Exploring the Dead-house

What is a dead-house?

Steps to the Tenby Dead House
By Andy Dingley (Own work)

Many believe that hauntings revolve around the idea of ‘unfinished business’. Spirits are earthbound until they can fix the outstanding problem and move on.

But there are those who believe the dead remain on earth because they don’t realise they are dead. Maybe they remain to torment their murderers.

Even more, there is a belief that disturbing someone’s place of burial causes the spirit to return. This was memorably illustrated in Poltergeist (1982), in which a suburban house is plagued by poltergeist activity since the house was built on an old cemetery.

I first discovered the so-called dead-house in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies (London: Palgrave, 2007). In the late 18th century, Britain’s most populous areas needed somewhere to store bodies before an inquest. This period saw mass urban migration after the Industrial Revolution. These bodies weren’t buried in the traditional way soon after death, so their ghosts remained earthbound until burial could take place.

According to Davies, bookseller and memoir writer James Lackington reported a haunting in a London hospital. A ward in the lower part of the building had been converted into a dead-house, “where a continual tapping on the windows was heard” (61). The nurses, who probably couldn’t account for such noises, assumed the tapping must be the work of an unquiet spirit since the dead-house was close by. The nurses refused to enter the haunted part of the building.

The dead-house was often located in or near a cemetery, as they housed bodies prior to burial. However others were the forerunner to the hospital morgue, or mortuary. I’ve looked online and the ‘evidence’ for haunted morgues or mortuaries seems anecdotal at best. I can’t help thinking that feelings of unease in a morgue have less to do with the presence of the dead and more to do with the low temperature and pre-conditioning by exposure to the horror end of the pop culture spectrum. Some of the ‘haunted mortuaries’ I’ve found are essentially tourist attractions!

The belief that disturbing a grave site might lead to a haunting is flawed. Most locations are bound to have had burials there at some point in the past, even if it was in Neolithic times. The concept that a dead-house might be haunted has more to do with the intrinsic revulsion provoked by corpses that Sigmund Freud discusses in his 1919 essay on ‘The Uncanny’. Essentially – it’s all in the mind…

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!


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Monday Morning Ghost 3 – The Grey Lady of Ightham Mote

Image by Richard Croft

Ightham Mote is a picturesque country manor house near Sevenoaks in Kent, but as with many of these old houses, looks can be deceiving.

Ightham Mote was built in 1340, and was home to the Selby family from the late 16th Century to the middle of the 19th Century. Over the years, it has had many owners, ranging from medieval knights to Tudor courtiers and high-society Victorians. Ightham Mote was given to the National Trust in 1985, and it is now open to the public. It is a Grade I listed building, and considering the way each new owner has added something new, it is believed to be a startling visual history of architectural developments throughout 700 years of British history.

So the story goes, in the 1870s, the owners grew tired of an unearthly chill in the tower bedroom. Normal heat couldn’t overcome it, and eventually workmen were hired to investigate. During their work, they uncovered a small space behind the wall panels – the space was occupied by the skeleton of a woman seated in a chair.

Who was the woman? She is believed by many to be Dame Dorothy Selby. A diehard Catholic, she’d learned of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605. She sent an anonymous letter to her cousin, Lord Monteagle, and told him not to attend Parliament on 5th November. Unfortunately the letter was intercepted, the Plot was thwarted, and the conspirators caught. Dame Dorothy’s intervention was discovered, and friends of the Plot walled her up in a secret room and left her to die. If the story is true, then she remained behind the wall for over 260 years. However, many experts believe this tale to be utter hokum, based on a misinterpretation of her memorial at the local church. After all, records state she died in March 1641 – some 35 years after Guy Fawkes was executed.

So if it isn’t Dame Selby, who is it? Another tale dates back to 1552, starring the then occupant, Sir Thomas Browne. Allegedly, he murdered a serving girl and hid the body inside the walls, although if you believe another story, Sir Thomas’ priest was involved in a sordid affair with the servant. After the prist committed suicide, Sir Thomas bricked up the servant.

No matter who the poor woman was found within the walls, the chill continues to haunt the tower to this day. The Grey Lady is unlikely to be the only unlucky ghost wandering the halls of Ightham Mote. The crypt is below the water level of the moat, meaning that prisoners kept there could be disposed of by opening a sluice gate. If that wasn’t enough, there was also a trapdoor added during the Wars of the Roses in the floor of a tower room where suspicious visitors would be dropped into a dark hole and left to starve. The room above the main gate is said to be haunted by the ghost of one such visitor.

If you’re in the area, Ightham Mote is well worth a visit. You can find out more information on the National Trust website.

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Monday Morning Ghost 2 – Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms

Image by Richard Webb

My first Monday Morning Ghost saw me choose a spectre from my most recent home, in London. This week, I’m coming back to my ancestral home of the North East, and introducing you to the Grey Lady of the Assembly Rooms.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many major cities had assembly rooms to provide an elegant location for their high society to gather and enjoy genteel forms of entertainment, such as balls and concerts. They were one of the few public places to which women could gain admittance, although unmarried women would require a chaperone. The assembly rooms of towns such as Bath were immortalised in the fiction of writers such as Jane Austen, where the buildings also hosted “marriage markets” as rich parents sought to marry off their offspring.

Newcastle upon Tyne was no different, and the city’s Assembly Rooms are located in a fabulous Georgian building on Westgate Road. Designed by William Newton, they opened in June 1776, on Midsummer’s night (surely a magical night, if ever there was one). The inscription on its foundation stone, laid in 1774, reads “Rooms dedicated to the most elegant recreation”. Indeed, in the past, the assembly rooms have played host to concerts by Strauss, Liszt and Rachmaninov, and Charles Dickens’ amateur theatre group staged three playlets here. Royal visitors have included Edward VII, George VI, and Elizabeth II.

Of course, few buildings of such an age escape having ghost stories, and the Assembly Rooms are no exception. Legend has it that on December 31, 1777, a rowdy group of wealthy patrons were celebrating the New Year. The drink flowed and the behaviour became increasingly bawdy, until one of the young men ordered his wife to dance naked for his boorish friends. This being the eighteenth century, a wife was little more than her husband’s property, and she did as he demanded. Sadly the shame and humiliation was too much for her, and she threw herself from the musician’s gallery in the ballroom. This might sound a little melodramatic to us, but social standing was everything to the upper classes.

Staff at the Assembly Rooms have heard the rustle of a taffeta ball gown, and the Grey Lady often announces her presence with the scent of lavender. The double doors open and close on their own, but are too heavy to be blown open by a draft. On Halloween in 2000, a radio crew were terrorised by unexplained noises and knockings while trying to record a special on the haunting. Another group of investigators experienced changes in temperature, balls of light that moved on their own, and electronic equipment that turned itself on and off. Research into the identity of the lady has proved fruitless, and there is no way to substantiate the legend, but it would certainly seem that there is a sad lady haunting such an elegant building.

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An Encounter in Beamish Woods

If you decided you wanted to go ghost hunting, you’d probably assume you need to visit a crumbling medieval castle, or a grand stately home in the country. Even pubs and hotels seem to accrue a high number of hauntings, compared to other hives of human activity like hospitals or offices. So would you be surprised if I told you that you could have a paranormal experience during the day…in the woods?

David and I took a trip today to the woods around Beamish Museum and Causey Arch. The area was once riddled with mineworkings (indeed, you can visit a drift mine at Beamish) and the paths through the woods follow the waggonways that would have taken the coal to the Tanfield Railway, ready for transportation to the Tyne. Most parts of the country favoured canals, but the deep valleys of the North East lend themselves better to waggonways – indeed, when these waggonways began to be used elsewhere in Britain, they were known as Tyneside Roads.

It was a beautiful day today, if a trifle windy due to the after effects of Hurricane Katia, and we enjoyed the stroll through the woods, ever watchful for phantom highwaymen, ghost trains and spectral hikers. While following the path that runs between the back of Beamish museum and Mill Wood, David spotted a marble in the middle of the path. No, we don’t know what it was doing there, either. David picked it up and we carried on our way.

You know that feeling when someone’s watching you? Both of us kept turning around, convinced that someone was following us. The path was deserted for at least half a mile in each direction, and yet we had the distinct impression we were not alone. I even got the fleeting sense that we were followed by something male. We heard twigs snapping on the path behind us, yet when we turned around, there was nothing there, and the snapping stopped, as if whatever was following us had also stopped.

We’d gone prepared, and we got the EMF meter out. The meters are actually scientific tools used for measuring electromagnetic fields, particularly the AC fields emitted by man-made sources. They’re good for detecting fields around electrical goods etc. to rule out electromagnetic radiation poisoning and so on but in the field of paranormal research, they allow an investigator to pick up on the electromagnetic fields believed to be caused by spirits. If you’re nowhere near a man-made power source and one of those puppies goes off, then you need to start considering potentially paranormal causes.

We’d been taking readings all along the path, and were getting readings of minor electromagnetic radiation. That in itself was surprising given the lack of potential sources, but we started getting spikes in the readings. The needle on the gauge flicked up into the high yellow segments while the meter squealed. On a whim, David got the marble out. I held the EMF meter beside it and the needle went crazy! We also tested the meter beside my phone and David’s camera but in both cases, the needle dropped back into the ‘normal’ range, ruling them out as potential causes. Back to the marble and up went the needle again.

David decided to ask out (basically a verbal way to establish contact) and again, the needle peaked. The sensation of being watched was a lot stronger now we’d stopped. We established a “one peak for yes” and “two peaks for no” system, and we ascertained that the marble belonged to our unseen companion. Whether the marble belonged to it in a material sense, or was simply a physical object to which the entity had taken a shine, we don’t know, but when David asked if he could keep it, the answer was a vehement “no”. He put the marble on the wall at the side of the path out of harm’s way and told the entity he was leaving it somewhere safe. The EMF meter settled right down, and as we followed the path away from the marble and around a bend, the feeling of being followed also stopped!

I can’t even begin to explain what it meant, and I know a lot of skeptics and naysayers will scoff at such subjective evidence as “feelings of being watched or followed.” Indeed, as a student of the uncanny, I can easily explain the psychological causes of those feelings. However, with practice it becomes easy to tell the difference between imagination and genuine sensation, and we simply cannot explain the behaviour of the EMF meter. There were no nearby sources of electricity to set the meter off, and I hardly need point out that the marble was made of glass, which is an inert substance that doesn’t emit electromagnetic radiation. No, I feel we had a genuine encounter, though with what, I can’t say.

It just goes to show that you can find the paranormal anywhere.

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Monday Morning Ghost 1 – Old Lady of Threadneedle Street

I haven’t really been doing much with my Fowlis blog, which is very remiss of me (and something for which I’ve received more than my share of reproach from the delightful Cavalier) and I’ve decided to start running a weekly feature, looking at British ghosts! After all, I’m working with a paranormal investigations company, and I’m researching the representation of haunted houses for my PhD, so it seems a fun thing to do.

For my first feature, I’ve decided to take a trip back to London, my former home for seven years, and have a look at the Black Nun of Bank…

Nowadays, there is no crime in the United Kingdom that carries the death penalty, but during the 19th century, it appears that all manner of crimes could be punishable by death. In 1812, a former Bank of England employee named Philip Whitehead was hanged for forgery. That would be bad enough, but his sister Sarah was not informed, presumably to spare her feelings. One day, she arrived at the Bank and asked to speak to her brother, only to be told of his fate by a clerk ignorant of her identity. Sarah didn’t take the news particularly well, and she would visit the Bank every day, asking to see Philip. Sarah always dressed in black, and wore a black veil, earning her the nickname “The Black Nun”. If the clerks turned her away, she would accost customers instead, always asking for her brother. Eventually the Bank officials tired of her behaviour, and in 1818, they paid her to stay away. Reports suggest that she did so for the remainder of her life.

When Sarah died in 1840, she was buried in St Christopher-le-Stocks’ churchyard, which later became part of the Bank’s gardens. She was once seen pounding the gravestones with her fist in the churchyard, while she has also been sighted down in Bank underground station. One worker believed he’d spotted an old lady in the station, and given the early hours of the morning thought she’d been locked in, only for her to disappear down a corridor with no exit. Knocking has also been heard inside empty lifts after the station has been closed. Whenever Sarah is seen, she is still dressed in black, and still seeking her brother.

Now, Sarah has occasionally been referred to as the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, but this in itself is actually incorrect – the title does in fact apply to the Bank itself.

The Bank of England has been located on Threadneedle Street since 1734. The street itself has been so named since 1598 – previously, it was part of Broad Street. The Bank was founded in 1694, during the reign of William III, making the Bank the first private national bank in the world.. War with France was draining William’s coffers, and two merchants agreed to found a national bank that could lend money to the Government. This money was to be used to finance the war, while the interest on the loan would be paid using taxes on alcohol and shipping.

Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in Danger! Cartoon by James Gillray

But how did the Bank get its unusual nickname?

In 1797, James Gillray produced a satirical cartoon that portrayed the Bank as an old lady dressed in bank notes and sitting on a chest of gold, while William Pitt the Younger makes unwanted advances. A financial crisis was raging, and gold was not being used to back the issue of paper money. Titled “Political Ravishment, or the Old Lady of Threadneedle-Street in Danger!”, the cartoon is often believed to have been inspired by Richard Sheridan, Member of Parliament and playwright, who referred “to an elderly lady in the City of great credit and long standing who had made a faux pas” and “had unfortunately fallen into bad company”. Such a catchy name obviously stuck.

Personally, I prefer to refer to Sarah as the Old Lady. I’ve never seen her myself but if you ever find yourself in the area, and a woman in a black veil stops you to ask after her brother, at least now you know who she is!

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More paranormal investigations

Due to disagreements with the company that conducted this investigation, I have taken down this post as I do not wish to maintain any associations with them.
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A Real Life Ghost Hunt

Due to disagreements with the company that conducted this investigation, I have taken down this post as I do not wish to maintain any associations with them.

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Mission Statement

Prince Rupert of the Rhine,
often referred to as the archetypal Cavalier

I have a confesson to make. I have had a character living in my head for almost four years. If you’re familiar with my work, then you will have already met him – he’s my dashing Cavalier ghost, Fowlis Westerby. He’s made an appearance in three of my Friday Flashes so far – First Impressions, back in May last year, The Priest Hole, in October last year, and The Duel in March.

Way back in August 2007, I was on holiday in Scotland. It’s a beautiful country, and I highly recommend it as a destination. I’d heard the reputation of Glamis Castle as one of the most haunted places in the British Isles, and I really wanted to go. My parents are suckers for history and hauntings, so off we went on a day trip. On the way there, I spotted a road sign for a tiny village named Fowlis Wester. The name struck me, and before I knew what was going on, a cavalier ghost had walked straight into my head, introduced himself as Fowlis Westerby, and asked me to write him a story. I duly did so, writing a flash about him that I promptly forgot about. However, he didn’t forget about me, so by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around in 2008, I found I had an idea for a novel starring Fowlis. I wrote it, and in true NaNo style, I didn’t do anything with it. Until now.

Fowlis prods me every now and then to write stories about him, and I’ve found that I really enjoy writing him. So I bought this domain and set up this blog to inspire me to finish rewriting the first novel, and also to finally get started on the second! Here’s where the mission statement comes in. I intend to use this blog not only to post Fowlis stories, as well as snippets from the book, but I’ll also be looking at ghost stories, local history and other paranormal shenanigans.

Fowlis and I would like to invite you to join us for the ride…

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