonally from corner to door. Two of the maids opened the doors of their two bedrooms, and said that they had also heard noises; they all 5 stood at their doors with their lighted candles for some little time. They all heard steps walking up. and down the landing between them; as they passed they felt a sensation which they described as “a cold wind,” though their candles were not blown about. They saw nothing. The steps then descended the stairs, re-ascended, again descended, and did not return.

St. Annes: photo by author, ‘ghostified’ by John Madden, 2016.

The House in Pittville Circus Road

Morton’s 1892 account in PSPR VIII begins

“The house is a typical modern residence, square and commonplace in appearance. It is only separated from the road in front by railings with high gates and a short carriage-sweep. On one side, but completely detached, is another similar residence; on the other side runs a crossroad, shut out from the house by the small orchard, referred to in the account, and by the garden, which also extends some way at the rear…”

This is still true today: oddly enough a recent extension to the front left has taken up the footprint of the long-vanished servants’ quarters and stables and restored the building to almost the same shape it possessed in the 1880s.  At the time the house was built the property stood upon land that has previously served as market gardens, and careful investigation of maps by ASSAP member Hannah Wright during her time with the council discovered no previous structures on the plot.

Pittville had been developed as a “second town in the Chelt valley”, designed to offer a more refined and genteel ‘gated community’ than Cheltenham itself; given the new development was less than half  a mile from the centre of Cheltenham it was inevitable that the two communities would merge, a transition helped by the Reverend Frances Close a local Evangelical pastor and political opponent of the Pittville developers deliberately building a large area of working class (some might say ‘slum’ housing in the fields immediately adjacent’.  The idea was not entirely new; Cheltenham had a reputation for snobbery and as a luxury resort, and previous attempt had been made to create a gated community at Battledown, on the hill overlooking the town. (Unlike Pittville where the ornate gates are the only sign of the former private nature of the streets, Battledown remains to this day an exclusive gated community).

St. Anne’s, frontage 2016. Photograph by the author

Perhaps the most useful description of the house appeared in The Cheltenham Examiner on Wednesday October 18th, 1876 in the form of an Estate Agents advertisement. It reads —

Sale of an Important FREEHOLD FAMILY MANSION, with grounds of some two acres. Gardener’s Cottage, Vinery, Conservatory, Coach Houses, Stables, &c., delightfully situate in the Pittville Circus Road, close to All Saints’ Church and commanding uninterrupted Views of the Battledown and Leckhampton Hills.


Have to announce that they are favoured with instructions from the Will of the late H. Swinhoe, Esq,


At the


No.1, Promenade,

On THURSDAY, the 2nd day of NOVEMBER 1876

At Three for Four o’clock precisely

(subject to the Conditions of Sale to be then produced)

The commodious and admirably arranged FREEHOLD FAMILY RESIDENCE known as


Pleasantly and most healthily situate on dry soil in the Pittville Circus Road, and close to All Saints’ Church. It is approached by Carriage Drive (with double entrance) and by Flight of Stone Steps leading to the Portico and contains.

On the GROUND FLOOR – Spacious and Lofty Inner and Outer Halls and Passage leading to the Garden Entrance; Dining Room, 25ft by 18ft; Study 17ft 9in by 15ft; Double Drawing Room, forming an Elegant Saloon, 45ft 6in in length by 17ft 9in (and including Bay Window 22ft 6in)), these rooms are 13ft high; Lavatory and W.C.

FIRST FLOOR is reached by a Staircase of Easy Ascent, with handsome Mahogany Balustres, and contains Spacious Landing on to which Five excellent light and lofty Bed Rooms (one measuring 19ft 6in by 17ft; Two others 18ft by 15ft 9in) and Two Dressing Rooms and Store Closet; and one HALF SPACE – Landing and W.C.

On the SECOND FLOOR are Five excellent Bed Chambers and Two Dressing Rooms, Bath Room fitted for Hot and Cold Water, and Shower Bath and Store Closet.

There is a Second Staircase for Servants from Basement to Top of House.

The BASEMENT is unusually light and particularly well-arranged, comprising Kitchen 25ft by 22ft 9 in (including Bay Windows); Servants’ Hall, 19ft 2” by 17ft 9”; Butler’s Pantry, Scullery, Laundry, Wine, Beer and Coal Cellars, Store Closet, W.C., & c.

The STABLING, situate at a convenient distance from the House, and approached by folding gates from the back road, Two Stalls, Loose Box, Coach House and Saddle Room, with two Servant’s Rooms and Hay Lofts over same, and nearby the Gardener’s Cottage, and Enclosure for Poultry.

The GROUNDS comprise Croquet Lawn, gravelled Shrubbery Walks and tastefully disposed Flower Beds and Borders, which, with the very productive Fruit and Vegetable Gardens, Conservatory, Vinery, Cucumber and Melon Pits, are enclosed on three sides by lofty Brick Walls.

The Water Supply is excellent, and Gas is laid on to the Principal Apartments.

All Saint’s Church at the bottom of what was the garden of the house.  Photograph by the author

Henry Swinhoe

The first inhabitant of the house that was to become famous as haunted was Henry Swinhoe.  It seems likely young Henry was born around 1829 and raised in West Bengal in Kolkata (then Calcutta) where the Swinhoes were a prosperous British family working as solicitors for the ruling East India Company.  The Gentleman’s Quarterly and East India Register records the births and deaths of Swinhoes parents and uncles, but I have omitted the details for reasons of brevity.  However it seems likely that Henry served in the East Indian Company army, in the 30th Bengal Native Infantry Regiment having applied as a cadet in 1841.

In 1849 British plans to depose the Sikh ruler Duleep Singh led to a Sikh rising, and what became known as the Second Anglo-Sikh War. The first major engagement was the Battle of Chillianwalah, where the British were badly mauled, and several British correspondents wrote admirably of the courage and ferocity of the enemy Sikh troops who inflicted fearful losses. Among those wounded was a young British lieutenant named Henry Swinhoe; it seems likely he is our man for reasons that will become clear later.

In 1851, two years after his brush with death, he married. The Bombay Times & Journal of 21st February 1851 reported “On Thursday, 6th February at St Paul’s Cathedral by the Revd A. Garstin, Henry Swinhoe, Esquire Solicitor to Elizabeth Frances widow of the late G E Higgins, Esquire”.  The bride was just 18 years old and was already a widow. She had first married aged 15 on January 12th, 1848 as “Elizabeth Frances Herd, daughter of the late Charles Herd.”; within two months her husband, George Edmund Higgins was dead.

Elizabeth and Henry Swinhoe might have remained happily in Kolkata, had it not been for the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the chaos that ensued. Henry had given up the military life, probably after being wounded at the age of 20, and was now practicing law. While his brother remained in the military, Henry was lucky to have left. In 1857 the native troops of the 30th joined the general revolt, and the sepoys turned on their officers, who were forced to flee although they escaped relatively unscathed. Following the horror of massacres and reprisals, Bengal probably appeared less appealing, and by 1861 Henry Swinhoe and his wife are back in England.

The Swinhoe Residence: Garden Reach

The house was constructed on land that had previously been market gardens after the Pittville area had become part of Cheltenham proper and the house was built for sale. The first owner was the solicitor, Henry Swinhoe, and his wife Elizabeth and they named the house “Garden Reach”, after the fashionable district of Kolkata (then Calcutta), in West Bengal.

Earlier authors suggest the Swinhoes moved into the property immediately on its completion in 1860, but in fact the family were resident in Sidmouth, Devon until as late as May 1862 when they are listed in Lethaby’s Sidmouth Journal & Directory. They lived at Bedford House, a property overlooking the beach adjacent to the Bedford hotel, which still stands today. On the date of the 1861 census the young children were in Sidmouth, being looked after by friends whose names are listed in a hastily scrawled explanatory note by the census – perhaps Henry and Elizabeth were visiting Cheltenham to look for a new home?”. There appears to be some considerable error regarding when the Swinhoes moved in in the published works on the case; while most give the date as 1860 the excellent database gives it as 1865, and Henry Swinhoe’s absence from earlier street directories suggests that this may be the correct date.

Certainly in 1863 he was in Cheltenham, but then living at 17 Suffolk Square, as we can see from the baptism record of Rodway his youngest surviving son. On May 16th, 1865 The Cheltenham Looker On shows the Swinhoes had recently taken up residence, as the house is described as recently constructed in an article about whether or not the proposed new Water company was stifling the Cheltenham property market, which assertion the journalist refutes by listing all the substantial new homes built or sold in the period. Henry is stated as the first occupier of the house, something upon which there is general agreement, which suggests the property was built in 1864/5 after some other houses in the road were completed. This is a very minor point to labour over, but it does show that earlier authors have often been reliant on word-of-mouth information. One assumes F.W. Myers quite rightly concentrated on the apparition, and one imagines he would be astonished anybody would search the newspapers and records for precise construction dates in the 21st century!

On November 15th, 1865 when they were visited by Mr C.A. Swinhoe of Her Majesties 40th Regiment who is noted as arriving to visit Cheltenham and staying there in The Cheltenham Examiner of that date, and a Mrs Penny of Blackheath, London also visits and is mentioned in the Arrivals & Departures Society columns. Presumably, these individuals were relatives of Henry and Elizabeth.

A Literary Coincidence

As an aside – on December 10th, 1864, the Cheltenham & Gloucestershire Journal carried an advertisement for the new Christmas Number of All the Year round edited by Charles Dickens, but also price threepence the double Christmas special of rival Chambers Journal. The Journal extra issue was entitled –

“TENANTS AT WILL. Consisting of the following striking GHOST STORIES, the whole strong together by an amusing framework:

  1. The Story of the House in Garden Reach.”

 There follow five more short stories about haunted houses. The Garden Reach coincidence is interesting; in fact this is a ghost story set in India; but given the Swinhoe’s residence was named after the same, it is perhaps conceivable that children might have heard the title and jumped to incorrect assumptions? Growing up within 12 miles of the site of Borley Rectory, children had little idea of where it once was, and often imparted the name to any local sinister looking house seemingly unaware it had burned down forty years before! Is it possible this was the entirely mistaken beginning of the belief the house was haunted? 

The Death of Elizabeth Swinhoe in Childbirth

The Swinhoes were a large family with five children: sadly, Henry’s wife Elizabeth Frances was to die in childbirth on August 11th, 1866, aged just 35, as did their stillborn son. The death was reportedly widely with formal notices in around a dozen newspapers, this left Henry a widower with a large family.

 At that time, the other children were Henry G.B. Swinhoe aged 8, Francis Swinhoe a daughter aged 6, Charlotte Elizabeth Swinhoe a daughter aged 5, Alice Swinhoe a daughter aged 4, and Rodway Charles John Swinhoe a son aged just 3. (One cannot help but wonder if constant pregnancy and childbirth was not damaging her health even before the final tragedy).  Immediately following his wife’s death Henry must have considered moving for in the issue dated September 29th, 1866 and then again on November 17th, 1866 The Cheltenham Looker-On offers the house to let furnished or unfurnished, though sadly no sum is mentioned. It is conceivable that Henry and the children went away for a time, and let the house to others, for Cheltenham remained a very fashionable resort and it is easy to imagine a short term let of such an attractive residence, but this must remain speculation.   

Grissell versus Herd

While the first wife of Henry Swinhoe has never excited much interest, Elizabeth does make her mark in the history books, albeit in the books of law. Grissell vs. Herd (Hemmings 1869, p.291) arose because her first husband G.E. Edmunds had signed a prenuptial agreement bequeathing in event of his death the sum of 23,500 rupees to provide an annual income for his wife. After his death his father held the money and made payment to Elizabeth even after she married Henry; not just a widow, but a rich widow! When Higgins senior also died half the estate went to Elizabeth, and half to his daughter, George’s sister. The annual payments continued it seems but on her death her son claimed the Estate. Henry Swinhoe clearly felt this was an injustice, and after the death of Elizabeth (see below) he sued her nephew stating three quarters of the original sum should have now passed to Elizabeth and her children. Swinhoe was successful and Grissell was forced to pay the monies G.E. Higgins had intended to go to his wife over.

Henry marries Imogen Hutchins.

Henry however must have chosen to remain or to return, for he was resident there when he remarried three years later, on February 16th, 1870 at St. Mary’s Church, Cheltenham. The service was presided over by two vicars: one from St, Mary’s the main parish church, and one from Holy Trinity, a fashionable “chapel of ease” (overspill daughter church). The Reverends Lillington and Gantillon presided over the ceremony, and the bride is described as “Imogen Hutchins, youngest daughter of the late Major George Henry Hutchins, 36th Bengal Infantry, H.E.I.C.S”[1] . (Once again, we discover what appears to be an error: Major Hutchins was in the 30th Bengal Native Infantry, as his tombstone attests, and that regiment was involved in fighting in both Afghanistan and the Second Anglo-Sikh War: and it was in the 30th that he would have met the young Henry Swinhoe, and where the young lieutenant was wounded in battle.  Major Hutchins lived from 1792 to 1844 and died in Cheltenham, at 15 Pittville Villas.)

Imogen Hutchins, his new wife, was a 33-year-old spinster, and she joined a family with three daughters and two sons, the oldest only eleven. Henry himself was now 47. At this time there were two servants present in the house according to the 1871 census, Ellen Sparrow aged 21, and Sarah McDougall aged 17.  There is a minor mystery in that early authors state that Imogen was living in Clifton, Bristol at the time of her marriage; in fact, her address appears to have been 2 Blenheim Parade, Cheltenham, a long-vanished terrace of houses that stood across from Holy Trinity Church on what is at the time of writing North Place car park. (Her sister was resident in Clifton, but I could find no evidence she moved there until after her divorce from Henry.) 

[1] H.E.I.C.S stands for Honourable East India Company Service, and so the Major did not belong to the British army but to the private forces of that company which ruled until formally being subsumed into the British Army in 1858 by the Government of India Act, after the Indian Mutiny of 1857

An Unhappy Marriage

Their life must have been difficult with Imogen becoming stepmother to such a large family; but they may well have been happy.  Soon though Henry and Imogen’s marriage was to be a deeply unhappy one. On the 17th, June 1871 after only a year of marriage Henry Swinhoe drew up a Deed of Separation, and Imogen left Garden Reach: the reason being her “gross and continual habit of drunkenness” and the fact she used “violent and indecent language” against Henry in front of the children. Henry claimed so bad were Imogen’s drunken rages that his health suffered badly. Yet on August 15th he ripped up the Deed of Separation and the couple reconciled, and she moved back into Garden Reach. (Swinhoe 1875)

The only incident to make the papers in this period is in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 29th August 1871. Eliza Blakemore alias Widgley, servant, stole from Garden Reach “one pair of boots, one pound of tea, and one pound of coffee, the whole to the value of 12s, the property of Henry Swinhoe.” He did not appear to press charges so the case was dismissed, but given the woman was in court to answer another theft charge she may have been guilty! Given the crime occurred on August 24th Henry may have been happy at his then recent reconciliation with Imogen.   

While the divorce papers I drew the preceding facts from were sealed until 1976, as early as Myer’s ghost investigation local rumour attributed the issues between Swinhoe and his wife to alcoholism; the Hutchinson’s asserting Henry drank, the Swinhoes blaming Imogen for her drinking. When later Imogen was established as the most likely candidate for the ghost, the scandal and gossip regarding alcohol abuse placed Myers in an enviable position: as editor of the SPR Proceedings, publishing potentially libellous claims even protected by pseudonyms must have given him pause; of course Henry was dead, but his family were socially prominent and remain so to the present era; and Cheltenham’s polite society had doubtless enough knowledge of the alleged haunt to be able to conclude who was involved.

Imogen moved to Bristol after the couple separated a second time. The Cheltenham Mercury for Saturday 27th March 1875 gives the following notice repudiating is wife’s debts and making public another separation —

I, HENRY SWINHOE, of Garde Reach, Pittville, Cheltenham, will Not be responsible for any Debt or Debts that Mrs IMOGEN or HENRY SWINHOE may contract in her or my name, nor will I pay any Debt or Debts that may have been contracted by MRS SWINHOE, and for which I am not legally responsible.

Garden Reach, Cheltenham

25th March 1875.

On 15th May 1875 Henry Swinhoe filed a petition for divorce against Imogen and I was able to access the Divorce Court petition from the National Archives. It describes Imogen as a violent drunk who used intemperate, indecent, and vulgar language in front of the children and the servants, and hurled furniture at her husband. In particular on the 22nd of December 1874 she threw a chair at him and assaulted him, striking him. Then on April 2nd, 1875 Imogen attacked Henry with a broom, and he was only saved by the quick intervention of Celia Dolphin, the cook. “On or about” April 5th, 1875 Imogen accused Henry of sleeping with Elisabeth Townsend, the housemaid, and of having had an illegitimate child with her. She claimed she had caught them in bed together the day before in front of the children and staff and assaulted Henry; Miss Townsend then brought a case for slander against the Swinhoes, for the attack on her reputation.

These are the causes of the separation according to Henry Swinhoe’s sworn account. Morton (1892) – who was of course Rosina Despard — gives a slightly different story in her account —

“The chief subjects of dispute were the management of the children (two girls, and either one or two boys, all quite young) of the first Mrs. S., and the possession of her jewellery, to preserve which for her children, Mr. S. had some of the boards in the small front sitting-room taken up by a local carpenter and the jewels inserted in the receptacle so formed.”

There were in reality two sons and three daughters alive at the time they were living in the house, and Henry lived in the house only eleven years, not sixteen as Rosina writes elsewhere in her report. Six years passed between the Swinhoes departing the house and her moving in, and it is clear she is relying on local gossip, or at; least the reports of neighbours. Should we take her seriously about the question of the jewellery? We will return to this question later. Why would a husband going to such extreme lengths to hide jewellery from his new wife allow anyone to know anyway?  And is it just he could not bear to see her dressed as Elizabeth was? Or was there some other reason why the jewels might have been important? They were brought from India, could they have included valuable gemstones? In fact Rosina had a first-hand source

“We also now heard from a carpenter who had done jobs in the house in Mrs. S.’s time, that Mrs. S. had wished to possess herself of the first Mrs. S.’s jewels. Her husband had called him in to make a receptacle under the boards in the morning-room on the ground floor, in which receptacle he placed the jewels, and then had it nailed down and the carpet replaced. The carpenter showed us the place. My father made him take up the boards; the receptacle was there, but empty.”

My father thought that there might be something hidden near the garden door, where the figure usually disappeared. The boards were taken up, and nothing was there but the original shavings and dust.”

The First “Ghost” of Garden Reach

Imogen left the house and went to Clifton, and Henry remained. And it was during this period, on November 5th, 1875 that the first masked ghost of the house made the papers – an incident that was reported in The Cheltenham Examiner of both November 16th and November 17th in the reporting from the Magistrates court under W. Skillicorne, Esq. The case was brought by Charlotte Whittington, a servant to Garden Reach, against Frederick Crisp an errand boy working for Mr. Taylor, a draper on the High Street. Mr Stroud presented the case, and Mr Boodle the defence.

The facts presented were generally agreed; that on the night of November 5th, the servants at Garden Reach had let off fireworks “in honour of Guy Fawkes”, and that the boy arrived to deliver a box as Miss Whittington was unlocking the gate for the cook Mrs. Wilson on the driveway. Charlotte approached the boy and took the box to take into the house but then followed him out of the gate with the cook as he turned to leave, at which point he turned and struck her violently four times on the head, causing her to bleed and making her flee to safety inside the house. After the first blow she asked him what he was doing, but he continued to strike till she ran off. The boy then ran to the cook as if for safety, and she told him who he had struck. He said “I am very sorry, I did not see who it was”, and then ran home to his father terribly upset at all that had occurred.

This happened after dark somewhere between nine and ten o’clock after the fireworks had ended, and the boy was probably young. The gas light was enough to see by, but the hedges mad the scene dark. Dr. Gooding testified to the severity of the wounding; a lot of blood in the hair, and a wound about the “size of a sixpence” indicating the boy used considerable violence wit is stick, which was of the kid errand boys usually carried for their protection. The case against him was discharged, because he had struck Charlotte believing her to be a ghost – she was dressed “in light clothes and had a ‘cloud’ around her neck” — as well as a mask on her face. The mask was small, “it only covered her nose and part of her face” – probably what is called today a domino or highwayman’s mask. So Charlotte was dressed in what we today would call fancy dress, as the poor boy was terrified by her “masked and ghastly garb”.  The magistrates dismissed the case, saying Charlotte’s foolish behaviour had frightened the boy so badly his health was affected and was in danger of losing his job as he would no longer go out after dark. The boy’s father Mr. Crisp had visited the house to apologise for his son’s behaviour, and Mr. Swinhoe had threatened him with a summons, and at other times threatened to shoot the boy if he came to the house ever again. This rather casts doubt on the victim’s claim that “there is no household conducted better than Garden-reach”.

Why spend so long on this Bonfire night assault? It strikes the author as possible that this event, widely known through local gossip and the newspaper reports, might have served as a template for the later ghost. The similarities are: –

  • A female apparition
  • Seen outside the house (as well as inside in the later haunting)
  • Wears a mask: the later ghost partially conceals its face with a handkerchief.
  • Seen in the darkness, but physical.
  • Wears all white; the later apparition is famously a woman in black.

Unfortunately, the author has been unable to ascertain what was meant by a ‘cloud’ around the neck, unless an embroidered high necked lace cloud collar which is part of some Chinese traditional clothing.  However could word of mouth accounts if the ‘ghostly’ woman in white have reached the family in a garbled form, leading to the woman in black apparition by suggestion? Is there any connection between this precursor to the real haunting, and later events in the Despard residence?

The Pram Incident

On Saturday November 20th, 1875 Henry Swinhoe himself was up before the magistrate, accused with assaulting Miss Alice Speechey. on Winchcomb Street, Cheltenham on the 13th of November. The case opened with the prosecutor declaring “Mr Swinhoe is quite famous in Cheltenham, as much for his fondness for stimulants as his antipathy to perambulators”. The facts of the case were simple; Mrs van Holst went into town with her baby, named Gustav, in the pram pushed by Alice the nursemaid. As they approached the high street down Winchcomb Street she came across Mr and Mrs Swinhoe talking in the street and asked them if they might move over to allow her to pass. At this point Mrs van Holst said, “that is the man who hates prams—go slow!” but it was too late.  “No I won’t: I will overturn it first” said Henry and placing his stick in the wheel of the pram he tried to tip the baby in to the road. Alice struggled to stop the baby falling out, and sprained her wrist, and Mrs. van Holst threatened Swinhoe with the police for trying to harm a baby. He replied “I don’t care. Tell who you like!”

A third person was now admitted as a witness, a Mr. Carter. He was talking to Mr & Mrs Swinhoe and claimed that the whole thing was a misunderstanding: the carless nursemaid had pushed the pram too close to Imogen, and Henry had put out his stick to defend her. Unfortunately, the stick had passed through the wheel of the pram, but that was the nursemaid’s fault, and “she had no right to be there.” Perambulators as horseless carriages on pavements were controversial it seems; it might still be an offence to push one the wrong way up one way road, but that was not the case here.

Mr Van Holst stated a simple apology from Henry Swinhoe would have sufficed, but his letter demanding an apology was met with abuse leaving him regretfully with no choice but to press the case. Mr. Skinner, greengrocer of Winchcomb Street appeared, and stated that the thing was no accident but a deliberate assault, and that he had on several previous occasions heard Mr. Swinhoe “order nursemaids” out of his way. Despite him denying it he was well known for his hatred of prams. The nursemaid was blameless, and walking steadily, not “going at a random rate”.

Unsurprisingly the case was found against Henry Swinhoe: he was fined £2, and 6s/10d costs – a sum equal to £155 today (using the National Archives converter). The baby in the pram dropped the Van affectation, and followed his father into the music business, achieving fame as the famous composer of the Planet Suite and many more orchestral works. It is strange to think his life could have ended after an encounter with the woman in lack and her violent drunken husband before she became a famous ghost! You can still visit the Holst birthplace museum in Cheltenham which is preserved as it was in his lifetime, and I have told the curator about the incident. 

The Deaths of Henry and Imogen

On July 14th, 1876 Henry Swinhoe died in the Morning Room at the front of the house. Three days later his burial is recorded as occurring at St. Mary’s, the parish church in the town centre. (His first wife, Elizabeth Frances Swinhoe was buried at Cheltenham cemetery on August 16th, 1866, not at St. Mary’s. I checked in case they were buried together.)

Imogen survived him by two years, and on Monday 23rd, September 1878 Imogen succumbed to the effects of alcoholism (given as “dipsomania and gastritis” on her death certificate) at Clifton, Bristol and was returned to Cheltenham for burial in the crypt of Holy Trinity church, that was being remodelled at the time and was and remains highly fashionable. (Trinity was a chapel of ease built to accommodate the overflow of parishioners who could not fit in services at the parish church St. Mary’s as the town’s population expanded and the Rev. Frances Close attracted large crowds.)  She lies there with four hundred other bodies interred in four rows of stone coffins beneath the church, interred on Thursday, September 26th, 1878 just three days after her death.

The tragic marriage and the description of the ghost led to it being identified with Imogen; and given that one of the witnesses was able to identify her from a photograph, and others had presumably seen Imogen in life, it seems entirely possible. So the first question must be, was Imogen dead? Yes, her death certificate and burial obviously preclude a mistake in this respect. She had been dead just under a decade when Myers arrived to make his first enquiries about the ghost.

A second question that arises is why given her deeply unhappy marriage to Henry Swinhoe was the Clifton resident Imogen returned to Cheltenham for burial? Were the stepchildren the reason? Some investigation quickly revealed the solution: she is buried with her parents in the vault of Holy Trinity, and they were Cheltenham residents. The memorial (Rawes 1978) reads —

“Thy will be done. To the beloved and lamented memory of Major GEORGE HENRY HUTCHINS of the Hon. East India Com’s 30th Bengal Native Infantry who died the 10th of March 1844 aged 51 years. Ever to be lamented by his afflicted widow and bereaved family.  Also of CATHERINE widow of the above who died August 15th, 1871 aged 59 years. Her end was peace.

Also of IMOGEN SWINHOE daughter of the above named Major & CATHERINE HUTCHINS who died at Clifton / Sep. 23rd, 1878 aged 41.”

Imogen’s parents both predeceased her. (I was slightly puzzled by the phrase on her mother’s memorial “her end was peace” but this simply means she died contentedly perhaps after a painful illness and was a common epitaph of the time.) Imogen was at the time of her death living at 1 Clifton Hill, Clifton, Bristol, and her death was reported in the Cheltenham Looker-On newspaper for September 28th, 1876. She was living close to her sister Emma Dunn who lived with her husband Nicholas Dunn at 15, Victoria Square, Clifton, Bristol. Her sister was Executor of her estate.

The Secrets of the Will

I have long known the executors of Henry’s Will but had until recently not been able to find any details of the contents. While researching this piece I joined several genealogical websites, and researched the ancestors of Henry, Elizabeth, and Imogen. One of the most telling discoveries was when I looked at Imogen’s sister; unlike Imogen she married young, to the Deputy Lieutenant of Pembrokeshire, and went on to own a large house in Clifton and have several highly successful children. There is a marked contrast between her life and that of poor Imogen, but then this whole story is rather sad.

I was pleased to note several other people had been engaged in the same research, and I have subsequently identified one of them as Cheltonian authoress Jacqueline Beard. She found the assault on poor Charlotte, but not the ghost element, and reported the pram incident, but did not make the Holst connection in her article ( and deserves full credit for her excellent work on the case. Another user who goes by the name FenTiger on I was unable to identify (it may well be Jacqueline Beard), but I must acknowledge them too as they have clearly worked very hard on the documents surrounding the case.  However, suddenly I was astonished to find in the user’s notes a summary of Henry Swinhoe’s Will: sadly lacking a reference to the source. This is such a valuable find that I desired to reproduce it here, and though I am unable to ascertain how they located it, and my messages appear to be going unanswered. I hope to be able to credit them properly by name in a future publication. Nonetheless I will not publish their finding, but briefly summarise them – Henry Swinhoe was in considerable debt, debt that the sale of Garden Reach some years later almost cancelled out, but not quite. The children’s only inheritance came from £500 worth of silver plate and jewellery, that presumably could not be reached by the Henry’s creditors any more than it could by Imogen. The Will holds other fascinating insights, and despite their notes being public it is not my place to share them, and I encourage the author of the note to contact this journal to publish in their own name their findings and receive credit for their research.  

The important things I that there probably were valuable jewels as the story claimed, and that they were used to provide for the children.

Why is the Ghost Identified as Imogen?

Morton (1892) gives us the best reasons for considering the identity of the apparition as being Imogen. She claims to have met an early witness to the ghost –

“I met a lady at a friend’s house, who told me that, when living in the town 7 or 8 years before, she had frequently been told that the house and garden were haunted by Mrs. S. After the lapse of time she could not remember the names of any people who were reported to have seen anything, and we could not trace anyone.” (Morton 1892)

By this point Imogen seems to have been established as the identity of the ghost –

“My father went to Bristol, and there found the register of Mrs. S.’s death, which had taken place on September 23rd, 1878, from dipsomania and intervening sub-gastritis. He called on the doctor who had attended her and asked him if there had been any disfigurement of the face which would account for its persistent concealment. He remembered the case, and said that there had not been, though the face had become more full and round.” (Morton 1892)

Just to be clear she gives a selection of reasons for believing the ghost to be Imogen –

“The figure has been connected with the second Mrs. S.; the grounds for which are:

1. The complete history of the house is known, and if we are to
connect the figure with any of the previous occupants, she is the only
person who in any way resembled the figure.

2. The widow’s garb excludes the first Mrs. S.

3. Although none of us had ever seen the second Mrs. S., several
people who had known her identified her from our description. On
being shown a photo-album containing a number of portraits, I picked
out one of her sister as being most like that of the figure, and was
afterwards told that the sisters were much alike.

4. Her stepdaughter and others told us that she especially used the
front drawing-room in which she continually appeared, and that her
habitual seat was on a couch placed in a similar position to ours.

5. The figure is undoubtedly connected with the house, none
of the percipients having seen it anywhere else, nor had any other
hallucination.” (Morton 1892)

Supernatural Cheltenham

The term “The Cheltenham Ghost” has become synonymous with the ghost of Imogen Swinhoe. Yet in fact it may not have done; the whole story, as the nature of these things possibly being rather more complex. In this paper I have made no attempt to explain the haunting, in the manner of Underwood or Lambert, but have instead focussed on what the earliest sources can reveal about the events underlying the haunt. 

To understand the true “Cheltenham Ghost” of Summer 1886 let us begin by assessing what the situation was at that point with the ‘Morton’ (actually the Despard family) and how F.W. Myers came to become aware of the case. In this ‘Prefatory Note’ to Morton (1892) he writes

“The first intimation which received of the series of phenomena described below was in a letter received in December, 1884, from Mr. J. W. Graham, now Principal of Dalton Hall, Manchester. Mr. Graham had heard an account from the gentleman mentioned below as Captain Morton; had written this account out from memory, and had got it revised by Captain and Miss Morton. This account, and Miss Morton’s letters to Miss Campbell, which begin with the first appearance of the figure, are the earliest written records.

Captain Morton was for a time unwilling to give further accounts, lest the house, which belonged to a friend of his, should again become depreciated in value; as it appears from Miss Morton’s record that it has previously been. But on May 1st, 1886, he permitted me to call upon him; and from that date onwards I visited him at intervals and took notes of what he told me. I also saw Miss Morton and Miss E. Morton, and I interviewed at their own homes Mrs. Twining, a charwoman, and Mrs. Brown, a former parlourmaid. In this case it is observable that the phenomena as seen or heard by all the witnesses were very uniform in character even in the numerous instances where there had been no previous communication between the percipients. I have found no discrepancy in the independent testimonies, when collected, with the unimportant exception of General A.’s inability or unwillingness to recall one incident, which was already included in Mr. Graham’s first account, soon after its occurrence, and six years before General A., an old man, was asked to repeat it.

Captain Morton’s reluctance to allow the evidence to be collected until the haunting had ceased through a reluctance based on consideration for the owner of the house has thus done less harm than might have been feared. It must be added that Captain M. and the members of his family in general, while feeling little scientific interest in the apparition, were unusually free from superstitious fears. Miss Morton, whose account is given below, is a lady of scientific training, now preparing to be a physician; and her narrative has received no accretions since I first heard it. The name Morton is substituted for the real family name. With that exception the names and initials are the true ones. F.W.H.M.]

If this seems of little interest, please bear with the author a short while: it may have more significance than one might expect. In the Summer of 1886 ghosts were very much in the mind of Cheltonians; in fact not only were ghosts drawing crowds night after night, but the newspapers make repeated references to special excursion trains laid on by the railway company to bring ghost hunters from first Gloucester, and later Bristol and Birmingham! (for example, The Burnley Express of 11th August 1886) Now throughout history supposedly haunted houses have often drawn crowds of idle sightseers, who stand outside watching at the hope of seeing something, and on occasion throw stones and vandalise the property. Something of this nature occurred near Cheltenham chapel off the Lower High Street in the 1820’s, and the crowds that resulted were dispersed only by an explanation that the strange lights seen in the windows of the empty building were just reflections of streetlights through imperfections in the glass. In the 1850s the visit of a pair of American mediums caused a large and disorderly crowd to gather outside their lodgings in Grosvenor Street, and they were removed only when the Borough decided to ‘water the street’, soaking the public and sending them home to dry. 

Maskelyne’s Ghost

By 1881 the tide of public opinion may have moved against ghosts; one of the great sceptics and debunkers of the 19th century was John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917) had started his career exposing mediums here. John was a Cheltenham, England watchmaker who became interested in magic after watching a séance by the Davenport Brothers, purported American mediums. In 1865 he debunked the Davenport Brothers by recreating all they did and more, and soon after became a professional magician. Maskelyne clashed repeatedly with Spiritualists and joined the SPR participating in the 1895 sittings with Eusapia Palladino at Cambridge and revealing her clumsy fraud there. Maskelyne was a prime mover in the creation of the magician’s society The Magic Circle in London in 1905, and 1914 also set up The Occult Committee, a group dedicated to exposing fake mediums. Strongly associated with The Egyptian Hall in London, Maskelyne and his sons after him led the British magic scene.

Maskelyne lived on Montpellier Street, but I am unable to ascertain if this is the house is the one, he referred to in his talk at the Egyptian Hall on October 21st, 1881. Maskelyne talks about what we would term Crisis Apparitions in his family, his belief in thought transference (telepathy) and his contempt for Spiritualism. Then he gives a ghost story, though whether referring to his childhood home on Swindon Road, or another house I cannot say. (His later home on Montpellier Street has no bay window) The account follows, as given in The Cheltenham Mercury for October 27th, 1881.

“Our family occupied a house that had that reputation. It stood, and I believe still stands, in the outskirts of the town of Cheltenham. A rich lady of miserly habits resided there for many years, and after her death strange stories were rife respecting it. Noises were heard within, and a spectre, with a green light, was often seen flitting about the empty rooms. The first night of our residence in the house we retired to bed shortly before midnight. I occupied a room at the top of the house, and two or three of my sisters an adjacent one. Scarcely had one candle been extinguished, than we were startled by a curious tapping noise, like someone walking upstairs, but came no nearer, though the tapping continued some minutes. I began to feel alarmed, and fancied I saw a shadow of a female flit across my room. I called out “Who’s there?”, and my sisters, who had been listening to the ghostly footsteps, uttered a scream of terror, and in a few moments the whole household was in a state of commotion. The tappings ceased, but fortunately they immediately commenced again, and after a few minutes search I discovered the ghost to be nothing more than a shower of rain, and from a leakage in the gutter over my window the water dropped upon the lead covering of a bay window beneath.”

The Editor of the Cheltenham Mercury seems to think Maskelyne made it all up to in his words “gammon the Cockneys”, but the story sounds entirely reasonable, and Maskelyne ideas of what Myers would soon term telepathy sound sincere. He after all joined the Society for Psychical Research and the two men were probably on very good terms despite the class difference. Again though we have a female ghost, concerned with money, who makes a noise of footfall and is associated with a strange light. These features are found in Rose Morton’s report, but also in “The Cheltenham Ghost” case of 1886.

If the house was indeed one in Swindon Road, then it would be intriguing to know which. In 1927 there was an outbreak of ‘rapping’ in a house on Swindon Road, in the Maud’s Elm area of Cheltenham, and while that must await a future paper it will certainly be a connection worth investigating. Quite by chance as this paper was about to go to print Jan Bondeson has an article on the ‘Legend of Maud’s Elm’ in the latest Fortean Times — nothing on the poltergeist though!)

The Cheltenham Ghost”; August 1886.

So what was the ghost case in Cheltenham in August 1886 that was sufficiently important to reach the newspapers in Toronto and all over the United Kingdom., yet is utterly absent from the narrative of F.W. Myers and Rose Morton/Rosina Despard? Unfortunately whereas modern newspaper journalists tend to be wildly enthusiastic and sensationalistic in reporting every ludicrous ghost photo, the press of 1886 were made of sterner stuff, and tended to dismiss all such stories as utter nonsense. Given the previously noted association of haunted houses and public rowdiness and unrest perhaps that is understandable.

I have therefore tried to piece together events from a number of sources, some clearly exaggerated. An example of the latter is this piece that was widely reported in British newspapers, and even reached as far as the Toronto papers!  Here is the text from the Burnley Express for the 11th, September 1886.

“There is something quaintly weird in the idea of a special “ghost train”, but there is one now running to Cheltenham from a neighbouring town, and the tourists go with the idea of seeing the ghost of an old lady who wants to show where she buried £500 before she died. Of course there is some humbug in the business, but it is so impenetrable that the Cheltenham authorities have offered a reward of £50 to anyone who will expose the deception and lay the unquiet spirit. People have trouble enough to get money and keep it in this world; it is very hard if in the next world a poor ghost is to be in despair because the gold cannot be got rid of.”

 Now while this is clearly exaggerated and unreliable, and it seems highly unlikely that Cheltenham home to famed magician and debunker John Maskelyne (his reputation was probably similar to that of James Randi) would need to offer money to find someone to debunk a ghost! Nonetheless we have a hidden treasure of £500 – the exact value of the hidden jewels – and a female ghost in Cheltenham. Now ghosts trying to reveal hidden treasure are a well-known folklore motif, but this seems rather a coincidence.

Where Was the Ghost?

So what was the truth? Some articles are satirical and mocking those who congregated to look for the ghost, but even they provide useful geographical information. Whereas Garden Reach/ St. Anne’s stands in the Pittville district of Cheltenham, the ghost excitement of 1886 was centred on the parish of Leckhampton. Now Leckhampton is an ancient manor and covers a considerable area; Leckhampton village church is over a mile from the northern edge of the old parish, and references to still extant pubs in a jokey article where the narrator gets more and more inebriated before thinking he has seen a ghost and collapsing in a heap suggest the opposite Bath Road end, as otherwise our drunken hero would be weaving a very long way!

Another article mentions the Suffolks; the area around Suffolk Square that still bears that name today and includes F.W. Myer’s family home on Lypiatt Road. Finally the author found a reference to Great Norwood Street, his home for many years, which lies on the edge of the Suffolks and Leckhampton. After careful research it seems that the location in question was a derelict woodyard with a workshop to the front on Suffolk Street (Cheltenham News August 27th, 1886), which is an area of smaller terraced house and scattered cottages just beyond the grander villas of Great Norwood Street, The Suffolks and The Park. The confusion of Suffolk Road and Suffolk Street as well as the other locations given in the local press suggest that the journalists did not trouble to visit the scene or went to some lengths to obfuscate it. The area having suffered somewhat in the Luftwaffe bombing raid of November 1940 the author consulted period maps to try and locate the wood yard. The 1884 OS map is particularly useful, though curiously it shows Suffolk Street backs on to St. Phillip’s Street, and the alley between the two, often referred to as “have you seen my dog?” alley from the ghost story set there is well known as haunted (Cox & Meredith, 1982). That apparition seems to date from the Second World War, but years of new Student Parapsychology Society students from the nearby University of Gloucestershire would walk the alley and on occasion report anomalous experiences. It is a curious coincidence that it appears to have been the site of a much earlier haunting.

The Ghost Appears

The Cheltenham News for the 27th of August 1886 gives the story as follows —

“For some evenings past the weak minded and superstitious of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood of Suffolk-Street have been growing agitated and scared by the appearance of what they termed to be a “spirit” from the unseen, returned to this world to claim some money left behind. Hundreds have congregated around an old workshop which the “ghost” has condescended to visit. The report originated by three boys observing an uncerta9in light in the workshop in question – now flashing, now flickering, and fading away. The mystery appears to be no more than the distorted light from the house on the side of the workshop, shining through the two glass panes of the workshop, which are probably constructed of common glass, thus causing the effect that has caused such a scare among the inhabitants. It does not say much for the enlightenment of the age of education that such a number of persons congregated in fear are of the impression that a reflected light is nothing less than an unearthly visitant from the other world.”

The article is typical of the period; the mystery is presented as being simply something superstitious people are prone to believing, and a simple explanation is given. Once again, the spirit is alleged to have a financial motive: this may tell us more about Victorian England than the desires of the dead!

The ghost did not last long. The mystery was apparently resolved in the Cheltenham Chronicle of 4th September 1886 —

“Solution of the Suffolk Street Ghost Mystery


Sir, — I am happy to be able to inform you that the occasion of the gathering together for more than a week past in this street of several hundreds of people, to the almost intolerable annoyance of the householders in this vicinity (barring the public houses), has by the ‘intelligent department’ of our police authorities, been altogether removed. It having been suggested that probably the appearance of lights in the building where the ‘ghost’ was supposed to frequent night be caused by ‘ignis fatuus’ either by exhalations form an old sewer, or from decayed wood on the premises, I ventured to mention on Monday last this theory to the Superintendent of the Police, Mr. McRae, and he arranged to meet me the same evening on the spot to enquire respecting the old sewer, &c. We soon, however, when there, discovered that the old disused sewer alluded to was a considerable distance from the timber yard, and that theory was at once discarded. Mr. McRae had made his own enquiries, and, at his invitation, I accompanied him to the rear of the building, in the front windows of which the mysterious lights nightly appeared.

We there found that the back windows of the ground floor and the upper part of the upper part of the building been thickly whitened over to prevent any reflection through them to the front, but there were numerous panes of glass throughout both rows of the back windows broken, leaving holes of different shaped and sizes. About fifteen yards distant from these windows in the rear is a row of small houses, and whenever the inhabitants of these had a lamp or other light in their bedroom windows, the light from them passed through and was reflected on to the front of the building here and there – (the ‘illusion’ therefore, coming from the rear of the building, and not from the front, as was stated in last Wednesday’s issue of the Cheltenham Examiner). 

To make it evident this was the actual cause of the appearance of the lights in the front windows of the building, Mr. McRae later on, when there were, as usual, several hundreds of people in the road, took a small lamp and waved it in front of the cottage windows in the rear of the building, and immediately the people in the road, seeing the reflection of the lights in the front window, “boo-ooed” and shouted “There she is again,” to my great astonishment, knowing what Mr. McRae was doing. The intelligent portion of the crowd, on the ‘modus operandi’ being explained to them, readily comprehended and it, and soon left, but the ‘gamius’ and ‘gammers’ and girls, and those who did not wish to be ‘enlightened’, were not disposed of without strong threats from the police.

Living in the vicinity of the scene of action of these nightly visitations, I am sure the inhabitants of the neighbourhood will be grateful to Mr. McRae and his officers for solving the mystery of the ‘ghost’.

I am Sir, your obedient servant,

S.M. Cornelius”

The London Globe, The Pall Mall Gazette and many other papers chimed in on the ghost, and many of the articles are genuinely funny, and possibly reflect a wry amusement that Cheltenham, a fashionable and pretentious resort renowned for its schools and colleges had somehow become the centre for a ghost craze.  Many of the articles were (presumably) wildly inaccurate: here as an example is the Weekly Freeman’s Journal’s account from Dublin on 18th September 1886.

Those who remember the ghost in Shieldfield will smile at the story which comes from Cheltenham. During the past week that pleasant watering place, beloved by King George III, has been terribly exercised by the presence of a spectre. It was first seen at the dead of night at the window of a cottage, and as the cottage had a gruesome history of crime and the mysterious disappearance of a large sum of money attached to it, a raison d’etre for the ghost was at once established. The multitude would seem to have believed in it and so far did the reputation of this unearthly visitor spread that people rushed to view it from Gloucester, Birmingham, and Bristol, special night ghost trains being put on by the railway company for their convenience. Moreover Cheltenham as a learned place boasting of great schools and colleges and not of the sort to tolerate the intrusion of an airy disembodiment vanishing ‘like a guilty thing’ at the crow of the matutinal chanticleer its Corporation offered £50 to anyone who could detect the fraud and put a stop to the farce. Yet it turned out to be neither one or the other but simply an illusion. There was a lamp at the back of the cottage and the light reflected on the window of a room, in which shielded as she thought by darkness an old woman had undressed herself before going to bed. It seems rather hard on the Psychical Society that so splendid a chance should end in the prosaic fact of an ancient dame imprudently neglecting to pull down the window blinds.

Cheltenham was also a town deeply divided politically between the Tories (chiefly represented by the Agg family) and the Whigs (the party of the Berkeley family), and this deep divide may well explain the need of rival newspapers to provide their own explanations. The Cheltenham Chronicle catered to the Whigs; the Cheltenham Mercury to the Conservatives, and we might spy something of local politics in their attitudes to the police as presented here. While many of the national paper’s articles are more literary, for reasons of space the author presents here only the rival Cheltenham Mercury article published on the same day as the Cheltenham Chronicle explanation, 4th September 1886.

The Leckhampton ghost has still continued to excite the attention of the public, notwithstanding the fact that the police have declared it all nonsense, and crowds of people have assembled night after night to watch a light occasionally sparkle upon the glass windows of the workshop. I do not mean to include among the superstitious one quarter of the highly respectable people who have swelled the ghost hunting throng; hundreds went simply to see what this wonderful manifestation really looked like, without having one thought of there being ought supernatural attached thereto; but there were scores who really and truly believed that they were looking at something caused by no mortal hand, and some fevered imaginations went as far as to depict the figure of an elderly figure in the yard.  In the face of this nonsense the sound and practical solution of this ‘mystery’ which Mr. Wethered has published will be read with interest, and I make no apology to my readers for producing it entire, Mr. Wethered says :–

“I was first informed of these curious lights on Thursday evening, and at 9.30 I set out for the locality in which they were reported to appear. On my way I overtook numbers of people all bent on the same errand, and not knowing the exact location and wishing to gather some details as to the phenomena, I got into conversation with a lad, whose belief in the reality of ghosts was as firm as a rock.  He told me that it appeared about half-past nine in the evening, and gradually disappeared between two and three in the morning, and that the police had been in the building and could discern nothing, which fact my informant regarded as conclusive evidence of the reality of the apparition. He urged that if the police could discover nothing, why what else could it be but the ghost of a woman who had died in an adjoining house? Another gentleman of easy credence, gave me to understand that a woman with a child in her arms had been seen, while other people had been favoured with remarkable visions on the windows of the aforesaid premises.

Being thus duly primed with the ideas of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, I reached the scene – a workshop near Great Norwood -street – and there I saw a crowd of some five hundred people, all straining their eyes at the windows of the building. Of course I did the same – but saw nothing. Where was the ghost? I demanded, and was told it had already been seen, but had now disappeared, probably to be soon visible again.  Shortly after that I did distinctly see a luminous appearance in one of the windows; but when I moved to left or right I lost sight of it.  Keeping my eye on the spot, I came to the conclusion there was a particular pane of glass that had different reflective properties to other panes in the window. Suddenly there was a murmur in the crowds that gradually developed into a cheer. The cause of this enthusiasm was the appearance of certain peculiar lights on one of the windows – and this was the ghost! I looked around to see whether there was any lights from the neighbouring houses to which the cause could be attributed, but, as it seemed to me, there was none. Then as the moon – where was she? She had not risen, but there were bright stars and there were clouds moving overhead. Could the light, OI pondered, be due to the light of the moon when visible, and to the stars whose light struck the glass at certain angles, and was at times cut off by passing clouds?

I went home about eleven o’ clock and at seven next morning went up to examine the workshop. I had marked the spot where I first observed the luminous appearance and now I discovered a pane of ribbed glass in the window. Further examination showed the windows be constructed of small panes of many kinds set up at various angles and many of them smeared with paint. The investigation supported my belief that the glass in the window had much to do with the “ghost”.  I now sought the assistance of Mr. Matthews, of the Science School, Cambray, and it was arranged with the permission of the owner of the premises that we should meet the spectre in a friendly way at 9:15 that evening. At the appointed time we duly arrived at the scene, our investigation force strengthened by Mr. Rothery. The crowd outside was larger than ever, and it took the energies of several men to prevent the rougher element from doing considerable damage to the property; as it was the gate was broken in. It is bad enough certainly for the owner to know that his premises are supposed to be haunted without having damage done to them by the roughs.

We now preceded to look over the building, with the aid of lights. I should say the night was dark and not a star to be seen, and the ghost had only been dimly visible once or twice, not nearly so vividly as the night before. The windows were carefully examined and we all arrived at the opinion that the considering the nature of the glass and the angles at which the pains were set the only wonder was that the light had not attracted notice long before. The lights were now put out and Mr Matthews, Mr Rothery and myself stationed ourselves in various parts of the building where the window panes were most likely to reflect light. Men were also placed in the yard at short distances so that word could quickly be passed when the ghost appeared. We were not in our posts long when a man in the crowd lit his pipe and strange to say but the light was reflected by the very pane of ribbed glass through which I was looking. Instantly up came word that the ghost had been dimly visible where I was standing. In that case clearly the ghost was produced by the man lighting his pipe! The window of the workshop are made up of many different kinds of glass sets at various angles. On these panes lights from several houses are constantly; reflected the moon and star lights are also reflected, and this I believe to be the main cause of the supposed ‘ghost’. The light strikes the panes of glass at different angles and passing clouds constantly intercept it first causing the appearance and disappearance of the apparition. I do hope that this will be the end of the ghost alarm and the people of the neighbourhood and the owner of the premises will not be further inconvenienced. I may also say that the lights on the window of the workshop are not of recent origin. A man who worked there eight years ago says he noticed them during that and never thought anything of them before. It seems that the thing was first noticed by the public about fortnight since when the moon was nearly full which facts supports the view I have taken.”

After this explanation I hope to hear no more any ghosts and trust that people will abstain from making themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the sober and thinking portion of the community by giving currency to such superstitious nonsense. The owner of the property must feel awfully annoyed at the proceedings which have taken place for stupid as they are, they must unquestionably have had a damaging effect which will require some time to efface.

With my usual contrariness the author suggests that explaining apparitions as reflections in glass may be about as culturally conditioned a response as say the development of Stone Tape Theory and the recording hypothesis in the 1960s and 70s when home tape recording became popular. Pepper’s Ghost was a popular stage show in Cheltenham throughout the 1860’s, and the ‘projection’ of convincing spooks on to glass was an extremely obvious explanation, but not necessarily the correct one, for the mystery lights. We must be cautious when rival explanations are offered as here. What is clear however is that Cheltenham ghosts like most Victorian hauntings were often understood as superstition, ignorance, and a threat to public order; a cause of civic unrest. Rioting was not unknown in Cheltenham in preceding decades (though usually associated with the preaching of the Rev, Frances Close, the popular evangelical and strident demagogue pastor of St. Mary’s) and ghosts are construed as a police matter. When a completely harmless story of a father seen appearing by his children at the door of a Cheltenham house a few days before his actual arrival in the form of what we would term a ‘phantasm of the living’ was repeated by a Scottish bishop, the reaction included some extremely sharp criticisms. 1880’s Cheltenham was in that fortunate coinage of our age, a “hostile environment” for ghosts.

The Morton Ghost First Appearance?

The following piece, published in the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 4th of September brings us full circle however, for in it we find what I believe to be the first allusion in print to the Morton/Despard case, and possibly an oblique hint of F.W.Myers and the Society for Psychical Research’s involvement. If this does refer to this case, it is the earliest reference to such in print, but has seemingly not been noticed by earlier historians of the case. The article reads:–

Of all the silly stupidities which have ever become the theme of general conversation, we reckon the so called ghost scare at Leckhampton to have been the most so. It has served as an excuse for the gathering of a band of rowdies, but otherwise the so-called appearance was hardly worth attention. This miserable sham of a miracle had not the merit of possessing a single one of the awe-inspiring qualities usually attributed to things of its kind. We could have excused the absence of the usual pomp and circumstance of spiritual life- the antecedent murder, the unrestful dead, the sheeted, gibbering ghost, its appearance and disappearance and the other concomitants of a visit from the other world if there had been one uncommon point in the affair; but this fraud of a miracle at Leckhampton possesses none of the usual features of the disembodied spirit. It is scarcely phenomenal, far less supernatural. Any small boy in the fourth standard of an elementary school might explain it in five minutes how it all arises. This being so, the best advice we can give is for the police to interfere very vigorously in the affair. They should take strong steps towards obviating the assembly of any more crowds in the neighbourhood. We are the more anxious to have this Leckhampton twopenny- halfpenny mystery settled in as much as a rumour is afloat that in another part of the town a highly-respectable family is troubled by a nightly visitor from the invisible regions. The latter case is one decidedly calling for attention of psychical research people. One feature about ghost- scares is that one always begets another. Now that the long nights are coming on there are plenty of ingenious young men who will devote their valuable attention to the production of ghosts. Last year their craze was for burglary this year is for spirits.


The term “The Cheltenham Ghost” originally referred to the strange lights seen at Suffolk Street off the Bath Road in the summer of 1886; at exactly the same time as this was being reported nationally and internationally, Myers whose family home was in Lypiatt Road close by became involved with the Morton/Despard case, that was to come to adopt the name in years to come. For some reason Myer’s never refers at any point to this earlier Cheltenham Ghost, but even before Rosina Despard and family moved to the house now known as Garden Reach in 1882 there was already a story involving a ghostly woman, a strange light and the sound of footsteps: the one described by Maskelyne in his public lecture on October 27th, 1881.

In fact ghostly women, strange lights, and a financial motive imparted to the spirit appear in all three of the stories. Was this some folkloric haunting well known in the area and simply ascribed to different houses by the gossip of servants? Why does Myer’s make no mention of the more famous Cheltenham ghost? When he went to visit the former servant who lived in Chapel Lane off Great Norwood Street that May he was just round the corner from where the crowds would gather to watch for the ghost in August. I am by no means imparting any dishonesty or wrongdoing to Myers – he may well have felt the other affair was a nonsense, easily explained away, and distracted from the more serious business occurring a mile to the north in Pittville. He may have been affected by the general spirit of hostility to ‘Cheltenham ghosts’; and indeed it was not until Abdy Collins (1948) that the house and its location in Cheltenham was finally revealed. Not least this may have been necessitated by the cases brought for slander of title against those who imputed a haunted reputation to a house, where the courts often awarded substantial damages to the owner.

As we have seen on historical fact there are several minor errors in Morton (1892) but no more than one would expect given the limited information that Rosina Despard might be able to glean from neighbours and local gossip, and in the issue of the jewels it seems likely she was in fact correct. Henry Swinhoe’s behaviour can be understood in terms of his attempting to save something of an inheritance for his children, and in terms of attempting to save money, leading him to pursue the Grissell’s for Elizabeth’s moiety, and try to curb Imogen’s excessive spending. Yet clearly both sets of relatives were correct: both Henry and Imogen succumbed to alcoholism, and the bizarre incident with the baby Gustav Holst in the pram suggests that he was quite unhinged before his death, but still associating with Imogen despite the pending divorce! It is also notable that contrary to Lambert’s (1958) underground water hypothesis the estate agent’s advertisement specifically references the dry soil on which the house stands.

The “Woman in White” incident which cause the serious assault on the maidservant is also curious. Did this give rise to a story of the house being haunted, or did the cook and maid dress up as ghosts because of some pre-existing story of a haunting? If there was not already a ghost story somehow attached to the then very new house, why did the errand boy act in such a strange manner and attack the maid?

Clearly, we have some way to go before we understand the mystery of the Cheltenham ghost, and the next phase must discuss the Littlewoods and the Despard residence, as well as the contested issue as to whether Inholmes, the Sussex preparatory school that relocated to the house was also troubled by the apparition. While this paper may raise more questions than it provides answers, I hope it has cast a little new light on this old ghost and might spark debate on this fascinating haunting.

CJ, May 2021.


I have given most references in the text in the form of the location where the newspaper stories were carried to the details of where to locate the documents for the purpose of clarity. Other sources referenced are given below.

Abdy Collins, B. (1948) The Cheltenham Ghost, Psychic Press, London.

Adams, P.  (2015). Was the Cheltenham Poltergeist the real ‘Woman in Black’?

Beard, Jacqueline The Ghost of St. Anne’s

Cox, W.L; Meredith R.D. (1982) Haunted Cheltenham, Gloucestershire Library Service, Gloucester.

Elizabeth Swinhoe burial record (1866) Gloucestershire Archives; Gloucester, Gloucestershire; Gloucestershire Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: Gdr/V1/490

Fairholm, Rebsie (2008) Her Cheltonia blog is a wonderful source of information on the history of the town. I made us of this page several times.

Hamilton, T. (2009) Immortal Longings: F.W.H Myers and the Victorian Search for Life After Death, Imprint Academic, Exeter

Hemmings, GW (1869) The Law Reports Volume VIII: Chancery Appeal Cases, Council of Law Reporting, London.

Lambert, G.W.  (1958). The Cheltenham Ghost: A Reinterpretation, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 39, pp. 267-77. 

Mackenzie, Andrew. (1982), Hauntings and Apparitions, Heinemann, London.

Mackenzie, Andrew. (1987), The Seen and The Unseen, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London

Mackenzie, Andrew. (1988), Continuation of a Haunted House, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 55, pp. 25-32. 

Morton, R.C.  (1892) “Record of A Haunted House” in the Proceeding of the Society for Psychical Research, VIII, p.311-329.

Pittville History Works at St. Anne’s House listing all residents until 1945 is at

Rawes, Julian (1978) Memorials of Holy Trinity Church, Cheltenham at

Society for Psychical Research. (2019). PSI Encyclopedia: Cheltenham Ghost

Swinhoe vs. Swinhoe divorce papers (1876) The National Archives; Kew, Surrey, England; Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes, later Supreme Court of Judicature: Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Files, J 77; Reference Number: J 77/159/3803Hauntings: New Light on Famous Cases (1977)

Underwood, Peter (1977) Hauntings: New Light on Famous Cases, Duckworth, London

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Absent Friends?

So some of the college generation before me are planning a reunion and it made me think about all the people I knew over the years and lost touch with.

What made me think of even it even more though was looking at an article and recognising a photo of a woman as someone I used to know,  now 30 odd years older and on the other side of the world. A quick search said yes my instinct was right:  married name, birthday correct. I dropped a line to both the lady and her husband too, out of politeness — no one wants strangers stalking their family. Will they see my Facebook message and respond?

I fear not. I am not hard to find, and hundreds of my uni friends have reconnected over the years. They may have forgotten I existed and in this case I possibly horribly offended them – I am famously tactless. If they wanted to hear from me they could have messaged.

It’s odd isn’t it the people we miss? One was Rob Mosse, a Jewish chap who I only knew for a couple of weeks before he dropped out of the College of St. Paul and St. Mary. Rob was a lovely chap and I am sorry I never said goodbye — he just left, homesick I expect.

Then another really close friend, Mark Leach. He has a cool wiccan girlfriend Vanessa Lowe-Shipley who had an even cooler mother. Mark was half Dutch, fought with the Christian Union as much as I did and was a bit of a rebel, but his girlfriend transferred to St. Mary’s Twickenham and we drifted apart. Also I brought more and more friends to Cheltenham from Suffolk, and maybe Mark did not fit in with the Nameless Anarchist Horde? Shame because he was a top bloke.

Then there was Russell Haynes, a Maccam who was always kind to me and who I had some great times with. I visited him up in Sunderland, and yet I never made it as far as to see Steve Wood in Berwick. Russell left college at the end of my first year, and split up with his girlfriend Lou soon after.

Any list of people I miss should really start with Julia and Louise Thompson, the Thompson Twins from Broxbourne, victims of my youthful infatuation and sometimes daft sense of humour. Genuinely lovely girls I probably annoyed Julia when I visited her in Edinburgh after college, and have spent nearly thirty years regretting it. I stayed in touch with their lovely parents for years but when the Twins stopped writing I eventually broke off correspondence.

Same with my exes: most parents, with a couple of honourable exceptions, did not hate me. You can’t stay friends with your ex-girlfriends parents after breaking up though. I know where all my exes are and most are on my Facebook, but I stay out of their lives as much as possible. One clearly wants nothing to do with me and dropped me long ago, and one is a bit annoyed at me most of the time I think, but I feel nothing but affection for them.

I won’t name names but it is a shame cos I still regard one ex as among my closest friends. “It’s so funny, how we don’t talk anymore” as Cliff Richard sang.

Let’s move on to the Cheltenham and Gloucester College of H.E. What happened to Kevin Ruane and Julie? More friends I have not heard from in years. Matthew Jones of Bishop’s Castle — a truly lovely guy who used to hang out with Tim Parker and Phil Hampton. Catherine and Jonathan, the sweet blondes.

And then there is Bob Buttery, though I rarely called him that. That skinny little redheaded guy was one of the best; I was incredibly fond of him, but he left college and that was it. Did I do something terrible? Were my heavy handed jokes scarring him? Bob, where are you?

Next up Phil Bedding, a role-playing gamer and great guy from Peterborough. I knew not just Phil but his mates from back home, Martin and Duncan. Phil dropped out from uni and that was it. I’d love to game with him again.

And so many more. The girls who detested me and thought I was a real weirdo – pretty much everyone actually! — I now regard with immense affection. The Christian Union were my people, and I would love to know what happened to them, friends and enemies. I kept my faith, and still hold it strongly as some know — but I fear I forgotten by all those Christians I sang “Shine Jesus Shine” with.

The girls change names and I am too lazy to stalk. When I found one person accidentally recently I commented to DC “Out of all the search results, in all the Googles, she had to show up in mine.” I felt really bad, as if prying, but I had to know if I was right. It’s a miracle if I recognise anyone — being prosopagnosic…

And then Christopher Dillon: he was like a son to me. He managed a Co-Op, wrote thrillers and did his dissertation on Mother Theresa — last I heard he was an English teacher. Like so many of the Spslings though, who really were like my kids, he left and never looked back.

And the mature students – Joyce Dowds, Hazel, Armstrong Leeworthy. How I would like to show them that I too matured, survived and grew up.

Anyway I hope all these people are alive and having amazing content and happy lives: but why do they matter so much, when I can barely keep up with everyone I do know? “Christian, you can’t save everyone” said dad. Maybe he was right, but it is not about them.

I need people: all the people. I can’t say why, but as Bowie sang in Five Years…

And all the fat, skinny people
And all the tall, short people
And all the nobody people
And all the somebody people
I never thought I’d need so many people

No matter how much you may fear it, resent it, or marvel at it, never think you don’t matter. I spend hours lying here remembering people and places that are as a moments sunlight fading on the grass. Perhaps our yesterday’s are someone else’s tomorrow: countless heroes live in my mind, frozen in youth as if they had fallen then.

I’m not hard to find: but if you don’t call, I guess that is how it must be. Memory is a prison for us all.

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Image from The Wizard Torn 3: an online Ars Magica convention.

Tonight I am writing about my gaming hobby so feel free to skip reading this unless you are a tabletop rpg gamer or very curious! I will be back tomorrow to normal topics (whatever they are?)

Well another Image from the Wizard Torn comes to an end. The big news this time is that the next Image will coincide with Grand Tribunal, and will cover the Stonehenge Tribunal of 1209 but will also have two programmes of games running concurrently, one for those physically present in Cheltenham, England at Grand Tribunal (tickets available from now) and the second Image half running online as the last three Image from the Wizard Torn have.

The games that ran at this weekend’s free online convention included

It’s not a playground! by Christopher Barrett. You are the children of the covenfolk, living day to day at the same place your parents work. The magi are scary, the few apprentices snobby, your parents bossy, and the work hard. Why not see if you can make it fun? (All characters are between 5 and 8 years old)

The Drowning of Marzanna by Sunette The death of Marzanna, according to Slavic folk beliefs meant the awakening of nature to life, and thus the beginning of Spring. But this is not a happy tale…and not for the faint of heart. (CJ adds: a delightfully gothic very dark tale of impossible choices and the darkest aspects of faerie).

A Field Trip by Darkwing A field trip for apprentices proves to be something very unexpected indeed, when the apprentices are Diedne and are hurried away from the covenant on a summer’s day in 1107…

Sabren’s Wall of Shells by Anna. The faerie queen of the powerful River Severn requests aid from Sir Nathaniel and friends regarding the Dominion boundary, revealing the story of the half-giant and why he lies low. The latest’s instalment in Anna’s long running adventure series set in Mythic Shropshire.

The Stonehenge Tribunal of 1202 by CJ. Using some new mechanics to speed up calculating the influence of various covenants over NPC covenants, twenty players from the four player covenants in his current saga (plus a couple of NPCs) schemed, traded, politicked and finally voted on cases and revisions of the Peripheral Code on both Friday and Sunday night. The most important addition was the decision by CJ to henceforth peg game time to real time, at two seasons to one week, to try and synchronise covenants.

Thanks to everyone who attended or played, and look forward to seeing you all and new faces in August. Also we still welcome new players and potentially new covenants in the saga, playing weekly or biweekly.

If you are interested in playing do contact me or post here: if you attended do post reviews.

Thanks to all our wonderful GMs and players

CJ x!

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Webinar uploaded: Haunted Northeast Derbyshire with Bill Eyre

Very brief post tonight as I am in the middle of hosting Image from the Wizard Torn an online Ars Magica rpg convention.

I am also these days Chair of the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena and every Thursday night from 7pm to 8pm I can be found wearing a silly hat to hide my bald spot and hosting a webinar with one of the great and the good from the worlds of Anomalies research: parapsychologists, psychologists, historians, cryptozoologists and UFOlogists, theologians, and anthropologists, folklorists and Forteans. We do not endorse as an organisation any viewpoints but we do give the speakers a respectful hearing and a thorough grilling.

Now Bill Eyre is a veteran ASSAP investigator, and his thoughts are more spiritualist than mine: but he  has so much experience that the differences in our viewpoint in no way get in the way of my respect for the man. He is a genuine authority on haunting cases.

In this video filmed earlier this year we discuss weird phenomena from Chesterfield, Matlock and area. Sadly the first few minutes were lost.

You can find out more about ASSAP at

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Review: We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper

I don’t read True Crime normally as I find it depressing and disturbing but this book has been highly praised and deals with a case I had heard of, the 1969 murder of Jane Britton at Harvard. It is a well written book that does not require you to understand anything about American campus life to follow and that has been widely praised for its reflections on women and power in academia and institutional privilege and a lot of other really important stuff.  And yes it does that, and there is a fascinating story with 5 main suspects and several other missing and murdered women, and it is a real page turner. But…

Spoilers: probably best not to proceed if you intend to read this. I mean it is presented like a whodunit, and I am going to reveal that…

Still here? OK so there is a really strong case built by the author and various true crime researchers against three separate Harvard professors; and a couple of minor suspects. Cooper looks in to each in great depth and it is really well done.  The victim was an anthropologist who had been on an archaeological dig in Iran: she was found dead in her apartment with red ochre thrown over her, and fur coats and blankets piled on top of the body. As red ochre was used in burial rites thousands  of years ago in cultures all around the world this ritual element suggested she was killed by an anthropologist.

So the sleazy line up of suspects appears, and the key one seems to have played up to the rumours he killed her. And everyone at Harvard knew it was him, but the uni covered it up. Except…

He didn’t. After 300 exhausting pages of investigation of all the academic suspects, and boy are they suspect — DNA testing is finally done and the murderer is revealed as a burglar rapist and petty crook who died in prison twenty years ago. Underclass, not academic, Black. Cooper in particular is disappointed he is just a stereotypical bogeyman: he raped and murdered other women, but neither he nor they get much attention. This is a book about a murder where the actual murderer is really a footnote.

The worst bit? I predicted this twenty pages in. Ada Bean a 50 year old secretary was killed in a similar way in the same district within a month and left under blankets: no red ochre though, but the crimes appear similar, though the police dismissed the identical MO as a copycat or coincidence because no red ochre. Because there was no connection between the women they could not be linked. Except of course if a burglar was raping and killing random women…

Yet Cooper almost completely dismisses Ada Bean: I feel she appears on one page, and is referred to in passing a couple more times. Whereas the wealthy, outspoken and bohemian Jane is celebrated throughout, and Cooper increasingly identifies with her and grows to “befriend” her and let her influence her own life and relationships, Bean is dismissed. Unrelatable? A retired fifty year old secretary lacks glamour: her brutal death becomes a footnote. Yet almost certainly looking at that case and other rapes would have thrown a very different light on the case. And it is not that the author narrows the focus exclusively to Jane: another young female academic’s disappearance gets a couple of chapters. 

Also Harvard does not seem to have actually covered anything up and cooperated with the police throughout. Yes several professors were alcoholic, sleazy or dodgy but they are not protected by the institution. That angle is much promised and “Me Too” gets mentioned but there is little real depth to it. Harvard apparently allowed relationships between faculty and students until only a few years back: now postgraduates are allowed to date professors, but not undergraduates. In fact one of the few interesting bits here was that while women have only had Harvard degrees since 2000 and had Radcliffe (the women’s college) also on their degrees till then the female alumni bemoan the loss: the erasure of the Radcliffe tradition that occurred with that.

Yes Jane dated professors; lots of girls did, but where the power lay in those relationships strikes me as more complicated than I expected. Jane was a pretty cool character and I can see why Cooper came to identify with her: but ultimately she herself inhabits like Jane a world of incredible privilege – the author gets free room and board in a Harvard colonial senate property for baking cookies three times a year for a function while she researches the crime, dates an intelligence agent who buys her Palantir software access as a gift, etc, etc…

Cooper tells Jane’s story with her own; but her own is very lightly sketched, and while we learn a lot about her feelings towards Jane and increasing identification it feels like the editor stripped the author out of the story, and what is left is an uncomfortable feeling of a shadow woman mourning the death of a talented and glamorous woman. More of Cooper in the story might have helped– she sounds at least as interesting as Jane?

Yes was Jane really glamorous? The author insists she was but she seems to have been  highly intelligent woman who struggled a bit in archaeology on site, had an emotionally distant boyfriend she was besotted with and who liked to sleep with people she met because she could. She was no beauty or icon: she was a very real down to earth woman with a scathing ability to put people down and piss them off. She sounds fun, bawdy and annoying, not the romanticised figure of the true crime victim.

I was also a bit uncomfortable in how intrusive it felt as Cooper hunts down family and friends, but guess that goes with the genre. Becky Cooper though seems to be a good hearted woman and an excellent writer: look forward to seeing more from her.

So if you love whodunits you will hate this book; the end is a crushing anticlimax. And by twenty pages in you have learned the Red Ochre that gave the murder its name was probably not that: possibly just red paint. Which takes us back to Ada Bean and the true lesson of this book: if you are going to be murdered be witty, sexy and aspirationally relatable  — but above all be middle class or you will be just a footnote in someone else’s story, and finally make sure you are murdered by someone interesting… 😦

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Review: The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale

Sometimes you should not review a book: it is a job for someone else.

It was the morning of my mother’s funeral; late September 2020, bright sunlight and sudden darkness; an angry wind shouting at me as my housemates gathered in a Wetherspoons in Stowmarket.  We had made our way separately across the country, a country closed down by disease. My first trip out in months – I was anxious and — well whatever feelings bubble beneath as you prepare to say goodbye to your mum in the age of sanitiser and face masks. Not long recovered from my bout with Covid, maybe I was grumpy despite the mountain of fried breakfast. Heaven knows I had every right to be, but I needed distraction and the papers provided it.

And then: an article in The Guardian about Kate Summerscale’s book on the Thornton Heath poltergeist utterly infuriated me. I felt the same annoyance as when yesterday an article declared some “unknown poetry” by a local Great War poet was discovered in — the archive of his work at the local library here!!! Why do journalists always have to frame research as serendipitous breakthroughs, and assume no one else has ever looked there? Why bother to keep these archives if you don’t expect people like me to go look in them? 

The problem with the shallow “previously unknown” convention is that implies that no one else has looked: and a lot of people probably have. Of course when you are writing a paper you hope you are being original: it is always painful to find others have got there first. Anyway the point was that this piece irritated me: I could certainly give most of the key facts about the Thornton Heath poltergeist, and so I declared “I must not review this book!”

So here I am, reviewing the book…

Now anyone who knows me knows I am suspicious of literary types and middle class dilletante authors who chance upon psychical research and are inspired to write worthy works in  beautiful prose about the cases that I specialise in. They often seem to have achieved but the thinnest patina of actual understanding of the literature. Many of you are probably waiting for me to burn Kate Summerscale in effigy as another privileged literary outsider dabbling in my subject. I suspect all literary, cultured types — I occasionally read Smolett or Sterne or Swift or  — anyway I one day hope to reach authors beginning with T. I am basically ignorant of modern literature, and not proud of it. 😦

Luckily, Summerscale overcame these prejudices: but I have set them out at length because they were so marked. If the book was dreadful I would not be reviewing it — so in many ways it is remarkably good, and you must certainly read it. So what is it about?

The book deals with a woman Alma Fielding who was at the centre of a poltergeist case in Thornton Heath, London In 1938. She was investigated by the Hungarian parapsychologist Nandor Fodor, an interesting fellow. My very brief summary of him in the first edition of the Parapsychologist’s Handbook reads “A Hungarian lawyer who moved to New York while acting as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper in 1921.

There he met Hereward Carrington, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and became deeply interested in the pursuit of psychical research. In 1926 a meeting with a psychoanalyst led him to develop that field as a personal specialty, and from 1927 onwards he investigated ghosts and mediums using psychoanalytic techniques.

In 1928 he transferred to a London newspaper group, and remains there into the 1930s. During that decade he published his theories that many poltergeists and hauntings originated in repressed sexual energies, which led him into bitter disputes with the easily shocked. His controversial theories in to the psychosexual origins of many hauntings, combined with a belief in Freudian theory and the unconscious manifesting paranormal events scandalized some and amused others, but few in the field doubted his knowledge and ability.”

If you are familiar with Fodor you may have read his 1935 book The Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, but the Fielding case is covered using  pseudonyms in his less known On the Trail of the Poltergeist. My own interest in him was reawakened reading Christopher Laurson’s excellent PhD (“Reimagining the poltergeist in twentieth-century America and Britain”) a few years back, which is definitely worth searching out if you are looking at psychical research in the 1930’s and if you enjoy this book.

So what is the book like? A well written page turner covering Fodor and Alma, and their relationship which is probably of more interest if you are not focusssed on the poltergeist element; except there is no relationship beyond the poltergeist, and poltergeists might well be products of relationships. Summerscale has really done her research and gone way further than any previous researcher on this case: hats off to her. She is one of Us now. One of us, one of us… 😉

The case captures a moment in time when new myths start to replace old ones: this is the beginning of the consensus that poltergeists are a “nervous breakdown outside the head”, an exteriorisation of unconscious conflict,  rooted in past trauma, and  all of the psychological theorising that posits poltergeists as produced by unconscious human agents, not spiritual dæmonic forces.

Fodor faced the central problem of all psychical research: how the hell do you pay the bills while doing this? (Other issues include the existence of ESP, survival after death, the nature of the Poltergeist, etc — but I can assure you from decades of bitter experience they are all secondary.) Fodor managed to get an income from the International Institute for Psychical Research — not Harry Price’s one but one endowed by I believe Arthur Findlay. As such the board had a pro-Spiritualist tendency: clashes between Fodor and the Board over his debunking of various mediums were exacerbated by a libel case brought with regards to Barbanell’s spiritualist journal Psychic News.

Now I believe the distinction between ghosts and poltergeists arose from the structure of the Census of Hallucinations and the particular biases of the SPR Committee 1888 to 1894, as long term readers of my stuff may know. However it is Fodor and to some extent Hereward Carrington and Eileen Garrett who manage to shift this to the hegemonic position, clearing the way for J.B. Rhine claiming it as a form of PK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis) and adding it to the General Extrasensory Perception hypothesis.

The much cited notion that poltergeists manifest around sexually frustrated women (a view much championed by sexually  frustrated psychical researchers, who are sometimes but not always dirty old men) or adolescent girls that was firmly ensconced in popular culture by the 1970s is a crude form of this idea. (It is also a nonsense: see my article on ‘Sex and the unmarried Poltergeist’ in Seriously Strange issue 146. Or even better read the only book on Poltergeists you ever really need to read, the magisterial Poltergeists (1979) by Cornell and Gauld.)

Anyway Summerscale’s book covers the poltergeist; the subsequent mediumistic experiments at the Institute; and what sounds like Fielding’s sometimes very clever trickery and strange personality. She is bored but happy to be strip searched (by women) and the centre of attention: she comes over in this account as a woman who is likeable but a bit scatty, with neurotic and hysterical symptoms as far as Fodor is concerned.

Fodor explains her strange behaviour in terms of repressed trauma; he suggests an orthodox Freudian view, and eventually his wife gets him an interview with the ailing Freud to discuss the case. Here there is a definite issue: Summerscale strongly implies Freud was not privy to and potentially antagonistic to psychical research: yet Freud had been a member of the Society for Psychical Research for at least twenty years by this point, and his conversations with Jung on the subject are well known. The story of Fodor’s fearless wife getting an interview with the great man by arriving at his apartment is a good one, and may well have been told by Fodor, but it is misleading.

Furthermore there is an emphasis in the last chapters that Fodor did not really think it mattered if the poltergeist was real in any sense, what mattered was the psychodynamic forces raging in Alma Fielding’s shattered psyche. I suspect this is bollocks – though he certainly said it at least once: Fodor remained committed to some paranormal forces at work in these cases, he just saw them as exteriorisation of internal forces within the agent not external spiritual forces. I could be wrong, but that is my reading of his later work with Eileen Garett et al. I expect Lisa Colette knows more than anyone alive in these subjects: despite Summerscale consulting her I am not convinced the inference one might draw of “Alma was a clever but disturbed woman and the only spooks were in her mind” is true to Fodor, no matter how much it is the story Summerscale’s readers want.

And then there is the elephant in the room – Freud. I know nothing about Kate Summerscale– I imagine from the text a prize winning product of some minor public school, sharing my background in history or cultural studies, but who maybe studied English at some Oxbridge college in the 70’s? See my prejudices writ large; I declare them freely. The reason I say this is because Psychoanalysis, repressed trauma, the sexual dogma, exteriorisation, the Id the Ego and the Superego all strike me as far more dubious than poltergeists; humbug psychiatry of the dark ages. In the 90s when I briefly trained as a psychiatric nurse we did not take Freud seriously; psychologists had rejected him in the 50s, embraced Behaviourism, rejected that and were creating new paradigms for the next generation to debunk by my time. (Trying to teach me NLP was an ordeal apparently owing to my overwhelming cynicism; I left before CBT was established as the new frontier… Actually trying to teach me anything ever is an ordeal according to some people? But I digress.)

Freud actually worked sonewhat on the wards back then for much the same reason Sun Sign astrology does — vested in cultural authority and any thing can work as therapy if you believe in it and your culture is permeated in it. Yet it was long rejected– the only place where Freud still had immense authority was in English Literature classes (and Developmental Psychology, where Freudian notions ludicrously persisted in how we understand Infant development and to some extent still do.)

Freudianism was largely dead and buried outside of there, literary theory and cultural studies. I used to be wildly amused by my friends textbooks, and was reading The Madwoman in the Attic, Seven Types of Ambiguity and any other literary theory I could lay my hands on in the bar. It often dazzled, sometimes sparkled, rarely convinced.

And then in the 90’s I believe Jeffery Masson or some such worthy published In the Freud Archives asking the question “what if Charcot was right and these women were actually abused, and the Electra/Oedipal complex was a myth?”.  That and the Sokal affair plus having adopted a grunge look inadvertently that tipped me briefly in to high fashion saw me reach my academic apogee: I had form for saying Freudianism is bollocks and became briefly reputable.

Kate Summerscale uses the story of Fodor, Alma and the spiritualists as a lens in to our cultural history, and questions of authority, knowledge and vaguely sexuality though the latter are treated with the delicacy of a vicarage tea party (and not the type with the latex clad randy rev. showing Nine Inch Nails videos). It feels too cosy, too hyggeligt — a book for Radio 4 listeners not those of us who get Heart FM and like it because we are not the drivers. She cites a whole raft of books in which the supernatural horror is ambiguously real, and the evil forces may be in the protagonist’s mind: but she suggests Fodor is the origin of this rather than the obvious origin, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (topic of a paper I am working on) forty years earlier!

There are two key passages which summarise the ambiguity of her position 

“The investigation of ghosts was ‘basically a psychological inquiry’, Fodor declared in his column for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, ‘concerned with motives and emotions, and not with facts’.”

He did indeed, while courting the psychoanalytic movement. I am sure Andreas Somner could talk on this for a week. But then Summerscale herself concludes

“Since the 1980s, researchers in the psychology of supernatural belief have found a correlation between childhood trauma and adult experiences of paranormality. People who have been sexually abused as children are unusually likely to report supernatural events. Psychologists speculate that damaged children learn to use fantasy as a form of escape, while their desperate wish for control generates delusions of psychic power. Fodor believed that the desperation sometimes produced real supernatural force.”

And here is the rub: what research? The whole issues of trauma, repressed memory, the link between Fantasy Prone Personality and paranormal belief and paranormal experience (they are not the same) are so complex and so desperately contested it would take a longer book than this to go anywhere.

So in conclusion beautifully written, well researched and useful, tends to imply Fodor more central than he was in some ways — Hereward Carrington, Eileen Garrett and dear old Harry Price deserve treatments this good — occasionally misleading and ultimately probably slightly depressing, a bed time story for an audience with no time for a moral.

Recommended. But what would I know?

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Can we fix Britain’s Big Cat Flap?

Are big cats the new UFOs? Or are they the extraterrestrial pilots of the Flying Saucers, or perhaps Black Triangles? Are we being invaded by felines from Outer Space? (And wasn’t that the plot of a sixties Disney movie?).

I ask because we are in the middle (or perhaps end?) of a Big Cat flap. For many years now, long before I became ASSAP Chairman: in fact long before I had any role at all, I have posted in this group every paranormal related news story I see. A lot are pretty dismal, but as Charles Fort wrote “one measures a circle beginning anywhere” and so I am inclusive in my trawl, and try to avoid any prejudice. The good news about this approach is I get a pretty good feel for how things are, and what changes.

When I was young it was all The Beast of Bodmin: Dartmoor, Exmouth and other wild places were rumoured to have exotic big cats prowling them. Now doubtless this does actually happen from time to time; has a good list — but generally these cases never resolve in to actual carcasses or recaptured beasts.

When I was young the fashion for Joe Exotic style dangerous pets resulted in the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976

— and everyone said that many owners turned beasts out in to the wild and there they roamed and bred.

I am a bit cynical about this explanation: I strongly suspect if large numbers of big cats existed there lack of road sense would result in a lot of insurance claims as cars got wrote off in the same way deer and badgers often damage vehicles and kill motorists all the time. (c.400 collisions and 12 to 20 drivers or passengers killed a year in the UK by deer. I have seen estimates of up to 50,000 badgers killed by cars — and the odd wallaby.

So am I suggesting they are ghosts? No: though the Big Cat sightings share some attributes. I actually think lycanthropes more likely– I mean if were-pumas are a — oh OK, maybe not.

So are they physical beasts? I am keen for ASSAP to get out their and look. My own family had two separate big cat sightings in 80’s Suffolk, and one produced definite tracks. So spoors can be located, sightings recorded, trailers set up. If you are keen to be part of this initiative drop me a line at

So are they real, mistaken sightings of normal cats and dogs, some weird paranormal thing manifesting as a big cat or just modern folklore? I don’t know: all of the above and recently a wave of clumsy fakes. I mean it sounds reasonable they could be real: they seem to cluster in fairly wild areas (and Milton Keynes) and lockdown has tempted a lot of rare animals out of hiding and right up to our towns. Is this why we are suddenly seeing them?

Or is it simply that bored with coronavirus and the dismal state of British politics the papers are desperate for news worth printing? How many ghost/ufo/monster stories you get in a region often depends on the local journalists and how interested the Editor is in running such: in the 18th and 18th century ghost stories were very rare in papers and often explained away. It might be that now any sighting with a photo is deemed newsworthy — and it may be some agencies pay for them and aggressively promote them. I know not.

Still back in 2010 there was a cartoon strip going around that said the camera phone had conclusively proved ghosts aliens and cryptids do not exist, because everyone now has a camera on them all the time and yet where are all the photos? Well here: hundreds of ’em.

But wait: why are they all so terrible? Out of focus, blurry etc? Partly the problem here is that most people seem incapable of getting good shots with their camera phone, and that in the excitement of the moment faced with the primal fear of being eaten, well they are even worse. Also I have a black cat the fearsome Cuddles-Caligula: photos of him often look like a black blob. So I tend to think criticism of the quality of photos is misplaced; my wildlife photography is not much better.

So what is going on? I don’t know, but we need to start by mapping the sightings and developing a research strategy. How do you think ASSAP should address the mystery big cats? All opinions welcome!

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Review: Waiting for Another War – The Sisters of Mercy 1980 to 1985 by Trevor Ristow

So I read Waiting for Another War the history of the Sisters of Mercy (till 1985) by Trevor Ristow. It is a really good readable book with a limited market (probably people who bought The Reptile House ep) and charts the various incarnations of the Sisters of Mercy to ’85; three main line ups and styles, with only the auteur Andrew Eldritch making it all the way through: though Gary Marx had every opportunity to…

Eldritch is as you imagine: aloof, intellectual, amphetamine driven and a huge fan of late 60s rock. He despises The Cult, which surprised me given they were doing much the same thing — trying to be Led Zeppelin. Except Eldritch was trying to be Lemmy. Still Eldritch is a sympathetic character to my mind in comparison with Wayne Hussey — who is depicted as immature, fawning and dangerously our of control at times, such as when he drove a car through red lights all the way down 5th Ave. just for fun. (One of the bands biggest US promoters was killed a couple of years later crushed by a car when someone did the same). Of course this is a massively pro Eldritch book – he comes over as a dick only twice really – so I shall read Salad Daze by Wayne Hussey when time allows.

Goth culture seems to have come together despite the intentions of the bands associated with it and was a post punk thing with distinct British and US trends, but Eldritch hated goths with a passion. Hussey saw them as a fantastic market, and liked them – his own sensibilities were pure Led Zeppelin, exactly as with The Cult, but Eldritch was desperate to reject the goth label to stop the band being sidelined and forced from the mainstream. (He utterly failed and bitterly resented it).

There are less rock n Roll excess stories than you would expect, and a lot more of Eldritch getting his label WEA to give him total artistic control, and then experimenting with other band members having some input before deciding to do everything his way. Marx did not want to be a rockstar and wanted to be at home with the missus, and Ben Gunn found taking the Sisters seriously as a deal breaker and walked first. Craig Adams and Hussey loved excess and partying and wound up good mates: Eldritch seems to have pitied them rather, and held out a hand but the end was inevitable.

Where the book is weaker is in the lyrical analysis: some good stuff but I am pretty certain that there are far more dense layers of literary allusion. Marian reminds me of Marianne by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“And hark! a rush as if the deep
Had burst its bonds; she looked behind
And saw over the western steep
A raging flood descend, and wind
Through that wide vale; she felt no fear,
But said within herself, ‘Tis clear
These towers are Nature’s own, and she
To save them has sent forth the sea”

and his subsequent death b drowning see:

More than the Romantics though the spectre of T. S. Elliot appears again and again, and many lyrics are taken from there in much the way Jefferson Airplane plundered A.A.Milne and Dadaist poetry. The author acknowledges this, citing Elliot’s “White bodies naked on the low damp ground” which obviously is mirrored in The Floorshow lyric. I would have enjoyed more of this kind of teasing out the multiple layers of allusion.

Now let us be clear: Eldritch is avowed anti-Fascist, but one of the most interesting way to read his lyrics is through Klaus Theweleit’s classic study of Freikorp art and literature: Male Fantasies: women, flood, bodies, history which is replete with symbolism of pure snow, trains and red terror. As a cultural analysis of certain expressions of dangerous masculinity it is unexpected- and while the English translation was 1987 it was originally published as Männerphantasien, 2 Vols., Verlag Roter Stern/Stroemfeld, Frankfurt am Main/Basel 1977–1978. This is Eldritch – I am sure he appreciates German literature and film too, and read the important intellectuals from a Leftist position?

This is the most intellectual type of dumb rock and roll ever concieved: and Eldritch is unlikely to explain himself. The Sisters at their best represent a tearing conflict between the Appolonian and the Dionysian, and I really loved them though I never got them. There may be a reason for that.

Eldritch’s biography in the book is scant: RAF child Ely – Singapore – Great Malvern – London. I am astonished there are no West German bases there. Ely however really explains some of the lyrics and my affection for them. There is something of the more melancholy baroque about the music, and Ely cathedral might loom over it. Mostly though it reminds me of the Fens, and the Breck, driving through the landscapes of my youth – 1984, Weston at the wheel, the landscape pure floodland, a mirror of snow under the blackest of skies, a train rumbling to Cambridge, and the roar of US jets across the sky.

I guess we all find our own meanings in every song we love, and Eldritch is more willing than most to step back and let us. Shame, he seems like someone I could talk to. Still, while we have no autobiography Ristow’s book is a great place to start. Highly recommended.

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The Fakenham Ghost: a monster for April Fool’s Day

A poem of Fakenham Magna, a mile or so from home in my Lodge Farm days…

Games From Folktales

A little poem by Robert Bloomfield, read for Librivox by Colleen McMahon. Thanks to the Librivoxians. I was going to save it until Halloween, but I’m sure I can find other ghosts before then.

The Fakenham Ghost

A Ballad.

The Lawns were dry in Euston Park;
(Here Truth [1] inspires my Tale)
The lonely footpath, still and dark,
Led over Hill and Dale.

Benighted was an ancient Dame,
And fearful haste she made
To gain the vale of Fakenham,
And hail its Willow shade.

Her footsteps knew no idle stops,
But follow’d faster still;
And echo’d to the darksome Copse
That whisper’d on the Hill;

Where clam’rous Rooks, yet scarcely hush’d,
Bespoke a peopled shade;
And many a wing the foliage brush’d,
And hov’ring circuits made.

The dappled herd of grazing Deer
That sought the Shades by day,
Now started from her path with fear,
And gave the Stranger way.

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The Case Against “Paranormal Unity”; or why Ghost Hunters have become meaningless.

Those who know me probably know that I am a ghost hunter. What does that actually mean, in real terms? Do I wear a pith helmet and shorts, and carry an elephant gun, and like the big game hunters of old, try and bag a ghost? Do I strap a proton pack on my back, and try and zap spooks into a ghost-trap while my trusty PKE meter warns we are facing a disaster of near Biblical proportions? Do I use a Ouija board to make contact with the little girl who drowned in the mill stream, or do I use a medium to move over the tragic victims of the great beer flood of 1814? Am I a devout Roman Catholic engaged in a parachurch exorcism movement, battling demonic forces? Or a scholar in the tradition of the Society for Psychical Research? A neurologist trying to understand the physiology of hallucinations, or a psychologist explaining the phenomena in terms of Anomalous Psychology — misperception, priming, etc? Am I a horny teen trying to scare my girlfriend’s pants off at the ancient burial mound, or a witch trying to open portals between the worlds? A necromancer trying to raise the ghost of John Dee at Mortlake cemetery to learn lost secrets of alchemy, or a couple whose Urbex podcast never took off who are intent on becoming what ever the spooky version of influencers are? Am I a Cable TV producer trying to make the bigtime, or a sceptical blogger intent on debunking all the nonsense? Or am I a raconteur like Elliot O Donnell, or a physicalist ghost hunter like Andrew Green? A Society ghost hunter like Peter Underwood? An academic specialist in the cultural history of spooks? Or something else entirely? I have hardly began to scratch the surface of the possibilities. When you tell me you are a ghost hunter, I honestly have not got a clue what you mean nowadays. Perhaps it is time we abandon the term?


Let’s face it, we don’t really have much inn common do we, other than an interest in the paranormal? Yet time and time again we hear talk of Paranormal Unity (makes me thing of the Vulcan mindmeld!) or of the “Paranormal Community”. The one thing my slightly outsider status in the Paranormal Community has shown me about different groups is that many of them actively loathe one another — hate each other in fact.

Now a lot of people are going to criticise me for expressing this entirely true fact, but come on, we all know that it is the case. Go back to the 1960’s and every county in England had a ghost group or two perhaps; by the late 1990s maybe three. Then post 2003 and Most Haunted, BOOM! Ghost groups everywhere!

Except while a lot of new people have got interested and started investigating, and some have been doing it a long time (33 years in my case and still not caught a single spook so I really am crap at it!) generally the explosion of groups is not caused by new folks getting started, but by the previous groups falling out and endless schisms. Or the groups die, and then are reborn with a new name: but the same old faces, still peddling the same old nonsense. Like me for example.

My first formal group, created on the 1st April 1993 was the CPRG (Cheltenham Psychic Research Group). It became national, then splintered – the Anglian Psychic Research Group was the best run follow up. Some scientifically minded members went off to found the Gloucester Psychic Research Group, and Prof. Mike White who ran that I believe went on to become Chair of ASSAP. The psychic and spirituality inclined members of the CPRG left to form GASP! – the Gloucestershire Association of Spiritualists and Psychics. I was left in the short lived CARP (Committee for Active Research in to the Paranormal) that died really fast after the newspaper got our phone number wrong and published the number of a house where the only person at home was a teen with Tourette’s Syndrome.

Then I founded the Student Parapsychology Society, and the SPS actively tried to reach students and build an interest in parapsychology, as well as give me an excuse to drive all over the country with a minibus full of really cool and cute students.

I had meanwhile fallen out with Tony Cornell (following an action of Andrew Mackenzie’s I somehow got the blame for!) and the Bizarre adventures of the CPRG’s Derek and Harry had basically resulted in my being blackballed by the SPR – the Society for Psychical Research. Still the 1990s saw me make loads of paranormal documentaries and news appearances – “experts” were rare and I was young, educated and articulate.

FCH Hall with fake ghost

So I left the SPR, but not before I was given a lorry load of their paperwork and journals however: and trying to get that in to good hands brought me in to touch with ASSAP (the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena), which Mike White had now left, and which was back in the hands of the Walton brothers. A schism in The Ghost Club that had split in to the Ghost Club and The Ghost Club Society caused me to join neither, but when I left the university in 2003 the Student Parapsychology Society was finally wound up, as no one was left who wanted to carry it on. Then my friend Andrew pointed out we had no girlfriends, and so we founded the Myers Society, named after F.W. Myers who lived here in Cheltenham; that became better known as Parasoc, and as by this time I was a researcher for a cable TV show called Most Haunted. Oh, and we got girlfriends. (Priorities!)

Parasoc eventually felt apart in political infighting on the committee (they all do) but meanwhile I had formed GSUK and no I don’t have a clue what the acronym stands for now! We went ghosthunting all over the country and became friends, and then the Chairman of ASSAP David Wood co-opted me to serve on the committee of that organisation, following a mass resignation incident. My girlfriend Becky had turned her ghost research in to a legitimate PhD by this time (Coventry University 2013) and she joined too, and I set about working on the cultural history of psychical research — and discussing tabloid spook stories on Facebook. 😉

CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!
CJ and Jo-Dee on a ghost hunt!

The thing is one CJ would be bad enough, but the field is littered with them. Bruce, Toss, Tim, Lyn, four more folks with a similar trajectory from round here. Let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow and get more groups: it is more like “Rock Family Trees“, if you know the book. Scandal, infighting, romance and skulduggery – and that is just the university academics 😉

Generally though the paranormal world is the traditional small pond with whale sized egos where everyone hates everyone, and you can’t get an SPRman, a Ghostclubman and an ASSAPman to walk in to a bar because it would be no joke, it would be murder. 😉


OK I exaggerate, and myself and Tom Ruffles famously published a joint article simultaneously in the ASSAP and SPR magazine calling for closer cooperation or union, and I remain dedicated to working closely with rather than against them . I grew up a couple of streets away from Alan Murdie who heads the Ghost Club, and shared experience of trekking to the Tollgate garage in Bury St. Edmunds in the rain to buy milk can overcome any institutional prejudice. 😉

So if I jest and exaggerate, my point is still sound. THE SPR, ASSAP and The Ghost Club each have slightly a different perspective and culture, but are all identifiably with the tradition of British Psychical research. I would argue those three groups, with an overlapping membership, are fairly similar in outlook and work together reasonably well. The Parapsychological Association seems to cross over with the SPR a lot, as does the Society for Scientific Exploration and the Scottish SPR; ASSAP has a crossover with the Forteans and the Magonian psychosocial Ufologists, the cultural studies bunch and the Anomalous Psychology brigade. The Ghost Club? I imagine stately home owners and habitués of London clubs, but I may well be wrong. 😉

League of Gentlemen at Ram Inn
League of Gentlemen at Ram Inn (c) Radio Four

Yet compared with the ghost hunting groups, we are like peas in a pod. Why? Because the beliefs of post of these groups are so widely divergent they are have almost nothing in common. The US Warrens inspired demonology inclined groups (John Saffis springs to mind) have almost nothing to do with the Spiritualist rescue circles of the UK. Those inspired by Most Haunted have nothing to do with those who use Frank boxes and ghost hunting apps: different generations? I thought K2 was a mountain; I found out when working at Derby Gaol for Richard Felix (I missed all that off my biography above) it is a type of EMF meter. Ouija boards have little appeal to me, but table tipping and Bacheldor, the Owens and Conjuring Up Phillip? Yes I am interested, though increasingly sceptical.

Book Seriously Strange tickets

And whereas in the past when a poltergeist case or a haunting developed the prime contenders of it were the SPR, ASSAP or the Church, the local Spiritualists or perhaps a dowser, well now the poor afflicted family do not have a clue as to who will turn up. And ParaUnity, the idea we are one big happy community with shared values? That possibly adds to the confusion. I mean I am pretty open minded, and ASSAP holds no corporate hypotheses on the nature of the phenomena, but we are big on ethical codes and rigorous methodology, to the point where it can get in the way of actually doing stuff perhaps? Still we have principles, and we have nailed our colours to the mast, and while I am Chair I intend to insist on good manners, fundamental decency and actually doing some research.

The problem with trying to all draw together is that we lose sight of who we are, and what we are trying to achieve, and who our audience is. And s my plan: to drive apart the community, and try and create scales, a questionnaire, to define where we fall on several axis, so we can say who we are and what we are trying to achieve.


Why? Not because we want to say X is better than Y; that is nonsense. Is Hockey better than Football? Netball better than Cricket? No! They are games played to different rules for different audiences involving different skills.

This is the paranormal scene; massively diverse, with different expectations, different ambitions, different theories. I have argued before that the paranormal is the Recycle Bin of Science; but it is also a home of spiritual seekers, clever raconteurs, amazing broadcasters, dedicated scientists, and so many others. We are a broad church: and we can and should get along. However much of the pettiness, the politics and the anger is not because we disagree: on the contrary, it is because we look at our “fellow ghosthunters” and they say things we don’t approve of or believe, but we feel they are bringing us in to disrepute. Our fellow group members have different expectations to us, and some will go from group to group searching for what it is they want (petite brunettes I’m told?) and never finding it: and we argue with them because they want a different outcome to us.

Psychic News article on the incident

The smaller the group, the more vicious the fighting I find: ASSAP is astonishingly peaceful compared with some groups I have belonged to, and national organisations can afford to have more diversity and disagreement, and wider goals.

However, if we can clearly define WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO ACHIEVE, and WHO OUR AUDIENCE IS we might progress faster. If we can create scale and descriptions that are more specific than “paranormal researcher” we might start to see progress, and cases going to the most helpful people for that case. I seem to wander around the community making bad jokes and get on with a lot of very different groups, but we do not all want the same thing. In fact the only reason I can think of to say we do would be if I was trying to sell us all something and I don’t have a device on sale! 😉

Chart of time elapsed between event and report on paranormal events

In Part 2 tomorrow I will propose some scales and principles for defining what a group is about, and what the researcher is actually up to. For now, what do you think? Are we all working together towards uncovering the truth, or is the ghost hunting community more nature red in tooth and claw, endlessly fighting and never going anywhere?

Do comment folks, and feel free to tell me I am an idiot. I fear however I may be correct this time.

Posted in Debunking myths, History religion and society, Paranormal, Science, Social commentary desecrated, Student Life in Cheltenham, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments