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Investigative Attempts to Uncover Illusive British Ghosts

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Proving the existence of ghosts is a tricky business.

Proving the existence of ghosts is a tricky business.

Proof of (Non-) Life?

Proving the existence of ghosts is a tricky business. It requires not only an enormous amount of patience but also the ability to shrug off the derision of skeptics with a smile.

According to the website for The Ghost Club [of Britain], it is "the oldest organization in the world associated with psychical research. It was founded in 1862 but has its roots in Cambridge University where, in 1855, fellows at Trinity College began to discuss ghosts and psychic phenomena.”

Notable Members

Over the years, some famous people have been associated with The Ghost Club’s inquiries: writers Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, poet Siegfried Sassoon, psychic researcher Harry Price, speed record holder Donald Campbell, and actor Peter Cushing are just a few of the notable members.

The club has applied observation and scientific methods to try to find explanations for mystifying phenomena. When a ghost sighting is reported to the club, it sends out members to do overnight vigils. The organization is entirely voluntary and emphasizes that it does not “perform clearances or exorcisms.”

Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are among the notable Britons who were members of the Ghost Club of Britain.

Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are among the notable Britons who were members of the Ghost Club of Britain.

Clerkenwell Prison Haunting

Given the nature of what went on within their walls, old prisons are often believed to have ghostly appearances of former residents who died in grisly circumstances, leaving behind souls in a state of permanent distress.

One such site is the House of Detention in Clerkenwell in central London, where the first prison was built in 1616. It was a busy place in Victorian times but was demolished in 1890, leaving a maze of underground tunnels and cells.

Richard Jones, who conducts ghost walks in London, writes that visitors “have caught sight of a shadowy figure moving swiftly through the darkness ahead of them. Others have come back from the cells and grim passages and asked who the old lady is who seems to be searching for something but does not respond when assistance is offered.”

Some people say they have heard heart-rending sobs coming from a little girl deep in the tunnels.

One night in May 1999, 10 Ghost Club members investigated the site. Although nothing was seen, some members of the group picked up what they call “entities.” Among these was a prison overseer who was described as “cadaverous, skinny, and emaciated with a strong and unhygienic body odour.” Some of the investigators were overcome by feelings of intense sadness and nausea, so further probing was called off.

Ye Olde Man and Scythe Pub

A more commercial venture in the phantom-tracking trade is The Phenomena Project, which declares that “Supernatural forces and science go head to head to finally discover the truth.” The group makes videos of its investigations and asks, “Are you ready for something you can believe?”

In 2016, a couple of paranormal researchers from the project spent a night in Ye Olde Man and Scythe pub in Bolton, Northern England. The pub has been operating since 1251 and is said to be a hot spot for spectral visitors.

Ye Olde Man and Scythe pub in Bolton, England.

Ye Olde Man and Scythe pub in Bolton, England.

It’s understandable that patrons half in the bag see things that aren’t really there; a snoot full of strong ale will do that. But in 2014, a CCTV camera caught shadowy images of a figure behind the bar, and seconds later, the camera switched itself off.

A prime candidate for the spirit is the Seventh Earl of Derby, James Stanley, who had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of the Civil War. He sat in the pub for his last few moments before he was taken outside to have his head lopped off.

The folks from The Phenomena Project recorded their night-long vigil. There were noises and a female voice that sounded as though it was saying, “Watch your back.” However, the ghost-hunter team came away without any conclusions.

Was the video faked? Were the noises simply mice in the walls? Is the tortured soul of James Stanley still stalking the ancient pub?

Coalhouse Fort

Military establishments also have more than their fair share of reported hauntings; a favourite is Coalhouse Fort on the northern bank of the Thames Estuary, east of London. Its origins go back to the 16th century, and Paranormal Tours lists some of the strange occurrences there: “soldiers playing a wartime poker game; loud footsteps and heavy dragging noises; strange smells and voices; . . . apparitions.”

The Ghost Club has carried out a couple of studies of Coalhouse Fort, the most recent in October 2007. Several members of the team reported seeing figures, hearing noises and even feeling something brush past them. One of the investigators said she “saw a male figure come out of the upper floor doorway . . . He was aged about 30, had dark hair and light grey/light green jacket with the bottom front part folded back . . . he turned to his left and faded.”

Coalhouse Fort.

Coalhouse Fort.

Ghost Club Short on Explanations

The Ghost Club’s reports of its vigils tend to be long on describing phenomena but short on explaining them.

In 2003, Dr. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire tried to unravel the puzzle of things that go bump in the night. BBC News reported his conclusion is that “A chill in the air, low light levels, even magnetic fields may trigger a feeling that ‘a presence’ is in a room—but that is all they are, feelings.”

Wiseman took subjects to well-known haunted locations and found they had unusual experiences that were clustered around places where hauntings had been previously reported. His subjects said they had no prior knowledge of paranormal activity.

Dr. Wiseman and his team concluded there probably are no ghosts and that “People do have consistent experiences in consistent places, but I think that this is driven by visual factors mainly, and perhaps some other environmental cues.”

Maybe a ghost: maybe not.

Maybe a ghost: maybe not.

Bonus Factoids

  • The Queen’s favourite royal residence is Windsor Castle despite the fact that it is said to be haunted by Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I, George III, and Queen Victoria.
  • In Afrikaans, candyfloss is called spookasem (ghost breath).
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 18 percent of Americans say they have seen a ghost.
  • Scratching Fanny was the media sensation of 1762. One Richard Parsons in the City of London tried to frame stockbroker William Kent for poisoning his wife, Fanny. (She actually died of smallpox). Parsons claimed scratching noises were coming from inside his house, and they must be the anguished spirit of Fanny seeking retribution for being cruelly wronged. Rumours of “Scratching Fanny” spread widely, and soon large crowds were arriving to hear the sounds. Parsons collected an admission fee. An investigation into the allegations that Kent was a murderer cleared him and found the source of scratching; it was Parsons’s 12-year-old daughter Betty making the noises with a piece of wood hidden in her nightdress. Parsons had put the girl up to the hoax and he was given a spell in the pillory and then put in prison.


  • “House of Detention.” Richard Jones, London Ghost Tour, undated.
  • “Investigation into Alleged Haunting at the House of Detention, Clerkenwell, London.” John Fraser, The Ghost Society, undated.
  • “Coalhouse Fort.” Paranormal Tours, undated.
  • “Investigation at Coalhouse Fort.” Sarah Darnell, The Ghost Club, November 2007.
  • “Ghosts ‘All in the Mind.’ ” Arran Frood, BBC News, May 31, 2003.
  • The Phenomena Project.
  • “ ‘Ghost’ Captured on CCTV at One of Britain’s Oldest Pubs.” Hayley Dixon, The Telegraph, February 18, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor