Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Keighley Poltergeist, 1920s


From the Yorkshire Evening Post, 6th October 1925.

Haunted Mill Girl Cured of Furniture Throwing.

The “Poltergeist” dismissed. Odd Phenomena Cease. Relief from Disorder that entailed both Discomfort and Danger.

Extraordinary details are available to-day concerning the case of a Keighley mill-girl, who is believed to have been cured of what has long been known as a poltergeist. When she was near, articles of furniture, clothing, crockery, etc. were liable eto be thrown in all directions without the slightest conscious effort on her part. After three months under special care and observation in a London home, she has ceased to be a centre of these disturbances, and is apparently restored to normal health.

Mill and Home Troubles. Keighley Stories of a Girl’s Strange Powers. (From our Special Correspondent). Keighley, Tuesday.
For obvious reasons, it is not desirable to give the name of the girl of whom the following facts are related, but, according to the evidence of members of her own family, and of people with whom she worked, she was in an astonishingly abnormal state of health nine months ago. To-day she is completely free from troublous influences of any kind, and is happy in the knowledge that the unconscious power that she formerly exerted has been lost.
She hopes that power will never return, whatever it was, and asks no more than to be allowed to settle down quietly at work and at home, like any other normal and sensible girl. She has no desire to make use of any of her supposed psychic powers, and does not wish to be made the subject of any psychic experiments or investigations.
The girl, whose name is omitted at the request of those closely interested in her welfare, is a member of a respectable and hard-working Keighley family. She is 20 years of age, tall and comely, and possessing a rather striking mass of dark bobbed hair. There was nothing unusual about her as a child, except that she was always regarded by the rest of the family as “very highly strung.” No one else in the family has ever been abnormal in any way, although one of the girl’s two sisters has been a semi-invalid for some years.
It was towards the end of last year that girls working in the same spinning mill began to notice that her presence had a curious influence. Breakages of threads in the spinning frame are fairly common, but batches of ends broke down with alarming frequency on three frames near which the girl worked. A theory was advanced that the girl’s body was magnetic in some abnormal way, and that the breaking of the threads was due to some electrical disturbance. Colour was lent to this theory  by the knowledge that a small amount of electricity is generated by the rapidly moving spindles. But strange things were also happening at the girl’s home, and she became so troubled by the influence that she was unconsciously exercising, and also by the gossip and questions of all who knew her, that she became ill. One night she fainted several times, and a medical man was called in and told all about the strange happenings in the home – the upsetting of the table, and the breaking of crockery – and the incidents in the factory. The doctor talked to the girl, tried, without success, to find out whether she exercised any magnetic influence, and then frankly told the girl’s mother that he could not find any evidence of an abnormal condition of health.

Eventually the girl went into a Bradford nursing home, and the publicity which had been given to her case attracted the attention of Sir Conan Doyle. It was through him that she went to the College of Psychic Science, where she has been for three months. “She has now been home again for a month,” said a member of the household today, “and she is undoubtedly cured of whatever was wrong with her eight months ago. She is bright and happy, looks the picture of health, and is certainly delighted at her restoration to a normal state of health. She is so much better, indeed, that she can now laugh and joke about her former troubles. If crockery happens to be broken, she will laugh and say, ‘Well, that’s not me, any way.’ It was the breaking of crockery and other things, and the unaccountable movement of furniture that were the most alarming symptoms of her trouble. You will scarcely believe the strange things that happened. I frankly admit I would not have believed them had I not seen with my own eyes.”

“We were in the kitchen one day when the table had been laid for dinner. There were four plates, one at each side, and suddenly two legs of the table were raised into the air and the plates were all shot on to the floor and broken. G—was standing about two yards or so away from the table, and there is no question about it whatever that she did not touch the table or consciously make any effort to life it. She was dreadfully upset, because it was all as mysterious to her as to us. When I told my husband what had happened with the table and pots, he could not believe me, but the following day he himself saw similar strange happenings. Ornaments and a clock were swept off the mantelpiece as if by an unseen hand, and ornaments were also upset and broken in her bedroom. G—will not talk either to us or anyone else about her stay at the College. Indeed she hates any sort of reference now to her illness, and wants to forget all about the whole business. She had no special treatment in the College, but they were very good to her, did their utmost to brighten her up and forget her trouble, and it has done her a world of good.”

Investigators’ Theory. “Some kind of depletion of the nerve forces.” (From a London Correspondent.) Fleet Street. Tuesday.

I have been able to obtain some further details of the remarkable psychic manifestations and disturbances attending the mill-girl’s stay at the British College of Psychic Science in London, where she has been under treatment and observation for three months.  All the medical men who saw the girl during the time of the strange manifestations at the woollen mill were puzzled by her case, but the psychic experts in London regard it as one of poltergeist phenomena, probably due to “some kind of depletion of the nerve forces.” In the treatment at the College of Psychic Science, the services of a trance medium were employed, and clairvoyance, magnetism and suggestion also used, with satisfactory results.

In the report of Mr. J. Hewat McKenzie, the principal of the college, it is stated that the girl had had a nervous breakdown following an unhappy love affair, and that this probably had much to do with her strange psychic condition. During the early part of her stay at the college the most devastating incidents happened. Mr. McKenzie’s report, now published in the October issue of “Psychic Science,” states that even the heaviest pieces of furniture, which it ordinarily took two or three persons to move, were knocked about the room, quite independently of any act of the girl’s, and generally at a distance of four or five feet from where she was sitting or standing.

In the scullery, where the girl was at work, an observer saw a frying pan dash off the gas stove, sending the frying sausages flying about. While she was in Yorkshire a similar incident had happened at a canteen, where a pudding jumped out of a basin. In the kitchen of the college, one day, things became particularly lively. A chair which stood by the fireplace jumped seemingly over the table, for a cup was knocked off and broken, and the chair was found seven feet away from its usual position. At another time, when the housekeeper was preparing grape fruit for breakfast, a portion disappeared and could not be found. She got two bananas to take its place, and laid them on the table, when suddenly the missing grape fruit whizzed past her ear, and the bananas vanished.

When the girl had gone to bed one night great noises of banging and tearing were heard, and on going into her room Mrs. McKenzie found the girl in bed, “but the room looked as if a tornado had swept over it. Everything that could be thrown down lay on the floor. The girl stated that the moment she got into bed the legs went, letting her down on the floor, and the mattress seemed to rise up. When she got into bed again the frame of the washstand went over, a mahogany armchair was thrown down violently and the arm support was splintered. Another chair, also thrown over, had a piece broken off the back by its fall, and a small wicker table lay on the floor. All the girl’s clothes and trinkets lay on the floor, also in a wild heap.

It was not only at the college, but at other places visited by the girl, that these mysterious things happened. Once, when the girl went into the dairy for milk, a great milk churn on the floor near her fell over, this showing (as the report states) “how the force accompanies the person of the girl, and is not located in one place.” In his observations on the case, Mr McKenzie says: “Direct observation, as in so many similar cases, seemed to foil its own end, but enough was actually seen by Mrs McKenzie, myself, my daughter and secretary, and some students staying in the house, as well as the constant view of damage to crockery and furniture, to leave us without a shadow of a doubt as to the girl being the focal centre of some unexplained force. In the case of this Yorkshire girl,” Mr McKenzie adds,” it was noticed that things fell with great force after she had moved beyond them, as if the energy were drawn from her back and limbs, and was much greater than anything required for tipping a table over in the ordinary way. An ordinary fall will not break a solid table or chair. They need to be thrown with vigour and intention for this to happen. I tried to find if the girl felt anything while the heavy articles were thrown about. Only once, during a particularly bad disturbance, did she say that she felt a peculiar drawing in the limbs, which would suggest the extension of the psychic body, well known in cases of physical phenomena. On this sole occasion, before the question had been put to the girl, Mrs McKenzie, going into the kitchen during the disturbance, and standing where the girl had been a moment before, became aware that she stood in the centre of force of some sort, a kind of electrical discharge affecting her limbs, such as is sometimes noticed in a psychic group.”

In conclusion the principal states that the report is “a continuous record, made from day to day by people competent to judge such cases, neither afraid of the forces operating nor making light of the seriousness of the matter for the girl who was involved. There is nothing exaggerated. The wish of all observers was to report correctly and to secure relief for the victim as speedily as possible. I hope this cure will remain effective. At the end of September she was reported still free from disturbances, and has resumed her daily work in the mill.”

Ghost Hunters: The Case of the Gorton Poltergeist


I enjoyed this episode actually. It's largely people looking pissed off and slightly frightened about the freaky things allegedly going on in their houses. It's rather fun to see Maurice Grosse at the end too. I think when I saw it years ago I was more cynical and suspected it was all to do with wanting a different house. But I didn't feel like that this time. Even if I suspect there's a bit of exaggeration going on.

I didn't even feel that annoyed about the medium (at least she screwed her face up at the mention of the local ghost club, as though she suspected they weren't helping much) and we didn't have to see her in action. She just showed the traces of domestic violence in one of the houses, which was an interesting sight. Do poltergeists cause violence or does violence cause poltergeists? -it's a bit of a chicken and egg. Having said that there didn't seem to be any young people or tensions in the Cardiff garage case, which is also featured one of the Ghosthunters episodes. When I can summon the money I will be getting Tony Cornell's book on the subject.

This is a nice episode to end on. Because yes, I have been obsessive enough to have now completed the entire run of programmes (sad, but true). I do wish there were more series a bit like this. The sensationalist spin on modern programmes is just tedious. I want straightforward anecdotes from people experiencing weird things!


Alan, Housing Officer: There was no refuting it. There were two people that had told me hand on heart they had ghosts– a difficult thing to do.  Approaching people in official positions to say something they could be ridiculed for.

Tony: And all of a sudden, like, I think I said something to her (now I can’t remember exactly what I said) – but all of a sudden I got this big bang – in my ribs, in my back, sort of thing. And it just threw me  - well, a good 12 foot.

Mandy: I actually saw Tony being lifted up from the landing and actually land into the baby’s bedroom. Flat on his face. And I was just screaming.

John: The house takes on a whole new meaning  at night time. In the daytime it’s like a different house. At night time, once it starts to go dark, the atmosphere seems to change altogether.

Vinny: We were sat in the living room one night and we heard a muffled scream, well, more like a cry. When Mandy and myself have gone upstairs we found Chloe, the baby – she was in the cot with a blanket tied round her head.

Pam: The baby was actually waking up at half eleven every night, crying out ‘babba babba’, so she was only just starting to talk then. So I thought I’ve actually had enough of this. So I moved her into the bedroom with me. And at certain times in the night she’d actually wake up, hold her arms out – nothing there – say ‘Ah, babba’ as if something was there. And then one minute I woke up one night, and she’d actually been put behind the headboard.

Narrator: Not far from the centre of Manchester, in the north west of England, there is a typical 70s housing development. Several hundred houses lying very close together, front doors facing one another across narrow streets. People live in one another’s pockets on streets like this, inevitably sharing the details of one another’s lives. It is a most unlikely setting for the paranormal. And yet, several people here are deeply frightened – not, as you might expect, from hooliganism or vandalism, that is not the problem. The fear is of the unexplained and the unpredictable: the paranormal activity that has broken through the everyday pattern of their lives to make them fearful of things outside their normal experience.

Vinny: Chloe’s very frightened, she’s a different child altogether since this has all been going on. She more or less refuses to go upstairs, especially of a night time. In the day time she’s not too bad but of a night time she will not go upstairs. She just stands at the bottom of the stairs screaming.

Mandy: It’s not really helping me what with being pregnant again, the stress of it. It’s getting too much now. I mean I’ve already nearly lost this baby what with everything that’s been going on.

Pam: Tony stayed over, because he wasn’t with me all the time, and he found that at the end of the night, about two o’clock in the morning, he went to actually turn off the television. So he went down on his knees and turned the telly off, then turned the lamp off, and then actually went behind the television and turned it off and plugged it out, and he was in pitch, pitch black then. So he got up and everything came on full blast. The telly came on, the light came on, full blast. So he ran straight up the stairs, got me and said ‘Pam we’ve definitely got a ghost!’

Tony: I was just sat there watching telly. The dog was there mucking about, and then all of a sudden, like, he had a bone in his mouth and it was like someone was pulling on the other end of it, because he was pulling back. Nothing was there.

Narrator: Just round the corner from Pam and Tony, no more than a hundred yards or so away, there are two other families who’ve had their lives disrupted over the past few months by a series of totally unexplained events. There was nothing jokey or light hearted about this, there is no doubt about their fear. When they’re asked to characterise it they talk of a sense of deep foreboding, perhaps associated with a sighting that’s claimed to be of an older man, and several young children seeking help.

Vinny: This house and the house next door was a farmhouse. Now in my hallway, that used to be a ginnell between the farmhouse from room to room. Apparently a  man lived there, and he had so many children captive there, so many years ago, and he, he was a nasty man, he’d done dirty deeds with these children.

Mandy: I saw something out the corner of my eye, and I looked down the hallway and there was just this young girl stood there, she was about seven or eight. She was there for a matter of minutes and then just disappeared as quickly as she’d appeared. I’ve seen a man run through the house, that was not so long ago, and it’s a bit scary.

John: We were watching the telly, and Sandra had gone to bed, and I was asleep on the couch downstairs. And I woke up, and I could hear some whispering. And she’s got two armchairs, and I could hear some whispering from one chair to the other. I couldn’t understand what it said, I couldn’t make it out. But it was definitely somebody whispering to each other.

Sandra: A couple of weeks after that my daughter went to bed, I went up not long after, and she came to my bedroom about five minutes after I went to bed, shouting that a cold feeling from her ankles up her body went through her, and she couldn’t speak. As if she was paralysed, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move.

Vinny: I was in bed one night, I woke up, it was about half past three in the morning. And as I’ve looked towards the bedroom door I saw the figure of a little girl. She looked quite like solid to look at. I’ve tried to wake Mandy up. But as I’ve woke Mandy up to show her this little girl, she’d gone. And I’ve actually seen baking trays come flying off the top of my cooker. Now in the living room we have plates on the wall. The other night they started rattling, these plates, so I’ve had to take the plates off the wall. You know, noises and banging. It’s pretty scary, it does get a bit scary.

Narrator: What do you do when you’re confronted with the unexplained in this way? Something totally outside the bounds of normal experience. It takes courage, great courage, even to mention it to a friend or neighbour. But that’s what these people eventually did when they became frightened for the their children’s safety. They turned first of all to the church, to a priest. Not, they would say, to very much effect.

Sandra: I got in touch with the vicar and the vicar came here to talk to me. And he tried to have an explanation for everything that was happening. He just tried to make me feel better.

Pam: I went to see the priest at the local church, and erm, he said I’ll pay you a visit. And anyway he came round, and he was fobbing me off saying there’s nothing, anything happening there. I mean I’ll come back and see, but that was the last I heard. So when I came back, I came back with Tony’s mum, the dog, and the baby. So we sent the dog in first hoping the dog would pick something up. And the dog went in and was sniffing round like an idiot. And then I went in, because he was too scared to go in. And the house, it was like it’d been ransacked, there was pillows all over the floor, cushions all over the floor – it was a tip.

Narrator: Next in line of authority lies the Housing Officer: the man responsible for all the day to day [hassle?] on the estate. At first he also was inclined to brush it aside. But as he says himself, he couldn’t. He was forced to confront it as a reality, as several families came to him clearly frightened and needing help.

Alan, Housing Officer:  I was quite amazed to find the church didn’t really want to know. The local vicar wouldn’t deal with it. Well he dealt with it in a bit of an offhand way and more or less dismissed it. And I thought, if the vicar’s dismissed it what am I supposed to do, you know? I took as much detail as I could, promised to get back to her. She wasn’t on the phone so it was always going to be awkward. But I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Erm, I left it at that, it was just a note on a piece of paper left on my desk. But within a week I found myself going through exactly the same interview with another family, who live about 50 yards away but around the corner. Now this family, I interviewed them as a complete family, I was quite amazed that they’d all come in, giving one another support. I then realised I’d spoken to this woman’s neighbour, a long time before, certainly before the first interview, it was about three or four weeks ago. A very agitated girl who simply wanted to move. She wanted to get out the house. She gave all sorts of irrational reasons, because there was no way of proving what she was saying. She was saying the most incredible things about the attitude of her neighbours towards her. Being victimised, being attacked. And she couldn’t produce evidence of it, there were no police reports forthcoming, so… I actually just left that on file. But I was actually a bit worried that it was just next door to this woman who now says she’s got ghosts. So I just took a chance. I asked her to be discrete, I asked her to go to her neighbour, as her neighbour, and say ‘we’re having some strange problems, are you experiencing anything?’ But I said, try not to give the game away, don’t be precise about what’s happening. And she left, she left with that. And the next day I was going about my work, and she appeared. This is Sandra. She appeared in the doorway and she was gesticulating that she wanted to speak to me. So I went over to speak to her, and took her into an interview room, and she said ‘Yes!’ And I said ‘Yes what?’  She said – ‘She’s got ghosts.’ And I couldn’t believe that. Now I’ve got three families and one hadn’t disclosed, and wanted to move. My belief in the situation was total now.

Narrator: So what exactly is going on here, and how unusual is it on a modern housing estate. When we began to research these questions we found to our surprise that events like it seem to occur right across the country. Alan’s counterpart, for example, housing officer in Brixton, South London, was Harry Cleverley.

Harry Cleverley, Retired Housing Officer: When people were disturbed or frightened and so forth, the majority of housing people just laughed and said they were soft in the head. And I went along and I could sense the atmosphere and I knew that they weren’t. Some were of course. We had some  try it on to get a new flat. Some would come along and say ‘we’re haunted’ and I’d say ‘No you’re not!’ But in a lot of the cases this was true, and the people were terrified. They had no reason to be terrified, but they were. And I used to get called to – not only in my own council, I went up to Nottingham and did some exorcisms up there, friends of mine. And there was a council estate there that was haunted. And the reason was that the previous owner of the land resented the council estate being built on his land. And this is what frequently happens, spirits are still possessive, they’re still materialistic, they think ‘that’s mine, what are they doing on my property.’  And you have to explain to them that it’s no longer your property and you no longer have any need for it. I felt I had a responsibility to these people who were living in the property, and if the property wasn’t up to scratch then we had to do something about it. If the roof had leaked, the councillors would have had to sanction work to be done, and they would have done. But if it’s something like a spiritual thing, they didn’t believe it.

Narrator: The fact is of course that we don’t live in a society that accepts the paranormal as real, so when it does occur, or seem to occur, the natural reaction is to brush it aside and seek any other possible explanation rather than confront it. When we looked into the history of this area we discovered it had been built on a site formerly occupied by rows of Victorian houses which had been built to house the workers in the cotton mills. Before that it appeared to have been church land, partly used for farming, partly as a large burial ground. But there were no clear leads. But if you’re responsible for a modern housing estate where people tell you their houses are haunted, who do you turn to? Alan, in some desperation, turned to the local ghost club.

Kenny, Stockport Ghost Society: The Stockport ghost society became involved in the activity in these houses on this estate in the beginning of June. We was called in by the council because apparently there was three or four houses that were having unnatural activity within their homes, i.e. banging, footsteps, even people sort of walking through the living room or running through the living room. And the council didn’t know what to make of it, they didn’t know who to turn to, so they got in touch with us. So we came down. And the first thing we do, obviously, is interview the tenants. At the end of the interviews we found it really uncanny that all the people were giving the same sort of story. So with the council’s permission and the tenants’ permission, we got a number of people together from the ghost society. We was all sat very quiet one night in this house. I was sat at the back of the room,  one of my colleagues was sat in an armchair facing me. It was very quiet, we had the light subdued but not dark enough as you couldn’t see each other or see the surroundings. I was just sitting, watching, listening – it was very quiet. And then suddenly at the side of my colleague Barbara appeared a fourteen, well appeared a girl, a young girl, that I estimated to be at least fourteen years old. Although she only remained for at least three to four seconds, it was long enough for me to get a description of her, and to write it down. And the description was – yes, she appeared at least fourteen to fifteen, she had long hair, sort of lightish brownish hair, she had a very dull grey long dress on, up to her knees. She had what appeared to be greyish socks on, which didn’t quite come up to her knees and left a gap between the edge of her dress and the top of her socks. And brownish shoes. But whether it was imagination on the shoe side of it, it appeared that she had one shoe that was built up, and gave me the impression that she had one leg longer than the other.

Narrator: Kenny and his group came to a dead end. And as the paranormal activity continued, they turned to a professional psychic medium who had been involved at the estate previously as part of another enquiry. Helen, the medium, immediately claimed that she picked up a sense of evil. She was even prepared to describe it.

Helen, Psychic Medium: I first realised that there was a man here as soon as I walked in, actually. I think I mentioned it to Kenny, who is a member of the Stockport Ghost Club [grimaces]. Then I felt the presence on the stairs and I could see a hooded… a dark… clothes, not a dark person, but a dark entity on the stairs. I feel sort of a…. a religious type person. But I feel he hid behind that. And the real person underneath wasn’t so good. But people came to him because of that.

Narrator: Helen visited to the houses and spoke to the people. She then decided to hold a séance, to provoke an encounter with whatever was causing the disturbances. But the séance was inconclusive. Several people claimed to have sensed the presence of something evil, but there was no direct confrontation, no resolution. By definition, the paranormal is slippery and elusive, it doesn’t correspond to worldly timetables. But there was a clear sense of frustration and violence in the houses.

Helen: It sometimes causes…  bad temper in the people that live in these places [a door is full of holes], it causes them to react with violence and temper.  Er, I think that all three houses have had… little pockets of bad energy like this. I don’t know what to call it. But you find it a lot. It’s also in that other house but has been covered up.

Narrator: So what sorts of explanation can we find for what is going on on the estate – apparitions apparently flitting from one house to another. Constant poltergeist activity, that is to say bursts of unexplained energy moving things around, even apparently throwing a man across a room. There are it seems two main schools of thought on the basis of this kind of activity. One is that it’s generated by the people involved.

Maurice Grosse, Paranormal Investigator: I would say that there are forces at work which we don’t know anything about at all. Maybe one day we will. And how the mind is controlling those forces. Because there’s no doubt about it in my mind anyway, that these forces are controlled by the mind. I am fairly convinced in my experience, that high stress situations cause poltergeist phenomena. Of course they don’t cause it to everybody! Otherwise we’d have poltergeists all over the place. But to certain people, we don’t know why, in certain situations, these high stress situations, they happen. But I would think it’s probably a housing estate that’s overpopulated, people might be having monetary problems, and I think that these conditions are a breeding ground for high stress, which in itself brings on poltergeist phenomena in some cases.

Kenny: Poltergeists will feed on pure energy, it will feed on your fear, it will feed on your electricity in your house. It will feed on your children. The more you fight, the more you row in your house, the more angry you become – he loves it. And it appears that this is what’s happening around here.

Eddie Burks, Psychic Medium:  Because we’re not familiar with them, and they come as an awful shock, we don’t know how to deal with them. And we try to deal with them sometimes by exercising our will against them. But this is futile. A characteristic of evil is the development of the will, in a negative sense. And so any attempt that we normal persons make to negate their effects, we are operating a less practised will.

Narrator: But several distinguished paranormal investigators would argue that poltergeist activity is closely related to spirits or entities, call them what you will, trying to make contact in some way with the living world.

Prof. David Fontana, Society for Psychical Research: It may well be that if your belief system encompasses something like this, if you believe that there’s life after death, that events of this kind would strengthen that belief, because it would seem as though the personality of somebody who’s died that persists for some time after death, and still wants to interact in some way with the living people. Some of these cases are associated with particular houses and people that have lived in the house years ago. And one explanation put forward sometimes is that the person doesn’t realise they’re dead, even, and they’re hanging round the place where they used to live, and they may be  rather disgruntled to find other people  living there in their house. And so they make all sorts of disturbances to try and drive people out. That’s one explanation. It very much depends on your belief system. If you’re a very very hard nosed scientist of course you have to fall back on the idea that people are either fools or liars. But the number of cases that we as a scientific society have gathered over the last century would rather discount that. Because these are not just things that happen to very impressionable people. They’re things that happen to people very much like you and myself, open-minded people who are reasonable witnesses, who know what has happened to them.

Narrator: So what advice might these people give to the people on the estate? Is there anything practical they can do to calm their fears, or break out of the cycle of events?

Maurice Grosse: I would say to the people in Gorton, the best way to tackle this is to tackle it head on. To recognise that phenomena is happening. And that first of all it’s not going to harm you. It looks as if it’s going to harm you, but it won’t harm you. Get interested in what’s happening. Once you’re interested in what’s happening, take the stress out of the situation and you’ll find it’ll start to diminish. But while it is happening, because I don’t believe that in most cases anybody can actually do anything about it except the people themselves involved. Once they reduce that stress situation they will find that the activity will start to go away.

Narrator: Significantly none of the experts rubbished the events, they didn’t question the fact that something was taking place. Nor did they question the reality of the fear. When we visited the houses at night, the families were camping out on their living room floors, afraid to go upstairs. It was almost like a scene shot during the war. And once implanted, fear is difficult to eradicate. Several people simply want to move away.

Sandra: Like before I moved here I could go to bed any time I wanted, one, two, three o’clock in the morning, and I was on my own then. But since I’ve moved here I haven’t been able to do that. I’ve been going to bed about half past eleven because I’ve been too scared to go after that.

Mandy: I’m worried about what’s going to happen to Chloe. With being pregnant as well I’m trying to keep as calm as possible with all the things that are happening, it’s hard to.

Sandra: I want it to all clear up, that’s all I want, so I can get back to normal.

Vinny: We just want to be rehoused, and get out of here, and put it behind us and try to get on with our lives.

Narrator: One family already has moved away, unable to cope with things they can’t see or touch or even begin to explain. Those unexplained events continue.

Tony: Basically you just can’t believe that things you’ve seen in movies and everything could happen to you. You think it’s all far fetched and you just sit down and watch it. Until it happens to you  - then you know there is something out there.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Ghost Hunters: Battlefield of the Somme



There isn't really much meat in this episode. Peter Bowers wanders around the battlefield and makes suitable remarks and looks suitably upset. Anyone would. He is put up in a house that was used as a hospital in the war. He comes up with a tale about a doctor. Firstly, I'd like to say that it would take  him five seconds to ask the owners 'What's the history of this place then?' and for them to dish the dirt unwittingly. Secondly, I would point out that his doctor actually went home alive. So how Peter's talking to him really makes no sense, even by his standards of Communicating With The Dead. As for the alleged "astonishing" coincidence of names - they weren't even the same names. It's not hugely impressive. And for my final remark - so yes the war was disgusting and terrible, it would have been a shattering experience to be there. But why would these Spirits be willing to stay there for 80 years reliving being shot by a machine gun? It doesn't add up to me. None of it adds up. I think it's all bunk.
 

Tom Morgan: And as the Newfoundlanders reached the British trenches and had to pass through the gaps cut in the wire, that’s where the killing grounds were and they literally fell in heaps, those behind had to climb over the bodies of their comrades who’d already fallen. And nobody got more than a few dozen yards from the trench.

Ralph Bennett: You have the horror of explosions everywhere, confusion, your officers are dead, your pals are being killed off to the left and right. You’re under orders not to stop for the wounded. You’re perspiring, you’re hot, it’s July, the goggles in your gas mask are fogging out. You lose your sense of direction. There’s fire and light from explosions everywhere. You’re leaderless and you’re about 20 years old.

Narrator: This innocent looking stretch of green rolling countryside is steeped in blood. It is the site of perhaps the bloodiest battle ever fought in all human history. In just over 4 months over a million young men were killed here. Many tens of thousands of them remain unfound, scattered together with the remnants of the battle, the spent bullets and the belt buckles, the helmets and the shell cases, along the gently winding banks of the River Somme in Northern France. The battle started in the high summer of 1916. The two armies, the allies on one side and the Germans on the other, had become locked in stalemate, facing each other in deep trenches that ran for miles across the countryside just a few hundred miles apart. The British decided on a frontal assault, to slice through the enemy lines and roll them back in a matter of weeks all the way to the Rhine. That was the objective. It began with the most massive artillery bombardment in military history –  for six days, night and day, the guns roared, and one and a half million shells rained down on the enemy lines. Then at 7.30am on the 1st of July 1916, the whistles blew and the bagpipes shrilled, and tens of thousands of young men rose out of the trenches and moved towards the German lines. Most never made it but were cut down in a wasteland of mud and shell holes. Sixty thousand British and Commonwealth men were killed or wounded on the very first day. The attack ground to a halt. Four months later when the battle had ended, all that had been won for all the hundreds of thousands of men that had been lost was a few square miles of this shattered landscape.  Eighty years later the countryside has scarcely changed – apart from, that is, the cemeteries, nearly 200 of them with their neat rows of white headstones where the British have located their mass graves. We travelled across this battlefield with two people – one, an internationally known psychic medium, Peter Bowers, to see if anything remained of the fear and the grief and terror of this place all these years ago. The other a historian, Tom Morgan, an authority on every detail of the battle – to see if any of the psychic perceptions matched any of the historical record. Peter of course couldn’t be isolated from the history of the battle, but he claims he’s never studied it in detail, never visited the Somme. He certainly had no foreknowledge of which parts of this difficult and confusing battlefield we were to visit. We ourselves only made the decision at the very last minute. But almost immediately, he began to make contact, not only with a generalised sense of fear, but with individuals, even names and places.
Peter Bowers: Rogers. Rogers. What’s the first name. Daniel. No no sorry, Thomas, Thomas Daniel Rogers... His name is T E Wilkinson and he feels like a Lieutenant in the army and he’s coming down here with a small platoon, and the name Wilkinson, Sharpie Wilkinson it keeps coming again and again. And there’s a conflict taking place now, as though part of him’s saying ‘you’ve got to go that way’ but there’s the realisation as if if you go that way, that way’s going to be no good, and let’s go this way. So he’s setting off down here. And his orders are to go straight ahead, but he’s adapting them. That’s the best way he can put it. And he’s got to go down here. But… this is getting no better than going down there. A horrible feeling now, as though the bubble has completely closed around me, and I’m trapped in this – it’s as though the rest of the lads are right behind me and I’ve got separated in some way, perhaps I pushed too hard, and it’s like a bubble. It’s as though I’m going in and I’m being surrounded on all sides by feelings and the enemy and I’m trapped. And there’s a small contingent of us, perhaps 50,60,70 of us, something like that. And we’ve broken through but nobody else has, and as I’m going there’s a terrible feeling in my stomach and my legs are quaking. And the whole lot is.. it’s just terror now.

Narrator: Tom the historian of course reserved judgement. But he was astonished at the accuracy of many of the descriptions that Peter came up with, about the location of particular groups of soldiers and lines of battle. Details he believed that would have been extremely difficult if not impossible to pick up from the official histories. This sense of entrapment, for example, in a particular place. There was just such an event in this very place, when a group of men were cut off from their comrades and completely surrounded.

Tom Morgan, World War 1 Historian: The attack failed in an extreme blizzard, and they all withdrew, but what they didn’t know was that a force of a hundred men were left there and they were cut off. And various rescue attempts were made, and they all failed, and the men stayed there for about a week, and slowly their numbers became less and less until they were obliged to surrender. And they certainly were cut off here, and they certainly did break into something that closed around them and they were, it was not possibly to rescue them and extract them from it. And that’s where the battle actually ended in November.

Narrator: But what about the names – did these people exist? Peter made it clear that he had no sense of when during the four months of the battle or even the war people had been killed. And official records don’t describe how or when soldiers died, only when and where they’re buried. But the extraordinary fact is some of these names do seem to check out. There was a Thomas Rogers in the Leicestershire Regiment as Peter described. Not a Thomas Daniel, but a Thomas Humphrey Rogers. There was a TE Wilkinson killed, not a lieutenant but a sergeant, in the regiment that was surrounded. And there were four or five others that Peter came up with that were the same, or very close to names that appear in the official records. It is conceivable of course that Peter learned of these names in some other way. But he can only say he denies any such suggestion.  Very close to where we stopped the cars and Peter marched off across the fields, there was a deep gully. In the few hours before dawn on the 1st July 1916 this ditch or lane was packed with young men – bayonets fixed, nervously waiting for the signal to attack. It was a very dangerous spot in the middle of no-man’s land between the lines, which they had prepared as a jumping off point. When the attack started, the first wave were cut down by machine guns as soon as they broke into the open. Many died in the field where they lay. But some made it back into the ditch. And as succeeding waves met the same fate, the chaos along the sunken road (as it’s called) steadily grew. We didn’t take Peter to this isolated spot. He didn’t have a compass or a map and it would have been very difficult if not impossible for him to navigate himself to it. He came across the lane as he marched across a field following impressions he’d picked up earlier. And immediately he felt a sense of panic and chaos.

Peter: There’s a sense of confusion as though I’m breaking through into something now, but as I’m getting in this here it’s as if I’ve been caught again. It’s not the same feeling as before as being trapped, but I’m setting off for something and there’s the sense of realisation as I’m getting through here that – hold on this is no better than the other things were. Um. The whole sensation of people packed in together here. Before when I was up there I was running across a wide open space but now I’m trapped in this small space, and I’m enclosed. But there’s not just a few of us, there’s a lot of us, there’s a whole phalanx of people, of men moving up this way, coming down from somewhere, and up this way and across up the top. Um. It’s raining bullets. I seem to be standing in a sea of bodies. As I’m going further down I’m getting more and more, I can see bodies.

Narrator: Peter’s sense of the events in this place were again very close to what actually happened.

Tom: The sunken road is only really sunken for about the last five hundred yards of its length. Where we’re standing now would have been a suicidal spot to stand. And on the morning of the 1st of July at 3:20, the first battalion Lancashire Fusiliers advanced into this sunken road, through tunnels, to give themselves a little headstart at the beginning of the battle. They climbed out of their trenches and immediately came under fire from three or four machine guns. And the ones that weren’t wounded immediately and left out in no-man’s land, managed to get back into the sunken lane. From the point of view of fatalities, and bad things happening, there were hundreds of people that died lonely sordid deaths in the lane behind us.

Narrator: This small French guest house stands about two hundred yards behind the former British battle lines. During the battle all those years ago it was used as a small field hospital. And this detail is by no means widely known, even by the historians of the battle. But in our researches we learned there had been a number of paranormal events here, and this is where without any information or prior warning we arranged for Peter to stay. He slept in the Blue Room, and he had, he said, two very disturbed nights. He claimed he made contact with a young doctor.

Peter: I’m in the cellar of the house where I’ve been staying for the past two nights. Two quite disturbed nights in fact, waking up at two o’clock in the morning on both occasions. Last evening I was woken up again at 2 o’clock and got the impression there was someone coming towards me, that there was someone in the house with me. And during the course of the next two hours a picture built up of a young doctor by the name of Steven, who was actually based in this house, which I understand was just back from the trenches while the fighting was carried on. And he operated and worked in this basement area as a temporary operating theatre or patch-you-up place. And the impression I get is that this end of the cellar was used as the preparatory section, and through the tunnel over there is another room which was used for operations, cleaning up. And this young man spent quite a lot of time in there dealing with people who obviously must have been coming off in great numbers from the battlefield, and during the course of that I saw amputations, which he wasn’t used to, he said he hadn’t previously done. And he worked from this house and one a little bit down the road. He had these two places, they were his hospital if you like, or his first stage hospital. And he suffered a great deal of shock and hurt psychologically down in this cellar and in the other, even though I feel that he did his operations here more than down the road. And as a result of this he got shell shock, and while he stuck it out for a couple of years here, at the end of that it actually affected the rest of his life.

Narrator: Peter’s story was remarkably accurate. The hotel owners, for example, told us of veterans that came back over the years – some had even had amputations here. They made their way down into the cellar to make their peace with this place. And that is typical of the whole story of this battle – it is far from being distant dusty history. What happened in this countryside still casts its shadow across the present. A whole generation of young men was lost here. And because of the way the men were recruited and kept together in fighting units as so called lads or pals, all the young men from a school or a village or even a street, could be wiped out in a single attack.

Ralph Bennett, World War 1 Historian: What’s tragic in British military history is that in the case of the Leeds pals, or the Bradford pals, or sections of Manchester: these batallions would enlist as friends, as colleagues. In the case of the church lads, 32 of them that assaulted Highwood worked at the same factory. And in an hour an area of a town could lose a generation of their young people.  And what would happen, the notice would arrive, and in those days there was a tradition of drawing down the blinds in grief, so the whole town would have lost their youth. After the Somme, the British changed their recruitment policy, so it never could quite happen again.

Narrator: But change came too late for the young men of Newfoundland. This particular line of trenches was the scene of one of the worst tragedies of the battle. The attack had fizzled out within an hour or so. But the generals wanted a breakthrough. They offered up the Newfoundland volunteers, a regiment that consisted of almost the entire male population of the then dominion of Newfoundland. And they went into attack.

Tom: The attack had actually fizzled out in this area at 7:30 or shortly afterwards. And an order was given to renew the attack with the Newfoundlanders with the Essex regiment accompanying them. The communication trenches which brought the Newfoundlanders this way were so choked with the dead and dying from the 7:30 attack just here that the officers decided to proceed over the top, so they climbed out of the trenches and walked over the top – which made them instantly visible to every German in the area. Nothing much had happened here, it was about 8:20am, nothing much had happened here for half an hour. And so the German defenders in their front line trenches, immediately behind me, about 500 yards away, were able to direct the fire of every spare available weapon onto the Newfoundlanders as they advanced. And as the Newfoundlanders reached the British trenches and had to pass through gaps cut in the wire, that’s where the killing grounds were. They literally fell in heaps; those behind had to climb over the bodies of their comrades who had already fallen, and nobody got more than a few dozen yards from the trench. And at the roll call later it was found that between 700 and 750, depending on which source you go to, were unaccounted for at the end of the battle.

Narrator: As if to heighten the drama of the scene, the sun began to go into partial eclipse just as we began to reach this line of trenches. Peter hadn’t been told this story and as far as we knew had no knowledge of it. He spent some time walking along the line of the old earthworks. Then, either from natural compassion, or perhaps from the sheer weight of the pain and the fear that he felt he was literally overcome [we see him fall to his knees]. He was only able to talk about it calmly later on.

Peter: Around this vicinity there seem to be a lot of people, a lot of spirits who are stuck, who haven’t moved over since the first world war. Their main problem seems to be a loss of direction, a loss of control. And there’s a lot of anxiety and fear about them as well. So if you mix all this lot together, they’re finding it very hard to move from the positions they were last in when they died. And there are pockets of energy which suggest there are spirits trapped all over the place, but they’re concentrated in certain areas. A lot of them don’t appear to have moved very far from where they fell on the battle fields. It’s almost as if they’re reliving the events which brought them to the end of their lives. And  they’re trapped in a cycle of reliving these events and the terror involved in them. Because terror is the underriding sensation through the whole of this episode.

Narrator: The Newfoundland battle took place in July. In August and September of this long hot summer and through October the battle raged on. And groups of men gave their lives to capture a mere patch of trees or a small wood. The names of these places have gone down in history – Devil’s wood and Highwood, for instance. Today they have become the haunt of amateur historians who spend days, even weeks, prowling across a battlefield where every ditch and hollow has its grim story to tell.

Ralph Bennett: The church lads marched 16 miles to get to a little wood outside of Bazentin le petit and they spent the night under shell fire and gas. And in the morning they got up and attacked Highwood, and they crossed the land between Bazentin le Petit and Highwood, under heavy shellfire and gas and under heavy machine gun fire, company A of that particular battalion was just about wiped out. They lost all their officers, all their non-commissioned officers. And they were penned down just inside the wood, where you can see a slight trench system now. The terror of that day is recorded in a lot of their writings. One in particular, Jack [?] talked about being in a shell hole, having watched his CEO Colonel go into shell shock, and then not only watching his pals being killed by shell fire, but then as the shells continued to hit, watching their bodies catapault into the air and turn over and over and come down again until they were literally broken apart, these bodies.

Narrator: When Peter came to Highwood it was clearly a very painful experience. For him it was almost as if the battle was still raging around him.

Peter: The pain of this place is intense as anywhere on this field. If ever Christ was crucified, it was here. I’m picking up pictures of the war of attrition that wouldn’t  go away, of men wandering around clutching onto each other, they couldn’t see a thing – there’s mist of pain. It’s utter carnage, it’s utter desolation. The feeling of abandonment is so great in this place that if ever a bird sang in these trees it’d need a lot of courage. The feeling is that just in front of us, only a few yards away, are trenches where hundreds of men, hundreds upon hundreds seemed to fall. And I’m seeing swirling gas, I’m seeing bayonets, I’m seeing all the paraphernalia of war, at its most cruel, at its most destructive. Poor souls that fell here. There’s so many that are hidden away, that we’ll never find. The lesson is never to forget.

Narrator: There is no doubt that the Somme was a tragedy on an epic scale. A massive European bloodbath, a whole generation of French and German and British and Commonwealth men lies buried beneath these fields. And there is no doubt that the battle lives on in the memories of the families who lost people here. And in the minds of soldiers who still walk the battlefield. They often talk of the shadow of a comrade at their shoulder. Or glimpsed out of the corner of an eye. But does it live on in any other sense, in Peter’s sense? With groups of men still wandering these fields in which they experienced such fear and met their death. It is of course impossible to say. There is no doubt that many of the details that Peter described were very close indeed to the actual events of the battle. As for the names, they are in a sense absolutely astonishing. But it has to be said that there can be no cast iron proof that Peter did not acquire his knowledge in some other way, however difficult that might seem. We can only leave it to you to make your own judgment.