Episode 7: Ghosts In Time
For all the many elements that constitute the paranormal, there are few things quite as evocative as the ghost. Equally capable of scaring us senseless as they are of inflicting us with the deepest of melancholies, the ghost holds a unique place in the world of the supernatural.
There are of course the ghosts that we carry with us in our daily lives, memories of those we have loved and lost or perhaps even wronged; Thoughts that sit in the deepest parts of the psyche, straining to become manifest.
Perhaps the most famous of all ghosts is that of Shakespeare’s Banquo, as he appears to the tormented mind of Macbeth. We know him not as an actual spirit but rather he is the consequence of Macbeth’s mental capitulation.
But what of the apparitions that seem not to have been brought forth from the psyche, those that have no connection to the observer but instead seem for all the world to be reaching out to us from a seemingly timeless space?
For some, to witness a ghost, particularly that of a relative, might bring a certain comfort, the reassuring sense of a life beyond death. But for the cultures of the ancient world, there was little doubting the portentous nature of such a sighting.
If by chance you ever find yourself walking along the banks of the Tigris around the year 4000BC and happen to come across the spirit of a recently deceased family member, it could surely mean only one thing.
For the Sumerians death was an act from which there was no return. Rather, souls were left to dwell in a place called Kur, otherwise known as the Land of No Return. A place where all men and women were equals, no matter how rich or poor, and there they would remain in dreary darkness all watched over by Erishkigal, the dark queen of the Underworld.
For a relative to return from such a place would speak of something unsettled – perhaps a body not properly buried, lost at sea or abandoned on the battlefield. Or even a suspicious death that needed in some way to be rectified…
Often, a ghost or apparition will be said to be linked to a particular place. For those of us in the UK there are many, not least their respective tourist boards that would suggest the Great Tower of London or Edinburgh Castle as the country’s most haunted destinations.
However, thanks largely to the controversial and self-styled psychic investigator Harry Price, there is one place that has risen above all others in the history of the British ghost hunt.
The full story of the place in question and its veracity has drawn much criticism over the years due to the association with Price. And so it is to a place before Price’s involvement we will be going. And for that we will be heading to 1928. The place, Borley Rectory in Essex.
Routinely described as the most haunted house in England just what exactly took place there in the early part of the twentieth century has never been fully accounted for. It is a mystery that remains to this day Unexplained.
The Essex hamlet of Borley lies close to the border of Suffolk in the south East of England. Aside from the rectory it is perhaps best known for its church. Originally built in the 12th century, it houses within it the tomb of Sir Edward Waldegrave, supporter of Mary Queen of Scots and one of the many victims of the Great Tower of London. After upsetting Elizabeth I, Sir Edward was banished to the tower in 1558 where he would die 3 years later.
The Rectory was built in 1863 by the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis who lived there with his wife and 12 children. Looking at old photographs of the house, it is no exaggeration to describe it as a place of intense atmosphere.
Built in a neo gothic style, it was described as being ‘built from red brick and stone… the doors were thick and heavy…With some of the windows…iron barred giving parts of the house a rather prison-like appearance.’
And despite the relative vastness of the grounds, the house was almost entirely surrounded by trees shrouding most of the property in an ominous ever-present shadow.
With Henry having passed away in 1892, and then later his son Harry in 1922 the house was effectively abandoned and left to fall into disrepair. Over time the gloomy red-bricked rectory succumbed inevitably to the ravages of nature.
The garden was left to grow wild, all but reclaiming the house as its own. The pipes rusted as rats took up residency in the walls and under the floorboards. And as the frequent rains lashed down during the one of the harshest of winters, the roof had finally given way. Without regular use the only water supply, provided by the well began to rot and grew stagnant.
And so the property remained until the summer of 1928…
After spending a number of years working as a missionary in India, The Reverend Guy Eric Smith and his wife Mabel had decided to return to their homeland. So when the opportunity came up to take on the Rectory at Borley, it seemed almost too good to be true. After all, the quiet idyll of a small English country village was exactly what they had been yearning for.
On arriving at the property the Smith’s met with an immediate sense of foreboding. It would seem, they had been quite unprepared for the extent of the disrepair. The surrounding trees all but blocked out the sun entirely and with the condition of the roof and the dilapidated heating system only a handful of the 23 rooms were actually habitable. Undeterred the plucky couple moved in and set about transforming their new home.
What followed next, as later described by the Smiths, would amount to nothing less than the darkest years of their life.
It began with footsteps. A strange shuffling sound that seemed to drag itself about the house followed by strange thuds and knocks. When the Smith’s attempted to move away into the other rooms the footsteps merely followed them. However there was always one room, known as The Blue Room that seemed to generate the most noise.
Although a man of faith, the Reverend was not about to succumb to the notion of ghosts in his house. Convinced the footsteps must belong to an unwelcome but very human visitor, the Reverend stayed up all night with a hockey stick in an attempt to catch the unwanted guest.
Sure enough, after waiting a few hours the sound of the footsteps could be heard out in the hallway, getting closer before stopping outside his room. Much to his horror the steps then proceeded into the room despite not having a body to go with them. As the footsteps neared, Reverend Smith swung the hockey stick wildly but found only the emptiness of thin air.
As was common for many buildings of such size, all 23 rooms had been rigged up to a bell system that linked back to the servant quarters. Not long after the couple moved in, the bells could be heard ringing throughout the house at all hours of the night and day. The phenomenon being all the more extraordinary since not only were Guy and Mabel Smith the only occupiers in the 23 roomed house but most of the bell system had long since disintegrated.
One afternoon, Mrs. Smith decided to investigate the house’s many hidden nooks and crannies. On entering the library she became intrigued by a vast Victorian bookcase that stretched form one wall to the other with the bottom half separated into cupboards. Examining the cupboards, Mabel came across a small, round package. Slowly she started to unwrap the paper and was horrified to find inside the skull of a young woman
Hoping that in some way the skull had been linked to the disturbances the Reverend had the skull buried in a nearby graveyard but was later forced to dig it up when the strange incidences seemed only to intensify afterwards.
The couple began to notice that a light could often be seen emanating from far off room in the house that was known to be empty. Perhaps most unnerving of all, one-summer afternoon when Mr. Smith was walking through the house he began to hear strange sounds as if someone was whispering over his head. He described the noise as ‘soft and sibilant but spoken with urgency and ending in muttering sounds’. There was no doubting to the Reverend that it was the voice of a woman.
But even more was to come.
Unable to look after the Rectory alone, the couple employed a young maid from London to help out in the house. The maid had only been working two days when she spotted something odd in the garden. It was a young woman who appeared to be dressed like a nun walking across the bottom of the grounds. When her calls to the woman were ignored the maid approached the figure but was horrified to see it melt away into the trees right before her eyes. The following day she handed in her notice and promptly.
By now it was clear to Guy and Mabel that something was clearly amiss. It was only then that they learnt the full truth about Borley Rectory… Not only had the previous occupiers frequently spoken of strange sightings and sounds heard about the house, but that as many as 12 clergymen had turned down the opportunity to take on the Rectory prior to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, all of them too afraid to live in the famously haunted house. And as for The Blue Room that appeared to be the source of most of the strange noises - that was the place in which both previous owners had died.
At their wits end, the couple famously called in the help of the Daily Mirror newspaper as well as the Society for Psychical Research and it is at this point that Harry Price enters the scene. What happened next has been the topic of intense speculation and often ridicule as many sort to profit from the unfortunate couple’s extraordinary experiences.
The subsequent publicity only intensified the stress upon Mabel and Guy and the couple vacated the property in 1929, and moved to the relative serenity of the seaside town of Cromer in Norfolk.
And as for the house itself, it was destroyed by fire under suspicious circumstances in 1939.
For a spooky and quietly menacing look at the subsequent events involving the controversial Harry Price, I can recommend Neil Spring’s The Ghost Hunters to while away a few sleepless nights.
But for me it is the accounts of the plainly innocent and reputable Mr. and Mrs. Smith taken before all the noise, that is most fascinating. Clearly they had no desire to profit from their ordeal and nor did they. So what then exactly did they hear and, in the case of the unfortunate maid from London, see?
On one dark December night in 2002, a phone call was placed to a Police station in Surrey in the south of England. It was an anxious member of the public calling to report a horrific car crash that they had just witnessed. Whilst travelling southbound along the A3 towards the town of Guildford they had seen a car lose control at high speed, before spinning violently off the road. Moments later more calls were taken, from many different witnesses reporting the exact same thing.
A number of police were immediately dispatched and promptly arrived at the scene, only they couldn’t find any trace of the incident. That was until one officer who had been searching the nearby undergrowth stumbled upon a smashed up maroon Vauxhall Astra nose down in a ditch. But something was off.
Shining his torch into the driver’s side of the car, the officer received a terrible fright – there sat in his seat was the driver of the vehicle reduced to the bare bones of his skeleton. The car had indeed spun off the road as reported but it certainly hadn’t happened that night. In fact, the police later discovered that the driver of the vehicle had been declared missing almost 6 months before.
Is it possible that rather than seeing the actual moment of the accident the witnesses had in fact seem some kind of echo of the event. Or maybe something even stranger?
When we think of time, we tend to picture a clock or a set of numbers with which to reference our day. We may say that time is the aging of things, or talk about the passing of time. We see it in the revolutions of the earth, or the rising and setting of the sun. And yet, this isn’t time in any meaningful sense but rather how we frame it in the absence of the actual thing itself.
In the mid 1960’s John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt, two physicists from Princeton and the University of North Carolina, came up with an extraordinary idea. Together they had devised no less than a possible framework to marry the seeming incompatibility of Einstein’s theories of relativity and the machinations of the quantum world. Now known as the Wheeler-Dewitt equation, its implications are staggering.
What Wheeler and DeWitt potentially discovered was that the only way to make the two worlds compatible was to do away completely with the notion of time, that the fundamental description of the universe was in fact timeless.
If such a thing were to be true, you might rightly assume that the past, present, and future is nothing but an illusion. That the only thing that is real is the whole of it, existing constantly as one.
Might it be possible that the ghosts of Borley Rectory and perhaps all ghosts for that matter, rather than being the spirits of the dead, are in fact the bodies of the very much alive existing alongside us in another time? Perhaps, if we were so blessed, we might imagine ourselves like Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional characters the Tralfamadorians, creatures that have evolved to see not just the present but the entirety of everything that has been and will ever be…
In a quote tentatively attributed to the Australian author Christina Stead, it is said that every love story is a ghost story.
But might it be more correct to say that every story is a ghost story.
That every tale we tell is something that has once passed yet somehow remains, kept within us.
And isn’t all of life really just a story that we tell each other, whether it be shared by memory or through the very genetic imprint of our blood.
And when, or if, all stories were to finally disappear, we might hope that somewhere still a ghostly imprint will remain.
But if indeed, there really is no such thing as time and nothing ever truly dies, then really there would be no ghosts, only us, existing together forever…
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Glanville, S. H. (1951), The Strange Happenings at Borley Rectory, Fate Magazine, http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Borley/fate_article_shglanville.htm
2. The History of Borley Rectory as compiled on the Harry Price Website, http://www.harrypricewebsite.co.uk/Borley/historyofborley-intro.htm
3. Callender, C. (2010), Is Time an Illusion?, Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-time-an-illusion/
4. Mark, J.J. (2014), Ghosts in the Ancient World, Ancient.eu, http://www.ancient.eu/ghost/
5. Wisner, C. W., Thorne, K. S. & Wojciech, Z. H. (2009), John Wheeler, relativity and quantum information, Physics Today, http://authors.library.caltech.edu/15184/1/Misner2009p1638Phys_Today.pdf
6. Wheeler-DeWitt Equation, Wikipedia Entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheeler%E2%80%93DeWitt_equation
Episode 7 Extra: Hands Off
For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.
In last week’s episode, Ghosts in Time, we looked at the strange occurrences that took place in the 1920s at Borley Rectory in Essex, England.
What intrigues me most about the story is the slight air of credibility due to the reputable character of the witnesses and the anodyne nature of the supposed hauntings.
But for others, a ghost story is nothing without something a little more sinister buried somewhere within…
I was reminded of one such story after receiving a tweet from Graham Murray, a listener of the show. Graham compared the phrase ‘Borley Rectory’ with equally evocative ‘Grimpen Mire.’
For those that don’t know, Grimpen Mire is the fictional haunt of the hellish hound featured in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s in his masterful Sherlock Holmes The Hound of Baskervilles. The Mire is actually based on the eerily beautiful but no less ominous stretch of moorland known as Fox Tor Mire, which is found in Dartmoor in the South West of England.
For a relatively small pocket of wilderness there can be fair fewer places in the UK so synonymous with a gloomy moon lit night, as Dartmoor.
Home to some of the country’s blackest and most treacherous of bogs, with some believed as deep as 20 ft., it is rumoured to have snared even the most seasoned of travellers. It is also the location of the infamous Dartmoor Prison whose looming grey granite walls were said to make even its Governor shudder at the mere sight of them.
And like all such places, particularly on the days when the fog rolls in just that little bit thicker, it’s easy to see this intensely evocative landscape for the cauldron of myth and folklore that it has become.
It is a place also of rich ancestral history, having been home to settlers as far back as the late Neolithic period, their bodies now long since buried deep beneath the peaty wilderness.
Just a few miles to the northwest of Fox Tor is a stretch of road that strikes a line right through the heart of the moors. Known rather prosaically as the B3212 it is nonetheless the location for one of Dartmoor’s most intriguing mysteries.
On March 24th 1921, a certain Dr. Ernest Helby of the Dartmoor Prison medical team, had been instructed to travel to the local village of Postbridge. It had fallen to Dr Helby to attend the inquest of a man named French who not long before had been killed after being thrown from his horse and trap whilst riding through the village.
Dr. Helby planned to make the make the trip on his motorbike accompanied by his wife Maude and the two young daughters of the prison’s deputy governor who had begged to come along. With the girls safely positioned in the sidecar, Dr. Helby and his passengers set out on their journey to Postbridge.
A short time later, the Adkin family, who had been holidaying nearby at a place called Cherrybrook Farm, were driving along the B3212 when they spotted a distressed looking woman up ahead. It was none other than Mrs. Helby. Mr Adkin, who was also a doctor, hurriedly pulled up the car and rushed to her aid.
Down below in a ditch lay the crumbled mess of Dr. Helby’s motorbike. The two young girls had been safely thrown from the vehicle but the 51-year-old Dr. Helby had not been so lucky. Dr. Adkin confirmed his death but when he asked Maude what had happened, her reply deeply shocked him. He was shouting about someone’s ‘hairy hands’, she said, and how they were forcing him off the road.
Despite a short notice in The Times newspaper the event passed with little attention. That was until something extraordinary occurred months later on the exact same stretch of road.
On one grey and foggy August Friday, a young army officer who had been staying at Penlee Farm in Postbridge offered to run some errands in nearby Princetown. Setting off on his motorbike, he had barely made it out of the village when he was astonished to see two hands on his handlebars that did not belong to him.
The hands began to fight with him for control of the vehicle. As the officer approached the border of a nearby forest the struggle became too much and he too was forced off the road head first into a ditch. Fortunately on this occasion the young officer escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.
The story was picked up by the Daily Mail who ran an article later in the year detailing the strange events along with the account of another victim of the ghostly hands: The man had been driving an open topped motor coach in the exact same spot as the others when he felt the hairy hands pull the wheel violently toward edge of the road. Thankfully, on this occasion again, no one was hurt.
Fast becoming an accident hotspot, the local council made a thorough assessment of the area deciding that a treacherous camber had been responsible for the accidents. After a number of repairs were made, the problem appeared to have been resolved.
That was until 1961 when another car was found overturned at exactly the same spot. With the driver having been sadly killed we will never know exactly what exactly occurred that sent their car careering off the road.
Then in 1978, a Doctor from nearby Somerset was driving through Dartmoor on the B3212 when, in his own words, ‘the atmosphere in the car suddenly became deathly cold and I had a feeling almost like paralysis. I stopped the car and found I was trembling all over…I drove on but after about two hundred yards it came back worse than ever…I was aware of a great force…something quite out of my control. The steering wheel was wrenched out of my hands [sending the car skidding] across the road. [T]he next second I was hanging [upside down] from my seat belt…’
It would seem this was the last incident linked to the strange case of the hairy hands with some believing the curse to have simply left the area. But what of the owner of those mystery hands?
In 1805, as British involvement in the Napoleonic wars began to escalate, so too did the number of prisoners captured by the British Navy. With the current facilities in appalling condition and straining to cope a prisoner of war depot was commissioned. A suitably isolated destination was chosen and in 1806 work began in earnest. Three years later, the facility was finally opened, it’s name, Her Majesty’s Prison Dartmoor.
By 1812 the prison housed as many as 6000 inmates, most of whom were either French prisoners of war or perhaps surprisingly for many on this side of the Atlantic, American sailors, the consequence of the lesser known War of 1812.
Angered by the drafting of 10,000 Americans into the Royal Navy, as well as the continued attempt of the British government to maintain a foothold in North America, the United States took advantage of the distraction of war in Europe to declare war on Great Britain. Over the course of the war as many as 20,000 American seamen were captured by the British navy and imprisoned throughout the world. In 1815, an end was brought to hostilities with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent but for the prisoners of Dartmoor, it hadn’t come soon enough.
On 6th April 1815, Prison commandant Capt. T. G. Shortland discovered a tunnel leading from the prison quarters to the barrack yard near the gun-racks. With many Prisoners gathered in the yard at the time and fearing an imminent insurrection, Capt. Shortland ordered the prison bell to be sounded and the prisoners to return to their quarters. However, the bell had only succeeded in bringing more prisoners into the yard and the crowd grew restless.
The guards were ordered to fire a warning shot to disperse the crowd, which served only to send the prisoners into a terrified frenzy. As the men grew increasingly agitated, the guards began to fire indiscriminately, even shooting the prisoners as they scrambled to the safety of their cells. Once the smoke had cleared, seven men lay dead including one prisoner named Thomas Jackson who was only 14 years old.
A later account of the events maintains that at least one American sailor used the chaos to mount a successful escape from the prison. The prisoner made it as far as Carters Road where they attempted to commandeer a horse and carriage only to be crushed to death beneath the wheels in the process. Carters Road is today more commonly known as the B3212. Could this unfortunate prisoner hold the key to the mystery of the hairy hands?
For any motorists brave enough to take that infamous road through the heart of the moors, I offer only this - please drive safely and whatever you do, be sure to wear a seat belt.
And if, god forbid, you ever find yourself venturing out on foot, as the daylight starts to dim and the fog drifts slowly in, think on the words of poet Edward William Lewis Davis:
‘The hunter homeward speeds in haste,
Before fogs overtake him on the waste;
And if to Fox Tor Mires he roam,
He’ll bid a long adieu to home;
A dreary shroud is over his head,
A yawning swamp around him spread;
Spell-bound and lost he ventures on
One fatal step – and all is done;
Hopeless he struggles, vain his throes,
Deeper and deeper down he goes!
The raven claps her ebony wing,
His dirge the howling winds may sing,
And mists will spread the last sad pall
Over that dark grave unknown to all.’
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Dacre, M. (2010), Devonshire Folk Tales, UK: The History Press
2. Fortean Mind, (2015), A Helping Hand, Grimerica, http://www.grimerica.ca/a-helping-hand/
3. HM Prison Dartmoor, Wikipedia Entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Dartmoor
4. Original Documents written by Charles King and Francis Seymour Larpent of the Brittish Navy pertiaining to the 1812 massacre at Dartmoor Prison, http://www.1812privateers.org/Riot.htm