Four Historians Tell Us a Ghost Story

There are ghosts in the archives. Floating nuns, joy-riding cyclists and things that go bump in the night. Four historical ghost stories and their meanings.
A Victorian double exposure photograph of a ghost in a white sheet frightening a man in a smock, c. 1887.
Amateurs playing a ghost scene by photographer W. S. Hobson, c. 1887. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Public Domain.

‘What the servant saw made him drop the tray with an almighty crash’

Francis Young, author of English Catholics and the Supernatural (Ashgate, 2013)

Late one evening in October 1807 a servant was carrying a tray of drinks through Coldham Hall in Suffolk, an Elizabethan house built for the Catholic Rookwood family, who were then renting it to a military man named Colonel Hammond. As the servant glanced back at the great hall from the stairs, what he saw made him drop the tray with an almighty crash. As usual, hanging high at the other end of the hall were portraits of two nuns, left there by the devout Rookwoods; but at that moment the figures of two women, ostensibly dressed in nuns’ habits, were advancing along the floor towards the servant in a straight line from each of the portraits. Colonel Hammond put the incident down to the servant’s drunkenness and a desperate attempt to excuse himself for the broken glassware, but it caught the imagination of the young owner of Coldham Hall, Sir Thomas Gage (then living in Lancashire), who commissioned an eerie mezzotint depicting the apparition.

I first came across this mezzotint – like something from an M.R. James story – in the Rookwood family’s papers in Cambridge University Library in 2009. It so intrigued me that it inspired me to write an entire book about the responses of English Catholics to supernatural phenomena.

However, the story has a curious coda. The eerie reputation of the nuns’ portraits was passed on. In 1897 Coldham Hall was sold and its contents dispersed, but the hall’s purchaser bought the portraits back and they have remained there ever since. By the 1970s the then owner was reporting that the portraits were cursed and would bring bad luck to the house if they were ever taken down. Then, in 2002, Claudia Schiffer and Matthew Vaughn bought the hall and reportedly moved the portraits, unleashing paranormal activity that caused them to call in ‘ghost experts’ – as the tabloid press reported with relish. Since then, Coldham’s ‘cursed’ portraits have remained untouched.

This story is unusual; it is rare to have direct evidence of the genesis of a ghost story which was then passed down via oral tradition. What it shows is that even when the original story is forgotten, objects associated with the haunting (in this case, the portraits) can retain uncanny associations.

‘Every night a loud knocking sound had echoed through the house’

Laura Sangha, Senior Lecturer in History at Exeter University

In Yorkshire in March 1707, the household of John Fawcet was suffering a ‘great disturbance’. Every night for three weeks a loud knocking sound had echoed through the house, disrupting sleep and upsetting the servants. There was no natural explanation for the noise, which often occurred uncomfortably close to the hearers, at their bed’s head, or emanated from the ceiling. On the advice of their minister, the Fawcets communicated with the knocker, and they discovered it was the ghost of John Fawcet’s grandmother-in-law, Madam Savage.

Like many contemporary spirits, Madam Savage was a family member who came back with a purpose. Further questioning indicated that Savage had left several items to her orphaned granddaughters in her will, but after her death these had not been passed on. The minister and family took this news seriously, and John went to Leeds to retrieve the property. Some gold rings, linen and silver drinking vessels were duly located and passed on, but the disturbances continued. The ghost appeared before a maidservant as ‘an ancient Gentlewoman grey-headed’ to insist again that her grandchildren had been ‘unworthily defrauded’, describing more property that rightfully belonged to them. After this the ghost became more malevolent, ‘taking the bed staves and throwing them about’ and ‘putting off the bedclothes’ of the family.

The gendered dynamics of this story are very noticeable, and it is possible that the haunting was co-opted by the women to intervene in a property dispute. This female ghost returned to redress a wrong committed against her two granddaughters by male kin. As the only witness to see and speak to the ghost, the maidservant’s evidence was vital, but her gender and lowly social status made John and the minister suspicious of her testimony. Intriguingly, John said he was particularly concerned ‘that my wife may receive no damage by the fright’ of the haunting, because she was ‘great with child’. It is possible that Mrs Fawcet’s pregnancy equipped her with the emotional leverage she needed to convince her husband to act. Ultimately, the arrival of the ghost helped these women to seek restitution from men in a way that did not directly defy male authority or contemporary expectations about proper feminine deportment.

‘It was eleven o’clock when he got back to the graveyard...’

Clodagh Tait, Lecturer in History at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick and the author of Death, Burial and Commemoration in Ireland, 1550-1650 (Palgrave, 2002)

Reading historical accounts of ‘real life’ encounters with ghosts, I tend to find the mundane details they provide of everyday activities unexpectedly interrupted as fascinating as their fantastic elements.

The story of Harry O’Connell and two joy-riding ghosts draws on the Irish Schools Folklore Collection, an initiative of the late 1930s that sent schoolchildren into their communities to collect folklore from their families and neighbours (now online at My version combines and lightly edits the contributions of Mary Smyth and Joan McGarry of Ballynarry, Co. Cavan.

Harry’s story evokes the perils of travelling at night, highlights beliefs about appropriate behaviour in graveyards, and notes the customary burial of the Catholic dead in the habits of religious orders. I love its lively picture of how Cavan people imagined ghosts to look and behave: these ones have far more ‘substance’ than we might expect...

About three quarters of a mile from Kilnaleck stands Kill graveyard. Many years ago a very strange thing happened. A man from Kilnaleck named Harry O’Connell was going to Purty Clare to fix a clock for Mary Conaly. When he got to Kill graveyard he found he could not bring his bicycle any further, so he left it beside a stile and went across the fields. He was kept longer than he had thought, and it was eleven o’clock when he got back to the graveyard. Finding his bicycle was gone, he supposed it had been stolen and went to cut a stick for the walk home.
It suddenly occurred to him that it was unlucky to cut a stick in a graveyard, but when he went to leave it back he was nearly run over by his own bicycle. There was an old woman sitting on the saddle and an old man pushing her. Harry let out a shout. They might be going round yet, only the tail of the old woman’s habit caught in the chain of the bicycle and both the rider and the pusher were knocked to the ground. They scrambled away and tumbled in under a tombstone. Harry had to take bits of the old woman’s habit out of the chain before he could ride home. He was back just in time for first mass in Kilnaleck.

‘Their wedded bliss was soon interrupted by eerie sounds’

Ellen Walker, PhD researcher at the School of Communication, Royal College of Art

In 1928 Eric and Mabel Smith arrived at a dilapidated Victorian rectory to begin their married life in the sleepy civil parish of Borley, Essex. Their wedded bliss was soon interrupted by eerie sounds of dragging footsteps in unoccupied rooms, servant bells ringing despite being disconnected, and visitations from ghostly apparitions. As the British press descended on the parish, locals who had previously been tight-lipped with their new neighbours suddenly erupted with tales of murdered nuns and headless coachmen. The rectory, it turns out, had a reputation for strange goings-on.

The haunting of Borley Rectory became a sensation, perhaps the most famous case to emerge from the revival of spiritualism during the 1920s. No doubt spurred by the incalculable loss suffered from the First World War, the Bishop of Durham, Dr Moule, described the phenomenon as a ‘hungering for contact’ with departed loved ones. But with this came the opportunity for profit; so-called mediums and spirit photographers made a decent living from offering their services to the bereaved.

Of the many sceptics who mobilised to expose psychic frauds seeking to take advantage, Harry Price would become the most notorious. A seasoned debunker and member of the Society for Psychical Research, he arrived at Borley Rectory in 1929 to investigate. This turned into
a decade-long obsession for Price, who wrote several books on the case and became a celebrity in his own right. But he also faced a wave of accusations that he had taken to faking the phenomena himself, with the help of new residents of the property.

The media circus met an unceremonial end in 1938 following a fire that reduced Borley Rectory to cinders.

As polarising as Harry Price was, he is to be credited for seeing the entertainment value of a good ghost story, and subsequently turning it into
a commercial success. Borley Rectory would form the blueprint for subsequent hauntings, such as the ‘Amityville Horror’ and the ‘Enfield Poltergeist’. The validity of these cases is also heavily disputed, but that has not dented their fame. Though Borley Rectory is now a distant memory, its legacy continues to haunt the present.

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